In exchange for telling him how to find the druids, Forridel insisted the boy – who was obviously not from Camelot – tell her how to find a safe place to hide. She'd never be able to go back to Camelot now, and she didn't want to bring more danger to the druids either, but if she could get far enough away –
She hadn't counted on his safe place being quite this far though. She'd been walking three days already and barely met a soul on the road. She hadn't had time to bring food or even a change of clothes with her and was getting by on fruit from the forest and water from the stream. She carried only her sword, and the heavy steel was weighing her down. Still, when she thought of the beasts of the forest, the bandits of the road, and Uther's men still behind her, she wouldn't dream of letting it go.
This morning she'd finally crossed the ridge, struggling and stumbling as she made her way back to level land. She was tired and filthy and sore from sleeping on the ground, but she breathed a deep sigh of relief, knowing that at last she was beyond Uther's reach, and close to her destination.
Her heart sunk only a little as she reached the edges of the village. Merlin had said it was small, but it was hard for Forridel, born and raised in Camelot, to even call this a village. It was little more than a few poor huts – many of them recently damaged, she thought. How long could she really stand living in a place like this (if they would even have her)? Then again, what if the alternative was not to go on living at all?
Two young boys on the road directed her to Hunith's house and then stood there, staring after the strange woman with the sword. There really was no way of hiding it, and she wasn't about to leave it behind. But she set it down at her feet before she knocked, and when Hunith opened the door Forridel was holding only the note Merlin had scrawled before rushing away back toward the castle.
"Forridel helped me and Morgana. I love you," was all he'd taken the time to write.
"Is he all right?" Hunith asked, no suspicion at all in her face, no worry over the weapon lying between them or the fact that they'd never laid eyes on each other before, only pleading, "Is Merlin in danger?"
He could well be. Forridel knew almost nothing about him, only that he'd seemed determined but preoccupied when she left him. "No," she said. "He is the prince's servant, is he not? They're only after –" she hesitated, not used to speaking of it out loud, but no, she was safe now, and Merlin had said he was a friend – "they were trying to capture those of us who practice magic. Merlin found out ahead of time, and he helped me get away. I left him three days ago and…I could tell he was worried about something, but it wasn't his own safety. I believe he is well."
She'd done her best to be honest but reassuring, prepared herself for Hunith either to send her away (who would want to shelter a witch) or accept it with relief. But her face was crumpling with fear. Suddenly she reached out and wrapped her arms around Forridel, who could only stand there, stock still, wondering what on earth she'd got herself into.
After a moment Hunith let her go and took a step back, no longer looking Forridel in the eye. At least she wasn't crying.
"He'll be all right," Forridel said stiffly, and Hunith nodded and sighed deeply.
"He is used to taking care of himself," she said at last. "He's grown up a lot since he left home. I'm sure he… I'm sure he gets into trouble all the time there, just as he used to do here. Somehow he always finds his way out again." She looked up. "Forgive me, you must be exhausted and I haven't even invited you in. Come, come and sit down."
They both paused and looked down at Forridel's sword, and to Forridel's surprise Hunith just laughed. "City folk," she said. "It seems all Merlin's new friends carry weapons. I suppose I should be grateful it's not just his enemies." She picked it up and carried it inside. Forridel followed.
Hunith had very little food but she shared it readily. They sat by the fire and told each other their stories. Forridel admitted she still wasn't sure whether she'd done the right thing in choosing to stay in Camelot once she learned of her own magic. Perhaps if she'd gone to the druids as a girl things would have turned out different, better.
Hunith told her how Merlin had grown up with magic despite never having met the druids or any others who used it. "It's too bad you weren't here," she said with a gentle, sad smile. She said she wondered every day whether by sending her son to Camelot she'd sent him to his death.
Forridel still couldn't think of a single thing to say about the boy she'd known for all of five minutes. This time she was the one to put her arm around Hunith, and for a long time they just sat there, holding each other. "Well," said Forridel, "right or wrong, those were the choices we made. Nothing to take us back now."
"And I wouldn't like to try to decide again," Hunith agreed. "I'm so sorry you've lost your home, Forridel, but I'm glad you came here. No one will look for you in Ealdor." She paused and then added, "Besides that, I've missed the company."
When the fire started to die down to its embers Forridel, without much thought, waved a hand at it and told it to burn brighter and hotter.
"I've missed that too," Hunith said with a laugh. "I never could use it myself, and Merlin nearly drove me mad with his pranks. But I never realised until last winter, after he left, just how useful magic could be, how much I'd come to depend on it without even knowing."
Forridel nodded, thinking about the holes in the roof and the fence, the scars on Hunith's face and hands, and all the other things she'd start to work making better in the morning.
Hunith didn't have a bed, but she offered the single straw pallet, and Forridel's muscles ached too much for her to refuse. "Share it with me," she said, even though the pallet was narrow and she'd only known Hunith for a few hours, not long enough to be sure just what they were to each other, or whether Hunith was the kind of woman to want to lie down with another. What she knew was that they'd been touching for most of the time they'd been together, and she didn't want to give up that comfort now.
Hunith didn't either. They slept in the warmth of each other's arms and the fire that Forridel kept burning strong. She didn't know what would come tomorrow, or what was happening in Camelot or at the druids' camp, but she knew this was right, this was where she needed to be.