Title: No Place Like Home
Character/s: Merlin, Arthur, Hunith
Summary: He didn’t miss Ealdor in the winter. In the winter, being sheltered from the worst of the cold was a blessing.
Word Count: 1881 (Sorry!)
Prompt: 122 - Yearning
Author's Notes: This also fills my hc_bingo square 'Homesickness' - that's 3/25 done. Thanks to deinonychus_1 for the beta.
No Place Like Home
In the autumn, life had always been busy in Ealdor. Sometimes Merlin missed it. Life was busy at Camelot too, but that was a perpetual thing, a part of living at court. It wasn’t the same as the race to get the harvests in before the weather changed, the fear of heavy rains ruining a crop, the long celebrations into the night on the years when the harvest was plentiful. There hadn’t always been so many of those. Still, there was a feeling of belonging, of being part of it all. The whole village had pulled together and gathered in as much food as they could.
In Camelot the food would arrive in cartloads. It would be loaded into the storerooms, and just one of those rooms would have been enough to feed the whole of Ealdor comfortably for the entire winter. Merlin would watch the stores being filled, and wonder how his mother was faring. He thought longingly of the harvest festivals, and her face lighting up when she knew they had enough to get them through the cold months.
Arthur sat at dinner, wasting most of the food that was put in front of him. There was always far too much of it. Gaius had long since arranged for it to be distributed amongst the poor. Merlin wondered if Arthur even knew that was happening.
He didn’t miss Ealdor in the winter. In the winter, being sheltered from the worst of the cold was a blessing. He almost felt guilty at his own good fortune. There were always those who didn’t make it through the winter months. There always would be.
Merlin would stand at Arthur’s window sometimes, warmed by the fire and a heavy blanket that he’d draped over his shoulders before he made the long walk back to his room. He would watch the snow falling, or see the heavy rain that fell like drops of ice. Protected by the thick walls of the castle it didn’t feel as horrific as it had back in Ealdor.
In Ealdor that cold could creep right into his bones. Sometimes he and his mother had spent days huddled together in front of their fire, only leaving the meagre warmth it provided when they absolutely had to. The cold months had seemed to go on forever back then.
“It’s cold in here,” Arthur complained, sitting at his desk in only his shirt and britches. “Stoke up the fire, Merlin.”
He couldn’t blame Arthur, the prince had never known anything different. And when Hunith had needed them, Arthur had stepped up to help, put his own life on the line, and Merlin would always be grateful for that. What had happened to Will wasn’t Arthur’s fault. He put another log on the fire, and leaned in a little closer to the warmth.
Spring, when it arrived, was always a time of hope, rebirth, and new beginnings. They would go out and plant the fields, hope for a good crop that year, clement weather. The livestock would increase and there might be fresh meat on the table.
Arthur held a tournament every spring so that he could show off his swordsmanship. The people of Camelot enjoyed roasted pig, fresh mead and the sight of their victorious king. Merlin enjoyed it as much as everyone else, even if Arthur was almost unbearably smug about his victories when the pair of them were alone. Merlin didn’t mind the way Arthur always wanted to relive his victories afterwards. He lived to serve Arthur and although he made sure he concealed the fact, he took almost as much pleasure in Arthur’s wins as Arthur himself did. But he wondered how his mother was faring, how green the fields around Ealdor were turning. The people there would have enjoyed the tournament, but they would have enjoyed the food more.
“Did you see Leon’s face when I feinted left and he went sprawling?” Arthur boasted.
“I couldn’t see anything,” Merlin told him. “Your big head was in the way.”
“I’m the king,” Arthur reminded him.
“Your big head was in the way, Sire.”
Summer was always the best and worst time of year. Court was busier than ever, it was a good time to travel and there were always plenty of visitors. There was always something that got in the way of Merlin’s plans to return to his village. Arthur would agree to the time off, and then there would be some calamity, some threat to Camelot or to Arthur, and Merlin would stay. By the time things were calm again the opportunity would be gone, and he would send the same regretful letter and hope that it reached his mother. He longed to see her face again. His letters travelled under Arthur’s seal, via a messenger from Camelot who always waited for a reply before he returned.
In Ealdor, the summer was the calmest, most relaxing time. The planting was done, the harvests not yet ready. People had the luxury of sitting back sometimes, not working quite so hard. As a boy Merlin lay out in the fields in the sunshine, Will at his side, both of them plotting fantastic futures for themselves, far away from Ealdor. Everything had seemed very different then, much simpler.
There was little time in Camelot to enjoy the sunshine. Since Arthur became king there were fewer trips away from the castle. Business was conducted indoors. Kings came and went, treaties were signed. Arthur’s kingdom grew sometimes without a drop of blood being shed.
“Perhaps there will be time next summer to visit your mother?” Arthur told him. It would be the nearest to an apology that he would ever get, and Merlin accepted it.
In the fifth year of Arthur’s reign there was a long and bloody war, and at the end of it Essetir was no more. Brought under Camelot’s rule, there was no question that year of any time off, any time away from the king who needed him more than ever. The summer came and went in a blaze of mud and guts and more people killed than Merlin ever wanted to see again.
There was no word from his mother.
It wasn’t necessarily cause for concern. In the upheaval after the war there were no messengers available for frivolities such as letters home, even for Merlin in the elevated position he enjoyed as the king’s advisor… sorcerer… lover… By that time he knew he was everything to Arthur, just as Arthur was everything to him. The worst of the fighting had been far from Ealdor, there was nothing to suggest anyone in the village had been harmed. But there had been no time to send for her, and a constant fear that she might be used as leverage against him. If it had come down to it, he didn’t think a choice between her or Arthur was one he could have made.
“I’d like to ride out,” he told Arthur. It was early autumn and the leaves were just starting to turn. “I have to know.”
“And I have to show my face in my new kingdom,” Arthur replied. “I’m coming with you.”
There wasn’t much of a harvest in Ealdor that year. The war had taken many of the men, and fields had been burned by the defeated army. Although the provisions Arthur had brought with them were being well-received, Merlin could see it was going to be a hard winter.
He left Arthur talking to the villagers, reassuring them that things would change under the new regime. They had no reason to trust any king after the way their lands had been left by the outgoing one. Although some had to remember Arthur from a decade earlier when he had come from a rival kingdom to help them, against his father’s wishes. That seemed so long ago. So much had changed.
Ealdor was not how he recalled it. Smaller, somehow. Poorer. Perhaps in his mind it had grown to resemble the lower town of Camelot, which although poor still benefitted from the proximity of the castle. The reality was a shock. The hovel where he was born was dirty and rundown, and the door almost fell off its hinges when he opened it.
But everything he had come for was right there in front of him, standing at the window and peering out nervously, watching Arthur and his men. Hunith froze for a moment when she heard him enter, then turned to look. She appeared smaller too, and when she rushed over to hug him she felt frailer in his arms than he recalled. But he had been so much younger then. Her hair was greying, and her skin was lined. The years weren’t being kind.
They would bring her back to Camelot, of course they would. She couldn’t stay here, not with him being who he was now. There would be plenty of time. But none, ever like this.
“I worried,” she told him. “With the battles, and no news. I feared perhaps Arthur had returned to tell me the worst.”
He’d wondered why she hadn’t run out to greet them.
“Look at you now, how you’ve grown. You look like a king yourself in your fine clothes,” she continued. “Arthur promised so many times he would send you back to me. Every year he wrote.”
“Arthur wrote to you?” Well that was news. Outside, through the window he could see the villagers smiling and laughing with their new king. They didn’t look as wary as they might. They didn’t look wary at all.
“Did you not know? Every year, he sent a letter with yours, apologising for keeping you there, telling me of all the things you were doing. I was glad of them, you only ever wrote of him and told me nothing of yourself, which was all I really wanted to know. Even when he became king, still he found the time. He sent gifts too, extra food and grain. That helped a lot in the winter months. Fewer people died. We were glad, in the village, when we heard of his victory.”
“Well…” Merlin wanted to say that it wasn’t as if Arthur had anything else to do but write letters and be overly generous, sitting around on his throne all day while everyone else did the work. But it wouldn’t quite come out.
“And now here you both are.”
Arthur appeared to be getting taken on some kind of tour now. Some village elder that Merlin could only vaguely remember from years ago was definitely showing him around. Merlin wondered just how interesting he was going to find the hovels and sheds that made up the village. If he was very lucky, he’d even get to see the cesspit. He anticipated the jokes and grumbles about that later.
His mother was beaming at him happily, her eyes shining and he hoped she wasn’t going to start crying because Arthur would tease him mercilessly about family resemblances if he saw that. Nobody else had even noticed Merlin, interested only in their benefactor, their new king. So much for his homecoming. But then, Ealdor wasn’t really his home any more.
His home was outside, he was smiling and laughing in the sun.