Hunith came out to cut the parsley in her garden. It was thriving in the small corner by the willow fence. She had promised Wendy that she would bring some, in exchange for a few potatoes. Some she could eat, maybe she could plant a couple and grow them herself.
She took several, good thick stalks and then started to bind them into a bundle. Her movements were quick and confident, almost unconscious. She didn't need to think about what she was doing. But she had to be careful. There would be a trip to the markets and towns soon, with the harvest, and she had to make sure she had enough to put her worth in; otherwise, there would be nothing back.
Swift movement caught her eye as little Charis ran past towards his house.
"Someone's coming!" he yelled.
Hunith leant forward over her fencing, made from willow stalks. The fencing had split over time, but it had remained sure enough, repaired when it needed it. She couldn't bear to ask for a new one. It would be time wasted, when so much else was important.
As she peered at the figure walking down the road to the village her heart froze. The figure was unmistakable to anyone in the small hamlet. They all knew who it was. Instead, she looked at the way Merlin was walking.
His head was down, as if he was concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other. His aim just to get to where he was going. He trudged steadily down the road, his head never lifted, he just walked, like it was just all he could do.
Hunith felt dread clench tightly around her stomach, making a secure fist that spread its power over her body. Something had happened, but she didn't know what. She didn't care. Instead she ran out from her garden and lifting her skirts ran to him.
He looked up, jerking his head up, and looking around he appeared surprised by his surroundings. His eyes blinked, dazed by the sight. It looked like he hardly comprehended it. She ran to him and grabbed him tightly. Then he seemed to react. He took his hands off the straps of his pack and wrapped them around her shoulders. She clung around his waist, feeling his ribs pressing out sharply. Merlin held on and clung, burying his face into her shoulder.
All of a sudden he sagged, Hunith fought to keep him upright, pushing on him, her son recovered himself and lifted again.
"Mother?" He sounded confused.
"Yes, come on, come inside."
He staggered again and she braced herself to support him. Merlin fought to stay upright, fighting to stay steady.
"When did you last eat?" She asked him.
"Two days, when I left Camelot."
"You can't have done it in two days."
"Didn't stop," Merlin said, staggering again as they reached the house. Looking up he seemed to realise where he was, it gave Merlin enough power to get into the house and Hunith pushed him towards his bed. Merlin staggered to the inset in the wall, and she pulled his pack off, putting it down by the side of the bed.
"I have to tell you…"
"Later Merlin," she ordered, pushing him down. "Are you injured?"
Merlin shook his head as he dropped down onto the bed. Hunith pulled the covers around him, dragging them from under him to wrap him up. He looked so cold and pale but as he lay down, he gave out. Within seconds Merlin was sleeping, his body crashed out and gave up. She pulled a stool up to the bed and reaching over took his hand. The steady rise and fall of his chest soothed her, he was just sleeping, and he had come home. But she didn't know why, and she wouldn't know, not for a while. She just had to let him sleep. Squeezing his hand she pulled back. If she took the parsley, and maybe some lavender as well, she could get enough to feed Merlin too. She could claim a little more corn, just to bulk out the soup.
"I won't be long," she assured her son, and then was gone. Merlin stirred and then relaxed again, his body overriding his mind, putting him back into sleep. Just for now.
Merlin's eyes flashed open to darkness, the smell of stew and the sound of his mother humming as she worked. He rolled over and looked around, he was home. His mother was sweeping the floor, clearing the area around the fire as the pot bubbled over it. Merlin looked around, and moved carefully, his legs ached. He hadn't stopped, when he had started walking, and he had stubbornly refused Arthur's offer of a horse. Instead he had conjured a light-ball and walked thought the night, with it to light his way, putting one foot in front of the other. All he could think about was getting home.
Arthur had let him go without a word. Despite all the work that needed to be done. He hadn't understood, but he hadn't stopped him. Merlin almost thought, just at that teetering moment of departure that Arthur might have hugged him, or said something. Instead he had looked helpless and watched Merlin walk away.
He looked up and smiled. "Mother."
Opening his arms he let himself be engulfed again. He buried his face into her chest, as he had done as a child and his breath hitched. Her hand ran up and down his back.
"Merlin, what's wrong? What's happened? Is it Arthur, has he… does he know?"
Merlin shook his head. He couldn't talk, there were no words that he could say. Instead he let his mother take him to the fire and sitting him down gave him some stew, which he ate with gusto, he drank the apple juice she had pressed and ate some more stew, and a little bread. But still he couldn't speak, he couldn't say anything.
"Merlin, no one knows about you, do they? What's wrong?"
Merlin shook his head, still feeling so tired, and drained. She could see the lines on his face, the dark circles and she knew. There was nothing she could do just now. She knew her son well enough. He would only give when he was ready. So instead, she put her son to bed again, and let him sleep some more.
Come the morning he was bright, and strangely energetic. He found all the leaks and problems in the cottage, and took himself off to get the equipment. Hunith had asked for the timbers and thatching she needed but times were hard, they had to have enough harvest to share, and she was clearly not a priory to them.
Merlin changed that within an hour, and what he needed to mend the house came soon after. Stern words and a coin had done enough and Merlin went to work. He didn't stop. It became a thing of curiosity. People called to swap what they could and she dealt with them as best she could, while Merlin, the servant to the Crown Prince of Camelot, worked like a slave. He didn't stop, he was like he couldn't.
He was respected by the villagers. When they had returned after she had gone for help about the raiders, they hadn't returned with knights to fight, but the Prince had come, to help Merlin to help them. That said more than twenty knights appearing over the horizon. One prince was worth so much more. Hunith agreed on that. Arthur had not done anything to Merlin, the prince had not prompted Merlin's return. Not now. She wished she could talk to Arthur, just to see if he understood what was wrong with her son.
Hunith knew the signs. Merlin would never talk until he was absolutely ready. So he worked all day, ate in silence and then, on that second night, he was ready. Walking away, she thought he was going to bed, but instead he pulled something out of his pack, and placed it on the small, low table that she often used to hold things when she sewed in front of the fire.
Her hands sewing neatly, fixing Merlin's clothes, without even looking at what she was doing, froze. She looked at the neatly carved dragon and then at the mantelpiece, at the chairs, at the chest that held her linen, which had been so very carefully made by the same talented hands.
"Oh," she said.
"I met him," Merlin said. "I met him, and he died."
"Oh, oh, Merlin."
"I came to tell you," Merlin said, his voice choking. "I thought you ought to know."
"How did you find out? When? What happened?" Her words and questions came out in a rush. She put aside the sewing, and almost rose to go to Merlin. But he came to her, he sat on the floor at her feet, and curled himself around her as he had done as a child, and he started to talk. He talked and found that he couldn't stop.
Merlin was exhausted by the time he had finished. It was nice and safe and warm. He remembered that about sitting at his mother's feet, as she sewed of a night. Merlin remembered he would play until he got bored.
"Oh, my child, I'm so sorry," she said into the top of her son's head.
"So am I. I only knew him for that time, but it's like I really knew him, and I couldn't tell anyone. I could talk to Gaius, but he didn't know him, he didn't know my father, you did."
He looked up, and there were so many times he looked like him. Merlin just did something, smiled, or turned and it was so clearly Balinor's son. There was no one else who could have fathered her child.
"You father, Balinor, was a wonderful man. He came here just to travel through. I was having trouble with the roof and he negotiated with Matthew, a meal for the work."
"Sounds fair, he didn't do very well on the roof."
"It's held for all this time. I offered him my bed, I had my own now your grandparents had gone, but he said he would stay in the woods."
"Very scared," Hunith said. "He knew they would come, so he stayed away from the village, but he came back, he worked and he only took what he had earned, what he had bargained for. It was only when the winter came, and the frost hit suddenly, we had to go and look for him. He might have died but, I put him by the fire here and he survived. He was a strong man."
Merlin nodded saying nothing. He looked up at the ornately carved wood around the hearth.
"When he opened his eyes he told me it needed to be more beautiful, so the fire would not be ashamed when it looked at its mistress."
"Smooth, sounds like something Arthur would say, ow!" Merlin said and then howled as Hunith slapped his shoulder.
"Arthur's a good boy; I dare say Balinor saw that."
"He saw Camelot, when he looked at Arthur."
"But he was willing to go back to help you."
"Because I asked him, and it got him killed."
"You were in danger, he died to protect you."
"And I became the last of the Dragon Lords," Merlin said. "Among other things. Why did you send me to Camelot?"
Hunith sighed and reached out to stroke Merlin's hair. "Your father always said, he had a friend a Camelot, a strong man who should not be forgotten. I only knew Gaius by name, I never saw him until I came to Camelot. Balinor told him about us, about me."
"Was that how Uther knew where he was. Why he came here. Did Gaius betray him?"
"Yes, he did. And he regretted it. Sweetheart, you can't blame him."
He closed his eyes as he felt his mother's fingers through his hair, soothing him, as she had so often done, then she bent down and kissed the top of his head.
"I used to say to him, he used to make the most beautiful things in the world, and he said he would always worry that the next thing would disappoint me." She caressed his hair for a moment longer.
"Merlin, he didn't disappoint. You are the most beautiful thing in my world."