Disclaimer: Merlin is property of its respective owners. The only thing I can lay claim to is the insanity that is my own mind.
A/N: I caught the Merlin bug when they aired series 1 in Canada over the summer. I've had this plot bunny bouncing around in my mind for a while now and after the brotherly noogie scene in 'Lady of the Lake' I couldn't not start writing it out.
This story takes place after 'Sweet Dreams' and goes AU from there. I'm not sure where the whole Morgana thing is going, but I want her good for this story. Besides, I like the idea of Merlin/Morgana so that will come up eventually.
It should have meant nothing to him, only a couple of sentences overheard in passing. There should have been no recognition in his mind at those innocent words, yet they were enough to stop Uther in his tracks.
He had merely been walking from the great hall to his chambers, intending to read over some of his knights’ reports in private after a day of holding court. He had barely noticed Morgana and her maid at a hallway window overlooking the courtyard that he knew Arthur and his knights to be training in. They hadn’t seemed to notice him either, too engrossed in their own quiet conversation. He had given it no mind at the time.
It was as he passed them that the maid’s voice carried over to him. “It’s nice that Hunith could make it for his birthday,” she had commented. There was a twinge of recognition at the name, but he pushed it aside, not slowing his stride, though he slightly inclined his head their way.
“Yes,” he had heard Morgana agree from a few steps further down the hallway. “Ealdor is a long journey. I’m sure seeing his mother will be the best gift he could receive.”
Uther had stopped dead. It wasn’t possible. Perhaps he was mistaken. It had been a year since he had last heard that name, and decades before that. No, it was no mistake. Even after all these years he couldn’t forget that moment of weakness and loneliness. He had to be sure.
“Did you say Hunith of Ealdor?” he asked, startling the two girls who had failed to notice his presence.
The maid lowered her gaze as she realized who had addressed them before saying, “Yes, Sire.”
“She’s here for her son, Merlin’s, birthday. He’s turning twenty in a few days,” Morgana told him. “Arthur’s manservant,” she clarified at the look he gave her, though he knew full well who Merlin was. “Do you know her? She had an audience with you last year about the raiders in Ealdor.”
He didn’t answer as he briskly walked off. In the opposite direction of his chambers. Perhaps it truly was coincidence. Likely there was nothing to this, merely his mind playing tricks, paranoia creeping up on him. Nonetheless, there were a several words he could not shake from his mind.
Hunith. Ealdor. Twenty years. Son.
He remembered the day she had come before him, begging for aid against the raiders plaguing her village. There was an awareness in her eyes and Uther had known that she knew what he had kept secret all those years ago. She wasn’t just pleading with a neighbouring king, she was beseeching for someone who knew Ealdor’s peace and rural beauty to help.
And he had wanted to give it. For more than that it was simply the right thing. He hated that he could not do a thing. Marching knights into a neighbouring kingdom, even with the best of intentions, was an act of war Camelot could not afford. He had never known she had a son, let alone that the boy worked in his own household.
Despite what people might think, he knew Merlin’s name. It’s hard to forget a man you meet after he saves your son’s life from a vengeful sorceress. That one act had shown Uther that there was more to the boy than his bumbling exterior would portray. So Uther had paid attention to all the times since, and all the coincidences
since. Why he would hide competence and bravery from the world Uther didn’t know, and he didn’t care. Not really. In the end it all came down to Arthur.
Before Merlin, Arthur had been a bully of sorts; someone that the people respected as a prince, not a person and future leader. Things had changed. Now he was becoming a man respected as both, and on his way to being a great king someday. The never-ending loyalty and compassion shown by his manservant had been a large part of that change.
He had seen the two grow close since that first day, when neither boy had been too thrilled about the ‘reward’ Merlin had been given. Arthur hadn’t understood when they had argued in private over the decision and he had refused to budge. Uther hadn’t explained himself; at least not the real reason anyway.
Sure, a part of it had been gratitude, but you don’t just offer a stranger a place in your household so quickly. It wouldn’t have been the first time someone had ever staged a rescue to gain access to nobility. It was the boy’s eyes that did it. Uther couldn’t describe what he saw in them in that moment, just that he knew deep down that this boy would be a good influence on his son. He actually reminded Uther a lot of Gaius back when they had been young and he had hoped he could become a confidante and friend to Arthur. That perhaps they could attain the bond he and Gaius shared. Once shared…
At any rate, Merlin stayed with Gaius, Uther knew. If answers were to be found, that is where they would be. The boy would be in the courtyard with Arthur, but that didn’t matter. That’s not where the answers would come from anyway. He’d seen the boy try to lie before, usually for Arthur’s sake and with the stocks in sight, he was terrible at it. Still, Merlin could bend the truth when he needed too, and Uther suspected he had his own secrets about him. Regardless, Uther doubted he would have the answers he sought anyways.
It wasn’t Gaius he was looking for either. His old friend would never have hidden something as important as the scenarios his own paranoid mind was creating. Not even with their somewhat strained relationship since the incident with the Witchfinder. Gaius wouldn’t be there yet anyways, he’d be busy finishing up his daily rounds this time of day, as Merlin would be finishing his duties with Arthur before retiring for the evening.
As he approached the door to the court physician’s chambers Uther silently hoped when he opened the door she wouldn’t be there and he was wrong. That a few minutes from now he could laugh at his foolishness in his own chambers at the absurdity of the thoughts passing through his mind.
Instead he heard soft humming through the door. A decidedly feminine hum.
With the ease of long practice Uther school his features, even as his imagination came up with wilder and wilder explanations. The door pushed open slowly and silently.
She stood with her back to him preparing an evening meal and humming softly to herself. Even from the back he recognized her. And, as the last time he saw her a short year ago, on her knees and pleading, phantoms assaulted his senses. He caught the scent of wildflowers and heard the trickling of a river flowing gently nearby. He still remembered the sight of a simple dress rustling in the wind as it dried on a riverside branch.
She’d aged well he thought.
“Hello, Hunith,” Uther said simply and the woman jumped. She whirled around, shock clearly on her face and the knife she’d been cutting vegetables with still in one hand. For a moment she just stared wide-eyed and Uther found himself wondering if she remembered all those years ago.
Then the shock was gone and she narrowed her eyes.
“Hello, Elric,” she said sharply and thoughts that she hadn’t recognized him vanished swiftly.