"What did you see?" asked Arthur as Merlin blinked back into the present.
"Two dragons, fighting beneath the Earth." Merlin focused abruptly on the soon-to-be king. "This is where you build your kingdom."
The dragon woke slowly, from yet another dream of dragons and Camelot. He continued to breathe slowly for a minute more, to torment the boy in front of him, as the warlock's pleas grew more desperate and angry.
"I don't need to listen to you, Merlin," he responded at last, slowly uncurling. "You always say the same thing: help me." The hate inside him uncurled, too. "And yet you refuse to give anything in return. Now you will face the consequences of that decision. Camelot's end is nigh, and there's nothing you can do about it." Both parts of this sentence are lies. Once and always a seeker of truth, the dragon has grown to appreciate the power of lies.
"I will free you," said Merlin. "I swear on my mother' life."
The dragon paused a breathless moment. This was new. "Careful what you say."
"Help me today, and I will free you in one year's time," the boy amended.
"You would bargain while Camelot burns?" the dragon mocked. Truly, it was more of a certainty of release than he'd ever had. The idea of another year in the cave burned with acid impatience, and yet-
"You have to help me. Please?" His desperation should have been moving, but the dragon saw only the boy who had lied to him almost as much as he had lied in return. I created this, thought the dragon.
"Her life matters more to you than your own. This is an oath I believe you will honor."
"I will," said Merlin. The dragon explained the nature of Morgana's binding to the spell, and curled in to wait – one year. 52 weeks. 356 days. 525,600 minutes. 525,599. 525,598.
"What are you afraid of?" asked Merlin
"I don't know," said Arthur.
"Shall I tell you what's out there?"
"Yes please," Arthur agreed fervently.
"The dragon…a beast of such power that if you were to see it whole, and all complete in a single glance, it would burn you to cinders."
"Where is it?" asked Arthur.
"It is everywhere…it is every thing. Its scales glisten in the bark of trees, its roar is heard in the wind, and its forked tongue strikes like, like – "
With a crash, the top of a nearby tree was disintegrated by the power of the storm gathering overhead.
"Whoa! Yes, like lightning. Yes, that's it," Merlin finished.
It was three days later that Merlin showed up again. The dragon stood from where he had been scrying. Another possibility of dragons. This time it was Albion as the dragon. He had seen that before, and the dragon as a standard, the dragon as symbol only, of a great battle. Dragons were as much a constant in his scrying of the last two decades as Arthur and Camelot. Many dragons, but he couldn't tell what they were doing. The possibilities were so varied on this one vital issue that the truth was uncertain. These thoughts filled his head while he waited; it never took long for the warlock to break the silence.
"…Hello," Merlin said. He immediately grimaced, with the air of someone who's done something stupid. The dragon thought perhaps he should keep the look constantly, as a warning, and said nothing.
"How – how was your day?" asked Merlin.
"Cold, dark, and empty," said the dragon shortly. "What do you want?"
"Oh! Um, nothing," said Merlin. "Just to…talk."
"Ah," said the dragon. Then he curled back in to sleep.
"What's your name?" Merlin called at him, in a somewhat belated attempt at basic introductions. The dragon sighed, "It doesn't matter."
"Of course it matters!" said Merlin. "I can't just call you 'dragon' forever…"
"For one more year," said the dragon, "yes you can."
The dragon waited another hundred heartbeats or so, but Merlin didn't leave.
"It is a sufficiently descriptive term," the dragon grudgingly continued. "I am the sole remaining dragon. As my calling you 'young warlock,' in Camelot. If you continue to call me dragon, there will be no confusion between us."
Merlin looked at him sadly. "But you still have a name."
"Goodbye, Merlin," said the dragon. He spread his wings and beat the exactly seven strokes it took him to reach the only other resting place in his cave. The ledge above the entrance to his prison was not as comfortable, but it appeared to be quieter. He waited another several heartbeats before he heard footsteps turn around and leave.
Tor stepped forward and knelt at the king's feet. Arthur said, "Rise, friend. Tell me your name."
"I am Tor, your highness," he said, standing.
"Where are you from?"
"From Hartsbeck Heath, your highness."
"And who are your parents?"
Tor's chin lifted stubbornly, and he said in a ringing voice, "My father is Aries the Cowherd, and my mother is named Kate." A hubbub of surprised conversation arose, and Arthur quelled it with his hand.
"Why do you want to be a knight, Tor?"
"It is all I am good for, your highness. I have no love for cattle, no interest in farming. My dreams have always been with the knights." A hush spread over the room, and Tor added quietly, "I have my father's leave to seek my fortune here."
"It is good you said so, "Arthur said approvingly. "I would not have any son desert his father."
"To be honest, your highness, he said that I might as well leave, since I was useless to him."
Arthur laughed an easy, pleasant laugh. "Well said, Tor! Have you ever done a deed deserving of knighthood?"
"No, your highness."
"Then even if I want to, I cannot knight you. One must earn the right of knighthood at my table." Tor bowed and started to back away, but an old man in a black shawl, standing slightly being Arthur, cleared his throat and said "Your highness?"
Arthur turned and looked at the old man. "Yes, Merlin?"
So this was Merlin! Even in the hermitage, Terence had heard of the great enchanter. The aged magician said, "I don't mean to interfere, but you don't want to lose such a knight as this youth will become."
Arthur looked thoughtfully at Tor while the court buzzed. One voice sounded louder than the others, saying, "But the son of a cowherd?"
Merlin spoke clearly. "It is from that honest cowherd that Tor learned his courage, strength, and goodness. You see that the boy himself declares the name of Aries proudly. It is well and justly done."
Arthur spoke clearly, "only a fool disregards Merlin. What I will do, Tor, is allow you to ride with me to the wars tomorrow. You shall be given your chance to earn what you desire."
It was a full week before Merlin came again, such that the dragon had some hope it was for a disaster involving a nearly-dead Pendragon, and not another stilted attempt at conversation. One look at the warlock's face denied him these fantasies.
As recently as fifty years ago, the dragon had considered it beneath his dignity to care about human facial expressions. The only humans he had really interacted with were the dragonlords, and he could tell what they were thinking without such petty methods as observing the muscles in their face. Fortunately he'd been a quick study in the time since.
"What do you want, young warlock?" he said as he finished the short glide down to his resting place by the entrance.
"You said it was dark and empty," said Merlin, still with the strange mix of bluster and fear that had alerted the dragon this wasn't a business visit. "So I thought I'd make you some company." He breathed on the torch, and the fire on the end froze. It twisted slightly, and resolved into the form of a dragon, coiled around the torch with wings extend where once there had been flame. It uncurled and launched itself from the torch to fly up to near the dragon's face.
The dragon watched it. He glanced at the human, who looked a little obscenely proud. The dragon laughed angrily. He belched a gout of flame and formed it into a second head, so he could laugh with that too. "How long will it last?" he asked.
"About a day," said Merlin, looking uncertain. "That's how long it was last time."
The dragon breathed fire again, gave it human form and made it walk towards Merlin. "And what under the noonday sun made you think you could do more with fire than I?" asked the simulacrum. It reached out and Merlin flinched away from the living flame.
Tired, the dragon let the flames lapse. He stared at Merlin unblinking. His extended tail and tightly furled wings would have further conveyed a lack of welcome, were any around who knew how to interpret them. The warlock deflated and turned to leave. He looked at the black stairway and his dark torch, the flame of which was happily exploring the darkness beneath the dragon's perch. Merlin put the torch down and fumbled in his pockets, pulling out flint and tinder.
"Dawn's fire, Merlin," hissed the dragon. "Are you a sorcerer or not?"
Merlin flinched again, dropping the rocks. "I always cheat," he said, feeling around for the flint. "So I never really learned the slow way, and sometimes people are watching…" he trailed off, and looked back at the dragon. "But now's not the time to practice." The torch burst back into flame, and he scooped up the flint and was gone.
The dragon turned and saw the little flame dragon examining his tail. He wondered if Merlin knew the power it took to create independent life from flame, rather than the simulacrums the dragon used. He wondered if Merlin knew how vilely evil it was to create life doomed to annihilation before it even began to truly live. He wondered if Merlin knew how much it ached, to see something made of fire that would never again exist as flesh and blood. "Oh, little one," he whispered. "You too are alone." He curled a wing over the flame to protect it from drafts, and prepared to stand vigil until the small life was also gone, and 'dragon' was again a sufficiently descriptive term.
When the dark comes rising, six shall turn it back
Three from the circle, three from -
The dragon fell violently back into himself. He had been trying to find something distant in probability, but that had felt distant in time. The future, or the past, or both by the sound of it. He had to settle a moment before he was aware of Merlin's unwelcome presence.
Thankfully the visit was because some dimwitted sorcerer had decided to avenge himself on Uther by cursing all of Camelot's fields to stop growing.
"It was eerie," Merlin said. "It's beautiful, all of the flowers, but if they last much longer the fruit won't have time to develop before the frosts come."
It was a relatively simple matter, involving only a detailed model of Camelot as a focus. The dragon dispatched Merlin to find and destroy the model. He rustled his wings in quiet relief that the warlock hadn't attempted more conversation, and settled in to doze, letting his senses expand to feel the lives moving busily and freely above him. At some unnamed time later Merlin returned.
"I brought you something," he said, when the dragon cracked an eye. "But it's the first time I've done it, because I can't exactly practice on anyone else-"
The dragon blinked, slowly.
"And you mentioned the dawn, and I thought it must always be dark down here…" he trailed off.
"Just do it and leave," said the dragon. "I can hardly force you."
"Right," said Merlin. "Right." He concentrated for a moment, and
Merlin stood at the eastern edge of the battlements, in the dark. He was pretty sure the spell had taken hold. It had just felt a little different, that last time. And that was pretty fortunate, because he could see a glow on the horizon. He stepped out of the alcove where he had been practicing, walked to the edge of the stone ledge, and watched the horizon. He tried not to blink, and found that his eyes watered too much. He tried to blink normally, and found that he had no idea what normal blinking was supposed to be like, when he was actually thinking about it. He cursed silently and thought about something else.
This had to work. It just had to. The sky had brightened from pre-dawn gray to pink edged with gold, a change not as much in brightness as in light quality. He yawned, and really hoped the spell worked right, so his missing waking Arthur up would actually be worth something. He looked at the farms surrounding Camelot, and thought of Ealdor, where he could sneak off to watch a sunrise and no-one would mind, as long as he finished his work at the end of the day. It was still better in Camelot, he decided, and belatedly snapped his eyes back to the horizon. It was cloudy this morning, which was good, Merlin though. The clouds drew the color up from the sun in long pink and gold streaks across the still-dark sky. It was going to work, Merlin though. It really was. Because it had to. And even the dawn was cooperating.
"Merlin," someone said behind him, and he almost jumped off the castle walls. He turned to look at Arthur, and cursed and turned to look back at the sunrise.
"Stop it," said the dragon.
"What are you doing out here?" asked Arthur, managing to make it sound more like an accusation than a question.
Merlin fumbled in the cave and on the wall. "I…" he said. The sun was almost up. He felt Arthur standing behind him, and gave up. The sun rose every day. He could catch another one. Or maybe just keep the beginning of this one. He turned around. "I was just…wondering where Morgana is." He smiled at Arthur and felt the usual round of emotions – guilt first for lying, a sort of relief that Arthur was here and safe with him, another sort of relief that came from being in the company of friends, and the bone-deep loyalty that kept growing no matter how many times they insulted each other.
Arthur sighed and looked out at the farms. "Me t-
"Stop it stop it stop it!" cried the dragon, and the vision finally ended. He tried to breathe slowly.
"I'm sorry," said Merlin. "It was supposed to stop before Arthur came. I know you don't like him. It was just my first time and I didn't-"
"Leave," said the dragon.
"I'm sorry," said Merlin.
"Leave!" cried the dragon, and Merlin left.
"This Round Table," said the older man slowly, "was a good thing when we thought of it. It was necessary to invent a way for the fighting men to express themselves without doing harm. I can't see how we could have done it otherwise than by starting a fashion, like children. To get them in, we had to have a gang, as kids have in schools. Then the gang had to swear a darksome oath that they would only fight for our ideas. You could call it for civilization. What I meant by civilization when I invented it, was simply that people ought not to take advantage of weakness – not violate maidens, and rob widows, and kill a man when he was down. People ought to be civil. But it has turned into sportsmanship. Merlin always said that sportsmanship was the curse of the world, and so it is. My scheme is going wrong. All these knights now are making a fetish of it. They are turning it into a competitive thing."
He was back in two days. The dragon had spent most of that time scrying, in an effort to avoid remembering.
"I know you're angry with me," Merlin said, "but I need to talk to you."
The dragon sat back slightly. Remembering that Merlin surely wouldn't know that meant he'd listen, he tilted his head. A human gesture he had learned.
"I just wanted to talk to you," Merlin said, in a rush, "but you wouldn't talk to me. So that's when I asked Arthur, and he said I should try to impress you, and I'm not really good at anything but magic, but you laughed at me and frightened me and- and then I asked Gaius, and he said that when you're trying to woo- trying to get someone to talk to you, you should give them gifts, but you didn't like it when I tried to give you a dawn, and I talked to Gwen yesterday and she said I should just be honest, so…so that's the first part."
"Okay, so I need to talk to you," said Merlin. "And I need to talk to you because…I saw what would happen, if I set you free, in the crystal. And I can't let that happen. And I can't break my oath to you and I can't even come close to stopping you yet and so I need you to not do it. And I need to find out what I can do so that you don't. So…. please, just talk to me. I can do a lot of things, if you want. Just-just tell me what I can do, to save Camelot."
So Merlin had some idea of what would happen in just over ten months. "Honesty deserves honesty," the dragon said. "I hate Camelot. I hate you, for running freely through it, for thinking a pathetic fire trick can make up for my lost people, for feeling the loyalty I haven't felt since our last great king died." His tail tapped out a staccato beat on the stone behind him. "I hate you for having what I never will again and there is nothing you can do to stop me from destroying your home and people. "
With an effort, the dragon stilled his tail and the recitation of a fraction of what he hated. "I also need you," he said. "You, as the only warlock of any strength stupid enough to reside in Camelot, are the only one who can free me. You are also the only other being I have spoken to in decades who hasn't been gloating over my imprisonment. I will never release you from your oath. You will free me, in less than eleven months. You may try to change my mind in the intervening time." He smiled slowly, showing all his teeth. "But do not expect me to make it easy for you." He turned again, and it wasn't long before he heard slow footsteps going back up the stairs he could never take, into the sunlight he could sense but not see.
And when Queen Genever understood that King Arther was slain and all the noble knights, Sir Mordred and all the remnant, then the Queen stole away, and five ladies with, and so she went to Almesbury; and there she let maker herself a nun, and ware white clothes and black, and great penance she took, as ever did sinful lady in this land, and never creature could make her merry; but lived in fasting, prayers, and alms-deeds, that all manner of people marveled how virtuously she was changed.
The dragon was ready next time Merlin visited the cave.
"I want an afternoon in the sun," he said.
Merlin paled and stammered through explaining that he really couldn't let the dragon out for another ten long months. The dragon let him fumble for a few moments before interrupting
"The same way you tried to give me a dawn," he said. "Just make sure you're alone this time." The human nodded and retreated without another word. The dragon spent the first few minutes after he left grateful that he hadn't attempted another conversation, then a much longer period wishing for some sort of contact, even fumbling attempts at manipulation from a human. It was pathetic.
It was after some time of this that Merlin returned, looking exhausted and extremely uncomfortable. He sent a sullen glance at the dragon, and –
Merlin looked around guiltily as he entered the cleared space at the top of the hill. It was a silly gesture, and he knew, but both Gaius and Arthur had seemed suspicious when he tried to convince them that the other needed his help all day. He could have explained to Gaius, at least, he thought. But that would have meant explaining his deal with the dragon, which was just too awful to think about. He flinched, thinking that if this worked like last time, the dragon would know Gaius didn't know and…oh, what did it matter! Merlin flung his arms out and flopped on a patch of greenery near the top of the hill. He was already too warm from the walk from Camelot, but he tried to relax and enjoy the feel of the sun on his skin. He remembered the lizards he and Will used to catch on summer afternoons, sunning on warm rocks. He wondered if that was the feeling the dragon wanted. He closed his eyes and stretched, and tried to feel like a lizard without any care but to absorb the sun while it was available.
He tried to keep his mind clear, but worries about his chores for Gaius and Arthur's scuffed armor and thrice-damned boots kept intruding, so he settled for focusing on finding shapes in the clouds, another summer occupation with Will. That hurt on it's own, and once remembered, brought Morgana and Freya with it, and Merlin wished desperately he could find something else to keep himself too busy to think. Or even just someone else to talk to. Given this train of thought, he really shouldn't have been as surprised as he was when someone said his name.
"Gaalg!" he garbled, jumping what felt like a foot off the ground and landing with a painful bump. He sat up quickly and saw Gwen smiling at him.
"Are you picking herbs for Gaius?" she asked.
"Um, no," Merlin had to reply. He didn't even have a basket for a cover story. "Just…having a day off."
"Hmmm, official or unofficial?" Gwen asked. "I wouldn't want to give you away," she teased, sitting down, before immediately standing back up. "Merlin! That's poison ivy!" she said, pointing at the plant he'd spent the afternoon on. He scrambled up, and like the words had opened a gateway in his mind, his back and arms started to itch. He teetered for a moment on the edge of anger, before he started to laugh.
"Worst. Day off. Ever," he choked out, and Gwen laughed with him. "I'll walk you back," he offered after they had finished, seeing that the light was fading. "What brings you out here anyway?"
Gwen's face stilled. They were almost under the shadow of the trees, but light still shone in her eyes and hair. "I keep the flowers in Morgana's room fresh," she said.
"You can soothe the itching vine's sting," said the dragon, after a moment.
"I've tried," said Merlin. "AFTER I did all of Gaius's chores and all of Arthur's and tried to explain away the rash over HALF MY BODY. It didn't work."
"That's because you're doing it wrong," said the dragon. "You work magic like a human, but your magic comes from older sources." He considered. Merlin was his enemy, though it was easy to forget that in this forced interaction. But Merlin badly needed teaching. And there was more he could demand in payment. "I'll teach you," he eventually said. "I'll teach you how to hide things, and then I want you to bring me fresh meat. But first, I want more time with Guinevere."
Merlin had looked stupidly hopeful at the thought of learning more magic, but heaved a sigh at the last. He turned to leave, but paused. "I thought - " he said, "One of the guards said you didn't need to eat."
"The ambient magic and the water of the stream are all that I need to survive," said the dragon. "As you do not need to move, or to speak, or to know magic or see another living being," He layered his words with years of solitude, and Merlin shivered. "I think you will discover, young warlock, that there are many things one can survive, that cannot be lived through."
Merlin turned to leave again.
"Oh, and Merlin?" said the dragon. "Gaius has a salve to ease itching vine irritation. If only he knew the source of your pain." He smiled slowly as the warlock turned again and climbed the stairs.
The hermit had never talked much about faeries, but Terence had heard of them from travelers who had stopped at the hermitage. Most of what he had heard had been about fairies doing mischief and luring people to their death. Gawain said, "It doesn't please you, boy?"
Terence swallowed. "No, milord."
"Faeries are wicked, aren't they?"
"Some of them are. Some aren't at all. It's more that you can say of men." Terence still frowned, and Gawain added, "There's no shame in a touch of faery blood, Terence. I've some myself."
"On my mother's side. For that matter, so does the king."
"Ay. Just like the rest of our family. My mother and my Aunt Morgan show it the most, but even that blundering gapeseed Gaheris has a bit."
Terence blinked. "Milord, is the king a part of your family?"
"Ay, Terence, the king's my uncle."
Terence looked at him with awe. "Then you're almost a prince!"
Gawain laughed and said, "Better than almost, really. My father was King Lot of the Ornkey Islands." Terence's eyes widened, and Gawain said hurriedly, "But don't go calling me Prince Gawain or some rot like that. Now that we have a King of All England, there is no more kingdom of Orkney. And a knightship at Arthur's court is greater honor than any princedom. Knighthood has to be earned."
"Every living thing is a source of magic," said the dragon, some days later. "And most all things can tap into it, on an instinctual level. Humans feel this as an awareness when someone is watching, birds and dogs can find their way home from miles away. When humans practice magic, they use their own meager supplies. The words they use are to amplify and shape that power."
Merlin nodded, attentive and eager. The dragon wondered if he had found a way to erase the itching vine's touch, or had merely erased his anger over it.
"The priestesses of the old religion, the dragons, and you - we do not tap into merely our own sources of power. We feel those around us as well. The human words are not designed for this. This is why they generally limit you, causing your spells to fail. When you understand the purpose of the words as it applies to you, and not other humans, your power and precision will grow."
The dragon outlined the remainder of beginning magical theory. He remembered teaching this to his daughter, as though it were simultaneously yesterday and millennia ago. The past does not belong here, he thought. He distracted himself by thinking again of the merits of teaching an enemy. It might not be the most rational decision, but the idea of food was tempting beyond the limits of the truly rational. And, he could admit in his own head, when Merlin wasn't being an idiot even the warlock's company was better than no company at all.
"Have you made a memory with Guinevere yet?" he asked as Merlin practiced turning fire various colors.
"Not yet," said Merlin. He blushed, and the fire turned abruptly from blue to red. "I don't have much time free, and if I try to make time to spend with her Arthur will think I'm in love with her again."
"Oh, don't rush on my behalf," said the dragon. "But don't come here again until you do." He could admit a desire for company only in his head. "I have no opinion on how much you learn before your year is up." He smiled genially, another human expression. "Try to make it green again; colors further from the natural are harder to maintain."
"What are you building?" Flicker asked the human. It seemed like the polite thing to do, after all.
"Isn't it obvious? It's a trap-" the foreman cut off as he turned around and took in Flicker's four legs, tapered snout and green hue. And rather silly hat. "-ezium," he finished desperately. "We're building a trapezium to show how much we appreciate you dragons."
"Oh, that's nice!" exclaimed Flicker. "Does King Allfire know?"
The foreman nodded enthusiastically, but since he had been doing that since finishing his own sentence, Flicker wasn't sure what it meant. He peered at the trapezium instead. Six arches of stone, in a circle around some centerpiece he couldn't make out.
"You know, this looks rather like one of my inventions," he tried for conversation again.
"Ahahahahaha!" the human laughed nervously. Flicker looked at him in pity. The poor humans didn't have much brains to start with, and this one had less than most. He nodded a polite farewell and went to check the cellar under the trapezium.
The dragon was on the higher ledge again when Merlin returned. There was no denying he was grateful for the interruption. A mind-bending world where Arthur and his court were all dragons was enough to make anyone wish for a distraction. He glided down, flapped once to soften the landing, and gazed expectantly at the human.
"Could you use some help?" Merlin asked. The stack of bedding was so high that he had a moment's fear it wasn't actually Gwen behind it. But:
"Merlin!" she gasped. "YES, thank you."
He laughed, and pulled half of the stack out of her arms. "Where are we going?" he asked.
"I'm to replace the bedding in all the guest rooms in the East wing." Gwen looked carefully around her remaining stack of bedding to walk down a flight of stairs.
"Joy," muttered Merlin.
"I sometimes think they don't know what do with me," confided Gwen, as they entered the first room. "The King can't dismiss me, because that would mean giving up hope of Morgana returning. But he can't pay me to do nothing. I've worked three days in the kitchen the last week, and now this. Eventually they'll have to come up with something more permanent."
"What do you want?" asked Merlin.
"I'd be waiting for Morgana whether I was working here or banished to the North," Gwen straightened the sheet on their first bed, and Merlin's heart twisted into an elaborate knot of guilt. "Whatever work they find for me is fine, by me." She shook off her melancholy. "And I came at you right away with all of my problems! How's Arthur?" she narrowed her eyes. "What does he think you're doing right now?"
"He knows I'm…working," said Merlin, with deliberately shifty eyes. He considered this a stroke of genius on his part. He had permission from Arthur to spend the afternoon with Gwen, so that he could then report to Arthur on Gwen's happiness.
"Merlin," Gwen laughed. "Do you even know how many people would kill to have your position?"
Merlin thought of Cedric, and his face twisted into a grimace. "Yes," he said. See how much they'd like it once they got it, he thought.
"Oh, that is, not actually kill," said Gwen, "and I don't mean to say that you don't appreciate –"
Now Merlin laughed. "It's alright, Gwen," he said. He loved that she was becoming more confident, but her rarer stumbles and attempts to backtrack were still endearing.
"Arthur wouldn't dismiss you," said Gwen seriously, pausing an attempt to stuff a pillow into a too-small case to look him in the eyes. "I know you two are almost as close as Morga-" she choked and focused on the pillow again.
"Only if the prince expresses affection through boots," said Merlin quickly. "I swear, most of them he doesn't even wear. He must go looking around empty chambers for filthy boots for me to polish."
Gwen smiled, and he launched quickly into a stupid story about a particularly begrimed pair of boots. Most of it was true, but he didn't tell her about giving up in the end and magicing the stains away.
Talking with Gwen had become a minefield. There was hardly anything he could say that wouldn't remind her of her mistress, and practically nothing she could say that wouldn't remind him of his guilt. They would get past this, Merlin promised himself as the pulled up a fur over the recently-remade bed. They would.
They stood in silence for a moment, before the dragon broke it. "Simple invisibility is extremely straightforward," he said. "But to go unnoticed, to block more than one sense, is both far more useful and far more difficult."
He outlined the basics of layering spells to conceal sight, smell, sound and touch, and the human smiled at him like a fool. It was an acceptance of a price paid, nothing more.
"Uther," he said at length, "your lamented father, was an aggressor. So were his predecessors the Saxons, who drove the Old Ones away. But if we go on living backward like that, we shall never come to the end of it. The Old Ones themselves were aggressors, against the earlier race of the copper hatchets, and even the hatchet fellows were aggressors, against some earlier crew of exquimaux who lived on shells. You simply go on and on, until you get to Cain and Abel. But the point is that the Saxon Conquest did succeed, and so did the Norman Conquest of the Saxons. Your father settled the unfortunate Saxons long ago, however brutally he did it, and when a great many years have passed one ought to be ready to accept the status quo."
It wasn't long before Merlin was able to conceal large objects from notice, provided they weren't particularly large or odorous, and it wasn't long after that that he appeared at the mouth of the cavern in mostly darkness. Literally appeared – his entrance was invisible.
"I used it on myself, too, to get past the guard," he explained breathlessly, smiling hugely. "But I couldn't keep a torch hidden."
"I am in awe of your progress," the dragon said drily. "But you're slipping. I can smell it."
"Well I hardly need it now," the human sulked, and a slaughtered deer slipped into sight behind him. He floated it up towards the dragon, who snatched it out of the air. He took three quick small bites before he could help himself, and saved the rest for later. Three bites was almost enough, after so long. He closed his eyes and savored the feel of actual food in his mouth. He noticed the warlock looking at him in disgust and no small amount of alarm, and made sure some blood dripped from his mouth as he said, "I wish to see Uther."
The human nodded. "He keeps court in two days. I'll Remember it for you."
The dragon smiled at him and licked away the blood. The human did try. "You don't need to bring a torch down, or hide it from the guards," he said. "A wizard's light is a simple trick to master."
"How often will you eat, when you are free?" Merlin ignored his lead-in.
"I shall be full to start with, after I destroy Camelot," the dragon reminded. Merlin looked sick again "You would eat people?" he asked.
"Camelot feasted on dragon meat, at the beginning of the Purge," the dragon said flatly. "I prefer game, but vengeance can be demanding." He paused. "Do you still wish to learn the wizard's light?"
Left and right, like day and night
that's what makes the world go 'round.
In and out, thin and stout,
that's what makes the world go 'round.
You see, my boy, it's nature's way
upon the weak, the strong ones prey.
In human life, it's also true
the strong will try to conquer you,
and that is what you must expect
unless you use your intellect
Brains and brawn, weak and strong,
that's what makes the world go –
Round table, we dance where'er we're –
here in Camelooot.
The dragon was waiting, next time Merlin appeared. "You don't sing, do you?" he asked urgently.
"Well, I hum sometimes, while I work." Merlin spoke slowly, confused.
"Don't," said the dragon. "No singing. Understood?"
"Well, sure," said Merlin. "Do you want to see this or should I just go practice not-singing?"
In response, the dragon settled in to wait, and
"Merlin, what are you doing?" asked Arthur.
"Nothing, sire," said Merlin, going for totally innocent as he turned out of the corner he had used to hide his eyes. It was a terrible idea to start the spell now, when there was nowhere to hide. But he was certainly not doing it in front of Uther. "Just…looking for your red tunic."
Arthur looked pointedly at the red garment he was already wearing. He sighed. "Look, I know being in the throne room makes you nervous." He looked distractedly around the room. "And everyone knows my father has been quicker to anger since Morgana disappeared." He ran a hand through his hair, then placed it on Merlin's shoulder. "But he likes you – or, well, he thinks you're an idiot, but he's not about to accuse you of magic and have you burned, you see?" Arthur smiled encouragingly, and Merlin tried to smile back. Apparently reaching his empathy quota for the day, Arthur patted Merlin's shoulder with enough force to dent a shield. "So buck up!" he said. "I can't have my manservant looking like a frightened rabbit in the throne room!"
Merlin filled the walk to the throne room with vicious and highly satisfying thoughts of turning Arthur into a 'frightened rabbit.' He could find a way to do it.
Audience days were mostly boring. People came from all over the kingdom to address the King, settle disputes, request aid, or provide information. Most of them came to settle disputes, which Uther arbitrated with a great deal more detachment and fairness than either party liked. Though the idea of getting caught at it did frighten him, Merlin watched the King for most of the audience. He
quicker to anger since Merlin had killed Morgana. Also quicker to lose interest, quicker to tire. The light still shone on his crown and throne like iron and steel, but his eyes didn't quite match them anymore. Merlin hated and feared Uther, but the warlock also regretted for him.
The final petition of the day was a man from one of the more distant villages, asking for relief from tithes due to a harsh year and a poor harvest.
"Why should I grant this to you?" asked Uther. Stammering, the man started his tale of woe over. "You misunderstand," interrupted Uther. "The year has been hard throughout Camelot's lands. Why does your village in particular deserve a reduction in dues?"
The man thought a moment. "We don't," he said. He stood taller, gathering his courage. "All those whose harvest has been reduced should give less in tribute this year."
Merlin held his breath, but Uther smiled. "I wish I could grant that," he said. "But if I did, how would I feed the residents of Camelot herself? The knights who protect your lands, the smiths who arm them and the tailors who clothe them? Do not believe we have so much to spare. Look at my son's manservant." Merlin stiffened. "Merlin, do you feel you have enough to eat?" asked Uther.
Merlin glanced quickly back and forth between Uther and the peasant. He thought of stealing food off Arthur's plate, of Gaius' ability to make a filling stew out of scraps, and of the dragon, trapped below Camelot for two decades with nothing at all. The truth hardly mattered. "Not often, Your Majesty."
"Don't imagine we squander your hard-earned tithes," said Uther. "And if we reduce what is owed every time the harvest is poor, then what motive do others have to ensure the harvest is ever good?" He shook his head. "Were it within my power to ensure no one went hungry, I would do so. But it is not. So I ask, why in particular should your village be spared?"
The villager stood in silence for three terrible breaths. "We live on the border with Cendred's kingdom," he said finally. "In the past three months, his scouting parties into Camelot's lands have increased in size and frequency. They ride over some pastureland and a field, turning them to mud. We suffer this more than any other in Camelot."
Uther laughed, but it was a kind sound. "Why did they send you?" he asked.
"I…am the best speaker," the man answered.
"And well you are," said Uther. "Feed and shelter this man for the week," he ordered one of the knights. "When he leaves, Arthur will accompany him. We will ascertain the truth of Cendred's invasions, and the extent of their damage. If what you say is true, we will reduce your taxes relative to the amount of land lost."
The man was escorted out, thanking the king profusely. Merlin wondered if he actually found the judgment so generous, or merely considered it wise to appear so. In truth, Uther's rule in most respects was better than any others Merlin had seen or heard of. Though he resented it now, he could still see why people had celebrated when Uther conquered Camelot. Then he remembered the dragon was going to be experiencing this, and decided that he
hated hated hated
Uther beyond the ability to see any good.
"This is troubling news, Arthur," said Uther. "But we now have good reason to investigate. Examine his fields. Tell me," he said with special emphasis, "what you find."
Arthur nodded decisively and they left the throne room, Merlin gratefully letting the Memory drop.
"He uses his assets well," the dragon said. His voice was mild, with only the slightest undercurrent of acid. This was an exercise in control. He hadn't seen Uther in two decades. His wings shivered slightly with hate that someone could perpetrate such crimes and still rule relatively well, speak mildly, laugh. Then he thought about Arthur, the once and future, as he had seen him in all possibilities. Arthur would have an uphill battle in this world. The dragon would make sure of it.
"What do you mean?"
"Sending Arthur to spy on Cendred, under the guise of investigating this village."
"No, he just sends Arthur to check on all the border villages when they have complaints," said Merlin blithely. The dragon watched him.
"When we get into trouble, it's usually our fault." The dragon didn't blink.
"We're not spying on Cendred."
The dragon remained silent, and Merlin huffed. He disappeared from sight, but sent back another "We're not," before dropping suddenly out of sound as well.
"Now what I have thought," said Arthur, "is this. Why can't you harness Might so that it works for Right? I know it sounds nonsense, but, I mean, you can't just say there is no such thing. The Might is there, in the bad half of people, and you can't neglect it. You can't cut it out, but you might be able to direct it, if you see what I mean, so that it was useful instead of bad."
The audience was interested. They leaned forward to listen, except Merlyn.
"My idea is that if we can win this battle in front of us, and get a firm hold of the country, then I will institute a sort of order of chivalry. I will not punish the bad knights, or hang Lot, but I will try to get them into our Order. We shall have to make it a great honour, you see, and make it fashionable and all that. Everybody must want to be in. And then I shall make the oath of the order that Might is only to be used for Right. Do you follow? The knights in my order will ride all over the world, still dressed in steel and whacking away with their swords – that will give an outlet for wanting to whack, you understand, an outlet for what Merlyn calls the foxhunting spirit – but they will be bound to strike only on behalf of what is good, to defend virgins against Sir Bruce and to restore what has been done wrong in the past and to help the oppressed and so forth. Do you see the idea? It will be using the Might instead of fighting against it, and turning a bad thing into a good. There, Merlyn, that is all I can think of. I have thought as hard as I could, and I suppose I am wrong, as usual. But I did think. I can't do any better. Please say something!"
"I'm to leave with Arthur tomorrow," said Merlin, on his next visit. "To visit that village near Cendred's kingdom."
"To spy on Cendred, you mean," corrected the dragon, and Merlin looked briefly unhappy. "Maybe."
The dragon wondered what had shaken his resolve in the intervening time, but didn't ask. "I want you to Remember Arthur, at some point on the trip," he said.
"Really!" Merlin looked elated. "I thought you hated him."
"I am merely curious," the dragon defended, trying to believe himself. "It is difficult to scry without finding him."
"The future," said Merlin.
"I do not scry the future," corrected the dragon. By habit, he continued, "There are many ways of finding truth in dreams and visions and the elements. Crude methods like the witch Morgana's, and your crystal of Neahtid, search for similar stories, and find the point slightly further on. They sacrifice truth for time."
"So then what do you do?" he asked.
"I search for truth," said the dragon. "I search in similar stories and dissimilar, in the future and the present and the past. What is constant is the truth; what varies matters not."
"So when you said I was destined to help Arthur…"
"There is never a story of Arthur without Merlin, and nor of yourself without mention of Arthur. It is only after you leave him that Camelot falls."
"I won't leave him," said Merlin. The dragon barked a laugh.
"You won't have a choice," he said. "I am also curious about Lancelot," he changed the subject.
"Lancelot's banished," said Merlin, anxious to return to the circumstances of his leaving Camelot.
"I know," said the dragon. "You will search for him in Cendred's kingdom."
"We're not going into – fine. How would I even find him? Shout out his name?"
"I will teach you a basic locating method," said the dragon. "A sense for direction to where someone is, if you know them."
"That's not all that's wrong," said Merlin. "You've woken the dragons."
"Dragons? What dragons?" demanded Vortigern.
"I see two dragons," said Merlin, his eyes focused at a distant point in space and time. "One red, one white."
"My crest is a white dragon," said Vortigern. "It's an omen!" someone called, and Merlin snapped back into the present.
"What else did you see?" asked Vortigern.
Dragons again. Two dragons again. Originally the dragon had taken hope from this scrying. Conflict between the dragons was constant, whenever they appeared. But if this war were to exist in his own world, two dragons fighting would mean he was not totally alone. That hope had faded over the decades, iced over by hate and bitterness. He had expanded his senses as far as he could, which was a considerable distance, and felt nothing. He had passed word of his captivity through all the supernatural folk, and no dragon had come to meet him. He was entirely alone. Visions of possibilities where this was not true existed only to taunt him.
Merlin did not come.
"You could have died!" the Wart insisted.
"It would have been worth it, if you had learned something," said Merlin calmly.
Merlin did not come.
"Well look on the bright side Merlin, chances are you're not going to have to clean this again," said Arthur. He was smiling, the reckless fearlessness that comes before certain doom.
"You must be careful today," said Merlin, not following the mood. "Do not force the battle."
"Yes, sire!" Arthur responded.
"I'm serious," Merlin insisted.
"I can hear that," said Arthur. He smiled while he spoke, but it fell away.
"Let matters take their course," Merlin continued trying to advise him.
"Merlin, if I die, please-" he broke off, not sure how he would finish the sentence.
Merlin did not come, but Arthur did.
"Young Pendragon," the dragon greeted. "I wasn't expecting to see you in person."
The human didn't respond, and the dragon paused. His initial thought was that Merlin had somehow convinced the prince to visit him directly, but something was wrong. Compared to when he had been preparing for audience day, Arthur looked tired. His shirt was stained and wrinkled - it had been worn under mail. He had something large and dark over his shoulders, which resolved itself, in the light of the torch he brought, to be Merlin.
Immediately the dragon leant closer. Merlin's arms dangled in front of Arthur, and on his wrists were delicate shackles formed of silver and gold and moonstone.
"Oh," said the dragon.
"Gaius said you could help," said Arthur, with quiet desperation.
"Maybe," said the dragon. "I need to know more."
Arthur sat back against a wall and gently lifted Merlin's arms over his head. He stood, unencumbered.
"We ran into a patrol just inside Cendred's kingdom," he recited, assuming a habitual reporting stance. "We were far outnumbered and captured. The remainder of the knights with us had stayed at a village on Camelot's lands. They grew concerned, and followed us. They tracked us to a fortress, where they staged a rescue to avoid a ransom. I don't remember much of the time at the fortress; I believe I was drugged. We assumed the same was true of Merlin, but no-one could remove the chains, and he hasn't gotten better. Gaius suspects magic on them, keeping Merlin…asleep…but he couldn't remove them either."
"Surely the Prince could enlist more than the help of a physician," hinted the dragon.
"My father doesn't know," admitted the Prince. As the dragon had suspected. "He can't. He would have the chains destroyed, burned, whether they still held Merlin or not. He's not - " he broke off, looking sick. "Important. I can't understand why Cendred, or whoever ambushed us, would put them on Merlin to start with anyway."
"You didn't see them capture Merlin, and when your knights found him he was already wearing them?"
"Hmm," the dragon said, and resettled his wings. "Merlin," he said presently. This was probably going to end unpleasantly.
"He can't answer," said Arthur. "He seems lucid sometimes, and he reacts if you jostle him, but he –" he cut off at an impatient twitch from the dragon.
"Merlin," the dragon repeated. "I can lift it a little. Can you respond?" The human took a deeper breath, and nodded. "I need to know how they were put on. Were you Remembering?"
"I can't," panted Merlin. He twitched at the chains.
"Have I taught you nothing?" asked the dragon. "Remembering is a spell. To release it is an entirely passive process. Were you Remembering?"
Merlin sighed, and caught back up to Arthur. This would be a good time for the dragon, he sulked. The dragon never turned down a bit of I-told-you-so.
"This isn't safe," he muttered to Arthur.
"We're just a pair of travelers," said Arthur.
"What is this?" said Arthur. The weight of weariness was still in his words. The dragon didn't try to explain.
"Yeah," said Merlin, "Just a harmless pair of travelers armed to the teeth with high-quality weaponry."
They walked a bit further, and Merlin thought about how Cendred's lands were really no different than Camelot's. He glanced at Arthur, and thought of the dragon saying he would unite Albion. He smiled, and that's when Arthur tensed.
"There's someone there," he said, pointing ahead of them.
"I can't see anything," said Merlin, and that's when the first man dropped from the trees. Arthur had drawn his sword and was defending before Merlin fully understood that they were under attack.
"It's an ambush," he shouted over his shoulder at Merlin. "We need to get to the clearing," he followed, when the next three men dropped from the trees. Merlin did not approve of this suggestion. He checked Arthur was distracted, then looked up and shook the branches the remaining men were on, so they dropped in surprise, not attack. Then he had to focus on the man in front of him.
In some ways, it was easier when it was just him and Arthur, because he didn't have to worry so much about people seeing when the only one who mattered was at his back. And in some ways it was worse, because Arthur could keep better track of him when there weren't other knights around, and was more likely to notice if he did something like break the connection between that man's sword blade and hilt, and fill that one's boots with lead, and give a little shove to that one who almost got past his guard.
"What is this," Arthur repeated. Suspicion had burned away the exhaustion in his tone, and it was no longer a question. This was going to end unpleasantly.
Some part of him wished that Arthur would just get knocked out so he could take care of this properly. Then he felt terribly guilty. Then he realized the dragon would be experiencing this too, and focused very much on not wanting Arthur to get hurt at all. That's when the attacker slipped around his guard and whacked Arthur in the back of the head. Of
it would be his fault. Arthur never made a mistake.
He blocked a blow and whispered a little extra force down the blade, thinking about
power, not drawing it out. The man who had gotten to Arthur stumbled, and Merlin took a moment to check that Arthur was actually unconscious but otherwise undamaged. He got as far as the unconscious part before there were men on him again. He could probably dispatch all of them, but they'd tell Cendred it was done by magic. Or he could kill all of them, but how would he explain it? In the end it didn't come down to a conscious decision.
There were too many swords coming at him in the front. He realized they would take Arthur captive but kill him. He panicked, and blew them halfway down the meadow back into the forest. They landed half in shade and half in sun, and bizarrely, his mind turned to Gwen and the afternoon in the sun. He tried to check again on Arthur and turn to knock back the men behind him, when the world went black.
"This is a trick," said Arthur. He spoke too quickly. "What are you doing, dragon?"
He woke up slowly, with a throbbing pain in the back of his head that told him what had happened on the hill.
"I see you are awake." Morgause's precise tones were difficult to mistake.
"Where's Arthur?" Merlin slurred, not fully out of the haze. Morgause's skirts left his field of vision, and behind them he saw Arthur, like himself, on a nondescript stone floor that could belong anywhere. He stood up, and made to check that the Prince was only unconscious, but Morgause stopped him before he took a step.
"I wouldn't do that." She pointed to a circle drawn in something that looked suspiciously brown and flaky on the floor. "You're in a circle of binding. Should any force physical or magical attempt to leave the circle, the one containing your prince will ignite." She smiled. "I thought we might have a chat."
Was that possible, Merlin wondered. He thought about the connection between the circles, how he'd form it if he had to. It would need something strong to bind it. He checked the floor again. Blood would do. "Imagine my surprise when only half my men come back from an ambush, telling me that the prince of Camelot is protected by sorcery," Morgause purred, pacing.
Merlin kept absolutely still. The circle wasn't very big. "S-sorcery?" he asked. "Arthur's a very good swordsman," he followed quickly. "And he knew there were men coming," he added. "And your men must have lied." He swallowed, to stop more words falling out.
"Merlin," Morgause said, savoring his name. "You know, I had hardly even noticed you were there before you poisoned my sister. Is that how you survive in Camelot? Because you aren't particularly great at this." She flicked a spectral blade at him, and he shouted, ducked and – and blocked it. It wasn't even a choice. Like on the battlefield, like saving Gaius' life that first time, it just happened.
Morgause smiled at him. "That could only have been deflected by magic," she explained.
"But if I hadn't," Merlin was stammering again.
"You would have died," Morgause shrugged. "You're not much use to me if that's the case. Though Morgana might have begrudged me the chance to do it herself."
"So what use am I if I do have magic?" asked Merlin. He looked at Arthur again. He couldn't really tell from across the room, but the prince seemed to be breathing alright. He thought about the circles. Could he dissolve it without crossing it? If he had made the circle, he would have safeguarded against that.
"I will probably still give you to my sister. Unless you would prefer to join us? You can be no friend to Uther." Her eyes followed his. "I have no particular grudge against Arthur, except as his father's son. Depending on how useful you are, I could give him a quick death. I could banish him outside of time, or leave him free, without the use of tongue or arms with which to fight me. He stays captive until Camelot falls."
Camelot only falls once you leave Arthur, the dragon had said. And that you wouldn't have a choice. If Merlin fought for Morgause with magic, Arthur would be more lost to him than if he were dead. "I can't," said Merlin. His eyes darted around the rest of the room. There had to be
Morgause sighed prettily. "Then I need you out of the way, while we decide what to do with both of you," she said. She gestured, and soldiers entered the room. Merlin recognized one of them as the soldier whose sword he had ruined. Morgause took a bundle from one of them and held it up to him. He couldn't make out much of it except silver and gold wires, because just being near it made his eyes water. He wondered that Morgause seemed unaffected. "These will contain your magic," Morgause explained. "So I can dismantle the binding circle and we can be mobile. My men are going to put them on you. If you think to fight them within the circle, remember that Arthur will need to be whole for most, but not all, of my sister's and my plans."
Merlin swallowed again. He looked desperately again for some other option, but his eyes caught on Arthur. He held out his wrists.
"Dark of the moon, Merlin you idiot," hissed the dragon.
The first cuff hit like a punch … stomach. Merlin … to his knees. The second cuff swung gently … position on his wrist where … still held it. He retched, and … reached for the magic to soothe … the cuffs. It was like falling off a … and being sucked under by … ragged hole where his magic should have been. He jerked … himself again, only to fall … an equally empty place his magic had occupied.
"Morgause!" he cried desperately. She turned. There was … to say. "Morgause, is Morgana alright? Tell me she's recovered."
"My sister will … a full recovery," Morgause said. Merlin … relief … almost as great … lack of magic. A soldier … the second cuff and
The dragon curled in on himself, somewhat familiar with the sensation, but not used to feeling it so intensely. The prince, too, was curled around the nausea and breathing as shallowly as Merlin.
"I believe I know how to remove the cuffs," said the dragon after Arthur's breathing had stabilized. "But I require your assistance," he said, ignoring the way the prince had shied away from Merlin as he recovered his breath.
"Assistance! To free a sor-" The human cut off. He looked at Merlin hunched in and breathing shallowly, and held his own stomach, presumably in memory of the horrific vertigo of constantly losing and feeling the loss anew of a part of himself. "What do you need?" he asked.
"Dragon fire is enough to weaken the bonds," said the dragon. "But he submitted to them willingly. They can only be removed by one whose judgment he trusts as much or more than his own."
Arthur snorted. "Merlin doesn't listen to me," he said.
"Young Pendragon," said the dragon impatiently. "This is not the first time I have experienced his thoughts. Don't presume to tell me you know them better. Bring him closer."
The human squared his shoulders, paused a moment, and dragged the warlock closer to the edge. Gently still, the dragon noted. Not, he reminded himself firmly, that he cared what Arthur thought of Merlin.
"I will heat the cuffs. Then you must remove them. They may be quite warm. Do not worry if you are burned. Merlin or myself will be able to heal you."
The prince winced at Merlin's name, but settled behind him, half-propping him up and holding out one of the sorcerer's arms. The dragon settled himself, and stretched to minimize the distance. Focus, focus, he thought, and spat a tiny stream of flame that struck perfectly where the wrist cuff met the chain connecting it to the other wrist.
On cue, Arthur grabbed the cuff and wrenched at it. He hissed as the fire-heated metal hit his skin, but the cuff opened easily. Merlin gasped, and let it out on a sigh. He blinked a couple times, and focused on the Prince.
"Arthur," he frowned. Arthur glanced at the dragon, then suddenly moved around again to face Merlin. Intentionally or not, he blocked the dragon's aim for the second cuff. "Merlin," he said firmly. "I need the truth." He grabbed the second cuff and they both winced – his hands must be pretty badly burnt – but he held on. "Do you use magic?" asked Arthur.
Merlin looked at the dragon, obviously still as affected by one of the manacles as the Memory had showed. He closed his eyes and looked the other human. "You were in my Memory," he said, slurring slightly. "You know I do."
Arthur hunched. "Have you used magic against anyone in Camelot? Against me?"
Merlin drew a breath and shook his head violently, and "The truth," Arthur said. Merlin frowned, and thought. "I made you trip, when you fought me in the blacksmith's," he said.
Arthur waited, but Merlin just blinked muzzily at him. "You can't expect me to believe you've never used magic on anyone in Camelot. The truth." His voice broke slightly on the final word and he rattled the manacled wrist. Merlin flinched again.
"Oh no," he agreed immediately. "I've used magic on Camelot's people. I tried to heal you, loads of times. I'm not very good at it. I tried to enchant your sword when you fought the griffon. I healed Gwen's father when the wells were poisoned, and I made the snakes appear early on Valiant's shield, and…" he continued.
The dragon watched them. He thought of Arthur as he had seen him, a shining paragon of honor trying to drag the entire world with him. This isn't right, the dragon thought. He's not complete. It wasn't Arthur the king before him, but Arthur who was called the Wart sometimes, young and strong and full of potential. But the Wart should be younger yet. By the time he was this age he should be complete, guided into the kingship by Merlin's unfailing moral compass and tutelage. Merlin, who the dragon had taught to lie with the best.
We are none of us who we are supposed to be, he thought.
"Stop," said Arthur, to Merlin who was still listing off times he had used magic under their noses. "Stop, Merlin. It's okay." He barked half a laugh and shook his head. Then he took a deep breath, moved around behind Merlin again, and held out the wrist he hadn't let go of. "What are you waiting for?" he asked, staring defiantly.
The dragon spat again – not quite as perfectly on target, but the manacle popped anyway when Arthur pulled it open. Merlin arched and was suddenly the center of a golden vortex. When the last gold swirl evaporated into mist, he sat up abruptly and hunched in, moaning.
The prince stood up, looking dazed. He glanced at his hands, where the burns from the cuffs had disappeared.
Merlin's groan resolved into words, "Thank you thank you thank you."
"Don't," said Arthur. He hesitated, then reached down and took the moonstone manacles. "I'm returning to the castle," he said. Merlin started to stand. "You're staying here," Arthur said slowly. Merlin looked at him. The dragon wasn't sure what he saw. "I'm staying here," whispered Merlin.
Arthur nodded once, and turned smartly. He left with a straight back, and he didn't turn around, though the dragon heard his steps slow and falter when he was out of sight. Merlin sank back into a ball. "That was awful," he said. The dragon didn't know if he was referring to the manacles or what came after.
"But you survived it," he said.
"Why would you call me stupid." It wasn't a question, but Merlin answered anyway.
"Because, it's obvious why you can't build a castle there," he said. "Look," he pointed.
"I'm looking," acquiesced Vortigern.
The dragon scried for several hours, or minutes, or days. He had seen this possibility before. Merlin was about to mention the dragons. They always had to do with the foundations of a castle, most often Camelot. Merlin always explained it so. The dragon visions had been increasing in frequency recently. They had to do with Albion, with the founding of Camelot, with something that Merlin understood before anyone else, but the dragon could find no other constants to explain their meaning. His thoughts were interrupted when Merlin decided he wanted to talk.
"How could you help, with the –" the boy waved his wrists slightly.
"The Binding of Menroah is an old and evil spell," said the dragon. "The trap springs when the afflicted attempts to access magic. The more power accessed, the more severe the backlash. This is why Morgause was unaffected – she is able to use her magic only when she calls upon it, while you are connected almost constantly. I reduced your ability to call on your magic, thus reducing the backlash."
Merin nodded. "How do you know all these things? Do you study dragon-sized books whenever I'm not here?" He smiled weakly.
"There is a variation of the binding on the chains that bind me," the dragon said shortly. Merlin blanched. "It is not as powerful," the dragon reassured him. "And I am well-trained enough to not draw on massive reserves of magic with my every breath."
"That's why the Memories come out weird as well, isn't it?" asked Merlin. "The book said it was supposed to be sensory only, not reliving everything I think."
"You over power the spell," the dragon agreed.
"So then what – " Merlin began, but the dragon cut him off.
"Merlin," he said. "I am perfectly happy to discus the finer points of magical theory with you all night. But not if you're only doing it to distract yourself. I don't know when you last slept, and I suspect you don't know either. You should rest."
"I can't sleep," said Merlin.
"Yes you can," said the dragon, slipping a small amount of power into it. Just a suggestion, but Merlin was breathing evenly before he finished speaking.
The dragon waited until he was sure Merlin was asleep. "I'm not leaving," he called. "So you might as well come down."
"Could you hear me?" Arthur asked, emerging.
"I could smell the chicken," the dragon said.
Arthur looked at the tray in his hand as though he had forgotten it. "He wasn't able to keep anything down," he justified.
"Your concern is touching," the dragon said drily.
"I'm not concerned about a sorcerer." The prince set the tray down gently and rearranged Merlin's scarf, which had gotten twisted around.
"Is he really that powerful?" he asked.
"He is the most powerful warlock who will ever be," the dragon replied, voice flat.
Arthur laughed shortly. "Of course," he said. "Of course he is." He turned to go. "I'll be back, at some point," he said. "I need to – I'll be back."
The dragon watched the archway for a long time after the Prince had gone. He thought of Gwen's verbal stumbling, the frightened fragments of dreams Morgana had projected when she'd been present, and Lancelot, absent. We aren't who we are supposed to be, he thought. But maybe we are growing into it. He wondered what he was growing into.
Arthur's feelings completed the misery of the court. He, unfortunately for himself, had been beautifully brought up. His teacher had educated him as the child is educated in the womb, where it lives the history of man from fish to mammal – and like the child in the womb, he had been protected with love meanwhile. The effect of such an education was that he had grown up without any of the useful accomplishments for living – without malice, vanity, suspicion, cruelty, and the commoner forms of selfishness. Jealousy seemed to him the most ignoble of vices. He was sadly unfitted for hating his best friend or for torturing his wife. He had been given too much love and trust to be good at these things.
Arthur was not one of those interesting characters whose subtle motives can be dissected. He was only a simple and affectionate man, because Merlyn had believed that love and simplicity were worth having.
Despite years of seclusion, the dragon found it remarkably unpleasant to have a guest in the cave. For the first several days after waking up Merlin sat against a wall and stared at nothing.
"D'you think he would have responded the same, to Morgana?" heralded his return to speaking.
The dragon considered. "The circumstances would be different," he said. "Morgana's magic would certainly have been revealed as she acted against him. Her evil would have to be taken into account."
"Morgana wasn't evil," Merlin corrected the dragon immediately. "Isn't," he then corrected himself. "She's just," he paused, searching for words. "She's got her own sense of right and wrong, and she's not flexible. And that's been good - she made us do right before. It's just that she couldn't make Uther do right on this – her magic – she couldn't even fight him. "
"She will destroy you," boomed the dragon, forgetting his resolve to be patient with Merlin's situation. "Your myopic inability to see her true nature does not change it."
"You said you couldn't see the future," retorted Merlin.
"I have seen a thousand futures," said the dragon. "I have seen a thousand versions of her betrayal, of Arthur's death and Mordred's smile."
"Every world is unique," the warlock insisted. "If we can just find her, we can show her that Arthur is more flexible. Her right and wrong, and his right and wrong, they can coexist."
"Is he more flexible?" needled the dragon. It had been more than a week.
Merlin didn't reply. He did start moving about again though. First he alternately explored the few parts of the cave that were accessible by foot, and, seeming to remember how little time remained in his year, tried to engage the dragon in stimulating conversation to find out how to manipulate him. Then he decided this was an opportunity to learn more magic, and pestered the dragon into teaching him more about scrying, and elemental manipulations, and more complicated healing and binding and transfiguration spells.
That's how it came to be that he wasn't immediately visible when Arthur returned.
"Where is he?" the prince asked.
The dragon chuckled. "I'm sure I don't know," he said, ignoring the small bird now peeping insistently in the general area of his eyes.
The prince looked suspicious. "I'm not helping you out of this one," the dragon said.
The robin pecked halfheartedly at the ridge above his brow, and swooped down to the discarded pile of clothes. Within a heartbeat: "Turn around turn around," Merlin said.
The prince started and dropped the torch, which thankfully went out before catching the clothing on fire. He turned to face the half-light from the corridor above.
"A – bird," he said, voice a half-octave higher than usual.
Merlin looked at the prince, then the dragon. "What was that for?" he asked angrily.
"I told you that you should have practiced longer to retain your garments," the dragon said calmly, "but you wanted to get on to flying. I won't help you out of a mess you made yourself."
"Why a bird?" Arthur asked as he turned back around.
"…I wanted to fly." Merlin wasn't meeting his eyes.
"But what is it good for?" Arthur asked. Merlin paused, considering. "Some magic is good, Arthur," he said, picking up the torch and re-lighting it with a breath. "And some is bad. But some of it just is." He extinguished the torch, exchanging it for a globe of wizard's fire, then dismissed that to bring the torch back in red and gold – Pendragon colors. Then he stood, straight, waiting.
Arthur stared at the place where the wizard's fire had hung. He shook himself and started pacing the small ledge. "Please understand, Merlin," it sounded like something he had practiced. "In Camelot there are three crimes for which one can be executed without being heard by any court. Murder, treason, and sorcery. This is…what I know. This is what I have always known. You admit you're a sorcerer, and that IS treason, and you think you murdered Morgana, and –" he cut off. If he was hoping for Merlin to disprove any of it, he was disappointed.
"I told everyone you had been hurt by taking off the manacles, and you were home recuperating," Arthur said after a long pause.
"Thank you," said Merlin quietly. "And I suppose I will decide not to come back from my recuperation?"
"Merlin, I don't know," Arthur said. "Just – explain it to me. Why do you even want to be here? You do know you're in incredible danger, don't you? Why should I let you stay? How could you – how could you hurt Morgana? How could you talk to us, to Gwen, after that? I need – I need to know who you are."
"My mother sent me to Camelot to learn from Gaius," Merlin said. This too sounded practiced. "He fell off his balcony when he first met me, and I slowed time to save him. I met you not long after that…"
The dragon grew bored shortly into this account. He flew up to the upper ledge (one, two, three, four, five, six, seven) and dreamed.
I don't want to have two husbands, and I am just as uncomfortable as you are: but what is the good of being in the open? As we are now it is horrible, but at least Arthur knows about it inside himself, and we still love each other and are safe. If I were to run away with you, the result would be that everything would be broken. Arthur would have to declare war on you and lay siege to Joyous Gard, and then one or other of you would be killed, if not both, and hundreds of other people would be killed, and nobody would be better off. Besides, I don't want to leave Arthur. When I married him, I promised to stay with him, and he has always been kind to me, and I am fond of him. The least I can do is to go on giving him a home, and helping him, even if I do love you too. I can't see the point of being in the open. Why should we make Arthur publicly miserable?
Neither of them had noticed, in the deepening twilight, that the King himself had come in as she was speaking. Profiled against the window, they could see little of the room behind. But he had entered. He had stood for the fraction of a second collecting his wits, which had been far away considering the Orkneys or some other matter of state. He had stopped in the curtained doorway, his pale hand with the royal signet gleaming in the darkness as it held the tapestry aside – and then, without eavesdropping for a moment, he had let the tapestry fall and disappeared. He had gone to find a page to announce him.
Merlin was gone when the dragon woke. He brought another deer with him when he returned. He was improving – it was imperceptible until was suddenly at the dragon's feet.
"Well done," he was startled into saying. Merlin beamed. "Thank you," he said.
"I take it you reconciled with your prince?" he asked, and Merlin's smile disappeared. He took the time while the dragon was eating to launch into a long, long list of examples, which seemed to illustrate only that Arthur was acting inconsistently. "He wants to know everything about it one day and wants to pretend it doesn't exist the next! He says he doesn't want me to leave, but then he twitches away whenever I enter a room and assumes I am doing everything outside of his sight with magic."
After a few more minutes, he stopped, panting. "I never imagined it would go this well," he admitted. The dragon curled his tail around his legs, confident than no one remaining would be able to interpret it as a sign of pleasure.
"If you are back in the prince's favor, I wish you to continue your search for Lancelot," he said.
Merlin sighed and threw his hands in the air.
"You owe me for staying here," the dragon reminded him, and the human gestured at the remains of the deer. The dragon smiled.
After a beat, Merlin smiled back. "I'll try," he said.
The king turned back to Piers. "I beg your pardon, son. Tell me your message."
"My master, Sir Ither, is waiting for you in a small clearing to the east. He wants to fight you, your highness. No one else."
King Arthur pursed his lips, and Sir Kai struggled to his feet. "You can't go, Arthur," he said.
"Tell me why I can't, Kai," said Arthur. "I'll defeat him, you know."
"I know that, but you still can't go. The King of All England can't go off to meet every halfwit who challenges him. Send someone else."
"Who?" Arthur said. "You can't go with a cracked head. Gawain's in Orkney. I don't have any seasoned knights here. These are all journeymen, Kai."
"I'll go fight him," said the rustic, Parsifal.
"Will you shut up?" Kai snapped irritably. "Look, Arthur, this knight has no honor. Why should you respect his wishes? Send all the knights after him."
"I'll fight him by myself," Parsifal said. "I'm not afraid."
"Well you ought to be, clodpole!" retorted Sir Kai. "He's a grown knight, and you're a puppy in bad clothes. He'd kill you."
Parsifal smiled. "I'm not the one he bonked on the head," he said pleasantly.
Merlin was smiling when he returned.
"You were successful?" asked the dragon.
"That's uncanny," said Arthur. He looked unsettled, with a thin veneer of calm superiority laid over.
Merlin shrugged. "I can't see it myself," he said. "Let's go on."
He could feel Lancelot's presence ahead of them, and close. There was a town there, so they were going to the inn. It wasn't far from the border with Camelot, so Merlin had opted to start the Memory outside of too many prying eyes.
Lancelot was easy to find once they entered the inn. He was the only one sober, the only one sitting with easy upright posture, and the only one to stand and smile on seeing them.
"What brings you here?" he asked, after they had greeted.
"Well, you, actually," Merlin said. Lancelot brightened, and Merlin realized his mistake.
"I can't rescind my father's order," Arthur rescued Merlin. "We're only here to talk."
"What about?" asked Lancelot. He covered his disappointment well, but not quite well enough.
Arthur looked at Merlin. "I'm not sure it matters," Merlin said. He leaned in. "I… have a deal with the dragon under Camelot. He wanted to know what you are like, so I am Remembering this for him." He lowered his voice. "It's a pretty simple spell," he said.
Lancelot jerked his eyes over to Arthur, at the same time Arthur exclaimed, "
"He figured it out," Merlin hissed to Arthur. "He saved me," Merlin said to Lancelot. "From a magical trap."
"So, when I talk to you, it is for the pleasure of this dragon," Lancelot asked stiffly.
"He just… wants to know you," said Merlin. "I think he's lonely." He paused, and closed his eyes tightly on realizing that would now be Remembered. "Let's just… talk about swords. You two like fighting, right? Let's talk about swordfighting." He kept his eyes closed, and Arthur asked Lancelot where he had been and how he had come to be here. Gradually they reached a conversation Merlin could take part in and forget he was Remembering. Gradually, it became one of the better nights of his life. Arthur and Lancelot talked about Gwen without fighting. Merlin and Arthur told Lancelot about the various supernatural beings they had fought off since they last met. Merlin and Lancelot even teased Arthur just the slightest bit about not noticing the magic.
"I am not lonely," the dragon insisted.
"No, of course not," Merlin agreed hastily. "I only meant to say that you didn't have many people to talk to, or that I am not that interesting alone, or that you – I sound like Gwen, don't I."
The dragon curled his tail again.
"I wanted to ask you," said Merlin. "What are your plans, when you are free?"
"I will revenge myself on Uther," the dragon repeated and his tail slowly uncurled. There was no point in hiding it, but for some reason it didn't bring the joy it should have.
"I know. But, what then?" asked Merlin, for once not harping on the destruction of Camelot.
The dragon thought about it. Twenty long years in the dark, and he had found only one thing do once he regained his freedom. What else was there, truly? He was the last of his kind; only one option remained. "I will be free," he said to Merlin, but he thought it was a lie.
"We've got four picts," said Palomides. "Can anybody go fight them off?"
There was a chorus of no's around the table.
"Does anyone need only a little help?" asked Arthur. "We could do an exchange."
"I'm close, admitted Gawain. "But I need them to fight off the siege engines." Everyone glanced outside and agreed the siege engines were just as dire as the picts.
"Merlin owes me a favor," said Lancelot.
"Then why'd you let the picts even get this bad?" demanded Palomides.
"I was saving it," Lancelot said, responding to the challenge as much as the question, "for when Morgan next comes to fuck us over."
There was silence as the table considered how long since Morgan had last attacked and their chances of surviving her next ploy without Merlin.
"Okay," said Arthur. "We've lost sight of the goal. We just need two more swords. Does anyone have any…insight as to the location of the grail?"
"I need your help!" shouted Merlin. He didn't wait another moment before
"You're remembering this, aren't you," said Arthur.
"I'm sure I don't know what you mean, Sire," Merlin tried. Arthur stared at him, unblinking, and Merlin thought that he looked just a little like the dragon. "It's the best way for him to know what this is," he tried to explain.
"Sure," said Arthur, turning away. "Let's just humiliate the crown prince in front of the malevolent reptile beneath the castle."
"He's not a reptile," Merlin said, offended.
"Of course not," Arthur rubbed his face. "Let's just get this over with."
They'd come investigating stories of a monster in the lake that lured men to their deaths. The one clue they had was that only knights in armor were called, so Merlin was to hang back and try to identify the creature while Arthur rode up to the lake as bait.
Merlin heard it first. "What's that noise?" he called. Arthur half turned back to him, then turned abruptly out to the lake.
"Merlin," he said, in the tone he reserved for when he thought Merlin had done something particularly stupid, which was most of the time. "How did you even get out there?"
"I'm right here," Merlin called back, trying to sound helpful.
"Of course," said Arthur, still facing the lake. He dismounted. "But you needn't have brought Gwen and Morgana with you."
Merlin frowned. Gwen was still at Camelot, but something was really wrong if Arthur thought Morgana was there.
"You know, I managed perfectly fine for many years without your incompetent help," Arthur sniped, fiddling with one of his greaves. Then "Fine," he threw up his hands and headed straight for the water without any further attempt to remove his armor or prepare to swim.
"Arthur!" called Merlin, but he didn't seem to hear, and that's when he saw the figure in the lake. Her mouth was open, and Merlin guessed that's where the noise he could still hear was coming from. On an instinct, he tried to hide her from sound like he did himself when he was sneaking down to see the dragon. The noise stopped, and Arthur stopped heading out to the lake. He looked down at himself, waist-high in water, then turned to mouth something at Merlin.
"What?" said Merlin, but no sound came out, and realized he must have over-done the spell. He cursed, silently, and moved to try to sign to Arthur that he didn't know what the thing in the lake was, and they'd better get back to Camelot, and yes, they'd be able to talk again by the time they got there. Probably.
"It's a siren," said the dragon. "They usually only call one sort of person. They sound like something their prey loves, drawing the men their death by shipwreck or drowning. I suppose this one likes knights."
"Can I stop it?" shouted Merlin.
"…You still haven't fixed that spell, have you?"
Merlin smiled sheepishly and took a deep breath. "I can only talk when I shout," he bellowed. "But Arthur can only whisper."
The dragon laughed.
"You can silence her for good," he said. "You had the right idea. Just make the spell permanent, and by the Dawn's fire, focus it."
Merlin grimaced and turned to leave.
"Merlin," said the dragon and he turned back. "Your time is almost up. I will see you soon," he said grimly.
"Rise, Sir Terrence," said the King, "and be known as a fellow of the Round Table. Be ever true to your God; protect always your neighbor; honor always your king."
Merlin visited, on the dragon's last evening of imprisonment. "I brought you something," he said.
"-would have died," said Merlin, turning away from the fire. He felt twice as guilty, hiding the magic now, but Arthur acted differently when he knew the dragon was watching.
"It was still a stupid promise to make," Arthur insisted.
"I know," said Merlin. He smiled at Arthur, not caring that he probably looked like an idiot. "But you're going to help me keep it. This," he said, reaching out on impulse to take Arthur's hand. "To keep a promise, even when the outcome is uncertain, because it's right. This is what you will build your kingdom on."
Arthur stared at him a moment, the fire reflected in his eyes. "Are you
you can't see the future?" he asked. One of a hundred magic-user stories he'd heard and asked if Merlin was part of.
Merlin shook his head. "I can see you," he said.
Arthur's face twisted. Perhaps it was about as pleasant to be told you would be a magnificent king as to be told you were a prophesied warlock.
"I can see that you didn't actually fix the fire," Arthur changed the subject.
Merlin laughed, and stood up. He nudged at the logs in the fireplace with a thought, to allow a little more air to those in the middle, and almost forgot to be amazed that he could to that here.
Arthur grumbled something about sorcerers that wanted to get caught and slouched further in his chair, while Merlin walked to his window. This is what he had meant to do from the start. Arthur's window looked out over the castle court and down over all of the town. At night the houses were lit from within, small points of life in the dark. Camelot is alive, Merlin thought.
"I don't know why you brought me that," the dragon said, uneasily. Something was pricking at his thoughts.
"I hated you, when you tricked me into trading my mother's life," said Merlin, not addressing the comment. "I think I hated you more than I've ever hated anyone."
He paused. "But I'm not sure I hated you, even then, more than you hated me.
"You told me that not being able to see Morgana's true nature – to hate her - would destroy us, but I think it's the other way round. I can't hate you now that I know you better either." He clambered to his feet. "I just want you to know Camelot. Like we can make it, when Arthur is king. You say you've watched Camelot rise and fall a thousand times, but have you ever really seen it?"
Merlin still didn't understand, the dragon thought as the boy left. He wasn't blind to what Camelot could be, what it was already becoming. Uther was the one who killed out of hate. The dragon would destroy Camelot in revenge. He would destroy Camelot so that his people's fate, and his, would be remembered.
The world would remember the dragon imprisoned at the root of Camelot.
The foundation of Camelot.
This is what you will build your Kingdom on.
He had finally seen it. The foundation of Camelot, something Merlin understands first, a conflict. There was no other dragon, as he had known. No dragon on a standard, no conflict from Albion, not even a Pendragon to fight. There was only himself.
He paused and considered further. Himself, and the decision he had made two decades ago. Were they the same any more?
"You have dealt him a mortal blow," said Merlin. He tried to feel the same guilt for leaving the dragon alive as he had for releasing it to start with, but found he couldn't. There were things more important than revenge, even for the destruction wreaked on Camelot. Even for what he himself had lost.
Merlin returned at a year to the day, as he said he would. Arthur appeared with him. They stopped to look solemnly at the dragon, who returned the stare.
"Ask me again, Merlin," he said, when they had reached the base of the chain.
"Ask me," he insisted.
"What… will you do to Camelot?" Merlin asked, uncertain.
"Wrong question," said Arthur, watching the dragon. The King understood. Merlin paused.
"Please…don't hurt Camelot," Merlin asked.
Before the dragon replied he saw this: the Once and Future King stood at the head of his court – Lancelot and Gawaine and Percival and Bors and Kay and Palomides and all the rest. Beside him stood his Queen, his sister and his mage. Behind all, the dragon of Camelot.
He wasn't scrying and it wasn't true; not a single possibility in all his years of searching had even come close to this.
That didn't mean it wasn't worth fighting for.
"Yes, alright then," said the dragon, almost laughing at how simple it was, as Merlin broke the chain. The joy bubbled up inside of him, breaking through the ice that hate had formed. He was the last dragon, but that needn't mean he was alone.
"I am Kilgharrah," he said. "The wind is friend to us both. If you are in need, speak my name and I will hear it."
Merlin nodded, and Kilgharrah flew. He rose out of the earth, burned his hatred into hope, and flew free.