Hunith weighed the letter in her hand as she stood indecisively in the doorway watching her son till soft earth. It had rained yesterday and he was taking advantage of it to tend his garden. Almost eight months had passed since he returned home, quiet, sullen, and in need of rest. She hadn't pressed him. Life for him had brought such pain and she understood his need to be left alone. But time had not healed her precious son.
Merlin had said he only came to visit her, but a week turned into two, then a month, then more. Letters began to arrive, worry over where he was. He never answered. She wrote back in his stead, making excuses. She understood. Camelot held too much memory and heartache.
Hunith sighed. Now, however, a letter had come that needed his attention and soon. He couldn't ignore it, no matter how he might wish to. She was reluctant to confront him. He'd suffered so over the last months. She could only imagine his pain, reliving his choices, wondering if he could have done it differently. But she could not allow him to live as he had any longer.
Hunith left the doorway, pacing into the bright sun. She stood at the edge of the garden. Merlin looked over at her, but didn't stop breaking up the softened ground. He smiled for a moment, then his countenance fell when he saw what she held in her hands.
"It's from Camelot."
Merlin turned away from her. "What does it say?" He had stopped reading the letters, preferring to hear their contents secondhand.
"Gaius needs you."
"He always does."
"This time, he needs your magic."
Merlin paused in his work. "I'm not going."
Hunith crossed the garden patch and gripped her son tightly by the arm. "You can't stop living just because Arthur did."
Merlin scowled at her. She'd never been so direct. He pushed out of her grip and went back to tending the ground. "I already fulfilled my destiny. There's nothing left to do."
Hunith crossed her arms and spoke softly. "When your father left and I found myself alone and with child, there was a time I considered leaving this world."
Merlin froze. He didn't look at her, but he was listening.
"It was a hard time. I faced raising a child without support, always alone, regarded with suspicion. I didn't think I could live that way...And then you were born." Hunith smiled as she remembered. "When I looked into your eyes, I knew I could endure. And I did." Merlin now looked over at her with tears in his eyes. "And you will, too." Hunith placed a hand on his shoulder. "There is more for you to do." She shoved the letter into his free hand. "Read it."
Merlin stared at her for a moment, then dropped his tool to the ground. He slowly unfolded the parchment. Hunith watched his eyes dart back and forth as he read, then widen, and finally take on a sense of fear. When he finished, he looked up at her. "I'll need a horse."
Merlin reined in his horse when the castle came into view. He forced himself not to turn around, chirruping at the horse to continue on. Memories of the last time he had traveled to Camelot weighed heavy—walking alone, tormented by failure and loss; Gwen running down the courtyard steps, questions in her eyes; telling her what her heart already suspected; passing into Gaius' chambers, the physician jumping up to greet him; retrieving his belongings and saying he was leaving for a time.
The horse passed the gates of Camelot and the soldiers guarding it nodded to him and then whispered to each other. He admonished himself for not coming incognito. Of course his presence would make a stir. He was the one who let the king walk into destruction.
He reached the courtyard and couldn't help but remember the execution he'd witnessed when he'd first set foot in it. It had set off a chain of events, most which caused heartache. There were times he caught himself wishing he'd never met Arthur; then his days wouldn't have felt so lonely and pointless.
Merlin halted as Leon came striding across the cobblestones. "Sir Leon." He bowed his head.
Leon reached up to grasp his wrist in greeting. "Just Leon. You of all people don't need to use titles."
Merlin tilted his head at such an explanation, but just nodded shortly. "Gaius sent for me." "Oh. Of course. He'll be with the queen. Come."
Merlin dismounted and Leon handed the reins of the horse to a servant, commanding him to take care of it. Merlin's heart ached. How many times Arthur had commanded him the same!
Leon led him through hallways thick with memory. Every corner held something that stabbed through the walls Merlin had attempted to build around his heart. He was so tired of the pain. Months had passed and grief was still an ever present enemy.
Leon stopped outside the queen's chambers. Merlin was relieved to see Gwen had not moved into Arthur's rooms. He didn't know if he could have managed to step foot in those. Leon knocked gently on the door. When it opened, Merlin felt unwelcome tears well in his eyes.
"Merlin!" Gaius enveloped him in a close hug. Merlin wrapped his own arms around the physician. "I was afraid you wouldn't come."
Merlin let Gaius go, blinking back his emotions at seeing the man he still regarded as father.
"I'm so glad you came."
"How is she?"
"Not well. I have consulted with the midwife and we've tried all we know."
"Why didn't you write me she was with child?"
"She didn't want me to tell you," Gaius said, his face reflecting he hadn't agreed with it.
Merlin's stomach twisted. "She didn't want me near another Pendragon," he whispered.
Gaius stared incredulously at the warlock. "No, that's not why. Merlin, she didn't want you to hope. You know how many children died."
Poor Gwen. Losing four babies before term. Of course. How could he have thought anything different about her? "Take me to her."
Gaius led Merlin into the room and to the queen's bed. Gwen lay unconscious. "I've sedated her. She's in much pain."
Sweat poured down Gwen's face even as she slept. Merlin reached out to her night clothes, but then looked up at Gaius. "Close the door." He didn't want to disrespect her modesty. Gaius ushered Leon out of the room and shut the door.
Merlin pulled up Gwen's night dress and stared at her full belly. He gently laid his hands on her abdomen. He frowned. It was stiff and hard. Even with all the time he'd spent as Gaius' apprentice, he had never assisted in a birth. He'd only seen his mother deliver two children. But he still knew immediately something was wrong. He took a breath and closed his eyes.
He felt a glimmer of life and the fetus squirmed away. Merlin sent calming waves through his hands and the child settled. He spoke gently to it in his mind, assuring it he was no threat. He examined its small body and then felt the thumping of its heart. There. Something was wrong in the rhythm. It was slowing. He snapped open his eyes. "She must deliver now."
"But the child can't be to term."
Merlin jumped up from the bed, rushing to the door. "If it does not come now, it will not have a chance to survive."
"Merlin, are you certain?"
Merlin turned on his heel and his face was so angry, Gaius stepped back. "I will not let Arthur's heir die!"
Merlin opened the door and shouted for the midwife. She came, bustling down the hall. She stared suspiciously at Merlin as she entered. "I should have been called sooner," she grumbled.
"The queen is going to deliver."
The midwife sniffed. "It's not time."
Merlin ignored her and moved back to Gwen, placing his hands on her abdomen again.
"What is he doing?" the midwife snapped.
Gaius placed a hand on her arm. "Trust him."
Merlin felt the infant's life fading. He spoke a low incantation and Gwen's womb contracted. The fetus stretched. Gwen began to jerk on the bed. "Gaius!"
The physician put firm hands on Gwen's shoulders to hold her still.
"He's killing her!" the midwife shouted.
Gaius stared hard at the woman. "Be silent! He's saving her and her child."
The labor progressed rapidly. Merlin keep his hands on Gwen's belly, hoping against hope the fetus survived the process. When the head crowned and the midwife drew the child out, it did not cry. Merlin let go of Gwen and snatched him out of the midwife's hands.
"You need to let me..." Gaius shut the midwife down with a fierce look.
Merlin held the limp infant against him along his right arm and placed his left hand on its chest. He weaved the fabric of magic around himself and the child. He spoke to the child with his mind, cajoling him, nudging him, awaking him to healing. He felt a flicker of life and held onto it, drawing it into the magic flowing through him, then sending it back into the tiny body. The infant jerked, squinted its eyes, and wailed. Merlin let out a pent up breath. The midwife took the infant from him, cleaning him and wrapping him in a blanket.
"Gwen," Gaius reminded Merlin.
Merlin stumbled back to the bed, tired by the energy he'd expended to save the child. He put his hand on her forehead. "She's alright. She needs to rest."
Merlin sat on a familiar bench in Gaius' rooms, elbow on a table, resting his head on his hand.
"Here," Gaius said. "Eat." He placed a meat pie before the warlock.
"I'm not hungry."
"You need strength," Gaius spoke warningly.
Merlin didn't respond.
"I don't want anything, Gaius."
Gaius sighed and sat across from him, digging into his own pie. An awkward silence descended for a time, then Gaius spoke. "I never imagined you were so powerful now. To call out to life itself."
Merlin smiled slightly. "I haven't changed much. It's just a way of seeing. Before, magic just happened. Now I join its flow, let it speak to me, walk its path as a friend." He didn't add that when he was alone, it was him and magic and no one else to disturb its hold or take his mind away from it. Being here, he fought the walls blocking out the vibrancy of nature. He wanted his home and his garden thriving in life.
Gaius smiled at him. "You could use this knowledge. Teach it."
"I'm not staying."
"We all miss you."
"I can't, Gaius," Merlin whispered. "Don't ask me to."
The physician changed the subject. "How long did you stay at Avalon?"
Merlin shifted on the bench, the subject unwelcome. "A month."
"You don't know when the prophecy will come true."
"No," Merlin said. How long would Arthur endure the sleep of death? Sometimes he didn't believe what Kilgharrah had said. Arthur rise again? When and how? He'd camped on the shores of Avalon, every morning hoping to see a boat coming his way with Arthur at its prow. It didn't happen.
"Is your mother well?"
Gaius reached out and covered Merlin's hand resting on the table. "It would distress Arthur to see you this way."
Merlin pulled his hand away from Gaius. He felt a lump in his throat. He coughed and rose from the table. "I need to check on the queen," he said softly, then bolted from the room.
Merlin slung his pack over his shoulders, making his way down castle halls, heading for the stables. He'd done what needed to be done. It was time to go. He made it to the main gate when pounding feet sounded behind him.
He reluctantly turned. It was Leon again. He stopped in front of the warlock, breathing heavily. "The queen is asking to see you."
"I was just leaving," he turned to walk on.
"Merlin!" Leon's tone was harsh.
Merlin glanced back.
"She deserves better from you. She hurts, too. She misses him. And she needs you now."
Merlin firmed his jaw, but turned back to the castle, angry at how right Leon was.
Merlin knocked lightly on the queen's door. The midwife opened it and glared at Merlin. "He's here," she said regretfully.
As Merlin entered, Gwen commanded. "You may go, Mary." The midwife stomped out of the room and shut the door.
Gwen met Merlin's eyes. "She is still wary of magic," she explained apologetically.
As were many, Merlin knew.
Gwen held the baby swaddled in a blanket against her breast. "Thank you for coming. I owe you his life. And mine. I should have written you."
"You didn't have to," Merlin said quietly. Gwen turned her attention to her child. "I am happy to serve you. I wish you well." He turned to leave.
"Merlin, stop," Gwen called out.
Merlin looked back at her. Tears had appeared in her eyes.
"Don't leave me. He can't be here. I want him here so much. Only you knew him as well as I did. Please stay with me."
Merlin's chin trembled. He dropped his bag by the door and walked over to Gwen.
"Sit next to me," she pleaded, patting the bed.
Merlin climbed into the bed, sitting against the headboard.
Gwen rested her head on his shoulder. "He should have seen his son," she whispered. "I miss him so much." She began to shake as she cried.
Merlin wrapped an arm around her shoulders, his own tears joining hers.
Merlin whispered softly to the babe in his arms. Gwen slept. She had refused to let him leave and banished the midwife any time she appeared. He had taken the baby from her so she could rest. Now he walked back and forth in moonlight streaming from a window. He paused to stare out at the full moon, so bright and strong.
"You have a son, Arthur," he whispered. "An heir." The baby stirred and Merlin rocked him gently.
"He'll need a guardian."
Merlin started at Gwen's voice and turned to look at her propped up on her side.
"He'll need someone to teach him."
"I'm not the one..."
"There is only one man Arthur would have chosen to raise his son."
Merlin considered the baby in his arms.
"Only you cared for Arthur as much as I. Please stay, Merlin. Stay for Arthur if not for me."
The baby stretched and yawned and his eyelids rose. Merlin met the child's eyes, and something unsaid passed between them. Grief and hope converged. And his broken heart began to heal.