A/N: Though this is first and foremost a follow-up oneshot to 'Your Heart Greater Than Mine' it can be read as a stand alone without too much confusion. The main thing that might induce head scratching if you haven't read the first piece is that this is set as AU from 1x4 where Merlin is comatose rather than making a full recovery from the poison.
The Prince still enjoys the hunt. No amount of guilt can eradicate the pleasure of riding out for a day of sunlight and activity, harnessing all the skills he's trained in without the fear or guilt attached to the real purpose of those skills. But now, rather than taking to the woods; with its tangled briars and close grown trunks that concealed roe deer and red deer and the great fierce boar in the rare day or half day free of duty, he prefers to take to the open fields, hawking.
He rides alone save for a single companion, the old falconer, or the addition of Sir Leon if the King is particularly insistent. The knight in question knows by now to stay quite and leave his Prince to his thoughts. These hunts are not for the pleasure of the chase, though there is that too. At times the Prince will charge ahead, racing the bird above him and the wind behind as they skirt the boundaries between the open fields and the burgeoning trees. But most often his happiness is tinged with frowns, his laughter with sorrow.
"It should not be this way- the people mutter among themselves. Their Prince who has inexplicably reverted to his childhood attitudes; contradicting the King, showing open care for the common people as well as his knights, actually dropping his noble countenance to play with a young child who'd offered him flowers and adoring eyes in the street. The man hardened to the world in hopes of his father's approval is gone. But it should not be this way, with joy replaced by a sorrow that hangs over everything he does.
And, though fewer would recognize him on sight, the people know that it is the young man lying comatose in the castle infirmary who has inspired both the recession and the sorrow in their prince. For this they thank him from the streets and pray for him over their meals. If he would only awake they would be assured an heir who would rule better than his father. Their Prince is kinder and fairer because of Merlin. No one would see him die if they could help it.
Nevertheless, to see the young prince riding out to the hunt is to see him in a different light. At these times his sorrow is somewhat lacking. Instead a bittersweet laughter can be heard ring out over the fields and honest joy can be read on his face when his bird dives towards the earth merely to feel the wind rushing by.
The nobles, for their part, find their Prince's new interest unusual and improper. After all, falconry is a noble art, but as a prince, Arthur should fly a bird befitting his station. Only a few among these noblemen guess the reason behind Arthur's insistence in flying the small falcon with dark wings and a dark crown; a bird more suited for catching sparrows on the wing than rabbits or pheasant for the pot.
And Arthur only ever hunts enough for the bird's meal. Survivor's guilt may not stop him from pursuing hunting as a necessary and enjoyable pastime but hunting for mere sport no longer appeals him as much as it used to. Even the idea of taking more than needed reminds him of bony wrists reaching for their small portion of broth and porridge.
He had taken it upon himself to deliver the news to Merlin's family in person. What he hadn't realized was that Merlin claimed no father or other family, only a mother who took the news much to well, as if she'd almost expected something like this to happen to her son.
"Are you Hunith?"
"Yes. To what do I owe the honor, Prince of Camelot?"
"My name is Arthur….. It's, it's Merlin."
She had grasped the doorframe until her knuckles whitened under the pressure.
"He's dead isn't he? My son is dead."
He'd only gaped at her, astounded by her matter of fact tone and foreknowledge.
"Just please... Arthur. Tell me how it happened."
Arthur, still reeling from sight of a magical light cupped in the hand of his own manservant could only imagine what it was like to love someone living on borrowed time. Someone who – for the mere slip of the tongue or emotion – would be drowned…. or burnt if he gathered enough years.
"It- He- I- He's not dead. Not dead."
He'd repeated himself as if convincing Hunith would make it more true and less like a mere platitude. He'd known from the moment he'd walked in on Gaius frantically throwing a blanket over the still frame and caught glimpse of magic matching the light that had saved him that Merlin would not die by his word, but it is only now, faced with the women who had raised him, loved him, that he knows he will protect Merlin's secret with his life.
"He's asleep. Gaius calls it a coma. It's serious but Gaius says he could recover at any time."
She hadn't believed him any more than he truly believed himself.
Accepting her invitation to share supper with her more out of politeness for any desire to eat the grey broth she'd proffered he'd been shocked when one by one, small waifs had drifted in to join them, accepting their share of the stew with small words of gratitude before falling silent in the presence of a stranger.
That night he had asked Hunith about the magic. Was Gaius telling the truth? Had Merlin really had magic since birth?
"The first time he opened his eyes they were a brilliant gold. I worked double hours – my fields and the midwife's – to pay for her silence. She kept our deal for five years before dying in a winter blizzard."
"So no one else knew? Why send him away then? And why Camelot?"
Her silence had spoken for her. Someone else had found out, and Merlin, ever forced to hide or die, had left.
Arthur had returned to Camelot stricken by how little he knew of the man who had given his life for the mere hope that Arthur represented a better future. Right then he had made a promise.
And the non-descript little falcon at his wrist is a reminder of that promise. Merlin may not ride beside him, but one day he will. Magic will return to Camelot when he is king. And Merlin is magic. One day Arthur will enjoy the expression on the impertinent man's face when the warlock realizes just what Arthur had done in his absence.
One day Merlin will be there again to lift Arthur's spirits and remind him that he is only human. And hopefully one day, Arthur will be able to return the favor.
For though his manservant has been gone for many years, Arthur of Camelot still hunts with a merlin.
What do you think? Comments, complements and critiques all welcome! God Bless,