Title: A Midwinter Visit
Summary: Ealdor is having a hard winter, so Hunith requests help from Camelot. The visit brings new revelations and a new understanding between Hunith, Arthur and Merlin.
Word Count: 3667
Author's Notes: gilli_ann, thank you for the delightful prompt. It was the type of story I love to read and write, and I enjoyed working on it very much! I hope that you have a wonderful holiday and a bright New Year.
My thanks to the Camelot Drabble mods for running a very organized festival, and to my beta gwyllion, who betaed this on very short notice and really helped refine my rusty writing skills. The story was much improved by her input. Merry Christmas!
Hunith hated to ask for help from Camelot, but it had been a poor harvest. Even with the best management, the stores were dangerously low.
She knew how many barrels of grain and salted meat were available the way she knew the back of her own hand, but still she lay in bed at night counting and recounting. Ealdor was a small village, but there were a couple of dozen children, and she was pretty sure Ingrede was carrying twins.
Even with reduced rations, they would not make it through the winter without hardship and death. As the unofficial chief of the village, she could not let that happen.
She swallowed her pride and wrote to her son. She knew Merlin and Arthur would not fail her.
Arthur had his Council, and valued them, but for more personal decisions he turned to his intimate circle: Gwen, Lance, Leon, Morgana, and Merlin.
He gathered them after Merlin brought Hunith’s letter to him. They spent most evenings together anyway, sitting by the fire in the queen’s study, laughing and playing games. It wasn’t the grandest room in the palace, but they all considered it their own special place. Gwen had made it warm and inviting, with soft cushions and tapestries that eased the chill of the stone walls.
They all felt like it was the one place in the palace where they could be their true selves, in their chosen couplings, free from prying eyes.
Gwen’s maid, Letha, had first come to Gwen after the royal marriage, a half-starved girl of twelve. Under Gwen’s kind care and instruction, she had grown into a bright and comely young woman, fiercely loyal to her mistress. If she knew who shared the queen’s bed, she gave no indication of that knowledge. Gwen knew that she would die before betraying her.
In an additional precaution against eavesdroppers, Merlin had warded the door so that no one would ever walk in unexpectedly and see a tableau like the one presented now.
Morgana and Leon were tangled up on one couch, with Gwen standing behind them brushing Morgana’s hair, a task she still loved. Lance watched her from another settee, a soft smile playing on his lips. Arthur was standing before the fire. He always thought best on his feet. Merlin sat cross-legged on the floor nearby, looking not a day older than the day he came to Camelot.
Despite Merlin’s youthful appearance, Arthur’s friends and allies were all in their thirties now. They were the keepers of his kingdom.
Arthur briefly explained Hunith’s request. He turned to Gwen and said, “I will be sorry to leave you at Yule, my love. But the need is urgent, and Merlin has not seen Hunith in more than a year.”
Morgana broke in. “Can’t we all go? Like we used to before you became king?” But her eyes showed that she already knew the answer.
Gwen resumed her seat next to Lance and chided Morgana gently. “And who would defend Camelot in Arthur’s absence, or sit in council, or see to the needs of the poor in winter?”
“I know, I know,” Morgana answered. “I just thought it would be fun.”
“You and Leon can make your own fun. And besides, you have a wedding feast to plan,” Gwen teased her.
Leon smiled and pulled gently on one of the ribbons Gwen had threaded into Morgana’s dark locks, and Morgana blushed.
So, it was settled that Merlin and Arthur would go unofficially, with several wagons of supplies and a small group of trusted soldiers.
Four weeks after Hunith wrote, just before the Solstice, two excited young girls ran breathlessly into town, their skirts lifted for speed and their eyes bright with excitement. They found Hunith chopping and stacking wood.
“The King, Mother Hunith, it’s the King,” and “He has the most beautiful white horse,” they babbled, interrupting each other in their eagerness to deliver the news.
“Wait, wait, where did you see him? How far away? And slow down and catch your breath, please,” Hunith urged them.
The girls made a visible effort to rein in their excitement, and one said quickly, “They were watering their horses in the stream by the big rock in the East Wood, and the King smiled at us and gave each of us a coin! He said to tell you they would be here very soon.”
It was a cold and grey day, but Hunith felt as if the midday sun was shining brightly on them. No one would starve after all.
Hunith shook the wood chips off her apron and retied her headscarf, hoping she didn’t look too disheveled. She took each of the girls’ hands, and went out to greet the man who was not technically Ealdor’s king, but definitely the king of their hearts.
And more importantly, she went to greet her son.
By the time the royal party arrived, almost all the folk of Ealdor had gathered in the tiny commons, cheering when they caught sight of the white horse in the lead.
The king’s party was a splendid sight, with the red and gold banners streaming and the handsome horses cantering into the village.
Arthur was in the lead, with Gwaine just behind him on one side, and Merlin on the other.
Their clothing had been a subject of discussion in Arthur’s chambers. Gwen and Morgana had come to help him pack, since that was no longer Merlin’s job (even though he seldom left Arthur’s chambers). George couldn’t be relied on to help since he had no fashion sense whatsoever.
Arthur had initially argued that for an informal humanitarian trip, he should just wear his oldest hunting clothes.
But Gwen had quickly vetoed that idea. “The people of Ealdor need some glamour and beauty in their lives. From what Hunith said, it has been a dreary autumn and a drearier winter. Seeing you dressed like a poor squire will not lift their spirits.“
“The wagons of food and wine will lift their spirits,” Arthur muttered, but Morgana quelled him with a look.
“All right, all right, you know best, my queen. But if I am getting fussed over and dressed up like a poppet, so is Merlin.”
Merlin, who had been laughing quietly at Arthur’s protests, threw a grape at Arthur, who of course caught it without even turning his head.
So it was that they were richly dressed, Arthur’s doublet was velvet in Camelot red, and his cloak was lined with ermine. He had put his foot down at wearing the gold circlet his tormentors had suggested, but in the late afternoon light his bright hair looked like a crown.
Merlin was wearing the deep blue coat he had last worn at Gwen and Arthur’s wedding, and he looked very fine in it.
The people gave an enthusiastic cheer when they saw the King and Merlin. Their applause grew louder as the three full wagons of supplies lumbered in behind them. Arthur had been a huge favorite in Ealdor ever since he and Merlin and Morgana and Gwen had saved them from Kanan. And now the full wagons meant the people of Ealdor were being saved again.
Hunith had eyes for no one, but her son. She marvelled at how his shoulders had broadened since she last saw him. But courtesy required that she greet the King first, bowing low. He took her hands and pulled her up, saying, “None of that is necessary for such old friends as we are.”
And then she was hugging Merlin as tight as she could, half laughing and half crying. “Thank you for coming,” she whispered.
“We will always be there for you, Mother.”
It wasn’t until the next day that Hunith pondered the use of the term “we.”
There was much work to do in unloading the wagons.
Camelot had donated a dozen barrels of salted meat, a goodly quantity of dried fruit, several wheels of cheese, as well as enough grain to get them through until spring. In addition, there were dozens of warm blankets woven on the palace looms by Gwen and her household. There was also a large wooden box full of medicines and tinctures prepared by Gaius.
Gwen and Morgana had sent some personal gifts for Hunith as well. She waited until she and Merlin and Arthur were seated by the fire in her cottage before opening them. They sipped hot tea, while Gwaine and the other soldiers began helping the villagers make repairs to their roofs and walls.
Dark was beginning to fall, and Hunith thought time was too short to prepare a proper feast that day. But the villagers had invited their benefactors to a communal meal the next night, which was the Winter Solstice. Arthur had graciously accepted, and had promised Hunith that some of the knights would hunt the next day to provide meat for the feast.
Merlin and Arthur had changed out of their finery and seemed relaxed and dozy by the fire as Hunith poured the tea and offered them some biscuits she had been saving for a special occasion. Her cottage had one decent chair and a couple of rough benches, and Arthur had refused when she tried to offer him the best seat.
So Hunith settled in her chair and watched the two of them. As a fire crackled in the hearth, a niggling thought teased at her. Was it odd that they were seated so close together on the bench? And that their body language seemed to mirror each other’s?
She brushed the thought aside. They had been friends for many years. She remembered reassuring Merlin that Arthur cared about him when Merlin had doubts, in that awful week before Will had died. She told herself that it was natural for them to be physically close after working together for so many years. And even though Merlin was now Court Sorcerer and not a manservant, they still spent many hours a day together as Merlin advised Arthur in managing the kingdom.
Still, she gave voice to the first question that came into her mind. “How is the Queen?”
“Gwen is well, and sends her love, as does Morgana. She is sorry she could not come with us, but she has much to do in Camelot at this time of year.”
“Of course,” Hunith answered. She wanted to ask if there was any news of an heir for Camelot, but was too polite to do so. She was sure that Arthur answered that question more than was comfortable in Camelot anyway. Or worse, perhaps Arthur had heard whispers about the Queen being barren. Hunith had herself heard such whispers, and Ealdor was a long way from Arthur’s kingdom.
Seeming to sense a slight awkwardness in the room, Merlin gestured to the box at Hunith’s feet. “Aren’t you going to open your gifts, Mother?”
“Your aid to our village is more than enough, son.” But she opened the box and oohed and aahed as she saw a dozen bars of the fine white soap used in the castle. It would be much easier on her hands than the coarse lye soap she usually used. She knew she could not keep it all, but she would save a few bars for herself and give the rest to some of the poorest women she assisted. There was also a thick cloak made of forest green wool, and she almost cried when she realized that she wouldn’t have to wear her much-patched, faded old cloak anymore.
“Please thank the Queen and Morgana for their generosity, Sire, “ she said simply, and Arthur promised that he would.
They each had a bowl of thin soup for their supper, and Hunith was embarrassed that it was all she could offer. The men seemed to enjoy it, though, and Hunith was very glad of the company.
When it was time to retire, she tried to offer Arthur her own bed, but he firmly refused to take it.
“Merlin and I are not so old that we can’t sleep on the floor the way we did the first time we were here.”
With Merlin’s increased status and income as Court Sorcerer, he had been able to make some improvements to the cottage he grew up in. An extra room had been added, so that Hunith was no longer sleeping in her kitchen. It even had a wooden door, a rare luxury in Ealdor.
After bidding them goodnight, Hunith retired, and fell into a dreamless sleep.
Hunith woke early and planned to carefully walk around Arthur and Merlin on the floor so that she could get the morning porridge going.
But in the dawn light, she saw something that stopped her in her tracks, her hand going to her mouth to stifle the involuntary sound she made.
She had expected her son and the king to be sleeping the way they had years ago, with one’s feet at the other’s face. Instead, she saw a beautiful but shocking sight.
The two men were lying face to face, bare-chested, with Arthur’s arm curled around Merlin’s shoulders. It was clear from the way they lay so comfortably together that they were very accustomed to sleeping together like this.
As she stood watching them, her mind whirling with the implications of what she was seeing, Arthur’s eyes flew open, and he tightened the arm around Merlin. She saw that he had a dagger in his other hand, and marvelled that he had been able to pull it from the bedclothes quicker than thought.
Arthur put the dagger down as his brain caught up with where he was, and stared into Hunith’s eyes for a long moment, weighing what he saw there.
Then he said, quietly but with some sternness in his voice, “Close the door, Hunith.”
She fled back into her bedroom, her cheeks bright with embarrassment.
She waited for ten minutes, until the voices in the next room and the clattering of pots told her that Merlin and Arthur were awake. But when she entered the kitchen, Merlin was already gone, although one of them had poured her a cup of hot cider and left it at her place on the table.
“Good morning, Hunith,“ Arthur said quietly.
“Good morning, Sire,” she answered, wondering if they were going to ignore what had happened. “Where is Merlin?”
“He went to check on how the supplies are being stored. Gwaine is a good man, but attention to detail is not his strong suit. Unless he has a sword in his hand.”
There was an awkward silence as Hunith sipped her cider, and she tried to surreptitiously study Arthur’s face. He seemed grave, but not ashamed.
He did not seem eager to talk about what she had seen, and it was not her place to question the king, no matter how many questions were bubbling up in her mind.
Finally, the silence caught up with her, and she stood up quickly and grabbed her cloak. “I must gather sticks for kindling in the forest,” she blurted out.
Arthur rose too. “May I accompany you? “ he asked formally, as if she were a fine lady at court.
It was impossible to say no to the king, so she answered with the same formality. “Of course you may, Sire.”
They walked a short way into the forest, both silent. They both bent over and picked up large twigs and bigger branches, and Hunith placed them in her cloth carrier.
Apparently emboldened by walking side by side, where they did not have to look each other in the eye, Arthur began cautiously, “You may have been surprised by what you saw this morning.”
Hunith’s voice was more tart than she intended. “I am not naive, Arthur. I lived in Camelot for several years when I studied with Gaius. I know what it means, and it means that you are being unfaithful to the queen. And I know that it is not something that my son should be a part of.”
“I am not being unfaithful to Gwen,” Arthur said softly. “My marriage vows, the real ones, have only ever been made to Merlin. Camelot needed a Queen, and I have always honored Gwen as a sister and a friend. But we have never shared a bed. I have always known that her heart belongs to Lancelot, just as mine has always belonged to Merlin. Although it took me a few years to realize what I was feeling for Merlin. It was outside the realm of my experience.”
Hunith remembered the way Arthur had poked and prodded at Merlin in their youth, teasing him but also never letting him get more than an arms length away. She remembered the rough touches Arthur constantly gave Merlin, and how Merlin had never seemed to mind.
Things made more sense now. But she was still confused.
Hunith continued walking in silence. “So you and Gwen- it was a marriage of convenience?”
“Not exactly. I would say more a marriage of political necessity. The people wanted a queen to love. And the lack of a wife would give my enemies a reason to say that I was not a proper king. Not a real man. In addition, Gwen’s advice and knowledge of the people’s lives is invaluable.”
“And what about an heir?”
“That will take care of itself. Morgana is also a Pendragon, and she and Leon may have children. Arthur hesitated, then added, “It doesn’t matter. I would rather have Merlin than a dozen heirs.”
When they returned, Merlin was waiting for them in the door of Hunith’s cottage. Hunith saw the worried look he shot Arthur as they approached. Apparently Merlin was reassured by what he saw.He bowed his head and said, “I am sorry, Mam. We should have been more circumspect in your home.”
“It’s all right,” Hunith said. “I should have been able to see what was right in front of me for the past ten years.”
“I was afraid to tell you,” Merlin admitted. “I was afraid you would think less of us.”
“I know you are both good men, and that is enough for me,” she answered. “And nothing you could ever do would make me love you less.”
Arthur and his men worked alongside the villagers all day long, while the women prepared the feast for that night. Yesterday’s hunting trip had yielded enough rabbits for a fine stew, and there were two deer hanging in preparation to be butchered the next week.
Arthur had insisted that Merlin spend his time with Hunith, helping her with her own chores. They had long and intense conversations as they worked. When Arthur caught sight of them at midday they both looked more at ease.
As evening fell, everyone gathered in the village square, where a large bonfire was lit. A keg of ale was opened, the rabbit stew was proclaimed the best ever, and as the firelight flickered, the mood grew very merry.
Every family came and knelt before Arthur to thank him for his generosity, and Hunith saw how gracious and kind he was with each of them, remembering their names from past visits. Her heart swelled as she thought, This is a king worth following.
She saw, too, that Arthur always included Merlin in the conversations, asking for his advice on concerns the villagers raised. She realized that Arthur truly saw her son as an equal, and felt almost overwhelmed with pride for the man Merlin had become.
One old man had a squeezebox, another had a fiddle, and a couple of the lads improvised drums with upturned water buckets. They began playing some lively dance tunes, and soon most of the village was dancing around the fire.
The more ale was consumed, the merrier everyone grew, and Merlin and Arthur laughed as Gwaine’s dance steps got looser and his kicks higher. To his credit, Gwaine danced with all the girls and women there, from age five to sixty-five, and Merlin was proud of him for not just flirting with the prettiest girls. Although Gwaine being Gwaine, he flirted with all the women equally.
Merlin and Arthur chose not to dance. They sat side by side on a bench, not too close but with their bodies just slightly curved toward each other.
Hunith was surprised at her own lackof perception. How could she not have seen what was right before her eyes all this time?
The way Merlin and Arthur had always seemed so in sync with each other, their physical ease, Arthur’s occasional possessive look when Merlin was talking to Gwaine or Lancelot. She had seen it all, but she had not let herself understand what it meant.
Now that she knew, her heart brimmed over with gratitude. And a series of memories flooded into her brain.
The two or three times she had rounded a corner and seen Merlin and Arthur almost jump apart when they caught sight of her. The two of them arriving late at feasts in Camelot, looking a bit flushed. Merlin installing a magical passway between his chambers and Arthur’s, with the rationale that it was for emergencies. The soft tone they each used when talking about the other.
She shook her head at her own blindness and laughed. Her son lived in a different world than she had imagined, but she now knew how much in love he was, and how much that love was returned.
Life was good.
She was roused by her musings by Gwaine bowing over her hand, asking for the favor of a dance. She agreed with a smile. and as he whirled her around, Merlin and Arthur joined them. The four of them went round and round the fire, laughing and kicking high, and she felt pure joy.
Her son was safe and loved. The children of the village would have enough food in this hard winter. The Solstice had come, and the season of light had returned.