03 The Empress

A/N: "As often depicted as pregnant as not, the Empress is the sign of abundance, and of nurturing. She brings ideas to life, and helps them grow."

Hunith frowned at the sound of hoof beats nearing her home. It wasn't urgent, the beat slow and muffled by snow, but this late at night, a traveler was still strange at best.

She poked her head out, along with a few of the other from their own homes, to see a man in a black cloak, face shadowed in his hood from the half-moon light, astride a strong-looking white horse.

For a moment, she wondered at the identity of the thin form under the cloak, wondered why this shoulders would slump, so, when it must've taken much strength of will to travel in this weather – and how it could comply with the determined set of the man's jaw.

The horse neared her home, and she smiled in recognition.

Her son looked up, and her smile froze at the defeated, haunted gaze in her son's eyes when he looked at her, the way his smile barely reached his eyes.

But it was still warm, nonetheless.

She stepped out from her home as the rest of the village returned to their abodes of warmth.

Merlin dismounted just before her, and sensing the change in his expression, she said nothing, simply embraced him, and pulled tight as he wrapped his arms around in turn.

The horse whickered, and they broke apart. Merlin's eyes were suspiciously wet, but his face was still dry.

"It's good to see you, Mother."

His voice was hoarse, cracked, as if his throat was sore.

"Are you ill?" she asked, her hand reaching up to stroke his throat.

He shied away from her touch, and she gasped as the move jostled his shirt and neckerchief, and revealed bruises underneath.

With a sad look on his face, he shook his head and said, "Let me take care of Tempest-" He gave a little flick of the horse's reins. "-And we can talk inside, yeah?"

She swallowed and said, "I'll warm up some soup for you."

He smiled, a little less sad. "Thank you."

She waited, patient. One couldn't raise a magical child without almost unending patience.

Merlin led his horse – a volatile mare named Tempest which he'd won in a bet of some kind – to the village barn and kept her there, before returning home and slipping inside, stealth of a ghost that made Hunith fear for whatever her son's tale would be.

He ate quietly, and she sat right beside him, mending a blanket in warm silence as he slowly but thoroughly ate. With his cloak gone, she could see how thin he was, thinner than she'd thought possible.

Her boy had so little to lose as it was…

"Well?" she asked, when he set his spoon in the now-dry bowl. "What happened?"

For a long, long moment, Merlin didn't look at her.

Then, his head fell, chin to chest, and his shoulders started to tremble, under the weight of a burden she could only begin to imagine.

She embraced her son, again that night, and pulled him close. No sound ever escaped his lips – his tears fell in silence as his body shook with the power of his heart, as she rubbed gently but firmly over his back.

Then he opened his mouth and spoke.

"Why didn't you ever tell me about Balinor?"

She froze, and under her stilled hand, she could feel Merlin stiffen.

Swallowing, she said, "I wanted to protect you."

"From what?"

She sighed. "Your past. Your powers. Your…you have a painful heritage, Merlin – you know that, now. I wanted to protect you."

Merlin laughed, wet and hollow, and she wrapped her arm around his shoulder and pulled him closer, as the bowl floated from his hand towards the bucket in the corner.

"It didn't work," Merlin said.

"…how did you find out?" she asked.

Merlin swallowed. "There was a Great Dragon under the castle…and…and I made a deal with it. I freed it. And it nearly destroyed Camelot. Our only hope was a Dragonlord, so Arthur and I chased a rumor of the last one living in same caves a little ways away from here."

Her eyes widened in shock and hope, but Merlin shook his head when he saw. "He was killed on our way back to Camelot."

She knew she should care for her son, first, but a small part of her heart keened to hear that such a great man she has so dearly loved was dead.

"At least…" she swallowed – there was one thing she could take comfort in. "At least you got to know him for a little while?"

Merlin nodded, before holding out his hand and summoning his back to him from the bedding area. When it landed in his lap, he reached inside and pulled out a small carving of a dragon.

She gasped. Merlin looked surprised, but at the look of shock on her face, handed it to her. She ran her fingers over it, the lines and scores painfully familiar.

"Mother?" Merlin asked, reaching up and wiping her face.

Oh. She was crying.

She smiled through the tears and said, "He used to make many of these, all the time. A little rougher back then, but…" She bit her lip. "Before he ran away, we had dreams of settling down somewhere and having a family…he wanted to carve an entire collection of these for your, for any and all of our children."

At a questioning look from Merlin, she added, "When we heard Uther's men were coming, he burned all the ones he had already carved out just before leaving. He erased all traces of his existence from here to protect me…he erased everything except you."

Merlin swallowed. "I guess now we know why making things into dragons was so easy for me."

She smiled, softly, shaking her head as Merlin stared at the fire and the embers formed into a very familiar dragon – just like Merlin had always made it, and just like the one in her hands right now.

She held her hand out to Merlin, whose eyes flashed gold, making the dragon move on her hand. She gasped, watching as it spread its wings and flew up into the air.

Merlin rearranged the sparks, and soon, it looked like the dragon was soaring among stars, wings flapping arbitrarily while it drifted through them.

"Oh, Merlin," she said. "I still remember the day, I realized you have magic."

Merlin smiled, wisely not interrupting her story.

"You were only a few years old…but you wanted your hammer-toy back…and I took it away…"

"…and my eyes flashed gold and it flew into my hands," Merlin finished for her.

She grinned. "And now you're bringing your toys to life, too. I suppose I still have some time before you grow up…"


She just grinned at him, and held him closer, moving only to shuffle him to the bedding area as he fell asleep. Whatever the rest of his story was, she was willing to wait and find out tomorrow.

Hunith was a mother, first and foremost.

She watched her boy sleep, deep and dreamless, and she sighed as she studied him.

He looked like sleep and food were no longer parts of his life. Like he had no one to truly take care of him. Except she knew how many people were taking care of him. Gaius, for one, and the prince and Morgana and Gwen…

Something was wrong.

Sighing, she went out to the main area to bank the fire, only to frown as she heard more hoof beats.

Rolling her eyes, she stuck her head out, frowning at the stranger, who she didn't recognize until he had dismounted. But when she did see him, she smiled.

"Sire," she said, bowing her head respectfully – not to the Prince, but to the man who saved her village, and her son.

"Hunith," Arthur greeted. "I don't suppose Merlin came here?"

She took a deep breath. "He is inside. Would you like some soup? I can heat it up as you stable your horse…I would do it myself, but…"

Arthur smiled, nodding at her lack of wearing winter clothing while inside her house. "That would be lovely," he said, somewhat tightly.

She gave a more wry smile, this time. "I assure you, the food is much better than last time."

He at least looked sheepish while handing his pack to her. "I'll just take care of Taranis and be in…and please don't wake him for me."

She shook her head. "Strange names they give horses, these days."

Arthur grinned, this time.

Hunith wondered if she would get any sleep, tonight, though oddly, she didn't mind as she poured some more soup from the large pot into a bowl and gave it to Arthur.

He seemed to genuinely enjoy it. She knew it wouldn't be as high quality as what he usually enjoyed, but she wasn't going to adhere herself to those standards, either. She knew she was just a village woman.

"I don't suppose you can tell me what happened?" she asked, careful with how she worded the question, not knowing how much Merlin had revealed to him, yet.

Arthur took a deep breath, then shook his head and said, "I need to at least finish my meal. It was a long ride from Camelot straight to here, and I have only stopped to eat twice."

She blinked in alarm. "That's almost a two day ride away!"

"I was in a hurry," he said after the next bite. "I…I don't think Merlin stopped at all. Near as I can tell, when he left, he took a few personal possessions but nothing to actually sustain himself."

She looked over to where her son lay, his entire body currently obscured by the blankets she had layered on him, the small, shallow rise and fall of his body as he breathed.

Turning back, she felt warmed to at least see Arthur with the same amount of concern.

Arthur finished the soup, getting up and setting in the bucket in the corner before Hunith good, sitting back down in front of the fire to warm himself, then saying bluntly, "Your son told me of his magic. And then…"

She breathed a sigh of relief, that her son finally told, but then felt wariness seep into her bones as she took in the blank expression on the Prince's face.

"And then?" she asked, gentle, feeling Arthur giving off the same energy as Merlin had been.

"Then he ran away," Arthur said. "He…he took a few personal possessions of great meaning to him and vanished. I actually had trouble following him – I lost him, actually. I only came here because I figured out he was coming to Ealdor half-way here."

She stayed silent, waiting for Arthur to continue.

"And then…" Arthur shook his head. "I…I must say, you were a brave woman, Hunith. In a time when your home was in turmoil, you stood up and took in a Dragonlord…I can see where Merlin gets it from."

She smiled wetly. "Yes. Merlin…Merlin reminds me so much of his father at times."

Arthur looked sharply away.

"Sire," she said. "Please…what…what happened, exactly?"

"There was a dragon," Arthur said. "And it nearly destroyed Camelot after it was freed…and Merlin…he was the one who freed it, as far as I can tell, and the one who got rid of it while I was unconscious. He initially told me I had done it…but a few days later, when Camelot was rebuilding itself, and after a feast my father held in celebration of its supposed demise…he came to me and simply…confessed."

She frowned. "Just like that?"

Arthur nodded. "I was…I was in a bit of shock. I don't know what Merlin saw, but…he ran from the chambers. I went to his a few hours later, by which time, he was gone."

She nodded numbly. "This explains it…"

"Explains what?" he asked, looking up curiously.

"His…" she gestured to him softly, before looking back down at the blanket, forgotten on her lap. "I am a mother, Arthur, and it pains me to see my son bearing so much guilt on his shoulders."

Arthur blinked in surprise, as if something Hunith had said was news to him. What in particular, she wasn't sure she wanted to know.

"So…Balinor was Merlin's father?" Arthur asked.

"There was no one else," she said, with a firm nod.

Arthur sighed. He squared his shoulders in a way Hunith recognized from when he was preparing to face off against the raiders, and pushed himself up and over to Merlin's side.

She only half-looked as Merlin shuffled in his sleep, mumbling incoherently, before he turned around and saw Arthur.

Then she couldn't help but smile in amusement as the sound of his yelp, of the rustling of the blankets as he tried to stand up and the dull thud when he fail.

"You…what…you followed me here?!"

"Well it wasn't exactly that difficult," Arthur said. "Considering your complete and utter lack of stealth skills. Really, Merlin, how you're still alive in my father's court is completely beyond me."

"I managed it this far, didn't I?"

And so it went.

Hunith listened to their now-much-quieter argument as she mended her blanket.

Every tale brought her only more sorrow as she listened to Merlin describe being possessed by some sorcerer named Sigan – "It was like falling through darkness, with no end in sight" – and how he fought desperately against some troll the king had accidentally married – "I told you!" – and about a horse of smoke and a witchfinder – "It was all my fault…and Gaius…Gaius…Gaius suffered for it" – and his tales about the young women following, of Freya – "I loved her and she's gone" – and Vivienne – "I thought you were going to really get yourself killed" – and Morgana – "I already hate myself for it enough, Arthur" – she felt only more and more grief for her son grown in her chest.

She realized she was crying again and set her needle down, taking a moment to silently wipe her tears away, and bat away all thoughts of my baby, my boy that rooted through her mind as she listened.

It wasn't long before their voices started slurring, then more rustling and shifting, then silence save the sound of breathing.

She finally looked up to see the Prince laying beside Merlin, his arms wrapped around her son as they huddled together beneath the blankets.

Shaking her head, she walked over quietly and pulled the blankets up to their necks, tucking them in. The prince groaned and shuffled a bit – if Merlin's stories from her last trip to Camelot were anything to go by, the Prince had never had someone tuck him in before in his life. She was Merlin's mother first and foremost, but she was more than happy to take his lost, lonely prince under her wing, as well, whether that wing be feathered or scaled.

Hunith had a feel that Merlin would drag Arthur under with him, and vice versa, and sighed softly at their youth and at their impossible, simultaneous wisdom, mourning the age she'd seen in their eyes, tonight, and celebrating the love she'd seen as well.

She smiled and went back to her mending.

Her son would be well cared for, indeed.

And so would the prince.

Comments are love. :D Second card this week as I didn't post a card last week.