Merlin tugged absentmindedly on the hem of his shirt sleeve, just to give his hands something to do that wouldn’t draw attention to him. He stood where he always did in such meetings as these: by the pillar behind the throne, hands behind his back and head tilted slightly downward in the way of the proper servant. Arthur, of course, knew this image to be completely misleading, but he appreciated that Merlin put in the effort to at least appear subservient when there were guests in the court. The guests at this time were a pair of careworn peasants hailing from a village on the border of a kingdom to the east who claimed to have been attacked by a dragon and had come to seek Arthur’s help in their plight.
As soon as the word “dragon” was out of the older peasant’s mouth, Merlin’s attention was caught. There were only two dragons in existence, to Merlin’s rather informed knowledge, and he had a personal connection with the both of them. Kilgharrah, he knew, was under strict orders not to attack anyone and, according to the bond forged between them by magic and kinship, he could not disobey a direct order from his Dragonlord. The only other dragon was Aithusa, whom he knew to be sickly and unfortunately in the charge of Morgana. If Morgana was sending Aithusa to attack this village, there had to be a purpose to it; it was not Morgana’s way to simply wreak havoc, not unless it brought her closer to her goal of becoming Queen of Camelot. Either way, Merlin was relatively confident in his ability to turn Aithusa away from his task if need be. He would just need to get there.
Luckily for the clandestine Dragonlord, Arthur—who, as far as anyone else knew, was the only person alive to have single-handedly slain a dragon—immediately took up the peasants’ plea for help, sure that he would be able to rout the beast and save the town without trouble. Turning to Merlin, he ordered for the Knights of the Round Table to be gathered and the horses to be made ready by the next morning. Merlin gave him a slight bow for the sake of propriety, and then met Gaius’ concerned and cautioning stare before slipping quietly from the throne room to attend to his duties. He would have to find a way to sneak off and stop Aithusa without Arthur being any the wiser, but he shouldn’t have any trouble with that. He’d had plenty of practice, of course.
Sir Gerund ran his hand wearily over his face, just barely holding in a heavy sigh; he had been sighing far too often lately and it wasn’t doing his flagging morale any favors. He rested his gaze on the window to his left, only barely able to make out the movement of people in the courtyard below through the bright colors of the brilliantly stained glass. The harsh sound of someone clearing his throat drew his attention to the open door of the chamber, where one of the most conservative of the senior council members stood with his hands clasped before him and his face grim.
“There has been another sighting,” he said plainly. “To the west this time.”
“Did she engage us?” Gerund asked, not needing to ask to whom he was referring and fearing the number of casualties that a positive answer would herald.
“No,” the councilor reported, and Gerund’s shoulders slumped in relief. The councilor stepped closer, his long robe make a soft shushing noise over the stone floor. “She is growing bolder, Sir Gerund.”
“I know,” he said.
“We are running out of time. I don’t know how much longer we can entertain this fool hope of yours,” the councilor said harshly and Gerund winced; it was a long shot, he knew it was. But it would be worth it. “Sooner or later, a choice will have to be made. And her continued presence may force our hand.”
The councilor left without waiting for a response, his point made, and Gerund fought the urge to sigh again. All the councilors were growing anxious, though not as anxious as the common people. They grew more restless by the day. Almost oppressively silent as the empty council chamber was around him, he nearly had a heart attack when there came a loud, sharp tapping on the window. Shaking his head at his own foolish fright, Gerund moved to pull open the window and let in the large black crow that was perched upon the sill. His heart leapt up at the sight of the slip of parchment tied to its leg, though he tried to quash his hope; why should this message bear different tidings than the last five had?
Gerund untied the tiny scroll and tossed the bird back outside. Closing the window and taking a deep breath to steel his resolve for the disappointment that would surely accompany this missive, he unfurled the message. His brow furrowed as he read it, and then a brilliant smile spread across his face. The King of Camelot had taken up his peasants’ plea. Gerund recalled that it had been he, the then-Prince Arthur, who had reportedly slain the Great Dragon so many years ago. Kilgharrah was, however, very much alive and settled comfortably in the wilderness surrounding the castle in which Gerund now stood. This could only mean one thing: the last Dragonlord was in Camelot, and he would answer Gerund’s call as surely as had his King.