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For Want of a Nail

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Leon wakes up to a commotion in the house.

He hears raised voices, his father's, a woman's, a man's, coming from downstairs. He looks out the window, sees glittering stars and a fat yellow moon still high in the sky. Rubbing at his eyes, he climbs down out of his bed and peers out of his room, then heads down the corridor to the stairs, peering through the bannisters.

In the foyer, he sees his father still in his bedclothes, sword belt hastily buckled around his waist. One of the nightmen, holding up a lantern and grasping the arm of a peasant woman. In her other arm, she's clutching a bundle to her tightly. The woman's bleeding, he sees with alarm, a cut on her brow oozing blood down the side of her face. Her eyes are wide and terrified. The nightman gives her a rough shake, barking an order at her, and a high, terrified cry rises sharply.

"Enough!"

Everyone goes quiet as Mother sweeps into the foyer. Leon smiles, relaxing; Mother will know what to do. She's put on one of Father's coats over her nightdress, her hair in a long braid. "Now, what is going—? Hunith?" she exclaims in surprise.

"Evaine," the woman says, relieved. "Please, I need your help."

"Of course. Cadmar, release her. We'll handle it from here," Mother orders, and the nightman lets go of the woman, who must be Hunith. "My dear, what's happened to you? Who's done this?" she asks. "Come into the hall, sit down." Mother puts an arm around the woman and guides her in, Father following behind.

Leon hesitates for only a second. Eavesdropping isn't a nice thing to do, and Father says that he's not old enough to attend yet, even though he's already eight winters. But maybe if they didn't want him to wake up and listen, they shouldn't have all been so loud.

He sneaks down the stairs quickly, avoiding the ones that squeak, and darts over to the door of the hall. The hearth there is kept lit all the time in winter, to keep the house warm, so there's light enough for him to see when he peers around the door.

Hunith is sitting in Father's big chair at the head of the table, closest to the fire, with the bundle in her lap. Mother's using a napkin to wipe the blood off her face. "Who did this to you?" she asks.

"One of King Baudouin's men."

"Baudouin?" Father sounds surprised. "Why would he send his men to a little border village like yours?"

"It's not him who sent them. It was his son."

"Cenred? That vicious little mongrel?" Father scowls. "Baudouin's letting him command his soldiers? Prince or no, the boy's scarce four-and-ten."

Hunith shakes her head, still looking pale and sick. "Boy or no, vicious doesn't come close to describing him. He's heard about what's happening in Camelot, the purging of magic," she says, lowering her voice slightly, and there's a nervous whimpering sound. "Apparently, he's convinced his father to take a similar route, but they're not executing sorcerers. He's capturing them. Putting them in iron binds and conscripting them to the army."

"Gods' mercy," Father mutters; Mother shakes her head.

"They're everywhere," Hunith goes on softly. "Cenred's sending men to turn over every village from the citadel to the borders. Anyone who tries to resist or flee gets cut down. That's why I'm here. I—we—couldn't stay in Ealdor. It was too dangerous. I couldn't let them take him from me."

She pulls at the bundled-up blanket in her arms, and Leon sees that she's not carrying any clothes or food, but a child, a little boy. He's clinging tightly to his mother, eyes wide and fearful, like a scared rabbit. Hunith strokes his black hair gently, hugging him against her.

"Oh, my dear," Mother breathes softly. "He's not…?"

"He is," Hunith replies. "Since the day he was born, Evaine. It's a part of him. Half the time, he doesn't even mean to do it."

Father runs a hand through his hair, rising from his seat and pacing back and forth.

Hunith grasps Mother's hand in hers, pleading. "Evaine, please. I beg of you. Help me hide him. Never speak to me again if you must, bar me from your home forever, just help me keep him safe," she implores. She swallows hard a few times, then adds in a quieter voice, "I would never hold what happened against you, Evaine, but that debt still stands between us. I'll claim it now if I must."

A debt? Why would Mother owe a peasant woman a debt? Leon shifts a little closer to the door, trying to tilt his head to see better; the floor creaks.

The boy sits up, his head turning sharply towards the door; his eyes turn all golden-yellow. The doors slam open with a crash, and Leon tumbles forward, something invisible shoving against his back.

"Leon!" Father crosses the hall in three strides and curls one big hand in the back of his nightshirt, lifting him to his feet. "What in the name of gods are you doing?" he demands.

"That was magic," Leon mumbles, staring at the little boy. "He—he did magic."

"Oh, Leon," Mother sighs. "Lionel, enough. Bring him here."

Father clasps his rough hand over the nape of his neck and pulls him over; Leon stares at the tiny boy in Hunith's lap. His eyes are blue now, still scared, so scared.

"How much of this have you heard, Leon?" Mother asks solemnly.

He scuffs his heel against the rushes. "I woke up when Cadmar brought her in."

"Gods' mercy," Father sighs, pinching his nose.

"If he has magic, aren't we supposed to tell the King?" Leon asks.

Hunith clutches the boy closer to her, and he whimpers fearfully. Mother puts a hand on her shoulder.

Father turns to face him, going down to one knee so Leon can look at him straight-on. His dark eyes are grave, his mouth firm. "Do you remember what I told you about duty and doing what's right?" he asks solemnly.

Leon nods. "Yes, Father. A knight's duty is to honour the King, the code, and Camelot, but when the choice is between doing one's duty and doing what's right, there is no choice at all," he recites obediently.

Father nods. "That's right. This is one of those choices. My duty is to tell the King, but you know what will happen to them if I do that. Do you think that's right?"

He does know. Everyone knows what happens to sorcerers. The pyre. The noose. The axe. And that's if the King is feeling merciful enough for a swift death. He remembers when an old woman was burned for sorcery just a fortnight ago, the smell of it. They'd had roast for dinner that night, and he couldn't eat a bite of it. Leon looks at Hunith, so pale and harried, the cut on her brow still oozing a little, bright red against her skin. The little boy, trembling all over, clutching his mother's kirtle so hard his knuckles are white. They're both so afraid. And Hunith had said that the boy was born with magic. He didn't learn it on purpose, he wasn't trying to do anything wrong, and nobody is actually born evil, right?

"No," he says at last. "It's not. They're here to ask for our help. We can't betray that trust."

Father smiles and plants a kiss on his brow. "Good lad." He straightens up, looking at Hunith, one hand clasped firmly over Leon's shoulder. "Well?"

"I have an uncle in Camelot," Hunith says quietly. "I can stay with him unquestioned, but…I don't dare take him with me, not now."

"As you shouldn't." Mother is quiet a moment, fingertips pressed to her mouth. "We could foster the boy," she murmurs. "Say he's some distant kin of ours, perhaps?"

"And never have him see his mother again?" Father interjects; the boy whimpers and burrows further into Hunith's arms in protest. Leon couldn't imagine never seeing Mother again and shakes his head, too. They're all quiet for another moment, but then Father huffs a little breath. "Well…there is one way. But I'm not certain it's best discussed in front of—"

"I want to stay!" Leon protests, already knowing what he means to say.

Mother smiles a little and touches the top of his head. "The lad's already heard enough tonight, Lionel. Out with it."

Looking downwards, Father shifts his weight. "I could claim him as my natural son," he says a little helplessly.

Hunith shakes her head. "Oh, no, I couldn't—"

"Nonsense," Mother cuts her off, not unkindly. She looks back up at Father. "You're certain, Lionel?"

He nods again, reaching up to run a hand through his hair. "How old's the boy?"

"Four," Hunith replies.

"That's about when we were at the borders, the skirmish with Baudouin's men. Near enough to Ealdor. It's not unheard of," Father says. "And then when I take Leon to Camelot to begin training, I can take the boy with me to see Hunith without suspicion."

Leon knows what it means to have a natural child. It means that Father would've been disloyal to Mother when he was on campaign for the King, broken his vows. It's not unheard of, but he knows that knights are expected to be better than that, and that Father takes pride in being honourable.

Mother reaches over and takes one of Father's hands in hers, smiling a little. "If you're certain, my love, then I trust you," she says with a little smile. She looks back at Hunith and touches her shoulder. "And this is hardly an inconvenience to us, my dear, not after all you've done for me. So, what say you?"

Hunith sighs, shaking her head a little. But then she squares her shoulders and nods. "Alright."

"Good. It's done, then." Father looks down at Leon, resting a hand against the top of his head. "You understand, then, lad, that this means the boy's going to be your brother? You'll need to look out for him, protect him? He'll be part of our family."

Leon nods. "Yes, Father. I understand, and I'll look after him." He turns his gaze to Hunith. "I will, my lady, I promise."

She gives him a smile, her eyes wet. "I believe you. Thank you."

"Alright, well, now that is settled, it is time for you to be in bed," Mother announces, placing a hand on his shoulder; he opens his mouth to protest, but she holds up a finger, quieting him. "It's time for all of us to be in bed. We can talk more of this tomorrow, after some well-needed rest. Hunith, you can sleep in the guest chambers." She wraps an arm around Hunith and guides her out of the hall.

Father leans down and grabs him under the arms, hefting him up. "Let's go, cub. Bed for you," he grunts. He carries Leon upstairs and back to his room, dumping him on the bed unceremoniously, and pulls the blankets up over him. "I'm proud of you, son. You'll be a good man one day. I can see it already." He leans down and presses a kiss to Leon's brow. "Get some sleep."

"Goodnight, Father."

 

Hunith leaves the next day, early in the morning. Mother and Father both insist that she should stay at least another day or so, rest before going on, but she insists upon going as soon as she can, to find her uncle in Camelot and get as far from the borders and the reach of Essetir's soldiers as she can.

Leon rubs the sleep grit out of his eyes, standing beside Father and watching as Hunith gathers her son to her in a fierce, lingering hug. The boy clings to her just as hard as he had last night, sniffling, trembling all over like a leaf, and she murmurs something in his ear, too quiet for them to hear. He's sure that they don't need to hear it anyways. But whatever she says to the boy, it must give him strength.

Hunith uses the edge of her sleeve to dry his face, cupping his small face between her hands and kissing his brow before she straightens, looking to Mother and Father. "Thank you. All of you." She looks down at her son and touches his hair with a small smile. "I'll write, love. I'll see you soon." With that, she turns and heads out the gate, pulling a borrowed cloak close around her; Philip, one of Father's men, goes with her as an escort. She would've gone alone, but Mother refused to hear it.

The boy watches her go, small hands clutching something that Hunith had given him, standing in place until she and Philip go over a hill and are lost to sight. Once she disappears over the slope, he whimpers once, very softly.

Father gives him a gentle nudge, and Leon steps forward, coming up to the boy. He's very small and skinny. Bird-boned, Mother would say. His hair is inky black and curly, flopping in his blue eyes, and he has some ears, too. "Hey," Leon murmurs.

The boy looks up at him, blinking big, tearful eyes. "Mummy says I'm living with you now."

"Yeah, you are. We're going be brothers, you and me. I've always wanted a little brother."

"Really?"

"Really. But we can hardly be brothers if I don't know your name. I'm Leon."

The boy sniffles and swipes his sleeve over his face. "Merlin."

Merlin. It fits him. A dainty little bird for a skinny little boy. Mother has one, she likes to go hawking with it on the estate. Maybe he'll take the boy up to the mews and show him later.

"Did I hurt you when I pushed you over?" Merlin asks.

Leon remembers last night, the feeling of being shoved into the hall when the doors slammed open, and he laughs. "No, but that was really impressive, Merlin. Those doors are heavy."

That gets him a tiny smile. "Really? You weren't scared?"

"Nope," he lies.

Merlin's smile fades. "You're not gonna tell the King, are you? Because of my magic?" he asks, lowering his voice to a furtive whisper.

Leon shakes his head again. "I promised your mother I'd look out for you, and a knight doesn't break promises. And brothers don't tell on each other. So we'll just have to be a pair of criminals together," he replies.

That gets a laugh from Merlin, loud and piping, and it makes his whole face look brighter.

Leon throws an arm around Merlin. "C'mon, little villain, let's go find your room."