Genre(s): Family, Hurt/Comfort, Angst
Warnings: Mild, infrequent language
Spoilers: s1e13, Le Morte D'Arthur
Characters: Merlin, Hunith, Gwen/Guinevere
Summary: Tag to 'Le Morte D'Arthur'. When Merlin and Gaius return to Camelot from the Isle of the Blessed, it is to a heartsick Hunith, terrified that she allowed the death of her beloved son in a moment of incoherency. 1x13
A Mother’s Love
Hunith woke up, confused as to how she had woken up at all. She could remember perfectly the agonizing illness that had ravaged her body, the boils and the sickness, the swelling and the all-consuming, all-encompassing pain. She had never seen, let alone experienced, a sickness so debilitating and severe, and she had known beyond a shadow of a doubt that she should not have survived. She couldn't have survived. Yet here she was, lying on the cot in Gaius's chambers, staring up at the cracked, dusty ceiling, and thinking that never had she seen such a beautiful sight in all her life. There was no pain, no aching, no boils, no sickness. It was like the entire ordeal had been a dream. No, a nightmare - the most realistic, painful, and hellish nightmare she had ever experienced.
But if it were a nightmare, then she would be waking up in her own bed in her own home, staring up at her own cracked and dusty ceiling, and she wouldn't remember the pain as if it were still pulsing through her body. No, it had happened, and yet she felt entirely well, if not extremely shaken up.
Slowly, she sat up, her eyes casting around the room, drinking in her surroundings. There was something about Gaius's chambers that felt right. Safe. She smiled, realizing that, whatever the reason for the miracle, she would get to see her son again, get to truly see and talk to him past the garbled, fevered exchanges they had had since her arrival in Camelot.
She swung her legs over one side of the bed, having come to the strange realization that she was alone. She would have thought that someone, Gaius, or Gwen, or Merlin, especially, would have been by her bedside, but no one was there. She spoke, calling out for her son, delighted to find that her voices wasn't akin to the croak of a toad, and stronger than the rasp of leaves in the wind. Thank the gods, she was alive! "Merlin," she said again, but no one answered.
Eyebrows furrowing, she got to her feet, and she didn't sway, didn't swoon, didn't so much as feel the slightest bit dizzy. Almost giddy, she made her way up to Merlin's room, sure that her son was exhausted from caring for his ailing mother and had finally passed out from exhaustion. She knocked, but nothing stirred behind the door. A slight frown marred her no longer swollen lips, and she eased the door open, peeking inside to see that Merlin's bed was made and that no young warlock was in sight.
The sound of a door opening behind her made her jump slightly, and she turned around, the smile back on her face and the name already on her lips. "Merlin!"
The person who had just entered Gaius's chambers wasn't Merlin, and she gasped, eyes widening almost comically as she saw the healed woman in front of her. "Guinevere!" Hunith said warmly, remembering the kind serving girl from her short time in Ealdor, and she even had brief, scattered memories of Gwen's face during her stupor of an illness. "What is wrong, my dear? You look like you've seen a ghost."
Gwen dropped the few bundles of herbs in her hands onto the threshold of the door, still staring. Then, she giggled in delight and practically threw herself forward, wrapping her friend's mother in a warm embrace. "If I didn't know any better, I'd say I have seen a ghost!" the girl stammered thickly. "But you're alive! And you look wonderful. Like you'd never been ill."
"It's a miracle," Hunith agreed.
"Merlin will be so pleased," Gwen beamed, and at the mention of her son, Hunith's smile grew impossibly wide.
"Where is he?"
Gwen glanced around as if surprised to see that her fellow servant and friend hadn't joined them yet. "He's still not back? I stepped out for about an hour, to get some herbs to help, well, you know… ease your passing," the servant stuttered awkwardly. "I thought for sure Merlin would have returned to you. He's barely left your side."
"Gaius is gone, too," Hunith observed.
"I can go look for them," Gwen offered. "You should stay here and rest. You may be better, but you still need to rest. I'll be right back." Gwen made it to the door before she hesitated slightly, turning around with a somewhat troubled expression marring her pretty face. "Odd, though," she said softly, almost as if to herself. "When I saw Merlin last, when I talked to him, he acted odd."
"How so?" Hunith demanded, her heart beginning to beat a bit faster in her chest. She didn't know why; Merlin had always been an odd boy compared to the other lads of his age.
"When he spoke to me, what he said… It was final. Resolved. Almost as if…" Gwen trailed off, shaking her head, dark curls bouncing with the motion. "No," she decided. "It's silly."
Hunith's pulse raged. "As if what?" she asked. When Gwen hesitated again, she pleaded, "Tell me."
Gwen bit her lip. "Almost as if… he were saying goodbye."
Hunith's heart might as well have stopped.
"But it's nonsense," Gwen said. "Where would he be going, when you were here, ill? He wouldn't leave you, although he seemed utterly determined that you would make a full recovery." She smiled widely. "And he was right. I'll be right back with Merlin and Gaius. I'm sure everything's perfectly fine."
It was when Hunith was left alone that she remembered. Faint traces of her son's voice chased blurred images of his determined face through her head. She pulled in a deep breath, struggling to recall everything.
I'm going to make you better.
I know the gods will take care of me, and I will see you again.
It sounded like a typical goodbye to a dying loved loved one (denial, then reassurance), but there was something wrong with it, something that Hunith couldn't quite put her finger on.
I know the gods will take care of me, and I will see you again.
I know the gods will take care of me.
Me, not you. Me.
Realization hammered violently into Hunith's heart and she sank weakly to the floor, her knees giving way as she realized what had happened. What Merlin had done. She didn't know how, but she knew with absolute certainty and clarity that Merlin hadn't been saying goodbye because he thought his mother was about to die, but because he was planning on dying himself. On dying instead.
Oh, gods, Gwen was right. He was saying goodbye.
And what had she said in response?
You're such a good son.
That was it? She hadn't begged him to stay, hadn't told him that she wasn't worth his dying, that she would gladly give her life any day so that he could live. She had just let him go to his death, however he planned to do it - and she knew that he would. She didn't know how one would go about trading one's life for another's, but she knew that Merlin was powerful, devoted, and determined. Somehow, he had figured it out. And the only explanation for her being alive and well was that Merlin was dead. Her son was dead. He was gone.
Oh, gods, he was gone.
She stayed there, knees on the hard floor, back aching, hundreds of horrible emotions, thoughts, and images running through her mind. "Oh gods," she moaned, her stomach churning. "No. No, no, noooooo…."
Her almost toneless, shocked protests had turned into low, keening cries. She hugged herself, but she remained cold on the inside and out. She started sobbing, then, the harsh, guttural type of crying that wasn't for show, wasn't for cleansing or even pain, but for absolute, gut-crushing, heart-breaking, soul-shattering sorrow. It was the kind of sorrow that could not be explained, could not be reasoned with, could not be reasoned away or pushed aside, even for a moment. It could only be felt, and felt so deeply that it was like everything a person was had been cannibalized by the darkness. A cavern was being slowly, painfully, methodically carved into her chest, and the emptiness she felt there was overwhelming. She couldn't catch her breath. She couldn't stop sobbing, or wailing, or screaming. And scream she did, beating the ground in anguish until her fists were bloody, and even then she didn't stop or even notice.
"Merlin," she cried. "Merlin, please. I'm sorry… I'm so sorry." She choked this out in between the debilitating, desperate sobs.
She couldn't help but think that it was her fault… her fault.
She should have stopped him, damn her sickness. It didn't matter that the pain had been so bad that she hadn't been able to concentrate. It didn't matter that she hadn't understood what he was talking about or what he was planning to do. She was his mother, and she should have known. She just should have. It wasn't logical, it didn't make a bit of sense, but it didn't matter. She was his mother, and she should have figured it out. Should have stopped. Should have died in his place.
She was going to have to bury him.
At this realization, she stopped wailing and curled into herself, her crying becoming nothing more than the ragged but silent convulsions of her body as her voice gave out and she didn't have enough breath to vocalize her anguish, anyway. The thought of putting her only beloved son in the ground and covering him with dirt was enough to propel her into a whole new world of grief. She didn't even entertain the thought of burning his body. Merlin was terrified of burning at the stake, and there was no way that she would ever see him on a pyre, funeral pyre or not.
A wave of pure hopelessness settled over her and she stilled, sobs not coming as she became dizzy from lack of air and she just lay there, thinking about her son, his destiny, his gifts, his bond with the prince, his selflessness, his loyalty, his love… And how he had gone off to his death for his mother knowing that she hadn't done a damn thing to try to stop him.
She was lying there, silent and desolate, trying to make a bit of sense out of the hell her life had become, shattered into billions of splintered pieces that would never be whole again, ever, not without Merlin, when she heard the door slam open. She didn't so much as twitch. She had been wrong when she thought that her illness had been her worst nightmare. No, she was living that nightmare right now. She had lost her son.
There was a sharp intake of breath, and she thought that Guinevere had come back to tell her that Merlin was nowhere to be found. Of course he wasn't, because he was dead, and his mother had allowed it, essentially encouraged it, never mind the ill daze she had been in.
And then - "Mother? Gaius, it was supposed to work, she should be alive, with Nimueh's death to balance everything out, I-"
She jumped up from the floor with such agility and so suddenly that she made both her son - her very alive, very real, very, very alive son - and his faithful guardian jump in surprise. They stared at each other, and then Gaius fled the chambers, muttering something about checking on the prince, but she knew that it was to give mother and son their needed privacy, and Hunith silently thanked her old friend for his consideration.
There was a heartbeat, just one beat, and then they were in each other's arms, her baby boy cocooned in her loving arms as she held him close to her, taking in every bit of him. "Mother, you're alive," he choked out, and something warm and wet landed on her shoulder. She just held him and cried and hugged him and cried some more.
Finally, she drew back, but still kept contact with him, her hands firmly on his lanky shoulders as she looked up into the tired, weathered, and dirty face of the young man she was so proud to call her son. Cupping his face in her trembling hands, she whispered, "What happened?"
"Oh," said Merlin, his voice overwhelmed with emotion. He didn't even sound like himself, he was so choked up. He cleared his throat and tried again, sounding no different than he had before - still watery, hoarse, and oh-so-loving and happy, "Oh, Gwen, she found us. Said to - to come here right away. I hoped…"
"Oh, never mind," Hunith decided. She had been asking what had happened on the quest to give his life for hers, as she knew that he had embarked upon, but Merlin was a bit befuddled and didn't understand the full question, and she didn't care. She drew him to her again as he wept into her shoulder, once again the little boy that she had raised and comforted and chastised and loved with every ounce of her heart, every bit of her being. "My boy," she said, "my precious boy. I'm so sorry I didn't stop you. I should have stopped you."
Merlin was the one to pull back this time, his eyes watery but surprisingly hard. "How did you know?" he asked, and she knew the hardness in his eyes wasn't directed at her in the slightest, but at the situation itself. "What I was doing, I mean?"
Voice trembling, Hunith answered, "I worked it out. And I thought you were dead. Merlin, I thought…" She choked.
"Mother, I would do anything to keep you safe."
A sudden surge of anger mingled with grief and Merlin stepped back slightly, seeing it in her eyes. This action, unfortunately for him, only served to give Hunith the first good look of her son, and when she saw the ugly, raw burn in the center of his chest, the anger grew into fury, but it was not aimed at Merlin. It didn't matter, though, because he was the only one in the room to be on the receiving end of it.
"You foolish boy," Hunith said, but instead of anger, the only emotion prominent in her voice was sadness. "How could you possibly think that my life is worth giving up your own for?"
Merlin fidgeted slightly. "You're my mother, and I love you," he said simply, and Hunith knew he meant it, every word.
She hugged him again, this time being mindful of the burn on his chest, and said, "And you are my son, and I love you. And if I had been in my right mind, I would have done anything, anything to stop you from doing whatever it was you did. Merlin, I would give my life for you a thousand, a million times over for you."
"But," said Merlin, and she shook her head.
"No, Merlin," she said softly. "I would, and I would do it gladly. I do not think that there is any love on this earth that can surpass a mother's love for her son, and when the son is as wonderful, gifted, loyal, and incredible as you, how could I not be willing to die for you? So please, never put me through that again, my son. Please."
"I'm sorry," said Merlin, his voice broken and eyes downcast.
Hunith took his chin and lifted his head so that he was looking in her eyes. "No," she said. "I'm sorry."
And before he could protest, the adrenaline of the moment faded from his body and he staggered, exhaustion and pain getting the better of him. Hunith led him to the cot that she had just woken in, although it seemed like days - horrible, wonderful, terrible, glorious days - since she had been healed, and helped him lie down and began the arduous process of helping him remove his shirt. "Now, my son, you have demonstrated your great love for me once again. Rest now, and I will tend to your wounds."
"But Gaius, Arthur…"
"Merlin. Let me take care of you."
Merlin looked at her for a moment, all of the love and gratefulness trumping the pain from his wounds and weariness in his gaze and then, relaxed and safe, and in his mother's hands, he fell asleep.
Hunith set to work, inspecting, cleaning, and bandaging the burn, all the while never taking her eyes off of Merlin's face unless she absolutely had to. And she never lost contact with him, not once.
She had almost lost her life, and then she had almost lost her son, had thought that she had lost her son, and now that she had him back, she wasn't going to let him go for a long, long time.
She wept as she tended to him, too, but these were happy, relieved tears as she reveled in the fact that her boy was safe. He was alive, and nothing else mattered.
Her son was alive, and she would die for him in a heartbeat, just like he'd attempted to give up his life for her.
But dying for Merlin wouldn't be a sacrifice, but a privilege.
So much was a mother's love for her son.
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