The day Merlin left Camelot, Arthur did not see him off.
Guinevere did, and even Morgana, but Arthur remained at his desk and pored over the latest grain reports instead. There was no war to be fought against raiders and thieves that thought themselves warlords; there was no plague cursing Ealdor and threatening the livelihood of the state. There was nothing to warrant the prince seeing off his servant, let alone taking leave from his duties to travel with him.
Instead, he gave Merlin the mare he'd been borrowing when he accompanied Arthur on patrols or hunts. Even the stablehands had remarked on Merlin's odd bond with the horse, and Arthur was well aware of the man's silly sentiments. He probably even had a name for it, and likely crowed it while stroking its mane before leaving the stables. No one had to confirm or deny; Arthur just knew, the way he knew many things about Merlin. An unspoken understanding, because to give voice to it would break its charm and lose its effect - not that, it didn't - it didn't have an effect on Arthur, it just. It made things easier.
Easy enough to let Merlin go without seeing him off, yet once he was gone, the silence remained, and there was not a single easy thing about that.
His chambers had grown used to being filled with the sound of mindless rambling, offhand insults and laughter to reach every corner. Footsteps as Merlin moved about to complete his chores (more or less, though most often less) or the crackle of a hearty fire as Merlin sat before it with the iron poker and grinned like a child. Pleasant banter and the occasional night when Merlin would take the liberty of seating himself across from Arthur and giving him surprisingly half-decent advise on this, that or Morgana's latest slight against humanity. The stones had never before held so much noise, these undeniable signs of life, before Merlin.
But it was only the chambers that had grown accustomed to the clamor, not Arthur. It still set Arthur's teeth on edge, gave him a headache and made him want to shout at the idiot to shut up. Only the room was empty, save for Arthur, and the room was silent, save for the quiet scratching of his quill, and he did not stop to give his then ex-servant a farewell. He did not go to the courtyard to see Guinevere cry and Gaius hug him and Morgana kiss his cheek. He did not look down from his window to watch him ride away from the castle walls on his horse with every last trace of his life in Camelot.
If he had looked, Arthur would've seen Merlin looking back up at him just before he disappeared from their lives.
"Arthur is in need of a new manservant."
"Morgana!" Arthur choked, setting down his goblet of wine to glare furiously at the harpy disguising itself as human and sitting across from him with a vile smirk.
Uther hummed noncommittally around a mouthful of food. "What happened to that addle-brained boy of yours?" he asked, tone vaguely interested in the way it always was when he indulged his ward of idle conversation.
"Merlin," she informed the king, though he was more like to remember the name of the lower town's barmaid than Arthur's servant.
"He resigned from his duties," Arthur interjected resolutely in the hopes of ending the conversation there, but he'd have to stop just short of gagging Morgana to get her to let it alone.
"Because his mother's taken ill and won't survive the coming winter without his help," she added with a certain brevity, as though aiming to cut Arthur with her words. It wasn't necessary; the implications were obvious, and he didn't wear his mail to dinner.
To his surprise, Uther nodded his head in approval. "He is a loyal son. A man's duties to his family are important."
"Indeed. Our greatest virtue can be found in the lengths we'll go to for those we love," she smiled, but it was laced with poison and she shot Arthur a pointed look. "Perhaps Merlin can be a lesson to us all." Uther grunted something akin to agreement, clearly signalling the end of his involvement on the topic, and Arthur very nearly slammed down his silverware.
"Father, may I please be excused? I've had my fill, and I'd like to have those reports ready for you by morning council."
"You may," he said with a brief wave of his hand, his characteristic dismissal that never once failed to make Arthur twitch in irritation, but he stood without further word and gave Morgana a hateful glare before inclining his head to the king and turning to leave. He hadn't made it more than three paces before the king called to him, sounding vaguely bored. "I'll have a new servant assigned to you in time to turn down your room tonight." Expected, naturally, but it still sent an ache that had Arthur tensing when he realised Merlin would not be by to flop ill-mannered and lazily on the rug before the fireplace to prattle aimlessly until blowing out the candles even though Arthur complained of hating the smoke.
He closed his eyes, hands balled at his sides, and said flatly, "Thank you, father," then did his utmost not to run from the room.
The heavy wooden doors to his chambers had hardly fallen back in place by the time they were thrown carelessly open, and Arthur didn't need to turn around to know it was Morgana. She saw fit to traipse about the castle as though she owned it from the very first day she set foot upon its stones.
"I think I may have you banished from the kingdom when I am King," he snarled, bracing his hands against his desk with a grip to turn his knuckles white.
"Please, you'd make it less than a day before you realised you can hardly breathe without me," she chimed proudly. In all the years he knew her, Arthur tried and failed to fathom where precisely she found her arrogance. He'd once theorised she kept a reservoir of conceit stored in the wine cellar, but quickly came to see that not even the vast expanse of Camelot's reaches could contain her massive ego. Morgana was the very definition of a lost cause.
"What do you want?"
"What I want, Arthur Pendragon," she snapped, shutting - and locking, God save him - the door before stepping closer, "is for you to pull your head out of your ass and acknowledge your mistakes."
Arthur turned from his desk to face her, arms thrust out in frustration. "What mistakes? Merlin asked to leave, and I let him leave!"
"Exactly! You let him go!"
"What else would you have had me do?" He stepped closer, brows furrowed deep and something unfamiliar pulsing through his veins. Morgana refused to back down, but caught notice of the conflict in his eyes. Standing mere inches apart from each other, yet it felt like they were leagues away. "Refuse him? Tell him 'no, you absolutely cannot go to help your mother?'"
"You could have given her a place here," she offered, voice far more gentle but still assertive, and Arthur scoffed and turned away. Relentless, the fiend; she followed as he shrugged out of his jacket and threw it on the bed. "You could have helped him."
The list of things Arthur Could Have Done was enough to fill its own archive entirely, and even if no one dared to read through it, he would still feel the weight of it every single day. 'Inaction can be as harmful and dangerous as action, Arthur,' and even as a boy, he questioned every step he made, every breath he took, reminded himself that each one was a lucky mishap. Mistakes piled up on an unwritten record that no one spoke of and no one tallied, but still put shame to his name and deepened a guilt that started the moment he first entered the world. What he Could Have Done was limitless; what he Had Done was meaningless. None of that mattered when one false step or shaken breath meant the suffering of his people.
Arthur was supposed to be flawless, and he couldn't fathom the concept when he'd been born as Camelot's Greatest Flaw. He worried at his palm with his thumb in silence, Morgana's gaze burning holes in the back of his head. What could he have done?
"It's not that simple -" but he was interrupted by the click, clack of the lady's shoes, echoing through the empty room, empty empty because it was never occupied even when Arthur sat in it all day.
"How isn't it?"
"Because, Morgana," he snapped, pulling away from her outstretched hand aimed for his shoulder. He wouldn't let her touch him as she had when they were children and he couldn't handle the weight of a kingdom that wasn't even his yet. Flawless, that brave knight and crown prince, and he wouldn't let Morgana comfort him because the throne isn't meant to be comfortable. "It's his mother."
They both sat on the edge of Arthur's bed, and Morgana had reason enough not attempt making contact again, though she tilted her head to try and catch his eyes. He did not deign to meet them. "Hunith?"
"What do you recall of your mother?"
The bed shifted a little as she tensed, dropping her gaze for the shortest of moments. "Not much, admittedly."
"And you remember Hunith."
"Yes, she was -"
"- lovely," Arthur finished for her, nodding his head to no one but himself. Their stay in Ealdor had been difficult to say the very least, but Hunith still welcomed them warmly and treated them as one of her own. A fleeting smile passed across his features before his brow furrowed and he swallowed a frown. "I never met her, you know. My mother. She never even laid eyes on me."
This time, Arthur met Morgana's eyes and didn't pull away when she reached out to take his hand. Couldn't, rather, for the sorrow in her eyes. It ought to be a reflection of his own, you'd expect it, but where Uther had mourned for twenty-two years, Arthur was never allowed a moment of grief. Murderers do not bemoan the lives of their victims.
"I've never known a mother all my life, Morgana, but I've had - ideas. Images, concepts; the sort you could read of in texts or learn of through tales, and Hunith is every one in spades. The way she was, with Merlin," he swallowed again, swallowed hard and blinked repeatedly and couldn't hold her gaze any longer, couldn't hold his head up anymore, so he dropped it and started over, "The way she was with us, mere strangers in her household. I should hardly want for any jewels or silks as the crown prince of the finest kingdom, but - Merlin is a far richer man than any."
Arthur scrubbed a hand over his mouth, and laughed, hollow, humourless, and Morgana's grip on his hand tightened to near painful. It was the only thing that kept him grounded.
"How could I deny him that?"
"Oh, Arthur," she breathed, and he felt the press of her lips to the top of his head. "You wondrous fool."
The nature of the relationship between the king's son and his ward was always one of great scrutiny and amusement. If there was not talk of their hypothetical betrothal, there would be of their bickering as though they'd been wed for lifetimes. If they were not regarded as inappropriate or brazen, they were considered endearing and blithe. The crown prince had no room for friends, but Morgana was the closest he had ever gotten. He did not raise his head to meet her again and she did not ask him to. He did not walk her to the door, as is proper for a man of a lady. He did not look up to see her sweep away with the grace of a queen and the heart of a lion.
If he had looked, Arthur would have seen Morgana looking back at him with tears in her eyes as she left his chambers and did not speak of Merlin again.
It was the better half of a year before word of Arthur's former servant passed through the halls of the castle again. Winter's cruel grasp relaxed into the quiet beginnings of Spring, one of the smoothest seasons to date, and Arthur did not check incessantly on the status of the kingdom over after filing away their own grain reports.
In that time, Arthur went through no less than seven different servants, all of which he dismissed on account of any of a handful of perceived inadeqaucies. No one uttered a word (within earshot of the prince, at least) of what he was really doing, and his father eventually left him to deal with it on his own - which rather meant not to be dealt with at all. Arthur found someone to clean his chambers and tend to his armour; he did not find someone to tail him about the castle, go with him on patrols, or hang about where they were generally unneeded. Things were quiet, as they always had been.
Arthur hated every second.
Until a knock came at his door, and he'd hardly a chance to say "enter" before its source came hurriedly in and closed the door behind her. Guinevere's eyes were lit up brightly in a manner Arthur hadn't seen outside of Morgan's chambers since -
"Has something happened?" he sat up in his seat, laying down his quill as worry took precedence over the preparations for the feast the week following. Gwen shook her head, lips pursed, and approached the desk with her hands suspiciously hidden behind her back.
"A message was delivered to the Lady Morgana and she - well, rather, I thought - it's fairly important, and she wanted -"
Arthur tried not to smile. Guinevere was Morgana's maidservant for many many years, and yet still never quite managed to grasp speaking to someone of a higher station. Not the same inane bumbling as Merlin that usually ended with him in the stocks, but an endearing sort that only made her that much sweeter. How on Earth she put up with her horror of a master was a mystery Arthur supposed he'd never solve.
"Out with it, Guinevere. I haven't got all day, you know," he chided, tone more fond than derisive and perhaps that's why she never learned. She smiled and held out a rolled up piece of parchment eagerly.
"Just - read it. If you will, Sire," and he took it carefully, wary of the excitement bubbling in her hardly contained glee. Something was clearly amiss, and within seconds of reading the note, he had a fairly good idea of precisely what.
"She didn't send you deliver this message, did she," he intoned, annoyance creeping in at the edges.
Gwen pursed her lips, clearly trying to bite back amusement, then shook her head, "No, I'm afraid not, Sire."
"Right. Because she would've wanted to tell me herself. Which begs the question as to why she didn't." Arthur sighed and rubbed his temples for a second, steeling himself for disaster with his eyes closed. "All right, let's have it, then."
"Yes, my lord, um. It's just that," she flushed, manners and likely an effort to save him some embarrassment the only things keeping her from grinning. She had to bite her lip to swallow down the mirth threatening to overflow, "Well, she won't stop laughing."
Arthur audibly groaned, and then there was absolutely no containing her grin.
"I'd've thought her ill if I hadn't read the note myself afterwards. And, well - it is a bit funny, don't you think?"
He glared, and it only served to make her flush with delight further. "No, I do not think."
"Oh, Arthur, I'm so sorry," and she laughed at long last, and he couldn't even punish her for it. "It's just - it's too cute."
"Back to your overlord, you wench," he growled, waving her away. Her laughter followed her into the hall, and Arthur rolled his eyes when he could still hear it through the shut doors. But a smile was tugging at the corner of his lips, and he eyed the note once more before tossing it on his desk in defeat.
My Lady Morgana, I hope this message finds you well. The winter chills depart fairly even in our quiet little corner of the earth, and the early signs of spring raise hopes for a prosperous year ahead. Merlin speaks fondly of you still, and I cannot express the gratitude and joy it brings me to hear of his love for Camelot and the happiness he found in your friendship. He complains near constantly of his servitude to the prince, and even in my age, I am not blind to his pining. I love my son dearly, and his help has been invaluable as my health leaves me with the passing of days, but I fear for the part of him that he left behind to return to my side. His home rests with you now, for all he refuses to admit it. I will try as mothers do to convince him to return, and with any good fortune, I'll have chased the word "prat" from his vocabulary in the process. I will hold out hope for us all. God be with you, my Lady.
With not but a week to the feast that would play host to half a dozen nobles and their individual courts in a show of Camelot's welfare through the winter, Arthur pretended he could not hear Uther's rage at his sudden disappearance even from three marks' distance from the city gates. They left well into the night in a hurry because 'He's pining, Arthur, pining, and I don't like you nearly enough to suffer your own languishing any longer.' As the first light rose just above the horizon and cast them into warm light, Arthur slipped away from where Morgana and Gwen lay sleeping to find solitude between the roots of a nearby tree.
He thumbed idly at the corner of Hunith's letter and read over her neatly formed print, curious as to who taught her, for what purpose, how she taught Merlin. Curious as to whether her health had improved, what living in Ealdor had worn into her bones, if Camelot could be of any service to her.
If Merlin would even want to return with them.
Daylight did little to fight the brisk air, and as Arthur returned to help pack their meager camp and set back out on the road, he gave Guinevere the thicker of his cloaks and told Morgana she'd fair well for the layer of blubber she brought along with her. Indignant howling and raucous laughter tore through the forest in their wake, shortening the distance between Camelot and Ealdor with less-than-favourable companionship and a childish glee they hadn't afforded themselves in years. Lifetimes. Far too long, but the smile on Hunith's face as they entered the village was more than worth the momentary lapse in propriety.
The girls stayed with her to do whatever it is women do when they're exchanging pleasantries (the language of women is a foreign and dangerous tongue, he'd learned long ago) and Arthur left them in favour of walking down to their modest home. Their brief stay had been terribly uncomfortable for the prince, but for all of the castle's even stonework and expensive glass windows, for all the crests and banners and arms that adorned its halls, never once had the building given off the air of home.
Here though, they had a low doorway that Merlin always had to duck beneath and seemed to lower with every passing year. The ground was harder and colder, and the only place to find relief of it was in old chairs that creaked as you sat in them, threatening to splinter at any given moment. It was comprised of only the one room, and you could still find the traces of Merlin's childhood in the shaky drawings carved into the walls, the scorch mark near the kitchen where he thought it wise to attempt cooking a rabbit carcass he'd found in the woods, and Arthur's personal favourite (though he'd never say anything of the sort) - a small handprint permanently imprinted where there'd been repairs for a hole; Hunith had told him not to go near it lest he ruin the cast and leave them to go another few months before she could afford another repair, but curiosity always got the better of the idiot and it'd taken a full week to wash the glue from his hand.
The house was hardly standing, but it was a home all the more for it.
Merlin could be heard toiling about inside, and Arthur pushed open the door without announcing himself.
"Ah, welcome back, glad you're here. I think I've just about fixed this lot for the time being, so if you've got that package from James, I can get started on the cupboards." He spoke a mile a minute without considering if anyone could even understand him from where he was half hidden underneath their little furnace. Nothing had changed at all, and Arthur might've smiled if he weren't otherwise busy folding his arms and quirking a brow.
"Why is it that I couldn't get you to work half as hard when you were working for a wage?"
"Arthur?" Merlin startled, attempting to sit up to find the prince but forgetting he was underneath the furnace. A loud clang rang out with an accompanied squeal of shock and pain before he managed to crawl out and right himself, rubbing his head and scrunching his face. "What are you doing here?"
Arthur snorted, "Bloody Hell, Merlin, don't sound too thrilled to see me."
His face fell flat with practised flippancy, "Right, sorry. Let me try that again." He cleared his throat and threw on the cheerful grin he usually gave every Lady that commented on his neckerchief at a feast; the one Arthur knew to mean 'I would be strangling you right now if I could.' "What are you doing here, your royal pratness?"
It took every ounce of Arthur's stubborn integrity not to laugh outright and lose the game as Merlin set it. Instead, he sniffed haughtily ('honestly, you're the only person I know that can breathe arrogance. Are you absolutely certain you're human?' and Merlin was in the stocks for that one) and raised his head, crossing the room to face him. "Well, I'd received a distress call from one of the lovely ladies in your village claiming a foul beast in the very near vicinity, and far be it from an outstanding knight such as myself to leave a damsel in distress for long."
"I asked them to come," Hunith chuckled lightly from behind them, entering the house with Morgana and Guinevere following.
Merlin's eyes widened comically as he looked from the king's ward to her handmaiden, then chimed distress as he looked to his mother for an explanation. "Mum!"
"Shush, dear," she said sweetly, passing Arthur with an incline of her head to cup Merlin's cheek and smile directly into his eyes. It felt far too personal, far too intimate, and Arthur stepped back only to give them more space, not because his heart felt like it was melting into his boots.
"I knew you wouldn't leave at my insistence alone." He opened his mouth to interrupt but she pressed on, "You cannot stay here, Merlin. That smile of yours is too big to be contained in this tiny village." Merlin couldn't help but smile bashfully at that, and her eyes shone enough to light the kingdom. "That's the one."
"But," he started, his eyes darting briefly to Arthur before looking back to his mother, "But what about you? I won't leave you here alone."
"The Lady Morgana," a polite cough interrupted her, and Hunith turned to face Morgana's gentle smile with a humble one of her own, "Right - just, Morgana," and they nodded to each other before she rounded back on Merlin, "has informed me she is in dire need of a new seamstress. It would seem her gowns have grown unfortunately dull, and need capable hands to breathe some life back into them."
Arthur snorted and Guinevere gave a small giggle, but Morgana looked all too pleased with her solution and something like relief washed over Merlin's face. He turned to Arthur, yet another of their unspoken conversations passing with a glance, and when the prince lifted his head just a little, Merlin grinned.
"The first thing you're going to make me do is muck out your stables, isn't it?"
Arthur indulged him in a small smile, "I believe you've near seven moons' time to make up for, Merlin, and I've a three day ride to get creative."
"Oh gods, Mum, do we have to go?"
All five of them laughed, the sound of it filling the small home with a thunderous boom that only served to usher them forward. It held an oddly familial feel that caused a strange ache in the prince's chest and left him feeling weightless. It made no sense to him, having never felt entirely at ease in the presence of another in this way, and he smiled unabashedly in time with the heat flushing high on his cheeks. He punched Merlin in the arm in place of whatever sentimental rubbish his then-again servant might've been about to spew. He walked alongside them to the horses and helped to saddle their belongings wherever there was room. He looked back to the little house down the road that held no significance in the span of his life but managed to mean all the world.
And as he looked, Arthur caught the eye of Hunith looking back at him with the love and adoration that can only be attributed to that of a mother.
He did not want for anything more.