Smoke stings sorely at his eyes and pricks tears to spread along his lashes. Arthur had grown up around campfires like this one, and yet not at all like this one. On patrols – just around the borders of Camelot, nothing very far from the king and the safety of his sorcerer – where cold crowded in so swift and sure that the men felt no shame in huddling close together before a campfire, shoulder to shoulder, breath mingling as they told each other bawdy jokes and laughed when Arthur, eleven years and young, didn’t understand them. There, shoulder to shoulder and thigh to thigh with his father’s knights, pressed tight like a den of wolves, Arthur learned of brotherhood, and a loyalty never found in his father’s false court. It had been like having brothers, Arthur decided, and he had thought (not for the first time, and certainly never for the last) that he would have loved very much for his mother to have lived to spread their family a little wider.
But here, Arthur sits by himself, knees kept too hot and back shivering with cold, feeling the absence of his men like he would feel the blow of a mace some hours after it had happened.
Moonlight brightens the sky, and Arthur keeps his head tilted back, watching for the dark flash of wings; waiting for the thud of pressure heavy against the tender insides of his ears. Arthur knows how to kill a boar set to rampage; cut down a stag before it can finish its panicked flight away; disguise himself from hunting wilderoen. But dragons had been things of hidden myth for him, forbidden and horribly unknowable for all his life. Things of magic that Arthur fears he will never understand, because he thought he knew a thing of magic once – Emrys, who braided young green stems through Llamrei’s mane when he sat carefully at the edge of the glade, resting with the horses while the knights crowded close together for luncheon – and this is where it has brought him. Unprepared and hurt in so many ways, by someone he hadn’t even known could hurt him. Perhaps he should have known, but Arthur had always been good at ignoring anything that would make his life as Crown Prince and golden son of Uther Pendragon difficult.
The wood Arthur had found scavenging through the nearby trees cracks with moisture as it burns and smokes heavily, sap popping and sparks flying, fire flashing quick through the pine needles and bearded moss. Arthur gently prods a few larger branches into place so that their thinner edges catch alight, and he blows at the roots of the fire, trying to remember how Sir Bedivere had shown him, back when Arthur was yet young and unaware that he, as Crown Prince, would probably never need to light a fire of his own.
Wind twists around the fire, slow and lazy, pulling smoke low over Leon’s face until he wheezes and coughs, flinching away. Arthur quietly panics and crawls over to him – knees popping, upper back a misery of ripping pain from the dragon’s claws, arms shaking with exhaustion – to move him beside Owain, upwind of the fire. As carefully as Arthur tries to move him, Leon’s eyes slip open, watering heavily and glazed with sickness.
Arthur settles Leon down, twisting his heavy winter cloak more firmly around Leon’s shaking shoulders. Blood makes the fabric stiff and weighty.
“So much heavy smoke,” Leon rasps. “She burned into such heavy smoke.”
Right. Leon had been there, the day the Witch had burned. A knight of Leon’s standing, he would have been tasked with guarding the pyre, sword trained on the sorceress just in case she fought to free herself.
“They set alight the kindling and she looked me in the eye.” Leon’s voice halters, but he batters through the rest with the force of his stubborn will. “Arthur, if we don’t find them – the Druids – and if I…” Coughing, gasping, blood flecking his lips and Arthur doesn’t know where to out his hands so he settles for rubbing at Leon’s chest. “Tell him – Emrys – that the Witch of Camelot was named Morgana. She wanted him to know. Her name was Morgana.”
“We will find them, Leon. It will be fine.” Arthur settles his palm on Leon’s forehead, uneased by the shock of heat burned by Leon’s fever.
“I promised her, Arthur.” Leon’s throat clicks as he swallows dry around the tacky blood in his mouth. “I promised I would tell him, and now you must do the same.”
Arthur thinks that Leon might have been a little bit in love with her, the caged thing that Uther hoarded like a miser’s gold, if the look in his eyes – drifting in his fevered haze and yet sad beyond what a knight would admit – is anything to go by.
“Then I promise. And when we find out that I’ve sworn a needless oath – for we will find the Druids, and they will have the Cup of Life – I’ll be forced to give you latrine duty all the way back to Camelot.
“Now be quiet, Leon,” Arthur murmurs, but Leon has already slipped under again.
The night stretches around them, something large enough to make Arthur feel smaller than he ever felt. And there have been so many times in Arthur’s life when the world felt so huge around him that he thought there was nothing he could do that would ever make it better. Like when he had been a child of four and his father’s knights had brought to the castle a babe in arms with yellow eyes and a wail that could shake the castle’s foundations but never quite brought any towers tumbling down. He remembers still the wonder he had felt when he felt that small voice – a voice too young to speak in aught but shared vision seen through young, blurred eyes; a voice that knew not the words to express its fear – curl up inside his mind. Emrys, his father had called that child.
Uther had taken that babe and hidden him in a darkness Arthur doubts he will ever understand. Hidden him away, so deep and so dark and away, and twisted him into something more a monster, but never quite.
That is important, the never quite. It lets Arthur hope for Emrys. The wretch that had been kept so close by Uther’s side, filching meats and scraps of fruit to feed his secret army of hawks and falcons that Arthur, guardian of Camelot’s halls even at such a young age, pretended not to know about, for he would not be the one to take them away. Father had always taught him not to ask another to do a thing you yourself would not.
(Arthur had known the pain of loneliness, and though his father swore monster, all Arthur could ever find was empty little boy.)
The night bends soft around them, and wrapped in the stars and the loneliness of the empty fire, Arthur struggles to find peace enough to sleep.
Setting out from Camelot, twenty loyal men had split themselves between three campfires, and the night’s watch was shared between two stolid knights for three hours at a time. Now, Arthur shivers where the cold grabs at his shoulders and worries at what might find all that remains of Camelot’s bravest knights if he dares to rest his eyes, even for a second.
Deep in the forest, a tree rumbles and falls, cracking through the loose spring air, and Arthur flinches at the sound so like a dragon’s roar. Shivers steal the strength from his limbs, and the proud red of Camelot marks him clear in a forest he would fain hide in, and his men are dead or dying. Arthur shuffles Hengroen’s saddlebags so he can lean back and keep an eye on Owain and Leon where they lie, so still that they might be dead but for how their breath still raises mists in the air. Time slips and slides through his unsteady fingers, until not even fear can hold Arthur’s eyes open.
Dawn bleeds unevenly over the horizon, slipping between the trees in lurching gasps, as Arthur slips in and out of sleep, propped up against his horse’s saddlebags, back sore against tough leather and edged awkwardly on the pommel. Thin welts strap across Arthur’s palms where he holds tight to the hilt of his sword, fingers cramping in the cold night, and every time he shifts, burned and ripped skin pulls across the back of his neck.
Arthur shakily jerks upright when the sky blooms to a burnished shine of colour, joints popping and feet still buzzing with sleep. The red of his Camelot cloak snaps harsh against his eyes; his eyes that burn with a fear that becomes so much harder to ignore with so little sleep and so much time spent wandering the wasteland between awake and dreaming, lost betwixt and running still. The dragon chases his every thought, and he must find the Druids, he must.
The last embers of the fire hide sullen in the ash that has swept around the edges of the dugout, swirling in tiny little cyclones of grit, but Arthur has left himself no wood from the last night’s panicked rush to warm Leon and Owain as they shook, and there is no time to hunt for any dry tinder. Spring leaves the forests perpetually damp, and musty and sick with rot in wood that would otherwise have been dry. The two horses spared from the dragon’s fire champ their feet and stand close together, muscles shaking in tired shudders, breath puffed white in the air.
Leon sleeps too heavily to struggle as Arthur fights to set him up onto Hengroen, desperately trying to keep his arms from dropping Leon entirely as their movement pulls on the burns running across the backs of his shoulders, threatening to pull the claw-ripped flesh apart again. A worrisome silence, and if Arthur hadn’t been terrified before, he would be now – and Owain moans, folded over his leg, eyes thick with exhaustion.
“Owain!” Arthur says, voice heavy and weighted.
Owain blinks, eyes brightening in the light the sun casts low about them and clearing as Arthur shakes him by his shoulders.
“Owain, can you keep on riding?”
He nods at Arthur, shakes his head and frowns to himself, then nods again.
“Just,” Arthur starts again, then pauses. “Can you sit steady in the saddle for another day? One more and we can rest a bit longer.”
Owain starts to nod again, but stops. Says, “Yes, Arth – yes, Sire. Help me up. I can follow, if you lead the way.”
And that, that, is easier to believe. Arthur grits his teeth and hoists Owain up by the bunching of cloak under his armpits, coaxing a foot into the stirrups and grappling with Owain’s long legs. Owain leans forward, curling over the pommel, but he pulls at his own leg ineffectually, hissing in pain. Arthur grabs his boots and shoves it roughly over the horses back. The horse – a mare with strong, clean lines, Bedivere’s favoured, gods guard and keep his soul, and there are, so many to bury when they returned to Camelot – bows her head and stands steady, though Owain’s unsteady grasp pulls harsh at her mane as he hoists himself up to lean over her neck.
Silence creaks between the trees, but still Arthur sighs and falls to an almost-ease, because the clear wash of safety spins around his spine, and nothing tells him that anything is wrong, anything at all, but for Leon’s bloodied lungs and Owain’s worsening infection. But those, they do not pull at him as the presence of the dragon had, before his attack, or how Emrys’s presence ever had.
(But Emrys, sometimes Arthur thinks his company might have pulled at him for another reason entirely. Not for the crackling of his magic or the spark of his power, but something that tugged at him deeper; more full. Something that pulled at the roots of his gut, and that found him at the edge of night and sometimes at the edging of the dawn.
Arthur had shivered and thought often to himself, no. You will have a queen, and you will give to her the heirs of Camelot. You cannot indulge; you cannot pretend, even though Arthur knew this would ever be the closest he ever came to baring the truth to himself. But the looming threat of halfway-unknowable prophecy, and of carrying on a dynasty of conquerors, had drawn guilt tight around the breadth of his wanting.)
Hengroen bears Arthur as well as Leon with a steady ease, and with Owain’s mare tied to Hengroen’s saddle, Arthur walks them both slow through the forest.
Hours of slogging through the forest, holding Leon tight and upright and worrying as his head lolls and his breathing begins to rasp, fall upon Arthur in a sudden heap: the sun sinks into the afternoon, dimming the bright shine on the leaves to a burning gold, and heaviness pulls on Arthur, a weight hanging from his neck. Heavy, hanging lowly, pulling him down and down and inside himself. Beneath him, Hengroen huffs and champs, startling Arthur back to himself, briefly, but –
– down and down, pulling him down, eyes clamped shut and too hard to open, a dizzying press upon his mind, a voice not his own whispering, sleep, hush now and quiet, and sleep, Pendragon. Hush now, and quiet and sleep. Steady susurrations patter soft as summer rain through thick foliage over him, steadying him, pulling him down and down.
Arthur falls, pulling Leon down with him. The ground hits Arthur with weight enough to knock the air from his lungs.
And Arthur wants to say, It’s okay, Owain, I’m fine, I’m just so tired, everything’s fine, but he has no air left to push through his mouth, and he’s too tired to drag in more. His head drops down onto the scratching of the bracken, sticks and fluttering leaves poking at his skin, his eyes, but that’s okay. That’s fine.
Arthur breathes, and sleeps.
“ – don’t do something, he’s going to die!”
Sound crackles jagged through Arthur’s ears, brittle edged and painful.
“And so what? He’s of Pendragon’s ilk, a knight sworn to Camelot. He is no friend of ours, and he’s a sworn enemy of Emrys.” A man’s voice now, firm and decisive and derisive as any of Uther’s councilmen.
Soppy and desperate breathing punctuates the argument breaking out over Arthur. Someone dying, right close to him.
“They may be our enemies, but to stand aside and watch them die is beneath us, Idwal.” A woman, voice low and solid, soft with the gentling of years. “The Tyrant King Uther may have dictated the terms of our lives for years, but he doesn’t have to rule us still, now that he’s gone..”
“You think in such simple lines, Ceridwen. Those of us tasked with the defense of our people against Camelot’s rabid dogs don’t have that luxury.”
Wet chill slinks up Arthur’s back and his next breath shudders through him, teeth chattering together. Soreness pulls at his side and an ache pulses sluggish through his head.
“He’s waking!” A boy, a young boy – much like those you’ve killed before, Arthur. All in the name of your father.
“Bran, fetch us some water and a cloth. And then run and find Aneirin!” Then, softer, in the secret hushed tone Arthur had once heard a mother in the market use while talking so that her child might not hear, “He’s been sleeping for so long, Idwal. You needn’t have lain such a powerful spell of sleep on him. He’s sick, and laden with sadness besides.”
“Leon,” Arthur says over the man’s – Idwal’s? – answering grunt, “and Owain. Where are my men?” Pain sticks to the back of his throat, a dry ache that won’t be wetted.
“Quiet, Pendragon.” Idwal glares at him fiercely. “You have no power here. Not anymore. Not without your pet slave to back you up.”
Arthur opens his eyes and blinks through the brightness, through the tears that rim along his lashes. Sunshine spreads along the forest floor. He struggles onto his elbows, fighting to keep his head from sagging down, but as soon as he sees Leon – lying on the ground, ribs that Arthur had wrapped soaking the linen red, breathing ragged and dying – Arthur bursts upright.
“Leon! Please, you must help him, please.” Arthur’s voice is soaked in desperation, and Arthur remembers every time his father had told him that to plead was to be weak; to show anyone how fiercely you loved your men was to slay them where they stood. But Arthur can’t help it; Arthur is too weak to stop the strangled whine from squeezing out through his throat. “Please, please, I know you can help him.”
Red foams through Leon’s mouth with every breath, and red pulses from that damn spot on his ribs. Arthur remembers – they had fallen. They had fallen together off Hengroen, and Leon’s damn broken ribs – they must have... must’ve punctured his lung – oh, God, gods, whoever might be out there, his lungs. Leon thrashes on his deathbed of moss, and blood foams into a mesh of bubbles in his mouth, and he’s choking, he’s choking.
“I know you can help him. Balinor – he told us – you have the Cup of Life, the Dragonlord Balinor told us you could help my men!”
The two druids standing before him look at each other grimly, and Arthur knows that though they seemed divided as they argued over him, before a Pendragon they would stand united.
“Balinor?” Idwal’s eyebrows pulled tight together. “Balinor would never have told any knight of Camelot where to find us. Ceridwen, they do you think they…?”
Ceridwen – a tall woman with a clear skinned face, framed by two heavy blonde braids streaked with pale grey – shakes her head.
“No, look at them. Not even all together could they have overpowered our wild man of the woods while in such a state. And if Balinor volunteered us to their cause of his own free will – Idwal, you must see. The Fates have given us our path.”
A boy runs up to them with a skin of water, dragging at his heels a man with a strong nose and hair slung back and tied. He flinches when he sees Leon, dying and red and so, so red.
“Please,” Arthur says, quiet. Broken already, because he has seen what happens to a man dying like this. The slow suffocation, drowning in a heaviness of blood, mouth full of foam that bursts and pools thick. Leon flails, limbs struggling as his lungs starve, clawing at his own throat, fighting to breathe, fighting.
“Aneirin! Quick, you have the cup with you, I trust?” Ceridwen holds her hand out to the man – Aneirin – the arms of her robes rolling back to her elbows. Aneirin grabs onto her hand and they both throw a hand out to Idwal.
“Bran, pour some water in the Cup and set it between us.”
They form a circle around Leon, kneeling and waiting for Bran to hunt through Aneirin’s bag, drawing out a simple gold goblet. His tongue pokes between his teeth as he pours water from his skin into the goblet, most of it splashing horribly over the edges. As soon as he sets it in the middle of the three, tucked close to Leon’s seizing face, Aneirin starts chanting, Ceridwen and Idwal joining him.
Arthur panics and jolts up to his feet – too soon, his head filling with haze, ground sweeping out from under his feet. He falls – again – and though he tries to stay awake, because Leon must be saved, he must, he can’t overpower the rising blackness in his mind.
He wakes again, head full of needles and mouth flinching from the tang of blood where his teeth had bitten into his tongue.
“Bran,” he hears Ceridwen say, through the dumb fog smothering his mind. “He’s not quite here yet. Slap him again.”
A smack, a stinging on his skin, a force pushing his cheek into the grit of dirt, crushing his nose against the ground. Arthur snarls and whips his head up and around, but before he can say anything, a voice cuts through the haze he’s half-stumbled out from.
"Listen to us. Listen, King Arthur." Ceridwen grabs Arthur's chin with one wiry hand and tilts his face up. The air around him drunkenly wobbles and he can’t quite make his eyes meet Ceridwen’s face at all. Her braids hang heavy and knock against his forehead. “You must listen now. We haven’t much time before it’s too late.”
“Too late?” Arthur tries to catch his thoughts all together, but they flicker between the fingers of his grasping hand. “Isn’t it already too late?”
Ceridwen breathes out a rapid sigh, chopping the end short to say, “Yes, for one path it became too late twenty five years ago, and another, not even a week ago, and a dozen more besides have probably been passed in the day we’ve had you sitting here in camp.”
But. “But – “
“That’s not the point! The point is that we have another chance to set Albion to rights – at peace, united, and strong against the invaders who knock their boats even now against our shores. And that is the path we must hurry for.”
“Here,” Aneirin kneels beside Arthur’s head and eases him up until he’s sitting, leaned back against Aneirin’s chest. Exhaustion aches slowly through his limbs, and as soon as Emrys or the dragon finds him again, his life will be forfeit anyway, so why, so why – why should he still bother pretending he’s at all capable of fulfilling his oath to his people as their king?
“You shouldn’t think such dark thoughts,” Aneirin says, calm and soft and without looking Arthur in the eye.
Arthur flinches. “You should not pry into my mind. You may have me at your mercy, but I have your honour at mine.”
Aneirin pulls a small flask bound in soft leather from his bag, pops the stopper out, and holds it to Arthur’s lips. “Here,” he says, “this will set your head to rights.”
The draught, thick like the syrup his second nanny used to pour over his secret oatmeal night lunches but bitter and vile, fills his throat until he gags and swallows, sluggish and panicked.
A heavy hand massages along his throat until Arthur swallows along with it, desperate and affronted all at once. Aneirin hums and says, “Yes, I thought so, too. But that’s the last of it.” And he keeps Arthur sitting upright as he beckons towards Bran for a skin of water.
Arthur tries to say, “Thank you,” but the tack in his mouth stills his tongue, so he settles with nodding at Bran as he grabs at the skin held out to him. The air clears and stills around him; the cool breeze washes his mind clean and dry and a new mist of rain wakes him fully. Water pools in his mouth. He swishes and spits; wipes his sleeve over his face, sleeve catching on the sticky corners of his mouth where the draught had leaked out.
“How is Leon? Did it work? And – Owain. His leg. I think it’s become infected. Can you help him?”
Arthur shrugs off Aneirin’s hand from his shoulder and rises on unsteady legs. The camp stills, chatter calming down to a hush, hands stilling upon their leatherwork, faces turning to watch Arthur. To watch the Prince – the King – of Camelot take his feet in the middle of this camp that reeks of sorcery.
He swallows and speaks loudly.
“I don’t come to – I swear, I wouldn’t – I bear you no ill will, not to any of you Druids.”
“We know,” Idwal says. His voice rumbles thick from his chest, dark with the years of fear and mistrust Arthur’s father had fostered. “You don’t understand us, do you, young Pendragon?”
Arthur feels a grimace trying to claw its way over his face, but he holds himself still.
“You don’t. You’ve only begun to think of Emrys as a man meant for more than the role of slave that your father tried to mold him into.. But we have been watching for his coming for generations. Albion moves through him, and you cannot stop her any longer. We never thought the Usurper could stop her for so long at all, but the fear of men is a strong thing, and lets the weak minded change the world. But just as Uther broke the land, Albion has named you the one to set her straight. You don’t understand us, Arthur, because you don’t understand Albion.”
Idwal stops, thumb digging hard into the soft curve of his own palm – the only sign of his agitation that Arthur can see. Ceridwen leans forward, laying a firm hand on Idwal’s shoulder.
“Our seers can be proven wrong,” she says, “but not so many over all these years; not over this. We have read of Emrys in the sky, and always has his fate been linked to yours, and to another’s. Your father shook the path, scattered it wild and wide of what past prophesy descried, but he could not wholly break it down. And so still the players remain unchanged: always it will be Courage and Magic upon which the balance hangs.”
“Balance,” Arthur scoffs. “Your balance hangs on a madman and a king orphaned from his parents, knights, and soon his people. How are we meant to bring the land – this thing you call Albion – to rights?”
“By disagreeing with the path you now walk and choosing another. By remembering that this is not the first time you’ve heard of Albion or the Once and Future King – every child knows of those stories, and even princes hear whispers of what is ostensibly forbidden them. By believing in everything your father could never make you hate.”
And Arthur does remember – he remember years ago, listening to the ravings he had thought mad, from a woman lost to visionary wanderings. The Witch of Camelot had tried to tell him about this Once and Future King, and about Albion and her conduit, but Arthur had never been of a mind to listen. Too busy trying to shutter his mind to everything wrong that flooded through it – everything his father abhorred, from the vice of unnatural lust to the sickness in his stomach he felt whenever he saw another pyre burning, stoked high against the wind.
“That’s why, Arthur Pendragon, you need to go find Emrys. Now, before the path you’re walking shifts again and leaves your destined kingship to die in the dust.”
“But my men,” Arthur says, shaking his head through the ebb and flow of its ache. His legs shiver under him. “I can’t leave them, and I can’t face Emrys like – like I am.”
(His father’s voice in his head, wondering at Arthur’s weakness, even though Father would never tell me a thing like that. Never would have. Not my father.
Oh, but didn’t he? With every grimace at your inability to fully stomach his battle against sorcery, he said this to you, and more, though he might not have meant to. Might not even have wanted to, but still you heard everything he never said.)
“Arthur,” Ceridwen says, grabbing Arthur by the bunching of tunic at his shoulder. “Hear this now, because you won’t hear it again from any other Druid: if you don’t stop Emrys and turn him from his warpath, nobody will want to live in the world he creates. Not even us. It will be raw with grief and fear and unslaked vengeance. And right now, that still seems damnably appealing to so many of us, but it won’t remain so for long. By the time we’ve moved beyond our craving for revenge, we won’t be able to stop him; we still won’t admit that we need to stop him.
“But though Emrys is the will of Albion incarnate, you are the one she’s been waiting for.”
At that, Aneirin and Idwal both nod, the former firm and sure and the latter pulling his face into a sad resignation.
“The signs are clear,” Idwal says. “You are our Once and Future King, young Pendragon. We will – we will stand by you, in our way.”
Arthur snorts. “And what exactly does that mean?”
Idwal shifts, eyes hunting along the horizon, sliding away from Arthur as though too uncomfortable to look at him for long.
“It means that even though we will always be for Emrys, Emrys will always be for you. It means that if we don’t tell you to go after him, now, and stop him, he’s going to run himself into a ruin of his own making. He’s going to end up as cruel a tyrant as your father.
“I don’t like you,” Idwal continues, “and I don’t trust you. But for Emrys, none of us have a choice but to believe in what you could be: the Once and Future King.”
Spring softens the air and the wet of the rain pulls the composure from Arthur’s face. He shivers, mouth twisting down, but he doesn’t lower his eyes. He is a Pendragon. He is the only, and probably the last, Pendragon. This he can do for his heritage.
Arthur clears his throat and asks, “Where are you keeping my men?”
The tent they lead him to (and here, a comfort where he has found so few – the more steps Arthur takes, the more he can feel the strong pulse of the earth rising up, lashing itself to his limbs and settling resolve into his bones; stripping his exhaustion and flooding him with courage) hovers on the outskirts of the camp. From what Arthur knows of the Druids – learned mostly from the study of their wrecked camps after he has seen whole clans slain, the guilt in him begging him to remember them, remember everything about them, the smallest penance paid – this clan is of a middling size, though there seems to be an inordinate number of children. They stare at him, and they look afraid and angry in equal parts.
“They come from other camps, Pendragon.” Aneirin walks beside Arthur. His face is brittle and bitter, and he very carefully doesn’t look at Arthur at all. (Arthur is glad for it.) “They are the ones who have escaped your men.”
Who have escaped you, Aneirin doesn’t say, but could. Arthur hears it anyway.
“So this is where they ran to,” Arthur says, mostly to himself. It had soothed the hard knot in his chest the smallest bit, how Emrys would sit upon his horse beside Arthur and do nothing, absolutely nothing, to help Camelot hunt down the fleeing Druids once he had ripped aside panicked defenses of crackling magic and sent the shamans to their death before they could try for anything more.
Nausea lived for years in Arthur’s belly over those hunts. Over how he would gather from his knights the most determined, most ruthless, and gird them with steel and Camelot red around their shoulders. How Arthur would ride out with them, Emrys following wraith-quiet beside him with a mind Arthur knew had always been set on the Witch, looking for gifts to brighten her dead and hollow chambers. How Arthur would order that none be left alive, and how thick the air became with the smell of rust and iron, and acrid fear.
But Emrys had always sat back on his horse, impatience shaking down the lines of his body, while Arthur’s men hacked away, stirring not once to still the legs of any Druids who managed to break away from the clustered glut of swords. And Arthur was glad; is still glad.
He presses the base of his palm hard against his chest as he stops beside Aneirin at the flap of a tent of white skins, muddied at the base by the ground and the splashing of mud. In his chest his heart feels like a twisted knot that he has carried for almost all his life, never quite able to unravel it.
The tent is dark inside, and the air lies thick with incense on Arthur’s skin. Magic tangles in his joints and sparks at his fingertips. Arthur shivers against it, but this is the magic that has lifted Owain from the darkness of the sickness that had spread from the festering of his leg.
The space Aneirin pulls Arthur into is small and warm, furs laid thick upon the floor, gathered in the middle beside a small banked fire. The thin trail of smoke floats cleanly up through a small opening at the top of the tent. Owain lies bundled in the thick of the furs, face calm in its rest. His forehead gleams with a thin sheen of sweat and his bandaged thickly. Beside him, Leon lies curled atop a small pallet, hand splayed over his own ribs as though to keep them safe and whole.
“Leon at least will be well enough to ride easily in two or three days, sire. The Cup has taken from him all trace of illness, but the energy it sapped from him will take time to return. Owain will have to wait perhaps a few days longer before he’s strong enough to leave the camp, but the infection in his blood has begun to fade away already.” Aneirin quiets and turns to leave Arthur alone with his men, a courtesy Arthur would not have expected of a person whose people Arthur himself had so recently hunted into the ground.
Arthur sits cross-legged beside the small fire and stokes it gently. He waits there as his men – the only two of the twenty he had set out with who live still – sleep as though dead, silent as shivers born of the shock of magic wrack through them. The Druids wish them to live. And so they will, Arthur determines. They will make it through today, and tomorrow, and they will see the sun rise over Camelot in a blush of deep colour again.
Dusk chases in a young boy burdened with two large platters of food. A small boy, with flopping dark hair and eyes wide and grey. His cloak – lined with fur and probably too warm for the season of sun creeping up on Camelot’s lands – flaps about sluggishly, heavy with mud and frayed at the bottom where his heels oft catch. He kicks the flap open a sliver, slides through (carefully, eyes firm on the platters in his hands), and grins once inside, triumphant in the children often are.
Or so Arthur has been led to believe, from his years of observing children running about the castle and through the market in the lower town. Watching them in that vaguely confused manner he used to try so hard to hide, wondering at the ease with which children as old as he was played about the streets.
The boy looks about the tent with a tilted head, the plates in his hands starting to slip downwards, smiling wider as Owain stirs awake.
“Yes? You are?” Arthur says, habit clipping the words short and bending command into his tone, though he meets Owain’s shiny-with-fever eyes and softens his tense posture to nod, relieved, before turning his face to the boy.
The boy startles back to attention.
“Bran – I’m Bran. I’ve come with supper, sire,” Bran says. He sets the platters down on a low table next to Owain’s nest of blankets. “And to say that, that, umm.”
Bran pauses, fingers still clutching at the platters, as though bespelled into stillness.
“That we are coming to join you, my Lord,” Ceridwen says as she enters with Aneirin and Idwal. “We are running out of time, and you need to know much before we send you off again.”
The waft of air they bring with them tastes crisp and wet, and very slightly of pine and fire. They rustle their robes and sit about him in a loose circle, Ceridwen taking care to curl the edge of her robes around the curl of her knees. Next to them, Owain props himself up against the low table, shaky and sick with the exhaustion fever brings.
“Were the hour not so late, I would never have let you stay here among us, no matter your destiny,” Idwal says, “and neither would I offer council. But Emrys marches down a path that would reap more blood than the Tyrant Uther’s purge.” Idwal ignores Arthur’s aborted pass for his sword – because to slander the King is treason – and flicks his eyes over to Ceridwen and then Aneirin. Cautious agreement softens Idwal’s mouth, but the habit of his discord carves lines that linger on his face even when his brow smoothes.
“Emrys stayed with us for a brief while,” Aneirin says. “Left not long after you were crowned, I think.”
“Did he…” Arthur pauses. “Did he tell you why? Why he came to you, why he did what he did?”
Ceridwen smoothes a hand over Leon’s brow, wicks the crusted salt from an old sweat from where it had gathered at the corner of his closed eyes.
“Did you know much of the Witch of Camelot?” she asks.
“I know what she was to Emrys. I know that she was more to him than the keeper of his idle pastime like my father had thought she was.”
“And yet she was more than even you believe. We have legends about her, too. She was the prophesied Betrayer; the sword that cuts at the backs of those she claims allies. It was only because she was yet more even than that – was a person, a woman of strength and fierce compassion and frailty also – that her betrayal forced Emrys’s hand. He loved her deeply, a thing we never foresaw.
“He came to us with two things, Pendragon. A bag full of the Witch’s bones and a promise to bring Camelot to its knees.”
“Well, he has done that,” Arthur says, “but we have not bared our throat yet.”
“No, your courage will never fail, my Lord,” Ceridwen allows. “But Emrys has a lust for vengeance eating at him. He will find you, Arthur, and if you do not leave, he will find you here. He flies fast on wing, tireless, tracking you by the trail of death in your wake; by the knights left behind you. He will find you here, and he will bleed our camp dry in his madness at it.
“You need to leave. If he finds you here, he will kill us all. Hatred rises in him as a sickness; a fever consuming everything he once had been.”
“Find him, Pendragon,” Idwal says. “Find him and lance his sickness away.”
“But I don’t see… I cannot do anything as I am,” Arthur says, his voice sticking thick in his throat. “You won’t stop telling me about the bond between Emrys and myself, but it just doesn’t exist. Not yet, and if I don’t find another way to bring him down, there will never be a bond. And I haven’t the strength to stop Emrys on my own in any other way – even with a group of knights the chance was slim, but by myself? With me, as I am? No, I’m no longer just a prince. Camelot cannot lose another king. I just – I haven’t the strength.”
The Druids around him shift, sharing swift glances and fighting without saying a word of it aloud. Bran, listing off to the side, pinches his face together as he looks curiously between Aneirin and Ceridwen. But before Arthur can ask what they aren’t telling him, Owain speaks up, voice cracked and sore from his illness.
“My cousin – then you must find my cousin, Arthur.” He coughs, great and heaving, and grabs at the water skin Bran offers. “My cousin will give you your strength.”
Owain’s eyes shine and his years fall lightly over his shoulders. So young.
“How can the finding of one man give me the strength to take down a mad sorcerer?” Arthur says, gentle.
“That’s just it,” Owain cries, eyes bright with a dangerous fever that had spread from the red infection leaching through his leg, only now ebbing back. He sits up and leans forward. “That’s it exactly, just ask them, ask the Druids, they’ll know, they always have. Told me once, they did. When he were wandering around with them, before he turned a drunken lout.”
“Owain! Owain, calm down, calm.” Arthur stills Owain’s jittering leg with a steady hand. “What do they know about your cousin?”
Bran tentatively asks, “Do you speak of Gwaine?”
Owain nods with a drooping head, eyelids slipping shut and then startling back open as he fights off sleep.
“My King,” Bran says, “his cousin is Gwaine.” Excitement runs through Bran, shivering down his spine, because this is Right, this is Prophecy, and Fate is reeling her players back along to her sacred path again. “Gwaine the gallant, right born and violently estranged son of King Lot of Orkney. He is the Strength to your Courage, Sire, and with Ma--”
“Bran!” Ceridwen cries. “That is enough.”
“No, please, let him speak, I need to hear,” Arthur says, command edging through his tone once more.
Ceridwen and Aneirin exchange a lingering look, and Arthur thinks he can almost see the thoughts passing between them.
“Arthur,” Ceridwen says, words planted carefully. “He speaks of the old teachings of the stars. They once showed us all the coming of the Trio – Courage, Strength, and Magic – and said that once complete, there will be no challenge they will meet that will prove beyond their skill. But the stars have realigned in the years since the Tyrant’s reign.”
“Careful. You speak of your king,” Arthur barks, instinct long bred into him overriding his sense, but Ceridwen says nothing in return.
“As I said, the stars speak of the Trio in the same way no longer.”
“Mother, that isn’t true!” Bran says. Colour rises high in his cheeks. “I’ve seen it, I saw it, that night where we stayed up late and warmed in front of the fire. And you have, too! I know you did, last week, while we were taking the bedding off the line just after the sun had set. You saw it too, don’t say you didn’t. It’s happening again; something changed and it’s happening as it should.”
“As it should?” Arthur, who had been listening with something akin to interest, speaks up fiercely at that. “You mean to say that this is all because of fate? Some glorious fate that demanded blood sacrifice and a kingdom thrown into ruin, plagued on all sides by dragons and witchcraft, haemorrhaging good men for some berserker’s revenge?”
Bran shrinks back, flinches away from Arthur’s words.
“Please, sire.” Ceridwen grabs Arthur’s forearm. “Please be calm. He is just a boy, and it’s easy, living as we do, to get lost in legend and the prophecies of the sky. He knows not how it plays out, in the real world, where blood is so much more red and flows so much more abundantly.”
Arthur leans back, chastened.
“But he is right, Once and Future King. No, no, he is. About one thing, if not all. If you are to find and stop Emrys from pulling all of Albion down around your ears, you must find Gwaine, son of Lot, known to us as Strength. That, we can all agree on.”
“But how can you not know more? Is there nothing else you can tell me?”
“We are Druids, my King,” Aneirin says. “We see destiny in the stars and we know the path of fate. Your Seer Witch was different. She, the foretold Betrayer, the one who walked the crooked path. She told you often, where the future walked and how to head it off. She had a gift that will nevermore touch this world; not even with the help of crystals plucked from the First Cave itself. You would do well to forget all the ways she once helped you See. You will never find such help again.”
Leon turns in his heavy sleep, and his breath catches a rattle it he seems too tired to shake loose. Arthur and Owain turn to look at him.
“And you will take care of him? That is within your power?” Arthur asks.
“Yes,” Aneirin nods, “we will take care of them both, Owain and Leon. And when we see the signs, we will either send them home, or keep them here and hide them from Emrys so long as we have strength to do so. It depends on you now, Pendragon. If you cannot stop Emrys, then he will become a thing of darkness; he will lose himself, and Albion will lose her will. Camelot will fall, and the rest of Albion will be left waiting to crumble, piece by piece.”
“Arthur, he is coming,” Ceridwen says, “and you must go. You cannot face him here, you must find Strength first. Emrys is coming, and you must go.”
Ceridwen pulls at Arthur’s arm, tugs him to his feet and buckles his sword back onto his belt, pulling his hauberk over his head and tightening the buckles on his gambeson with deft fingers accustomed to spinning thin threads and working needles through tough leather.
“Where am I to go? I cannot wander all of Albion to find this man.”
“Go west,” Bran says. His eyes are soft and distant, flickering gently back and forth, irises curled ‘round with gold and pupils flaring wide. “You will find him south of the border of Essetir, not far from here. A large city but no citadel, thriving market, thick with fabric dyed richly and spooled thread in every colour. But he comes for you, the falcon on wing. He flies swift on a southerly wind.”
“On the border? Large city without a castle, dyes, trade route. Warligon,” Arthur says. “You must be describing Warligon.”
“If you know, then leave now. Take your horse – we’ve fed and watered him, he’s fresh enough now – and go!” Ceridwen slings a filled pack over his shoulder and pushes him out of the tent.
Arthur turns back to say his thanks, to tell them that he will never forget this, but Ceridwen only cries out, “Sire, you must leave, and it must be now, please! He’s coming, and if he finds you here… He will hate us. And we’ve only just got him back.”
Bran rushes forward, hands clutching Hengroen’s reins. Arthur springs up into the saddle, surety crackling through him, hope latching on to his shins and grappling up his spine. Thunder cracks under his horse’s hooves as the forest fades behind him and the road to Warligon stretches on ahead.
It isn’t until he’s five leagues away at least that he roots around in the pack Ceridwen shoved into his arms, looking for a water skin, and finds inside it another, smaller, leather bag. One that, when he opens it, he finds is filled with jutting bone, dry and burnt. Arthur gags at the smell and wonders if the bag is for him – a reminder of Pendragon sin – or for Emrys – a last attempt to lure out his humanity.
Arthur carefully ties the bag and slips it back into the saddlebag and urges Hengroen on again, afraid to linger even now. Dirt kicked up by the hooves of his horse clumps together in the wet and makes a spotted trail behind Arthur. The only tracks along a path seldom trod by horse. He rides out alone and feels the pressing need slung across his shoulders. The Druids – his people, as they should have been from the time his father had sat him down on the straight-backed throne and told him that never was there a love greater than that of a king’s for his people – have turned to him, have helped him and his red-caped men though not two months ago Arthur had been hunting them to the ground. And they might need him, but he needs them more. Debt and duty drive Arthur on, alone on his path between the trees.