Spoiler Alert!- Spoilers for Season/Series 4, especially episodes 06 & 09.
When Do We Yield?
Arthur stands in the same window embrasure he'd been in just weeks ago when he was contemplating the future he would build with Guinevere as his queen. He has come to many life altering decisions while gazing out through these same panes of glass. The sight of the courtyard below has ever had a soothing effect on his mind. He only wishes it could work as well on his restless thoughts now.
He can't help that his mind keeps returning to those long, awful hours when he'd thought Merlin lost for good. It hadn't been confirmed, as Lancelot's passing had been, but his anguish had been nigh on unbearable. He'd shielded himself from the scorching pain by refusing to believe his servant-cum-friend (and something-more, unnamed but in his heart) was gone. He wouldn't believe it until he'd searched for him personally even though everyone else had already begun to mourn the sunny young man. He was unable to do so. If he had acknowledged it for even the time it took for his heart to beat out Merlin's name, he'd have flown into a million pieces.
Was that how it had been for Guinevere when Lancelot had seemingly died? He knew she'd felt the guilt of his passing as a personal weight. She'd unloaded that guilt directly onto his shoulders as they'd watched the purely symbolic pyre blaze for the heroic knight's sacrifice. Had she felt flayed to tiny shreds as he had when he'd thought Merlin lost to him forever?
What if Merlin had died? What if it had been him who had died and so many long months had passed before he was returned to them? Would the miracle of his restoration have pushed Arthur into actions he'd never contemplate under normal circumstances? Having found Merlin alive and strangely uninjured when he'd subconsciously thought him gone, he had snatched him up into an unprecedented embrace. Arthur remembered how good Merlin had felt in his arms, how he'd known afterwards why he had never allowed himself even an innocent hug in all their years together. The lanky, dark haired man had felt right in his arms, had fit there perfectly. He'd been unable to stop himself from nuzzling the long neck pressed to his face, even covered in marsh-muck as it was. That was after just two days. How much more might he have been tempted to do had Merlin been gone for months?
Can he truly condemn Guinevere for giving in to that temptation when Lancelot had been returned to them? Had she harboured an impossible love for another man while choosing to honour her love for Arthur? Had she needed to choose to not act on her feelings for Lancelot when she had made her decision to cleave to him? How can he be angry at her when he does the same thing every day? Every day temptation waits on his every need and stands by his side through thick and thin. It is a temptation that hurls itself between him and danger, takes stupid risks to ensure his safety, urges him to follow his heart and to do the right thing, always and ever, do the right thing no matter the cost. A ridiculous, foolish, beautiful temptation with absurd ears and a wide open heart presents itself to him every morning. That same temptation does not leave his side until he is settled beneath warm blankets each evening with a cup of mulled wine in hand.
Arthur had chosen Gwen and had never yielded to that temptation. But if he had truly lost Merlin only to find him again, would he be able to hold fast to that decision? Can he hate Gwen for not having done so? He can not. How much more tempting for her must Lancelot have been? More than Gwen has stood between Arthur and his unspoken feelings for his servant. Merlin is a man and though such couplings exist, they are always shrouded in secrecy or at the very least, extreme discretion. They can never be publicly acknowledged, let alone celebrated. Merlin's maleness also means no child could ever come from such a union. A King must have an heir. Then add in Merlin's bastard birth, peasant upbringing and lowly social status and a less desirable partner could not possibly exist in the eyes of the society to which they belong. But for Guinevere? Lancelot was her match in every way, even more so than Arthur. How much more tempting must he have been for her? Love, guilt and sorrow must have transformed into blazing hope and blinding relief when the man had shown up almost on the eve of their wedding. Could anyone have stood against that?
No, he can't condemn her but he can't quite forgive her either. He does stare down his desire every damn day from dawn until well past dusk. He's done it for years and it's never gotten any easier. She hadn't been presented with anything near the constant enticement he has. Lancelot didn't dress her, undress her or attend her in her bath. He wasn't there in her bedchamber when she woke or there when she lay down at night. He didn't constantly beseech her with wide, fathomless eyes, tease her from sweetly curved lips and send her wicked grins that could light the night sky to brightest day. He didn't brush up against her a dozen times a day, kneel on the floor at her feet with alluring bits of his anatomy thrust in the air, wiggling about as he worked or speak to her in a rough velvet voice pitched low in intimate conversation. Arthur has endured all of this and more and he has resisted. He can not absolve her of her weakness in the face of a less constant temptation.
There also is no way to overlook this, even if he wants to. He hadn't been the only witness to her transgression. Merlin, he can trust to keep what he knows behind his teeth, even under torture, but his uncle? The man had already disapproved of his choice of bride. Now he was counseling her execution. Arthur hadn't needed to even glance at Merlin to know his thoughts on that course of action. The younger man would find it hard to forgive even his king the killing of his best friend over a moment of weakness. Merlin always counseled mercy in all things; Arthur has no need to confirm that is the route he'll now endorse. No, it is his only surviving family that will force his hand now. Agravaine will never let this rest and so he can not.
They are all awaiting him now. He can see the throne room in his mind's eye; full to the farthest wall with the curious and the malevolent, all eager to see how their new king will handle this latest crisis. He imagines few will feel sympathy for his fiancée. Merlin will be the exception of course, as he is to all things. Perhaps Gaius as well, he'd so often been the voice for peaceful action in his father's time. Would Elyan stand for his sister or support his sovereign even over his own blood? There is no way to know until it is done. But what to do? He doesn't have the luxury of indecision on this matter. There must be consequences for Guinevere's actions but what retribution can he live with?
Leaving the comforting shelter of the window's enclosure, he crosses to the door. Passing through it he turns toward the public section of the castle where the throne room and council chambers lie. Guinevere is waiting, as are Merlin and Agravaine. In the entirety of the kingdom only those three matter at this moment. He knows the minds of two but has yet to hear the third. He knows how he feels, it is time to find out what is in Gwen's heart...who is in Gwen's heart. When he knows that, he'll know what to do; only then will he know what punishment his own soul can bear.
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