Melt my Heart to Stone
A/N: I've recently just been turned onto Merlin (so forgive any discrepancies you may find in this fic) and I believe it's safe to say that I'm pretty obsessed. I really love how they've changed up Guinevere from the Arthurian legends, I think it's quite sweet.
Arthur knew, standing outside the castle window and watching the lightening morning sky, that it would be a good day for knight training. It would be a warm day with a cool breeze, too brilliant a day to be stuck inside these cold castle walls.
He and his knights assembled an hour later, occupying the front lawn of the castle. He could hear the bristle of chain mail and strained grunts as they trained. They were getting better, but Arthur's focus this morning was undeterred, and they all fell beneath him with a defeated look of both resignation and admiration.
Sir Cedric was sprawled out on the grass when he happened to look up at the castle windows, catching Morgana and Guinevere watching him and his knights with amused attention. Gwen, half-hiding behind the sheer curtains, was wearing that secretive smile of hers – one that was, admittedly, like a puzzle to him. Guinevere herself was like a puzzle to him. At times she was impulsive to speak – but only when engaged with passion – but others, she was… so guarded, too reserved for his comforts.
Hard to believe that once upon a time Guinevere had blended in with the castle walls, getting things done without much acknowledgment, without ever being seen. His father had once told him that was the mark of a good servant: their ability to become invisible.
Now, he found it hard to imagine Guinevere invisible, especially when he always found himself looking for her every time he stepped into a room. Her presence made all of his senses jolt alive, like the rush of adrenaline before a battle – but better, and warmer, without fear. Always warmer, always unfathomably good.
"Arthur, look out!"
He was abruptly catapulted out of his daze, Guinevere and her secret smile replaced by revolving spots and the cerulean sky of his beloved Camelot. He lay on his back, the backs of his knees throbbing, with Sir Cedric's sword pointed at his chest.
Sir Cedric looked victorious, which Arthur resented, just a little. He drew back his sword and offered his hand. "Apologies, sire."
"No need to apologize, Sir Cedric," Arthur mumbled, getting back up on his feet. He refused to look back up to the castle window that had caught his attention, feeling a little color in his face. He cleared his throat, picking up his fallen sword. "I lost my focus. It's my fault."
He returned to standing with his knights. Their faces were already glistening with sweat, wearing an expression of attentiveness and determination. He watched them parry and critiqued their moves before calling a break.
Merlin rushed over with some water. As Arthur drank, he glanced back up at the castle window. Morgana and Guinevere were gone.
"Sir Cedric seems to be getting better," Merlin said.
Arthur rolled his eyes at him, shoving the jug at his scrawny chest. "Perhaps."
"He took you down. Barely anybody's taken you down," Merlin elaborated. Arthur was sure he was taking pleasure in rubbing it in. "You should be glad. Well, not glad, but – your knights are improving, and that must make you at least a little bit happy." Merlin searched his face. Arthur refused to budge. "Unless… your pride has been wounded."
His head snapped towards his plucky servant. "My pride?"
"Oh, you know," he smirked. "That famous Pendragon pride."
"Merlin, I highly doubt you of all people know anything about pride." Arthur gave him a disdainful look, glancing at his outfit. "Your clothes, for one. Don't you have anything better lying around in your closet?"
Merlin glanced down at his clothes, befuddled. "What's the matter with my clothes?"
"They're dingy and old. You're the servant to the royal prince of Camelot. I thought Gaius would tell you a little something about at least looking presentable. And what's with the red handkerchief you're always wearing around your neck?"
Merlin self-consciously grabbed it with his fingers. The fabric was frayed and thin. "What's wrong with it?"
"Nothing," Arthur said dryly. "Except that it looks terrible. In fact – as your prince, I order you to take it off and throw it in the fire, as soon as I relieve you for the day. Say your farewells, because I expect never to see it again."
Merlin was used to Arthur's harmless bullying. He knew it was Arthur's defense mechanism. Awfully juvenile for the prince of a hailed land, but who was he to say so? Perhaps he'd leave that up to Gwen.
"I saw where you were looking right before Sir Cedric took you down," he said lowly, watching with a sort of sadistic pleasure as Arthur stiffened. "A little advice: you might want to be a little less obvious at what you're staring at when you're in the middle of a sword fight. You know, for safety purposes."
"I have no idea what you're talking about," Arthur said. "Now leave."
Merlin walked away, smiling to himself. Sir Cedric appeared. "Milord."
"Ah, Sir Cedric," Arthur greeted, forcibly changing his demeanor. It wasn't the knight's fault, after all. He had to keep telling himself that. "The man of the hour."
He took a seat next to Arthur. "I consider it but a fluke. A rematch will show if I've truly improved."
"Then we will have a rematch," he agreed. They sat in silence for a few minutes, overhearing the jokes of the other knights. Suddenly, he watched as Morgana stepped out from the castle entrance, with Gwen closely following behind.
"Look, there is the Lady Morgana," said Sir Cedric. "Perhaps she's come to congratulate me."
"I thought you said it was just a fluke," Arthur said.
"A fluke it may be, but still a somewhat glorious accomplishment," Cedric said, flashing him a mischievous smile. Morgana neared the knights, and the knights clustered around her like flattery packaged in chainmail. It still astounded Arthur, the effect Morgana had on the men in Camelot. Once upon a time Morgana might have been a prospect – her beauty was something of legend, indeed – but now he could only ever see her as a sister. His eyes focused, instead, on her maidservant, who was laughing at something Sir Rowen had said. Another one of his jokes, possibly.
Her eyes briefly landed on his before she quickly looked away, resuming what appeared to be a spirited conversation. He shifted a little, wishing he were there instead of here, with her attention only on him, and no one else.
"The Lady Morgana is very beautiful, indeed," Sir Cedric began, albeit hesitantly. "But I've been meaning to ask you about her maidservant, Guinevere."
He had caught Arthur's attention now. He stayed still, trying to seem nonchalant and unchanged. How could anybody else know of his feelings of possessiveness towards her?
"What about her?" he responded coolly.
"I've had the privilege of conversation with her on several occasions. I find her…" he faltered, and Arthur dreaded his words. "Bewitching. Modest, kind, and beautiful in a way that is uncommon."
Arthur couldn't help it. He felt something tighten in his chest, and found himself unable to look at Sir Cedric. Sir Cedric, one of his knights, and a genuinely good man – and now he found himself hating him a little. All because of a girl.
But what he hated, most of all, was that everything he had said about her was true. Deep inside, the untutored and uninhibited part of him was saying, Yes, yes she is all of what you said – but I thought them first. He thought too much of royal decorum not to feel ashamed for his thoughts, but he, too, was a man. Arthur Pendragon was a man first; a prince second.
"Is that so? And where, pray, have you had the privilege of talking to her?"
He asked this, attempting to feign friendliness and amusement. Instead his inquiry fell flat. Right away he regretted ever asking such a question – it was a very stupid question, of course Sir Cedric had had plenty opportunities to talk to Gwen – but Sir Cedric answered it anyway.
"The balls, of course, when she isn't tending to the Lady Morgana, and a few times at the market. I offered to help her with a bag of grain once, and she refused me. She was adamant about carrying her own bag of grain to her home." Sir Cedric affectionately chuckled at the memory. Arthur tried not to grimace. "She's not the typical lass, that one."
"No," Arthur said, still watching Gwen. He suddenly had a flashback to the jousting tournament, when he had gone to stay with her, and she had gotten angry with him. He had never met someone so ready to point out his faults as soon as he had committed them – and, at the same time, could have such unshakeable faith in him. "No, she's not."
Sir Cedric turned to him. "I brought this up because I thought you might know… perhaps you'd heard some talk from Morgana… if Guinevere was already being pursued. I'd like to begin officially courting her, if no one has already done so."
Arthur hated how happy he sounded at the thought – but he envied him, too. Heavens, did he envy the man. He envied his freedom to pursue Gwen in public with no whispers or disapproving stares, no domineering father hellbent on keeping tradition.
Guinevere was now looking back at him with a curious look, as if sensing something was wrong. Arthur looked away.
"You're in luck, Sir Cedric," he heard himself say. His voice sounded distant and cold. "As far as my limited knowledge goes, Guinevere has not talked of anyone else courting her." Arthur stood, his gaze hard at the horizon. "Now, are going to talk, or are we going to see about that rematch?"
Arthur thrust his helmet at Merlin, bidding his knights a good day and heading back to the castle in a brisk stride.
Merlin looked after Arthur in confusion, softly rubbing the tender spot in his chest where the prince's helmet had collided with his ribcage. Sir Cedric scrambled up from the ground, struggling to take off his helmet. Arthur had won in the rematch, of course, but what was so strange was how uncharacteristically aggressive he had been towards Sir Cedric.
Two of the other knights began guiding him to the castle.
" 'Tis but a scratch," Sir Cedric was insisting, but his face, already crumpled in pain, gave him away.
"Something must have happened," Merlin muttered to himself, picking up the rest of Arthur's armor. "He nearly took Sir Cedric's head off."
Back at the castle, Arthur did not wait for Merlin to help with his armor. He cast them to the floor, feeling some kind of respite from the sound of the heavy metal clunking to the ground. Slowly, his frustration and anger began to simmer. He regretted fighting Sir Cedric so violently, and he'd already resigned to apologize to him tomorrow.
It wasn't his fault, after all. It wasn't like he knew. Nobody knew, except Guinevere – who was more determined on hiding it than he was – and perhaps Merlin, with his insufferable comments. He wished he could tell Guinevere how exhausting it was, having to hide his feelings for her, not to mention the mind-numbing task of having to make up excuses every time he happened to ask for her whereabouts. He began to wonder what would happen if he were to stop making excuses – if people would discover, or if they would deem it too nonsensical, too impossible – imagine the crudeness of it, Prince Arthur and a servant – and assume something else instead.
Arthur pulled on his riding boots. He needed to think.
Guinevere was used to the talk in the kitchens. She had grown up alongside the servants of the castle and knew how to listen along and take everything that was passed along with a grain of salt. It had only been a few times she'd felt the need to defend the Pendragons and her Lady Morgana, for the servants – while quick to talk –generally respected the royal family. Most of the time.
She was having her lunch in the kitchens while Lady Morgana took her afternoon nap.
"Guinevere, when are you going to get married, eh?" Belinda, one of the castle bakers, asked. She was in the process of baking some bread for supper.
"Whenever the time is right, Belinda," Gwen smiled, neutrally.
"Garbage. I've seen many a man's gaze linger on you, sweet child. You've grown into such a beauty. And," she exclaimed, "I've heard talk!"
"Half of the talk you hear is always untrue," Gwen laughed. "Usually the conjures of your imagination and need for scandal."
Belinda gasped, pretending to be offended, before shaking her head. "I can promise this is not just my imagination. Sir Cedric has asked about you."
"Sir Cedric? What for?"
"If you were open for courtship, of course!"
Gwen paused her eating, looking at the baker, whose eyes were sparkling with excitement.
"Sir Cedric's… nice," she said. She'd known Sir Cedric to flirt with her on occasion, but she'd never, in a million years, thought he'd been serious!
"Well, he's no Prince Arthur," Belinda remarked, and Guinevere stiffened. Did Belinda suspect something? But the baker merely chattered on, pounding the dough against the wooden board, and she relaxed.
"But I think he'd do the job quite well for a husband. You'd no longer have to work here, for starters, and be at the Lady's beck and call." She looked up at her, hopeful. "What say you?"
"I don't know," Gwen admitted. "If it is true, then… I'm flattered."
"Here's my advice," she said. "Say yes. You have the heart of a noblewoman, Guinevere. I despair at the thought of you working in this castle for the rest of your life." She became quiet, watching Guinevere's faraway expression. "From the lack of your enthusiasm, I can only assume you've got someone else in mind. Who's the lucky lad, hmm?"
"No one," she answered, quickly. Belinda raised one eyebrow. "No one at all."
Belinda brushed it off and continued to elaborate on the luxuries of Guinevere's possible future life as the wife of a knight. Gwen barely listened along as she quietly finished up her meal, her thoughts still lingering on a certain blond-haired Prince.
By the time he returned to the castle, it was nearly dark. Merlin had gone home and his father was waiting for him at the entrance.
"Have you forgotten court conduct?" the king scolded. "You ride off without your servant or another knight! Do you not understand how important you are to this kingdom?"
Arthur sighed exasperatedly, hopping off of his horse. "I needed to think, so I went for a ride. I was in no danger. And Merlin would have been much better use around here." Assuming that he had actually done what he had been supposed to do, like change his sheets, tidy his room, and polish his boots. Somehow Arthur doubted that.
"That is careless behavior, Arthur," said Uther, as they walked through the castle halls. The torches flickered as they passed. "I know you're well-equipped to take care of yourself, but at least spare me an hour's notice before you decide to go gallivanting off."
His apology was automatic. "Of course. I'm sorry. I'll be sure to do that next time, Father."
"Camelot has many enemies, Arthur," his father reminded him somberly. "They wait for any opportunity to get you alone. Never forget that."
Arthur arrived in his room to see that Merlin had taken his sheets to wash but had forgotten to replace them, leaving his bare mattress. "I have the village idiot for a servant," he muttered to himself.
He turned to see Morgana in his room. His eyes flickered to the empty space behind her. No Guinevere.
He didn't know if that made him feel better or worse.
"I only went for a ride. Everybody's acting as if I'd gone on a sacred pilgrimage or something."
"Uther was worried. So was I, and Merlin, too. It's not like you to take off so suddenly." She paused, carefully watching his face. He made sure to let nothing show. "Did something happen?"
For a brief moment he was tempted to tell her. Morgana would understand. She loved Guinevere like a sister. Surely, she would understand.
He opened his mouth, ready to confess, before clamping it back shut. Something told him it wouldn't be the wisest move to tell her just yet.
"I've just had a lot on my mind, that's all. I needed to have some time alone, to air out my thoughts."
He'd ridden until he'd reached the lake, tying up his horse to the tree near the bank. He'd tried to decide whether he should tell Guinevere about Sir Cedric, and how he should do so. He was afraid of her reaction. Pathetic as it was, he was afraid she might even be pleased. After all, why shouldn't she be? Sir Cedric was one of his best knights. If there was any man he could bear to see her with…
No, he'd thought, tossing a stone into the lake, watching the ripples reverberate. Noble as he was, and so determined to do the right thing – by the both of them – he couldn't lie to himself. It would gut him inside-out to see Gwen with Sir Cedric.
If only you were here, Mother, Arthur thought. You could tell me what to do.
Except Arthur already knew. He had never met his mother, this much was true, but he had a feeling, deep down, that his mother would tell him to value the desires of his heart.
Morgana nodded. If she wasn't convinced by this, she didn't show it. "You should know, Arthur, that if you ever need someone to talk to…" She didn't finish. She didn't have to.
"I know," he said. "Thank you."
Morgana nodded, sending him a small smile before turning to leave.
"Morgana, wait." She stopped, turning back towards him. "Guinevere – did she go home?"
"No, she's still in the castle, finishing up a few things. She'll be going home soon enough." Morgana's expression subtly changed. "Why?"
"The sheets," Arthur said, motioning to his naked mattress. "Merlin the Half-wit forgot to replace them."
"Oh," Morgana said. If he didn't know better, he would have thought she looked just a little bit relieved. "When I see her, I'll let her know you called for her. Good night, Arthur."
He was standing by his window, watching the distant, fading lights of Camelot, when Guinevere quietly entered his bedchambers with a pile of bed sheets.
"Sire," she said, bowing. "I've brought your sheets."
"Good," he said, watching her as she walked over to his bedside and began to lay them over his bed. "Thank you, Guinevere."
A tiny smile flitted across the corners of her lips. "Of course. That's what I'm here for, after all."
Arthur stood idly by the window, trying to choose his words. He watched her nimble hands smooth his sheets over his mattress, easily tucking them underneath.
"And, um, how was your day?"
Guinevere glanced up at him, appreciative of his efforts at conversation. "It was fine, Milord."
Arthur waited for her to elaborate, but she had gone back to laying out his sheets. "Fine," he echoed. "It was 'fine.'"
"That's what I said."
"Well, tell me about it. Your day. Tell me what was so 'fine' about it."
"I'm afraid telling you the details of my day would only put you to sleep," she said to him. "And as it is, I've not yet finished putting on your sheets."
He crossed his arms, leaning against the stone wall. "Go on, then, Guinevere. Humor me." She chuckled, shaking her head. "The Prince orders you to tell him about your day."
Giving him a look, she finally relented. "Well, I woke up at the crack of dawn, made myself a quick breakfast, and headed over here. Here, I assisted the seamstress for Morgana's new dress, pricked my finger with a needle, washed Morgana's bedclothes, paid a visit to the towns, helped Gaius clean his leech tank, and spent an hour or two doing Morgana's hair. Now," she said, sighing, "I am here, changing your sheets, while you insist on hearing about my day."
"Well," Arthur said, not quite sure of what to say. Gwen was watching him. "See? You were wrong. That was quite, erm, interesting."
"Your eyelids were drooping," she teased. "Do us both a favor and never order me to tell you about my day ever again."
He loved these moments, when they seemed to strip themselves of their titles and status and talked as equals. He made her happy, he was sure of it. He could see it in the color of her cheeks, and the way her eyes crinkled at the edges when she laughed. He wondered what else he made her feel. If he ordered her to tell him, would she?
Somehow he could tell that she was purposely taking her time. There was that look on her face, and her fading smile, that reminded him that their moments alone were fleeting, and that they ended quicker than the sweetest dream. She knew it, too.
Finally, she stood. "The bed is all yours now, sire," she said. "I'm sure you've had a long day."
"Not that long," he said, making a pathetic attempt at prolonging their conversation.
"Sleep well," she only said, before bowing. Arthur watched her. In five steps she would be gone. In five steps this moment would be over.
All day, and this was all he could have of her. A few lines, a few lingering glances. So much that couldn't be said; so much left for want.
She'd already turned on her heel when he finally spoke up.
"I think you should know that you've captured the attention of Sir Cedric," he told her, hearing the slight edge in his voice. "He's going to officially court you." He cleared his throat. "If you haven't already heard."
"Oh," she said softly. He couldn't see her face, but he wanted to believe that the peculiar tone in her voice was one from shock, and disappointment. There was a moment's pause, as if she was unsure of what to say. "Well, thank you for letting me know, sire."
"Sir Cedric, as I'm sure you already know, is… a good man. A great knight. Any bride he claims would be one of the luckiest in Camelot." He stopped, swallowing hard. "Guinevere. Look at me."
With her hands clenched by her side, she slowly turned around. Across her face he could see her attempting to battle her confusion, and hurt.
"What are you saying, Arthur?" she said quietly, her voice slightly wavering. "Am I right in thinking that you…you want me to accept his hand?"
He sucked in a breath. "Let me finish. What I'm saying is that Sir Cedric could give you a comfortable life, Gwen. If that is, in fact, what you want." He stepped closer to her, watching her dark eyes follow him. "But," he said, "he isn't me."
Gwen closed her eyes, relieved.
"I've thought a lot about this. I want so badly to be a good man, to be the kind of man that makes noble sacrifices—"
"Oh but Arthur, you are—"
"But I'm too selfish, Guinevere. If you were to be with Sir Cedric – or anyone else, for that matter – I… I don't know what I'd do." He sighed heavily. "You know I can't ask you to wait for me."
"You're the prince, Arthur," she said, with a tiny smile. "I think you can do whatever you want."
"But so can you," he said, firmly.
"I know," she said. She lightly brushed some hair from his forehead. "I'm with you, aren't I?"
Arthur smiled. Something in him soared. "Yes," he agreed, leaning in to lightly brush his lips against hers. "You are."
By the time Morgana had come to see if Arthur had finally sent Gwen home for the day, he was already in bed, back to imagining how it felt to have Guinevere's fingers running through his hair.
Suddenly, Sir Cedric didn't seem like such a threat anymore.
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