Author: Ali-chan (ad_exia)
Summary: Merlin goes back to witness Arthur's birth.
A/N: Title from the song by Live because it fits, in ways. Spoilers for Excalibur.
Merlin had to admit, he’d been curious. He’d wanted to know the details, and Gaius hadn’t been able to give them to him. And so he’d waited until past midnight, when Arthur had been seen to and put to bed and Gaius was snoring out in the workroom, and then he’d locked his door and lit a candle with a muffled whisper of a word. Merlin had dug out the magic book from beneath the floorboard. He hadn’t known exactly what the spell would be, but he’d found it, there between the words to bring the rainstorm and the chant to bless a marriage. It had been simple – almost too simple – but he’d pored over the page until the candle had burned low and flickered and the first light of the pre-dawn had begun to paint the sky.
Then, only when Merlin was sure he’d know the words backwards, forwards, and in his sleep, had he hidden the book again and stood in the center of his room. He’d closed his eyes, opened his hands, and held them palm up as he recited the words. And only after the last echo of the last whisper had died out in his head had he opened his eyes and found himself here.
Except he wasn’t in a different place, so much as a different time.
It was early morning on a day much like the one he’d left, but nothing was the same. Merlin could feel the differences in his skin even before he’d fully realized that his room was no longer a room fit for a person, but more of a stockroom. Crude shelves lined the walls, and bottles and jars and urns filled with herbs and liquids and things that looked like they might once have been alive covered every available surface. Merlin was sure to get his bearings before taking even a single step, lest he send everything crashing to the ground and alert the physician to his presence.
Merlin put his eyes to the knot in the door – it was still there, as it had been in his time, and peered into the workroom beyond. There, bent over the worktable, was Gaius, but while the sight was at once familiar, it was at the same time very different. For this was a younger Gaius, with a straighter back and broader shoulders and brown hair pulled back into a tail. But his face was the echo of the man he knew, and Merlin knew for sure now that he’d gotten the spell right.
Of course, he couldn’t just go barging out into the workroom with no explanation as to who he was or how he’d gotten into the storeroom in the first place. So he’d waited, his eye to the door (and hoping that Gaius wouldn’t actually need anything from this room, Merlin realized he hadn’t thought of that). But his luck – as it was – held, and midmorning there came a knock at the door before it opened.
The instant he saw her, he knew who she was. It was hard not to know, Merlin supposed, by the way she carried herself, even nine months into her pregnancy and almost to the point of bursting. But it wasn’t her hair, just a touch lighter than Arthur’s, but with the same sheen and glow, or her clothes, as fine as any he’d ever seen upon Morgana. No, it was her eyes that gave Igraine away, the light in them that would soon be extinguished, the joy and the sadness intermixed. When Merlin looked into her eyes, even from across the room he knew with certainty that she knew – she knew she would not see the end of this day, and she had embraced that knowledge in the way that he imagined only a mother could.
It had turned his stomach cold and he had backed away from the door, nearly collapsing against the only bare patch of the wall. His knees were weak and his mind was racing with what ifs and half-formed spells and ways he might save the queen from the fate they both knew awaited her. But in the end, after moments of simply breathing in, and out, and in again, Merlin knew that he was not here to change things. This thing must be done, this life must be lost, so that another could be given. He was not to interfere, and for perhaps the first time in his life, he knew his place without questioning. He was here to watch, to learn, but not to act.
Through the door, he could hear voices. “How are you this morning, my lady?” Gaius asked, his voice stronger and with a slightly different timbre than the one Merlin knew.
“Well, Gaius – I’m well, but I’ve been having slight pains. They’re intermittent, but – ” Igraine’s voice paused, and when she spoke again it was tighter. “There’s another, now.”
“Hm.” There was shuffling, as though Gaius might be examining her, and Merlin’s ears strained to pick up any sound, anything at all that might tell him what was going on as he huddled in the back of the closet that would someday become his room.
“My lady,” Gaius said at last, and his voice was not worried but joyful, almost relieved, “I think the labor is beginning. We should get you to your chambers. I’ll send for the midwife.”
More movement, and the sound of the door closing brought Merlin back to his feet. He knew that now would be the best moment to slip out, that once he was in the castle corridors he could claim he was a new servant and lose himself among the anonymity of the castle staff. The servants would all know he was new, of course, but he didn’t need to fool them for more than a day and by the time they realized no one had sent for him or authorized his presence, he’d be gone.
Merlin knew where the queen’s chambers had been, and thus where they were now – he picked up a few linens beside an open doorway and walked like he had somewhere to be, though the truth was that he felt very out of place, even in these familiar halls. He knew he did not belong here, but it was best to appear as though he did. There would be fewer questions and inquiries, he knew, as long as he looked busy.
He rounded the last corner to find himself almost nose-to-chest with Uther himself – a younger, darker-haired Uther, but the same man nonetheless. He had lost none of his presence with age, for he was just as formidable in Merlin’s time as he was now. Like Gaius, he was so much the same, but so very different all at the same time.
“What – ?”
“S-sorry, my lord!” Merlin stammered, and scurried around and past the next corner; there he stopped, pressing himself back against the wall. This was where he wanted to be, and he settled himself down to sit with his back to the wall. This corridor led to the quarters reserved for visitors of the queen, but Merlin knew there were likely none of them now, when she was about to give birth and would have no time or energy to entertain friends or dignitaries. Here, he knew, he could wait.
And wait he did. He heard people come and go, women with hushed excitement in their voices and knights coming to inform their king of the goings-on in the town below. Merlin smiled just a little, realizing after a while that Uther was determined to remain outside the room for as long as the birthing took. Perhaps the Uther of his time might have otherwise occupied himself and felt his presence was not required, but this Uther was different. When Merlin had briefly met eyes with the king before he’d run off, he had seen genuine love and pride there. Uther cared for his queen a great deal, and he was clearly not afraid to show it. Merlin thought that maybe this Uther was stronger than the man he would become.
But that thought only led to unpleasant others. It made Merlin’s stomach churn to think of what would happen next – what he knew must be lost, by not only Igraine but by Uther, by Camelot, by witches and wizards and sorcerers everywhere. Again he began to think about what things might be like if it were different, and his fingers itched to weave a spell that could right all of these wrongs.
Still, he forced himself to wait, to think of nothing but the sky outside the window across the corridor. He watched the sun flicker from behind fluffy white clouds, and watched the birds fly in patterns from east to west. Merlin waited for the better part of the day, and just around the corner, so did the king.
Dark clouds began to blow in from the south as the sun traveled toward evening; Merlin could see them building, threatening rain but delivering none, just growing darker and fatter as they swallowed the horizon. Darkness began to fall, and the growling of Merlin’s stomach told him that it was not just the clouds but the nearness of night that caused it.
There were voices from down the hall. Merlin stood to stretch his legs, and listened. “Is something wrong?” That was Uther’s voice, as tight and tense as the clouds moving over Camelot. “It’s been nearly ten hours.”
“No, my lord – these things take time. It may take days. You must be patient,” Gaius’ voice replied, trying to soothe his king with words that Merlin suspected would not work. “I think it will be soon.”
As night fell in earnest, the anticipation in the air was nearly tangible. It pressed down upon him like the stormclouds, and as Merlin stood, stock-still beside the window, he heard the first drops of rain begin to fall. Not long after he began to hear voices, louder than before, coming from the queen’s chambers, and something flared in the pit of his stomach.
It was beginning. Merlin forced himself to stay still, to wait beside the window as the rain now became a torrent, the sound growing louder and louder. Thunder rumbled in the distance, as though it might try to drown out the scene taking place in the room at the end of the hall and wash it away in one roll of thunder until suddenly, as the first flash of lightning cracked somewhere beyond the castle walls, the baby began to cry.
But there was nothing the storm or the baby’s cries could do to drown out what came next.
There was a shriek and a wail, and a woman began to sob. Merlin stood with his back pressed to the wall, almost as if he could melt into it if he tried just a little harder. He inched himself just far enough around the corner that he could see into the hall beyond. And there he watched unfurl the moment that would rule his destiny and that of so many others.
There was Uther, standing still as a statue, the very air around him seeming to darken and swallow the light from the torches. And there was the witch Nimueh – oh, she looked and sounded different, but he knew it was her the instant he saw her – speaking to Uther as she would someday speak to Merlin.
“There must be balance,” she said, as the baby’s cries mingled with that of the midwife’s from the open door beyond them, as the wind whipped rain against the glass. “Nature cannot be cheated, and I cannot give a life without taking one away –”
“Then take mine!” Uther raged, bearing down upon Nimueh as though to wring her neck. “How could you –”
Nimueh stood her ground, not even flinching as the king stood nearly chest-to-chest with her. “It is not my choice to make, my lord. It is no one’s choice but the gods’.”
Silence fell then, but for the storm raging outside, and Uther seemed to shrink in that moment, to collapse in upon himself and become something – someone – smaller, harder. Uther’s silence spoke louder than his voice – his face was a study in pain, and it wrenched at Merlin’s gut to see him like this, for it was not the first time. He had seen this look upon the king’s face before, when Arthur had lay dying in his arms and the king had thought his only son gone, extinguished before his time.
Far in the future, Merlin had brought back Uther’s son, but in the present that was the past he could not bring back his wife. Merlin’s heart broke to see the king, to see a husband and father left without a wife or a mother, and he almost, almost understood why Camelot would become as it had when Uther quietly and calmly called for the guards to take Nimueh away.
The witch shrieked and cursed, the sounds drowning out the storm and piercing Merlin’s gut. Uther drew his sword and Merlin saw flashes that might have been lightning and might have been spells. But in the end the witch was shackled and taken away, to be kept in the dungeon awaiting her fate. Merlin saw Gaius emerge from the queen’s room, his face ashen as the king’s, and he took Uther’s hand in his own and said something so quietly that Merlin could not hear it.
It was only then that Uther turned and walked away, leaving the room he had stood by for most of the day, leaving the body of his love and the cries of his newborn son behind. A set of knights appeared and followed Gaius into the room, only to emerge with a stretcher, a silken sheet covering what must be the body of the queen. Gaius followed them away down the corridor, and Merlin felt something cold settle in their wake as they left. The queen was truly dead.
Merlin hadn’t known what to expect, but it certainly hadn’t been this. Not this empty corridor, lit with the warm glow of torches at regular intervals, and yet feeling so utterly empty and desolate that he might very well have been at the ends of the earth, rather than ensconced within the heart of Camelot.
He watched as the midwife emerged with the baby bundled in her arms; Merlin went back for his linens before following her, keeping a bit of distance between them. She entered a room a few doors down, and Merlin busied himself with inspecting the torches along the wall as a pair of guards stationed themselves at the only entrance to this wing of the castle. When they eyed him after a few moments, he said, “I’m here to aid the nurses if they need anything.” That seemed to satisfy them, and Merlin contented himself to putter about the corridor as a woman who must be the wet nurse arrived, and the midwife left the baby in her care.
And so again, Merlin waited, as the storm continued to rage outside and the baby cried, inconsolable as his father.
An hour passed, two, then three. It was nearing midnight by now, and here in this wing of the castle it felt nearly deserted. The only sound above the thunder and rain was the crying of the baby, which hadn’t stopped, and the nurse’s gentle shushing sounds, though they had been growing quieter and more intermittent in the past hour. She must be getting tired. Now was as good a time as any, Merlin thought; he took a breath and stepped into the room.
The wet nurse looked up, her face drawn in the flickering candlelight. “Who are you?” she asked, and her voice seemed as tired as her eyes.
Merlin gave her his most innocent, calming smile. “Gaius sent me to see if there was anything I could do.” It was a gamble, he knew, but one he was willing to take. Childbirth was largely women’s work, and although Gaius had assisted a few (most notably Arthur’s), there was little he could do after the birth and he’d told Merlin so many times. There was little chance he would come by tonight to ruin Merlin’s story. “I just want to lend a hand.” Merlin paused, gauging the atmosphere before asking, “You must be tired. May I hold him?”
The woman scrutinized him for a moment, but finally she nodded. “I suppose – it’s not as though he’s hungry. I’ve tried.”
Merlin came over and as she held up her arms, he took the baby Arthur from her. They weren’t alone – the nurse was still sitting in the corner, her eyes sharp upon Merlin as he held the king’s newborn heir, but in that moment the candlelight seemed to enclose them in a cocoon of light and it felt to Merlin as though no one else in all the world existed.
Merlin looked down at the baby in his arms, unable to keep the smile from stretching his lips. From the tiny head with its crown of golden hair, down to the tiny fingers balled into fists, it was the softest, most precious thing he had ever held. He cradled the squalling child carefully in his arms; despite the fact Arthur often called him a clumsy fool, he knew better than to be anything but utterly careful with a baby in his arms. Especially this baby, he thought, looking down at the scrunched, reddened face. This baby was special – he would shape the world someday.
But Arthur was still crying, the little prat; Merlin bounced him gently and made the same shushing noises as the nurse. And as Merlin held him, shifting him slightly, he whispered, “Dul a chodladh,” to the crying prince. Something like a warm, comforting glow passed between his fingers and the child and slowly, slowly, Arthur’s wails began to quiet, until he’d heaved his last sob and his eyes slipped closed, his tiny chest rising and falling in sleep at last.
Merlin glanced to the nurse, but she had settled back in her chair and she was smiling at him now. “You have quite a way with babies,” she said, and made no move to take the tiny prince back.
Merlin stayed all night, with the baby in his arms, rocking him and walking about the room. He’d already witnessed far more than he’d bargained for and yet he couldn’t bring himself to leave, stretching out this night until the rain had quieted outside the castle and the grey light of dawn began to lighten the clouds.
Merlin knew he had to leave before the castle truly awoke. He nudged the sleeping wet nurse gently and she roused in her chair, taking the still-sleeping baby from him with a smile of thanks. Merlin knew that she would have many sleepless nights ahead of her, and he had been honestly glad to help. “I’ll fetch someone for your breakfast,” he said, and hurried to the kitchens, not at all liking the way the castle felt outside the baby’s room. Everywhere the castle seemed to be faded and quiet, and even those servants already awake seemed subdued and distressed. The queen’s death affected them all, Merlin thought, and pushed even more what ifs out of his head as he paused long enough to ask the cooks to bring something up for Arthur’s nurse.
Then he slipped out through a side door and stood in the still-deserted yard outside the castle, and closed his eyes to whisper the words that would take him home.