The first visit
She hears the horse long before she thinks it has anything to do with her. Gareth’s second son is always out later than he should be these days, riding the complacent gelding his father traded four bags of seed for at the spring faire. The fire needs tending, and with the chill that persists this winter, it takes her thoughts away from the commonplace trod of cantering hooves.
The quick rapping on the door is not commonplace, however, and Hunith rises from the hearth with her hands still sooty, brushing them off on the apron she’d removed earlier and tossed over the back of her only chair.
When the door opens, spilling Merlin and Arthur Pendragon into the room, all thoughts of a normal night flee her mind.
“Merlin, what—?” But Arthur is most decidedly not moving under his own power: one arm is slung limply over Merlin’s shoulder, his head hanging, and Hunith puts aside her question in favor of lending her strength. The prince is moments from sliding out of her son’s grip.
“I’m sorry,” Merlin bursts out as they muscle Arthur through the door and onto the bed. “There was nowhere else to go and we had to get out of Camelot. I didn’t know—”
“Merlin,” Hunith cuts in. “You know Arthur is welcome here anytime, for any reason.”
Merlin slumps and lets out a huge breath as they finally get Arthur settled. Hunith takes a good look at the prince and feels his forehead with her palm. He is very pale, almost wasted-looking, though he breathes steadily. “What’s happened to him?” She whirls on Merlin. “Are you hurt?”
“I’m fine,” Merlin sighs. His attention is all for Arthur, eyes skating up and down his prone form. “I wasn’t the one they were after.”
Hunith goes to the basin she keeps for washing and gathers clean towels and her shawl. She sits by Arthur and dips a towel in, ringing it out and laying it gently across his forehead. “Tell me what happened. Is he ill?”
“It was… all a bit rushed.” Merlin loosens Arthur’s shirt laces to bare his throat, and Hunith wipes his skin with another damp cloth. “Some spell to target him in particular, because no one else became ill. Maybe in the water, but I think that was just to get a foot in the door. But Gaius thinks it’s tied to blood, and proximity, so I took him out of Camelot before he got too bad.”
“Merlin, he’s unconscious.” Hunith turns to her son and finds something shifty and very familiar in his expression.
“Well… yes. I sort of… I had to knock him out.”
Hunith opens her mouth but Merlin ploughs right on. “I had to! He wouldn’t leave! He threatened to skewer me, all dizzy and practically raving— His blood is Uther’s blood, too, he’s his father, and Arthur, well, you know Arthur.”
Hunith fights the smirk. She does indeed know Arthur, well enough. She also knows her son.
Merlin’s face flushes and he looks resolutely down at his friend, fiddling with the towel on Arthur’s forehead to hide his embarrassment. Hunith deftly lifts the towel from his twitching fingers and wets it, placing it on Arthur’s forehead again. Already there is colour slipping back into the prince’s cheeks, and Hunith breathes the same sigh of relief as her son.
“You look a sight,” she ventures, and Merlin blushes again.
“Been riding all night,” he answers, rather tensely. “He’d kill me if he knew, slung over the horse like that…” Just then, Arthur groans softly, and Hunith decides then and there.
“We need to get clean water into him. Wash this out of his system.”
Merlin stands, a jittery pop to his feet, and then sits back down, gripping Arthur’s sleeve, of all things. Hunith reaches, lifts the basin, and hands it to her son. “Merlin, would you go to the river for more water? They’ve just knocked in the ice under the willows. I’ll sit with him.”
Merlin looks like he might argue, but Hunith presses a hand to his arm, and Merlin nods. He takes the basin and heads for the door. Once there, he looks back, and Hunith smiles.
“He’ll be all right, Merlin. His heart is strong, I can feel it. He’ll need fresh water to drink.”
Merlin nods and exits the house. Hunith turns back to her charge, remembering those clean boyish features with something very akin to adoration. She wipes his brow, watching as it creases vaguely. Truthfully, she doesn’t know if Gaius is right about the spell’s proximity, but by the way Arthur is stirring, she is more than willing to hope. This boy— this man— is full of the sun’s gold and energy, and he’s used it, risked it, to keep her safe. To keep them all safe. His face is a welcome sight after so many months. She brushes her fingers over his cheek.
The fire crackles as the minutes pass, and Hunith spreads her shawl over Arthur, tucking it against his chest. When his lips part and he sighs, she takes his hand in hers.
Arthur’s eyes flicker, then open. He gazes up at her for a long, dazed moment. “Hunith?”
His voice is scratchy and bewildered like a little boy’s. She squeezes his hand and smiles down at him. “Hello, your Highness.”
Arthur’s fingers tighten around hers and she brushes the hair from his eyes, then watches his forehead furrow again. His focus sharpens. “He knocked me out. Didn’t he?”
Hunith raises her brows. “I know nothing,” she says. And then leans forward and nods.
Arthur’s laugh is weak but genuine.
The second visit
The crown prince looks a good deal better, Hunith thinks, shading her eyes against the glare. There is no hint of sickness on Arthur, and Merlin’s good health is also apparent. His riding skills have improved; he wields the reins with nearly the same casual absence of mind as his liege, returning Hunith’s wave and urging the horse forward with confidence.
He and Arthur are not alone. They’ve brought the lady Morgana again, dressed smartly in the tunic and breeches of a boy, as well as the sprightly Guinevere, who has the bearing of a noblewoman coupled with the survival instincts of a country commoner. Hunith already knows Gwen will be formidable, in a different way than her lady.
Now, that one has a soft side she forgets to reveal, but Hunith can see it now that Morgana is surrounded by children: her smile is winsome as she dismounts, and the children bounce about, tugging on her shirt hem and asking questions all at once. They’ve not the sense of proper humility around nobles, and it’s delightful.
They’ve already eaten, Hunith is certain. After all, it’s well past midday. Still, Arthur accepts the meal offered by at least four of the townspeople, and when he glances at Hunith as he does so, she’s pleasantly intrigued.
But it’s too minor an event to remain in her thoughts once Merlin is off his mount and tight in her arms, grinning, laughing. Hunith kisses his cheek soundly because he hasn’t the wherewithal to disentangle himself yet, and then releases him so she can accept Gwen’s embrace. Then Morgana’s. Arthur is separated from her by several of her neighbours, but she senses the warmth of his smile over their heads and returns it.
Gareth and his sons lead the group’s horses away to his stables, and then the girls turn up, and Hunith fondly considers the day lost.
Arlith has already fixated on Morgana’s fine cloak and has no scruples about pinching the material between her fingers and proclaiming its superior quality to anything she’s ever seen. Juna, more timid, has snuck behind, eyes only for the long, intricate plait of dark hair. Siobhann lingers near Gwen, her green eyes so wide that Morgana’s maid blushes. But of course, Tiann and Meg aim straight for the boys.
“My, how you’ve grown!” Meg cries, overly loud, and everyone laughs. Meg has always been tiny; to her, everyone is a giant. Merlin has her by four years, Tiann by three, and there’s always been that girlish fancy from the both of them. But today, Arthur is here as well with his golden hair and regal bearing. There are no bandits in sight, and Hunith braces herself for the rout of ridiculous giggling that will fill the town for the rest of the evening.
“I haven’t grown an inch, Megan Claget, and you know it.” Merlin grins as he greets the girls, and then they are all chattering, asking not-so-surreptitious questions about Arthur, batting their eyes and flouncing their skirts.
“You’d do well to come back in the fall, Merlin,” Tiann says gaily. “Cecily’s cousin is marrying over in Garwaith. The whole family’s coming, and you know how much Cecily fancies you!”
The laughter includes that of Merlin’s friends, but the flash in Arthur’s eyes is quick, a little too unsettled for the subject matter. His arms cross loosely at his chest, hands gripping elbows. Hunith’s seen that stance before.
“Yes, well, I may not be able to spare him,” Arthur quips, face deceptively straight. “So many hearths to light in that drafty old castle during the fall.”
Laughter again, all around, and Arthur finally smiles. They all like him, understandably. Hunith is more interested in the way his smile fades when everyone’s attention turns elsewhere. His eyes stray to Merlin and rest on him.
Hunith catches her lower lip firmly between her teeth to stave off the little grin twisting at her mouth, and then Meg’s mother claps, summoning the girls to help drag tables from the houses for the meal.
The third visit
She opens the door to find Arthur standing there, and it’s as if he has lost a vital breath or too much blood, because his body is slumped as far as it can get without tumbling to the ground, and his blue eyes look very, very old.
“Your Highness.” She opens the door wider.
He smiles at her, a resigned curve of his mouth. “Arthur, Hunith.”
She nods. “Arthur.”
“Hunith, is—” He looks away, up toward the roof and then around, his gaze sliding down the side of the house. When at last he looks back, something haunts his eyes. “Is he here?”
She does not need to ask who. Merlin’s return was sudden, grim, and without explanation. Then again, she is his mother, and she does not often need explanation. “He’s here,” she relinquishes quietly, then indicates the house. “Not here, but… yes.”
Arthur looks at her with such apprehension, such… wariness, that her heart twinges. She puts a hand out, touches his shoulder, and tilts her head. “Come in. Please.”
His horse is a tall bay, golden-red in the fading sunset. A warhorse, stately and beautiful, perfectly trained, and out of place in the dirt and patchiness of Ealdor. Yet it fits, like Arthur does and always will, the shining gold coin in a trove of burnished coppers.
What is missing, though, is the silver coin. Hunith frowns at the image and understands it at the same moment.
Arthur folds himself gingerly onto the bench on the door side of the table, as if he’s exhausted himself fully and has no energy left. Hunith takes the wizened kettle off the fire, the scalding handle wrapped in thick rags, and pours two cups. Mulling spices burst sharply into the room. Arthur takes the plain clay vessel in both hands, pulling it closer. He does not drink.
Whatever Merlin has not told her rings heavily about Arthur’s frame. What he has told her arrived in fits and stutters, as if Merlin were deciding each second whether or not he wanted to say anything. The result is muddled, muddled, but clear in one thing: Merlin’s spirit is injured, crushed under a fearsome weight, and somewhere, something is bleeding out in tiny pulses. The wound stings all the more because Arthur’s scent is mixed up in it. She’s not sure if it is healing or hurting Merlin, or paradoxically… both at once.
Arthur sits so long without speaking that Hunith finally reaches out and touches his fingers. “Arthur?”
The prince’s eyes close. He sits back, sighing, his cup still on the table. He’s been at his hair, she can tell by the way it straggles and sticks up just a bit. Even as she watches, he slides nervous fingers through it.
“Something happened, and I’m afraid I… reacted badly.” Arthur stares at the cup in front of him.
Hunith nods, suspecting— fearing. The thought of more riders on Arthur’s tail hisses into her mind, but if there are more riders, then she can’t believe that Arthur would not have overturned the village already, seeking Merlin out in order to get him out.
It might be wishful thinking, but the road is very quiet outside.
“I’m sure he’ll come round,” she says at last.
Arthur grimaces. His hand darts out and closes around his cup, and he drinks a large enough portion of the hot cider that Hunith winces. But he doesn’t seem to notice the burn.
“I’m starting to think I don’t deserve to know,” he mutters.
“If he told you about… about it, then he thinks you do.” Her heart is thudding a bit, because even though she knows Arthur, even though she’s known that Merlin would tell him one day, she’s always dreaded this moment somewhere deep, folded into the mother in her, the body that bore Merlin and the wiry strength that will fight forever to protect him. This moment is where it all comes out and Arthur Pendragon just might turn his blade to attack rather than to protect.
Arthur merely turns the cup in his hands. He stares at it, intensity replacing the vacancy that creeps at the edges of his gaze. Whatever the cider smells like to him, however it looks and feels, Hunith is certain that Arthur is not smelling and seeing and feeling the same thing she is. She reaches again, not wanting to consider, and lays her hand across the back of his. The skin around Arthur’s eyes wrinkles. Slowly, he raises his head and meets her gaze.
“I fear I’ve ruined our… us.” Arthur gestures. Sighs, and the weariness weaves right through him. “Or he has.”
Arthur’s pragmatism shows his innate confidence more thoroughly than anything else. He speaks of Merlin using plain fact, plain supposition, unconcerned about Hunith’s barbed defense of her son. In Arthur’s mind, what he says is the truth, and Hunith knows Merlin far too well to put Arthur entirely at fault. But then, not everyone has magic to lock away in a chest of secrets. Merlin’s road has been a rough one, all the rougher now that it had been smoothed over by a loyal friend.
“I would beg you not to judge him for this,” she says softly. “But I know it is beyond that now.”
Arthur looks at her for a long moment, and then his eyes shut and he grimaces. “He lied to me.”
She can see that Arthur can’t get over that, that he’s circling around and around, always getting back to that dark hole. The rest of the cycle may heal the wound, but then it just reopens.
He doesn’t even accuse Merlin with his statement, and she is sure that was not always so. The hurt in his voice is all for himself; Hunith reminds herself that he has earned the right. Merlin is her son, but the lie is years old between him and Arthur now, even if it was unavoidable. Hunith has felt the ache of a betrayal like that. She cannot deny Arthur his grief.
Arthur hasn’t drawn his hand away from hers, though, and Hunith knows already that this is not an irreparable thing.
“I’ve known my son for years,” Hunith begins, careful. “He’s not always the most articulate, but his heart…” She squeezes Arthur’s fingers. “It’s in the right place. Always.”
Arthur looks up and she freezes because he knows this, she can see it in his face. He knows how precious Merlin is. A mother’s choice of words, but correct, all the same. “If you can forgive him—”
“I already have.” Arthur’s mouth tightens and she knows he is lying. But it is not the sort of vicious lie she would raise her guard against. It is what Arthur wishes were true, what he fantasises he can still do.
Then Arthur slumps. “I don’t think he can forgive me,” he whispers.
Merlin has not told her the injury that needs forgiving, but it is not the headsman’s block, and it is not banishment, because no prince ever chased after a person he’d just ordered out of his kingdom. The fact that there are no mounted knights pounding through the village tells Hunith enough: it was a private revelation and a private injury. Those are often the deepest kind.
“What was said between you. Are you truly sorry for it?” she asks.
His eyes glimmer. He nods, and suddenly he is a little boy knowing guilt and bowing his head before it. She wants him in her arms, but restrains the urge. She has raised a little boy who bore guilt on his shoulders, and there are things one must not do at particular moments.
“Then he will come round.” Hunith smiles at him. Wraps her other hand around their joined hands.
Arthur’s head dips, obscuring his face. “Don’t like hurting him,” he mutters. Then he stiffens; his eyes flash up, but he doesn’t speak, so she says it for him.
“But he’s hurt you.”
Arthur shakes his head slowly, not disagreeing at all, but rather lost in it all, unsure how to get back out. She grips his hand and lets go, pushing his cup toward him. She lifts the kettle and tops it off with fragrant cider. “Drink this first. Then we’ll look for him together.”
After a second, Arthur lifts the cup to his lips. His throat works as he swallows.
Merlin may or may not allow himself to be found, no matter how hard they look. Hunith does not know the parts of this story that are Merlin’s to tell, but there are things she will fight for in this world, and one of them is the young man in front of her. She’s fought with him before, but not for him; that was a fight for herself, for her people and her home. It’s a bit surprising when she realises just how fervently she would fight for Arthur, and she’s not sure exactly when that came about.
The fire crackles down and Hunith lets it go. There is no chill to drive away tonight. Merlin could lie out all night if he wants to, up on the hillock where the thick grass shifts like water. She is in the midst of deciding that they will go there first when the door in the back opens, and Merlin enters. By the time Hunith turns, he has stopped, staring.
She knows without looking that Arthur has gone very still, that he is riveted, staring back.
“Merlin.” It’s a mere breath from Arthur, the name riding on it. Merlin’s jaw twitches, so often a sign of flight. Hunith braces her hand on the bench at her side, ready to go after him, ready to stop Arthur from doing the same, not quite sure which instinct will prevail.
The moment arrives, the scant instant when all choices will be made, and Hunith lifts her chin. Moves forward to the edge of her chair. “Merlin?”
His hand trembles on the door frame. But he steps forward, not backward, and shuts the door behind him.
Hunith glances at Arthur and finds him waning, shoulders shivering. He blinks rapidly, and just like that, he is in control again. Only, she knows the veneer is thin. So frail.
“Merlin,” Hunith says again. She rises. Arthur stays where he is, a wise move, because Hunith knows the look in her son’s eyes: Merlin is only waiting for an excuse to turn away from the tableau he’s interrupted. Hunith tilts her head at the steaming kettle. “Would you like cider?”
Merlin shakes his head. He swallows. His weight shifts to his back foot. Hunith nearly drops the kettle; it hits the table with a thud and both Merlin and Arthur jump. The tension melts away; Hunith silently thanks her twitchy fingers. She crosses to where Merlin stands. He blinks, over and over, as if she is betraying him by coming near. She puts a tentative hand on his arm.
“Mum,” Merlin whispers.
“It’s alright,” she soothes. Rubs his arm. “Merlin, he’s come alone.”
His eyes dart behind her and back. He shakes his head, pleading without words. Hunith caresses his face.
“Don’t run,” she says. He stares at her. She strokes his cheek again with her thumb.
Merlin’s eyes sink shut. Finally, his chin dips. It’s good enough for now.
“I’ll be right outside,” she whispers into his ear. Squeezes his arm once more, then lets go. She leaves through the door he entered by, stepping into the dark yard and blinking to adjust her eyes. She looks back once. Merlin is a dark silhouette inside the doorway. He hasn’t turned. He hasn’t moved.
Hunith shuts the door. And remains in its shadow, because in spite of everything, even privacy, Merlin is her son.
For a long while, there is no sound. Hunith stands, one hand on the wall. At least she knows neither of them has left: She would have heard the front door. The moon is out, a silver slice in the sky. She can smell the cooking fires from her neighbours’ homes. It feels very strange, briefly. She is the only one who knows that Ealdor has two visitors tonight, one of them royal. The knowledge feels special and fragile.
Someone in the house speaks. Arthur; it does not have her son’s lilt. But the words are too soft to understand. Hunith inhales and exhales. She knows them both well enough to know that, as long as the volume remains low, the conversation is civil. Careful. She wonders if Merlin has left the doorway.
Her son does speak, a barely audible murmur. What comes next is a rush of words, still too low, but Hunith can hear the heat beneath them. She curls her hands into fists to keep them still. Suddenly Merlin shouts, halfway through a sentence, and Hunith startles.
“—as well have gutted me!”
“What did you expect?” Arthur returns. They are not loud enough for her neighbours to hear. Not yet. “You lied to me! For two years!”
“Oh, yes, and tell me this, how could I not?” A pause. “How could I not, Arthur?”
“How could you look me in the eye?” Arthur asks in a harsh growl.
“This isn’t going to work,” Merlin says. Flatly. Arthur must have made some move, because Merlin’s voice edges back into anger. “You don’t even want me near you.”
“Merlin, you have to let me react!” Arthur’s last word breaks in such a way that Hunith nearly steps forward, hand halfway to the latch. She forces stillness to her limbs. The thump of her own pulse beats in her ears, and Arthur continues.
“You have to let me react.” It’s a plea. The prince of Camelot, pleading with her son. Hunith listens, frozen. Arthur’s final word is nothing but a whisper. “Merlin.”
She’s not sure if they are speaking at all anymore. It’s so quiet. Hunith leans her forehead against the door and wills Merlin to understand.
“…wanted to,” she hears at last. “You the most. Out of everybody.”
“You never…” Arthur falls silent.
Someone walks across the house. Feet shuffle and then still. Hunith cannot picture it. Merlin speaks, closer to the door. “I wanted to,” he utters softly. “But you.”
Arthur is right there. “I wouldn’t tell him.”
It is… There is something in his voice. Hunith almost turns away.
“You hated me.”
Silence. Merlin again. “For an instant. You hated me.”
It is a long time before Hunith realises the silence is not from lack of speaking. She touches the door with her fingers. What she can hear is so different from speech, so much more. A breath is caught, “Merlin, never—” and Merlin whispers back. Someone bumps the wall inside, a light thump. Hunith straightens.
When the sounds inside become too plain to ignore, Hunith backs away, out into the yard.
It’s summer. A warm night. She walks along the moonlit path to the grain shed behind the house. Inside, moonlight stripes the interior in white and grey. Hunith shuts the door behind her and lowers herself onto the piled hay. It is still fresh, soft. She takes the shawl from her shoulders and settles it over the hay, then lies back, looking up at the stars through the chinks in the roof.
* * *
The hay’s sweet smell is an invisible blanket. Hunith wakes to a quiet broken by birds twittering. Sunlight shafts its way over her arms, full of motes. She turns and shuts her eyes, and drifts, almost too warm in the shed’s air. When she opens her eyes again, the birds are louder and she isn’t sure how much time has passed. It must be early; she cannot hear the calls of her neighbours or the lowing of livestock released into the pastures. Hunger makes itself known, a disgruntled grumbling in her belly. Hunith rises, pulling her shawl after her. She picks pieces of hay from the material and opens the door.
The sun is further up than she expected, but outside there is still a hint of dawn’s chill. Hunith slings her shawl around her shoulders and heads up the path to the house.
Arthur sits on the rain barrel in the sun, legs stretched out. His hair is a golden muss, haphazard and boyish again. He sits up when he sees her.
“Hunith.” His face reddens. In front of her, Camelot’s prince fumbles for words. “I’m—” He falters.
“Arthur,” she says, “you act as though I don’t know what it’s like to spend a night in the hay.”
His head bows. Then it snaps up; his eyes widen. She sees it click, hears it in his abrupt sputter. His mouth quirks, and before he can hide it, Hunith shares the tiny smirk. The sun is a golden haze of heat.
She is growing to love this boy. This man.
Once inside the house proper, she finds Merlin asleep, his head turned to the side, one hand palm-up at his ear. His fingers curve gently. The quilt has been tucked around him, close under his chin, and his hair has been smoothed from his forehead: she knows the look of a tender caress. She can hear each soft, steady breath as her son exhales.
It is when she finds Merlin’s clothing folded neatly on the chair that it spills over, because Merlin has never folded his own clothing in his life. She turns wordlessly to the door where the sun slants in, as if she can see the future king right through the walls. She feels her fall complete itself with a comfortable thump.
The fourth visit
Her son dismounts, an unrecognisable man. Hunith stares as he shifts the reins in order to lead his horse. He looks thinner, if that is even possible, and taller, if that is even possible. The horse whuffs into his palm as Merlin slips her a treat. Behind him, the knights dismount, looking about warily. But their hands are far from their swords at least.
The fires are already lit in the roadway, smoke weaving around the aroma of cooking food. Orange light flows across the planes of Merlin’s face as he gives his horse over to one of the boys. He looks much older than when last she saw him. But then, the entire land has grown older since then.
Something he said once, years ago, floats back: Sometimes I feel like I am the land.
Merlin stops in the road, and Hunith follows his gaze. Arthur is already off his mount. The horse is not the same charger she saw a year and a half ago. Arthur walks between his knights, unhurried, and they incline their heads as he passes. One speaks and Arthur answers. The knight takes supplies from the wagon and moves off, following an eager villager toward the field where their tents will be erected.
Arthur catches Merlin’s eye. The communication is fast. Hunith cannot follow it, but it is completed silently, and then Merlin comes toward her, a smile she knows like her own heart breaking over his face.
“Merlin.” She wraps him in a fierce hug, and he holds onto her for a good deal longer than he ever has.
“Hello, Mum,” he murmurs into her ear. She squeezes him, unwilling to let go, and then suddenly needing to, to take his face in both hands and just look. She does. He lets her.
“I’m so glad you’re safe,” she says. He raises one hand to grip hers.
“And you? Everyone?”
Hunith pauses. But there is no reason to conceal any of it. “Anna Swithin and her brother are dead. And Conn never came home after...”
He nods. They both know there are other names hanging on the air like ghosts. But tonight… is not that night.
“Come,” she says instead, drawing him down the road toward the roaring bonfires. “This is a celebration until the next moon rises, and we have important people in Ealdor tonight.”
Merlin grins. “There are always important people in Ealdor.”
Hunith smiles, then stops. “Bring Arthur. There is a seat for him by the first fire.”
Arthur, however, must be spoken to by everyone, and it is some time before he finally makes it to the padded bench Hunith pointed out to Merlin. After many bows, many rounds of thanks, Arthur sits at last with a sigh. The bench abuts the wall of a house, and the fire is strong and hot. Someone brings Arthur a drink, and then the music strikes up and the crowd cries approval, nearly forgetting the royalty in their midst.
Merlin returns to Hunith’s side to watch the dancing, clumsy at first, until more join in around the three staggered fires, stomping and clapping, and most of all laughing. Aric, Hunith’s neighbour, waves to Merlin across the flames, but Tiann cuts in front of them both on a determined path.
“My lord,” she says, and curtsies before Arthur. Her dress is long and red, rich folds flowing around a body sprung up in height. “That is…” Her eyes dart. She bows her head quickly. When she looks up again, the uncertainty has vanished. “Would you like to dance?”
Arthur declines; his smile is lovely and his eyes regretful. He leaves a kiss on her hand: Tiann will depart without a misgiving. She smiles, curtsies, backs up and curtsies again, then turns to weave her way through the dancers. Merlin lifts his drink to his lips, watchful. “Tired from the ride,” he says, for Hunith alone.
Aric waves again. Hunith pats Merlin’s arm. “Go on. I haven’t said hello to Arthur yet.”
Merlin smiles. There is abrupt weariness in it, but it is gone before she can grasp it. He moves away, calling to Aric, and she goes in the other direction. It isn’t until Meg runs by, laughing, jarring the bench upon which Arthur sits, that Arthur winces, freezes, and draws audible breath. Hunith slows.
At length, she is sitting beside him, eyeing his slump against the house wall. He holds a wooden flagon in one hand; it lolls as he makes small, lazy circles in the air with it.
He smiles at her, looking exhausted. “Good evening, Hunith.”
She leans against the wall with him and Arthur looks at the fire. Or across it. His breathing is unsteady.
“You’re injured,” she states. Arthur’s smile in profile is pained.
“Well on its way to healing.” He turns to face her. The lines on his face are stark in the firelight, especially around the eyes. She notes it all carefully and takes his hand.
The grief is as apparent as the pain, scarred into his expression, into the very way he holds himself. Hunith shuts her eyes and imagines being unable, un-allowed, to mourn for her own father. The attack was immediate, Uther Pendragon barely in his shroud before his son had to rise from beside his deathbed and drive Mercia back from Camelot’s walls.
And there had been others.
“What was it?” she asks quietly.
Arthur frowns. The firelight flickers over his features. “A pike. One of Odin’s.”
When Ealdor had been abandoned, then, and Cendred left them to run for the mountains or the sea. Eight months after Uther’s death, days in the hills, on bloodied battlefields still rank with the dead. Little food, water where they could find it, until the land around their home was firmly taken again, and held. And Albion, finally birthed whole and staggering on drunken legs, the open maw of the thirsty Saxons and demonic Norsemen poised to close over and swallow it.
She does not pry further.
“Are you hungry? There is a great deal of food that must be eaten.” Because of you. She does not say it; he knows well enough the abundance that has flowed over Camelot’s old borders, trickling slowly as its strength slips outward toward the new edges of the kingdom.
This time, Arthur’s expression is relieved. “If there is stew…”
“There is.” She smiles back. “Savory and full of boar meat.”
Hunith stands, but Arthur takes her arm.
“Hunith, thank you.”
She catches up his hand and kisses it, wanting to grieve aloud for the hunger every harvest of Cendred’s reign, the marauding foreign knights who ransacked their homes while they hid in the fields, the people who picked up blades they had no business wielding, all because they had seen the ruler they wanted and they knew— they knew they had to buy him time. “Thank you, Arthur.”
She leaves him wide-eyed, and returns with a steaming bowl and a roughly crafted spoon. Merlin stands with Aric across the fire, looking straight through the flames at Arthur. Somehow, and she’s not sure how, she knows that if not for Merlin’s magic, Arthur would have fallen under that pike and never risen.
“Arthur,” she says, when he has breathed the aroma in and savoured the first spoonful, “I am so very… very sorry.”
He swallows, a jerk of his throat. Across the fire, Merlin shifts restlessly. Hunith brushes a hand, so brief, against Arthur’s temple. “Stay here. As long as you wish. Give yourself time to grieve for him.”
Arthur’s chin dips. Fringe made dusky by the fire slips over his eyes. When he looks up, he looks right at her. She nods, sensing the gratitude without the use of words.
After a few moments of comfortable quiet, wherein the fire spits and roars, and girls dance by waving streamers of colourful fabric, Hunith stands, one hand on his shoulder. “I’ll leave you to the celebrations, then. I’ve the house to prepare. Can I get you anything before I go?”
He opens his mouth, closes it. His eyes flick toward the fire. Hunith nods. “I think he has anticipated us.”
Merlin is indeed on the move, circling the flames with steady strides.
“Do not wear yourself out,” she chides Arthur softly. “No one will think less of you if you take your rest early.”
Arthur smiles. Nods. Hunith steps back. The night is noisy and cheerful. She knows the festivities will go on until the sky is again alight. “You’ll have the house to yourselves. You’d be best off sleeping in a bed.”
“No,” he says quickly, shifting on the bench. She catches another rigid spasm as he moves. “I think we’d better be the ones in the hayloft this time.”
“Arthur.” She grips his arm, fighting not to ask, to probe downward over his side until she finds the wound. It was a bad one, and will be found easily.
He moves smoothly to clasp her hand. “I’m fine, Hunith.” His eyes stay on hers. “The hayloft will do fine. Compared to the places I’ve been sleeping this past year, it’ll be a feather bed.”
She pats his shoulder. “It will be, if my son knows what’s good for him.” She walks a few steps and turns back. “And he does.”
Arthur’s grin is genuine.
* * *
The day has long since passed its zenith when Hunith rises from her bed and starts the fire for breakfast. When the kettle is on its way to boiling, she leaves through the curtained doorway and walks to the shed. She has not had time to replace the door that was torn down during one rampage through Ealdor, or fix the fence that was ripped up for kindling and weaponry during another. She lost all her crockery and half her furniture, what little there was: all in pieces upon the floor. The kettle, she took with her into the woods, and discovered how useful a single piece of cookware could prove to be.
Even the shed has taken a beating. Last night, it was braced with the leftover fence posts. Now, however, the walls look new; the little building stands proud, and Hunith murmurs her son’s name.
Lazy heat rolls out as she pulls the door open. The hay shines golden. Arthur rests atop the pile, his mouth open and one arm bent outward beside his face. His other arm curls around Merlin’s shoulders. Her son lies bodily against him, one hand loosely clenched, cheek resting on Arthur’s chest. They are both asleep.
Hunith eases inside and kneels, touching the hay. It slips like fine silk through her fingers, plush, softer than hay could ever be. On the pile, Merlin moves. One leg stretches until his toes appear from under the end of their blanket. Merlin’s hand slides up into the smooth hollow of Arthur’s throat and settles, cupping his neck. The hay gives under his movements like a large, lush pillow.
Merlin’s eyes drag themselves open. He sees her, but does not move, and Arthur sleeps on. “Morning, Mum,” he whispers, barely audible.
“Late afternoon, I should think.”
Merlin lifts his head. “What?”
Arthur mumbles unintelligibly, and Merlin’s eyes go straight to him. He slowly settles back down, watching Arthur. Four full breaths before he looks at Hunith again. “I’m sorry. We’ll be there in a minute.”
Hunith touches his face. “Breakfast will wait.” She curls a lock of his hair in her fingers.
* * *
She and Merlin meander along the path outside the village, and Hunith kicks the detritus in her path into the grass. Stones, lone axe heads… abandoned cart wheels. Expanses of the forest have been burned. The road is mostly clear, but the wilds are still littered with useless tools and broken weapons. Broken lives.
“Tell me,” she says, “how much is he hiding?”
Merlin’s grimace is painful in the sunlight. “More than the knights are aware.”
They walk a few steps in silence. “It is very bad, then.”
“Was.” Merlin’s stride falters; Hunith almost misses it. “Was very bad.”
His face sags. “Almost lost him. I almost…”
She draws him to a halt with a hand on his wrist, then turns Merlin to face her, and he does it without compunction. This absolute lack of hesitation is something she’s never seen before. The war has made him look the world in the face.
“But you did not,” she tells him. He nods. “Merlin. You did not. He is here, and he is safe.”
His head drops and lifts; he bears the trembling sort of frown that conceals tears. She is more than aware of the blood in his memories: maybe it was Arthur’s ashen skin, or his fluttering pulse, his eyes rolling to white. Maybe it was all of them at once that scared her son right to the center of him.
Maybe Merlin saw the thrust that stuck Arthur and struck him from his horse. A thing like that will not pass easily from his thoughts.
He leads her gently on down the path. Hunith looks at their clasped hands and raises her eyebrows. Merlin’s ears redden. It is enough to make her want to laugh out loud and cry at the same instant. After all he has seen and done, he still blushes like a child.
“Come to Camelot,” he says eventually. “Come home with me.”
Hunith ponders the request, mulling over her ravaged yard and tumbled house. The empty homes in Ealdor whose tenants are dead. The girls without fathers, the boys without mothers. The orphans. The burnt fields.
She stops Merlin and turns him to face her again.
“Thank you,” she whispers. Squeezes his hand. “I want nothing more than to be near you, Merlin, you must know that. But Ealdor… is my home.”
She is ready for dismay, not for the resigned smile as he lifts her hands and kisses them. “I know. I know, Mum. Just know that the request is always there. From me, and from Arthur.”
The fifth visit
Hunith turns away from the road, only to circle and face the oncoming dust once more. She exhales, trying to shake the jitters out of her body, and yanks her cloak tight to her shoulders.
The table inside has been laid, sturdy plates supported on sturdy oak. The glass from her windows reflects the orange of twilight. It is still early, but night is coming on fast and cold. She can smell her own hearth fires burning, searing the venison gently.
Gareth’s second son Marius, so much taller than her now, rubs her shoulder. “Don’t worry, Hunith. These royals have never been difficult to host.” He grins at her, missing the point entirely. Hunith manages a return smile, and then chafes her cheeks against the oncoming frost.
Ealdor’s splendor still feels as odd as the surplus that Camelot poured into the outlying villages ever did. Hunith has to face her own home again and again, really look at it and remember that the same foundations housed her and her son for years in a single room divided by nothing but hanging quilts. Now there is an upper level and a roof that she does not have to replace every spring. There is a bedroom upstairs with a bed fit for a king.
And his queen.
She thinks she can pick out Merlin astride a mottled grey stallion in the dust, and makes for the house again. Returns to the road.
The children get to the caravan first, laughing and jumping about almost beneath the horses’ hooves. The first knights dismount and place the girls and boys atop their horses instead, leading them back into town at a sedate pace. These knights are young, barely out of boyhood, and yet Hunith recognises some of them, because knights in red and gold come down Ealdor’s cobbled road often now, and never with pillaging in mind.
One leaps from his horse and sweeps Urien Carragh into a laughing embrace; it is his brother Kieran. Their chatter, very unbecoming a knight of Camelot, echoes in Hunith’s ears as the royal entourage finally approaches.
Her son is resplendent in deep blue cloth that shimmers with each of his horse’s strides. He is wrapped well against the winter’s cold, his garments gilded in delicate stitching, throat and shoulders wound with furs. Black gloves cover his hands and vanish beneath the thick sleeves of his overcoat. Appearance is everything, he has written, but this is an extravagance even she was not expecting. Their party is not large, but it feels massive, rich with depth and different personalities.
She doesn’t know what to say to him. If there is anything she can say anymore.
Merlin jogs his horse into the center of Ealdor and dismounts with grace, immediately searching her out in the crowd. He stands in front of her before she is ready, and all she can think is, One thing at a time. She hugs him fervently, noting his thinness and his strength as she always has, the long curl of hair that brushes his temple and drifts at his nape. Merlin grips her shoulders, sending warmth through her, and Hunith sighs.
“Merlin.” It’s all she can say.
He smiles down at her. “Mum.”
A flash of crimson strikes behind Merlin. Hunith finds Arthur, regal and beautiful, the king through and through. The crowd gives way, bowing, even though he calls several of the people by name. Suddenly everyone is smiling. The glow is intense, nearly too much.
Merlin turns and looks, then faces her again. “I’ve brought Arthur and Gwen, and Gaius…”
Too many people in the road. Too many horses. Hunith forces her mind into order. “And Morgana? Is she here?”
Merlin’s eyes close, just a little. “She’s… No. Mum. There’s much I have to tell you.”
She pulls away just enough to catch his attention. “Yes.” Hunith looks to Gwen, gathering gold and silver brocade in preparation to dismount. “Yes, I think there is.”
Merlin’s eyes follow hers. His brow creases. As they watch, Arthur steps to Gwen’s side and guides her to the ground. She smiles up at him, and their fingers interlock. Hunith takes Merlin’s hand and grips it, suddenly needing it all right then, all the words that will suck the trouble from the air.
Merlin meets her eyes and holds them. “It’s all right. Mum, it’s not what you think.”
But it is. The wedding is barely two months gone, and Hunith has spent those two months gripping her mending in both hands, waiting for the sound of the horse on the road, waiting for her son to silently come back into her life, bearing burdens upon his shoulders which she cannot relieve. He moves to guide her out of the road, but she grabs him and pulls him up. “Merlin.”
She has seen that particular withering in his expression before. “All right. Let’s…” His fingers close on her arm and he casts a glance in Arthur’s direction. “Let’s not do this here.”
Which means they cannot do it then. There are greetings to be made, hellos to be said, and even if Hunith cannot forgive it all yet, there is a strong part of her that almost needs to have Arthur’s hand in hers, to make sure he is truly there, not just as her king but as the man her son loves, and the good man she knows he is. Arthur sights her even as the crowd jostles; he relinquishes Gwen’s hand to that of one of his knights, a dark complexioned man with shorn black hair whom she has not met, and comes through the crowd. Again, Hunith feels wretchedly unprepared, but then Arthur hugs her and kisses her hand, and smiles.
“Hunith,” he says. His voice is soft. “Hello.”
She has to try twice before she can answer. “Welcome, my lord.”
Something shifts in his face. She cannot stand it, and adds, “Arthur.”
His eyes flicker back and forth between hers. She knows what he is searching for and does not know how to give it. For a moment, he looks just like the boy she found sitting in the sunlight on her rain barrel.
Merlin’s hands slide between theirs and take hers up. She cannot miss the way he lingers over Arthur’s fingers. When he speaks, it is to Arthur, but for both of them. “As soon as you can get away…”
Arthur nods, kisses Hunith on the cheek again, and takes his leave, all formality. Hunith can see Gwen and the knight further back, conversing with several of the townswomen. Hunith’s neighbours continually dip and bow until even she can see Gwen’s blush.
* * *
She waits until the door opens and Arthur enters the house. He shuts it behind him and hesitates, removing his gloves, then crosses to the table where she sits. Merlin whispers from his place near the hearth: the steaming kettle glides through the air to settle at the table’s center.
Arthur takes his seat cautiously, never taking his eyes from her. Hunith does not consider what her face must look like until Merlin’s hand descends on her shoulder. “Mum. Hear him out. Please.”
Hunith and Arthur exchange silence for several seconds. Then— “She is truly a beautiful queen,” Hunith murmurs.
Arthur’s smile is sad. “She is.”
“Please, Arthur,” Hunith breathes. She reaches, halts, then takes his hand in hers. “Tell me how to forgive.”
He swallows. He is still… Even with the new beard, even with the flecks of grey she can see up close in his hair, he is still so young. “She is my queen. And gladly so. I love her, Hunith. But… she does not rule my heart any more than I rule hers.”
“I don’t understand.”
Arthur closes his eyes, and it is then that she first sees the true heaviness of ruling a country on him. She knows now that she never wanted to see it.
“We have an agreement,” he says carefully. Merlin’s hand squeezes her shoulder, and Arthur opens his eyes again, looking her dead on. “She knows.”
About Merlin. And Arthur. Hunith feels herself sinking deeper into the mire of the conversation, and yet, the indignant anger still wields power. “She is your friend,” Hunith states. “She is a friend to both of you.”
Arthur’s eyes cloud. His hand shakes. Merlin comes around in front of her. “That’s exactly it,” he says quietly. “Mum, that’s… why it works.”
“It cannot work, Merlin,” Hunith says. She sounds too flat, even to herself, but she can’t pull out of it. And now she doesn’t know who to be more angry at: Arthur for deserting her son, or the both of them for dragging Gwen into the middle.
“Mum, you don’t understand,” Merlin presses, his tone abruptly forceful. “This was not just our decision, it was Gwen’s as well!”
It is only getting more confusing. Hunith looks to Arthur, more out of reflex than anything else, because he is never without a solution, an explanation. But Arthur looks so miserable. She can read in his face how desperate he is for her to understand. To stop looking at him the way she has been.
“We discussed it, for a long time.” Merlin. “The three of us. We… Well. The only thing we could all agree upon was that the kingdom needed strong rulers. The kingdom needs strong rulers. A king and a queen who will not show weakness to their enemies. Rulers who will not give their enemies an easy road to the throne.”
Arthur gets up and leaves the table, pacing the room. Hunith would have called it aimless, and she’s never seen Arthur without aim before. Merlin goes on. “The knight out there, his name is Lancelot. He and Gwen…”
She stares at her son. “The queen and one of the knights?”
Merlin shakes his head. “They’ve always been, Mum. They’ve always loved each other.”
“But…” Hunith gestures, thinks about grabbing her son’s hand in hers and finally taking sides in a way she’d never thought she would have to. She’d never even thought of it as a battle that required sides. “But if she is in love with another… Why? Why Gwen?”
Arthur leans on the hearth, looking into the flames. “Because otherwise I would not have married.”
It takes her aback; she’s not sure how to respond.
“Mum?” Merlin kneels at her feet. His eyes plead with her. “I couldn’t have that. I couldn’t. He’s our king. He’s my king.”
Arthur frowns at the fire, and Hunith realises her mistake.
She has always known just how much, how deeply her son loved Arthur. But she has forgotten to take into account how much Arthur loves her son. The Pendragon line, eventually the kingdom and even peace… given up for the love of one person.
Arthur fought this entire arrangement. She can see it in the way he holds himself. But he did it in the end because Merlin asked, because Gwen agreed, and because…
Because appearance is indeed everything. It makes Hunith want to cry.
She holds it back. “You will… forgive me if I do not embrace it just yet.” She wipes her eyes. Arthur’s hand clenches into a fist on the hearth. She doesn’t need to see the ache to feel it.
She knows what this means: the king of Camelot shares the bed of his magician rather than of his queen… If the queen conceives, it will not likely be a true child of the Pendragon line… and one day this may very well fall apart in their faces, even though they have all tried to make it work.
He stiffens, then turns around, because he’s never backed away from a thing in his life when it counted, and approaches. She takes his hand, and Merlin’s. “It doesn’t mean I won’t ever be able to.”
Arthur is the trembling one now, and Merlin is stoic. So it is time that Hunith attempted to emulate her son rather than her king.
“I want to say, Arthur… Merlin.” She composes her thoughts, and looks at them both. “This makes you stronger. It is a sign of incredible strength to balance what you want and what you feel you must do, and realise… and realise that compromises must occur. That everything has a price.”
She hopes with all her heart that she is right, that they will be strong enough to pay it.