Gwen didn't know why it had been Merlin.
For a long time he had been the boy who she had fancied in youthful naivety. He had never known or returned her feelings, much to her disappointment at the time. Gwen had known eventually her crush would go away and she was right. It was replaced by a different sort of love, one that was mutual - the love of one true friend for another. Theirs was the one bond, the one relationship that always remained steadfast and strong. When their love lives became complicated or their other friends turned on them or let them down, there they always would be.
Two peas in a pod.
Two anchors in a sea of madness.
The only two people who could always rely on the other to understand how the other felt.
Gwen gently slipped her hand out of Lancelot's and sighed, "It just wouldn't feel right."
The commoner-knight got to his feet again and looked down at Gwen as she sat, looking up at him earnestly.
Lancelot wasn't a fool. He had known this would probably be her reply but had wanted to ask her anyway. After everything that had happened to her with Camelot, with Morgana... and with Arthur, he felt she needed someone to look after her in this fragile state. Even Gwaine had warned him that she would say no but even though he had known he was right, a part of him had hoped... maybe she wouldn't.
"You need someone to look after you," he told her.
Gwen tilted her head, "And you think you're the one to do that?"
"Why not?" Lancelot said, breaking into a small smile. "I do love you, I could get a proper job and we would get by. I'd always try my best to do right by you."
Gwen bit her lip and looked down, rubbing her small swollen belly. Its very presence tugged at her inwardly, making her feel guilty for not putting Lancelot straight a long time ago. Then again, he would have probably still asked her to marry him.
She knew he was doing this to be kind, to help her, to look after her... but he was also doing it because he wanted someone to look after him. He had always needed someone to take care of him. He was hopeless on his own. Gwen felt a lot of pity and empathy with Lancelot and she realised, with hindsight, these were the reasons why she had feelings for him in the past. Even now, this wasn't something a marriage should be built on regardless of circumstances.
Moreover Gwen knew saying yes to him would be a selfish thing for her to do.both be doing it for all the wrong reasons. It especially wouldn't be fair to you because, although I care about you I could never-"
She leaned forward.
"Lancelot, you are a good person," she began carefully not wanting to hurt his feelings any more than she had to. "I know you care for me and I care for you, in my own way. I just don't think it is something we could build a life on. I'm sure we would 'get by'... but I don't think either of us would be completely happy, not least because we'd
He cut her off.
"You could never love me as much as you loved Arthur?"
Gwen smiled nostalgically, "I still do love him."
Lancelot looked away, trying to hide his disappointment. He had known all of this already but it still hurt to hear it. Even then a part of him hoped eventually she would change her mind.
"I suppose some things just aren't meant to be," he said slowly.
"I'm sorry," she said softly. "It's better that I'm honest with you now than lie and have you resent me later."
He was shocked, "I would never resent you!"
"Yes, you would," Gwen said kindly and understandingly. "You're only human. Eventually you would resent me for not being able to love you as much as I did Arthur. You deserve someone who can love you sincerely."
Lancelot still wouldn't look at her.
Gwen finished with a promise:
"You'll find someone else, Lance."
Merlin felt he had failed Gwen just as much as he had failed Arthur.
It had been his destiny to protect Arthur and lead him to his own destiny of becoming the greatest king history had ever known. He had protected him for so long but now he had failed. There was no point in blaming Morgana or Mordred for what happened. He should have paid more attention to the dragon. He should have finished off Morgana while he had the chance. He should have done more...
Now Albion had made the greatest loss of all, the loss of King Arthur.
That was how he failed Gwen too. It was her destiny to be Arthur's queen but now all her life would be filled with unfulfilled potential, gone to waste in her commoner position - a place where she was stuck to remain forever. Her, Lancelot and Elyan were all trapped. Even Gwaine and his remarkable talents were destined to be wasted. Leon was upper class so he would be fine. Percival had suggested to lead the lot of them on to Caerleon 'The City of the Legions' where they could regroup and take on Morgana properly.
It was better than nothing.
But there was nothing any of them could say that would comfort Gwen in her sorrow. She seemed to find more comfort in sitting with Arthur, keeping fresh flowers on his grave. She would stroke the handle of Excalibur, sealed onto the anvil and stone that marked his resting place.
They would all watch her from a distance.
It was made even worse by her situation. All Merlin wanted to do was make sure Gwen was alright. He had promised Arthur that if anything should happen to him that he would look after her. To let anything happen to her would be more of a failure to Arthur than not being able to protect him.
Gwen and her unborn child would be his redemption.
"Someone should go and talk to her," Gwaine said.marry me," Merlin chuckled sadly, knowing full well that Lancelot had already asked. "I just want to keep you safe. If you go with the knights, Morgana will find you quicker. If we hide maybe we'll stand a better chance..."
From the clearing Merlin and the five knights watched Gwen. Percival and Leon wanted to get to the neighbouring kingdom. Olaf had promised them safe passage through his kingdom so they could make their way north to where Percival's family were. It was important to all of them that they got Gwen to safety. After all, she was carrying the rightful king (or queen) to Camelot.
"I'll go," Elyan said, moving to dismount his horse.
Merlin held his arm out, "No - I'll go."
He jumped off his horse and made his way towards her. As he walked he turned to the others and said, "You lot should get back to camp. We'll be with you shortly. I'll protect her if any of Morgana's Blood Guard turns up."
Everyone knew now that Merlin had powerful magic.
Gwen turned briefly when she heard someone coming but looked straight back to the sword in the stone. Merlin waited until the knights were gone before he knelt down beside her.
"Did they send you?" she said solemnly.
"I came because I wanted to," Merlin said candidly. "We're all worried about you."
Gwen sniffed and looked down at the base of the sword.
"We can't even give him a proper burial," she said softly. "He deserves more than this."
A small 'I know' was all he could muster in reply. Merlin didn't know what to say. He knew there was nothing he could say or do that would be any comfort whatsoever to Gwen right now. He had to use all of his willpower to stop himself from weeping and crying but he kept it together for Gwen's sake, and she was keeping it together for her own sake too.
"I lost someone I loved too," he suddenly said.
He didn't know why but he still said it.
Gwen looked at him, "You never said."
"I didn't like to talk about it," he replied with a sad smile, now looking at the base of the stone too. It had been thanks to Freya that the sword was even here, that Arthur had been able to swing it one last time. Now it was sealed in stone so that no one even with the strongest magic could claim it. "When people die I don't think they are ever really gone. They can't be."
Gwen sighed, "He's not here right now though, is he?"
Merlin hit his lip, "No, he's not."
With that she buried her head in her hand and allowed a few tears to escape. Merlin watched helplessly, desperate to comfort her. He carefully reached over and placed his hand on her shoulder. She reached her free hand over to touch it. It was the most intimate moment they had shared in a long time.
Merlin looked at Gwen's pregnant stomach and then at her.
"Percival wants us to make our way towards the northern borders," Merlin told her. "Olaf has promised us safe passage through his kingdom."
Gwen said nothing.
He grabbed her hand and turned her to look at him, "Let's leave now."
"I told you I didn't want to go to Olaf's kingdom, or beyond that," Gwen said stubbornly. "I don't want my child to be... too far away from their father."
"I didn't mean with Percival and the others," Merlin promised her, rubbing her hand. "I meant just you and me. We could go to the eastern borders and escape into Cenred's kingdom. He'll never detect two peasants and we can hide in my home village until the baby is born."
"I'm not asking you to
"In Cenred's kingdom?"
"Why not?" Merlin smiled, "He is loyal to no one. He is greedy but Morgause would never allow him to take the backdoor into Camelot while Morgana is there. In fact I say Cenred would be more sympathetic to your cause. He doesn't care about the outline villages where I live so he won't notice you, but even if he did... he wouldn't tell Morgause. Everyone knows that 'Queen' Morgana is about as popular as a bout of plague."
Gwen couldn't help but smile. She seemed to consider Merlin's proposal for a short while before she replied:
"What will we tell my brother and the others?"
Gwen didn't know what compelled her to follow Merlin's plan and escape to Ealdor. She didn't know where either of them would go from there or what would happen to her baby once she was there.
All she did know was that she would rather stay with Merlin than marry herself off to Lancelot or Gwaine or any of them. She knew that Merlin was only doing this in her interests and the baby's interests.
That was the thing, she thought, that compelled her to go with him.
It was another hour before Gwaine, Elyan and Lancelot had to foresight to go back to Arthur's stone to get Gwen and Merlin to return to camp and onwards towards the borders. Percival was itching to leave and Leon was finding it difficult to keep order. one hundred of us. At least this way we can swiftly head for the border and re-group with our allies without Morgana or Morgause knowing where Gwen is."
They returned to the graveside to find no one there.
"Could they have headed back to camp?" Lancelot said, looking anxiously around.
"No, no," Elyan said, equally worried. "We'd have past them on the way here..."
Gwaine walked up to the grave and found a folded piece of paper weighted down with a small pebble. He picked it up and read it. His heart fluttered slightly as he waved the other two over. Elyan snatched the note and Lancelot read over his shoulder.
"They've gone," Gwaine confirmed for them.
Elyan crumpled the note up and threw it to the ground, "How could she do this to me?"
"They can't have gone far," Lancelot assured him. "We could still catch them up..."
"No, Lance," Gwaine said with rare firmness. "Just let them go."
"Gwen is in danger without us there to protect her!" Elyan snapped angrily. "I don't care what you say – I'm going to find her. Remember that is my niece or nephew she's carrying with her too."
Gwaine rolled his eyes, "We have a war to fight. Gwen is safe with Merlin; his magic makes up
"They'll figure it out," Lancelot said darkly.
The charismatic Gwaine smiled softly and shook his head, "They'll figure it out whatever, so it's best to just let her do what she wants to do. She said she was sorry in the letter but this was what she wanted to do."
He patted Lancelot's forearm.
"We need to let her make her own choice," Gwaine added. "Better to do that than have her resent us."
Gwen had found it difficult to adjust to life away from Camelot but she managed. The people of Ealdor remembered her well despite it being many years since she was last there and they still admired her for her actions during her last visit, especially the women. Hunith was especially kind to her and proved to be a sympathetic ear when it came to problems regarding her pregnancy. She would always reassure her that she had experienced the same problems when she was pregnant with Merlin.
Eventually, thank goodness, Gaius turned up after having escaped over the borders with the help of traitors within Morgana's new court. They owed him a favour just as everyone who survived The Great Purge did.
"But how did you know where to find us?" Merlin asked him.
Gaius watched him carefully.
"Morgause knows where you are."
Merlin and Gwen looked at each other with dread. Hunith was frozen still with fear; she had relived all of this years before when she was Gwen's age too, living in fear for her life simply for association with someone she loved. It literally chilled the air.
Gwen grasped her stomach in fear. God, where do they go from here?
"Then we must leave immediately," Merlin decided quickly. "It'll be difficult but we have to-"
"You don't understand," Gaius said quickly, trying to calm them all down. "Morgause knows where you are... but she hasn't told Morgana."
They all stared at him.
"She... hasn't told Morgana?" Gwen said nervously, not quite believing him. "Why?"
Gaius shrugged, "I don't know - but it was from her that I learnt where you were and it was because of her I managed to escape Camelot. She said she owed it to me for saving her life when she was a baby. She has told Morgana she thinks the two of you are heading your way towards Caerleon, and has sent the Blood Guard on a wild goose chase there to try and find you."
"But why would she do that?" Merlin asked, not understanding. "Why would she lie to Morgana for us?"
"Maybe because she feels empathy for Gwen's child," Gaius suggested, gesturing Gwen's now large tummy. "She herself was a child sent into hiding because of who her parents were. She might even feel guilty over Arthur's death. Then again maybe, just maybe... she has started to see the sort of person she has become, and this is her atonement."
It seemed frightening yet strangely comforting to think that Morgause might actually be having a change of heart.
"What about Morgana?" Hunith asked.
"She's still as rotten as ever," Gaius replied. "The people despise her; no wonder Morgause is having an epiphany."
Gwen found the nights were the hardest.
As the baby grew more and more and started to kick from inside her, it hurt not having Arthur there to share it with. The prospect of placing his hand on her stomach to show him the movement of their child had been something she had looked forward to. The kicking baby was like him come back to life. She stroked and whispered to it, reminding it constantly of its father's name.
Now every kick was a bittersweet comfort. There were times when she couldn't help but curl in on herself and groan with sorrow. She wanted hold him, to feel his arms around her but she was longing for a ghost. Arthur was gone and it hurt so much!
Merlin lay down beside her and held her hand.
"I wish there was something I could say," he whispered, watching the tears roll down her temples. "I wish..."
"Just hold my hand," Gwen said softly.
So Merlin obeyed her.
Eventually she broke their stillness of just holding hands by pulling his palm over to touch where the baby was kicking. He could feel the sadness seeping off her but the sensation made him grin proudly.
"Arthur and I argued over what we would call it," Gwen told him in a croaking, low voice. "If it were a girl we were going to call her 'Rhiannon'."
"What if it was a boy?"
"We never reached a conclusion for that one," Gwen said sadly closing her eyes and remembering that last day she saw him. He had smiled so softly, so warmly at her as he promised they would reach their agreement over which boy's name was better when he returned. He never did. It hurt so much. "I wanted 'Anir' but Arthur wanted 'Llacheu'."
There was a short pause.
"They're both good names," Merlin told her.
"Yes," Gwen nodded slowly, feeling her tears trickle into her ear. "I'm starting to think Llacheu is better, though."
Gwen and Merlin rode slowly through the forests of Camelot. It had changed so much since they had last been there. There was nothing but sorrow and destruction all around them. People who had once lived and worked in the city were forced to live in the forests as the magic-kind had taken over their homes and businesses. Only the druids showed them any kindness.
The citadel itself could be seen from a distance at the hilltop they went past. It seemed to have a constant black cloud over it.
Merlin dismounted his horse to look at the sight ahead.
"It's awful, isn't it?" Gwen muttered behind him.
He looked over to Gwen, still sitting on her horse with her young son positioned in front of her, holding onto the front of the saddle tenderly while his mother kept a protective arm looped around him.
"Why are those people living in the woods, mama?" Llacheu asked, looking up at his mother. He could read the sadness in her eyes despite being just five years old. "Does anyone help them?"
"The druids try," Gwen said with a wistful smile. "And there is relief from our allies in the other kingdoms; from Uncle Elyan and Leon in Olaf's kingdom, from Sir Percival, from Elena and her husband Lancelot, and from Uncle Gwaine, of course..."
Uncle Gwaine always had brilliant stories to tell Llacheu about Arthur.
Gwen looked to Merlin.
"Your stepfather and I try our best too," she finished, kissing his forehead.
Llacheu was so much like Arthur it both comforted and hurt Gwen to look at him at times. She loved him so utterly and completely from the moment Gaius held him before her, screaming and covered in her blood. She could hear the words 'It's a boy!' in her head as clearly now as she when he first said it. She would have loved a daughter or any child who looked more like her just as completely and earnestly... but she felt thankful that she could set her son before a mirror and tell him, "You are the image of your father."
Arthur would have loved to have seen Llacheu now.
She brushed his blonde fringe gently and kissed the top of his head again.
"Your aunt Morgause does her bit too," Merlin said, turning around from the tragic view of Camelot to remount his horse. "She still has a thread of loyalty to your aunt Morgana but none whatsoever to Mordred... and she protected you and your mother for a long time before she decided to leave court."
It was thanks to her that they were able to make this quick visit over the borders to Camelot.
"She's always funny when she sees me," Llacheu remarked innocently.
That is probably because she looks at you and sees her guilt, Merlin thought.
"Come on," Merlin called to his wife and stepson. "It's not far now to the stone."
They only had to ride a short distance to reach the place where Excalibur still stood, sealed in its stone and surrounded by tokens of mourning left by the people of Camelot. They remembered Arthur so fondly and he remained their symbol of hope. As Merlin rode past with Gwen and Llacheu, they knew well who they were. The people removed their caps and bowed their heads to the little child.
Llacheu was used to this wherever he went.
They dismounted their horses and slowly led the young boy to the grave where his father lay. Even at the sight of it Gwen found it hard not to burst into tears as she relieved the last time she had been here – nearly six years ago when she decided to run away with Merlin rather than stay with the knights.
"I'm sorry it's been so long," she whispered to herself and to him.
A memorial had been added to the stone in which Excalibur was set. It simply read, 'Here sleeps Arthur, the True Once and Future Ruler of Our Land. Let this sword be a reminder of his greatness and the true carrier's worthiness to lead our people.'
"Mother, are you alright?" Llacheu asked worriedly.
Gwen nodded, brushing away a loose tear.
"I'm fine," she smiled. "I just... listen to what Merlin has to tell you, my love."
Llacheu turned to look at Merlin. He pointed at the sword.
"This was your father's sword," the sorcerer explained to him with a proud smile. "It was made by your grandfather and forged in the dragon's breath to be carried by your father and him alone. It is set in this stone so that only he can take it up and only he can cast it away."
"So it's stuck there forever?" Llacheu asked.
"One day it will be taken up again," Merlin promised him. "The Great Dragon told me that one day when you were older, only you would have the strength to pull Excalibur from your father's stone."
Llacheu looked at the stone and stepped forward, reaching out to touch it carefully. His mother and stepfather never tired of telling him about his father. His father had been everything a man should be; brave in battle, kind to his people, merciful in judgement, gracious to those less fortunate than himself and honest in who he was as a person. "He was very handsome too," his mother always added sweetly.
"You're too small now, Wart," Merlin chuckled fondly, resting his hand on the boy's shoulder. "I enchanted the stone so that only the true heir to Camelot could pull the sword from the stone... but only when they are ready to be king."
Llacheu looked up at him, "Will I ever be ready?"
"It is your d..." Merlin stopped, not wanting to use the fatal word 'destiny'. He started again, "It is your decision what you ultimately do. However I have it on good authority that one day you will fulfil your father's dream of uniting Albion in peace and beauty."
Llacheu smiled at Merlin and then at his mother.
"You look sad," he remarked after a moment.
Gwen and Merlin looked at each other and, slowly, linked arms.
"We always feel a bit sad when we think about your father," Gwen said. "I think about him every day."
"Are you always sad then?" he asked his mother carefully.
Gwen didn't know what to say. She glanced at Merlin and then at her tiny son. Yes, she thought about Arthur every day and it hurt. It hurt not having him there with her, knowing that she would never hold or touch or kiss him again. It hurt all the more that Arthur had never seen or held their son too. It had weighed heavily on her for years and yes – there was always a part of her that was filled with unshakeable sorrow.
Yet she smiled and gave her honest reply.
"It always hurts," Gwen told her little Llacheu. "The pain has never fully gone away and to be honest I don't want it to go. I loved your father very much... but I'm not unhappy. He wouldn't want me to be."
She squeezed her looped arm that was wrapped around Merlin's and smiled.
"You and Merlin have been a great comfort to me," she added softly, genuinely smiling up at Merlin. "Without the two of you, I might have given up years ago. I love you both very much. I love you more than anything."
In fact she might have given up that day at Arthur's grave when Merlin told her to come away with him. That day, Merlin had rescued both her and Llacheu from a wilderness that Gwen had detected she would have been entering had she gone with the knights.
She wasn't in love with Merlin but she did love him. She had realised a long time ago that she could never love another man the way she did Arthur... but there was comfort in that. Knowing that she could love Merlin earnestly yet still keep what she had (and might have had, had he lived) with Arthur special.
The reason her love for Merlin was earnest was because he knew that she was still in love with Arthur even years after his death. Had she agreed to marry Lancelot all those years ago, she suspect he would have come to resent her in time for her inability to put Arthur behind her. He might have even come to resent Llacheu, the living image and memento of Arthur Pendragon. He was one of the many reasons why Gwen just couldn't let Arthur go.
None of this never bothered Merlin or made him resent her. Instead he returned the love she gave him equally, and it made them happy. They had been married for nearly two years now. They were united in their devoted memory to Arthur and their mutual love for Llacheu and each other.
Merlin took Llacheu's hand, keeping his other arm firmly locked around Gwen's.
"Come on, Wart," he told the child. "Let's head on now..."
Merlin looked behind him where his and Gwen's horses were still standing, along with enough food and water for the next four days it might take to get a pregnant woman to Ealdor. He had been planning this escape for the last few days and had gathered the supplies they would need.
"I already thought about that."