Kink/Warnings: graphic medical description, mpreg, as well as slightly beta'd based on responses from original posting lj.
Arthur held the creature in his sight with the crossbow steady in his hands. He had never traveled from Camelot this far to hunt before. And much to the chagrin of his father, left unattended by knights and squires. He'd face his father's wrath when he got back, but he had hoped to also appease him—if he can bring back a true hunting prize. He didn't know of what nature this creature was but the forest had been, thus far, unfruitful in its wildlife. He hadn't seen so much as a hare, and the birds singing in the canopy of the tree certainly wouldn't do. The creature was white, gleaming under the sunlight and mirroring its rays. It barely moved and would be an easy kill. He could feel the sounds of the forest drown out and the steady slow beat of his heart. His finger brushed along the trigger, his senses racketing up like the cry of a boar before it made the charge.
Suddenly a boy had rushed out of the bushes yelling at him to stop, taking Arthur by surprise and almost caused his fingers to press down onto the trigger. He quickly pulled his hand away, vexed by this irate boy waving his arms around like a flapping bird. Arthur quickly climbed down, ready to give the boy a piece of 'advice.' Upon a closer inspection Arthur can tell the boy was around his own age, most likely a little younger. He also noticed the boy's skin was almost as white as the creature's, which still hadn't moved from its grazing on the low branches of a tree. Arthur could now recognize it as a unicorn.
"What were you thinking?" The boy said haughtily. He looked at Arthur accusingly, his horror with Arthur's actions easily apparent on his slender face.
Arthur was amused as he stared at this boy, the look of revulsion couldn't mask his beauty. If it wasn't for the clothing the boy had draped upon him, he would have thought the peasant was a nobleman's son. His body didn't appear to be fashioned from hard labour. But a person of higher breeding would have known better than to speak to a Prince so rudely.
"I have not done anything wrong," Arthur smoothly replied.
"You were going to kill it."
He simply raised a brow. "Is there a crime against that?"
The boy looked as though he'd been gaffed. Suddenly the slender figure straightened his back, trying to appear taller and stronger. "Yes."
Arthur was taken aback by the seriousness in the boy's tone, a stirring of laughter formed in his chest, imagining how easy it would be to take the boy down. "And what's my punishment."
The boy shuffled where he stood, slowly weighing his decision within his head like the peasant he was. Reaching a decision, he straightened up like a tree and said with absolute assurance, "The fall of your kingdom."
Any mirth Arthur held was instantly wiped away. "I do not take kindly to threats."
"You only hurt yourself if you kill a unicorn," the boy said more softly, recoiling from Arthur's grave tone. Yet his strength grew back with conviction. "Please. There is no harm in letting the unicorn go free. It's enough that you have no respect for its magnificence."
This boy amused him in a way that made him grind his teeth. "If I wanted to I could still kill it now." Arthur made a show of reaching for his sword, placing his hand upon the hilt.
"No!" The boy catapulted towards him and stayed Arthur's hand, pushing down so the sword could not leave the sheath. He had no doubt that his strength greatly outweighed the boy's, despite being an inch or two shorter. He could have easily taken him down. Yet having the boy this close-
Arthur could see how his pale skin glowed in the sunlight more beautifully than the unicorn, smooth and pure like water. It contrasted with his hair, a rough ebony night, along with the lengthy lashes of his eyes. His mouth made him more tempting to behold: red like blood pushing through the body as the heat coursed through. He yearned to taste. In this moment Morgana would have called him 'a man, a gender so easily weighed down by their base desires' she'd say.
"Tell me your name," he commanded.
The boy looked down at him confused, but satisfied that the sword was fixed in its sheath. "Merlin," he said trustingly, a sign of goodwill.
"You should understand Merlin-," Arthur took a step closer, alarming Merlin. Yet he didn't move as though he had something to prove, "-that I can't leave without a prize."
He watched Merlin blink, the realization coming over his face. Merlin cautiously tried to pull away but Arthur held tight. He would suffer his father's wrath when returning without the prize of the unicorn, if he could have this. The confusion was still there in Merlin's eyes, so Arthur bluntly clarified, "You're very beautiful."
He was answered with a red hue blossoming onto Merlin's cheeks. It travelled down to his neck, and even further, running beneath the loose brown robe he wore. He could see the shy mutual attraction in Merlin's eyes as the boy looked away, only to glance back. He stepped closer and brought an arm around Merlin's waist, making his intention much clearer. They were flush together and Arthur's heart was thumping beneath his chest. He's sure Merlin's would be equal in reply.
He waited, holding Merlin close. He could hear Merlin fumbling his thoughts in his head, breathing shallowly, and his eyes travelling everywhere but his own. Arthur could only hope for the desired words. When Merlin looked down at him with a tiny smile, Arthur knew his answer before he ever said, "I will assent."
The unicorn had wandered away in the midst of Merlin and Arthur's struggle to get their hands on one another. Arthur laid Merlin down in the place where they stood. He kissed him with vigour, bunching the robe's fabric at Merlin's waist and pulled upwards above his head. He's taking one innocent for another.
Their clothes were discarded precariously amongst the yawning of nature stretching for miles. Arthur could feel the peacefulness he had found while hunting wash over him—that satisfaction of capturing the prize. There were lengths of pale skin beneath him, brilliant against the dull green and brown of the moss, and the gray hues of the rocks. The rays casted a shadow that defined Merlin's lithe muscle, that tightened and relaxed with every push Arthur made into him. Merlin made soft noises with every roll of Arthur's hips. It was a flawless union.
Arthur found it was even more captivating to see him like this, shaking with aftershocks and heated beneath his touch. With the prize claimed, Arthur gave Merlin three kisses: one on the forehead, one on the cheek, and the last at the corner of his mouth. He took his time to appreciate the boy's skin, running his hand through drips of sweat and forest mist. He's tempted to mark him and claim his rightfully won reward. Arthur couldn't help but notice Merlin's fascination with his necklace, touching the red stone, and skimming a finger down the leather around his neck.
They parted silently. Merlin nodded his gratitude for Arthur's mercy. Arthur had kissed the boy on the lips one last time, slipping an item into the boy's hand before stepping away.
"If I ever see a unicorn in Camelot, I'd hope you show," Arthur whispered, giving a wry smile. It was a promise of mercy, more so of lust.
Merlin held the necklace in his hand, watching the man walk away. It wasn't until he slipped the item around his neck that he realized he didn't know his name.
It was months later when Merlin found himself standing at Camelot's gate, it seemed the stone walls threatened to rise and overtake the sky. It had as much effect as seeing the tallest trees provide additional shelter from the elements, living within Anhora's group in the forest. Yet rather than the natural progression of nature, this castle was made by human strength and power. It was just as amazing.
He placed a hand onto his belly and felt the small mound beneath his robe.
He had been cast out from the clan when it became obvious to the others the condition is body was undergoing. Merlin had confessed to Anhora of that day, and while the elder could be sympathetic towards his youthful reasoning, he couldn't ignore the life growing inside him. Thus, Anhora implored Merlin to find the father of the child. Only then would he and the child be accepted back into the group.
So Merlin had set out from his home, with only the name of Camelot, a pack, and a necklace with a red-jewel pendant to identify the mystery man. He had traveled slowly, unused to travelling for two, grumbling and fretting as he tried to eat plentifully, and made sure to not overwork his body. He didn't know much, only what he observed from other women, but he took care not to lose his precious load. And now finally, Merlin had reached the feet of Camelot's walls and wandered in to search for a familiar face.
Many people bustled about: some towing carts and bags, girls giggling in groups, and young boys running around at the irritation of the adults. There was something familiar about the way these people interacted, almost like home but so vastly different.
In the market there were various items from food, spices, flowers, and other essential needs and non-essential needs. Standing from a distance, he wanted to look at every stall. Instead he walked away when the merchants turned their attention to him, asking him to come over and see if there was anything of interest. Sometimes they would tell him to get lost if he wasn't buying. The market was bustling with life, deals, and bargains.
Merlin was walking backwards, taking note of the structures and the set-up of the stalls, when he was harshly bumped into. He could feel an elbow ram so close to his stomach that Merlin immediately turned with the movement. It was enough to see the offender slyly take the necklace from around his neck.
"Hey!" He shouted.
The man ran, and suddenly there's a group of them together, moving through the throngs of customers. Merlin ran after them, not paying attention to the chaos he caused in his wake, accidentally upending a man and his buckets of water, or the woman carrying her chickens' home. Instead he attempted to think of ways to get them without hurting them, the list of spells going through his head as he made sharp turns around stalls and people, leaving the market area and into a cluster of homes. He could already feel the stress of the run in his body, couldn't concentrate on the proper spells, but he couldn't give up on his only way home.
Suddenly a cluster of activity crossed his path. A man fell down right in front of him, along with six guards that were quickly upon the fallen man, blocking his path. Merlin couldn't find a way to get past them, their shuffling about to keep the man subdued coincided with every left or right step he'd try and take to get around.
He despairingly watched the thieves disappear around the corner. The necklace was gone.
"Under the laws of Camelot, you have been charged with the use of magic." Merlin cautiously turned around to the whispering crowd gathered behind him, curious about the guard's declaration. He slowly pushed himself through to the front as the guard continues with the rest of the proclamation.
"I'm sorry, but what's going on?" Merlin asked the nearest person.
"They say he's been using potions and charms. He should've known better."
"Better about what?"
The woman looked at him in surprise, but then leaned forward and cupped her hand to his ears. "The evils of magic."
Merlin's heart twisted in his chest. "What will happen to him?"
"Well, what happens to all—death. I reckon he'll be executed tomorrow, hopefully sooner."
"Hey!" A large hand clawed into Merlin's shoulder. "Hey, guards! What about him?"
He went still and stiff as a rock. Merlin swung his head to look at the hand, then at the drenched man holding him. His voice was thin and quiet, quickly saying, "What? I haven't done anything?"
"I paid for those chickens!" An upset woman roared. "Now they're gone."
Merlin jerked to look at the woman holding a pair of feathers in one fist and the other pointed a finger accusingly. He began to understand.
"What seems to be the problem?" A few of the guards chasing the accused magic user had come to investigate the commotion. He's sure his heart was beating too fast. Merlin's laid one hand over his stomach, wondering if they would be able to see his magic with a simple look at him.
"It's not—there were…" He tried to explain about the necklace, and the thieves. Except, his small rural voice is unbeatable against the Camelot citizens. Merlin finds himself getting more upset, shaking at the thought of execution when he had arrived here not minutes before. Their anger threatened to burn him.
"What's going on here?"
That sudden voice was a bath of cool water—Merlin knew that voice. He tried to turn to see, but the hand on his shoulder clawed in even more.
"Oh, no you don't." He saw a fist from the corner of his eye and ducked in time.
His backside hits the ground as the guards seized the man to pull him away. On instinct Merlin wrapped his arm around the small bump when the man tried to continue the assault with a well-aimed kicked, stopping short right at Merlin's jaw.
"Hold him still! Get up." There's a light tap to his leg that pulled Merlin from his protective position to look up and see him, the hunter in the forest: the father of the child.
"It's you." He scrambled to stand, looking for a flicker of recognition in the hunter's eyes. Merlin found it, along with doubt.
"What are you trying to play at?" Merlin's assailant shouted. There was a cry of agreement from other 'victims' of Merlin's chase, giving their own bellowed cries.
The hunter whipped around. "Contain yourselves." The crowd was watching with rapt attention, Merlin hadn't even realized that the arrested magic-user had already been taken away. Once the hunter had established his order were followed he said, "Now what seems to be the problem?"
Merlin took that time to watch the hunter as he listened to their complaints. He still had the same lustrous hair, more brilliant out in the open of the sun. His shape held an undeniable, arrogant strength and Merlin found himself remembering the union they had together in the forest.
Yet when he heard the Hunter tell his guards to, "put him in the dungeons," it was enough to pull him from the reminiscence. A protest was at the tip of his tongue, ready to defend against the pack of accusers, but he looked into the raging storm within each of their eyes and followed the same instincts any country-dweller would follow: get out of the storm and into shelter as quickly as you can, you won't win. Besides, it was not himself at risk here. Merlin readily complied with the guards' rough handling, keeping his head down, eyes on the stone floors.
It got darker, colder, and dirtier when they reached the dungeons. The guards tossed him in the cell and he quickly situated his hand against the wall, stopping himself from smacking into it with full force. "There's no need for that," he grated under his breath. The cell was small with just the metal door, a bar window, and a pile of old hay in the corner for bedding. Merlin took stock of the cage, spinning around in place, getting used to the smell of piss and some other foul stench of unknown origins. Finally he settled himself down onto the hay, running fingertips on the swell of his belly beneath his shirt. It had been such a long day.
Merlin jerked up, wiping strands of hay that stuck to his face. The Hunter strode into the cell as if he owned it, and with a wave of his hand the guards disappeared, closing the cell door behind them. This was not how Merlin pictured his reunion with his mysterious Hunter, yet no one disputes luck when the winds of fate bestows it, and luck had given Merlin the Hunter on his first day in Camelot. He smiled, happy to see the man from so many months ago.
Yet the Hunter continued to watch him, taking in details Merlin probably couldn't fathom. His smile lessened as the Hunter's stoic face didn't change from the probing stare. "Do you remember me?" Merlin asked shyly and hopefully.
"I am surprised," the Hunter finally spoke after a beat of silence, "I can't imagine you in this setting." The Hunter smiled kindly, which Merlin eagerly returned. He walked closer and said in whispering tones, "I must inquire, why are you here?"
"I'm looking for you." A giddy laugh escaped from his throat, "was looking for you. You look the same." Merlin suddenly felt out of breathe as the flutter of nerves in his stomach swirled with the joy in his chest.
"You look different," he smirked.
"I do?" Merlin said. He didn't think his pregnancy changed him that much. He listened to mothers and midwives speak of a glow, though Merlin couldn't see any evidence of it on his skin.
"That is to say if you are the same person," the Hunter joked.
"Of course I am," Merlin said in a low tone, understanding that he was being teased.
"No, I don't believe so." The Hunter tilted his head to the side in a mocked assessment. "His skin was fair."
"I've been travelling—the sun…"
"His eyes were blue." The Hunter stepped within an inch of him, peering at his eyes. "In fact, I think his were bluer."
Merlin laughed. "A trick of the light."
The Hunter looked at his waist and reached forward with both hands to press to his sides. He dragged his hands to the belly, moulding itself upon the mound that existed there. He spoke in the same jovial tone. "You were thinner."
He laughed again, instinctually placing a hand over the Hunter's, the feeling of all three of them united together and the promise of a home was overwhelming. "I'm pregnant," he said thoughtlessly, "it's yours." The hand beneath his froze, and he looked up to see the Hunter's startled face as the man began to slowly pull away.
"I'm sorry?" He asked with a small quirk of mirth beneath the words.
"When you took me as your prize," Merlin explained, blushing. "For the mercy you had shown. I'm with child. Your child," he quickly added.
The Hunter laughed with the whole of his body, until he realized how serious Merlin was, strangling the sound of amusement in his throat. "You must be mistaken." The Hunter was looking at him strangely, and Merlin realized too late that he should have been more careful with this news. Who has ever heard of a pregnant man?
"I'm not," he said with conviction, trying to repair the damage he had created in his enthusiasm yet equally not willing to concede defeat.
The Hunter gave a haughty laugh and turned away. "No, you're definitely a different man."
"I'm the same man!"
He tried to follow the Hunter, yet stopped in his tracks when the man rigidly turned in spot. Merlin was given a calculating look before the Hunter said, "You spoke of a union, for the mercy I had shown…"
"You spared the unicorn," he interrupted.
"Afterwards, I had given that man my pendant. Where is the pendant?"
The Hunter said it with such poised conviction, that Merlin stuttered, knowing that no amount truth or lies could help him now. "It was stolen."
"It's the truth!" Merlin shouted, desperate.
He could see the Hunter wanted to continue to his next point, but stopped to eye Merlin with more scrutiny, then stepped an inch from him creating an imposing figure. "You say you're pregnant. How do you expect me to believe such a thing?" He turned away saying, "unless by magic."
Merlin remembered the guard's decree when they caught the peasant they had been chasing down. He had lost the pendant, was ignorant to reality when he revealed his state to the Hunter, and he knows the claim of pregnancy will be the loss of him and the baby's lives.
"Prince Arthur, you're father wishes to speak with you." A messenger called from the cell door. Merlin's eyes widen, staring at the Hunter's back-the Hunter was the Prince.
The Prince turned back to face him, giving a scan over his figure once more. "Tell him I'll be there shortly," he said to the messenger without his eyes straying away. The messenger disappeared as the Prince stepped back. "You'll have to stay in here a little longer. I'll have…someone fetch you." Then he strode out like Merlin imagined a Prince would walk, chin high, regal posture, and an air of invulnerability—he was raised with the very same intent the fortress walls were built, surrounding the castle and the inner city.
"Arthur," Merlin said the name like a whispered dream, when the cell door closed behind the Prince.
There were footsteps coming down the stairs and an old man in a blue robe appeared before the cell door. "Are you Merlin?"
"Yes," he said slowly. He didn't know this man, but a guard did open the door for him to step inside.
"My name is Gaius," he said, reaching a hand forward.
Merlin shook his hand and mumbled out a, "hello."
When Gaius released his hand, he instantly started towards the door, stopping at the threshold to look back. A displeased and slightly confused frown formed on his face, seeing him still standing in the same spot. "Well come on."
Merlin jumped into movement, following the stranger as closely as possible. "I'm being release?"
"You can stay at my place. I have a spare room set up for you."
"Thank you," Merlin said, before he forgot his manners. He was confused, but happy to be out of the cell. Quickly his attention became more enraptured with his surrounding, once he realized that weren't leaving the castle walls. A mere amount of giddiness entered his tone. "You live within the castle?"
"I'm the court physician," Gaius said, with a small lilt to his lips at Merlin, "I need to be near if the King were to become ill."
Merlin stopped in his steps. "The court physician," he repeated.
The man simply raised an eyebrow at his trepidation. "Yes. Are you alright?"
He gave a wobbled laugh, smacking on a smile. Merlin tried to keep his hand down his side rather than on his belly. "Nothing. I'm fine." He walked ahead of the man, through the door in front of them. Merlin pointed to a displaying 'Court Physician' on the stairs. "This way?" He asked with a curious quirk to his head.
The man simply nodded and Merlin bounded up the narrow stairway, almost tripping halfway up.
"Be careful," Gaius said kindly.
Merlin gave back a sheepish smile, slowly taking each step at a time then down the hall, feeling a minor twinge in his ankle and a flush of embarrassment. His cheeks was such a deep hue of red that he almost missed Gaius call out to him as he walked without awareness.
"Yes," he swirled around too fast, almost losing his footing again.
"It's this door." Gaius pointed towards the door that Merlin had passed by unknowingly, running from his humiliation.
"Right," he laughed. Gaius simply smiled in return, chuckling at his exuberance. He lead the way in for Merlin, leaving the door open behind him.
He wasn't sure what he was supposed to expect. All the medicine at the camp was provided by their surroundings, herbs and flowers plucked from the ground and placed in woven baskets formed from the barks of trees, kept within the healer's tent. Stepping into Gaius's quarters, it was like encountering a different sort of wonder. While the walls were still the colour of grey stone, there was a colour to this humble abode with books aligned on shelves along one wall—the bounds of text were built up so high that there were even stairs to reach up near the ceiling. On the other side of the room contained shelves of glass jars and tubes, wooden worktables with strange equipment and various other paraphernalia. Merlin stepped closer to view the various colours of liquid in the jars, the different variety greens from crushed leaves, and some filled with flowers. All the jars were labelled, and Merlin thought it was actually like home but more strange and astonishing.
He quickly followed Gaius to a back room he'd seen him enter to find a tiny little bed, a cupboard, and a variety of other things that took up all the spaces in the room: baskets, glassware, broken shelves, physician supplies, even what seemed to be a wheel of a cart.
"Hmm," Gaius looked at the state of the room, "it's a bit of a mess, but I'm sure you can make a bit of room for yourself while you stay here. How long will that be if I may inquire?"
"As long as a can," Merlin said, figuring out where he'd move items around so he could place down his stuff and to be able to walk around. "Thank you, Gaius," he set his bag down onto the bed, pushing at large basket filled with folded white rags.
Merlin didn't know what he should do next, but he wasn't going to give up and leave until he could talk to Arthur again. Fumbling with his hands, he turned to Gaius. "I don't know when I'll be leaving, but I hope I can stay for as long as you can let me?"
"Really," the physician blinked, "I was informed otherwise," Merlin couldn't think of what else to say, so he shrugged. Gaius eyed him for a few moments before stating, "but you can stay as long as you need to. In the meantime, I'll be getting supper ready. Most of this is old junk I didn't have the time to sift through, but you can move things around until I figure out what to do with it all."
"I could help you if you'd like? Not just with this junk but with anything else you need doing as a physician," Merlin said, remembering his manners. Anhora's camp worked as a community, so even if he never knew his mother, the women did their part to instil manners into him and swiftly offered a thrashing across the head for any impoliteness they'd perceive in the young boys. Yet they also worked together to cook the meals and Merlin could imagine the smell of broth. Finally, a warm cooked meal that greatly differed from the meals of bread and dried meat while traveling.
Gaius had closed the door behind him to give Merlin privacy, and he took the opportunity to move a table underneath the window and clambered up to look out over Camelot. Despite the laws against magic, the castle and town hadn't lost its glamour. He could almost imagine how the dots of lights below mirrored that of the sky. It wasn't home, but he could make it so. At least he'd have to if he ever wanted to be accepted in Anhora's camp.
Arthur pondered the events of the afternoon as he sat at the meal table in his quarters. The meat and bread on his plate had lost its allure against the memories of the boy from the forest, Merlin. Yet he remembered him to be a man, not a woman. And women gave birth to children while men—it was utter insanity, much like the mumbling of the destitute in the hidden dark corners of the town's alleyways, and he had to wonder if his mind was heading in that direction. The claims of royal blood growing within ones womb was not uncommon, yet the actual occurrence was barely a likely hood. Again, the only other option would be magic.
Arthur pushed his plate away, the smell of meat soured his senses and the churning memories pounding into a headache. He has thought about that day often and was almost sure it was a dream. What he remembered was an ethereal being within the heart of the forest, everything glowed, and it felt warm. The warmth of the memory was the best detail about it: the sun on his back, the body beneath him, and the eyes that connect with his and warranted a feeling deep in his chest. The necklace Arthur had given was an important keepsake from his childhood—not as significant as the royal crown or a family heirloom, but it was important to him nonetheless. Arthur shivered in the chair and blamed it upon the miniscule draft from the open window.
He resolved to himself that the memory needed to stay untouched by decrepit words, impossibilities, and iron-fist laws and punishment. The boy Merlin, if that is his name, wasn't wearing a simple dot of the red stone on the pendant. Arthur would take comfort in that.
Merlin laid on top of the bed, staring at the ceiling. He wasn't sure what to do, wondering if Gaius was ordered to keep him inside, or if he was free to wander around the castle. He grew slightly ill at the thought of running into Arthur, when there was a knock at his door.
"Merlin?" Gaius popped his head around the threshold of the doorway. "I was wondering if you'd like to help me on my rounds today, you don't have to as I'm sure your feet are-"
"I'd love too." Merlin practically jumped up from the bed, escaping the boredom that was suffocating him to a slow death and smiled. "What do you need me to do?"
Gaius held up a basket filled with an assortment of bottles and handed it to Merlin. "I'm making my rounds within the lower town, delivering remedies and checking up on patients."
He took the basket, looking at the various colours of the concoctions that loaded his arms down. "That's a lot of patients."
Gaius laughed at Merlin's quiet anxiety. "No worries, it'll be quick. You're young, it's too early in your life to get lazy so soon," he jokingly admonished. "Come on then."
Merlin smiled and went to scratch the back of his head in embarrassment, but quickly aborted the bashful motion when the weight of the basket almost caused him to drop it. Gaius gave a stern look, before jerking his head to the exit to start their day. It seemed to be a good decision to make, because some of the remedies also had to be dropped off to some people working and living in the castle. He peeked around Gaius and a Lady of the Court, peering into a chamber filled with rich luxuries he'd never seen. Metal shone like gems, and the fabrics were saturated with colours like petals of flowers and leaves. In comparison, the servant areas wore the earthen colours that Merlin is used to. There's less of a show and less chatter as people quickly work: laundry baskets being towed up and down corridors, cooks working over steaming pots and rolling bread, and other people running to and fro. Gaius only gets a few words of instructions in, remedies are passed between hands, and the servants are off to do their job. Gaius explained to Merlin how mornings were the busiest times of day, but today he had to follow up on his patients in the lower town, and time and work didn't wait for convenience.
Merlin nodded blankly to it all as his eyes wandered to everything, getting his senses to wrap around new smells that was nothing like the forest. The air was different somehow, surrounded by stone. Yet stones didn't have a smell, it was immobile and cold to the touch, but the aura of life was still entrenched in the very stonework of walls and tapestries.
At the lower town, it was the same bustle of people without the richness and shine like those in the castle. But unlike the view from his window, he could see how the homes and buildings stretched out to the walls. And he wasn't invisible to the more common folk. Various people would ask after Gaius, and thus sometimes turn their attention to him, either asking outright or staying silently curious.
This continued on criss-crossing the numbers roads between markets and houses, the baskets load becoming progressively lighter. After a few hours going from door to door, Merlin wondered if he should have stayed off his feet back at the physician's quarters. His legs felt weighted and his feet felt as though they were bloating.
"Tired already," Gaius teased, noticing Merlin lag significantly behind.
Merlin tiredly joked back, "so much for youthful energy." Most of his energy was probably going to the baby. He rubbed at his abdomen again, feeling for the change in the increasing bump. Yet he could feel twinges where he rubbed.
"I've notice you do that quite a bit. Do you have some sort of digestive ailment?" Gaius curiously asked.
It was a completely professional inquiry, yet it made him jump, feeling caught off guard. "No," he anxiously laughed. Merlin watched a single eyebrow raise, and prepared a myriad of answers to Gaius's oncoming questions.
"Gaius!" A stricken young boy ran up to them, grabbing onto Gaius's robe. "They said my mother-" The boy was panting out of breathe, but Gaius seemed to understand enough.
"She's at home?" The boy nodded. "Be a good lad and fetch some water." Gaius rushed off, not bothering to see if the boy followed his instruction. Merlin jarred after him, curious about the emergency and his frantic state.
The home Gaius entered shrieks with an agonized wail. Merlin's step faltered, feeling queasy about what was happening. He poked his head around the door.
"What the hell do you think you're doing?" A woman screamed.
"Umm," Merlin's wide-eyed, shifting his sight between the woman angrily glaring at him and the woman panting on the bed, sweating into the sheets, her legs spread apart. He mostly noticed the obtuse extension of her stomach. She's pregnant. And she's giving birth. "I'm sorry."
"Merlin," Gaius said, the voice of a physician taking control of the room, "run to my quarters and get a bag sitting on the third shelf from the bottom—on the right side of the room, nearest to the door. There are some tools I need."
The woman screamed again, and Merlin felt faint looking at six months ahead. "Alright," Merlin gulped. He scattered from the room, running back to the physician's quarters not knowing the roads he needed to take, but making sure the castle was always above and in front.
Merlin almost tripped a couple of times because of his tired legs. The stairs were even more difficult, as he grappled against the walls, exerting as much energy into each and every step. But then he'll remember the way that woman screamed, her face contorted into pain. Merlin wanted to relieve that from her, which meant returning with Gaius's bag as soon as possible. The item in question wasn't hard to find, placed exactly where the physician said it would be. With shaking hands and a cramp in his side, Merlin grabbed the heavy bag and started back down the way he came.
The pain became a bit unbearable when he's almost half-way back, and Merlin wondered if he'd even make it, because he needed to stop and catch his breath. He almost cried with joy, literally running into the same young boy, that ran to get Gaius's help, carrying a bucket of water.
"Watch it!" The boy yelled, before a dawning of recognition entered his eyes.
"Here," Merlin rather roughly shoved the bag into the boy's arm, "Gaius needs these." He watched as the boy quickly forgot his irritation and ran with the bag clutched protectively in his arm. Much like how Merlin was doing, as he trudged back to his room, gasping with every sharp pain. Something wasn't right, he wanted to get back and lie down as soon as possible. He did his best to keep his gasps inaudible to other people, but his eyes blurred with tears and he didn't see a single stone in a castle stairway, that was extended out further than the rest. His foot caught the top of the next step and he fell forward. It was a moment of blank panic: blood pumped, thoughts churned, and the despairing realization that he'd be too late even with magic.
It was a miracle when a pair of slender, rough hands grabbed him back from the fall. Instead, he sat down rather roughly after gaining a semblance of balance to his feet. Yet it didn't stop a chorus of pain to ebb from his tail bone and the still insistent twinge of pain that had been bothering him.
"Thank you," Merlin gritted out with a weak smile.
"Are you alright?"
Merlin looked up to see a female servant with brown curly hair, a dark skin tone that was rare amongst the population of the entire land, and the kind frantic eyes checking him over for any scrapes and bruises. "Yes," he replied in a tired huff. There's another twinge in his side and he could see the disbelief in the girl's eyes. He reassured her, "I just need to lie down."
"I'll help you back to your room," she offered with the conviction to keep him safe from another fall.
He could tell that she wouldn't take no for an answer, purely for the concern of his well-being, and Merlin gladly agreed for her help, making the rest of the trip a lot quicker and easier. He was so eager to rest in his bed that the door to the physician's quarter slammed hard against the wall, rumbling some glassware on a nearby table.
"You live here?"
"Yeah, just in there." Merlin pointed to the wide-open door across the room, with thankfully a short amount of steps to overcome.
"I wasn't aware the physician had an assistant," she said, as they trudge over a pile of fallen books and a broom. "Not that I'm prying, or that it's odd. There's no reason for it to be odd. Gaius is an upstanding person-helped a lot of people, though as a physician it would be his job-but he's still a very nice man, there wouldn't be anything you need to worry about. It's just that I haven't seen you around."
"I'm new to Camelot," he said as they climb the small stairs, smiling at the girl's ramblings and watched her dig herself further into her own embarrassment.
"Is Gaius a relative?"
Merlin crawled into bed feeling eased by the feel of the stiff mattress taking pressure off his legs, though the pain continued to throb. "I thought you weren't prying?" He meant it as a joke, but received an entirely wrong reaction.
"I'm sorry. I was just trying to make conversation, but sometimes I just keep going—I didn't know I was—"
"Don't worry, I didn't mean it like that." Merlin nervously chuckled. "I was joking." They took a few seconds to stare at each other, before they simultaneously burst into laughter. It made him more aware of the pain around his belly, but he still feels slightly better to smile with someone else.
"Do you need some water?" She asked once their laughter had subsided, back into the mode of a caretaker.
As she exited the room, he realized he had never questioned for her name. She came back a moment later with a cup of water, which he greedily brought to his lips. "Do you need the physician?"
"I'll be fine," Merlin urged, seeing that she was ready to jump up and retrieve Gaius for help. He doubt he'd be able to find the physician quickly, probably still tending to the woman in labour-he hoped the birth was easy.
"Are you sure?" She asked worriedly.
Merlin nodded, shuffling on the bed and causing another twinge of pain. "I'm sorry I never asked. What's your name?"
"I'm Guinevere, but most people call me Gwen." She stretched out her hand, though he could see the fluster to pull it back at the image he must of presented. He was sure that he looked as weak and tired as he felt.
Merlin smiled, reaching out to shake her hand. "Merlin," he told her.
They smiled at each other, before it dissipated and they were left with an awkward silence.
"I'm sure you're busy-"
"I should get back to my duties-" Gwen turned to leave, yet Merlin stopped her, thanking her again.
"Take care of yourself," she said softly.
Merlin nodded his head once, enough to confirm his welfare. Once Gwen was gone he collapsed his head back onto the pillow, easing his guard when he heard the second door close. He closed his eyes, feeling the pain in his abdomen. His hand went to feel the small mound, cradling as though he were already holding his child.
He was scared.
"Merlin?" Gaius sets down his basket on the work table, noticing that the door to the back room was closed. "Merlin?" He called again, knocking lightly on the wood.
"I'm alright," a voice replied back, small and weak.
Gaius sighed and disregarded Merlin's assurance, it wasn't the best idea to let the patients diagnose themselves. Gaius had noticed something was off with Merlin's health, and had placed it down to some form of minor stomach ailment, and waited for the young man to ask for help. Except today, he could see that Merlin's pain was becoming more serious as the day's end drawn near and would have questioned sooner, yet Mrs. Damson's complicated birth had to come first.
"Merlin, I'm coming in," he announced, before barging into Merlin's room and remained deaf to the boy's false reassurance.
"I'm alright Gaius."
Without the muffling of the door, Gaius could see and hear how weak Merlin actually was. The boy was sickly pale and breathing a bit too deeply, as though it took effort.
"I'm alright Gaius," Merlin repeated, his face turned away.
Gaius set the bag he still held onto the floor beside Merlin's bed. He doesn't comment on the dry tear tracks down his cheek, but took notice of how Merlin held his belly.
"I'll have to have a look to be sure."
"No, it's okay." Merlin's attempt to scramble off the bed was hindered by his physical weakness.
"Merlin." He kept his voice stern, yet soft—the same tone he used on many of his difficult patients. It didn't work all the time, but in this instance Merlin conceded. He reluctantly lied back down, allowing Gaius to get to work, lifting up Merlin's shirt above his belly and pressing a hand to the swelling. "Tell me where it hurts?"
Gaius frowned as he touched Merlin's lower abdomen where the swelling seemed to take place, and couldn't help but voice his thought. "Odd," he said, pressing gently around the bump, not noting any hard mass underneath. Gaius gave a little sigh, knowing he's not dealing with a tumour. "When I pressed down did it hurt?"
Merlin shook his head, his hands wring the blanket beneath.
"How long has this swelling occurred?"
"A few months," Merlin whispered.
"You should have said something sooner," Gaius instinctively said, frowning at Merlin to provide him with more information while still investigating the oddity of Merlin's body. He could feel the tension in the boy's form, his muscles locked solid and jumping at his examination. After a few more moments of Merlin's silence, he asked, "Is this the first time you've been feeling pain?"
Merlin nodded, and again Gaius waited, this time finishing his examination and leaned back in his chair when he was done. "Are you willing to tell me what's wrong?" Gaius perceived, raising one eyebrow.
Merlin looked at him this time, and he could see the boy contemplating the truth of his ailment and odd physical form. Gaius felt the air of a confession forming as Merlin sat himself up in bed.
And he began to speak.
The story about his journey here was long and vague, starting from Merlin's time in Anhora's camp to his journey to Camelot, but Gaius could hear the emotion behind the words, even if Merlin tried to keep them to himself. He couldn't move, staring at the-it was absurd. Completely, utterly, insanely absurd. "You're pregnant." It was a question and a statement.
Merlin nodded his head with a nervously sad smile.
"How?" He began, immediately shifting through the knowledge and experience of years in his head to think of any answer. "Magic," he said to himself.
"No!" Merlin placated with his hands.
"I would think so," Gaius said to himself, as he stood up and began to pace the small space available in Merlin's room. "I know magic when-." Truth be told, he never came across this sort of magic in any form.
"Was it some sort of incantation?" Gaius pressed, before jumping to a more plausible thought, "a curse?"
"It's not a curse!" Merlin looked affronted by the possibility.
"Then how did it happen?"
"I don't know!"
"Well there has to be a reason."
"Maybe I was born like this." As Merlin said it, his nose scrunched at the prospect.
"I should hope not." Even Gaius felt a bit squeamish by the idea, the experience of helping the birthing process of many women in his medical career, mostly when complications arise. Yet it had Gaius thinking about Merlin's predicament: how would this baby come forth to the world, as the male anatomy had no conventional means. He'd need to check his books. Yet there was one more thing Gaius needed to know. "I cannot believe that you simply became pregnant on your own. You said this started a few months ago? Tell me what happen then."
He raised both eyebrows at the heat flushing Merlin's cheeks red. "So there is a father?" he questioned, sitting back down on the edge of the bed.
"Yes," Merlin grumbled.
"Is he…?" It's a question he's asked before, one that he's asked all the woman in all the different situations of conception.
"Is he?" Merlin questioned back.
Gaius gestured to Merlin's belly. Does the father…?
"No," Merlin said curtly.
"I take it that he did not respond well," he sighed, easily guessing the father's response, which Merlin confirmed with a despondent shake of his head. "And I take it that is why you travelled here." An unwanted pregnancy wasn't unusual, on the otherhand, this case defied the very natural order of reproduction for man and animal alike. Gaius watched with an astute eye, the way Merlin cradled his belly as though he wanted to hold the child, and knew that Merlin wanted to keep the offspring. Despite the whirling in his mind, he smiled to himself.
"If you don't mind my asking, what is the father's name?" It was a common question he asked, and he always asked it, because in these type of situations it was something he needed to know. His patients were under his care, and that included the possible dangers of certain outside 'stressors.' Gaius had learned the hard way how politics even affected his own occupation, how meaningless one's life, or lives, could be viewed in the art of self-preservation against the politics and opinions of the court and kingdom.
"I can't say."
"A noble perhaps?" Gaius thought to himself, though he couldn't understand how this boy from a forest-dwelling community could have met anyone from the upper echelon of society. Yet Merlin's answer surprised him, because what other reason could there be to hide the father's identity. It disturbed Gaius to think that Merlin was possibly too ashamed to say who the father was, and he sincerely hoped Merlin's reason was the former situation. Gaius went straight to the next question, "how did you meet?"
He could see Merlin waver, almost lowering himself to somehow hide in the bed. Gaius could see Merlin struggle with decision fidgeting where he sat, and then suddenly the storm in Merlin's eyes cleared. He straightened his back with some sort of pride clear in his eyes. The boy opened his mouth which immediately closed a little, a small bit of resolve lost before he continued with a little waver in his voice, he said with conviction, "Anhora is the proud keeper of the unicorns, and an elder to all in the camp. The father-I offered myself up so the man wouldn't kill the unicorn, a majestic and beautiful creature. The killing, the murder of one is a serious crime."
It sounded as though Merlin were reciting some form of decree, said over and over, becoming less convincing as it went on. Did he say this to the people of his home? Before they casted him out with a quest of amendment to make? Gaius was unsure if the topic would be appropriate for him to ask, still too soon, only a day's time to get know one another. He opted for the safest topic he wanted to broach. "A unicorn?"
Merlin nodded to his question, keeping his chin held high in a poor façade of confidence. He could see Merlin was still a big bundle of nerves.
"What do you plan to do now?" He asked, not doubting himself as to what the answer would be.
"I'll carry the child to term," Merlin said with conviction. Gaius smiled, patting Merlin's leg and got up to go. Yet at the threshold of the door he could hear Merlin quietly mumbled to his unborn child, "Arthur doesn't want you, but I do."
The name slotted right into the crafting of the picture Gaius had been trying to place together, and somehow everything was clear. It could have been anyone, Arthur the commoner, rather than the prince. Yet it made sense to Gaius, the reason why Camelot's prince asked for him to temporarily look after Merlin, even when it was expected that the peasant-boy would leave soon after, someone he vehemently professed to have no association with, despite no statements was made to discern otherwise. He whirled around on his heels, staring at Merlin with a look of shock, asking for confirmation. "Arthur? Prince Arthur?"
Merlin jerked back, a tidal of fear pouring out at the instant mention of Arthur's title. The boy quickly looked down and refused to meet his eyes, while he pasted on a smile which quickly wavered away.
Gaius smiled, though he knew Merlin wasn't looking and could see that he needed time. "Well then, I believe I should work out how to get the baby out safely when it's time to conceive. But first, it could be your body accommodating for the child or it could also be stress related, how long has the pain been going on?"
When Gaius was finished with his question he left Merlin alone, with the instructions of bed rest. He closed the door behind him, sighing to himself. They both knew that the coming months were not going to be easy, but Merlin was still willing to endure it. Gaius smiled.
"It's been two weeks and I haven't felt any pain."
"You need to stay off your feet. Don't put undue stress on yourself."
"What am I suppose to do in the mean time?" Merlin scowled.
"I should think that's obvious." Gaius gestured to the array of unlabeled beakers and bottles before Merlin.
"Can't I at least go outside?"
"Get use to it. You'll only grow bigger in the coming months and the last thing you need is to draw attention to yourself."
Merlin reluctantly agreed, though it doesn't stop him from shuffling his feet one way and then another against the floor, as small act of rebellion to his enclosure. Yet soon his small revolt is quieted by a knock against the quarter's door. A familiar feminine voice called out, "Gaius?"
Merlin smiled tentatively, recognizing Gwen's voice.
"Is Merlin in?" She smiled at his slouched form on the bench, as she poked her head around the door.
"As you can see-" Gaius began with a slight edge of teasing.
"I'm fine," Merlin cut in already eyeing the basket Gwen had brought with her. "What do I get today?"
"You're spoiling him," Gaius said to a smiling Gwen, already handing over the food she was able to procure from the kitchen.
"You can have half." Merlin offered a piece of bread in one hand; the other was busy stuffing a piece into his mouth.
Gaius simply laughed at Merlin's gluttony. "Thank you for the offer, but I believe I must be on my way."
Merlin watched Gaius leave out the front door, busily eating into a slice of cheese.
"You're getting bigger," Gwen noted looking at the bulge and comparing it to when she had first helped him up to his rooms.
Merlin only hummed his agreement as he took a bite out of a meat pie. He took another, more vicious bite, finding joy in the flavours. "Did you make this?"
"I thought you could use more than bread and cheese."
Merlin smiled at Gwen, revelling in the simple fact that an additional person knew of his condition, whom didn't want to question it from every scientific angle that Gaius was prone to do. The side benefit was food and a lesson that he and Gaius weren't being discrete enough, when Gwen overheard their conversation outside the door a few days ago. Since then, Gwen had been keeping him company and generally taking care of him. She was curious as they all were, and fascinated by the prospect of him carrying a baby-an actual baby.
Merlin found it made everyone a bit soft in the head, especially him.
"Rub this into your shoulder every morning and before you go to bed," Gaius proffered the bottle to Arthur, after demonstrating where the ointment needed to be applied.
Arthur stretched his shoulders forward feeling the pull of the muscles there and the cool tingles from the remedy the physician had given. "Thank you Gaius."
"Will that be all sire?" Gaius said gathering his items into his basket.
"Yes." Gaius could feel Arthur watching him gather his things. He could see Arthur was debating whether he should ask a question on his mind. And Gaius was right, Arthur was tip-toeing on the idea of asking the physician about Merlin, and how the boy looked before his leave. He wanted to know how the boy had looked (in terms of health), before making his long journey home. Arthur shouldn't ask because of discretion, but he needed to know. "I hope I haven't caused you too much trouble those past few days, weeks ago."
Gaius paused, unsure if Arthur meant more than his usual injuries from training. He tried to determine from Arthur's face if he was inquiring about Merlin, or if he was trying to make sure Merlin was gone, along with the continual growth of the child? "The Prince's bastard child," he instantly added to his thoughts, "A child convened with magic and born by a male no less." Gaius gave a wary sigh that sunk into his bones.
"Oh no sire," Gaius said pleasantly, "Merlin has been quite an assistance to my work." He won't take sides. yet he won't make it easy for either of them.
"Excuse me?" A chair Arthur had been leaning on almost tipped over when he spun in spot to face Gaius. The Prince doesn't bother to hide his shock, or his fear, and he doesn't seem to realize it.
Gaius discretely kept his face turned away, busying himself with the baskets contents, so Arthur couldn't see his face, the cross between amusement and disappointment when the adults caught the young in their scheming acts. "Merlin, he's been quite a joy and very helpful," he said elatedly nonchalant, emphasizes his wards name with enthusiasm. "I found it has been easier to attend to my duties."
"He's still here."
"Yes, well his condition is quite severe." Gaius bowed, before making his exit and leaving a flabbergasted Prince.
"Sit down. I believe I found a way to get the infant out."
It had been two months as Merlin watched his body change and grow into new aches. He was no longer allowed outside of Gaius quarters, or his own room if there were visiting patients. Strangely, Gaius and Gwen don't put up with him so much as they make a continual fuss over him, with Gwen making sure he was eating properly, and Gaius prodding him with questions, checking the size of his belly every week, and documenting each detail for 'research purposes.'
It's only in the dead of night when Merlin can happily escape and have some form of peace to himself with his child, who decided to make itself known that very moment.
"What's wrong?" Gaius asked, as Merlin eyed the simultaneous twitching of Gwen and Gaius hands, ready to reach out and catch him whenever he clumsily fell.
"I'm fine," he groused. "The baby just gave a hard one."
It was enough to get Gwen to wilt before him like the shy plant a strange traveller had carried around with him, showing it to the kids of the camp like a magic trick that didn't take an ounce of blessings or energy from the Old Religion. "It's probably a boy if it's kicking this much," Gwen said, crouching before him, already reaching out a hand to place on his belly. It was a few weeks ago he felt the first kick, Gaius had felt one or two during his constant check-ups, and Gwen couldn't get enough of it, she wanted to be there for each one.
"Why can't it be a girl?" All the women Merlin had known from Anhora's camp seemed rather rough to him.
"A girl would never do such a thing."
Merlin chose not to comment, placing it down to Camelot's strange way of thinking: men could do this but women weren't permitted, men didn't talk about this only women can speak of it, and women did this and that, while the men did that and this. Maybe that was simply how things appears, Gwen's knowledge of tailoring equalled her skills as the blacksmith's daughter, a sole heir to her father's labours. He had given up trying to figure it out, conceding to Gaius and Gwen's points on what he was allowed to say to whomever was present, for example: clotpole, prat, and dopple-head in reference to Prince Arthur was generally, outwardly frowned upon, if not internally amusing to his friends.
"It kicked!" Gwen said happily, her clear joy becoming infection as Merlin felt the edges of a smile breaking through upon his face.
"It'll kick again in a matter of second," he falsely grouched.
Gaius interrupted them with a gruff cough, pointedly looking at them both. "Well then, we can get down to the matter." Merlin and Gwen quiet at Gaius's serious tone, both ready to jump at the worst conclusion. "I found a way we can get the baby out."
"Are you serious? Great!" Merlin exclaimed, perking up in his seat.
"Never mind." He should have known really.
"It's complicated. The procedure is called a caesarean section," he said the new term carefully, unpractised to his speech. "From what I understand, I would have to make a surgical incision in order to get the baby out."
"You mean you have to cut it out," Merlin gaped.
Gaius gave a rather drawn out, "Yes."
"Is that possible?" Gwen asked, horrified and yet curious.
Merlin crossed his arms. "I find it hard to believe."
"There is something else."
"Oh no," Merlin despaired.
"No one has actually lived through the procedure, at least the accounts that I can find."
Merlin turned ashen-white.
"For the most part these procedures have been conducted on an emergency basis. But if we can find a-" Gaius's hands wavered in the air, at a loss for words to what he needed, his hands sifting to snatch the solution in mid-air.
"A way to sow him back up," Gwen slowly suggested.
"Yes, sow him back up. Then your survival will be likely."
"Why only likely?"
"You said 'likely,' not 'Merlin will survive.'" His imitation of Gaius is horrid, but no one really cared, they could see Merlin was doing his best not to rave that them as he stood up from his seat.
"Merlin," Gaius got the boy to sit back down with a gentle pressure on his shoulders, "if we don't go through this procedure there's a chance of losing you both."
Merlin felt as though the stones beneath his feet were no longer there, a tightness beginning to reign in his chest. "How?" He muttered out harshly.
"I really couldn't say, but there's magic involved in this. Your body has probably completely changed in ways I have never seen, nor will I probably ever find out without an invasive examination. Your body may revert back to its original state or you may have to remain with this condition for the rest of your life."
Merlin's anger simmered as he slumped in his chair and began to dwell on Gaius's words.
"Without a doubt, the child would die without the procedure. But the affects upon you-I can't leave the child in you, there's too much risk of infection and blood clotting." Gaius stomach revolted, knowing the next set of words wouldn't be easy on Merlin, "And I don't think you, or anyone, could bare to carry—"
"Stop," Merlin croaked as his body shook with tremors, silent tears rolling down his face, unable to see the small relief on Gaius's face when he didn't have to further explain. He started to shake his head back and forth, his emotions easily tumbling from his body and breath, the thought of carry a still-born child made him nauseous from agony. "You would have to do the procedure anyway?" Merlin stated it like a question, though he knew Gaius's answer as much as he knew his own, because while he didn't like the risks to his own life, the alternative seemed so much worse.
Gaius waited for Merlin to say anything else, despite knowing he wasn't in a state to continue speaking. Gwen did her best to console him with her presence, standing by his side, with her hand on his shoulder.
"I'll need to leave and head towards a village west of here. There's a physician there that knows more about this than I do and will be able to teach me the procedure, in the amount of time we have."
"What about the risks?" Gwen asked with a nervous undertone.
"I already have an idea for that. It'll involve a spell." Gaius chose his words carefully, eyeing Gwen a bit cautiously. Gwen knew Merlin's pregnancy was constructed by magic, but the deep-seated fear that was instilled into the citizens of Camelot would be difficult to overcome.
"But none of us know how to do magic," she asked.
The silence that takes over said otherwise. Gaius and Merlin tried not to look shifty, nervous about revealing their abilities as a sorcerer to those in the room, yet both had wonderings about the other. Yet, it was Merlin who bravely spoke up.
"I can," Merlin said.
"You can," Gaius and Gwen say simultaneously, the latter sounding more astonished, while the former's reaction was more forced because of his inclination about Merlin's abilities.
"I was born with it, or so I was told."
"Merlin-" Gwen started yet quickly eyed Gaius.
Gaius smiled to himself, seeing where Gwen's resolve lied. "I have no reason to tell the King."
"Neither do I," she said with conviction.
"And I certainly don't," Merlin unnecessarily piped in, yet he quickly changed to a more sombre tone, "I would also like to go through with it."
It took a while for Gaius to understand. "The caesarean?"
"Are you sure Merlin?" Gwen asked.
Merlin nodded with a protective hand rubbing his belly.
Merlin had seen Gaius off the next morning with a ramble of questions, Gwen helped the physician pack last minute items into his small satchel.
"How are you getting there? You're not going to walk are you? When do you think you'll get back? How are you getting back?"
"I'm having a merchant take me with him on his travelling route. I cared for his wife when they had come to Camelot a few years ago. Don't worry Merlin, I'll come back in time."
"I just want to know you'll be safe."
Gaius smiled at his concern. "I'll be fine," he said, giving a comforting pat on Merlin's shoulders.
"Gaius, I need to fetch some water from the well for your travels."
"Gwen, my dear, you're doing far too much."
Yet the maidservant is already walking towards the door. "Anything to help a friend."
Gaius sighed and ignored Merlin's grin, who was enjoying the sight of someone else being mother-hen with Gwen's nurturing kindness.
"Now you know how I feel."
"Silence." Gaius swiped at a laughing Merlin. "Before I forget." The physician stood up, walking to one of the book shelves. "I have something for you." Gaius reached behind the shelf and pulled out a cloth-wrapped object. It had the general shape of a book, but when Gaius uncovered what he was being given, Merlin could feel an anxiousness in his feet. He not sure if he should accept, despite the fact that his hands were already reaching out to hold the book.
"It's one of the few books I managed to keep safe. And I think it'll have better use with you, then it does behind my bookshelves."
Merlin has to clamp upon the laugh that threatens to explode from his mouth, giddy with Gaius's gift. The magic book was old, the cover bared scratch marks and the colour was faded around the corner and edges of the book. Merlin flipped to a random page, running his fingers across the ink on the page. The writing was neat and legible, but he'd notice they would change as he flipped to other pages. This magic book was an anthology of spells from a community of people, filled and passed down the generations, and now to him. "Gaius I don't know what to say."
"You're welcome," Gaius said, as Gwen entered the physician quarters with news that the merchant was ready to go.
They hugged and exchanged cautioned advice before Gaius left, leaving Merlin to rest in bed for the rest of the day, which was odd with Gaius's absent presence. Gwen visited and brought him food, and he cooked his dinner and poured through the magic book that Gaius had given him, which proved to be a better source of reading material than horrifying himself on the collection of books on pregnancy and childbirth.
He was halfway through the book when the sun had long set, and the candle's wax had substantially burnt down. Merlin's eyes ached and he should have been peacefully sleeping like everyone else would be, but he couldn't sleep knowing he was entirely alone in the room. He'd grown up living with other people always nearby, sharing a tent with the other children in the crowded space of Anhora's camp, or the knowledge there was someone on the other side of the door. Suddenly by himself, Merlin felt restless like he did on his travel to Camelot, except then he had the comfort of the surrounding nature. Camelot's walls no longer felt as alive as the first time he laid eyes on it, but Merlin knew that had to do with his own thoughts. Merlin stepped out of the quarters and explored Camelot.
Today he walked further than usual, almost to the outlaying gates. While Gaius's leave does make him anxious, there was a small air of freedom of not being confined to his room. He didn't have to worry about Gaius finding him missing, and it must have been why he found himself closer to Camelot's mountain walls than he intended. The entire time he'd been daydreaming about the child, and imagining what it would be like to hold and care for them. Merlin enjoyed the thought of watching them grow, giving them laughter, and teaching them his knowledge in magic like Anhora and other elders had done for him. He especially enjoyed the thought of no longer having to deal with the swell and ache of his feet-like they did now, so Merlin made his way back.
Yet as Merlin continued to daydream, he realized that he couldn't imagine his home as the setting, because he couldn't go back. It was the agreement he had made with the elders, if he found the father then he could return home. He had never had the chance to settle on the thought, with Gaius and Gwen making sure he and the baby were developing healthily, but Merlin must have always known at the back of his mind that Anhora's camp could no longer be called home.
Halfway back to his quarters, Merlin sat on a pair of crates against the inner walls of the castle. He didn't want to overdo it, remembering that he couldn't run like he use to. So Merlin closed his eyes on thought of Anhora's camp, the smell of the trees and mossy dirt, smoke from the fire, and the almost bland taste of the food in comparison to Camelot's exoticism. Merlin wished to be home, but he wasn't allowed back unless he found the father.
And he did find the father, the son of a King who feared magic with an almost paranoid frenzy. Maybe he could get the elders to understand, he had found the father, so he could go back. Merlin had found a man bound to a destiny far greater than the life of a boy who lived his life in the forest. The roles of royalty, leadership, and the gossip that travelled throughout the circles of nobles and commoners, was a life far more mysterious than anything Merlin's had to deal with. But he wanted—
The notion felt about as intangible as the wind.
Merlin wasn't sure how long he sat there, when an itching settled in his neck and shoulders that unnerved him. It was animal instincts that made Merlin look to his left to his Hunter standing underneath an archway. Merlin held himself still, unsure how to proceed and observed the prince where he sat. Arthur seemed as shocked by his presence, as Merlin was by his.
"Hi," Merlin mustered up, wanting to wrap his arms around his belly, but not wanting to draw Arthur's attention there. He struggled to keep his arms to his side and lax. Arthur walked forward and Merlin did his best to imitate the statues that stood watch on the tower tops.
"I've been told that you still remained in Camelot." There's an air of indifference to Arthur's regal stance, but Merlin could feel the yearning of curiosity as Arthur's eyes investigated his form. "You've grown," Arthur noted.
A jolt of fear coursed through Merlin, and with the danger of drawing attention to himself thwarted, he protectively wrapped the site of his belly from Arthur, stopping the man from continuing forward any further.
Arthur continued his indifference. "You haven't been walking out—"
"Of course not," Merlin bit back, yet he continued quietly, "Only at night."
Arthur nodded as though in understanding, still studying his form. Merlin kept his head lowered, watching from beneath the fringes of his bangs, noticing that the Prince wasn't wearing his regal attire from before. Yet the simple white tunic and brown trousers didn't hide his royal upbringing, as he stood with the pride and air of nobility. Merlin felt as though Arthur was trying to guess his motives—or his sanity.
"What makes you believe it's real?" He stepped closer to show he was unafraid of Merlin.
Merlin stayed quiet, even if he did want to snort at Arthur's question. He was unsure whether to make a run for home or defend against Arthur's scrutiny. The baby kicked, the baby moved, and he felt it doing so.
Arthur continued on with slight stumbles in his speech. "If it's a curse, we simply need to find the sorcerer that has done this to you and kill him—or her." Arthur was now in front of Merlin, halfway between crouching and standing.
"It's not a curse." Merlin found himself strangely calm, despite seeing Arthur's legs itch to move back.
"Then what is it?"
"A gift." Merlin lightly rubbed the top of his belly, allowing his smile to come through. "I had a lot of time to think about it." He took his chance and fully looked at Arthur, finding him to be equally handsome under the moonlight, and his arms looked as strong as he remembered.
Arthur continued to keep a watchful eye on Merlin. "This isn't natural."
"I don't think it mattered. I repaid you for your mercy that day. And in turn, we were both being repaid in kind."
It took a few moments for Arthur to understand, and he huffed when he finally did, which quickly tumbled into laughter. Arthur had slept with Merlin as a bargain for a unicorn to live, and in return he received a pregnant man for his trouble. "What do you know about unicorns?" Arthur scoffed lightly.
"Obviously more than you." Merlin gasped, his hand jumped to the side of the—tummy.
Arthur searched for the right word, and still had trouble comprehending pregnancy and male together in the same thought. He wanted to ask if anything was wrong, but he didn't feel he had the right to do so. When Merlin began to smile, Arthur's worry was instantly appeased. But then he watched in stilted breathe as a small bump travelled across Merlin's—his spine shivered, because there was an actual being inside there.
"How far are you?" Arthur asked, keeping his voice neutral.
"I have a few months left to go."
He could feel Merlin's inquisitiveness about him, and wasn't appalled when Merlin took his hand and guided it beneath his shirt, pressing it against the warm (filled) abdomen. They stayed like that for an abysmally long time, with Arthur kneeling in dirt beside the wooden crate Merlin sat on. Then he felt the flutter beneath his hand.
"What was that?" He was almost afraid to ask.
"The baby kicked." Merlin had only eyes for him, pleading for Arthur to accept.
Arthur could only shake his head, because there were laws, acts of nature, and a child he didn't know how to handle all together at once. "Did you find the pendant?" He finally said, knowingly watching Merlin's face descend.
"No," he whispered.
Arthur nodded, keeping his face turned away. He stood up, wiping the dirt off his knees. "Keep well." Arthur walked away, a stiffness hurting his legs and stifling his lungs. He doesn't dare look back, listening to Merlin struggling to stand and head back to the comfort of his bed. As prince and knight, he's assured that the nights in Camelot were safe.
"What's the Prince like?" Merlin asked, battering at a piece of meat with a wooden mallet.
"Prince Arthur?" Gwen questioned, grinding down the herbs for the evening meal she was teaching Merlin. "Well he's handsome," then quickly added, "But a bit of a bully between you and me."
Merlin stayed depressingly silent, which Gwen noticed. Merlin's mood had been sullen for the past few weeks, and her attempts to cheer him had gone unrewarded with a smile. She had even suggested a walk out at night when everyone was sleeping, yet the notion seemed to have an opposite affect. In a last attempt, Gwen hoped a good meal will bring back a smile. Beef wasn't cheap, but she was able to get a deal at the market.
"Is that all?" Merlin flatly said.
"Well, he's incredibly skilled with a sword. He's been participating in the tournaments the past years and has been winning them. I think he's mostly attending to the duties that are required of him."
"When he's not being a bully?"
Gwen paused to look over her shoulder at Merlin, seeing the touch of anger at the corner of his mouth and the considerable amount of force he used to bring down the tenderizer. "He likes to pick on the servants," she continued, "The Lady Morgana likes to say that his entitlement has gone to his head. Though, I did hear from the kitchens that he's been a bit absent-minded these days." Gwen looked over at Merlin again and the state of the meat he was preparing. "Merlin, I think you're good now. You can stop."
"Sorry," Merlin mumbled. The meat and tenderizer got placed to the side, which left Merlin to sit and stare absentmindedly at his hands. He didn't look very sorry.
"Why are you asking?" Gwen inquired, not expecting an answer as she took the meat away and prepared it with the herbs, before cooking it in her fireplace. Nonetheless, she was curious with Merlin's own sullen mood.
Merlin ignored her question. "So the Prince is not a good man."
"I wouldn't say that. He may be a prince, but he has his faults. And I can't say that he doesn't care for his people." Gwen was beginning to understand that Merlin was fishing for information. But why?
"Gwen, what usually happens to women when their pregnant. I mean, if a lord were to—with a servant."
She looked carefully at Merlin this time, stopping everything she was doing to turn the question in her head, connecting them with Merlin's inquiries about Arthur. "She'll be," Gwen struggled to find the words, "-placed out of sight. No lord would want an illegitimate child." A thought was sitting at the back of her mind, and she wasn't sure how to approach it.
"I think the entire time I've been here in Camelot, I haven't seen a single mother raising a child on her own in Camelot."
Gwen wasn't sure what to make of Merlin statement, because she knew it wasn't true, and that Merlin knew this too. Father's die and the wives were left with their children, if they had any. One of them was even on Gaius's medicine run, when Merlin was still able to leave his quarter.
Merlin gave a dreary smile. "There's no one I can talk to anyway."
Gwen threw caution to the wind. "Why did you want to know?"
Gwen placed the meat to cook on the fire, moving around to ease her discomfort with the choking silence and Merlin's disparity. "Merlin," Gwen hesitated, "If you don't mind me asking, who is the father?"
His shoulders tensed and doesn't relax when he shrugged again. Merlin looked like he wanted to curl upon himself, like a child hiding in their bed from the eerie howls of the strong wind.
Gwen sat down near Merlin, who viewed the darkly shaped knots on her rough wood floor. Then without prompt she hugged him from behind, giving all the affection she knew he wanted from somebody far beyond either of their stations.
He felt ridiculous as he sat on the main staircase, leaning against the base of a statue for coverage, out in the open courtyard. Merlin couldn't walk when his body swayed side to side, unable to balance on his own two feet. It hurt now that he couldn't even see past his toes. He's not even sure how he made it this far. Despite the openness, Merlin felt closed in with the guards doing their patrols and marching near the steps. He made sure to keep his stomach from sight, pulling his cloak tightly around him and turning his body to the shadows of the statue's base.
"I'm just resting," he whispered, having taken to talking to his child, at first to fill his time when Gwen was busy with her duties, yet Merlin found it made him love the being inside him even more. He felt guilt for ever thinking it could have been a curse, which had taken weeks for Gwen to convince him otherwise.
"You're so big now. When Gaius comes back, I'll know when I get to see you." The letter from Gaius had arrived a few days prior, stating that he'd be back in a week's time, and will know the spell and procedure to deliver the baby safely, while lowering the chances of his life in dire jeopardy. Merlin had felt a huge relief to read of Gaius's success in obtaining the knowledge about the procedure.
Merlin softly rubs his belly, before pushing himself to stand, using the statue's base to support himself, and turned around. Yet he found himself gripping against the flat stone when he is faced with the Prince, whom had been coming down the stairs towards him, now paused in motion since he'd been caught. Merlin took an involuntary step back, slipping his foot onto the lower step and losing all sense of balance. Suddenly, the Prince was steadying him between the statue's base and his body.
Merlin did his best to pry himself from the Prince's grip, even as one of his ankles throbbed painfully. When Merlin finally settled he stared at the Prince, looking upon the face that had his emotions war with each other, like the snarling between two great wolves. He could see that the Prince had trouble fathoming his own actions, trying to run on the lines between noble decorum and the commoner's less than noble conducts. Either way, Merlin didn't think it bode well for him to be in this man's presence. He attempted a bow, mimicking the other servants he'd seen from the windows in Gaius's quarters, though the advance stage of his pregnancy made it impossible. Unless he were to curtsey, yet Merlin wouldn't dare for the sake of his own dignity.
"What are you doing?" The Prince had sounded rather affronted.
"Is there something you wanted my lord?" It must have sounded as unnatural to the Prince's ears as it did for Merlin, but Merlin needed to maintain his distance.
The Prince doesn't reply, looking astounded at Merlin, unsure whether to proceed forward or fall into the role Merlin had prescribed. "I noticed Guinevere has been visiting you often," he finally said with a quality of familiarity.
"You know Gwen?"
"She's Lady Morgana's handmaid." At Merlin's confused expression, the Prince clarified. "The Lady Morgana is my father's ward. Gwen has been her handmaiden for some time."
"I'm aware of whom the Lady Morgana is," Merlin said indigently.
"Then why the face."
He replied sharply, "I'm merely surprised you know her name."
Annoyance crossed upon the Prince's face at Merlin's stoic attitude, but the Prince continued, "I assume she knows about your condition."
"Yes," he answered sternly, "she's aware of my pregnancy." For some reason Merlin thought it felt odd, saying it out loud for the first time.
The Prince continued unfazed by Merlin's antagonism. "She's taking care of you."
"Yes." Merlin wanted to go back to his room as soon as possible, but he couldn't let the Prince bully Gwen. "You can't stop her from doing that. She won't bow down."
"Like you," the Prince said lightly.
Merlin felt an angry flush at the Prince's audacity to smile. "Is there something you wanted my lord?" He said, falling back to the servant role.
"Enough of that." He's irritated now, trying to at least place some peace between them.
"No," Merlin said childishly.
Arthur allowed himself to have a proper look since the couple of months that had passed when he'd last seen Merlin this close. Since that night he's been tailing Merlin on his midnight walks, watching how the belly grew and Merlin's increasing difficulty to walk.
Arthur never realized how big it could get. When he had first touched that mound in the dungeons, Arthur could imagine how the life inside could easily fit into the palm of his hand. The second time, he felt the elbow move across his hand. He wondered how big it was now.
Despite Merlin's new figure there was still an enchantment to him, a glow if he needed to describe it. While his skin was no longer as white as the unicorn, Arthur found he preferred the darker tone of his skin, as though Merlin was pulled out of that fairytale experience and pulled into his reality where he was now a father-to-be.
Arthur jerked up, as Merlin shouted at a man across the courtyard. The peasant looked at Merlin uncertainly, yet still scared, the man made a run for it. Merlin began to propel himself forward after the man, yet Arthur quickly caught him in his arms and held Merlin back.
"What are you doing?" Arthur shouted.
"Let me go, I need to go after him."
Arthur could feel that Merlin was rabid with rage. "Merlin you can't run like…" He gestured to his abdomen.
"Arthur!" Merlin spat back, "He's getting away, let me go."
Arthur kept his hold as Merlin tried to shake himself from his grip, his shouting become more desperate.
"I'll go," he said, as Merlin tried to get out of Arthur's grip.
He doesn't understand Merlin's objections. "Merlin, you can't run after anything as you are. I'll go."
Arthur forced Merlin back down onto the steps, taking off after the peasant around the corner where he had last disappeared. He couldn't see the man, but Arthur could think a few routes the peasant would have travelled, he knew the castle better than anyone else after all.
And he was hoping that he would catch the man, that he could return—he was a fool to admit it—as Merlin's hero.
It was stupid.
Most of all, it was naïve. Arthur could understand why Merlin was doing his best to stay distant, admit that Merlin's reaction towards him was his own doing, and yet he didn't want to fully accept it. If the child was really his, if Merlin could find the pendant, then he could set everything right—and if the child was his and the pendant remained lost? The thought left a dissatisfying taste in his mouth. He didn't consider himself to be a hard man at heart like his father, yet he might have to be.
Arthur conceded to himself that he was too used to having everything.
Yet he needed to stay with his resolve in his condition to Merlin about the pendant. His father and the court would whisper his weakness in laying with a strange beauty at a moment of ardour. Arthur couldn't go back on his term, because he needed proof even if they couldn't know certain details unlawful of the birth.
So he'd wait for the pendant that Merlin claim was stolen by thieves the very day they meet again. Arthur wondered if Merlin ever searched the faces of Camelot, looking for the culprit. Suddenly, Arthur stopped. He rethought the words in his head, and involuntarily his heart sped as did his feet.
Merlin was after this man, and Arthur needed to find him too.
Merlin felt dizzy, he wondered if it was a physical or an emotions reaction to seeing the father of his child again. He thought it was made clear where Merlin stood in the Prince's life, yet again the Prince proved to make is life a little foggy. The Prince had cared for him, had been gentle, and then he backed away when he found out about the child, turned around to inquire about his health, yet he still didn't want him. Merlin was receiving both ends of the stick, the jagged broken end of the branch and the buds blooming at the other. He'd rather he be handed one side than both—teased with the idea of familial delight than sharply prodded on the side.
"I couldn't find anyone." The Prince said, out of breath with his tunic clinging to his body, sweat dampening all along his back.
Merlin nodded sullenly.
"I'll help you back to you room."
"I'll be fine." Merlin backed away as quickly as he could, willing to shamefully crawl on his back if he had to.
Yet the Prince was having none of it as he took hold of Merlin again, pulling him up to stand and leaning Merlin against him for support. "I'm taking you back."
The Prince's tone said that he wouldn't be bartered with, so Merlin followed silently along, allowing the familiar scent and feel of the Prince's body take a hold of his memories. Merlin even thought that the Prince's laboured breathing from his exhaustive search for the thief, was the same when the man had been on top of him. Merlin imagined that he could stay like this, pretending it was an embrace. Yet Merlin had to jolt out of his daydream, when there came a sudden urge to kiss the Prince. He quickly pivoted away to the side, hitting his back to the wall with a little force.
"What are you doing?" The Prince's voice sounded stricken, and then shifted to provide support for Merlin's weight, holding him a bit more tightly than before.
The Prince looked at him in bewilderment before morphing into concern. "Be careful."
"Why?" The undertone of anger was cutting.
"What do you care?" Merlin quickly interceded, and then pulled himself forward and kissed the Prince, his Hunter. He bit him for good measure and pushed away, eyes bright with tears. Merlin doesn't want to hear it from man, whether he be the Prince, Hunter, or simply Arthur. Merlin won't subject himself any further to him, without any guarantees of acknowledgement about the child and who he is.
"I need to go back to my room." His voice was strained and dry.
Arthur was stunned as his lip stung with pain. He mindlessly proffered his hand, feeling minor terror that Merlin would accept it, which he suitably does, unable to venture back alone. No words are exchanged between them, letting the other reside in their solitude as they walked abreast. He made sure Merlin was safe in his room, almost wanting to guard the door from a phantom danger. Arthur didn't know what he was doing anymore.
"My lord!" Arthur jumped. A knight was striding towards him, a manner of urgent business surrounded him.
"What is it?" He asked as professionally as possible.
"There's been a series of thefts among the courtiers." Arthur was already following the guard, attending to his duties as Crown Prince.
Merlin no longer went out for midnight walks, preferring the safety of glass vials and the potions adorning the shelves. He relabelled a few of them to keep himself busy, resisting the temptation for a lonely stroll.
As the growth of the baby continued, Merlin continued to ponder the enigma of Camelot's Prince: valiant when he wasn't being marked by his indecisiveness. Merlin knew that the desire between them was mutual, he could feel that when he had kiss him outside the doors to Gaius's quarters.
But the Prince didn't seem sure on his stance with his baby. While the man wasn't executing Merlin on the chopping block, the Prince knew about the magical involvement and had seemed to ignore it thus far. The few times Merlin had talked to the Prince about it, he had listened, and also never gave an answer as to his decision.
Merlin sat in the middle of the floor with a labyrinth pattern underneath him, the sunlight splashing across his face. Merlin spent the morning thinking about his options again, becoming more resolute to go home after the baby is born. He'll live in the forest again, hopefully under Anhora's mentorship as before, watching over the unicorns. The thought made him sad for someone, in fact it made him ache, and he didn't know why.
In the distance Merlin could hear drums being played, a steady rhythm that reverberated into his room from the window. It was a different sound compared to the small drums played around the campfire during celebrations, it wasn't playful or entertaining. It's beat was a consistent pace, heavy, deep, and a little foreboding.
"Merlin." Gaius crashed through the door looking for him in a panic.
"Gaius! You're two days early." He said with excited glee, before noticing the distress on his face. "What's wrong?"
Merlin watched as Gaius worked his way to the right words. "The group you were originally from, who are they?"
"The group? Anhora's camp?"
Gaius's face paled at the name. "I'm sorry Merlin," deep grief imbued with every word.
"Gaius what's wrong?" He asked wearily, that ache in his chest splintering out.
Gaius came down to sit beside Merlin, looking a little pained with the steps he took, and placed his hands on Merlin's shoulder in a gesture of comfort, that only made him nervous. "Uther's men had been looking for a known magic user. It seems a camp within the Forest of Balor had been harbouring the man."
Merlin felt pale, those splinters piercing his throat. "What are you saying?" He asked in disbelief.
Gaius's frown deepened, and he looked away unwilling to carry on. "I don't think the stress will be good for your baby."
He stared at Gaius in disbelief, willing him to say more than the diverting words he'd given. Merlin wanted to know what Gaius was worried about, he needed to know about his home.
"Let's get you up," Gaius said, trying to guide Merlin to his room.
Gaius helped him to his feet, but he made the mistake of thinking Merlin would listen. Merlin headed in the opposite direction, grabbing a cloak to wrap around himself, before exiting out the door and ignoring Gaius's protest. He ambled down the stairs as quickly as he could, following the booming drums echoing through the halls and expanding to the courtyard. A crowd was gathered near the center, a platform raised above them with two men on it, each held an axe. The echo of authority stood at a balcony above, and suddenly two people were being brought forth.
Merlin watched from behind the column within its shadow, gripping onto the column tightly and feeling the grit of the stone under his fingertips. He recognized the man and the woman brought to the platform, their sinewy hands that'll cook, hunt, gathering herbs, or pass the food at the small circle around the fire. They are lowered down with their heads placed over the block, over a basket. The axe seemed to shine into his eyes when it raised, the gleam falling away when-he didn't look away, stared as a growing horror crept from his eyes and down his throat.
Merlin stayed silent attempting to meld with the castle's stonework. He kept expecting everyone to turn his way and see the way he shook. They were going to see and know. It didn't take much strength for Gaius to pull him away, lost in his head and the repeating image of his home destroyed.
"Merlin," Gaius said again as he shook his ward's shoulders.
He felt the tears slipping down his neck and wetting his tunic. "Gaius." His voice was clogged with a hard lump and he tried to swallow it down.
"Let's get you to your room." Gaius pulled on Merlin's arm, unsuccessfully prying him from his spot. Eventually, Merlin went along like a doll. He turned to look once more, the bodies were being taken off the execution platform and he sobbed. "Merlin," Gaius tried to compel.
He said a goodbye quietly inside his thoughts, wondering if his magic could deliver the words to them as they traveled to Avalon. Merlin looked at the balcony for Arthur, finding him absent from his father's side. Yet he felt drawn to the direct opposite side of the courtyard, near a shadowed alcove. Merlin watched as Arthur pulled Gwen to a corner to stay conspicuously out of sight, and imagined a variety of conversations between them: Arthur granting Gwen access to more food in the kitchen storages, or Gwen's sudden gift of a new cloak he was currently wearing. While Merlin figured Arthur has been trying to protect him from afar, he knew Arthur didn't have any such conversation with Gwen. He's sure Arthur didn't even know Gwen knew about the prince's role in his pregnancy.
The Prince had surely made the connection between him and the camp of magic users in the Forest of Balor, where they had consummated a bargain derived by a fit of passion and an unforeseen, mystifying bond. The sudden thought of his home made Merlin feel pressed in, despite being so close to the open space of the courtyard, and the weight of it was crushing as he was stranded in his room. He was beginning to find Arthur's demand to stay hidden within the castle was unreasonable, especially when he had hoped to make a living with him, while Merlin had his own immensely unreasonable demands towards a prince.
A decision was made, one that Merlin hadn't ever realized he was seriously considering. He would pack his things, all the items he could possibly take. He wouldn't be able to walk so he'll have to hitch a ride from the carts exiting out of the gates.
He would find and make his own home.
Arthur pulled Gwen to the nearest dark corner. "I need you to tell Merlin to stay out of sight if he hasn't already." Morgana's maidservant looked flabbergasted, her mouth open in wide shock. Arthur barrelled on, "If he has any ties with these magic users I want him out of sight."
Gwen stared at Arthur incomprehensively, before she finally said, "I don't understand."
"If Merlin knows these people, I don't want him to know." His agitation made him aggressive, yet secrecy kept him quiet.
"Sire, what are your intentions with him?" Gwen was looking at him closely, trying to decipher his motives. Despite his title, there was nothing respectful or deferent about Gwen's scrutiny.
"Just go find Merlin," he hissed.
Gwen lifted her chin at Arthur's tone, eyes narrowing in defiance and annoyance. "If I may say Milord, you're a coward."
It's Arthur's turn to look shock, his temper dissolving minutely by the offence. "I'm the crown prince," he objected.
"And you're also a father," she berated, quickly continuing before Arthur could exclaim his surprise. "I have never seen the two of you together, and yet I understand you care for him—I can see you care for him. But I do as well, and I feel I must inform you of the pain you cause. You place yourself in front of him, but you won't stand beside him. Merlin won't endure with a half promise, and he doesn't care of it."
Arthur is shocked. A servant has never spoken to him like that, additionally Gwen knew about his relations with Merlin. Yet he's more dazed by the former than the latter. It took a moment for Arthur to regain his composure. When he could see Gwen's anger tamper down, they both check the people in their surroundings, before she continued with a more passive in her reproach. "Milord, you have to make a decision."
He took a step back, taking a minute to digest Gwen's word. "You're not going to tell me to make the right one?"
"You don't mean to, but you're playing with his feelings. He's waiting for you."
"But not forever," Arthur finished.
Gwen nodded her head, and then curtsey as a servant would, before leaving him to his thoughts.
Arthur headed towards the dungeons, demeaned by having to deal with Camelot's petty criminals at such a time. He spent the afternoon mauling over Gwen's words, finding himself stuck at an impasse. There was the obvious involvement of magic, and on the other hand there was the idea of being a father greatly outweighed any fear he held. He suddenly had a lineage, he suddenly had a child, he suddenly had the comforting ease of Merlin's presence to soothe the weight of his title. Arthur wasn't sure how to place it all together under one choice.
"What do we have?" He asked the guard gruffly.
"They were caught attempting to steal from Lord Sterle," the on-duty guard answered. "And we found other possessions with them."
There was a rucksack by the wall, and a quick look inside said all he needed to know. Arthur looked through the bars of the cell, scrutinizing the four men chained to the walls. One of them is fairly brawny, and Arthur would have thought them the leader if it wasn't for the intelligence in another's eyes. He, unlike the rest, appeared compose while chained to a wall. Their clothing were haphazardly coordinated, all matching by their dark tones, the brightest a dark red that's covered in dirt. They appeared to be in good health for peasants, and they were all young, not even at the cusp of their coming of age. So Arthur knew they'd be irritating whelps.
"And what do you have to say for yourself?" He called to them.
"We weren't stealing from no one," one of them said. Arthur looked at the source, finding it was the man he deduced as the ring leader of this gang.
"Is that so?" Arthur reached into the bag, pulling out a lady's hair ornament. "And I suppose this is yours to." He laughed, the guards along with him.
The leader sneered at them, jerking forward to spit at them. A useless effort as it didn't even reach their feet, let along half of the cell's length. It only made the guards laugh harder, but something else had already caught his eye.
Arthur peered through the bars when a red gleam shook out from underneath the gang leader's tunic. His heart thumped and jumped. "Open these doors," he ordered, startling the guards by his sudden change in mood, but one of them readily complying.
Once the cell door swung open, Arthur strode forward with a determine purpose, snatching at the red-jewelled pendant around the thief's neck.
"That's mine!" The leader shouted.
Arthur pulled it closer to himself, the leather cord probably biting into the back of the man's neck. He inspected at it carefully. "Where did you gets this?" He asked again, already knowing its origin.
"It's mine," the leader smirked.
"Is it," Arthur said casually, "because I can certainly tell you that this pendant belongs to me."
At that the leader's smirk wilted away. "I never stole from you," the leader said, believing he was being framed. "Took it off a guy from the market."
Arthur didn't expect the inadvertent admission to theft, but it worked nicely in favour of Camelot's law.
"Warin, shut up!" One of the gang member's yelled, though Warin had already realized his mistake in his attempt at self-preservation.
"It's good that you confessed." Arthur ripped the pendant off Warin, the cord snapping violently from his neck. He turned on his heel, holding his pendent tightly in his hands.
"Sire?" The guard questioned.
"Keep them locked for the night, I'll figure out what to do with them in the morning." He rushed away, ignoring his duty for once.
He shouldn't have needed it, the red pendant he had given to Merlin. In fact he didn't need it, because Arthur already knew Merlin wasn't fibbing about his identity. Yet the small item he held gave him the freedom to accept. It was the easy way out. Or at least the easy way into a decision he wanted. Arthur had asked Merlin for the pendant, and somehow it had fallen into his hands instead.
Arthur busted through the door, uncaring of how the physician would perceive it. "Merlin!" He had shouted, simultaneously with someone else.
Gwen bursted out of the room at the other end of the quarters, she looked at him panicked.
"Where is he?" Arthur immediately asked.
"I don't know." She looked around as though he'll pop up from behind a table. "He's gone."
"What do you mean by gone?"
"None of his things are here. He's left."
Gwen tried to run by Arthur, yet he easily stopped her from going further. "Gwen!"
"Milord he can't be out there. You can't leave him out there. Gaius thinks it's almost time." Tears streamed down her face.
"Gwen go find Gaius for me. I'll go," he said to her.
Gwen's perplexed by his declaration. "You'll—"
"I'll go," Arthur said, mostly to himself.
Merlin was curled up with his back to a tree. One hand ripped the grass from the ground, as he let out a torrent of agony. His clothes were damp with sweat and could see the exhale of air when he panted from the somersaults of pain, surrounded by a familiar settings of the forest.
He had travelled as far as the cart driver would carry him, or as far as Merlin could take being dissected under the driver's questioning gaze. By the time he got off, it was dark. When he looked back, Camelot had become a tip over the hill's horizon. He helped himself off the cart, protesting the driver's hesitant assistance. Merlin said his thank you and watched the driver steer his horse-drawn cart away, at a faster pace than previously before. Merlin had looked at the forest stretching across one side of the road and walked easily between the trees.
Despite the coming darkness, it was comforting to have the familiar smells of decaying leaves, the way his feet seemed to sink into a pile of them beneath him. He'd miss a soft bed, but the forest ground would do just fine.
When the pain hit him it was unexpected. A rippling sensation coursing near his groin and up. He had quickly sat by the nearest tree as soon as possible, trying to find a comfortable position, before giving up into panic. It was too soon, it wasn't nine months. He shouldn't have left, but he was so fixated on going to build himself a home that any consequences seemed minimal. Merlin would have written to Gaius from wherever he settled, believing he had time. It hadn't been nine months yet, there was supposed to be time. He berated himself now, believing that he should have stayed and told Gaius about the small tightening discomfort he'd been feeling right above his groin. He hadn't known what to make of the phantom pain, and regretted to find himself in this state alone.
Merlin had spent hours leaning against the tree, the sun setting long ago leaving him in the dark, and the night getting colder. There was the rustling of leaves, the small creaks of swaying branches, and the growl and chirps from animals. For once the bustle of wildlife made him nervous and the looming of the branches didn't help. The pain was building, occurring more frequently, and Merlin didn't know what to do. He curled himself onto the forest floor as another wave rolled through him.
At first he thought it was the sound of his own heart beating. Yet Merlin began to recognize the sound of horses galloping his way. He instantly muffled his voice, calmed is breathing, not wanting to draw attention if he hadn't already, pushing himself closer to the trunk of the tree with his spine rubbing against the bark.
He wasn't sure which direction the horses were coming from, the sounds seemed echo between the trees, and he couldn't find the focus to concentrate on searching for danger and keeping quiet. So Merlin jumped, startled when a horse and its rider came around from behind the tree. The hooves slid to a halt, the leaves grounded beneath, piling, and fluttering away in a burst of force.
He recognized that voice and gave a cry that was filled equally with relief and grief.
"Gaius over here," Arthur called again, jumping down from the saddle. "Merlin what's wrong?"
Another wave of pain had hit him, but he muffled it into his sleeve. A horse was trotting nearer, Gaius riding the mare up close. Arthur quickly helped Gaius down from the saddle, his old age giving him difficulty.
"Gaius something's wrong," Merlin cried when Gaius neared.
"Let me have a look." Gaius said. "Arthur I need you to prop him up."
Arthur readily complied, sitting Merlin up against the tree, yet kept a hold upon his shoulders. Gaius lifted Merlin's tunic feeling around the swollen belly. The pain came again and Merlin freely cried out this time.
Arthur couldn't believe Merlin manage to get this far from Camelot on his own. Once he found out by the guards that a cloaked figure was seen riding out of Camelot on a cart, Arthur quickly procured two horses for him and Gaius, and quickly rode out. Yet the truth was that Arthur quickly rode out. They were delayed by Gaius's age, his body incapable of riding a horse at full speed.
Arthur had never felt so frustrated and could not speak about it, though Gaius seemed to know. At some point, Arthur had to ride ahead along the road, going back every once a while to check on Gaius. When Arthur caught up with the cart driver, questioning a variety of them along the road, his agitation grew upon the discovery that Merlin had been dropped off a ways back on the road. He hated it, having to travel back, because it felt as though he wasted precious time. It was simply luck that Gaius wasn't too far away from where Merlin entered the woods, coming upon Arthur checking for foot tracks at the edge of the road. By then the sun had already set, the daylight fading quickly.
Yet he found him. Though he wished their reunion weren't obscured by Merlin's state of agony, he was relieved to finally find him.
He watched on as Gaius inspected Merlin's belly with his clinical eye.
"That's what I thought," Gaius said. "Sire I need you to get Merlin in a comfortable reclined position."
"Gaius what's happening?" Merlin asked, as Gaius quickly goes to retrieve his supply bag. Meanwhile, Arthur had slid behind him bracing himself against the tree to act as a cushion. He manoeuvred Merlin to have his head resting at his chest, with the rest of his body conforming down the length of Arthur's, till the warmth disappeared as his waist and beyond extended upon the cold ground.
"I believe the baby has come due," Gaius straight forwardly answered.
"Isn't that soon?" Arthur asked.
"It's too early," Merlin said simultaneously.
"Don't worry. Drink this potion." Gaius handed him a bottle and lifted Merlin's tunic again, rolling it up so it won't slip down.
The physician wetted a cloth with liquid filled in a wineskin, before wiping down from his sternum past his belly button and around that general area. The smell of alcohol invaded their noses, and Arthur could see the shine of liquid glistening off Merlin's belly. "What's that for?" Arthur gasped, one arm wrapped around Merlin's chest.
"I'm cleansing the area of the incision."
"Incision?" Arthur gaped. "Why is an incision required?"
"He has to get the baby out," Merlin gasped, looking at Arthur with a look of awe. The potion he drank made him feel slightly drowsy and numb, but he could still feel the warmth of Arthur's arm.
Arthur reeled from the information, looking down at Merlin. "That'll kill you." He looked ready to object to the procedure till Gaius jumped in.
"Milord we've planned this." Gaius uncurled Merlin hand, slipping a small piece of parchment into it, and then closed Merlin's fingers tightly around it.
"What's wrong with him?" Arthur asked growing more panic as he realized Merlin's drowsed state. He was horrified at the small doubled-edge blade in the physician's hand.
"Milord if you'll let me proceed," Gaius said, a little irritated to be upheld from the operation by Arthur's constant questioning.
Arthur promptly shut his mouth, opting to lay back in the reclined position, despite any discomfort on his back, imaging the blood that would flow out from Gaius's incision.
Gaius leant over the belly, instructing to Arthur, "hold him still. The potion I gave him doesn't completely numb the pain. We need him awake to say the spell." He looked at the prince for any objection to the use of magic, but Arthur simply nodded, shifting himself even lower so he could cradled Merlin's head within his neck and shoulder.
With the final consent, Gaius tipped the edge of the blade past the layer of skin.
Merlin whined into Arthur's neck at the numbed discomfort, more tears falling down his cheeks. The Prince hushed him, rubbing a hand across his chest in a soothing manner.
Gaius had made a vertical incision at the lower end of the belly. Arthur watched, finding himself unnerved by the process. He's killed men with a sword before, knows the sight of life ebbing away. Yet he found this hard to watch.
The process was quick and cautious as Gaius widen the cut, grabbing scissors and snipping away at bits of tissue every so often. Arthur hadn't seen the variety of tools laid out on a cloth beside them and couldn't fathom the sharp instruments uses. He watched as Gaius made precise cuts, getting through more layers of red flesh, dabbing with a cloth at the blood. Arthur saw the wide cut spread to reveal a greyish-pink layer. At this layer Gaius's cuts were so small and quick, that it didn't even seem he was scratching at the layer.
Arthur almost jerked, surprise by the sudden gush of water that poured out from the cut. Gaius's hands quickly moved in, attempting to muscle the layer away. Merlin was breathing into his neck, a collection of moist gathering on his neck between them. He could feel Merlin's entire body sweating with his tunic damp all along his back, drenching the collar, and beneath his armpits. Arthur can especially feel the hard beat of his heart underneath his hand.
He looked back to the surgery, and sees a form of black hair was peeking out. Gaius used his arms to pull it out further. He pushed at the skin and flesh of Merlin's belly and pulled-
When the head was out, Arthur's eyes widen. Gaius began to pull and suddenly Arthur found himself looking at his child. The physician did something, he wasn't sure, but now the baby gave out a cry. His heart flipped and his mind whirled.
"Merlin," Gaius called, cutting a fleshy tube that connected Merlin and the baby together. "Merlin you need to heal yourself. Say the spell."
Arthur hadn't realize how much blood there was, and how more was still flowing. He shook Merlin gently, finding him to be asleep. "Merlin," Arthur called out, easily prying open Merlin's fisted hand. The parchment Gaius had placed there was damp with sweat. He took the parchment, smoothed it flat, and couldn't make use of the words written in ink.
"Merlin," he said, gently jostling him again. Arthur lifted Merlin's head, cradling his jaw, and exposed his face to the cold night air. He looked paler, and Arthur's heart flipped for a different reason. "Merlin," his voice trembled.
"Merlin, say the spell." Arthur held out the little scrap of paper to Merlin's gaunt face, paler than normal. "Come on, say the words." He pulled Merlin's body closer and with fear, imagined it growing colder.
"Arthur." Merlin sounded breathless and barely awake.
"Yeah," he said, and gave a smile that was ravaged with distress, "Yeah, it's Arthur." He wiped at the sweat on Merlin's forehead, pushing his hair way from his face. "Listen Merlin, I need you to say this for me." He help up the parchment again.
Merlin looked at it, eyes slowly focusing on the words. Arthur could see a form of understanding make its way through, and Merlin shook his head. "No, magic's not allowed."
Merlin's head lolled on his shoulders and Arthur had to shake him awake, rapid with panic as blood continued to flow. "Merlin!" He said slightly louder.
"I'm tired," Merlin complained as his body dragged him back to sleep.
"After you say this." Arthur pressed his shoulder forward, titling Merlin's head up to read the spell.
He almost shouted with joy when Merlin complied, struggling to read it, but slowly making his way through. Eventually he was able to say the words in one smooth flow after a couple of tries, Arthur prodding him to read it again every time. Merlin's blue eyes flashed with gold, and the gaping cut seemed to knit itself together. When the spell was done his eyes were back to its normal colour.
"I'm tired," Merlin repeated to him, appealing with Arthur to let him sleep.
Arthur smiled, crying with relief. "You can rest."
Merlin gave his own tired grin, burying his face back into Arthur's neck, not bothered by salty water that tracked down Arthur's face. He petted Merlin's hair, looking at an incision that never seemed to existed and the blood that said otherwise.
Arthur's breath caught when he turned to Gaius, and he wasn't even aware that he had outstretched an arm until he pulled the small bundle of warmth to his body. The child breathed softly and had let out one small cry as he was handed to his father. He's transfixed by its small weight and scared by its delicate nature. The boy—it's a boy—has his eyes closed. His face is wrinkled and pink, and Arthur could still see blood in his hair, but his child still managed to keep him awestruck.
He let out a joyous laughed. He didn't want to look away, but took a chance to look at Merlin, and could see the barely open eyes of his exhausted body. Arthur lifted the baby higher, surprise by its squeal at the sudden shift of position. Another bubble of laughter sounded out, because he had never felt this elated in his life. "I'll protect you both." When he looked back at Merlin, he can see the faintest of smiles. But he didn't know who it was for.
Merlin couldn't believe it. He rubbed his thumb down the baby's cheek, watching it suckle at the milk dispense from what looked like a wineskin, yet had a much smaller tip. He listened to his child's breathing as it hungrily sucked at the milk. Over the noise, he could hear Arthur sleeping upright in the chair beside the bed.
It was a shock to find the Prince there beside his bed, until he recalled a faded whispered promise. It could have been a dream, a creation of wishful thinking, yet when he looked down at his baby Merlin found he didn't particularly care. It hurt to smile, but he couldn't stop.
"What will you name him?"
Merlin jostled in surprise, the milk dripped onto the blanket rather than the small sucking mouth. The baby cried for a bit, till Merlin can reposition the tip into his mouth, and his son quieted down.
He studied Arthur for a bit before replying, "I don't know. I never really thought about it." Merlin was sure Arthur was gazing at him, and he fidgeted from the stare.
Arthur doesn't say anything for a while. They both take their time to watch the baby.
"I'm sorry," Arthur's voice boomed. It startled Merlin again, and his son is crying once more at being separated from his meal. Arthur gave a light huff, chuckling at the display. "I'm sorry," he says again without the weight of the previous months. Instead he was apologizing for the small mistake of scaring him again.
Merlin shrugged, unsure he had anything to say.
They don't speak. Their son is finally done with the milk, and Merlin lifted him to his shoulder, patting him on the back as Gaius and Gwen had instructed him to do. There's a tiny burp that has the both of them smiling like loons. Merlin took the time to simply cradle his boy.
They stayed like that for a while, Merlin unsure of the Arthur, until the man leaned out of his chair and pressed his lips to Merlin's. Arthur had one leg and knee on his bed, and kept his lips to his mouth.
Merlin smiled, his mouth widening and Arthur took that for permission. They kissed: gently, unhurried, and tenderly.
When Arthur pulled away, he kissed his son's forehead, then ran a thumb down Merlin's cheek, just as he done for their child.