Warnings: series 4 character spoiler, canon-typical violence, canon-compliant minor character death. Merlin is 14 when the fic starts, but absolutely nothing romantic happens until he is well over age.
Summary: Arthur would have starved that first winter, if it weren’t for Hunith and her son. When Arthur is disinherited, he finds himself farming in Ealdor.
A/N: For this prompt on the meme. Title from Dave Mallett's "Garden Song" (which, yes, is the "inch by inch, row by row" one if you are curious). This one sort of wrote itself while I was taking a break writing the Nimueh/Ygraine fic, and I ended up really enjoying it.
Disclaimer: I do not own Merlin.
Arthur would have starved that first winter, if it weren’t for Hunith and her son.
His seeds went in the ground too late, and little grew. Most people in Ealdor just shrugged, turned their backs. He was a stranger to their village, and he’d been of high rank, they knew that even if they didn’t know who he was. But Hunith and Merlin were odd as well, a little too learned, and they took him in when his roof caved in and shared their own meager stores.
In the spring, Merlin taught him how to put seeds in the ground and laughed when he didn’t bury them deeply enough and the rain washed them to the surface. And then he planted them again.
Arthur gave him a stick in return, and taught him to block a blow, keeping his own skills sharp, for whatever purpose. Merlin just laughed at him, but Arthur caught him in the woods teaching his friend Will the next day, pretending to be a knight even though he had fourteen winters and was surely too old for such nonsense.
Spring brought news from Camelot, as well. Ealdor was in Cenred’s kingdom, but by name alone. Most of the villagers had family in Camelot, and with the spring and the roads allowing passage again, there was a flood of news.
Arthur hung on every word and pretended he cared for none of it, even when it stung or shocked. Prince Regent Agravaine was slowly repealing the ban on magic, was treating with the Druids. The Princess Morgana went among her people every day of the winter and they loved her. A young woman, Lady Morgause, had been brought to the palace as a tutor to the young princess, and rumor had it the subject was magic.
Only one mentioned Uther’s disinherited son, who left rather than stay for humiliation when the Prince Regent found a technicality that would allow his half-sister the throne. There was a rumor, said the traveler, that the prince had become a knight errant and was traveling Albion making his fortune in the tournaments.
Arthur only wished that were true, and when he turned away from the words Merlin was watching him, lip caught between his teeth.
“Come on,” whispered Merlin when the traveler kept talking about how the Prince Regent was going to free a dragon from beneath the castle—sometimes Arthur’s whole life felt like a lie—and do a hundred other deeds that King Uther would have deemed treason. “I’ll teach you how to thatch your roof.”
In summer, Arthur spent dawn to sunset in the fields, planting, weeding, and harvesting, and then doing it all again when Merlin gently told him he’d done it wrong, weeded the greens instead of the daisies. He spent his rare breaks in the woods with the sword he hadn’t been able to bring himself to sell, running drill after drill, and rainy days with a washtub, or a saw, or, embarrassingly, a needle. Merlin corrected those mistakes too, sewing up a ripped shirt easily and teaching him which berries to use to dye a shirt red again after his overzealous scrubbing turned it pink.
“You’ll learn it someday,” said Hunith, noticing his pinked cheeks when he looked over his fields at Merlin crooning softly to his growing pea plants. “There’s no need to be embarrassed. He’s been doing this all his life.”
“I wish I didn’t have to learn it,” whispered Arthur, because there was something about her that invited confidences, just like there was something about Morgana’s maid Gwen that had done the same, once.
She clasped his shoulder. “I was much the same, when I first came here. So was Merlin’s father. We both had other dreams.”
Arthur opened his mouth to ask about Merlin’s never-mentioned father, but Merlin let out a shout and pointed up at the sky. “Look, look up, he’s freed the dragon!”
Sure enough, there was a dragon, just like in the history books and on the crest Arthur used to wear, black and massive and, if Arthur saw right, looking down at them. He stared, and listened as other villagers took up Merlin’s shout. When he looked back to Hunith, her face had gone pale and drawn. “Go inside, Merlin,” she snapped. “Quickly, before it sees you.”
The boy pulled a ridiculous face. “But Mother—”
“Inside. And don’t come out until I fetch you.”
Merlin scampered off, and Arthur watched Hunith’s pale face until the dragon had drifted out of sight and over the horizon.
Arthur made enough through selling and trading to buy himself two chickens that autumn. He kept them with Hunith’s flock, and gave her most of the eggs because she cooked most of his meals, claiming Merlin’s appetite was small and she always made too much even though Merlin was growing like a weed by the day. It felt good to have something of his own, not just farmland and a broken-down house that he took because they’d fallen into disuse. He spoiled the chickens, and Merlin laughed, but they laid the biggest eggs in the village.
Word came from Camelot that the ban on magic was officially lifted and that sorcerers were flocking left and right to the Seer Princess, to the Lady Morgause her teacher, to Gaius the healer and his newly-arrived paramour. Hunith looked worriedly out over the forest like she was afraid something might come for them. Arthur chopped two winters’ worth of firewood, wondering how it was that all those he’d cared for in Camelot were sorcerers, and if his father could have been wrong.
Merlin and Will got drunk off cider at the Samhain revels, and Merlin stumbled into Arthur’s cottage near dawn, asking if he could sleep off the night away from his mother. Arthur acquiesced, but he woke him up early to force him to help with the very last of the harvest, filling their larder with squash. Merlin squinted in the sunlight and Hunith shouted at them both when she figured out where he’d been.
His second winter in Ealdor, Arthur learned to do a bit more than just survive. He still spent most of the cold sleeping top-to-tail with Merlin by Hunith’s hearth, but he also learned how to whittle and taught Merlin how to hunt the few animals with any meat on them without any foliage for cover.
He was on a hunt for pheasant for their Yule meal when he saw Merlin doing magic for the first time.
It was a foolish thing, Arthur sneaking through the bushes after hearing rustling and finding Merlin plucking up the dead stem of a plant from the ground with a delighted beam, like it was what he’d been searching for all day. And then he breathed on it, and it was a flower, bright and blue and an almost painful memory of summer. Arthur dropped his crossbow and Merlin turned with a gasp to meet his eyes. Arthur straightened, but didn’t know what to say.
“It’s for my mother,” Merlin whispered. “As a gift. I do it every year, because they’re her favorite flower, and it always makes her smile. She’s been so worried, since they lifted the ban in Camelot, so I thought it would … help.”
“One would think …” Arthur swallowed. “One would think it would please her, to know her son no longer had to live in fear.”
“I don’t know. She’s been telling me since I was young to keep it secret, that Cenred’s father—and now Cenred—used sorcerers, and not always kindly. Maybe she’s afraid Agravaine will do the same.”
“Morgana wouldn’t let him.” Even if Morgana was a sorceress—especially then. She hadn’t even wanted Arthur sent away. Disinherited, perhaps, taking her anger at their father out on him, but he’d seen her watching him walk away, and she hadn’t looked pleased. She only wanted the best, and that was the one thing that took the sting out of no longer being a prince. “You could have told me.”
Merlin shrugged. “We know who you are, mum and me. Can you blame us for being scared?”
“Take Hunith your flower,” Arthur said, voice rougher than he wanted to admit. “No use making it bloom just to let it wilt again. Tell her I’m bringing back dinner.”
Later, when Merlin was sprawled in front of the fire asleep, belly full of pheasant and quail Arthur had stumbled across, Hunith sat with Arthur while he whittled a clumsy horse. “Thank you.”
He didn’t pretend to misunderstand. “I haven’t the power to do anything to him, anymore, even if I did believe he was evil.”
“You could have hurt him, though. So badly. He looks up to you, Arthur. You must understand that he needs to be protected, though. He’s very powerful, my boy, but very much a child still.” Merlin let out a soft snore, as if to prove her point. “And there are people, even those like him, who might use him for their own ends.”
“I’ll protect him. It’s the least I can do.”
Hunith kissed his forehead. “Get some sleep, Arthur.”
Again, spring brought news of a flourishing Camelot. No one spoke over-fondly of Agravaine, which gave Arthur a sort of vicious satisfaction, but Morgana, even a few years too young to take the throne on her own, had the hearts of their people. There was more news of her, less of his uncle, and none of him at all.
Arthur and Merlin did the planting together for both of their plots even though Arthur could do it on his own, and celebrated one of Arthur’s hens hatching a clutch of chicks. Merlin kept on growing, and teased Arthur that he would outstrip him until Arthur was forced to teach the whelp a lesson, wrestling in the wet soil until they were both filthy and Hunith scolded them when they tried to go in for dinner.
Spring brought another traveler too. A bearded, dour man who walked up directly to Hunith’s door while they were in the fields one afternoon. There was shouting, after that, words impossible to make out, before everything went silent, and Arthur and Merlin headed for the house without saying another word. “Later, Arthur,” said Hunith when she met them at the door, red-eyed. “I need to talk to Merlin alone, and our guest might recognize you anyway. You look very much like your mother.”
Arthur gaped as the door shut behind Merlin and went out to the woods when it showed no signs of opening again, sparring with Will, who still hated him after a year and a half but showed more aptitude for the sword than Merlin.
Merlin was in Arthur’s cottage when he got back, wiping furiously at his eyes and curled up on Arthur’s pallet. “He’s my father,” he blurted, and grimaced. “He—he was on the run from Camelot during the purges, and he stayed with my mother, but he had to keep going, and he left without telling her. Magic’s been allowed for so long, now, and it took him this long to come.”
Arthur sat down next to him and tousled his hair in a hopeless attempt to cheer him up. “Is he a sorcerer like you?”
“Not—I don’t know. Not quite like me. But he’s a Dragonlord, he says. The last Dragonlord. He found out about the magic because the dragon from the castle came to find him and tell him to find me.” Merlin sniffled, loud and ungraceful. “He wants me to meet the dragon.”
“Do you want to meet it?”
He shrugged. “Maybe? I’m just … can I stay here for a few days? I don’t know if I can … she’s been lying to me, for so long, and I don’t know what—”
“You can stay as long as you like. You and your mother have opened your home to me enough.”
He and Merlin fell asleep curled up like puppies in a basket that night, too tired and Merlin too heartsore to worry about propriety.
Three days later, Merlin left with his father to meet the dragon, and Arthur stayed with Hunith and tended both of their garden plots.
Merlin returned in the first week of summer alone and looking years older, far older than the sixteen he’d turned on Beltane, while he was still away. He kissed his mother on the cheek and turned to Arthur. “I need to talk to you.”
Arthur gave Hunith a helpless look, and she blinked away tears as she nodded. “Come along. We’ll weed the peas, they need it.”
It took a few minutes, but Merlin looked a little more grounded when he got his hands in the dirt. “The dragon said we used to have a destiny,” he said eventually, pulling at a network of grass roots.
“Your father died too soon. He thought it was funny—said he hated your father, but he’d still died too soon. You’re supposed to be the greatest king Albion has ever seen, Arthur, and I’m supposed to be at your side, helping you, but it isn’t happening that way. I don’t know if it can happen that way.”
Arthur looked down at his hands and collected himself. Merlin didn’t need to hear about years of bitterness and disappointed dreams and trying not to miss the home and life he’d grown up knowing and expecting to keep having. Morgana was princess, and would be queen in less than a year, when she reached her twenty-first birthday, and he wouldn’t depose his sister. “Destinies don’t always work out the way they’re meant to. You don’t need to make me a king, Merlin. This isn’t the life I expected, but there’s much that’s good about it.”
“I don’t want to, not really. Maybe if you could have Cenred’s throne, but Morgana is a good queen. I heard so much about her. Kilgharrah doesn’t like her, I don’t think. He wants me to put you on the throne regardless, but Balinor took me to the Druids as well, and they love her.” Merlin bit his lip. “Do you hate that I don’t want to make you king?”
It stung, a little, but Merlin knew him first as a prat of a seventeen-year-old who didn’t know one end of a shovel from another. Arthur couldn’t blame him, not really. “I don’t want Morgana hurt. I miss having Camelot to care for, but she’ll be a good queen. I wouldn’t take that from her.”
Merlin’s face lit up, as if that was the perfect thing to say, and he went off on one of his rambles, about Morgana insisting in open court against Agravaine that the Knights’ Code be changed to allow worthy commoners and winning. Arthur smiled to himself, because apparently Merlin hadn’t grown unrecognizable after all.
Balinor came on dragon-back in late autumn, and Arthur met them both because Merlin and Hunith were assisting with a birth elsewhere in the village.
“Young Pendragon,” said the dragon, inclining its massive head.
Arthur refused to be intimidated. “It’s been a while since I heard that name.”
“You ceded your throne, but you cannot run from what you are. It is your destiny to return to Camelot and unite the land of Albion with Merlin at your side.”
“I won’t have Camelot torn by civil war, even if it means I stay a farmer for my whole life. Welcome, Balinor.” Balinor nodded at him.
“You cannot choose your destiny,” warned the dragon, and Arthur walked away, let Balinor confer with the creature until it flew away with a mighty beat of its wings.
“Merlin and Hunith are busy. We weren’t expecting you,” said Arthur before the Dragonlord could say anything else to him.
Balinor nodded slowly. “I’m here to stay the winter, if Hunith will have me. Merlin left angry, when I last saw him, but I want to mend fences. He’s my son, and I have much to teach him.”
Hunith would forgive him and take him in, Arthur knew that. He’d seen the way she looked at him in the spring. Merlin wouldn’t, though, still angry in ways he wouldn’t discuss with Arthur. He talked about it with Will, sometimes, or at least Arthur thought so, but if Arthur asked he set his mouth in a mulish line and went a little harder at the hoe or the plough.
Arthur wouldn’t sleep in Hunith’s house with Balinor there, feeling like an intruder for the first time, but Merlin slept top-to-tail with him all that winter, giving off more heat than Arthur remembered from winters before.
Balinor called the dragon and left when the snow melted, for Camelot’s court and then for wherever else he wanted, finally free to move without being hunted. Merlin went back to his mother’s house, and everything was like the springs before until the passes cleared.
Arthur had expected the news from Camelot to be more bittersweet stories of the princess’s kindness, excitement for the spring’s coronation, but instead he heard that Morgana had become Queen over the winter, when a fever took Agravaine away and she refused to allow another regent’s appointment in the few months she had left. That was Morgana all over, and he smiled helplessly until the travelers started tacking on more news: that the Queen was looking for her brother. No one said for what purpose, but they all seemed to think it was for good reasons.
“You could go,” said Merlin when he found Arthur in the woods, taking his sword to a tree like an untrained squire in a petulant temper. “You could. Not to take the throne, even, but to be back in your home. Back with your sister. She misses you, Arthur. She’s probably worried.”
“Do you think your father will tell her where I am?”
“No. He may not like you, because of your father, but he understands that my mother and I care about you. He won’t.”
“Then I’ll stay. I won’t make it harder for her to be Queen.”
Merlin looked miserable, almost guilty, but he fell silent and conjured a stick into a serviceable sword, let Arthur beat him into the forest floor.
The summer was bountiful, and Arthur sometimes thought it was nature’s way of allowing him to forget about the word from Camelot that kept coming, that Queen Morgana wanted her brother home, was sending messengers to every foreign court where they wouldn’t be killed, every lord who might have hired a knight errant. He spent all his days in the fields, selling everything he couldn’t eat and saving up to buy a goat, or perhaps even a cow. Merlin scowled at him nearly constantly to cover up his obvious worry, but Arthur just shook his head whenever he tried to bring it up.
Hunith sat with him one night while Merlin was out making mischief with Will, shelling peas for stew while Arthur made meticulous accounts of his crops. “You’re a good man, Arthur,” she said when the silence stretched out. “I worried, when you first came, how long Ealdor could hold you and what you would do when it wasn’t enough anymore, but I couldn’t have asked for a better son.”
“Nor a better brother for Merlin, I suppose.” He rolled his eyes to cover the catch in his voice.
Hunith just laughed a little bit, looking out over the fields. “No, not a brother. Will is more of a brother, really. You’re … something different to him, I suppose. But he cares about you a great deal.”
“And I care about him.” In fierce ways he didn’t like to think too deeply about, sometimes. Arthur knew Merlin was powerful, had seen him fell trees and once fend off a boar without even blinking, but he looked fragile, and even though he was only younger than Arthur by three years it still felt like a chasm of difference sometimes, especially given the way Arthur grew up. It wasn’t the way he felt about Morgana, though, or even—though he’d asked himself more than a few winter nights while Merlin snored gently beside him—the way he’d felt about any of the maids or squires or knights he’d wanted to tumble before he left Camelot. Merlin was something entirely different.
“I couldn’t ask for more,” said Hunith, and gave him a handful of sweet peas to eat when he put down his quill.
Arthur bought a goat, that autumn, and even though it was a nanny he threatened to name it Merlin, because it had ears that stuck out like Merlin’s did and sometimes got the pursed-lipped maiden-auntish expression that Merlin did when Arthur annoyed him. None of them could ever remember what he did end up naming it, though, because for the most part he called it “that blasted creature” as it had an incomparable talent for getting in trouble and bleating at him until he got it out of it (yet another reason to name it Merlin, he had argued).
Will started courting a girl from the next village over, and Merlin moped around for a few weeks until Arthur dragged him out on a hunting trip that would take a few days, too late in the season and too cold, but it cheered Merlin up so Arthur couldn’t regret it too much. They came back with venison enough to smoke and last them the winter, and when Balinor arrived a few weeks later he even gave Arthur an approving nod when he saw how full their larder was.
Merlin came back to Arthur’s house without even asking the night his father arrived, giving him a sheepish smile and setting down his bag of worn clothes with an air of finality. Arthur laughed and offered him a mug of ale for the first time, since Merlin was seventeen and he didn’t think Hunith would disapprove any longer. He and Merlin got sloppily drunk, and Arthur woke up with a headache and a mouthful of Merlin’s hair the next morning, happier than he’d been in ages.
That winter was brutal and endless. Balinor even called for the dragon at one point, begged it for enough meat to feed the village. Merlin did desperate magic on everyone’s larders, trying to stretch their supplies, and maybe even succeeded because through some miracle, they didn’t lose anyone. Will shouted at him one afternoon, told him to do more, and Merlin came to Arthur’s home crying and needing comfort. Arthur shushed him, held him until he could stop shaking, and tried to ignore how gaunt Merlin was, how his cheekbones stuck out like blades on his face. He bloodied Will’s nose out behind Old Man Simmons’ house the next day, and Merlin’s exasperated smile as he bound Arthur’s bruised knuckles was worth it.
Arthur butchered one of his hens on the verge of spring, because there wasn’t anything else that wasn’t getting moldy in the constant wet of the snow, and was horrified with himself for being upset at having to do it.
The spring was warmer, but it was still wet. Balinor left again, regular as a calendar, to see if he and Kilgharrah could aid any of the villages or kingdoms farther north, where the winter must have been worse. Arthur fretted over his seeds, which wouldn’t take root well, and caught Hunith worrying too, although Merlin seemed to be gritting his teeth and refusing to believe they wouldn’t make it. He never moved back out of Arthur’s house, and Arthur never mentioned it. It was a comfort, to have someone else there at night.
Word came, as always, of Morgana and Camelot. It spoke of the bravery of her knights, the way magic flourished, as well as of a treaty with Bayard and simmering unrest with Cenred, who wanted the Lady Morgause for his wife and was refused. It also spoke, once again, of her search for her brother, her fear that he was dead when she wanted him home, not to take the throne but to be there with her.
Arthur wanted it, and couldn’t deny it, even if it would hurt to be back in Camelot and know he would never be king of it like his father had wanted him to be, but he couldn’t bring himself to send word even at Merlin’s urging. He was different, not the spoiled prince who’d left in disgrace or even the noble knight he’d wanted to be, still wanted to be. He was a farmer, and he had a livelihood and friends like Merlin and Hunith he didn’t want to leave, so he threw himself into trying to make his crops thrive in the wet spring and ignored the crease in Merlin’s forehead so he wouldn’t have to make an impossible choice.
Kanen came for the first time in the summer, which was blistering hot and burning the water from a wet winter and spring off faster than Arthur liked to think about. He was a petty warlord of some sort, one of Cenred’s men let off his leash and taking what he thought was his due from the land to feed himself and his men. Arthur had met his like before, in Camelot, and had no more respect for him than he’d had for the others.
Still, he was under no illusion that Ealdor could fight off his force, which was easily two score men, so he helped Hunith and Matthew and others broker an agreement that would let them keep some of their harvest, enough to get them through the winter if it wasn’t as hard as the last. “Why are you giving in to them?” Merlin came home shouting one night after a rare afternoon with Will. “What kind of prince are you?”
“I’m not one,” Arthur snapped and ignored Merlin’s immediate attempt at apology because he wanted to be angry and five years before he would have had an army at his back to scare Kanen away. “And if we refuse, some of our people are going to die and they’ll exact a worse price form us. It’s the way men like him work.”
“I could just …” Merlin’s eyes flashed gold, and a pot lifted from Arthur’s table. “It would be so easy, Arthur, so easy to just send them away, to kill them, even.”
“No.” Arthur rested his hands on Merlin’s shoulders and tilted his head to catch his eyes. “I won’t have you becoming a killer, Merlin. That’s not you, and I don’t want it to be you. Your magic is to help people, not hurt them, not when there’s another way. Cenred is itching to fight with Morgana, you know this, and if word got to him about you, he would take you away from us and use you as a weapon. It’s why we keep you as a secret as much as we can.”
“But if I can help—”
“No, Merlin. We’ll get along. Your father and Kilgharrah can even go for supplies in the winter, if they must. You told me stories about everywhere that damn dragon has been since he was freed, about where it’s summer while there’s snow here, even. Your father could order him to bring us food and he would. We won’t starve.”
“And the other people Kanen demands tribute from?”
“We can help them too, somehow. It’ll be all right.”
Merlin leaned forward, as easy as breathing, and rested his forehead against Arthur’s. He was solid, and beautiful in his own odd way, and, Arthur realized with sudden clarity, not anywhere close to a child any longer.
He closed his eyes and tried to catch his breath, but he couldn’t quite do it.
The harvest was poor, and when Kanen came back they tried to hide some and hold it back, because Arthur knew even with Kilgharrah’s help they would have trouble feeding everyone. When Kanen’s men found it anyway, Arthur stood there, one man with his sword, and challenged him.
Arthur was a good swordsman, still after years training only on his own or against Merlin and Will’s laughable attempts, but he wasn’t good enough to take on five men, and he was disarmed—lost his sword after five years of keeping it safe, sharp and polished—and beaten until he could barely see before Kanen and his men rode out, warning them to make up the difference of what they owed out of their stores.
Merlin was on his knees next to Arthur before the hoofbeats had faded, cradling his face between his hands. “I’m so sorry,” he whispered when he was sure Arthur was looking. “I wanted to stop them, I wanted to make them go up in flames, but I froze, I couldn’t, Arthur, I’m so sorry.”
Arthur’s mouth formed his next words before he could think them through. “I’m going to Camelot. Morgana, she’ll … Cenred wouldn’t send forces, Kanen is his warlord, but Morgana will, even if it means war. She’ll send them for me.”
When he blinked his eyes clear, Hunith had her hands pressed to her mouth while she tried not to cry and Merlin was pale, jaw set. “I’m coming with you.”
“No,” said Arthur, and hushed Merlin before he could even begin to object. “You’ve got to stay here and protect them, understand? If Kanen comes back before I do, then do whatever it takes, and then run to Camelot and find me as soon as they’re safe, because Morgana will keep you from falling into Cenred’s hands. Understand?”
Merlin looked miserable, but he nodded, and Arthur trusted him to keep his word. “I’ll be a few days, at best.”
Hunith packed him a bag out of her own larder and Arthur left Ealdor for the first time in nearly five years. The scenery on the way to Camelot hadn’t changed much over the time, for which he was grateful, but it made it all the stranger not to be traveling as a prince. Nobody recognized him, but everyone pitied him, bruised face and worn clothes, and even in his own city, after his travels, not a soul looked at him as if he might be familiar.
“The Queen is having audiences today, lad, you’re in luck,” said a guard at the door when Arthur asked politely after her, and Arthur wondered if the guards had ever said anything like that about his father when he was king or if they’d always stood still as stone like they had when Arthur strolled by.
Arthur got in a line with the other peasants even though it chafed and even though he knew if he announced his presence he would have Morgana’s undivided attention immediately, and he kept his head down as he observed the proceedings. Morgana was fair, and kind, and he’d never seen her happier in all the years she’d been his father’s ward. She conferred with the knights and ladies who surrounded her openly, asked advice of the peasants bringing their grievances, and frequently of Guinevere, who stood behind her lady in a dress more fit for a lady in waiting than for a maidservant, and the blond woman who must be Lady Morgause. She was, he realized with an odd feeling in the pit of his stomach, just as good a queen as all the stories said she was.
When Arthur reached the head of the line, he raised his head without speaking and watched the expressions parade across Morgana’s face. First, the dispassionate pity, at seeing a man with his face bruised and his eye swelled so he was half-blind. Next, a shade of curiosity, a hint of recognition that she couldn’t quite place. Then, prompted by Guinevere’s gasp—he glanced at her to find her hands pressed to her mouth in a disconcerting mirror to Hunith—the realization, a flood of shock and horror and happiness that made him almost sick with guilt. Arthur, she mouthed as the whole room stared in confusion, and then she was out of her throne and throwing her arms around him, taking unsteady breaths while he stroked her hair and whispered a useless apology.
“Who did this to you?” she asked when she pulled away, fussing with his hair and, with a dawning look of affronted horror, his filthy clothes. “What on earth has happened, and what are you wearing?”
The second Morgana was far enough away, he dropped to his knees and bowed his head like the other petitioners, ignoring her wordless sound of objection. “Your Majesty,” he began, and had to stop to breathe.
“Arthur,” she said, and the room broke out in whispers. “Arthur, tell me what’s happened, why are you here?”
“My village,” he started, ignoring the choked off gasp that he recognized as Guinevere and the renewed spate of whispering, “my village is in danger. We’re—we’re in Cenred’s kingdom, and I know it would be dangerous, perhaps even cause a war to help us, but he won’t help. One of his landless warlords is taking our harvest, and there was so little of it to take this year. I fear we’ll starve, if we don’t have aid. Would you send someone, your Majesty?”
“Arthur,” she said, sounding so horribly, horribly sad, and then she was on her knees in front of him, tilting his head up and running her hand through his hair, wincing with him when she found a knot on his skull. “Oh, Arthur. Let Cenred bring his war. We’ll have ten men and a wagon of supplies ready to go tomorrow, of course we’ll help. Of course we’ll—”
And she was crying like he hadn’t seen her do since she first came to the palace after her father—adopted father—died, and he held her awkwardly until Guinevere came to help them up and usher them out and Lady Morgause stepped forward to keep order and take on the last few petitions.
Arthur found himself in the disconcertingly familiar surroundings of Gaius’s chambers, but things were moving on their own and Gaius had a woman with him, clucking over a still-sobbing Morgana while Gaius went white and gripped Arthur’s shoulders like he didn’t know quite what to do. “Your highness,” he managed at last. “Sire. Might I inquire as to what happened?”
“Five men. They took my sword. Bandits trying to ravage Ealdor.”
Gaius’s eyebrows climbed and Arthur wanted to smile at the familiarity. “Ealdor? Hunith’s village, where Balinor spends his winters? He never mentioned seeing you there.”
“It was understood that I didn’t want to be found.”
Gaius scowled and Morgana let out a noise that was half a sob and half incoherent rage, but neither of them asked any more questions as Gaius and the strange woman worked in concert, muttering words that would have had them burned at the stake under his father’s rule over salves that they then smeared on his wounds, immediately soothing the ache.
“Tell us everything,” Morgana said when that was done, and it wasn’t a request.
Arthur told her about stumbling into Ealdor hungry and confused and upset, and Hunith taking him in and telling him of an empty cottage next to hers even when he treated her horribly. He talked about Merlin and his crops and five years of hearing what a good princess and queen Morgana was and Balinor and destiny and a hundred other things in a confused rush, then gave them more detail on Kanen and his men and their supplies because the people of Ealdor deserved that.
Guinevere stepped forward the second he started yawning. “We won’t be leaving until tomorrow, we need time to prepare and Morgana will need to let Morgause know she’s going to be gone for a few days, so you have time for a bath and a nap, your highness.” Arthur opened his mouth to argue that Guinevere and Morgana certainly should not come to Cenred’s kingdom to fight bandits and closed it again when everyone present glared him down. “We kept your old rooms open for you. We … we always hoped you’d come back.”
He followed Morgana down the familiar corridors while she held tight to his hand, and fell asleep in the warmest, sweetest-smelling bath he’d had in five years.
The next day, when they rode out, Arthur was shifting on his old horse in borrowed chain mail, as his old was too tight in the shoulders, wrapped in a red cloak that felt familiar after years and riding at the head of a contingent of men next to Morgana, who was in the finest-woven mail he’d ever seen and who looked over at him every few seconds as if she couldn’t quite believe he was there. Guinevere was there as well, in breeches and riding next to a knight Arthur didn’t recognize who introduced himself simply as Lancelot. The others were knights he mostly recognized and all of whom looked as if they weren’t certain what to say to the man who would have been their commander.
They rode most of the day and made camp at night, Arthur pitching in like he wouldn’t have five years ago and managing a low-voiced conversation with Leon, who’d just barely been knighted when Arthur left.
He found himself alone with Morgana on first watch, something she’d probably arranged on purpose. “I won’t give up my throne,” she whispered, eyes on the sparks the fire was sending up. She whispered a few words and they danced to her command, then looked at him defiantly like she wanted him to flinch. He’d seen much the same from Merlin, though, so he just nodded solemnly. “I’m doing so much good, and I have plans to do so much more, and I don’t think you’d be a bad king, but I want this so much. I’m scared of what I would have done if I didn’t have the throne, if Uther had lived and I’d had to keep suppressing my powers.”
“I’m not here to take the throne from you. The dragon, Balinor’s dragon, he told me once that I’m destined to unite Albion and be king, but I don’t want it. You do a better job than I would have, Morgana, and it was an honor to see you like that yesterday.”
“I’ve heard that prophecy,” she agreed. “You and Emrys. But … there’s a Druid, Aglain, you’d hate him, he reminds me of your old languages tutor. He told me once that destiny isn’t solid, even if there’s prophecy about it. And that sometimes destiny isn’t the happiest or best outcome.”
“You don’t need to explain or excuse, Morgana. I won’t take your throne.”
“So what will you do, Arthur? Keep farming?”
“Maybe. These are good people, Morgana. You’ll like Merlin and Hunith.”
“Yes, Merlin,” she said with her same old knowing smile. “What if he came with you, to Camelot? He’s a wizard, is he not?”
“What can a deposed prince do, besides fade into obscurity?”
“I want you to lead my knights,” she said, and he allowed himself to imagine it. Fighting again, the one thing he’d ever been able to do that he was good enough at not to disappoint his father, and being able to go out and help villages like Ealdor with more than just an easily-taken sword in his hand, and with his fellows at his back. “You’re my brother, Arthur, and you were even before I found out who my father was. If you want to farm, then farm, but please, at least consider my offer.”
With that, she got up and went on a patrol around the camp, and Arthur stared at the fire and wondered what Merlin would advise him to do, and if he could even consider taking up her offer if Merlin wouldn’t come.
Merlin blinked up at him in surprise when Arthur rode into Ealdor the next day at the head of a company, like he was shocked Arthur had been a prince after all and only just realized it when Arthur appeared in armor like something out of a fairy tale. “You must be the Merlin my brother won’t shut up about,” said Morgana with a laugh when Arthur couldn’t force words out and just exchanged stares with Merlin for a little too long.
“Your Majesty,” said Merlin, giving her a quick look, and then he was helping Arthur off his horse while Hunith greeted Morgana and the knights in the background. He held Arthur’s hand a few seconds too long, eyes still wide, and Arthur thought of a picture he’d seen in Camelot’s library once, of a knight reuniting with his sweetheart after a long quest. Merlin was no damsel but maybe, he allowed himself to think while giving Merlin’s hand one last squeeze, there was some truth in the thought.
They spent a few hours familiarizing themselves with the terrain, Arthur showing them the woods and where it was best to hide, and then he joined them to plan the strategy of their resistance. Merlin hovered at the door to his house like he was unsure he would be allowed in, but shook his head when Arthur beckoned. Morgana hid a smile.
It didn’t take long, of course, for Kanen to hear of the reinforcements, and he came himself, all his men behind him, to run off the interlopers, only to find himself in a battle with villagers with a new sense of purpose and knights who’d been trained far better than his own men. The battle was quick, brutal, and Arthur felt right with the weight of the mail on and his sword in his hand, watching Morgana smile dangerously as she sliced a man’s gut and the knights work as a team, incorporating him as without a second thought.
Watching Merlin try to fight off a man half his size, too panicked to use his magic and too far for Arthur to get to him. Watching Will step in the way of the blade before he could shout a warning and fall.
Kanen’s forces were decimated, and Kanen himself was spitted on Arthur’s blade, leaving Arthur free to run to Merlin and Will, who was losing blood quickly. Ealdor had won the day, but it was hard to think of that with Merlin desperately trying to cast spells on his oldest friend, joined by Morgana when she realized what was going on.
In the end, the best Arthur could do was make sure Will and Merlin had privacy to say their goodbyes and to help the rest of the villagers start the immediate cleanup, ignoring the way they looked at him, like they couldn’t quite recognize him anymore.
Arthur found Merlin wiping his face as he picked the last of the tomatoes after he’d left his vigil over Will’s pyre, and knelt down next to him to help. “Everything’s going to change now, isn’t it?” Merlin asked, voice tight, after a few silent minutes. “Will’s gone, you’re leaving …”
“Who ever said I’m leaving?”
“You’d be a fool not to, Arthur. Queen Morgana talked to me, said she wanted you to lead her knights. It’s not quite the destiny Kilgharrah wants you to have, but you’d be so good, Arthur.”
“I can be just as good with a hoe in my hands, standing in this field for the rest of my life. Destiny can just mean this.”
“I’m not going anywhere without you.” He gently wrested a tomato out of Merlin’s hands and took them in his. “I think that’s the more important part of my destiny, really. The dragon said I was destined to have you at my side, Morgana mentioned prophecies … and I want you with me. If you want to stay in Ealdor, then we’ll stay here.”
“She said there’s a place for me in her court as well, if I choose to come. I don’t know how to do that.”
“Then I’ll teach you, just like you taught me how to plant crops.” He raised Merlin’s hands to his mouth, giving him plenty of time to snatch them back, and kissed each one, relishing the way Merlin’s breath went uneven. “Come with me, Merlin. I don’t know what I’m doing any more than you do, and if it goes wrong, at least we’ll have each other, and we’ll have here to come back to.”
Merlin kissed him, messy and eager, and nodded into it, hands cradling Arthur’s face.
That winter, they curled side by side in a rich bed hung with red hangings that Merlin had to sneak into for propriety’s sake, trading kisses, and Arthur fell asleep every night thinking of a little plot right outside Camelot’s walls, where in the spring they would plant cabbage and peas and everything else they wanted to grow.