Arthur pulls on the reins and they bank to the right, coasting on an updraft rancid with smoke and death. He looks down in horror at the sight below.
Ealdor. Burned to the ground.
The earth black, scorched with dragons’ marks.
Anger courses through him; bitter and savage. He can barely stop himself from crying out. Hengroen doesn’t bother to hide his anger, his despair, and a mournful screech rends the air. Arthur feels the shiver run through him, feels it ripple Hengroen’s scales even through the leather of his trousers, and Arthur’s heart pounds in response.
He and Aithusa are further back. They stayed longer in the southern lands so Merlin could tend to the wounded. There were so many. They never suspected Cenred’s wrath was spread so far, they thought they only had to deal with their losses at the border.
They were naive, foolish.
When word came of trouble in the north Merlin had sent Arthur off with a tired smile and a reassurance he’d be along soon. There was a dragon lying scorched and broken beneath Merlin’s palms and Arthur knew all of Merlin’s strength and focus was being centered on its survival.
So many broken, so many tearing at Merlin’s heart and power when the one held most dear of all was snatched from this world without notice.
Leon calls out to Arthur and pulls his attention back, signals that they should land just east of the village in the open field of wheat that is somehow left unscathed.
Hengroen descends and lands with the faintest whoosh of air, the stalks of wheat rippling out in a circle around them. Arthur slides from Hengroen’s back as Leon and the few knights he’d taken with him land around them.
As Arthur walks toward Ealdor he reaches his hand out, brushes it over the tips of the stalks of wheat. They tickle his palm and he wants to weep. Everything is so normal and calm in the field yet all he can see before him is ashes. The pain of it weakens his legs and his knees buckle slightly, but Hengroen is behind him and Arthur feels the touch of his snout at the center of his back keeping him upright when he staggers.
Find her. Be certain.
Arthur nods his head and Hengroen pulls back. The loss of his touch makes Arthur feel adrift, the undulation of the wheat around him not helping to keep the sickness rising in him at bay.
When they enter the village Arthur knows, he knows. There’s nothing left, no one left, and his hands curl up into fists at his sides. When he steps in front of what’s left of Hunith’s home Arthur lets out the cry he held inside when they were flying above.
Everything is gone.
The bile rises in him and he drops to his knees to empty his stomach, angry at himself for such weakness. It’s the same weakness that allowed Cenred to do this. The same weakness that gave him the opportunity.
If he had fought harder, been harsher and less forgiving, Morgana would never have gone, would never have taken her dragons with her. Cenred had none of his own until Morgana gave them to him, gave over their Pendragon blood.
Morgana; bitter and vindictive, and now, after generations, the dragons are out of Pendragon hands.
That their dragons could cause such pointless death makes the rage grow inside of Arthur. He thinks of them, glorious and beautiful, and brought down to this. Forced to go against their nature by the will of a Pendragon. How they must suffer. He feels it inside of him too, more powerful now that he’s here at the center of their despair. It’s a keening moan, low and deep, filled with sorrow for what their world has become.
Arthur rises to his feet. “We need to cut Merlin off before he arrives, he mustn’t see this.”
The knights all nod and begin to follow him, but he’s running toward the field--toward Hengroen and the sky and Merlin--and they are left far behind.
Hengroen takes off before Arthur is even fully on his back, a second of complete silence before a loud snap of his wings cracks the air and the earth is falling away beneath them. Hengroen, faster than any of the smaller knight dragons, is leagues ahead of the rest before they even manage to get properly off the ground. The cold and the wind bites at him, brings tears to his eyes, but it’s no matter, there’s only Merlin.
Arthur knows there’s no need to urge Hengroen on, he needs to reach Merlin just as badly as Arthur. As Arthur is bonded to Merlin so, too, is Hengroen, the tendrils of his spirit tangling with the threads that bound Arthur to Merlin.
As they near the southern lands he sees a familiar speck of white in the distance. If he can only get to Merlin, urge him back to camp, he can tell him first, spare him the sight. He needs Merlin grounded so he can hold onto him when his magic explodes at its seams.
Hengroen pulls alongside of Aithusa when they finally reach each other and Merlin calls out to them.
“You’re back so soon, I thought I’d get to you in time to help.”
“There was nothing to be done.”
Merlin looks at him and Arthur can see the realisation dawning on him. “Nothing?”
“Let’s go back to camp, I’ll tell you everything once we land.”
Arthur knows his plan isn’t working, Merlin can see through him as if he were nothing more than a pane of glass.
“Land, Merlin. I’m cold and hungry, we’ll speak of it at camp.”
Arthur directs Hengroen to land but Merlin pulls on Aithusa and she abruptly cuts in front of him. They nearly collide but Hengroen steadies himself in time to prevent it.
“Don’t you dare, Arthur.”
Arthur knows he could force Merlin from the sky, Hengroen is stronger than Aithusa, but he knows Merlin will never forgive him if he does.
“Where was the trouble?” Merlin asks, his face now white as the clouds above them.
“You know where, in the north.”
“Where?” Merlin asks again, his voice rising.
Arthur doesn’t answer, but he knows his silence is more damning than his words.
Merlin screams the word and it rumbles like thunder across the sky. Arthur feels the drop in temperature instantly as the clouds darken around them and the wind picks up speed, but he still can’t answer Merlin, he can only shake his head. He watches as Merlin’s eyes turn golden and the air starts to spark around him. Aithusa lets out a cry of pain to match Merlin’s as flames follow in the sound’s wake. Hengroen pulls back to avoid them both being burned and the sudden wave of heat makes Arthur momentarily breathless. He can only gasp for air as Merlin and Aithusa disappear from his sight.
There’s a brief moment of freefall when Arthur fears Hengroen has been injured despite his quick reaction but before true alarm can set in Hengroen rights himself and they’re aloft again. Arthur runs his hands over the smooth scales of Hengroen’s neck and before he can ask his question is answered.
The knights are upon them by then and Leon looks at Arthur for his orders. Arthur knows Leon would turn around again instantly if Arthur gave him even the smallest indication, loyal as he is to both Arthur and Merlin. All of the knights look worried, pained, obviously having been torn between coming back to camp or following Merlin as he rushed past them.
“Only me,” Arthur calls out to Leon who silently nods and leads the knights away as Hengroen sets out once again for Ealdor.
They never manage to catch up with Merlin and Aithusa and Arthur silently curses Merlin’s magic.
When they land they find Aithusa collapsed in the wheat field, done in by sorrow, her pain doubled. Hunith had been her mother first. Merlin had given her over to Hunith’s care in the beginning, before Arthur knew Merlin was a dragonlord and that he too could command their brethren as though he were a Pendragon. Now she must suffer the loss of Hunith and the despair of what her brothers and sisters have done.
Arthur kneels at her head and presses his forehead against it as he runs his hand over her snout. She lets out a small puff of air in response and it sounds like a whimper.
“I’m so sorry,” Arthur whispers, and though it’s faint, all he hears in response is, ’Merlin.’
Arthur looks up at Hengroen. He bows his head to Arthur and lowers himself at Aithusa’s side.
I will watch over her. Find Merlin.
It’s only when Arthur is running toward the village that he realises it’s raining. He is surprised at the calmness of it, its gentleness; he had expected a raging torrent of rain and thunder and lightening ripping apart the sky. Angry and vicious.
This rain? This rain is weeping, the sky itself mourning Hunith’s loss, quiet in its grief.
Arthur finds Merlin standing at the entrance of what was once his home. The rain is dripping off of him and Arthur doesn’t know what to do.
“I should have been here.”
Merlin’s voice is small, quiet, yet it tears through Arthur more painfully than his screams did. Arthur walks up behind him and wraps his arms around him, holds him tightly against his chest.
“You didn’t know,” Arthur says. “None of us did.”
But we should have, echoes through Arthur’s head.
Merlin shakes his head, stays stiff in Arthur’s arms. “Doesn’t matter. I should’ve been here.”
Arthur presses a kiss to the back of Merlin’s neck and holds him as tightly as he can. He thinks he might be squeezing the breath out of him, but he can’t let go.
“There’s just— nothing,” Merlin whispers. “She was so beautiful and now she’s nothing.”
“She’ll never be nothing,” Arthur says as he splays his hand over the center of Merlin’s chest, digs his fingers in. “You’re proof of that.”
Merlin doesn’t say anything for the longest time and as Arthur holds him he feels the power simmering inside of him. It’s on the edge of breaking free and Arthur fears the consequences. Not for those who will suffer them, but for what it will do to Merlin.
Merlin uses his magic again and again to protect those he loves, and it’s fierce, beautiful, everything that makes Merlin strong and alive. Arthur doesn’t know how dark and ugly it will become in the throes of vengeance, he only knows that he craves its power.
Arthur knows, too, that Merlin feels his hunger, his desire, how it pulls at his gut deep down in the very core of him. He knows that same tug is pulling at Merlin’s insides. Merlin struggles a bit in Arthur’s arms until his hold loosens and Merlin can turn around to face him.
Merlin’s hands tangle painfully in Arthur’s hair as he kisses him. It’s hard, wild, not bowing down to sentiment but demanding all of Arthur’s strength and devotion, and he gives it to Merlin, willingly and without thought. It has always belonged to him anyway, this is only the outward physical proof that they’re of one mind and bound irrevocably to one another. Merlin’s magic pulses out of him and into Arthur; twisting itself through them both, brilliant and strong.
They know now what must be done, and Arthur believes it will be the making of them both.
It is their fight, their kingdom, and the beautiful world that will rise around them.
Love and magic and dragons.
Powerful and alive, and entirely theirs.