DISCLAIMER: I do not own any of the characters from the Arthurian Legend or from the BBC TV Show Merlin. Only the plot and the other fictional characters belong to me.
Thanks to my wonderful beta reader Krause. Any remaining grammar errors are mine and mine alone :-)
1. A sealed heart
Merlin was watching Arthur train with the knights with a heavy heart. By now, he could tell how the day was going to be by simply observing Arthur's behavior in the training field.
Most days were like today: the prince unloading his bottled up pain and fury on his blows. He had become a force to be reckoned with. He had always been one of the best warriors. Now, with his ongoing dark mood, he was simply formidable.
It had been more than two years since Lancelot's and Gwen's wedding. And for someone who actually pushed them to it, the Prince did not seem happy at all.
After the dragon's attack and Morgana's disappearance, things had taken a turn for the worst in the kingdom. The peace treaty started to fall apart, Cedrec's forces permanently challenged Camelot's borders and Arthur and Merlin spent more time in the battlefields than in the City.
And it was there, in a desperate situation fighting Cedrec's unyielding forces, that the once aspiring knight had made his appearance again. Lancelot's timing had not only been perfect but a decisive tilting point in the battle.
Camelot's knights had finally defeated the enemy and in the night camp, exhausted and wounded, Arthur took the most difficult decision of his life. Merlin would remember that night forever; his own heart torn apart because of the ill-fated amorous triangle that involved three of his dearest friends.
Arthur had called for Lancelot and they had spoken for a long time and at that moment Merlin thought that the conversation had only involved knighthood.
When it was over, however, Arthur asked to be left alone.
Lancelot had come to Merlin with a strange expression on his face. A sad, uncomfortable smile was his only greeting before he sat next to him. They remained in silence for a long time until Lancelot spoke:
"Arthur asked me to come back to Camelot with him"
Merlin was cautiously excited. On one hand, he cared for his friend immensely. On the other, he was also aware that the young warrior harvested deep feelings for Gwen too and that, worst of all, they were somehow reciprocated.
He probed carefully, "That is excellent news, isn't it?"
Lancelot turned sad eyes towards him this time and let out "And he wants me to court Gwen."
Merlin winced at the words. In spite of how much he liked Lancelot, he knew what that renouncement had meant for the Prince. His face spoke volumes of the anguish he felt.
"Yeah. That's what I thought"; the pain in Lancelot's voice also more than evident.
Merlin looked as his friend ashamedly. "That was not what I…"
But Lancelot cut him lifting his hand. "I know Merlin. I know…"
Another long silence. The fire was dying slowly in the pit.
"And what are you going to do?"
Lancelot got up sighing. "I really do not know…" and left to the darker side of the camp.
Merlin didn't sleep that night. He was worried about Arthur. The Prince had not call for him nor asked for anything. He had been in his tent the entire night and the warlock could not even fathom what was going through his master's head.
The young wizard also worried about Lancelot. The warrior had proven once again being a formidable knight and a trusted friend. Someone who Camelot would need if it ever was to be the cradle of Albion.
He knew without doubt that both Arthur and Lancelot trusted each other with their lives. Of that, Merlin was absolutely certain. However, there was the love of a woman between both men. A woman who was the most caring, honest and good person he had ever known. And she was also torn between them.
He sighed and moved in his bedroll looking at the stars. Why was it that the making of a great kingdom demanded so much heartache not only from him, but also from the people he truly cared about?
He wished he were back in Ealdor when he was young and none of this had happened.
In the middle of his musing, Arthur walked out of his tent. The Prince had an unreadable expression in his face.
"I need to speak with you" It sounded more like a request than an order, and Merlin shrugged inside.
Inside the tent, and without further ado, Arthur communicated "I have asked Lancelot to go back to Camelot with us. I intend to grant him the knighthood he deserves. Camelot needs more men like him."
"That is wise…" Merlin started but the Prince interrupted looking straight at him.
"And I asked him to court Gwen."
There. It was out and now Merlin truly was out of words.
Arthur's eyes turned back straight upfront, his shoulders tightening.
"You are not saying anything."
Merlin shook his head… "What do you want me to say?"
Arthur's biting sarcasm –the shield Merlin had learnt it was always at hand for the Prince when something was truly hurting him—made its comeback: "Oh… I do not know… You always have an opinion about pretty much everything!" He looked back at his manservant with a raised eyebrow.
Merlin sighed. This was going to be difficult.
"Well, Sire, this time I truly do not."
Arthur looked at his boots, his shoulders dropping in defeat.
There was a silence that might have felt longer than it actually was, before Merlin decided to speak again. "But I do have a question: Do you realize the implications of what you have asked of him?"
The prince kept playing for a moment with some pebbles on the floor and Merlin thought he was not going to answer. But he did.
"Yes. I do. But it is the only way."
"But what about things changing when you are King? What about your feelings?"
Arthur stopped him sharply.
"My feelings are of no consequence here Merlin!" He drew his hand through his hair and sighed heavily; almost angrily. "Look around you! We are at war! We have been at war for a long time and I don't even know how much longer we will be!"
The dam had broken and the Prince was speaking, finally. Merlin only listened.
"I cannot ask Gwen to wait for something we don't even know it would ever happen…" he started pacing the tent like a caged beast. "And in the meantime, robbing her of the possibility of having a husband and a family."
"My duty" he stopped pacing "first and foremost is with Camelot. If I died serving my kingdom…" he paused as if the words were too painful to pronounce, "what would be of my promise to her… "
The truth came crashing down on the warlock. Arthur was sacrificing his own happiness for Gwen's. A mixture of admiration and pride surged through the wizard.
Yes, this was definitely the future king he was supposed to serve.
Still, he felt he needed to play devil's advocate; if for no other reason to help Arthur reassure his decision.
"Lancelot can also die…"
Arthur sat in his cot, tired. "I know."
There was another silence and Merlin once again thought that the conversation had ended. But the prince continued. "However, while he is alive, he can love her freely and make her happy... " and with all the pain in the world he added "and that I cannot."
Merlin swallowed. It seemed that his master had thought his affair throughout. Before he could add anything Arthur spoke again so softly that the wizard had to strain his ears to listen.
"She deserves a man who not only can protect her but who can put her before everything else in this world… A man who can love her in the open and without reservations… And I can't be that man."
He looked at his friend and confidant with sad and determined eyes.
"If I do not set her free, it will kill us both…"
And with those words the Prince and future king of Camelot had sealed his heart.
Sir Leon came out of the field rubbing his shoulder with a pained expression and brought Merlin out of his reverie.
"He's in one of his moods, I see."
The knight glanced back at the prince—now mercilessly beating Sir Rodwyan—and nodded.
"Yes. He's wearing everyone down."
Merlin sighed. His day was not going to be much easier. He was thankful, nonetheless, that a great portion of the prince's winded up stamina had been absorbed by the knights during the vigorous morning exercises rather than reserved for him.
Even though his relationship with the prince had progressed to the point of an unreserved friendship, Arthur's gloomy demeanor usually ended up getting the best out of the young warlock.
And when that happened, an argument always ensued. Gaius used to say that they bickered like two old wives in a kitchen.
With everything that was taking place, Merlin seriously wondered how this kingdom was supposed to be the foundation of Albion and Arthur its mastermind. And as if things were not bad enough, the King had summoned his son that morning. In Merlin's experience, that usually meant bad news.