Merlin marks a short vertical line on the inside cover of the spell book.
“Twenty-three days. We’re almost two-thirds there,” Merlin speaks aloud with a satisfied smile, seemingly to no one as he is completely alone in the sheltered woodland where he had camped for the night.
He tickles his own belly and hunches over it to speak more directly to his audience of one, giggling like he has caught a mental illness.
It has only been recently that he’s been able to think of the presence sharing his body as anything other than a liability. Only since he left Camelot.
“About sixty-seven more days to go.”
The reply he gets in return is a sharp twinge and Merlin sighs resignedly.
“Yes, I know you like to start every morning angry with me.”
“Let’s see,” he counts on his fingers, “I make you sleep outside on the hard ground, I haven’t eaten anything for the last seven hours, and I’m keeping you away from your home and your father. Can we move on now and try to enjoy this nice spring day?”
The response this time is more indicative of the extent of the baby’s agitation.
Merlin goes a little (more) pale and has to scramble on hands and knees from their campsite before he decorates the bedroll and makeshift fire pit with grayish bile.
“Your feelings on the matter are duly noted,” Merlin huffs breathlessly, still wrestling with his spasming gag reflex. He loses the fight and more vomit is ejected violently onto the ground between his spread hands.
It is an immense relief that the baby doesn’t object to the dried meat and apple that is their breakfast.
“I appreciate the courtesy,” Merlin deadpans when the baby sits complacently to allow for an uninterrupted meal.
Merlin is aware of the nausea and vomiting that most pregnant women experience in the mornings, but his baby just seems extra fidgety.
Merlin understands its displeasure over their situation. For nearly four weeks, they’ve been living like nomads. They never stay in one place for more than two nights, wandering from village to village, staying just long enough to purchase supplies and then hiding in the forested fringes to sleep so they can start the routine all over again.
Besides the food bought during their brief visits into the towns, they only have a pillow, bedroll, water flask, wooden bowl, knife, tin pot, a change of clothes, and the spell book. The burdens Merlin has to carry on his back and his front do nothing for either of their comforts. His feet often resemble that of a troll's.
As loathe as Merlin is to admit it, Arthur was right: this is not the life for a pregnant sorcerer.
He wouldn’t have had to take such extreme precautions if he had been able to leave Albion completely. That had been his original plan since that first night he stole away to begin this hardship.
Just when he thought he had made some significant gains in leaving Albion behind, this sudden agonizing pain had tore through him as if he’d been struck by a bolt from the sky.
He had crashed to his knees on the gritty dirt path and eventually had to crawl back like a dog to some invisible line that the baby had decided was the farthest distance they could be from Arthur.
It was as if some magical tether existed between Arthur and the baby and it was suicide to try and snap it.
“Traitor,” Merlin had muttered to his stomach that day and had all but felt the baby unsympathetically shrug at him.
Still, that did not keep Merlin from believing they could continue undetected and out of Arthur’s (ironically longed-for) reach, even in Albion. It is widely spread and has enough untamed lands for them to hide in. He just has to keep moving.
And keep his wits about him.
For that is another thing Arthur was right about: the lands outside of Camelot are not always civilized and safe.
There is a disturbing array of barbarians, bandits, insurgents, highwaymen, and your garden-variety thieves, murderers, and swindlers mucking about. Some people don’t even mean any active harm, but are riddled with filth and disease.
Although, not physically threatening, small bands of that new cult-like religion weren’t always the sanest people Merlin had come across.
Of course, those are just the foes of the human persuasion. There are also the earth trolls, goblins, balverines, hobbes, sprites, Hollow Men, and shadow creatures to deal with.
Some lands are considerably safer than others, but Merlin cannot stay in the same area for long and there are times when he has to cross through dangerous territory.
Had it not been for his magic, he never would have attempted this journey.
Of course, had it not been for his magic, he never would have had to.
There is one village he has been avoiding like the plague: Ealdor.
It was the only place he had a connection to (besides Camelot) and Arthur would have considered that fact.
However, it’s been nearly a month with no sign of Arthur or anyone else from Camelot. Merlin knows the prince would not be able to just run after him on his own and he couldn’t very well justify sending his men on a scouting party to search for a lowly manservant.
It might not be such a bad idea to take one teensy little visit to see his mother.
Merlin’s heart irrepressibly dances at this thought and now that the possibly has crossed his mind, he cannot ignore it. To feel those familiar hands on his face and in his hair, to be held in the soft gaze of those kind eyes. He sorely misses the reassuring company of someone who loves him. And since he cannot be with Arthur…
“What do you think?” he strokes down the wide arc of his stomach, “You want to visit your grandmother?”
Merlin takes the baby’s lack of agitated movement to be a thumbs up.
Merlin knows he’s taking a monumental risk of ruining his heretofore luck at not being caught so he tries to minimize it by approaching Ealdor in the dead of night.
The small village sleeps peacefully and Merlin makes every attempt to be as silent as the grave as he skulks from shadow to shadow until he can edge around to his mother’s modest dwelling. He knows he must be a ridiculous sight with his plump and graceless figure trying to be light on his swollen feet.
Knowing it is unlocked, he eases himself inside and immediately conjures a small light in his hand so that his mother will see him and not be frightened.
Her bed is in the corner farthest from the door and Merlin can make out her still form under the thin blanket.
“Mother?” he says loud enough to wake her, but to not be startling, “Mother, it’s me. Merlin.”
Hunith sits up in the bed and blinks rapidly, holding a hand over her eyes to adjust to the light.
She is smiling and getting to her feet by the time Merlin approaches.
Merlin expands the ball of light and lets it float over them so they can see each other properly.
“Merlin!” Hunith chirps joyfully as she moves to embrace her son. The second she realizes her arms cannot fit all the way around him, her delighted surprise turns into wary surprise.
“Merlin?” she furrows her brows at her boy’s sheepish grin.
“Let’s have a sit down, shall we?”
By the time Merlin finishes his tale, Hunith has almost run the entire gamut of all possible human expressions of emotion.
Throughout the storytelling, she often lifts up his shirt and rubs his belly as if she needs physical confirmation that it has not changed since the last time she looked at it.
Merlin shakes his head at her affectionately and gladly allows it. The touch of her warm, lightly-calloused hands inspires a sense-memory of being cuddled in her loving embrace as a small boy.
Despite everything he’s gone through (and will go through soon), Merlin looks away from Hunith when he comes to the part in the narrative where he had “relations” with Arthur. He deliberately does not clarify that it was an on-going affair and leaves her to assume what she will. She is still his mother after all.
Hunith is graciously supportive and nonjudgmental until he gets to his current situation. Then, she is just as critical of his plan as Arthur was.
“There are so many evil things out there, Merlin.”
“I have my magic and I stay as close to the more trustworthy towns as I can.”
“But, the baby,” Hunith rubs his stomach again, “It needs regular nutrition and a healthy mother. And what are you doing for money?”
“I make sure to eat decently and often,” he assures, “Anyway, I don’t think it would let me get away with not eating. It’s quite a kicker. As for money, I took some coins from Arthur when I left-”
His mother’s shocked exclamation of his name is straight from his memories of being caught doing something naughty as a child. Like the time the moon starting growing dangerously huge in the sky when Merlin wanted to play with “the big glowing thingy.”
“Calm down. While things were still going well, he told me everything he owned was as much mine as his. Trust me, he doesn’t care about the money.”
“Okay,” Hunith waves this off (although she still disapproves), “But what about when it’s time to have the baby? Have you thought about how…?”
Hunith, at a loss for words, gestures at his belly and, presumably, his body’s lack of a suitable exit point for a human newborn.
Merlin ignores his blush and retrieves his spell book from his pack on the floor.
“I’ve actually been thinking about that.”
He flips through the book and points to several pages although he knows Hunith cannot decipher the graphics.
“This is a numbing spell. Oh, and here’s a cleansing spell. And I found this non-fatal wound healing spell.”
Hunith looks at him with dawning horror in her eyes.
“You don’t mean…?”
Merlin shrugs, although it is not a careless gesture in the slightest.
“It’s the only way I can think of.”
“Oh, Merlin…” Hunith rests her face in her hands.
“It’ll be okay,” Merlin comforts her, smoothing back her softly curling hair and trying not to let the ache in his chest at seeing her distraught face belie his words, “I promise.”
Hunith just sighs and pets his belly.
“Well,” Merlin says abruptly, desperate to change the subject, “We both probably need to get some rest. I’m heading towards Fairfax next and I’ll have to leave before dawn to avoid being seen. You can imagine how hard it is to go unnoticed when you’re a man carrying around an extra-large chamber pot under your shirt.”
Hunith actually manages a small smile at this, grateful to be able to do something to help her son.
“The best way for a pregnant man to go unnoticed is not to be a pregnant man.”
Merlin gives her a puzzled look and she just pats his head and goes over to her clothing chest.
She pulls out a couple of her old, looser dresses and a few head scarves.
“Will my humiliation with this pregnancy ever end?” Merlin sighs.
Hunith fits a bright red scarf over his head.
“Why aren’t you just the prettiest little thing?”
Before they retire, Merlin eagerly takes in whatever little tidbits he can on what else he can expect from his pregnancy. He is senselessly happy to hear that he was an easy baby.
Merlin and Hunith squeeze into her little bed (both refusing to let the other take the floor) and mother cradles son in her arms.
“No matter how old you get or how many babies you have-”
“Trust me, this is it.”
Hunith kisses his hair.
“You will always be my boy. Be careful, love.”
Merlin is a good ten kilometers from Fairfax, traveling through the woods parallel to the too well-used road, when he notices someone (or something) is following him.
The area surrounding the nearby village is not known for crime-minded humans or magical creatures so the knowledge he has a stalker is especially startling.
Miraculously finding a birch just wide enough to (mostly) hide his pregnant body, Merlin eases the pack off his shoulders and stands quietly against the tree, straining to listen for the location and direction of footsteps.
He’s not particularly afraid that he cannot handle one person/creature. In all likelihood, it would be a simple exercise for his magic, an opportunity to harness it and wield it and further refine his skills. He has some beginning experience with a new range of spells that he is eager to master. Since he left Camelot, he’s only really used his magic for light and warmth and to put up shields when spending the night in those more dodgy locations.
But, he would still rather avoid a confrontation and he doesn’t know if this person is just the lead scout for many more to come.
Merlin knows he is powerful, but he would rather not test his limits while he is many kilometers from any assistance and seven months pregnant.
Suspense more than fear has his heart thumping at an uncomfortable tempo as he waits for any sign of his stalker’s identity and position. Ever since he stepped behind the tree, there has been no other sound other than a light wind curling through the trees and the occasional chattering of small animals.
His follower must realize that Merlin knows he is there and is now utterly silent.
Merlin stands still for as long as he can, but he had been about to take a break before this situation had intruded upon his plans and his legs and back ache with the strain of traveling on foot.
Merlin is starting to think that dark flash he saw moving through the dense undergrowth was maybe just a trick of his pregnant-brain. This forced assertion probably has more to do with the fact that he really needs to sit down and less to do with his actually believing it.
Merlin takes two steps from the tree and his feet are suddenly locked on the earth.
“What?” Merlin is aghast at this unexpected development.
Magic? Being used against him?
The stalker that he tried to pretend he didn’t have suddenly comes into view, stepping out from behind the other side of the tree where he’d been all along.
“Ah, my-” the stranger starts conversationally as if they are friends.
He doesn’t get any further.
With the flick of his wrist, Merlin hits him with his own binding spell and then wrenches his feet off the ground with incredible effort.
Before Merlin can even stop to think that this stranger’s magic should not be underestimated, he witnesses him throwing off his bind with an ease that should not have been.
Merlin can figuratively (and maybe literally if he practices) turn a man into stone and yet his binding spell is cast off in mere seconds by this mortal?
Merlin is absolutely flabbergasted and enraged by this fact.
His distraction is the only reason his attacker’s stun spell is not evaded and sends him tumbling to the ground into sweet, bewildering darkness.
Continue to Part III
Return to Part I