It happens on the day a fleet-footed palfrey stalks through the druid camp with a high held head, straight into Emrys’s arms. He does not smile, but he leans into her neck and whispers softly against her coarse hair. The camp stills as he leads her with a word and his will.
She trails him like his second shadow and shies from any other’s touch but for Mordred – for him, she will stand still, and let him stare in her eyes and ghost his hands over her velvet nose. At the edge of every camp the druids make, every fire they light (with soft prayers to god and goddess and secret spirit alike), Mordred sits apart, warms his hands on the palfrey’s indulgent huffing breath, giggling even under the eyes of Emrys. Emrys, who watches it all with a seriousness that Ceridwen doesn’t understand, and dares not try to, instead catching herself as she stares at them from the corner of her eye.
She shivers and pulls Bran closer to her, tilting her face up to the sky, but the clouds lie heavy upon it and she cannot see a single star.
“Mother,” Bran whispers. “Can you see it?”
His voice thickens with sleep and slides into a sluggish yawn. The night stretches long, and Bran should be sleeping – he is but a child yet – but the vitality of spring leeches indulgence through the camp and she lets Bran bring his blankets from his tent to the fire. Both of them pretend he will sleep under the stars, but both of them know tomorrow will be greeted with exhaustion.
“See what, my sweet?” Her hand – cold, from want of the sun – falls heavy onto his warm brow. (Through the thin veil of smoke and warped by a haze of heat, Ceridwen sees Emrys watch Mordred with an interest newly attained; beckon him close and curl beside him as they warm their hands at the fire.) She watches the stars and she does not watch Emrys, she dares not, for he has come for them at last; they cannot drive him back to the Pendragon fold. He has come to them, and they will stand by him to patch his soul together, should he let them.
“The sign of the Trio.” Bran’s eyes slip shut and Ceridwen tucks the edge of the blanket firmly under his chin. His muscles slacken and his voice becomes lazy with sleep. “I see it; the Trio has come back at last.”
Ceridwen clucks and avoids looking across to Emrys – he who was once foretold Magic, brother of Strength and twin soul of Courage – as she says, “The Trio was shattered twenty five years ago, and the stars remember it no more. Emrys and the Once and Future King must forge a new path, and we all must hope it is for the better.”
These words she has said already what seems a thousand times, at some council or other, and she fears she will speak them another thousand or more.
“But I see it, just like Father always said it once looked. Crowned dragon, falcon, and sword of the protector.”
Clouds blacken the sky and neither stars nor even moon shines through. But if Bran has the gift...
“Either you are strong, my boy, or you’re asleep where you sit already.”
Ceridwen grunts softly as she scoops him up – he is too big for this already, eight and centuries old, but he is her last; she cannot let him grow up yet – and carries him back to their tent. When she returns to the fire, she sits next to Aneirin, and with him watches Emrys openly; watches him as he leans into Mordred, teaching him dark and angry secrets and discovering with him a power over the sacred human form.
“I hear them sometimes,” Aneirin says, voice quiet under the snapping sound of pine barely dry enough to burn. Sparks and embers crack through the air and light Aneirin’s grey eyes with sudden colour. “Emrys teaches little Mordred how to hold the fire of anger deep inside, and you know the black magics that Uther demanded his Sorcerer learn. I do not like this, Ceridwen.”
“But he is ours, Aneirin. Our Emrys at last. He’s come home to us.”
At last, after years of hunting them into the ground at the whim of the Usurper King Uther, Emrys sits beside them. Their Emrys, finally a shield before them rather than a sword at their throats.
Emrys waves a hand in front of himself, and the sparks bursting from the fire gather close together into the flapping wings of a falcon. His smile is small and thin, and his eyes are eager. A gust of wind scythes through the air and whips the falcon away; when the sparks fall together again (Emrys with his arm still outstretched, face etched with a pale scowl) it is to show a rampant dragon, spearing up high into the sky, crowned with circling licks of white hot fire.
“Emrys,” Mordred whispers, voice cracked and dry like brittle bone, “it has happened. Have you felt it happen?”
Emrys nods in a shudder, and they gape together at the dragon as it circles over their heads. He reaches for his leather satchel, hands curling tight around it. Death bleeds sluggishly from it and pulls at Ceridwen’s already lowly spirit.
“Arthur Pendragon has been crowned,” Mordred continues. “The last of the Pendragon line.”
“The last of the Pendragon line.”
Winds gust around the flapping tents, and Emrys lets the dragon fall away; Ceridwen sees only campfire once more.
“You promised me, Emrys.” Mordred grabs Emrys at his shoulder. “You said you will find a way. To atone for all the years you served the Usurper like a loyal, rabid dog. To atone for how you led them to me. For how you had my whole camp killed.”
“I have, Mordred. And I will. You see? My mark already has been set on time. The future is decided.”
He leans close to Mordred and points to the wheel of fire over their heads, where the wind gusting around flapping tents has punched a spear of fire into the air. It writhes above them, shearing into the form of a falcon clutching a longsword of blue-white fire in its talons. The dragons turns, silent and loud in its colour as it sweeps massive, sparking wings and dives down, its claws of orange flame stretching out to grab at the sword. They grapple together over the hilt for a short moment before their wings curl around each other and they fall away again, breaking apart into spark and shapeless, popping ember.
“There it is. My path of war laid out for me.”
Stars beat down dull over the glade and Ceridwen shakes her head, feeling small and scared of the fire’s glow on Emrys’s grief-wan skin. Hard and bright, casting shadows over the lines of his face and limning the edge of the scarring across his lips with red.
The morning after Emrys sees his future in the fire breaks over the camp calm and wet, rain falling in thin grey mists and birds chirping quiet while the skies are still clear of raptors. Emrys pulls Mordred from his sleeping just after the burn of the sun starts eating at the edge of the horizon.
“It’s time I left, Mordred.”
Mordred nods, face small and fiery. “When I was running... When Pendragon cut my family down and I was running, I saw inside your head. That you hated them, too.”
“And I hate them still,” Emrys says.
“Then you’ll kill them. You’ll kill them all.”
Emrys stands up and shakes out his limbs, nodding down at the little boy (who is more ancient than a little boy by far) sitting by his feet. He throws his arms wide, holds his head back, and explodes into the shape of a small falcon. Ceridwen shudders as she watches him twist through the air in lazy circles, wings clumsy and uncoordinated.
This is not right.
Mordred claps gleefully, and no, this is not right at all.
The falcon – Emrys – shrieks, and it is a call of war. The next morning, he is gone, and none but Mordred sleep any easier for it.
(Mordred does not ever join them by the fire again, but sits by himself, hand resting on the restless flank of Emrys’ palfrey – the horse that Mordred stops so often from fleeing after her master – and watches Emrys from afar, scrying in the embers of every dying fire. Mordred never looks to the sky; Bran never stops. And so they both see very different things, but Ceridwen asks after neither. Truth is, she fears both.)
The leather bag holding the Witch’s bones lies in Aneirin’s tent, in the corner yet in a place of honour; best left forgotten, but too sacred to forget. Ceridwen frets about shrines and restless spirits, but none dare to bury the Witch. Instead, they tote her around from forest clearing to cave – camp to hidden camp – much like Emrys had done, in case he should return for her. He is their Lord, first and foremost, after all. They would never deny him the honour of choosing where her bones should finally rest.
Spring’s melt slicks the ground beneath Kilgharrah. He wheels through the sky, looking for a spot of dry land to rest on. The Pendragon Tyrant will be hunting him. Were it even fifteen years ago, Pendragon would be riding out to find Kilgharrah himself, but human flesh is weak and changes swiftly over the passing of even a few scant years. So the Tyrant will hide and plot out all the ways to bring Kilgharrah to heel – but Kilgharrah will not again submit, and no Dragonlord would command that of him now – and Kilgharrah will eat away at the edges of Camelot until it hemorrhages enough knights that the citadel crumbles from the chaos within its walls.
The Witch’s screams ring in his ears. She had freed him, had tamed her magic in ways forbidden to her so that she could snap his chains and bid him, Go!.
A flock of birds scatters before his snapping maw and the trees just beneath his wings shake under the power of his roar. He hears himself echo off the hillsides leagues away and knows there will be few brave enough to leave their wretched huts tonight.
Last night’s rain has left the greenery wet, leaves waving and throwing off sparks from the sunlight. Green, green far and wide, as Kilgharrah drives himself high into the sky, neck turned always down, searching the roads and the fields and the town squares wherever he passes them – all he ever sees is green, the blue of the sky, or the brown drab of common folk.
He waits for Camelot red, caught bright in the flapping of long capes, to bleed across the land; he waits until he can make it bleed into the soil. But not a single knight’s cape has yet swept out from the castle. Not a single one, since the boy Emrys burned Camelot black and fled to hide from his murderous king. They hide like rats in the grain, and if he must go back to burn them in their homes, in their castle built of fear and the bones of his Old Religion kin, he will.
Kilgharrah feels the crackle of magic bending from the core of Albion through her favoured conduit before he sees it – the falcon, gliding on golden wings. Cold rushes before it, billowing through the air, snapping with the spark of its magic. Kilgharrah’s scales rustle, curling in against the chill.
The Witch has taken Emrys, the tamed pet of Uther’s keeping, and made him more unpredictable than the most wild of wolves. So he wonders, he cannot help but wonder, if Emrys chases him to beg aid in a war against Camelot, or if he chases Kilgharrah to slake the bloodthirst born in him upon the Witch’s death. It was only after she had freed Kilgharrah, after all, that Uther saw the need to put her down like the animal he thought she was.
Upon Ygraine’s death, Uther slew hundreds with neither mercy nor distinction. And maybe… And maybe Emrys has learned too thoroughly at the hand of his master.
Emrys lands – audacious – on his shoulder, talons curved cruelly to hook under his scales. Kilgharrah roars, tucking his wings tight and spinning into a diving barrel roll, but Emrys does nothing more than shriek and tuck himself tightly into Kilgharrah’s side, talons locked in a rictus grip to his scales, needling into the flesh beneath until blood drips out over Emrys’s feathered legs. The ground – wet, abhorrently wet and green with spring – closes fast, so Kilgharrah snaps his wings open, the thick of the air jarring his joints, neck lashing back whip-quick from how abruptly he levels off, tail tapping the ground as he peels up above the fields and arches over a large bluff of stocky trees. Before he can spin again, trying to scrape Emrys off against the treetops, or crush him against the earth if he has to, the weight of Emrys’s mind presses against his.
Land with me, brother, and I promise you we will tear Pendragon’s land to pieces between us.
Land, and fall prey to your madness? I think not, young warlock.
The longer he climbs, heaving up through the sky, the more vicious the chill that leeches into his bones, sapping strength from his flagging muscles – an unnatural chill, spread like poison through the air.
You will fare no better in the air, as well you know. Land with me. The Usurper is dead, as he should have been long ago, and together we will ensure his line stops at the Pendragon pup. No more will magic be Camelot’s slave. It is long past time our kin were broken free.
The Usurper. If he truly is dead – if Emrys has broken away from Camelot so wholly…
Kilgharrah claws through Emrys’s mind and reads truth; sees the Usurper Uther Pendragon laid out on his banquet table, berries dripping red from his mouth, throat choked tight around his own gross opulence, eyes bulged and red with blood. The memory reeks of satisfaction, and it gives Kilgharrah reason enough to trust Emrys. For now.
He lands them heavily beside a copse of trees. Mud squelches around his claws, sliding wet between his scales. Emrys flits twice in a circle above his head before he dives, stripping his magic from himself like he would pull a cape from his shoulders, snapping his wings once and then landing in a smooth crouch. He uncoils and stalks toward Kilgharrah, stopping just short of the reach of Kilgharrah’s neck.
Neither bow. Kilgharrah watches Emrys pace. He bares his teeth – long like spears, and worn into cudgels from centuries of use, brittle and shattered in places from his time spent captive – in warning. Emrys doesn’t seem to notice. His eyes are too busy roving, gold twining with blue, undergrowth pulsing with the magic spilling from him.
“You were there,” Emrys bites off. He glares, eyes filled with a desperate wanting. “When she – when my lady – when the king burned her. And before that. You were there, dragon.”
“Yes, young warlock.”
“Did she – why did she – how?” Beneath the rust of anger and sadness on his face, Emrys looks dimly confused.
“Your witch has ever been known by druidic legend as the foretold Betrayer. Through every path she could ever walk, she had ever the destined fate of traitor. On some, she even turned her back on you.”
Emrys twists his face up, but remembers the bitter edge that had swallowed its way down to the roots of her soul, close to the end. His brow twitches and bends his eyes into a sad stretch of blue.
“And this time? What happened while the prince and I were away?”
“She struck the chains that bound me and bid me to give her vengeance. Her soul never belonged to the Usurper as yours had.”
And his had, Emrys knows. Every spark inside him had belonged to his king, save for the coals he hid for his witch, under ash and buried deep, smouldering long and secret and strong. (Some horrified part of him feels an aching sickness in his belly and wonders if he doesn’t belong to his king still.)
“The guards caught her in my cavern,” Kilgharrah continues. “Her magic was too weak to hold them off – she was never meant to spend herself in the tangible world. Hers was the kingdom of what has and may yet be. The Usurper had her burned before rest restored her strength; I smelled the char of her flesh as I flew.”
“Stop, stop it.” The air chills, rain misting down and climbing through sodden clothing. Emrys wraps his black cloak tighter around himself and shivers where he stands, ears tipped with red and windburn racing down his cheekbones. His eyes burn and his head pounds and an ache lodges in his ears that he can’t soothe away.
“You knew this would happen, Warlock.” The dragon cannot help the pity that floods his voice. In every world that may have been, few certainties lanced through each: the Witch would betray those she pledged allegiance to, the druid boy would slay the High King on the fields of Camlann, and the warlock known by the druids as Emrys would suffer through it all alone. “The world was never meant to be this way; you were never meant to serve the elder Pendragon as you did. The Witch walked in worlds that helped her to see how she could fix it, could set you back upon your most free path, and she did, even though to do so she had to drench her heart with bitter enough to overwhelm the peace you gave her.”
Silence beats between them for several long moments. Emrys hangs his head and Kilgharrah watches as his shoulders rise and fall with each deep breath he takes.
“You promised her vengeance,” Emrys says, his voice cracked deep and wide.
“And vengeance I mean to take.”
“Then you will help me. Uther built a kingdom he held more dear to himself than his own heart, and pinned it in place with a son he bought with the blood of his queen. It would only take Arthur Pendragon’s death to pull the whole kingdom to its knees.”
“I promised the Witch I would bleed Camelot until her streets ran red.”
“No, you promised her vengeance,” Emrys says, voice bursting with impatience. “And here is how we will avenge her best: We will take apart the Tyrant Uther’s kingdom and bring magic back to rule over the land. The people will bow to a new sovereign – you, born of magic and talented in the old ways – as they once did so easily when Uther’s conquest brought them together, and the entirety of his life will be broken into nothing. We can strip all meaning from his name.”
“I will have my blood, and a fledgling like you will never take it from me,” Kilgharrah growls, stretching out his neck towards Emrys and narrowing his eyes.
“Yes. You will have your Pendragon blood, and the blood of his most favoured of allies, but no more. Not if you truly wish for Dragonkind to live free again. The Pendragon whelp still hides in his castle, but he will crawl out from his lair soon to hunt for me – whatever his feelings were towards his father, and I’ve reason to think them unkind, he will never let regicide go unpunished. Not if he wishes to keep his throne. When he hunts for me, we will strike him down, and him alone.”
“The Pendragon whelp, you call him. How has he so swiftly poisoned you against him?”
Emrys twists his mouth into a small, sad frown, pulling the strange scars on his face into sharp relief. “He bears the blood of a tyrant. And I know him. Though his father is dead, his ideals still hold Arthur fast in their grip.” He looks up. “The burned her, and for that Uther must pay the highest price. I have taken his life, but he would not care overmuch for that. So I will take his kingdom and his son while he watches from the Otherworld.”
“So,” Kilgharrah rumbles. “Drawing the whelp from his castle. Do you think he would be lured away by sightings of a dragon?”
Emrys smiles and tightens his grip around his gloves in want of the leather satchel he had grown so used to holding.
“Sire.” Sir Leon strides through the open doorway with his hand on his sword hilt and his head leaning forward – anxious and battle ready.
Arthur sits straighter at the council table and pulls his hand back from the map to hold onto the carved wooden arm of his chair, fingers curling painfully into the spined mouth of a dragon. Firelight flickers over the walls when the scullery maid flinches away from tending to the fireplace, her whipping skirts stirring the air. She gathers her things and pads quickly out of the chamber.
“What is it?” Arthur asks.
“A messenger’s just come from the north – there have been numerous sightings of a dragon flying over some villages north-east of here, and just north of the Forest of Ascetir, some peasant has sighted a shapeshifting sorcerer consorting with that same dragon.
“Shapeshifting?” Arthur frowns. Emrys had been capable of many things that Arthur had seen, but that had never been one of his tricks before.
Leon nods hurriedly. “The peasant saw a falcon shift into a black-cloaked man, tall and dark of hair. He then talked with the dragon for some time in a tongue the peasant couldn’t understand.”
“They speak a tongue found in the ancient east, the dragons, or so my father said.” Arthur leans back, props his right elbow on the chair arm and his chin on his upraised fist. “How long ago did the messenger say this happened?”
“Two days, Sire.”
Arthur frowns, rapping the fingers of his left hand against the table, an obnoxious tap tap tap that clinks through the otherwise quiet room. The knights and advisors settled at the council table watch and wait and wait, clenching cloaks in tense fists, jaws clenched.
“Then we must leave at once. Morning slips away the longer we sit here, and if Emrys is colluding with the Great Dragon, all of Camelot is in danger.” Arthur stands, pushing his chair back with the backs of his legs. The chair scrapes across the stone floor slowly, drawing out a heavy sound. “Leon, see that twenty men are armed and ready for horsed combat – I think spears would be appropriate.”
“But sire, what of the sorcerer?” Leon stutters out. “What of… Emrys?”
Leon had been one of the few to speak with the two court sorcerers of almost inane topics; to ask Emrys what he thought of Camelot’s falconry, or the Witch whether she too thought that the honour guard held blades too ornate and heavy to serve any real function. The Witch had never said anything where Arthur could hear it, but he remembers the gleam in her eyes, the sharp interest, when she overheard Arthur discussing what manoeuvres would better fit a short sword and how to best employ the bash of a buckler to throw an opponent off balance. Maybe she had seen the knights go about their training while watching from her tower window. Probably not much else to occupy her time, while Emrys was away, Arthur muses.
Leon’s voice brings Arthur back to focus, and God, he would give up every luxury he possessed if it would buy him even another three hours of sleep a night.
“If he’s working with the Great Dragon, I don’t see how even twenty knights could work to bring them both down.”
Arthur thinks about the blaze of gold lighting Emrys’s eyes as he shattered through a dozen Druidic enchantments with a single sweep of his hand and silently agrees with Leon.
“I trained to work with Emrys from the moment he was brought out into the court. Do you think my father had no methods for bringing him to heel?” Of course, now that she was dead that was a meaningless assertion, but fear is more a poison to men than misplaced confidence. “But first, we go for Emrys’s ally – in my father’s Purge, hundreds of dragons were ripped from the land. I hardly think one more will prove a problem, do you?”
And Leon, God bless him, doesn’t voice any of the disbelief lingering in his eyes. He just nods sharply, turns on his heel, and speeds down the hall towards the barracks.
What choice does Arthur have? Better to meet Emrys and his dragon in the field than in the city, anyway. Too many live in Camelot. Too many to lose. And Arthurs fears that they would certainly be lost if he were to remain here.
The forest is quiet. Their horses beat a path gently, softly, over the dirt trail, twisting around trees that lean together and sag with rot. Moss eats the sound of their footfalls and every wooden creak from a tree bending in the wind echoes long around them.
The forest is deadly quiet. Leather saddles creak as the knights shift atop their horses; chain links rustle, hushed under their heavy red cloaks.
Something is wrong.
Arthur stirs, grimacing in his saddle, sore from hours of steady riding. Sparks snap through his head and bitter crumbles through the air, because something is wrong. The oily tang that coats Arthur’s tongue weighs his jaw with heavy fear; with fear and the creeping feeling of
something is very wrong.
The sky – what can be seen of it through the scarce bald patches of forest canopy – fades fast above their heads into a pale grey that falls to licks of bloody colour along the outer rim of the horizon, seen bending between the trees at their feet. The sky is clear, empty and wide. But Arthur cannot fight the pull of something is wrong that stretches his neck back and cramps his muscles into a stressed anxiety. The sky is clear, is empty and wide and clear, but
something is wrong
he cannot stop searching it for that trail of wrongness that stretches his skin and weighs him down with the sharp of magic.
The last village to report a sighting of the dragon lies another full day’s ride from where Arthur’s knights – her most brave, as far as such things can be judged – fan out along three north-running roads, but the wings of a dragon could make up much ground fast and Arthur doesn’t know, he can’t know, exactly where the Great Dragon and Emrys will go. They are not bound to the roads, and although Arthur has spread his knights across a swathe of land to march alongside each other, their line is not endless, and it is broken by great gaps of impassable land. A deep swamp lies between Arthur and Leon, and to the west between Arthur and Lamorak, the forest grows too wild and thick to bear any passage.
The oily press upon his skin thickens into a sliding weight of something is wrong that quickens Arthur’s mind with a strange sort of fear he thought himself long rid of.
Arthur turns towards Pellinore just as the noise shatters the stillness – the clatter of panicked hooves and deep grunting of a horse run down to exhaustion. Arthur’s eyes widen, and this, this is wrong. Leon rides towards them, slipping from his saddle, his face scored with burn marks and his breathing hacking wet through his mouth. His horse trembles beneath him, weighed down by heavy mud and limping on a back leg. They are both mired with muck and wet and a horrible stench rolls from them, of charred flesh and blood and swamp water.
“Ar – Arthur,” Leon struggles out, voice crackling through the spill of blood in his mouth.
“Leon! Owain, get Leon down from his horse, Pellinore, steady the beast, and – “
“Arthur, no, Arthur.” Leon fights. “The dragon, he came for us and he’ll come back, he attacked us and we weren’t – we couldn’t – and I’m – “
“Leon, it’s alright, it’s okay,” Arthur says.
“The dragon came.” Leon gasps for air and it crackles through his throat. He says and forces himself to look at Arthur, head swaying. “We couldn’t – I’m the only one left, and there… there was nothing – “
Leon’s eyes slip upwards and he falls from his saddle, one foot caught in the stirrup. Owain jumps from his horse, arm catching on the flap of his cloak as he reaches out pull Leon’s foot from the hook of his stirrup, propping him along the shaded side of a broad oak tree. Leon’s horse stutters and collapses, groaning piteously when the gash along its withers opens wide as it scrapes on the bracken on the ground.
Arthur has seen battle – he is no green squire fresh from his mother’s perfumed court – and he knows the look of a man dying; knows that the pale gaunt of Leon’s face promises despair and a funeral pyre if they don’t retreat to a physician now. Through the rush of adrenaline, of worry and anxious anticipation, Arthur almost doesn’t notice how
something is very, very wrong
before the forest erupts with noise.
The dragon flies in with thunder in his mouth and a windstorm spinning under his wings.
“To arms!” Arthur yells, but his words are pushed down, beaten down, by the thudding of the dragon’s wings. Trees bend and snap, horses shrieking as the wood splinters and spears them. “Ready spears! Geraint, Kay, bows in hand,” he screams, words ripped from his throat and scattered in the heavy thump, thump, thump of the dragon-born wind.
Arthur sways in his saddle, grabbing tight to the spear lashed to his saddlebag and drawing his breath tight in his chest before righting himself, winding his reins tight in his left hand and drawing Hengroen back to bring the dragon into view.
His heart pounds heavy in his throat and beats a drum in his ears. Dust pulses through the air in the same steady, heady rush, chalky against his lips and an itch he dares not blink out of his eyes. To Arthur’s right, Bedivere rallies the rest of the knights into formation behind Arthur, spears tipped skyward.
A roar rips through the air, scattering the dust in the air and stripping the branches from the trees.
“Stay steady,” Arthur bellows, “and fan out behind me.”
Maw open wide, close enough that Arthur can feel himself sway in the saddle, ebbing back and forth with each sweep of the dragon’s massive wings, cupped with the heaves of air they swallow. Veined wings, fine webbing, red and shining in the sun.
“Knock arrows, aim for the wings!” But the order comes too late – already the dragon is tucking his wings in tight for a dive and –
jaws open wide (Arthur’s eyes open wider) and orange glows dim in the deep dark of that throat
– “SPEARS UP, SCATTER WIDE,” but the fire flares out too fast.
Blooms down on the field, knights jumping from their horses (cloaks caught a fire, smell thick in Arthur’s nose) and yelling, screaming, and Arthur remembers the first council he ever held on his own; remembers the terror run flush through his veins when the assassin had stepped forward.
(Colour rushes wide before him, a sweep of blazing light atop the greenery, hot and hazy against Arthur’s face.)
That was the first time he saw Emrys kill a man, with palms full of fire stolen from the assassin’s hands.
(Broad swipe of the dragon’s kneading claws, ripping the spear from Arthur’s hands, pain lancing white hot across his shoulders, screaming so loud as his cloak catches alight.)
The assassin’s flesh had burned so swift into acrid ash, but not so quick that there wasn’t time for the screaming, the begging, for Emrys to show a mercy he might as well have been incapable of.
(Is that Bedivere? Just behind him, saying, “Gods be good, Arthur, Arthur, get up!”)
The ground settles brittle beneath his cheek, ash misting into his gaping mouth, air punched from his starved lungs – how did he get on his back? – watching the scythe of the dragon’s tail through the air, whipping behind the red-gold gleaming bulge of the dragon’s bulk as it sweeps away. A roar rings dim in Arthur’s ears.
Trees wave in the darkening sunlight, leaves burnt and golden, snapping and cracking in the wind. Arthur sees his own hand stretch up into the air, batting like a child at the smoke rising in giant gulps of wind from the white hot tree tops, black curling over the blue sky.
Someone – Bedivere? Or is that Bedivere there, writhing on the ground, arms burnt to cinders, legs trapped beneath the shuddering belly of his horse? – pulls hard on Arthur’s crumbling cloak (black and flaking under the leaden weight of someone else’s grasping fingers) and shakes him until his head lolls and he –
– snaps upright, a burst of energy flooding thick up his neck, airy through his head.
“Owain,” he says, worried at the slur edging through his voice. The melt of skin around his back cripples him into a crooked lean as he lurches to his feet, right forearm held painfully tight in Owain’s two shaking hands.
“I think it’s coming back, Arthur. I think – “
They flinch at the sound of a granite-heavy roar grating through the air. Owain coughs, a hard hack that pulls his chest painfully tight inwards, and tears stream from his eyes at the smoke suffusing through the clearing.
Arthur looks around, head swaying (falling, fading, but he will not collapse like a maiden in a swoon) and body lurching, blood trickling from the torn flesh of his shoulders. They lean together, standing on the ash of burnt forest floor. Spread before them (lain out before them, a feast upon the high table in the Great Hall, blood bursting in his bulging eyes, pale and yellowing into a corpse’s pallor) lie Arthur’s men. Bedivere, blackened and shrivelled arms and chest collapsed under the weight of Pellinore’s horse, shivering in half aborted twitches; and there, Pellinore, belly spilling out, rent with three long claw marks, and wailing high and tight through the wretched span of his throat; Geraint, lying shattered under the shade of a tree with bark made thick with ash. All of them, loud in their death.
“Arthur,” Owain says. Dazedly, Arthur turns, looking with blurring eyes at the slide of Owain’s cheekbone, tracing it back up to his eyes, pupils large with fear and dark in his pale face. He follows Owain’s eyes up to the sky, where the dragon reels around, turning for another attack.
“Sire, the others – we need to get them into the cover of the trees. They can’t – “
“Leave Bedivere,” Arthur says in his father’s voice, loud enough to carry across the mess of moaning and screaming of men made incoherent with pain. “And Pellinore.” Arthur stumbles over to Kay where he lies face down on the prickling grass, gagging at the smell of him (so like long ago, when Emrys had roasted a man in the throne room until he was dry enough to fly away in a thousand handfuls of ash) as he feels along Kay’s neck, stiff with his burning, for a pulse. Swearing when he finds none. “Get Geraint into the cover of the trees.” Probably Geraint has a broken back at least, but he may live. “And then go to Gareth.” Gareth, who bleeds fast into the pool of wet red curled around him.
Owain rushes off, but –
that sound, that thump, thump, thump of wings, and the itch of magic stretched along his spine, pulling him thin inside the bulk of his bones so that every motion feels like a glut of effort
– the dragon snaps Owain up by one leg and flings him deep into the forest, the sound of his terrified pain barely dampened by the distance.
“No!” Arthur rushes forward, stooping to pick up Kay’s spear, and screams, “Don’t you dare fly away again. Get back here and face me!”
Dragons are things of myth for Arthur, or might as well be. And in that moment, standing amid the broken bodies of his men, his brothers and the closest to friends a prince could ever truly have, he hates his father for leaving him so blind. But behind the eyes – Arthur hefts the spear up in his hand and feels a growl snarl its way up through his throat – everything is vulnerable.
Arthur digs his back heel into the soft give of moss and brittle grass and hooks his gaze into the twist of the dragon as it pulls itself back, rolls its head around, and stares straight at Arthur, mouth opening – so wide – and Arthur remembers every lesson Leon had taught him when Arthur had still been too young to take up the full length of a spear himself. He draws back his arm and aims straight and true at one great, narrowed eye and lets loose.
Watches the dragon bat the spear down with one lazy claw.
Waits with his eyes opened wide. And it hurts, the sweep of the spined tail scraping over his burnt and bloodied back, but –
cool wet of the air sweet against his cheek
– he can’t hold back the mangled yell that rips ragged from deep in his chest when he hits the hard jut of a tree and crumples to the ground.
(And he wonders at the sudden sight of Leon – Leon, from where Owain had propped him up against the shady backside of a tree an eternity ago – who looks lost and alone.)
Arthur crawls (fingers curling through the dirt and the bloodied mud) away from Leon, because if the dragon... if it has not seen Leon yet... but the ground spins up and out and away from him, and the rippling of screams breaks the thin wisp of his thought.
Those are his men, whose voices fade out into wretched gurgles, withering until he loses the thread of their sound completely. There’s a ringing in his head, high and tight, stabbing through his ears until even the roar of the dragon fades away. Sound rushes through him in a crackle and the wider he opens his eyes, the less he can see, blackness blotching over his sight, spreading heavily.
A man standing at the edge of the tree line, across the clearing from Arthur, gapes at the sky. Arthur crawls, arms burning, the stretch pulling heavily on the fire (flickering pain, deep and burning, spreading and catching at every bend his arms make) caught inside his bones. He keeps his eyes wide, so wide the blackness can’t swallow them whole, and fixed on the wild man who shouldn’t be here – that was the whole point of leaving Camelot, so that no one else would burn along with Arthur in his defeat.
Owain won’t stop screaming, Leon won’t stop moaning, and Pellinore has stopped making any noise at all.
The wild man, beard tangled and long and hair tangled where the wind has had its tidal wash smashing against it, doesn’t look down until Arthur grabs at his muddy leather boots.
“You... need to go,” Arthur says. Fighting to keep his head steady, struggling to stay strong on his elbows, though they shake and threaten to buckle.
The man looks down, eyebrows pulled tight together, looking angry and sad, the twist of his mouth shadowing his face with horrified indecision. His hands twitch upwards, and there it is – Arthur can feel it, the heavy tang against the soft roof of his mouth, thick at the back of his throat. Magic, dark and loamy, green and warm like a fire in a kitchen hearth.
“Please,” Arthur says and he doesn’t know anymore whether he’s asking for the man to leave, to run far and fast away, or if he’s begging the man for any aid he could give. Sparks snap along the edges of Arthur’s skin, skim along the smoldering burn of his chainmail and soothe at the hard shell of his burns.
His arms fold under him and his head falls to the moss of the forest floor. Everything he breathes is green (no more smoke, no more blood, no more terror – just green and wet and good) and he can’t force his head back up. Arthur listens to the thump, thump, thump of the dragon’s approach and absently curls his hand around a spear shaft that isn’t there; hears a grating voice yell out louder than a dragon’s roar and feels the curl of magic through the air.
Just before he passes out, hiding from the skirt of jagged pain around his shoulders, he wonders at the roar of fury booming between the trees.
Something sweet is burning just beside Arthur’s head. He rolls his head away from the smoke and gasps for air, belly heaving against the firm mattress of packed grasses underneath him. His skin pulls tight across his shoulders and down his neck – confusingly it doesn’t burn painfully, but it should. Arthur reaches back a trembling arm, aching and exhausted, and rubs at the skin along his neck. His hand comes away slimy with salve, pungent and cloying.
“I’d leave that on, if I were you.”
A gust of air blows coolness across Arthur’s wet-with-salve skin. He pushes himself up onto his elbows and struggles with his limbs until he’s sitting up straight. Arthur blinks against the sting of the thin haze of smoke feathering across his eyes and looks around. He’s in a cave, sparsely furnished with roughly carved figures – dragons and fairy sprites and other such things contraband under Uther’s reign.
“Your burns weren’t the worst I’ve seen, but it’ll save you much pain later if you let them heal fully now.”
“I don’t have time to wait for them to heal,” Arthur snaps. He rubs a hand over his face, wiping smoke-drawn tears away and pressing against the sharp pain digging in behind his forehead.
“So such is the thanks of the Pendragon King.” The wild man laughs. “I thought as much.”
A frown pulls the corners of Arthur’s lips down. “I owe you my life, that much is obvious. But what – my men, are they…?”
The man jerks his head to the side and says, “Only these two. And them, only just.”
Arthur whips his head around fast enough that nausea jumps through his throat and his head pounds angrily. There, in the corner of the cave, Arthur can make out Leon and Owain tucked under their own blood-stained cloaks, their armour shed to the side. Both could be dead but for the rising and falling of their chests, Owain’s quite steadily and Leon’s in shuddering and broken bursts.
None of Lamorak’s men left any sign of wandering the forest as Arthur, Leon, and Owain had. Not one man. Two, then – Arthur has managed to keep only two of the twenty men he had set out with safe.
“We – “Arthur’s voice breaks. He clears his throat before trying again. “We owe you our lives. You didn’t have to help us. My father, well. My father wouldn’t have thanked you.”
The man barks out a laugh, rough and unpracticed, hard from deep in his chest. “He didn’t. And I ought not have. I should have let Kilgharrah finish you all.”
Arthur swallows, tongue sticking to the dry swell of the back of his mouth. “Why didn’t you? I know… I know exactly how you did it. Stopped the dragon. And I can take an easy guess as to how I’m not screaming with pain right now, and how Owain and Leon are sleeping so peacefully. So why?”
Balinor shifts and shakes his head to himself, folding his arms over his chest and glaring at Arthur.
“Because I looked at you and I thought that you had a chance to be a better man, a better king, than your father. Likely as not, you won’t be, but he brought enough death to the land, and if that could stop with you…”
Arthur swallows around the bloom of fear in his throat. The crown he isn’t wearing falls low over his eyes and weighs down his head until he aches. And he wants to be that person that this stranger sees, wants peace for his people and safety and joy above most all else, but... Uther is Arthur’s father, and for all his life, the duty bound in bloodlines has usurped all other considerations. It’s a need, a compulsion spurred on by the itch of years of reprimands and recriminations (dereliction of duty, his father had snapped, for when you lose sight of defending me, you are also abandoning your people.) and the warm wash of love whenever Arthur backed his father in the council chambers; was seen defending his law in the streets of town. It’s an irresistible need to say,
“My father brought this kingdom together with nothing more than the strength of his will.”
The man before him snorted. “And I’m sure the strength of his army didn’t help him any,” he said quietly.
The barb sticks in Arthur’s chest, even though he recognises the truth in the man’s words, so he talks louder. “He deserves your respect for the years he gave you before the Pur – before the year of my birth, if nothing more. He gave us all Camelot; brought our people together. That will always be worth something.”
“I may respect many things other men would shy from, Arthur Pendragon,” the other man says, low and deep and slow, voice gritty with the years of his solitude, “but never your father’s treachery.”
Before Arthur can snap back, can say you never knew how much my father loved his kingdom, or how he would give anything to save her from her enemies, Leon coughs in the corner.
Leon coughs, and he doesn’t stop, the sound jittery as it knocks around the cave, until – he starts to gasp and cough and gasp, grunting out deep moans in between.
“I thought you – “ Arthur stands, leg nearly giving out beneath him, and throws his cloak – torn into tatters from the swipe of the dragon’s claws, smelling of smoke and burnt flesh – back onto the mattress, stumbling over to the makeshift pallet at the back of the cave. “I thought he was healed, I thought you – “
“He is too close to the veil, one foot behind it already. It is beyond my skill,” the wild man says, quiet and clipped as though he regrets that the words need saying.
Arthur’s blood chills and his head spins, because this is Leon, who raised him to the sword from the time he was old enough to keep a blade level in his shaking grip. The older brother Arthur had never had, who had taught him everything that Uther never would have.
“Is there nothing to be done, then?” he asks, voice uneven, and he hears his father saying No man is worth your tears, but he can’t stop them anyway.
“Not by me.”
“Please,” Arthur says. Blood trickles from Leon’s gaping mouth; soaks in a faint bloom beneath the thick padding of the wild man’s bandaging. “Please. He’s my... he is my friend.”
Dimly, he hears a strangled sigh behind him, and a broken mutter of those are sins of the father, before, “Go east until you hit the first river. Follow it south for three-quarters of a day until you find them.”
Water. Leon gasps and the sound is dry (though the blood in his mouth is wet) so Arthur should find him water. His hands shake, knocking into carved baubles littering the floor as he tries to open the pack – saddlebag? Not important, not important – beside the pallet. A gnarled hand, dirty fingernails and musky with earth, pulls at Arthur’s shoulder until he stops. Stops and listens.
“Ask for the Cup of Life. Tell them that Balinor sent you. Arthur, you must remember to tell them.”