The baby wakes Merlin early the next morning and he immediately realizes why.
The smell of cooked lamb embarrassingly floods his mouth with saliva and he actually chokes on it while rolling over to sit up. The baby politely holds the nausea at bay. For now.
He finds Martigan holding two sticks laden with the savory meat over their fire. They’re just getting brown and crispy.
“How long have I been asleep?” Merlin asks, refusing to allow himself to believe one of those lamb sticks could be his (although he desperately hopes so in the back of his mind).
“Long enough for me to go into Bowerstone and buy these,” Martigan hands one stick over to Merlin who accepts it with lowered eyes.
He’ll be more properly ashamed later. Once his stomach is full.
Well water, nuts and a few carrots round out the meal. What Merlin wouldn’t do for some pottage right about now.
“Can we extend the truce until after I’ve bathed?” Merlin asks hopefully, noticing the refreshed state of Martigan and wishing the same for himself.
Martigan points into the trees south of their camp.
“About ten minutes in. A small stream.”
Merlin bows his head slightly in gratitude although he cannot bring himself to say the words. He gathers some of his masculine clothes (the dresses are really starting to annoy him) and heads in the direction of the running water.
He is kneeling in the cool rivulet, pleasurably pulling handfuls and handfuls over his naked body when a few birds suddenly scatter into the air, chirping loudly in annoyance.
Merlin pauses and looks around, alert.
A glimpse of movement between the trees.
Merlin hurriedly pulls on his clean clothes, uncaring that they are immediately dampened once in contact with his wet skin. As angry as he is in that moment, he half expects the water droplets to start sizzling.
Merlin stomps back to the campsite, narrowing his eyes at Martigan who is sitting nonchalantly by their fire as if he’d been there all along.
“Were you watching me just now?” Merlin demands, standing over the merc menacingly.
“Hmmm?” Martigan lifts a smug brow and doesn’t even bother trying to pretend he doesn’t know what Merlin is talking about.
“Look, as I said before, don’t flatter yourself. You intrigue me, but on a… scientific level. You’re like a one-of-a-kind creature I’ve never encountered before. I’m just trying to understand what’s going on with your body.”
“Did 'Blondie' pay you to figure me out as well?”
“Then don’t bother,” Merlin cuts him off abrasively and turns to put his pack back together.
“Oh, yeah, there’s something I forgot to tell you earlier this morning,” Martigan starts again and Merlin is already pausing in preparation for whatever horrible thing he’s going to say.
“Blondie’s got a new name now.”
Merlin blinks. Shards of ice prickle down his spine.
“Arthur, sweet Arthur,” Martigan mocks savagely in a high falsetto. “You cry in your sleep, little Sparrow. Did you not know this?”
Merlin flushes, stammers, denies.
“Your client is definitely not my Arthur.”
“Is your Arthur the one that’s done that to you?” Martigan asks, gesturing to the boy’s distended stomach with a nod.
Merlin’s eyes darken first and then burn gold.
“Truce is over.”
This fight is particularly brutal, although it ends with neither man seriously injured. It takes Martigan nearly a whole day to finally catch up with Merlin in Oakfield.
The mercenary strolls into the still-active village late in the afternoon. He joins Merlin on a short stone fence circumscribing a garden on the edge of town, smiling as he sits beside the young sorcerer who is nursing cold milk from his wooden bowl and ignoring him.
“Where did you get that?” Martigan asks casually as if they had arranged to meet here.
“There’s a food and drink stall at the northern entrance, by the masonry. Can’t miss it,” Merlin mumbles.
“You know,” Martigan says, stretching his legs out and leaning back on his hands, “You would be subdued by now if I wasn’t under strict orders (penalty of death) not to harm you.”
“And you would be dead by now if my powers were in their pure form.”
Martigan tilts his head, studying Merlin closely.
“You certainly made quick work of several of those balverines.”
Merlin glares at his quickly disappearing milk. Did the merc want to incite him to violence?
“I have to admit,” Martigan resumes, “this is taking a lot longer than I thought it would. I have to send word to Arthur-”
“He’s not Arthur!”
“-that my charge has been caught, but I’m having a hard time bringing him to the drop-off point due to his, uh…very impressive powers,” Martigan teases openly.
Merlin narrows his eyes.
The mercenary pulls out a rolled piece of parchment from his bag and shakes it mischievously at Merlin.
“You can read and write?” Merlin briefly enjoys the chance to taunt the other man.
“I cannot,” Martigan confirms without shame, “But I know a nifty little spell that can transcribe my spoken words.”
“How will you get that to him?”
“Never you mind, little Sparrow. Just know, he will get this message.”
A sly smile from the merc.
“Anything you want to add?”
“I hate you.”
“Oh, that’s already in there.”
Merlin is quiet for a moment, forcing himself to imagine the horrors that await him should he return to Camelot still pregnant, his secrets exposed to Uther and all the kingdom.
He can never forget why he’s denying himself the perfection of being with the only man in the world he loves.
It is for the good of everyone. It is the right thing.
He turns to Martigan then, no longer spiteful or snide, but with a desperate pleading he hopes the other man can sympathize with.
“In about a month’s time, I will go back willingly. You can still collect the rest of your payment. No one has to lose out.”
Martigan snorts, “Do you know what it would do to my reputation if it took me more than two months to bring in my mark? Can’t do it.”
“You don’t know what you’re doing!” Merlin almost shouts, “This would destroy an entire kingdom.”
“You?” Martigan gives him an incredulous look, “Have the power to destroy a kingdom? Ha!”
“It’s true. Whether you choose to believe it or not,” Merlin huffs crossly, already resigning to the fact that he cannot appeal to this man’s sensibilities.
“Hey, I’ve learned early on in this life that Martigan has to look after Martigan. And as I said, my rep is on the line. What if I want to work in these parts again? Can’t bloody well do that if they think I’m rubbish.”
“But, Martigan… you are rubbish.”
“Okay,” the mercenary growls, showing real anger at Merlin’s insults for the first time, “Let’s get out of sight of prying eyes and see if we can end this stalemate once and for all.”
“Fine with me.”
The stalemate endures.
Two hours later, Martigan falls into step beside Merlin as he is approaching Rookridge, one of the more thriving border towns.
“You know, I hear this place has a-”
Martigan falls uncharacteristically silent, looking towards the trees that flank their path.
“Do you here that?” he whispers to Merlin, already walking in the direction of some phantom noise.
“No?” Merlin looks at the man curiously, wondering what’s gotten into the strange merc.
Martigan turns back to him suddenly, Merlin almost colliding into him. The mercenary’s face shows his bewilderment, brows heavy and tense over his eyes.
“It’s a woman crying for help.”
“Martigan, I don’t hear-”
The bounty hunter takes off running into the forest.
For a moment, Merlin thinks this is his chance to get a head start before the merc inescapably closes the distance between them again.
But, if there is a woman in need of help…
“Damn it,” he mutters, cursing his chivalry, and heads in the direction Martigan flew.
He doesn’t have to walk far before he finds the mercenary standing at the entrance to a dirt cave about ten meters tall. Even though it is only early evening and the sun still shines, Merlin cannot see anything past the first three steps into the cave. The rest is cast in inky darkness.
“I think she’s in there,” Martigan says quietly, standing as if transfixed before the daunting cavern.
There is a slightly glazed look in his eyes that Merlin doesn’t entirely trust. It reminds him of the look in most people eyes… when they’re being magicked upon.
“I still don’t-”
Martigan disappears inside at a full run.
Merlin curses again, sending several balls of light upward and forward to lead the way.
He has moved inside approximately thirty paces before he hears it.
“Who dares enter the Wellspring Cave?”
Merlin whips his head around, heart flattening against his ribcage, as he looks for the speaker of the whispering voice.
When he realizes it is coming from inside his own head, he turns to run back out the way he came.
He doesn’t get the chance to move another step before he notices there are lights dancing on the ceiling. Not his lights.
Not lights at all.
What appears to be a swarm of drunken pixies swirl around and around overhead until they abruptly dive into the earth where there’s a small spark before the ground splits open.
Out crawl Hollow Men.
Even though he has never seen them before, Merlin recognizes the creatures as Hollow Men.
You don’t grow up in a world like Albion and not know the Hollow Men. The deformed skeletons, appearing in the tattered vestiges of when they were once human, straddle the line between the living world and the cryptic beyond.
The raspy, whispering voice gets louder in his head.
“Pregnant sorcerer… why do you disturb the Hollow Men?”
Merlin turns and darts in the other direction, deeper into the cave.
“You cannot run from us. You are too weak. The baby is stealing your soul.”
All the stories warned: don’t listen to the Hollow Men. But, how can you ignore their hateful words when they are coming from inside you?
“Your magic will never be the same. You will never be the same.”
Merlin flings his hands chaotically, pieces of Hollow Men exploding all over the cavern floor.
“Your baby will not survive. Arthur will hate you forever.”
They are slow and their bones brittle, but the Hollow Men keep regenerating. This is a fight he cannot win.
Merlin keeps running, blowing apart Hollow Men as he goes. He won’t listen to them. He won’t.
“Martigan! Where are you?” he calls out and for those few blessed seconds, he drowns out the Hollow Men in his head.
There is only one other section in Wellspring Cave besides the first open space. It’s a dead end, but this is where Merlin finds Martigan on his knees, cradling his head in his hands and screaming for it to stop.
A mass of Hollow Men lurch slowly toward the mercenary, their fleshless fingers outstretched.
With a wide sweep of his hand, the Hollow Men in the room scatter into bones. By the time Merlin has reached Martigan and helped him to his feet, there are already more twirling lights preparing to spawn a fresh batch.
With an arm fitted around as much of the broadly built mercenary as possible, Merlin leads him back out the entrance, blowing through the Hollow Men that block their path.
They don’t stop moving until they are on the other side of Rookridge and night has fallen.
Merlin starts to untie his bedroll with a long-suffering sigh when Martigan stops him.
“There’s a small inn in town. We both deserve a bit of softness to sleep on.”
This is the best idea Merlin has heard in weeks. Shame it came from this bane of his existence.
The “inn” is actually two spare bedrooms an old woman started renting out after her children grew up and her spouse died.
Merlin is just happy to sleep indoors, even when the innkeeper tells them only one of the rooms is available.
Martigan doesn’t waste any time skirting around the issue.
“You take the bed. I got the floor.”
Merlin gives him a truly grateful look and lets him use his bedroll to help pad the other one.
As exhausted as his body is, Merlin is not ready to just pass out as he has been doing recently. He sits on the side of the bed and watches Martigan toss off his shirt and get down to the floor with a groan.
Merlin doesn’t extinguish the ball of light hovering over the room.
“Tell me about your magic,” he asks quietly, knowing that the other man will oblige. Truth be told, it is Merlin who has made their “relationship” (such as it is) a strained one. The young warlock has to admit: the mercenary has been pretty decent throughout this journey (except for fondling his belly and spying on him while bathing. Filthy pervert).
“I’m not special like you,” Martigan says seriously, no trace of teasing in his voice, “I have this spell book I’ve learned from, but it’s mostly tricks and low-level attacks. Nothing like your true Earth-magic.”
“Can I see it?”
Martigan retrieves the book from his things and comes over to Merlin, kneeling at his feet by the bed.
Merlin is a little uncomfortable by this, but he tries not to show it.
He turns the pages, glancing at the spells.
Not one is something he couldn’t do half asleep and with one hand tied behind his back.
“See?” Martigan says, his eyes naturally resting on Merlin’s stomach from his vantage point.
“Well… you’ve managed to hold your own against me.”
“But, it’s like you said. You’re not at your optimal level. I can feel it. Your power, when unchecked, could level worlds.”
Merlin feels something akin to a blush rise in his cheeks and he looks down, humbled by the other man’s praise.
“Most of the time, I’m proud of what I am,” the young warlock confesses, “It’s part of what defines me and makes me special… But, then there are times when I wish… things could just be simple.”
Merlin unconsciously presses his hand against his widened frame.
Martigan doesn’t miss this (Martigan rarely misses anything).
“I’ve spent more time with you this past month than I have with anyone else in my adult life,” the mercenary admits apropos of nothing and Merlin doesn’t want this to get awkward.
But more than that, he realizes he doesn’t want to see this bizarre (and sometimes infuriating) merc unhappy.
“You’re a decent man, Martigan,” he says sincerely, “Not just anyone would run into Wellspring Cave to save a stranger’s life without expecting anything in return.”
“Well, I didn’t exactly save anyone, did I?” the mercenary says self-deprecatingly.
“Your heart was in the right place.”
“I should have known better, though,” Martigan sighs, “I had heard the stories about Wellspring Cave. Supposedly some Mediterranean traders had come from the coast and, instead of the usual bartering of ideas and wines, they ransacked Rookridge and stole any valuables they could find. The people fought back and cornered them in the cave where they were trapped forever.”
“I thought they were confined to Wraithsmarsh.”
“Stories say you can find Hollow Men in Wraithsmarsh, Wellspring Cave, and some areas of Westcliff.”
“So, people have to face both balverines and Hollow Men in Westcliff? I cannot understand why there’s even a village there.”
“They're fine. As long as they never, ever leave town.”
“What a way to live. I couldn’t survive it.”
“I don’t know,” Martigan gives him a measured look, “You were very impressive back there. Hollow Men aren’t physically hard to fight, but you were able to ignore their Nightmare Whispers. That is almost impossible to do.”
“I guess it’s because the magic I used came naturally,” Merlin shrugs, “I didn’t have to concentrate on it and could focus my energy on shutting out their words. If I had to use a spell I wasn’t familiar with, I would not have done as well.”
“I find it hard to believe there’s a spell you don’t know.”
Merlin laughs off his compliment.
“Take your pick. My spell book is full of them.”
“Can I see it? Your book?” Martigan asks almost shyly even though he had readily allowed Merlin to look through his.
Merlin nods and indicates his travel pack.
Martigan peruses the pages with interest.
“Most of these… I don’t think I’d have a chance of conjuring. Look at the intricacies!”
“There are a few mid-level spells in there. But, I agree. Most of them are quite insane.”
“What are these?” Martigan asks, indicating the pages Merlin has marked.
The same pages that contain the spells that are going to help him give birth in about a month.
“Well, they-” Merlin stammers, looking down at his hands, “They are for… uhm.”
Martigan waits patiently.
Merlin cannot tell the truth, but he doesn’t really want to lie either.
“I’m in trouble,” he admits, vaguely, “And those spells are… Well. They’re going to save the day.”
The mercenary’s eyes drift predictably to Merlin’s protruding belly then back up to his flushed face.
“I hope they serve you well,” he says and lets it go at that.
The merc puts away their books and gets back on his bedroll.
The light blinks out.
“Good night, Martigan.”
“Good night, little Sparrow.”
A meaningful pause. Finally-
Martigan smiles in the dark.
Merlin blearily wakes to absolute darkness and a tense silence.
Movement on the bed that does not originate from him makes it clear why he has woken in the dead of night.
For a terrifying moment, Merlin thinks balverine! but then they would never be this subtle.
The cushion dips on both sides of his hips and Merlin can feel the warmth of another living, breathing body spread over his skin.
“No,” he says firmly and directs an intentionally weak force-push at the displaced air hovering above him. Instead of flying across the room, Martigan slides a foot down the bed.
Merlin lights the room and scrambles up to put more distance between himself and the mad merc.
Martigan stares at him unblinking with eyes wide and full of want and Merlin shivers.
“You were crying for Arthur again,” the mercenary says in a low voice.
“Either you get off the bed or I will,” Merlin speaks as calmly as he can.
“This job, this life…” Martigan intones softly as if he hasn’t heard the other sorcerer, “It gets lonely.”
“I’m sorry,” Merlin says truthfully, hearing the unspoken words, “But I can’t… I don’t want to. My heart belongs to another.”
“Can I kiss you?”
Martigan doesn’t move from the bed.
And just like that, this tentative friendship starts to crack at its newly-built foundation. Merlin thinks this may be a good time to end the truce.
But, finally, the merc starts to get back on the floor. He pauses at the last second, something coming to his mind.
Merlin is afraid to find out what.
“Let me show you something.”
Martigan takes his spell book out of his gear again and turns to a particular page.
He gets back on the bed with Merlin, but at a more respectful distance.
“Close your eyes.”
Merlin narrows them instead and his fingers flex instinctively.
“I swear on my honor. I will not touch you while your eyes are closed.”
Although some self-preservative voice inside him begs him not to, Merlin obliges the request. He listens closely.
Martigan speaks the words to a spell the other sorcerer is not familiar with.
The bed shifts again and there is warm breath ghosting over Merlin’s face. He can feel the merc so close.
The baby is doing somersaults in his stomach, making the nausea ebb and crash like a turbulent tide.
“Look at me,” Martigan commands gently.
Merlin opens his eyes and Arthur stares back at him.
“Now will you let me have you?” Martigan asks with Arthur’s mouth.
Merlin stops breathing. His heart seizes dead in his chest.
Martigan runs Arthur’s fingers down across Merlin’s lips to his swollen belly.
“That’s not my Arthur,” he finally chokes out, misery closing over him like a shadow over fading light.
“Yes it is,” Martigan whispers and slips his hand under Merlin’s shirt.
He has Arthur’s nose, hair, lips, strong and toned form down to perfection.
But, his eyes…
He cannot hide the lie in them.
Merlin’s jaw clenches tightly and that is the only warning Martigan gets before he is hit with a shock spell and Arthur’s face and hair crack and fall to pieces like a broken mask. The mercenary is wide-eyed and fish-mouthed, staring back stupidly at the incensed warlock.
Before the merc can recover, Merlin slows time and then releases another spell to throw him backwards off the bed.
Merlin frantically collects his belongings before Martigan can regain consciousness.
“Your client,” he speaks to the fallen mercenary while stepping over his sprawled form, “I did wrong this man. I did steal from him. But, he is not my Arthur.”
Unfortunately, Martigan catches up with the young sorcerer on the outskirts of Brightwood.
Even more unfortunate, so does someone else.
Continue to Part V
Go back to Part III