Part 7: link
“Percival, why didn’t you correct the prince when he made that misstep? He very nearly gave young Maxwell a black eye!” Leon snaps at his fellow knight as the two men walk to the castle from the morning’s training.
“Well, he’s the prince! I can’t… yell at him,” Percival answers weakly.
“He must be trained the same as all the other boys,” Leon sighs. “I know it’s difficult, but…”
“I just don’t feel right. I know he’s only five, but he outranks me.”
“Well, so do I, and I’m telling you from experience…”
“My two best knights arguing?” Gwen’s voice stops Leon mid-sentence. The two men spin around to see their queen looking quizzically at them a short distance away, her hands on her hips. She starts forward. “What is this all about?”
“Ah, my lady, perhaps you can settle a dispute that Percival and I are having,” Leon says, trying not to smirk.
“I will certainly try.”
“It’s about the prince,” Percival says.
“All right,” she says, clasping her hands in front of her.
“Percival thinks Llacheu should receive special treatment during training, my lady. Because he’s the prince.”
Gwen looks up at Percival, her face expectant. Well?
“Um, yes, my lady,” Percival says, coughing lightly into his fist. Suddenly his argument doesn’t seem as strong, for some reason. “He’s Camelot’s sole heir, and should anything happen to him…”
“They’re only using wooden swords right now,” Leon interrupts. “And they are well-padded.”
“Enough,” Gwen sighs. “Percival. I appreciate your concern for Llacheu, but I’m afraid Leon is right.”
“Yes, my lady,” Percival answers softly.
“We forget that you have not been here as long as we have,” Gwen says gently, reaching forward to touch his arm. “You were not around to hear Arthur yelling at Sir Leon for not taking his advantage while training the joust when the sun got in his eyes.”
“You know about that?” Leon asks, surprised.
“I do.” She smiles wistfully, her mind trailing back so many years now, to one particular morning in her tiny house. “Oh, Leon, do I have a story for you some time… Another time, though,” she decides.
Leon looks very puzzled now. “Okay.”
“Suffice it to say that I, too, had a front-row seat to Arthur’s, shall we say, crisis of identity. Percival, there was a time in Arthur’s youth where he realized that if people treated him different, special, based on nothing more than the fact that he was the prince, then he had no way of knowing what their true
feelings were. He wished to know his worth as a man, not be fed a lot of garbage by sycophants looking to advance themselves. And on the field of battle, that translated to him not being able to know if he was truly
skilled in combat or if everyone was always letting him win. Both of these issues could prove dangerous for him and for the kingdom.”
“I understand. Of course you’re right,” Percival says, frowning thoughtfully.
“Percival, do you doubt my love for my son?” she asks.
“Of course not!” he answers immediately.
“But you see me correct his behavior all the time, do you not? Do I indulge him when he’s behaving, shall we say, like his father on a bad day?”
“No, my lady,” Percival says, chuckling slightly. “But…”
“But you are his mother and the queen. I am just a knight.”
“Ah, but as a knight, you are his superior. He is not even a squire yet. On that field,” she points, “he is not Prince Llacheu. He is just another small boy on the road to becoming a Knight of Camelot. If he makes an error, correct him. If he misbehaves, he is to be punished the same as the others, even if that means mucking out the stable or lugging shields. In fact, I might go so far as to say he should be pushed harder
than the other boys, because he is to be their king one day.”
“Yes, my lady.”
“Don’t make me order you,” she teases.
“I don’t think that will be necessary,” Percival smiles now.
“Now if you will excuse me, I have parchments that need signing,” Gwen says, nodding at them.
“Of course, my lady,” they both answer, nodding back to her and stepping aside so she can pass.
“Oh, and Percival?” she turns, swaying slightly. Leon reaches out to steady her, his face puzzled.
“Yes?” Percival asks, also noticing her unsteadiness. “Are you all right, Gwen?”
“Just spun too quickly,” she waves her hand dismissing their concern. “But if my son gives you grief because you’re suddenly tougher with him, go right ahead and tell him that he can talk to me if he has a problem with it.”
“That would definitely work,” Leon mutters, smirking. The boy loves his mother, but he knows not to cross her. Just like the rest of us.
“…and then we got to carry shields for the knights!” Llacheu finally breathes, finishing a long story about training that day. It was the first day of the New Regimen for the prince, unbeknownst to him, and if he noticed a change, it hasn’t bothered him and he hasn’t mentioned it.
“I like Sir Percival, Mummy. He’s big. Sometimes he lets me ride on his shoulders. I want to be tall like him when I’m a man,” he says, clutching a tattered-looking blanket to his chest as he hunkers down into his bed. Queen Annis had sent the blanket shortly after he was born, and Gwen allows him to still have it at bedtime.
“I don’t know that you’ll get as tall as Sir Percival, my love,” she smiles down at him, smoothing his uncontrollable hair from his forehead, only to have it spring back immediately.
“Sir Leon, then,” he declares.
“Sir Leon is nearly as tall as Sir Percival, silly. Your father was not as tall as either of them, and I am not very tall, either.”
“You are not tall at all, mum,” he says, yawning.
“Yes, thank you, I know. You will be taller than me before you reach full manhood, I do know that.”
“And then you can sit on my lap,” he smiles a smile that is missing a tooth on the bottom row.
“We’ll see,” Gwen smiles indulgently at him. “What would you like to hear tonight?”
“Something not too scary,” he says shyly.
“Not too scary… Oh, this one came back to me while I was talking with Sir Leon and Sir Percival yesterday.” She pauses, stifling a yawn behind her hand. Why am I so tired?
“Many years ago, the knights and your father were training and practicing, preparing for an upcoming jousting tournament.”
“Sir Leon was there?”
“And Sir Percival?”
“No, darling, this was before Percival came to be with us. A long time ago. Mummy was still a maid in the castle.”
“You were a maid in the castle during most of your stories,” he reminds her.
“Of course, you’re right,” she laughs. “Now can I tell you this story? There are funny parts…”
“Oh, good,” Llacheu says, scooting over sideways and patting the space beside him. “I want to snuggle.”
“Very well,” Gwen says, moving from her chair to lie down on the bed. “See, it is a good thing that Mummy isn’t very tall now, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” he answers, curling against her and reaching for her necklace to hold while she talks.
“So. Daddy wasn’t very happy then, because everyone was treating him like he was special…”
“But Daddy was special!”
“Llacheu, no interruptions. Yes, Daddy was very special, but you must listen to the whole story to understand.”
“He got mad at Sir Leon during practice one day…”
Gwen approaches the door, reaches out for it, and…
“Mummy, where are we?” a small, familiar voice speaks from the area of her skirts. She feels his hand slip into hers, clasping it tightly.
Oh, no. Oh, dear. I must have fallen asleep in Llacheu’s bed. She takes a deep breath and crouches down. “Llacheu, darling, you know Mummy’s necklace?” she asks, holding it out for him.
He nods, running his small finger down the crystal. She smiles, noticing he has his blanket along.
“Well, this necklace was given to me by Uncle, and it is very special. I hadn’t intended to tell you this so soon, but there’s nothing for it now.”
“You’re going to get to meet your father tonight, Llacheu,” she sighs again. His eyes get as wide as saucers.
“Are we dead?” he asks, tears starting to pool in his blue eyes.
“No, sweetheart, shh, we’re not dead,” she says, holding him a moment until he’s calm again. “This crystal allows me to see him while I sleep. Not all the time, but sometimes.”
“No, not every night. I never know exactly when he will visit, sadly. I think I fell asleep in your bed after I finished my story. Did I finish the story?”
“I don’t know. I fell asleep.”
“What’s the last thing you remember?”
“Um… you gave him a hankie and he kissed you,” he says, making a face.
“I’ll tell you the rest another time. Would you like to meet your father now?” she asks.
“Yes!” he nods emphatically, but he looks a little frightened.
“Don’t be scared, my love,” she says. She takes his hand again and stands. “Come on, then.”
She pushes the door open and they step into the dark.
“Arthur,” she says, seeing his silhouette in the gloom, “there’s someone here who wants to meet you.”
Llacheu is hiding behind his mother’s skirts a bit, suddenly shy.
“It’s all right, Love,” Gwen cajoles gently, reaching down to her son’s shoulder, urging him gently forward.
Arthur is as still as a statue, staring as his son steps slowly out, emerging from behind Guinevere.
“Oh…” Arthur breathes, tears brimming in his eyes. He steps forward slowly, crouching down. Gwen steps aside and Arthur moves around slightly, and Llacheu follows, turning sideways so they can both see each other in the light from the door.
“Hello, Father,” Llacheu says quietly, staring, wide-eyed.
“Hello,” Arthur croaks, smiling a watery smile.
He looks just like me. Except for the hair. And he’s of course a little darker. But his eyes are still blue. “You are a very handsome boy, my son.”
“Why are you crying?”
“Because you are… beautiful. You’re the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.”
“Boys aren’t beautiful,” Llacheu protests, and Arthur can’t help but laugh. “Mummy is beautiful,” Llacheu adds, looking up at Gwen, who is watching, silent tears rolling down her face.
“Yes, Mummy is the most beautiful woman in all the land, isn’t she?” Arthur asks. Llacheu nods, his face serious. “You’re the most wonderful thing I’ve ever seen. Is that better?” Arthur asks, swiping the back of his hand across one eye.
“Yes. You’re really my father?” Llacheu asks.
“Is this Avalon? It’s dark. I thought it would be prettier. And that there would be ponies. Are you here all the time?”
“This isn’t Avalon, no. Avalon is that way,” he points, “through a door that you can’t see right now. I come here while your mum sleeps sometimes to talk to her.”
“Because of her necklace,” Llacheu says.
“Because of her necklace,” Arthur nods. “Uncle Merlin gave it to her after I died so she wouldn’t miss me so much.”
“I like Uncle Merlin. And I like Mummy’s necklace. I like to hold it.”
“I like Uncle Merlin, too,” Arthur smiles. “And I like it when you hold Mummy’s necklace.”
Arthur nods, and Gwen notices then that not only do her husband and son look alike, but they have many of the same mannerisms as well.
“Llacheu, can I…” Arthur can’t even finish the question, his arms slowly reaching forward when Llacheu launches himself at his father, wrapping his skinny arms tightly around Arthur’s neck.
“Oh!” Arthur exclaims, somewhere between a gasp and a sob and a laugh as he loses his balance and falls backwards, landing on his backside. He wraps his arms around his son, squeezing tightly. He starts to stand, lifting the boy with him.
“Blanket,” Llacheu says, reaching with one hand, fingers grasping for his treasured comfort item that slipped out of his hand when he hugged his father.
“I’ll get it,” Gwen says, picking it up. “He only has it at bedtime,” she tells Arthur quietly.
“I slept with a stuffed bear until I was thirteen, Guinevere, I don’t care,” Arthur admits. He holds his son in his arms, himself in miniature, a skinny, long-legged boy with big feet who asks too many questions about everything. Llacheu is holding on tightly, his head on his shoulder.
“Everyone says how much he looks like you,” Gwen says quietly. “As if I need to be told,” she mutters.
Arthur turns his head and kisses his son, feeling his tousled curls beneath his lips, familiar curls, the most visible trait of his mother’s. “How is this possible?” Arthur asks suddenly, his voice an awed whisper. “How is he here with you?”
“I think I fell asleep in his bed,” Gwen says, stepping forward and reaching out to rub Llacheu’s back. “I was telling him his story and I must’ve fallen asleep, too. I was tired today.”
“Which story was she telling you?” Arthur looks down at his son and asks.
Llacheu lifts his head. “She was telling me about the tournament.”
“Which tournament? I was in a lot of tournaments.”
“The tournament where nobody knew it was you and you stayed at her house and she yelled at you and you kissed her.”
“Ah,” Arthur smiles. “That tournament. My favorite one. That’s when I fell in love with your mum.”
“It is not,” Gwen says.
“Is so. You called me rude and arrogant and said I sound like a pig when I sleep. How could I not have fallen in love with you?”
Gwen sighs, exasperated, and Llacheu giggles. “You sounded like a pig?”
“Daddy snored,” Gwen says.
“Anyway,” Arthur says loudly, wishing to redirect the conversation, “did you understand the point of your mother’s story?” he asks, reluctantly setting Llacheu down now.
“Here,” Arthur sits on the floor again and Llacheu clambers into his lap. “Did she tell you why I wanted to fight in disguise?”
Llacheu nods. “Because you didn’t know if they were letting you win.”
“Right. And you understand why I needed to know this?”
“Because if they let you win… then you don’t know… if you can really do it?”
Arthur squeezes him suddenly, kissing his head again. “Yes.”
“Mummy, is that why Percival wasn’t as nice at training this morning?” Llacheu looks up at Gwen now.
“Oh, so you did notice,” Gwen smirks. “I had to settle a little dispute between Percival and Leon yesterday,” she tells Arthur.
“Percival going easy on our son, was he?” Arthur asks knowingly.
Gwen nods. “So Sir Leon won that argument,” she chuckles. “He never forgot that day you got angry with him.”
“Good. Llacheu,” Arthur turns back to his son, “listen to Sir Percival and Sir Leon. I can’t be there to guide you. You cannot know how much I wish that were different.”
“Me, too,” Llacheu says quietly. He holds his blanket against his neck, leaning on Arthur’s shoulder again.
Gwen watches them sadly.
I think this is the first time I’ve seen Arthur truly sad here. The fact that he cannot be the one to train Llacheu just tears at him.
“But they will teach you how to be a knight and how to be a man. Uncle Merlin, too, when he comes around. He’s smarter than he lets on, you know. Don’t tell him I said that,” he adds hastily. “Uncle will teach you about kindness and understanding and the value that can be found in all things. And of course, listen to your mother. She is wise and fair and her kindness is endless. She will teach you how to be a good and just ruler. She is better at being queen than I was at being king.”
“Now you’re just talking nonsense,” Gwen protests, nudging him with her toe.
Arthur is quick and grabs her bare foot, lifts it gently to his lips, and kisses it once before releasing it. “I am not talking nonsense,” he argues. “Camelot was peaceful during most of my short reign, but under yours she is prospering and growing.”
Llacheu starts playing with the ties on Arthur’s tunic, twisting them together, pulling them, sticking the end of one up his nose.
“I think you’re losing your audience,” Gwen says, chuckling.
“Ah. Llacheu,” Arthur says, trying not to burst out laughing as one of the ties falls from the boy’s nostril as he lifts his head. “I want you to remember one thing: No matter how hard Leon and Percival push you or how much they challenge you, know that if I were alive, I would push you harder and challenge you more than they ever will.”
“Why? Llacheu asks, surprised to hear this.
“Because I expect you to be the best,” he says simply. “You’re the prince; you should be the best.”
“Do you want to be the best?” Arthur asks, hooking his finger under his son’s chin lightly.
Llacheu nods, his face quite serious.
“Then you must earn it. You know what it means to earn something, don’t you?”
The prince thinks a minute, scrunching his little face, deep in concentration. “To earn something means that you get something because you worked for it, not because someone just gave it to you,” he slowly says.
“Exactly,” Arthur says, beaming at his son. He looks up at Gwen. “He’s very smart, like you.”
“I am relentless with his studies, of course,” Gwen declares proudly. “You know how you would be with him on the training field? That’s how I am with him about his studies. He even takes lessons with Gaius.”
“No reason why a prince cannot learn some basic healing arts,” Gwen says.
“Especially if he finds himself on a battlefield one day,” Arthur agrees.
“Please, Arthur, I’d really rather not think about Llacheu on a battlefield,” she says quietly.
The battlefield is where I lost you. Those are the un-said words hanging in the air between them.
“Mummy, I’m tired,” Llacheu says.
“Yes, it’s about time to go,” Arthur agrees, sighing heavily, pulling Llacheu into another hug. “Llacheu,” he says, his voice croaking again as he struggles with his emotions. “I love you, my son. Never forget that. I am always with you, in your heart.” He touches his son’s chest, over his heart.
“I love you, too, Daddy,” Llacheu says, “I don’t want to go.”
“You must,” Arthur says, kissing his forehead. “You need to go back to your world. Your mother needs you,” he whispers this last part, winking at Gwen, who is crying again.
“Come, Love,” Gwen says, reaching her hand down for her son. He takes it and stands. Arthur gets to his feet and Llacheu hugs his middle tightly.
“I’m keeping an eye on you from Avalon, my son. Be a good boy for me.”
“I’m always good,” Llacheu says smugly.
Gwen presses her lips together, giving Arthur a look that says
“Well, good,” Arthur says indulgently, his fingers in his son’s hair again.
“Arthur,” Gwen says reaching her hand up to stroke his cheek. He leans over to her and kisses her then, chaste but incredibly loving, fully aware that their young son is watching.
“I love you, too,” Arthur whispers to Gwen. “And be good,” he smirks.
“I am always good,” Gwen answers. She kisses his nose. “And I love you, Arthur. I’m glad you got to see your son.”
“I watch him about as much as I watch you,” Arthur says, “but this was infinitely better.”
“We should go. He needs his rest.”
“One more hug?” Arthur asks, bending down to hug his son one more time. He kisses his cheek. “Love you. So much. I know you will make me proud.”
“I will, Daddy, I promise.”
“Guinevere,” Arthur calls just as they are turning to leave.
Arthur pulls her close into a half-hug and mutters in her ear, “I did ask about… you know.”
Gwen’s blush tells him he knows what he’s talking about.
“I was right. Frowned upon. Very, very frowned upon. As I thought.”
“Of course, it… makes sense.”
“What are you saying?” Llacheu demands, impatient and irritated at being left out.
“He’s very inquisitive,” Gwen says. “Nothing you need to worry about, my love,” Gwen says, pecking Arthur’s cheek once more.
“’Bye, Daddy,” Llacheu waves. “I liked sitting in your lap.”
“Goodbye, my son. I will be watching over you. I love you,” Arthur calls. He finds he cannot say it enough.
Probably because I did not hear it enough as a boy, he reasons.
As Gwen and Llacheu walk to the door, Gwen looks down and says, “Now, Llacheu, listen to me please, because this is important.” She waits, even stopping momentarily until she is sure she has his attention. “You must not tell anyone that you got to see your father. The only person that knows what this necklace does other than us is Uncle Merlin. Do you understand?”
“I can tell Uncle Merlin?”
“When you see him, yes. But no one else. Not even Sir Leon.”
“Yes, Mummy, I understand. Secret.”
“And our last order of business, my lady, is… Sir Percival?” Leon’s eyebrows lift slightly, surprised.
Sir Percival steps forward, approaching his queen and friend as she sits on her throne. “My lady,” he bows a quick bow. “I, um, seek your blessing to marry.”
“Of course, Sir Percival,” Gwen says brightly, a smile spreading across her face. “Lady Lorelle, I believe?”
“Yes, my lady,” he says, unable to hide his smile. He looks down bashfully. “I have been courting her for some time, as you know, and…”
“Percival, you do not need to explain yourself. You have my blessing. I wish you both all the happiness in the world,” she says, looking to the side of the room and smiling at a particular dark-haired maiden with a grin that matches her beloved’s.
Gwen stands, then, pushing herself up on the arms of her throne. “My friend,” she says, motioning that Percival should step closer. He does so, and she embraces him in a warm hug from her place two steps elevated.
Their faces nearly level, she whispers in his ear, “May you be as happy as Arthur and I were, and for much, much longer.”
“Thank you, Gwen,” Percival says quietly when she releases him. He steps back and she wobbles a moment, losing her balance.
“Sorry,” he apologizes quickly, his arm reflexively shooting out to steady her just as Leon steps forward to do the same.
“I was closer to the edge than I thought,” she says with a small, slightly embarrassed giggle. “When will you marry?” she asks.
“Around midsummer, we think.”
“We wish to marry outdoors.”
“Lovely,” Gwen smiles. I would have liked that myself, something simple, decorated by nature, witnessed by the birds.
As she sits again, few people notice the wistful sadness that crosses the queen’s face, and those that do take note do not fault her.
Following the meeting Gwen walks back to her chambers with Leon.
“My lady, are you well?” Leon asks.
“Just a bit tired,” she says with a sigh.
“Are you not sleeping well?”
“I… I think I am, yes. No one sleeps well all the time,” she shrugs.
“I daresay Gwaine did,” Leon chuckles. “That man could sleep standing on his feet. I saw him do it once.”
Gwen chuckles, and takes a deep breath as though the walk is exhausting her.
“You work too hard, my lady. Perhaps you should have Gaius make you a sleeping draught.”
“No, I’ll be fine. I’ll turn in after dinner tonight, I think.”
Leon says nothing, and Gwen knows it is because he doesn’t approve.
“I know what you’re thinking, Leon, and I’m fine. Just need a few good solid nights’ sleep.”
They are just to her chamber doors and as Leon opens his mouth to argue some more, they are interrupted by the sound of running feet.
“Llacheu, do not run in the – oof!” Gwen’s scold is cut off as her son barrels into her, wrapping his arms around her waist in a tight hug. She staggers backwards.
“My lord, you should take care with your mother,” Leon says, reprimanding, but gently. “You are getting so big and strong and she is, unfortunately, not going to get any bigger,” he chuckles.
“Sorry, Mummy,” Llacheu apologizes, stepping back.
“It’s all right, Love, I enjoy your enthusiasm, but Sir Leon is right. You are getting big and you nearly knocked me over just then!” she says, smiling down at him and running her fingers into his hair.
“I brought you something,” Llacheu says.
“My lady, young prince,” Leon nods to them both, taking his leave. “Get some rest,” he adds, raising his eyebrows at her, “please,” he adds.
“What did you bring me?” Gwen says, entering her room with her son following.
“This!” he brandishes a small bunch of flowers he had tucked in his sleeve.
“Oh, Love, they are beautiful, thank you!” Gwen exclaims, taking the bundle.
“You’re sad a lot, and I guess that’s because of Daddy, even though you get to see him. I know you like flowers, so I picked these while I was out with Maxwell and Sir Bors.”
“You did not pick them from someone’s garden, did you?” she asks, but she somehow knows what his answer is going to be, and she steels herself.
“No, Mummy, they were growing by the side of the road.”
“Well, they are lovely even so. You know Mummy likes this color,” she says, her heart pounding now.
“Mummy, are you okay?”
“Yes, Love, I am just happy because you are so thoughtful to bring these for me,” Gwen says, wiping an unwanted tear away.
“Go on, then. See if cook has something to tide you until supper. You must be going to grow again,” she says.
“I hope so!” he exclaims. He gives his mother another hug and then dashes out.
Gwen looks at the flowers in her hand, the stems nearly crushed as she grips them in her sweating palm. Short stems, purple blossoms.
She walks over to a bookcase on the wall and reaches up for a thick book. She sets the flowers down on the table and opens the book with her trembling hand. The book opens to the center, and Gwen withdraws an almost-identical bunch, pressed flat between sheets of vellum now.
These… are for you.
His voice haunts her.
He had presented the flowers, arm outstretched, slightly embarrassed as one flower’s stem obviously hadn’t survived its ordeal with the king and flopped over, sad and limp.
They’re not much I know, I… found them by the side of the road.
Gwen was surprised he admitted where he got them. He was the king, he could have gotten the most beautiful flowers in the kingdom, in abundance. He could have made a grand gesture, enlisted minstrels to write songs for her, presented her with fine silks.
But no. A small bunch of, frankly, pathetic little flowers that he picked himself was how he chose to apologize. And Gwen could not have loved him more for it.
They’re to say I’m sorry, Guinevere.
She was mad. Hurt. But she knew that he wasn’t himself. Undergoing another crisis of identity, trying to find his footing, listening to the wrong advice. So she forgave him. She forgave him because she loved him and he loved her and he was just as sad and as beautiful as the little flowers he offered.
“Oh…” Gwen sighs shakily, setting the pressed flowers back in the book. She returns the book, her motions automatic, and places her son’s flowers in a small glass vase and pours water in from a pitcher.
Then she clutches her crystal in her hand and crumples to the floor, sobbing as a wave of grief washes over her, piercingly sharp and new.
Part 9: link