Okay, I know that I have plenty of other Merlin stories to finish, but I started writing this over a year ago, and didn't manage to post it before season two started... I am determined to finish it before season three starts, so that's why it's being posted now. Updates should be fairly quick since this story will not leave my brain alone!
This does have potential spoilers for season three, but nothing too dreadful. Enjoy!
It wasn't a betrayal. He wasn't breaking any promises. He had nothing to be ashamed of.
Arthur Pendragon was a Prince of Camelot – the Prince of Camelot. He had a duty to his kingdom, to his people and to his king to take a suitable wife, and Arthur had been raised to fulfil his duties.
Lady Elaine of Corbenic was everything a Princess and a future Queen should be. Aside from her obvious, exquisite beauty, she was also intelligent, witty, and had a dry sense of humour; she carried herself with grace and dignity and was unfailingly kind to everyone, servant and king alike. Her father was dead and though her younger brother had inherited his title, she herself had a substantial fortune of her own, one that Camelot's coffers would be grateful for.
Merlin had summed it up, when Arthur had asked him what he thought of Lady Elaine.
"She's... well, she's perfect, isn't she?" He'd said. He hadn't looked particularly enthusiastic as he'd said it, his stupidly big blue eyes peering at Arthur as though he knew exactly why he was hesitating. Well, he did know.
Arthur had just nodded, mumbling an agreement. Yes, Lady Elaine was perfect. Perfect for the kingdom. Perfect to be his bride. And Arthur wanted to hate her for it, but the truth was he didn't – in fact he liked her. She was a wonderful woman, someone he could see himself living with and for.
But Arthur could never give her his heart. It already belonged to another.
Arthur tried not to think of Guinevere too often. They could never be. They both knew it, both knew that their feelings for one another would end in nothing but pain for both of them. They'd tried to avoid being too familiar with one another, but it was a lost cause – Guinevere knew Arthur better than anyone and could calm him or comfort him with just a look, and for his part Arthur could hardly stop himself from touching her or gazing at her at any chance he got.
In the end, they'd avoided being alone together. It didn't really help except to make Arthur miss her, but he supposed he would one day have to get used to the pain.
He hadn't realised that that day would arrive so soon. But Lady Elaine was here, in Camelot; had been there for a fortnight, and Arthur could no longer ignore the pointed looks his father was giving him.
It would all be easier once Gwen was out of the city. Morgana's ordeal had left her unable to deal with the pressures of life at court, and she was leaving Camelot to stay in a manor house a few hours' ride to the West of the city. Guinevere, of course, was going with her. They were leaving in a matter of hours, and perhaps when Gwen was far away Arthur would be able to do his duty without feeling like a traitor.
Arthur stayed where he was, staring down at the courtyard below. He was on the tallest part of the parapet, accessible to a very select number of people in the castle. He always came here when he needed to think... or escape.
"What do you want Merlin?" He asked without turning around.
Merlin didn't answer, so after a few moments Arthur turned around. Merlin was standing in the doorway at the top of the staircase, and behind him stood Guinevere.
Just the sight of her doubled – no, tripled – his feelings of guilt. How could he even think of pledging his life to another? There was no other.
Guinevere looked faintly embarrassed – her cheeks were pink and she kept glancing at Merlin nervously, twisting her hands together. Merlin, Arthur noticed, looked extremely determined. Arthur bit back a sigh – nothing good happened when Merlin looked like that.
Merlin looked at Arthur pointedly, reminding him of the king for a moment, but when Arthur didn't say anything he rolled his eyes and grabbed Gwen by the elbow. "Come on," he muttered, walking her over to stand in front of Arthur.
"Right, see you later," Merlin said, before turning on his heel and walking away again.
Arthur and Gwen both looked at Merlin, startled, and Arthur gave Gwen a pained look before hurrying after his manservant.
He caught up with him just through the doorway, and grabbed his shoulder to turn him around. "What are you doing?" He demanded in a low voice.
Merlin rolled his eyes again. "You've been sulking for two weeks now, it's getting old," he said. Arthur opened his mouth to retort, but Merlin ploughed on. "Seriously – she's leaving. You need to talk to her before she goes, and before... you decide anything," he said. He gave Arthur another pointed look. "Talk to her."
Arthur glared at Merlin, torn between strangling him and thanking him – which was a familiar state of ambivalence when it came to his servant. "Go polish my armour," he growled after a moment.
Merlin grinned. "Already done!" He said in a disgustingly cheerful tone before turning and practically skipping down the stairs. Arthur shook his head in disbelief before turning back himself and stepping back outside.
Gwen was standing a few feet from the doorway, still wringing her hands and looking more nervous than before. "I'm sorry," she said straight away. "Merlin said you wanted to talk to me but clearly he made it up – I'll just go."
"No – no, don't go," Arthur said quickly. "I – you're right, I didn't ask him to bring you here but... I do want to talk to you."
"Oh," Gwen said. She dropped her hands to her sides and gave him a very strained smile. "What about?"
Arthur sighed – he didn't even know where to start, or what he wanted to say to her. I love you, but I'm marrying someone else – hope that's alright with you didn't sound quite right. So he took the coward's way out.
"Are you ready to leave?" He asked.
Gwen nodded. "Yes – we are leaving within the hour," she said. "Sir Leon and Sir Gawain are going with us."
Arthur nodded – he'd assigned the knights himself. "And, er, how long do you think...?"
"As long as it takes for Morgana to be herself again," Gwen said gently.
Arthur nodded again, looking away. He was out of small talk for the moment, and still couldn't think of a way to breach the subject.
"She will make an excellent queen."
Arthur blinked and looked back at Gwen, frowning. "Wha-?"
"Lady Elaine," Gwen said firmly. Her hands were clasped in front of her again, but she wasn't wringing them now. She lifted her chin and gazed at him with a clear, level gaze, as if daring him to contradict her. Arthur couldn't help but think she looked regal – the thought did nothing to lessen his anguish.
"Lady Elaine is a kind noblewoman with a good heart," she said. "She is perfect for the kingdom."
Arthur gazed back at Guinevere. It was everything he knew to be true, but hearing it from Gwen's lips made him want to fight against it with everything he had.
"But is she perfect for me?" Arthur asked.
Guinevere didn't falter. "You are the kingdom," she said quietly.
Arthur started to take a step towards her, but Gwen immediately took a step back, shaking her head, her composure breaking slightly. "Please don't," she said. She took a deep breath and raised her eyes to his again, looking resolute.
"Goodbye, Arthur," she said softly. Without waiting for an answer, she hurried around him and through the stairwell doorway.
Arthur swallowed thickly, his eyes falling closed. "Goodbye, Guinevere."