Part 9: link

    “Merlin!” A voice calls to him. He has gone to the lower town to pick up a few things for Gaius. Lord Roderick continues to leave him thankfully undisturbed, so he is actually able to get a few things accomplished.
    He turns in the direction of the voice. It is Wilhelmina, the blacksmith’s wife.
    “Hello,” he greets her.
    “Um… will you give this to Queen Guinevere for me please?” she says hastily, shoving a linen-wrapped parcel into his arms. It is warm.
    “Sure, what is it?”
    “A loaf of fresh bread, her favorite kind.”
    Merlin furrows his brow.
    “I… heard about what happened.”
    “Elyan,” Merlin says, remembering the knight had been there earlier.
    “Yes, we all feel for the poor dear. She and the king must be beside themselves, if you don’t mind me saying.”
    “Not at all. They are dealing with the revelation quite… well, I think.” Don’t blush. Don’t blush. Don’t you dare blush.
    “Well, if you could deliver this small token, I’d be in your debt,” she says.
    “Not a problem at all, thanks.” He turns to leave, his face puzzling.
    He continues his way through the streets, and is hailed by another person wishing to bestow a token on the queen, this one a bunch of fresh flowers. And another, an embroidered linen handkerchief. More flowers. A basket of apples. A small bottle of perfume from the apothecary and his wife.
    When the butcher tries to give him a leg of lamb, Merlin draws the line. “Jack, I cannot carry any more!” he protests.
    “I’ll have my boy bring it up, then,” he insists, gesturing for his son.
    Sighing, Merlin continues to the palace, now laden with gifts for the queen from subjects wishing to express their love and support in the only way they know how.
    He reaches the gates to the castle and stops dead in his tracks. There are more things piled at the gates and people are in the process of leaving more even as he passes.
    The love the people have for their queen, born one of them, is flowing forth and cannot be stopped.
    Merlin heaves towards the palace doors, grabbing the same page who tracked him down earlier.
    “Peter,” he calls, “find another page – wait, make it two more – and go to the gates. Collect the items piled there and bring them up to the royal chambers.”
    “Two? The royal chambers? I thought the king—”
    “Yes, yes, they are still to remain undisturbed. But we must take these items to Queen Guinevere,” he says, hoisting the bundle of things in his arms. “One page is to stay posted there to receive any gifts while the other runs back with the items. I have a feeling these tokens will continue to arrive.”
    “What is all this for?” Peter asks.
    Merlin thinks, looking at the page. He’s just a boy. “Evidence has just come forth clearing Queen Guinevere of any past… wrongdoing.”
    Peter’s eyes widen, and Merlin remembers that the boy always had a bit of a crush on Gwen. “Really? Really?
    “Yes. Now go. I will meet you upstairs.”

    Merlin strides through the corridors, heading for the royal chambers with his deliveries. He arrives to find two bunches of flowers already there, and a jeweled dagger.
    Who are these from, now? He sets his items down and peers at the notes left with the gifts. Percival. Gwaine. Leon. Of course.
    Peter appears at the end of the hall, arms laden with flowers, mostly in shades of purple.
    “Wow,” he says setting them down and looking at all the tokens.
    “Shhh,” Merlin cautions. He doesn’t hear anything coming from the room right now, but he is trying to be extra careful and quiet. “They are not to be disturbed, so we must be very quiet,” he whispers to the boy. “How much more is out there?”
    “Lots of flowers,” Peter whispers. “And people are still dropping off more tokens.”
    Merlin smiles.
    “They all love Queen Guinevere,” Peter says.
    “Of course they do. She’s a wonderful person.”
    “You were friends with her, weren’t you?”
    “Still am.”
    “But, how can that be, now that she’s the queen and you’re yet a servant?”
    Merlin sighs. “It just is. She’s still the same person, Peter. And I think that’s why everyone loves her.”
    Just then Merlin hears the door lock click and the door starts to open. He shoos Peter away and turns to the door.
    “Merlin?” Gwen whispers.
    “Hi,” Merlin replies. He pretends not to notice that she is only wearing a dressing gown.
    “I thought I heard you out here.” She opens the door a little further and notices the gifts. “What’s all this?”
    “Tokens of support, love, and appreciation from your subjects, my lady,” he says, bowing with a flourish.
    Gwen laughs at Merlin and asks, “From whom?” She bends to pick up the dagger and its note.
    “From everyone, Gwen. Word is getting around, thanks to your brother.”
    Gwen smiles at the note from Leon, but then her head shoots up at the mention of Elyan. “My goodness, what is he doing, walking the streets proclaiming my innocence?”
    “No,” he laughs. “He went to the blacksmith’s to destroy the bracelet.”
    “Aha…” Gwen nods, light dawning. Then she scowls and says, “That’s actually quite clever, much as I hate to admit it. He’s found a way to spread the word in a relatively normal way.”
    “Go easy on him, Gwen, he feels just awful,” Merlin says, “He’s been beating himself up about the whole thing all day.”
    She sighs, lifting the mug of flowers. She doesn’t need to look at the note; the small white flowers in the mug look remarkably similar to the one Gwaine placed in her hair the day he met her and tried to chat her up in the street.
    “Where’s Arthur?” Merlin asks.
    As if on cue, a loud snore drifts out the door. Gwen smiles. “At least that means he’s sleeping deeply,” she says. “Help me bring these in, please.”
    “How is he?” Merlin asks as he lifts several bouquets and sets them on the table while Gwen quietly bustles around looking for containers for them all.
    “Better. At least I think so, anyway. We, um, talked quite a bit…” she says, not looking at him, nervously tucking a stray curl behind her ear. He lets it go.
    “I’m glad he’s feeling better. He doesn’t deal well with his emotions. That’s why I’m so glad he has you, Gwen; you help him with that.”
    She brings in the bread from the blacksmith’s wife, leaning in to smell it. “Mmm. From Wilhelmina, I presume?”
    He nods. “It was still warm when she gave it to me.”
    “It still is. We’ll have some with our dinner.”
    There is some slight noise outside the door. Peter and Colton, another page, are dropping off more tokens.
    “More?” Gwen says, turning her head.
    Merlin goes to the door and brings them in. Still more flowers, another embroidered handkerchief, a carved bone hair comb, and a jar of honey.
    “Ah, I see the beekeeper’s been,” Merlin says, holding it aloft.
    “Something to have on the bread, then,” Gwen says. She takes the comb from him. “Lovely,” she pronounces it, and brings it to her vanity table in the corner.
    As she walks back, Merlin notices she appears to be wearing a pair of Arthur’s socks. He looks down at her feet with a puzzled look on his face.
    She sees his look and shrugs. “My feet were cold.”
    He makes a face, and she says, “I did take clean ones, Merlin, obviously.”
    Merlin laughs, quietly, and Arthur snores again, flipping over on the bed, arm vaguely groping the bedclothes.
    “He’s looking for you,” Merlin says, and turns to leave.
    “Merlin,” Gwen calls softly after him.
    “You can bring dinner at sundown, please.”
    “Yes, my lady,” he nods to her and leaves.

    I’d better check on Lord Dungball, Merlin thinks, heading down the corridor towards the guest room where Lord Roderick is staying the night.
    As he rounds a corner, he sees a man standing in the hallway, apparently lost. It’s the Lord’s servant. He’s a nondescript mouse of a man, pale, dressed all in brown with brown eyes and brown hair.
    “Hello?” Merlin says. “Lose your way?”
    “Oh,” he turns, “Yes, it appears so. You’re… King Arthur’s servant?”
    “Yes, Merlin,” he offers his hand. “I didn’t get a chance to introduce myself earlier, sorry. It’s been a bit of an unusual day around here.”
    “Bertrand,” the other servant says as they shake hands. “And don’t worry about it. It must be very trying to be the king’s servant when the king wishes to be undisturbed.”
    “I’ve had better days, but I’ve definitely had worse,” Merlin chuckles. Bertrand smiles vaguely, but the smile does not reach his eyes. “Are you looking for your master’s quarters, then?” Merlin asks.
    “Yes, can you show me the way?”
    “Of course, I was just heading there myself to check on him.”
    “That won’t be necessary.”
    That’s odd, Merlin thinks, but shrugs. “Um, all right. I was going to ask him what he might prefer for dinner, but…”
    “He will have roast chicken,” Bertrand says.
    “All right, then, I think that can be arranged,” Merlin says, a little puzzled now. “Ah, here we are,” he indicates the door.
    “Thank you. Lord Roderick will dine in his quarters in an hour.”
    “I will arrange it, then.”
    Well, he’s certainly a sparkling conversationalist, Merlin thinks as he turns to leave.

    Gwen walks to the bed where Arthur is still sleeping. He doesn’t seem to be searching for her any more and has settled back down.
    He looks so peaceful. So young and innocent. She remembers the skinny, impertinent lad tearing around the castle when she first arrived a lifetime ago, just a girl herself. Then the brash, headstrong youth, full of himself and ready to take on the world. The young man, still arrogant to the point of rudeness at times, showing flashes of kindness, hints of fairness, teases of a good heart beating beneath all the bravado.
    She gazes down at him, now the man she loves, still flawed but growing stronger, wiser, better each day. She sits on the bed beside him and strokes his hair. He snorts and mumbles something incoherent, throwing his arm across her legs as if he senses her presence.
    How did I get here? she vaguely wonders. How did I go from a simple serving girl who thought Prince Arthur was a prat and an idiot to Queen of Camelot, married to Arthur the King? Was I born under a fortunate star? No. There’s been too much pain in my life for that to be it.
    “Hngoo sss…ife ennn…” Arthur’s arm tightens around her thighs as he mumbles in his sleep again. Gwen chuckles, wondering if he’ll say anything interesting. Or intelligible.
    She turns her head, looking out into the other part of the chambers, at the tokens the people have brought. She can occasionally hear sounds outside the door, but they are getting fewer and farther between.
    She sighs. All this attention is overwhelming her a bit. I hate the thought of the people gifting me things, things they should keep themselves in some cases, she thinks of the comb and the food and the perfume and the honey. All things of value. But I cannot turn the gifts away, that would be very rude and I would appear unappreciative.
    The bunch of lavender from Percival swings in the breeze by the window where she’s hung it and the scent reaches her nose. Even the knights have felt compelled to show their love. This touches her, but then she frowns again. Though I could not help but notice there was nothing from Elyan. She chides herself for the selfish thought, knowing that no one is obligated to bring her anything, even her own brother.
    “What are you frowning at?” a deep sleepy voice rises from the vicinity of her hip.
    “Myself, actually,” she chuckles.
    “Well, stop it. You shouldn’t be frowning at yourself. It’s not healthy.”
    “Hypocrite. You frown at yourself all the time.”
    “I never claimed to be healthy,” he says, snuggling against her, placing his head in her lap.
    “Why are you wearing my socks?”

    “My Lord,” Bertrand says, causing Lord Roderick to jump and spin suddenly around.
    “How many times have I told you not to sneak up on me, Bertrand?” he snaps.
    “I do apologize, my lord. But I have news.”
    Roderick sets his goblet down and crosses to him. “Yes, well, your stealth is part of why I hired you. Out with it.”
    “They know.”
    “I see. And what of the serving wench?”
    “She and the king were… happily ensconced in their quarters, my lord,” he says pointedly.
    “As I expected. They’re off copulating the day away while I remain ignored.”
    “Indeed, my lord.”
    “I knew it would be much more interesting to arrive before the appointed date,” he says with a sly smile devoid of any humor.
    “You are very smart, my lord.”
    “So they know. And…?”
    “And word is spreading around the kingdom. Fast. From what I understand, the knight who is her brother started the word around by telling one gossipy person.”
    “So now the entire kingdom knows and their subjects are now sending gifts. Tokens of love and support for their wronged ‘queen.’ Even some of the knights are leaving flowers for her.”
    Roderick makes a face. “Disgusting,” he says, punctuated by a loud belch.
    “Speaking of, the wench may be with child. I could only hear snatches of that conversation, so I cannot say for sure, but they were either talking about the possibility of it or she actually is.”
    “Hmm,” he taps his fingers on the tabletop. “The Lady will not be pleased if it is so.”
    “Indeed not, my lord.”
    “Fetch me a parchment and a quill.”
    “Yes, my lord.”

    “Did you sleep well?” Gwen asks, returning to the bed with a goblet of water for Arthur.
    “Yes, actually. Had a very odd dream, though.” He takes the goblet and drinks, sitting up.
    “You? You rarely ever dream, and if you do, you don’t remember them.”
    “I remember this one.”
    “What was it?”
    “I was walking in a forest. I was lost.”
    “You were lost? You?”
    “It wasn’t any forest I’d ever seen before. I was walking and walking. I thought I was going in a straight line, but I kept seeing the same trees. The patterns of branches and bark kept repeating; I kept seeing the same turtle-shaped boulder. But I swear I never turned to the right or to the left.”
    He furrows his brow and continues. “The ground beneath my feet was solid and hard. Then gradually it changed. Soon it was soft dirt, then loose gravel, and I was beginning to sink. Then sand, soft, loose sand. I could barely lift my feet out, and with each step I sank further in. I wanted to stop walking but I couldn’t. I just kept lifting my feet, higher and higher each time, and putting them back down until finally I was in up to my hips and couldn’t move any further.”
    “Oh, my God,” Gwen says, her hand over her mouth.
    “I couldn’t walk any more, yet I was still sinking. Just deeper and deeper. It was up to my chest, and I was reaching out with my hands, looking for something to grab on to.”
    Gwen remembers him groping the bed earlier. What if I had been here? What if he had found me in the bed? Would I have saved him in his dream? She keeps quiet for now and lets him continue.
    “There was nothing to grab. It was dark now and I couldn’t even see the trees any more. I was up to my neck in the sand.”
    “Were you struggling? Kicking, anything?”
    “No. I just stayed still. I guess I thought if I struggled I would just sink faster.”
    “Sorry. Go on.”
    “It’s okay,” he takes another drink. “I was gasping for air, knowing that shortly my face would be below the surface and I would soon suffocate. I’ve no shame in admitting that I was petrified.”
    “I’d be surprised if you weren’t.”
    “But then, just as my head went below the surface, I felt a hand grab my left hand. It was your hand.”
    “Mine? How do you know it was mine?”
    “Guinevere, really,” he says. “Close your eyes.” She does, and he takes her hand in his. “Would you not know my hand by its touch alone?”
    She smiles and opens her eyes. “Yes, of course.”
    “You tried to pull me up. I could feel you heaving with all your tiny might, and I did raise some.”
    Gwen scowls, wanting to have been his hero.
    “It was at that time I felt another hand grasp my right hand. It was a larger hand, rough, a man’s hand.”
    “Who’s hand?”
    “I’ll get there. This second hand pulled in concert with yours and eventually the two of you pulled me free, where I landed back on solid ground. The sky was once again light and I could see Camelot in the distance.”
    “So who was it? The other hand?”

Part 11: link