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The Empty Cradle

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For months, Merlin had known something was bothering Arthur. He was pretty sure he knew what it was, too, but Arthur had effortlessly resisted all of Merlin’s carefully casual conversational gambits. And since Arthur said nothing to him, Merlin said nothing to anyone. The corridors, the kitchens, the stables were full of whispers, but Merlin followed his master’s example and refused to be drawn in, even as the looks and the remarks grew more insistent. Only in Gaius’s chambers was there calm and undemanding quiet, Gaius having long since adopted the policy of letting sleeping dogs lie.

Finally, Arthur had ordered Merlin to prepare for a hunting trip. The saddlebags were packed, the horses were mounted, and the castle quickly fell out of sight. Arthur delivered his usual complaints that Merlin was spooking the game, requiring them to venture further afield. Merlin noticed when they passed the point at which they could return home by nightfall, but made no comment. Finally, the unlucky animals that had fallen to Arthur’s arrows had been either strapped to the saddles or cleaned, cooked and eaten, and the two companions faced each other over a merry fire.

“What is wrong with me?” Arthur blurted, with no preamble.

Merlin lifted an eyebrow. “Well, you’re rather irritable and ungrateful, you’ve gained about half a stone in the past month—”

“I’m serious!”

So was I, Merlin thought, but he tried another approach. “Nothing is wrong with you, my lord. You’re everything a king should be.”

“Hardly.”

“What do you mean? Look at all those disputes you adjudicated yesterday. Look at the tribute—”

“It can’t have escaped even your notice, Merlin, that I’ve been married for almost two years and I don’t have an heir.”

Finally! he thought. But what he said was “Oh, that.”

“Yes, that. I’m sure everyone’s talking about it.” Arthur’s voice was bitter. “You know how I know? Because nobody says a word to me. They used to tease me, make all kinds of comments. How soon could the knights start training my sons to uphold the Pendragon reputation? Were the tailors going to have to let out all of Gwen’s new royal wardrobe? Did we perhaps need some pointers? Now they’ve stopped, because it’s not funny anymore.”

“Arthur, it will happen.”

“Well, if you say so, then surely all is well.”

“I hope it will,” Merlin amended, lamely.

“It should’ve happened by now. And I’m sure it’s my fault. I shouldn’t be king if I can’t even do what the stupidest peasant can do.”

“It might not be your fault. You don’t know that,” Merlin pointed out reasonably.

“Be careful what you say!”

So, we’re talking about it, but only so far, apparently. Merlin sat quietly, waiting to take his cue from whatever Arthur said next. It was a long time before Arthur spoke again, in a very different, earnest tone.

“Merlin, you’d do anything for Camelot, wouldn’t you?”

“Yes.”

“For me?”

“You know I would.”

“Guinevere and I… it’s not working. So maybe if you tried.”

“Tried what?”

“Do I have to spell it out for you? You! You, Merlin, instead of me.”

“Me!?” The response burst out as Arthur’s meaning fell into place.

“You said you’d do anything.”

“Me!? And…. the queen?”

Seeing Merlin’s incredulous comprehension, Arthur spoke eagerly. “That way, people would think, you know, what we want them to think. They would think it was mine. And it will be, it will be mine. I swear, Merlin, nothing will be any different. We’ll love him, guide him, just as if—”

“Arthur! Stop!”

Shockingly, Arthur obeyed, and a thousand thoughts rushed through the silence into Merlin’s head.

Could I actually do this? And if I did? If it worked? Is this our destiny? My son, on the throne of Camelot? He’ll be a dragonlord someday! Magic returning to the land because the prince was rearranging the royal nursery without touching anything… Merlin felt hysterical laughter threatening to escape, but a glance at Arthur’s intense expression sent his mind in a different direction. “Two sides of the same coin.” A coin has the same value, can make the same purchase no matter which side is facing up. Is this how things are meant to be? But even as this question presented itself, he knew the answer.

No. I can’t.” Arthur was upright, trustworthy; every fiber of his being was honourable. These were the qualities for which the people respected and loved him. Merlin, on the other hand, was sneaky and deceiving. By necessity, but the fact remained, and he couldn’t let any of that infect the royal lineage.

“Don’t say that,” Arthur protested. “Just think about it.”

“There’s nothing to think about!”

“You’re the only one I can ask.”

“Well, you shouldn’t have. It’s crazy.”

“Merlin, please. It’s not crazy. It makes so much sense. My father, you know what he had to do, and that’s not an option, so I don’t have any other options! Just you!”

“Guinevere has agreed to this?”

“I haven’t asked her,” Arthur admitted.

“Good, because I’m not doing it.”

“I thought I could rely on you.”

Merlin sighed. Since when did his “no” ever mean “no” to Arthur? He had to find a reason the king would accept.

“You can, sire, but you haven’t really thought this through. You and I, we don’t look alike.”

“Gwen has dark hair, like yours. If she were blond, then I’d say you have a point.”

“But we don’t know! We have no control over what the baby might look like. He could be a dead ringer for me and people would gossip and it would completely undermine your status, your authority. The people need total confidence in the line of succession.”

Arthur got up and walked away, out of the fire’s glow. It was far too dark to wander around, but Merlin could hear that he had only gone a few paces. Just putting a little distance between them. Merlin tilted his head back to look at the sky, the thin moon creating just a smudge of light behind the clouds. Despite his uncertainty over how to help, he felt absolute conviction that Arthur’s proposal was not the right way.

At length, Arthur returned and stood over Merlin seated on the ground. His words came slowly and unevenly. “I suppose… the poor child… might have… your ears.”

Merlin’s hands flew up to cover those features. “There’s nothing wrong with—“ he began hotly, and then relaxed. “Oh, fine. That’s my point exactly.”

Arthur resumed his previous place by the fire and dropped his head into his hands. He must have already thought about the issue of the baby’s appearance. He knew his proposition was risky.

“Look, I know how hard this is. “ Merlin wasn’t sure if he was allowed to pursue the topic but Arthur raised no objection. “I understand how desperate you are. You’re trying to think of a way out. That’s natural, that’s good. And I’m flattered, really, that you would consider letting me, asking me to be the one. “

“Like you said, I am desperate.” Arthur’s despondent posture didn’t change.

“We’ll think of another way. Let’s talk to Gaius.”

“I am not talking to Gaius.”

“He’s a physician. He’s seen everything.”

“He’s ancient! And he’s never been married.”

I’ve never been married!” Merlin retorted.

“Of course you haven’t.”

“What is that supposed to mean? No, never mind,” he added quickly, forestalling the expected stream of insults. “No Gaius.”

“And no sorcery!”

That you know about, Merlin added silently, as he nodded.

“And if we can’t find another way?” Arthur demanded.

“Then we’ll talk about your idea again. Alright? I promise. We can talk about it again. But listen, I know someone else who might be able to help.”

“Who?” There was no hope in Arthur’s voice, only suspicion.

“My mother.”

Chapter Text

“Thank you for coming,” Arthur said formally.

“It's a pleasure to visit Merlin, your majesty.” Hunith kept her eyes cast down as she stood next to Merlin in the King’s private study.

“You’re always welcome in Camelot. I hope your chambers are comfortable. Please do let Merlin know if there's anything you require.”

“Everything here is wonderful, my lord. Far more luxurious than I'm used to. As you know.” With that, she lifted her gaze to look Arthur in the eye and his somber court demeanor relaxed into a small but genuine smile.

“Is all well in Ealdor?”

“Very well. We've had no trouble since the Southrons.”

“I'm delighted to hear it. Now, as far as anyone knows, you are here to visit your son. Only the three of us and Queen Guinevere know your other purpose.”

“Yes, my lord.”

Arthur paused before stating his request simply and directly. “Can you help us?”

“I shall try, my lord. I will need to ask you some questions and speak privately with the queen as well.”

“I understand.”

“Is this a good time, Arthur?” Merlin asked. “We don't have to do this now.”

“I should have done it months ago,” Arthur snapped, his tone far less polite when speaking to his servant. “If I hadn't wanted to pretend that everything was fine when it isn't.”

“Fine, then. Now!” Merlin quickly tried to mollify the king. “Now is perfect.”

“Sire,” Hunith began. “I need to ask you about your health.”

“I'm in excellent health,” Arthur declared smugly. “Just ask my knights. I can best any one of them any day of the week.”

“Except Percival, last week, you mean,” Merlin muttered.

“Did you say something, Merlin?” Arthur inquired with elaborate calm.

“No.”

Glancing between the two men, Hunith continued. “Some of these questions are rather personal,” she cautioned.

“Go on.”

“How often... How often, my lord, do you and the queen— “

The rest of the question was lost in the sound of Arthur's chair scraping the floor as he stood and strode out of the room.

Hunith and Merlin turned to each other and spoke at the nearly same moment. Both said, “I'm sorry.”

“No, I'm sorry,” Hunith insisted. “I upset him.”

“But you have to ask these questions,” Merlin said, frowning. “I'm sorry he behaved like that.”

“That doesn't matter. Only I don't see how I'll be able to help,” she said, grimacing.

“He just hates this situation,” Merlin said. “He's not used to failing at anything. He never fails.”

“I suspect that you have something to do with that,” Hunith said dryly.

“Could be,” Merlin admitted, with a wry grin. “But he doesn't know that. He's led a charmed life. He thinks it's all him, that he's always triumphed. Until now. Now he's failing. Constantly, week after week, month after month in front of the entire kingdom. In front of all the kingdoms. They're all watching.”

“I hope I’ll be able to help. Go on, love. Go after him,” she urged. Merlin reached out to squeeze her hand before heading after the king.

Arthur hadn’t gone far. He was loitering in the next corridor, leaning on the railing and surveying the empty room below, clearly waiting for Merlin.

“Are you alright?” Merlin asked carefully, taking up a position next to Arthur along the railing.

“I'm sorry.” Arthur barely voiced the words and kept his gaze fixed on the chamber floor.

“You don't have to apologize. “

“I shouldn't have walked out.” Arthur sighed heavily.

“Don't worry about it. It's difficult. Do you want to... start again? Or maybe tomorrow?”

“I can't. I can't talk to her about such things.”

“But—”

“But I have to,” Arthur said flatly. “It's my duty. Isn't it?” Merlin made no reply, knowing that Arthur would always bring himself do what he believed was required by his position. But after a long pause, Arthur shook his head. “I can’t. You’ll have to do it,” he said firmly.

“Arthur!” Merlin exclaimed. “We agreed—”

“Not that,” Arthur said crossly. “Don’t be stupid, Merlin. I mean, you’ll have to talk to her, find out what she wants to know, and I’ll tell you the answers. You’ll be my liaison.”

“I see,” Merlin said slowly. “I guess that could work.”

“Thank goodness I have your approval for my course of action,” Arthur said. But he reached out to cuff Merlin across the head as he turned away. “I’ll see you later. After you’ve had a chance to speak to Hunith, put away my laundry, tidy up my chambers and prepare my remarks for the candlemakers’ guild.”

Merlin’s mouth fell open. “The candlemakers’ guild! You said you would—” But Arthur had already turned the corner and was out of sight.

Chapter Text

“Your majesty,” Hunith began, dropping to the floor in a low curtsey.

“Please don't call me that,” Guinevere interrupted.

“I'm sorry, my lady.”

“Can't you just call me Gwen, as you used to?”

Hunith pondered the question for a long moment. “I can't, my lady. I’m sorry.”

“Very well then.” Gwen didn’t want her guest to feel uncomfortable. She led Hunith to a low bench. “I need to ask you a question,” she began after they had taken their seats.

“Of course, my lady.”

“If I tell you something, do you have to tell Arthur? Or Merlin?” Hunith didn’t respond immediately, obviously reluctant to make a promise. Gwen’s mouth compressed into a tight line. “It’s okay. I shouldn’t ask you to keep secrets from the king or from your own son. But, please, don’t tell them anything unless you have to. Can you do that for me?”

“Yes, my lady, of course. I’m not here to tell tales.”

“Thank you. I know I can trust you.” Gwen reached over to grasp the other woman’s hand. She took a deep breath. “Hunith, I’m afraid you came here for nothing. I mean, we are all glad to see you, of course, especially Merlin, but I don’t think….” Her voice grew thick, and her eyes shone with tears. “I don’t think we’ll ever be able to have a baby!” She began crying in earnest, and Hunith could only pull her close and hold her while she cried.

“Oh, Gwen,” she murmured, not realizing that she had dropped the formal term of address. She stroked the long dark hair. Gwen must have felt so alone with her sad thoughts. Eventually the queen became calmer and sat back, wiping her eyes. Hunith spoke firmly. “My lady, you can’t know that. There’s always hope.” But Gwen was shaking her head. “What makes you say that?”

“I’m cursed,” she said miserably.

Hunith frowned. “Someone cursed you? When did that happen?”

“Not like that. Nobody said anything or did anything that I know about. I just know it.”

“What do you mean?”

“I’m not…. not fit to be queen. Arthur should never have married me. I should never have let him marry me. I’m not what a queen should be, and that’s why our union hasn’t been blessed. And why it won’t ever be.”

“Oh, Gwen, do you really think that?”

“I do. And I’m sure I’m not the only one who thinks so.” Gwen saw the question in Hunith’s expression. She looked down at her hands. “Not Arthur. He’s too good, too noble to think that way. He has no idea. But I know people are talking. I’ve thought about it so often,” she whispered. “I think the only way for the kingdom to have an heir is for Arthur to have another wife. A proper, noble bride.”

“Gwen!” Hunith exclaimed, snatching up Gwen’s hand from her lap. “You wouldn’t!”

“I’ve thought about it,” Gwen admitted. “You know how I felt when I lived in Ealdor. So much sorrow and regret. I would have done anything to change what had happened and have Arthur love me and trust me again. But there was nothing to be done. And then I was so happy. So happy, I can’t even tell you. And I thought surely there would be babies, lots of them, because we had so much love to give. But months went by and I realized that the problem had to be me. And this time there is something I can do about it. I couldn’t change the past, but I can change the future. If I can’t give Arthur a baby from my body, I can give him a fresh chance, with—”

“Please don’t say these things,” Hunith begged. “That can’t be the right way. That’s not what Arthur wants, I’m sure of it.”

“He wouldn’t know about it, of course,” Gwen said calmly. “It would look like an accident.”

“Oh, but, Gwen! You would be breaking his heart!”

“For his own good. For the good of the kingdom.”

Hunith’s heart felt hollow as she witnessed how much pain the royal couple was in. Clearly each took the blame, and neither had been able to confide in the other. Thank heaven for Merlin. She spoke in stern tone. “I’m here now, and you will stop thinking about that idea. Your death, no matter how it came about, would be devastating for Arthur. You can’t do that to him. He has lost so much. His parents, his sister, his uncle, his good friends and loyal knights. He might never remarry, and you would be condemning him to a lifetime of grief and loneliness.”

Gwen was crying again, tears slipping silently down her cheeks. “But,” she said brokenly.

“Please calm yourself, and we will talk about what can be done.” She stroked the queen’s hand, which she still held in hers. At length Gwen nodded at her to continue. “I have some questions to ask you, but I can tell you right now that there is something you can do to increase your chance of pregnancy. If I explain, will you follow my advice?”

“Yes.” Their eyes met, and Hunith could see the tentative hope in Gwen’s dark eyes.

“You are too thin,” Hunith said gently. “A baby won’t grow if the mother can’t sustain him. I’ve seen it many times. Women don’t fall pregnant in lean years, but when the hunting and the harvest are good, those same women will gain weight and soon they’re gaining and gaining with a baby inside.”

“Really?”

Hunith squeezed the queen’s hand. The poor child had no mother, no sister, no female friends to share stories and pass on advice. “Absoutely,” she said. “You must eat more. Do you skip meals?”

“I’m just not hungry.”

“Gwen, you’ve been carrying a heavy burden with your sadness and your worries about having a baby. It can be hard for any woman who wants to be a mother, but especially for you with the responsibility of being queen. These sorts of thoughts take away your appetite. So you must eat every meal even if you don’t feel like it.”

Guinevere's hand had been lying limp in Hunith's, but now her grip tightened.

“I’ll try.”

Chapter Text

This had to be the most awkward conversation since time began. The things he had to do for Camelot! If Kilgarrah ever got word of this, he would laugh his head off.

It had started off tolerably. Arthur was, as Merlin was well aware, in excellent health. He had plenty of energy for riding well past the limits of a normal person’s endurance, for passing hours jumping about and utilizing all manner of weapons regardless of the weather and for flinging random household objects at his manservant’s head. But soon they had to enter somewhat more tricky territory. Merlin consulted the next question on the scroll he and his mother had prepared.

“Did you ever, in childhood, have an injury—” he began.

Arthur chortled. “Merlin, did you ever, in childhood, have an injury to your brain? No need to reply! We already know the answer is—”

“To your male parts!” Merlin cut him off.

Arthur looked completely outraged. “I’ll have you know that everything is in perfect working order!”

“That’s not what I asked.”

“An injury,” Arthur repeated.

“Yes. My mother has heard of boys who got hurt there, and they seemed fine. They could perform all their marital duties. Or, I mean, you don’t actually have to be married to—”

“Merlin!” Arthur growled.

“Everything functioned,” Merlin went on smoothly. “Only they never had any children.”

“I see. No, I didn’t.”

“Good. Now, my mother wants to know everything that you eat and drink.”

“Everything that I eat and drink!”

“Yes. She says—

“Oh, don’t bother explaining. You can answer that one. What I eat when we’re away from Camelot is mostly rubbish stew that you prepare and what I eat when we’re in Camelot is mostly platters of whatever you decide to bring up from kitchens and that you didn’t already put in your own greedy mouth.”

“Fine.” Merlin’s eyes were fixed on his scroll.

“Well? Go on!”

“Look, I don’t want to ask these questions any more than you want to answer them.”

“Understood.”

“My mother wants to check that you’re doing it right.”

“What, eating?”

“No." Merlin forced the words out. For Camelot, he reminded himself. "You know. In bed.”

“Check!?” Arthur looked completely horrified.

“No! Not like that!” Merlin said quickly. “Not… in person. Just… just describe what you do.”

“Are you implying that I don’t know how to make love to my own wife?”

“No! Not implying anything, sire. But if that were the problem, that would be great, wouldn’t it? Because it would be so easy to fix.”

“That’s not the problem.” A glare accompanied these words.

“Too bad. I mean, excellent. Of course it isn’t. So if you would just describe?”

Arthur grit his teeth. “I put my… and we… and then… “ He made sweeping but vague gestures with his hands and arms to accompany his words. “You know how it goes.”

Merlin made a thoughtful humming noise. He wondered whether that scant level of detail was sufficient to pass on to the next question.

“Merlin, you do know how it goes, don’t you?” Arthur was smirking.

“I’m not the one seeking help,” Merlin replied crisply.

“So you haven’t ever—“

“We are not here to talk about me!” Merlin snapped. Arthur mimicked the thoughtful humming noise, loudly. Merlin rolled his eyes and heaved a deep sigh. You know how it goes would have to do. “My mother talked to Gwen.”

As Merlin expected and to his relief, the mention of the queen’s name diverted Arthur’s attention from his curiosity. “I know. I’m grateful that Hunith advised her to eat more. I’ve told her the same, but she wouldn’t listen.”

“Well, I’m not sure you’re going to be grateful for this. My mother said that from now on, you can only…” He glanced over to see Arthur raising an eyebrow impatiently. He really should have planned how to phrase these topics. Clearing his throat, he continued. “You can only be together a certain amount.” Arthur frowned. “To tell you the truth, what she said was, you can do whatever you like to…. to….” He trailed off.

“In your own time,” Arthur said with an even more intimidating glare.

“To… your partner,” Merlin concluded, pleased with the clinical term.

“My ‘partner’? Are you referring to my wife, Guinevere, Queen of Camelot?”

“Yes, her, but I really don’t like thinking about this. Can we not use her name?”

“The things I have to put up with for Camelot!” Arthur complained rhetorically.

“What you put up with!” Merlin clutched the scroll so hard that he nearly tore it.

“Carry on,” Arthur said loftily.

Merlin glared at him. “You can do whatever you like to your partner, but you can only… be satisfied… every other day.”

“That doesn’t seem quite fair,” Arthur mused, as if considering a quarrel over land or a herd of sheep to be divided among sons.

“My mother has a theory that certain things in a man’s body need time to be replenished.”

“Well, what does she base that on? I happen to be royalty.”

“Right, so for you, twice as long!” Merlin shot back.

“Every other day,” Arthur said skeptically.

“She’s helped a lot of couples,” Merlin reminded him. “People come from miles away. And she helps with the animal breeding too.”

“Animal breeding!”

“Sorry, never mind that.”

“Fine.”

“Good.”

Merlin rolled up the scroll.

“Is that all?”

“Yes.”

“Excellent.”

“Good.”

“Merlin?”

“Yes?”

“Just one thing.”

“Yes, sire?”

“Get out of my chambers!” Arthur bellowed.

Thank heaven the conversation was over.