Will and Merlin had returned from foraging for food, displaying their spoils. Berries and roots were scattered on the wooden table like trophies, spilling out from the neckerchief that Merlin had collected them in.
Hunith exclaimed over them, ruffling Will’s hair and kissing Merlin’s cheek.
Merlin beamed up at her. “Wait until you see what Will got!”
Will brushed his hair back, self-consciously. “It’s not that big a deal,” he said, and Merlin loudly began to contradict him as Will placed the rabbit on the table. Hunith almost burst into tears with relief – she had been wondering what on earth she would feed the boys.
“We shall have a feast tonight, my dears!” she exclaimed.
“Is this like you had in Camelot, mother?” Merlin asked her, staring at her with earnest eyes.
Hunith felt a pang in her heart, at the thought of the feasts of Camelot. She wished she had a plateful of the feast food in front of her now, to place it on her table and share it with the two boys in front of her.
“This is as good as any feast of Camelot,” she said loyally. “And I would rather be dining with my two favourite boys then all the royal court of Camelot. The little prince Arthur himself would not be dining on any finer food than this tonight, I can assure you!”
Merlin beamed at her, and Will looked abashed. The boys fell upon dinner with enthusiasm, banter flying between them. Hunith watched them with fondness, seeing their animated faces and listening to the sound of their laughter.
They were far too skinny, and it was only autumn – she resolutely pushed away the thought of winter, and what it may bring.
It was she Merlin ran to when the squirrel bit his finger. Actually, Will reached her first, and she had felt her heart stop at the panic in his face, the blood that covered his clothes – but before he opened his mouth she caught sight of Merlin, trudging towards her, looking sheepish and nursing a bloody finger.
She bandaged it up as best she could, although she found herself wishing for Gaius’ well-stocked supplies. Still, the bite was deep but clean, and Merlin was a healthy lad.
“You are as brave as Prince Arthur,” she said. “When he was just a little boy, he fell off his pony and he didn’t even cry, although his elbow was scraped and his knee was bleeding. He just demanded to be put straight back on his horse.”
That night they ate squirrel meat, and Merlin looked pale. “Don’t scare me like that again,” said Hunith, half-joking, and Merlin looked at her with too-serious eyes.
“I won’t,” he said. “I promise.”
In that moment, he looked every inch his father's son - his father, who had also made a promise, and since broken it. Hunith wondered what Balinor was eating that night, if indeed he was still alive.
“What’s wrong, love,” Hunith asked, half-panicked, having come across Merlin sitting in a corner with tear-stained eyes.
He was clutching something tightly in his hand, and she prised his fingers apart, revealing an apple. His other hand was empty.
“What on earth are you doing?” she asked, bewildered.
He blinked away tears. “I was trying to make another apple,” he said, sounding betrayed.
“Merlin,” Hunith said, feeling the familiar tightness in her chest whenever she thought about Merlin’s magic, and she restrained the urge to clutch him to her chest and hold him tight, to keep him safe from everything in this world. Instead, she focused on keeping her voice steady. “Apples have their own kind of magic,” she said, instead. “Shall I show you?”
They shared the apple between them, until Merlin’s fingers were sticky with juice. After they had eaten the apple right to the core, Hunith took Merlin’s hand in hers and they went to the field and buried the seeds and the core, all of it.
“What happens now?” Merlin asked, staring at the ground expectantly.
“It grows,” said Hunith, smiling. “You see, nature has its own kind of magic.”
Merlin squatted down on the ground, staring intently at the patch of raised earth.
“What are you doing?” asked Hunith.
“Waiting,” said Merlin, his eyes still focused on the soil.
Hunith loved Merlin more than anything – he was the most precious thing in her world. Yet she couldn’t help wishing that Merlin wasn’t quite so special, as in front of her eyes, she saw a tentative shoot poke up from beneath the soil, then waver towards the sunlight.
She took Merlin’s hand and turned him away before he could see.
“How long until we can eat the apples, mother?” Merlin asked, eyes aglow, and if she looked closely she knew she could still see flecks of gold.She didn’t look closely.
She squeezed his hand. “Apples take a long time to grow, Merlin.”
When Merlin was unpacking his satchel in Gaius quarters, his first night in Camelot, he came across two apples his mother had stowed away, and he blinked away tears. He recognised which tree they had come from – the one his mother had helped him plant. It grew the finest apples in all Ealdor, they tasted so sweet and clear.
He ate the first one, but he couldn’t bring himself to eat the second apple – not yet, anyway.
After a few days in Arthur’s service, Merlin realised that Arthur was some combination of the hero of his mother’s stories and a right royal prat.
Arthur was about to make some self-important statement, and on impulse Merlin threw the apple at him. Arthur caught it deftly.
“Assaulting the prince?” he said, and tossed it in the air, and then looked at it a little more closely. “Merlin,” he said, “where on earth did you get this apple? I’ve never seen one quite like it.”
“I brought it with me from Ealdor.”
Arthur weighed it in his hand and then took a bite. “That,” he said, sounding impressed despite himself, “is the best apple I have ever tasted.”
“Thanks,” Merlin said. “My mother grew them."