Safe in his chambers, Arthur unrolls the scroll for the fifth time. It isn't even a list, he fumes. It's barely a note; it's written in charcoal and the parchment is torn on one side. The arrow punched a row of holes up through the center of it, though no critical information is torn up.
There are three in Britain who possess the power you seek.
One is untrained. It will be many years yet before she can match Palengard's skill. The other is a vengeful enemy of your father. They can be found in the fort at Ginsinglaus, but they are as untamable and formidable as the wind.
The third does not wish to be found. He is masked in riddle, rumor, and a hundred different names. As I can find nothing conclusive about his whereabouts, I will resort to legends. Among the Druid, he is known as Emrys. A Druidic children's rhyme mentions he "hides in plain sight," while a ballad suggests his loyalties are conflicted when it comes to Camelot. Secretive as he is, I suspect this Emrys is your only hope.
Do not look for me again.
The soft hum of voices, horse hooves, and livestock sifts into his room with the morning sunlight. The clang of hammers on stone as the castle is repaired jars him from his wandering thoughts.
The background noise is an incessant reminder of what he might lose.
Three in all of Britain. He can't fathom how much power is necessary to quell Palengard's force if so few possess it. It seems excessive, like sending an armada to capture a merchant ship.
He shakes his head firmly. Camelot is strong. It withstood a dragon, it withstood an army of the dead, and it withstood infiltration. Palengard is taking no chances, but Camelot will withstand him too. It echoes in Arthur's mind, revealing the hollowness in his certainty.
This letter, filled with vague legends and written by a traitor, is his only lead. The parchment begins to quiver in his hand.
He lets out a long breath, breathing out the tension in his chest, and he pretends to be calm again.
There is a crash, patters, then a bang as the door knocks off the wall.
Arthur doesn't look up from his scrap of parchment, even as the uneven steps approach him. "You're late."
A breathless "Sorry" is all he gets. Arthur looks up to watch the spectacle of his utterly incompetent servant trying not to drop breakfast. Three plates are balanced on his arms and a pitcher clasped in his hands. His face is screwed up in concentration, each step hesitating.
"How on Earth did you kick that door open without dropping everything?"
"Carefully," Merlin grits out, having finally reached the table. The pewter pitcher drops onto it with a plunk and water sloshes over the rim, splattering onto the wood grain towards Arthur—
"Oi!" He skids his chair back and waves his hand up high, letter safe. "Watch it!"
Merlin starts at his unexpected anger, the scrape of wood on stone, and the plates teeter and start to tip, food sliding down. He yelps and snaps his forearms together, catching the fall of everything but a single sausage link.
Merlin's relieved sigh is a whoosh, and with excruciating slowness he bends his knees, lowering until his arms are level with the table. He wiggles his shoulders as if trying to slide the plates onto the table. Then, after a pause where nothing happens, he shoots a glare at Arthur and says, "This is your cue."
With a long-suffering sigh, Arthur stands and walks to Merlin's side. He picks up the two large plates and sets them on the table; Merlin manages to set the small plate of cheese in its proper place while Arthur retrieves his chair.
"Thanks," Merlin says. He vanishes for a moment, ducking down to pick up the escapee sausage, but when he straightens Arthur sees no greasy meat in his hands. While he fills Arthur's cup, especially slow when tipping the pitcher, he nods at the parchment Arthur still has clutched in his left hand. "What's that?"
Arthur is trying to cut sausage with one hand; the link slips from under his knife. To save face, he shovels a mouthful of scrambled egg into his mouth. Merlin steps back, pitcher in hand, out of Arthur's line of sight.
Arthur swallows and says, "A possible last resort against Palengard." His head turns, not allowing his servant to fade out of his notice. It is a habit of Merlin's that Arthur first picked up on two weeks ago, when he noticed Merlin skirting the corners of his room and the sides of hallways. The behavior would be expected of a respectful servant, but Arthur is sure Merlin's reticence arises from furtiveness. And since nothing pleases Arthur quite like discomfiting Merlin, he has decided to pointedly mark his whereabouts.
Merlin's blue eyes sharpen, alight with energy, but his voice is tinged with anxiety. "You've found a way to stop him?"
Arthur ponders this while chewing his egg. He can feel the frustration unfurling in his chest, the skin around his eyes tightening. The food is suddenly rubbery in his mouth; he forces himself to swallow.
He sets the paper on the table, far from his food, but his eyes remain locked on it. "No. It's just a note from a traitor. A traitor among traitors," he adds.
Arthur sighs and pinches the bridge of his nose at the memories, letting his eyes drift down to the table edge. Studying the nicks, he confesses, "From the Druid I found."
There is only the thrum of Camelot below, the soothing monotony of it. He braces for the squeak of surprise, the rain of questions, the insufferable curiosity and confusion…
Merlin's voice shatters the calm. "You what!?"
It is a lash of anger.
Arthur looks up and meets roiling blue eyes, Merlin's face pinched into a scowl. "You went looking for Druids? Alone?"
Arthur leans back in his chair, bewildered.
"I mean—" Merlin stomps forward and slams the pitcher down on the table, and Arthur again snatches for the letter as water spills over— "They want to kill you! Are you stupid?" A sudden thought widens his eyes, and his lifted arms drop and his voice slips into confusion. "Why aren't you dead?"
"Because I'm Prince Arthur." Merlin doesn't relax; his shoulder are hunched and his face stony. Arthur's smirk slips and he crosses his arms. "You seem to have little faith in me, all of a sudden."
Merlin is shaking his head. "You're insane," he declares, slashing a hand for emphasis. "Don't you get it? They're magical. You're no match—"
"I've taken on an entire camp before."
"With m—" he stutters and ploughs on, "An entire army helping you. And that's just made them angrier!" He starts to pace, hands waving about. "They could've taken you hostage and used it against the king. They could've killed you or cursed you. They could have given you to the Palengard. They're sworn enemies, they kidnapped Mor—" Again he skids to a halt mid-tirade, hands frozen midair.
He glances at Arthur, almost looking fearful. Arthur feels his jaw tightening, but he doesn't threaten murder, so Merlin just slumps, arms dropping to his sides. He shakes his head again, but the irritation isn't gone. "What were you thinking?"
Once sure Merlin's done, Arthur places his hands on the armrests and leans forward. "Well, now that you'll let me speak, I can say I only met one Druid, and it was at an inn. A busy inn," he emphasizes, "Where people would see anything strange."
Merlin still scowls and his eyes are still dark. Arthur has a lot of experience with such looks; it's the same one his father wears whenever Arthur returns from a dangerous mission.
He continues, "That Druid had to be one of the most infuriatingly disrespectful people I've ever met." The raised eyebrow conveys the tag: And that's saying something.
Merlin's brow furrows, the worry overwhelming the anger. "But how—"
"I didn't plan it," Arthur says. "I was looking for a Druid, but I wasn't expecting one in an inn."
This does nothing to settle his servant. Arthur quickly adds, "Devon acted the part of trader, said he'd heard rumors about Palengard. He stopped acting drunk when he offered help. If you can call it help," he mutters, face darkening as he remembers.
"And you accepted it?"
Cue skepticism. Arthur leans back and his eyes lose focus. Besides inebriation, the only reason he had then is the same reason his appetite is now gone and the sounds outside no longer comfort him. Fresh memories of slaughtered patrols and burning fields sear his mind, as well as Gaius' grim declaration: Palengard is coming. His hands clamp tight onto the armrests, remembering his father's aged face, the overheard, There is no way to stop him. But he cannot admit desperation, not now, so he paraphrases Devon: "Palengard is an undefeated sorcerer. Perhaps…" Even now, the words are strange on his tongue. "Perhaps we need magic to stop him."
Several seconds pass. Slowly Arthur realizes that he is staring at a wall, meaning Merlin has once again evaded his perception, and he hears only the distant hum of outdoors. His servant has been silent this whole time.
Arthur's head snaps around, but he catches only the last flickers of wide-eyed shock and turmoil before Merlin notices. His servant blinks and lets out a loud breath, exhaling it all, and Arthur can only wonder what he missed as Merlin's face settles into indistinct annoyance.
Merlin skates the subject entirely and says, "You told me you were investigating a village raid." The hurt bleeds through, and he steps forwards to pick the jug up, one arm wrapped around the body, the other clamped on the handle. He is shuffling back to his spot when he glances up and notices Arthur staring at him. Voice a bit sharp, he asks, "What?"
A corner of Arthur's mouth twitches. He is going to have a lot of fun with this hiding thing.
Merlin points out, "You still haven't told me what this Devon said."
Arthur blinks, trying to reorient himself in the jumbled conversation. He shakes his head and focuses on Camelot. It's much simpler.
Unrolling the parchment, he says, "Nothing of use. He agreed to do a little digging, though, and sent this today." It is hardly a complete retelling; Arthur omitted the hours of prickly threats, insults, wheedling, and bribing. He also left out the method of delivery: an arrow shot through his open window before dawn this morning, shaft piercing the letter.
"It's too easy," Merlin says quickly. "He can't be trusted."
Arthur tries to summon a retort and fails, so he says, "That occurred to me." He picks up his fork and twirls it in his fingers, watching the silver glint. "But the Druid broke a law in his clan and was banished years ago. He is bitter towards my father, but not murderously so."
"I was wondering why you didn't run him through on the spot."
Arthur sets the fork down. "I was tempted, if for nothing more than his attitude. You seem a cowed puppy in comparison."
Merlin scowls. "I can fix that."
Arthur pretends to read the letter and says disinterestedly, "The stocks do seem a bit lonely as of late."
There is silence. Then Merlin begins tapping his foot. Arthur can only stand a half-minute of it before he says, "There's a cure for that, you know. It involves chopping the diseased feet off."
"Do I get to read the letter or not?" The sulkiness drowns the feeble attempt at irritation.
"That depends." Arthur hoists his feet onto the table, just missing his breakfast plates, and puts on his best royal arse expression. "Have you mucked the stables today?"
Merlin's darkening look shows that he's already caught on. But when Arthur raises his brows, he mutters, "Not yet."
"What about my laundry? My chainmail? The supplies from the expedition you were supposed to put away last night?"
Merlin glowers. Arthur's face splits into a wolfish grin. "Go on then." He waves the letter in his hand, taunting. "Consider this your motivation for not bungling every chore today."
Merlin breathes an insult—Arthur just catches "prat" out of the words—and steps to the table, but then there are three quick taps at the door.
Arthur stands, slipping the parchment into his pocket as he calls, "Enter."
"My lord." It is Gaius, but his face is drawn and his words anxious. "Your father requests you come immediately."
Something clenches Arthur's chest, and he has to ask, "What is it?"
Before Gaius can answer, the sounds change. The yells shift from energetic and erratic, the sounds of a market, to something quieter and quicker. Confusion. The construction work has stopped. A scream pierces the drone, making Arthur jump. Running steps. A horse squeals. And suddenly the yelling is everywhere, muffled only by the glass and stone of the castle, and for a moment he's back facing the dragon—
"It's Palengard," Gaius says, but Arthur has turned his back and he crosses to his window in four long strides, not sparing his servant a glance as he passes. "He and his sorcerers have begun their preliminary attack."
Arthur flings his windows open and chaos fills his ears. He looks down to see people running, people staring, and many pointing out…
He follows their outstretched hands to where the fields meet the sky, and his heart starts to thrum against his ribcage. A breath catches behind him; Merlin must see it too. The sky is turning dark red, bleeding out from the horizon. It is only a narrow ring now, but Arthur doesn't doubt it will grow.
Arthur stares, but even as no clear thoughts enter his mind, his hand drifts to his pocket. There is the fragile crinkle of parchment against the fabric. Emrys is your only hope.
Palengard is turning the sky red.
He whirls around, startling Merlin into a quick back-shuffle. He meets Gaius eyes, and he can see the same hopelessness his father failed to hide.
"King Palengard," Arthur says, voice tight, "he is the only one behind… this?" He waves a hand, suggesting the noise and the sky.
"I suspect. Even if there was another strong enough, Palengard would not let such a threat into his court."
Arthur takes a deep breath, bracing himself. For what, he's not sure. His hand closes around the parchment, and he forces his voice to be strong. "Gaius. There may be a way to stop this."
The physician does not look optimistic, but there is a hint of skepticism, which is better than outright refusal. For some reason, his eyes shift left, to where Merlin must be, but his attention leaps back when Arthur continues, "I need you to promise you will help me."
"You know my loyalty." Confusion furrows the man's brow. "Why do you ask this of me?" Arthur doesn't miss the tension tightening the man's shoulders or the sharpening in his gaze.
Arthur's heart still rattles against his ribcage. He is dipping into treason, but there is only desperation as people holler below. A child wails.
"I need to find someone," Arthur says. Your only hope. "You may be able to help." He allows himself a moment of hesitation, then he says, "I need to find a sorcerer."
Shock flashes across Gaius' face, but he quickly forces it to reflect disapproval. His voice, however, is gentle, nearly pitying. "Arthur, no common sorcerer can hope to face—"
"I know," Arthur says. "But there may be one." There is no recognition on Gaius' face, only wariness. The man weaves his fingers together. Arthur adds, willing him to know, "I need to find Emrys."
Water splashes across the stone, and the metal of the now-empty jug rings as both turn to stare at Merlin, his arms curved around air.