Please read the “Author’s Notes” at the beginning of the story (part 1/8). Something mentioned in this part directly relates to the content there and I don’t want it to be confusing (at least not any more than it already is, haha!)
The night was a strange one for Arthur and he is inordinately grateful when the dawn finally peeks out its hazy-yellow head.
As forewarned by the recently pregnant woman in Brightwood, the baby woke up every two or so hours, needing to be fed and/or cleaned. As soon as Arthur (and only Arthur since Merlin refused to even open his eyes), helped his son take in enough milk to satisfy his little belly and wiped off his little bottom, the baby immediately went back to his quiet slumber.
Arthur is not sure this is typical. Aren’t newborns supposed to be more fussy and demanding?
He wishes desperately to be able to talk to another woman who has endured this experience or a physician who treats children.
But, lucky him, the only support he has is that of a mercenary who wants his payment in the form of a dark-haired sorcerer and a partner who is half near catatonic.
Arthur watches with tired eyes as the aforementioned mercenary and partner both leave the cavern together. He wants to go after them, but the baby is sucking on his finger in an unsubtle hint that it’s milk time again.
Arthur knows his priorities. He just wishes Merlin shared them.
Instead, the young sorcerer follows Martigan a little ways out along the shore.
“You should come with us,” Merlin offers, if not for the merc’s now familiar company, then for a distraction from this tortuous situation.
“I can’t say I’m not tempted,” Martigan sighs, “But, I don’t think I’m much cut out for planting roots. I’ve lived this nomadic life for so long, I doubt I’ll ever be able to settle down in one place. I would end up hurting someone.”
“Well, you’re welcome to visit us anytime in Camelot.”
“Camelot, huh? You’re from thee Camelot?”
Merlin would realize sharing this information could potentially be very dangerous if he didn’t still have one foot in a state of altered consciousness.
“Yes,” he nods simply, “It wouldn’t be hard to find us either. Arthur… He’s kind of a big deal.”
Martigan’s suspicions are confirmed.
“Maybe I will see you again someday, little Sparrow.”
Maybe when you’re back to being that bright-eyed, sharp-tongued sorcerer I first met in the woods of Fairfax.
He carefully takes Merlin’s limp hand in his and presses his lips against his knuckles.
Merlin lets him.
Merlin would probably let anyone do anything right now.
When Martigan disappears from his sight, he returns to the shelter to pack up his and Arthur’s gear. He holds on to this simple, habitual act to keep him from slipping even further into that yawning void.
“So, your boyfriend finally left?” Arthur snipes, rocking slightly with the baby held against his shoulder, patting its back.
“Stop it, Arthur.”
“No, you stop it!” the prince shouts, unable to hold back his frustrated fury any longer, “Stop neglecting our son. Stop acting like you died instead of gave birth to new life.”
As intensely as the feeling tears through him, Merlin doesn’t try to run. He knows he wouldn’t get very far anyway.
Instead, he backs down a little further into himself and distantly hopes Arthur can forgive him one day.
When they’ve tied most of their burdens to the prince’s poor horse, Arthur helps Merlin on first and then cautiously hands him the baby.
He thanks all the gods that every existed one by one when Merlin doesn’t reject their son. Even though he won’t look at him, at least he holds him carefully in his arms.
Arthur knows Merlin’s still in there. He just has to find the door in.
The prince settles in behind Merlin and uses a shirt and some scraps of cloth to fabricate a wrap sling to hold the baby against Merlin’s front.
Merlin sits perfectly still, neither helping nor resisting as the baby is tied to him as if he is pregnant again.
When Arthur slides his arms against his sides to seize the reins and the horse takes those first few steps, Merlin’s hand instinctively rests against the baby’s back to hold him secure.
Traveling with the baby outside of him takes considerably more time than when it was still in Merlin’s belly.
They have to take frequent breaks, to feed and clean the baby, and give its developing brain a rest from all the stimulation.
By the time it’s dark again, they’ve only made it to Bloodstone. This is not the safest place to be in after hours, but there is no other choice.
Arthur hops down from the horse and leads it into the heart of town to find supplies and, hopefully, a bed for the night.
It’s not long before they realize the entire population of Bloodstone is gathered in the village square. Shouting and crying fill the night. The lit torches turn the people’s faces into little more than shifting shadows and glassy eyes.
Merlin glances down in apprehension at Arthur who wisely steers them along the fringes of the mob.
A dark, beefy man stands on a crate to put himself up higher over the other townspeople.
“Everyone! Everyone! Shut up for a moment and just listen!”
Most obey. A few do not.
“There hasn’t been a hobbe attack for three months,” the heavy man continues, “They have been staying in the deeper recesses of the woods. They don’t often come so near to Bloodstone.”
“Until they need more children!” another man yells.
“They took them, Aiden! And you know it!” a woman shouts from the crowd. Her voice sounds as if she tried to swallow a sword.
Arthur finds a young girl standing just behind the thick of the horde, wringing her hands together in a way that looks all together painful.
“Miss?” he gets her attention gently, “We’re traveling from Brightwood and haven’t heard the news. What’s happened?”
“They’ve taken more children,” she weeps, “Four this time, missing since last week. Tonight, we thought we heard those monsters’ laughter right on the edge of town.”
Neither Arthur nor Merlin know a lot about Bloodstone, but the hobbe legends have been used to scare children for generations.
The first hobbe was a wicked child whose mother threw him down a cursed well where he mutated into a flabby goblinish creature. He skulked around the forests of villages, kidnapping children who wandered too far from home and turned them into fiends like him so he would have someone to play with.
Soon, hordes of hobbes thrived in certain wilds, casting evil spells and gathering more children into their wretched fold.
“My Celcia was spared that last time, but…” the woman shakes her head, “Who knows when they’ll come again?”
Some distant part of Merlin feels compassion for these people, but the heavy weight that presses down into him from all sides hasn’t lessened since that terrible moment when he realized his life would never be the same again.
“What would you have us do?” Aiden, the man on the crate, shouts to some of the more vocal Bloodstonians, “We’ve sent several bands of men out to the Moonlit Passage. They never come back.”
“So, we let them keep stealing our children? Is that your answer?” a woman cries.
“There is no answer. We cannot win this fight. We will just continue to lose man after man while the hobbes prosper. They steal the armor and weapons from our dead and use them against us! Would you rather this village be completely undefended? Would you rather we continue to send our fathers, sons, and husbands out to be killed for nothing?”
The mob again dissolves into indistinguishable yells and sobs.
Arthur looks at the anguished faces in the crowd, at the mothers and fathers of stolen children who would be tormented by their loss and helplessness until the end of their days.
Arthur looks at Merlin, at the small bundle clasped tightly to his chest.
He gives the sorcerer a sad, apologetic smile and then plunges into the crowd.
“Wait…” Merlin reaches for his retreating prince, recognizing the expression on his face.
The one that makes it impossible not to see the future king he will become.
Arthur steps up to the man on the crate at the center of the mob. Without speaking, he nevertheless demands silence from Bloodstone.
He gets it.
Calmly, he addresses the red-faced Aiden who is still more wary than hopeful.
“The Moonlit Passage,” Arthur says gravely, “Take me there.”
Five men lead Arthur and Merlin (plus baby) to the Moonlit Passage, although they make it very clear they will not enter the certain deathtrap.
Along the way, Aiden explains that this group of hobbes dwells in a long underground tunnel with several twists and dead ends. The stories say if you follow the small running stream in the middle of the passageway, you can find your way out again.
“They have fangs as sharp as a dragon’s,” Aiden warns as they approach the tunnel, “And some can cast energy blasts from their scepters. There may be as many as four dozen hobbes in the Moonlit Passage.”
Arthur and the Bloodstone men stare at the entrance which appears to be little more than a wide hole in the ground.
“It doesn’t look it,” Aiden says, “But it’s tall and wide enough for several grown men to walk through. Tall and wide enough to fight in.”
Merlin struggles down from the horse, mindful of the baby still strapped to him.
Arthur turns to him just as he approaches.
“You know I have to do this.”
Merlin nods compliantly.
“I know. And you know I have to come with you.”
Arthur glances at the men who conspicuously look everywhere but at the two of them.
“I don’t have time for this…”
“Let’s go then.”
“Merlin! You have to take care of the baby.”
“I can’t without you.”
“Yes, you can.”
“I can’t, Arthur! I need you!” Merlin’s hysteria rises swiftly and piercingly. He is probably heard by every hobbe within a five meter radius.
“Please, Merlin. Don’t say anymore.”
The people of Bloodstone may not recognize Prince Arthur of Camelot, but the memory of this night and the blond- and black-haired males with a baby who fought as if they were lovers before plunging bravely into the infamous Moonlit Passage to battle hobbes will not easily be forgotten by these villagers.
Arthur takes the proffered torch from Aiden, gives Merlin and the baby one last lingering look and then disappears into the hole.
Merlin waits as many erratic heartbeats as he can stand and then frantically rearranges the sling so that the baby is cradled on his back, freeing the sorcerer’s arms.
He steps over to the hole and promptly falls in, automatically making sure to pitch forward instead of backward, scraping his hands and knees. Still fatigued from the birthing ordeal, he is nevertheless able to get back on his feet and move deeper into the passageway without hesitation.
Hobbes are known to possess some intelligence, but Merlin is mildly surprised by the regularly placed torches that line the sides of the tunnel and the intricate markings carved in the rock walls. Weird, glowing fungi grow in tight clusters on the floor.
Merlin follows the running water.
Aiden wasn’t exaggerating about the disorienting twists in the tunnel. An area will seem like a dead end until you make a sharp turn and realize there is a way forward. There are pockets of wide open spaces connected by the narrow ducts.
It is in one of these open pockets that Merlin is confronted by six hideous hobbes. Past them, he can hear the echoes of a sword connecting with both armor and bone.
The hobbes in front of Merlin look at him inquisitively since he hasn’t tried to attack or run. Their beady, black eyes drink him in.
Merlin’s blood is rushing in his veins, but there’s something not quite right…
There’s no time to explore this odd feeling as the hobbes recover from their initial curiosity and start to gain on him.
“You rotten, filthy muck,” Merlin hisses, bringing his hands up to banish them. It feels like a million years since he’s used his magic.
A small, ineffective flicker of light is followed by wisps of smoke leaking from his fingertips. At this rate, the best he can do is make the hobbes’ eyes water.
Merlin hears a terrible noise from the goblins that might just be laughter.
He can feel his magic still inside him, but he cannot wield it. It’s being held captive deep in his gut, stirring and simmering, but useless.
Merlin coughs nervously, taking a step back toward the canal he had come from.
“Can we talk about this, fellas?” he grimaces tightly in what is supposed to be a smile, “That whole rotten filth thing-”
One of the hobbe mages grins sharply and points his scepter at Merlin.
Merlin doesn’t even have any time to spare for his life to flash before his eyes.
The energy bolt arcs from the glowing marble at the end of the scepter and dives straight for Merlin.
The sorcerer can hear the energy crackling right by his head, but the jagged burn he should feel destroying his body is just not there.
Merlin opens his eyes (not realizing he had closed them in the first place). There is a shower of energy exploding a centimeter from his face, but not reaching him. It’s as if the spell is being blocked, as if there is some tangible thing standing in between the magic and Merlin’s vulnerable flesh.
A magic shield.
One he had not conjured.
The hobbes suddenly start wailing in their strange language, infuriated.
Their little feet are rooted to the ground.
They are being bound to the tunnel floor.
Just like when Merlin tried to run away from…
Merlin shuts down these thoughts and dashes through a small path between the struggling gang of hobbes, dodging out of the way of a spear that makes a swipe for him.
The sounds of Arthur and hobbes fighting is more distant now, and Merlin can hear more of the little bastards between him and his final destination.
He ducks into one of the dead ends, a small opening barely big enough for him to stand in.
Quickly unharnessing the sling from his back, he pulls the baby around to look at him. It is only by the dim light of some fungi glowing nearby that he can make out the baby’s serene face.
“You’re doing this, aren’t you?” Merlin whispers in wonderment, caressing the baby’s cheek with a trembling finger.
Gold starts to trickle into the sorcerer’s bloodstream.
Merlin thinks of Arthur still managing to fight in the wake of dozens of hobbes all alone.
“And you’re protecting Arthur, too.”
One of the baby’s hands escapes the wrap and flails slightly. Merlin touches the little palm and the baby squeezes his finger firmly.
The baby was doing it all: stopping Merlin from running away. Protecting them from the hobbes. Binding those evil minions to allow Merlin to escape.
Because he needs them. He needs them strong and united. He needs a family to keep him safe and happy in an unpredictable world.
And he deems them worthy of the challenge.
The gates burst and magic floods every cell in Merlin’s body, his eyes flashing in the murky light.
By the time the trio emerges from the Moonlit Passage, the tunnels are saturated with hobbe stew.
Merlin closes his hand into a fist and the rock ceiling collapses, destroying the passage forever.
They return to the now-demolished entrance where they had been first guided, finding the men of Bloodstone staring open-mouthed at a pile of rocks that was once the starting point of their nightmares.
The weary hobbe-fighters don’t even bother protesting when the village all but falls to its hands and knees before them.
They humbly accept food, breast milk for the baby, and a warm place to sleep.
Arthur doesn’t know what happened in that hobbe cave and he doesn’t care.
All he knows is that if he ever feels lost again, the image of Merlin smiling and cooing at their son will show him the way home.
The prince joins them on the bed, lying on his side to face Merlin, the baby surrounded in the middle.
“What did you have in mind?” Merlin asks and Arthur doesn’t even have to question what he means.
“I’ve played around with a few in my head. Zacharias. Victor. Theodric. But, I think I know exactly what his name should be. When I looked at you two together just now.”
Merlin tilts his head and studies Arthur’s handsome face quietly.
“Emerson. Meaning Emrys’ son.”
“Emerson Pendragon,” Merlin says, enjoying how it sounds and feels. “It’s perfect.”
They construct a safe, comfortable cradle for Emerson out of one of the blankets at the head of the bed, safe against the wall.
Lying on his back, Arthur pulls Merlin on top of him.
The sorcerer rests his head on the prince’s chest, just listening to him live.
Only after that oppressive shroud had finally lifted from Merlin’s world can he truly appreciate what it had been doing to him. It was like looking through the eyes of a Hollow Man. It was like being buried inside a stone wall, listening to the broken sounds of life going on without you. It was like waking every morning and finding out for the first time that everyone you ever loved is dead, over and over again.
But, Emerson had freed him.
And Arthur had always been there, ready to be his strength.
Continue to Part VIII
Go back to Part VI