Everything begins, they say, with the oath of a dragon.
The humans have their own stories about the origin of magic, about the dragon lords, and about the dragons. Widely differing stories; some come close to the truth, and others are completely invented. The dragons do not care. Their stories, sung to their children and no one else, are but one story, and the story is this.
In the beginning, dragons ruled the world. The sky was theirs, they raced the winds, and the fire of the stars burned in them. The earth was theirs, singing the song of metal, of rock, of the sea that nursed their young until they were old enough to fly. Magic was theirs, for they saw not only what was but what could be; they saw the many, many threads spinning from each moment in time, and they selected and wove them to new tapestries. In this, they were aided by the servants they had made from clay, and given the ability to move: the humans.
But the humans grew envious. They wanted all that the dragons had: flight, magic, and the gifts from the earth, even though they could never hear their songs; they were greedy, and wanted to possess them. At first, they asked, begged, even. The dragons explained to them that their form was not made for flight, and that they could have gold, jewels and all the riches of the earth, but they would have to be content with looking at them. "But the magic!" the humans exclaimed. "Can you not share the magic?" Most of the dragons refused. Some, however, felt sorry for the humans. Besides, these dragons reasoned, the humans were so short lived; even if they misused their gifts, they would not be able to do so for long. So they caused a star to fall, and as it splintered in many burning shards, the dragons took these and put them into the hearts of their favourite servants. Now, these humans would be able to use magic. They were happy enough at first, but soon, the complaints started. They wanted more of the magic, and they wanted to live as long as the dragons did, for now that they could sense how little they could accomplish in one single life span, they felt more dissatisfied than ever.
"We have given you all we could give," the dragons declared, and dismissed them from their service, as no one should serve who does not do so happily. The magic users, however, felt banished, departed with curses, and some of them did more than curse.
"If only dragons can share all magic there is," they said, "and all the immortality, well, then we must seek to become dragons ourselves." There was one of them, whose name shall never be spoken again out loud, who went back to the dragon he used to serve, and stole that dragon's two eggs. Dragons do not spawn as easily as humans do, and never have done. Two eggs were all this particular dragon would ever have, and if their hatchlings were lost, she would never have others in all the eternity which was left to her. So she did everything she could to find them again, but her treacherous servant was cunning, and had learned his lessons too well. In the end, she was forced to accept his offer to negotiate.
"I shall return your eggs," he said, "if you swear to me that whatever happens, you will guard the hatchlings which emerge, and all their descendants, forever; that you and your kind will never harm them, but listen to their words and let them rule you. I know my own life is forfeit, and that you and yours will succeed in killing me sooner or later, but I much desire to shape the future, and thus I shall create kings."
She smelled more treachery then, but she was desperate, and so she swore. The eggs he returned were hers, they still smelled like hers, but there was something new there as well. "There are no kings among dragons," she said, yet gave her promise nonetheless. For over a century she sat curled around the returned eggs, never moving, trying to return warmth and life and all that was her heritage to them, and then they finally hatched. One of her hatchlings was a dragon like herself, but his eyes were not those of an immortal being. They looked at her with the wide, uncomprehending vulnerability of a mortal child. The other, however, had arms, and legs, and a human form, yet in his eyes burned the fire from the stars as pure as ever. Only then did she completely understand what that long-dead servant had done. He had made himself the father of her hatchlings, and from this time onwards, there were dragons with human hearts, and humans with a dragon soul, who could never be happy in either world, and yet, much as their sire had done, sought to master both. These were the dragon lords.
The dragon named Kilgarrah had heard this story as a hatchling. But he could never tell it to hatchlings of his own. By the time he reached his full strength, there were few dragons left in the world, and they did not rule any realm in it. At best, they were sought after as advisors by the humans who had made themselves the masters of all; at worst, they were regarded as the ultimate test in bravery for the knights sent to kill them. Kilgarrah travelled through the world, seeking to find out whether it was thus everywhere. While he discovered there were remote places where humans still feared and worshipped dragons, he also discovered he had little interest in them. It galled him to admit it, but he longed for the challenge, and thus he returned to Albion, where there were rumours about a king who had started to turn against all magic users. At first, the remaining dragons found this to be of little interest. Humans were always killing each other for some reason or another, and besides, all humans with the gift of magic were descendants of those ungrateful, treacherous servants who had turned against dragonkind. Kilgarrrah, however, grew worried. His gift for sensing what could be was unusually strong even for a dragon, and he felt that this was one of the moment in time where one thread might be cut off forever and unravel entirely. What happened to the magicians might only be the first step.
So he did what all dragons avoided doing; he sought out their bastard kin, the dragon lords, well knowing that he risked his liberty, for the dragons were still bound by oath to obey whenever a dragon lord spoke. The dragon lord Kilgarrah addressed was called Balinor, and seemed honorable. He did not use any of the opportunities Kilgarrah gave him to enrich himself by asking for gold, or power. He did not give any orders at all. So Kilgarrah explained his concern, and Balinor listened. He promised to travel to the realm of Camelot, where the rumours were coming from, and talk to its king on the dragons' behalf. When he returned, he did so with an offer from Uther Pendragon: if Kilgarrah came to Camelot in good faith, proving that a dragon could be trusted, then there would be peace between dragons and humans. Uther's fight was with other humans, not with dragons; he simply needed to be sure that no dragon would harm his subjects.
"And will he keep his word?" Kilgarrah asked Balinor.
"There is much anger in him, and grief," Balinor said. "But he is a good man, and an honest one. Come to Camelot, and I shall come with you. Your fate will be mine."
For the rest of his days, Kilgarrah was not sure whether Balinor had meant to simply offer a suggestion, and, moved by the urgency of the situation, spoke a bit more forcefully than he intended, or whether he was deliberately issuing an order. But "come to Camelot" was said in a way that made it impossible for Kilgarrah to stay anywhere else.
He came to Camelot. He dived into the cave under the castle that had been named to him by Balinor. He allowed Uther Pendragon to approach, and was struck by what he sensed from the man. Uther had been part of a powerful spell, had demanded it to be put in effect, and rather recently. He had forced life into this world where it was not meant to be, and in doing so had torn a wound into the fabric of time that was still reshaping itself around him. But oh, the possibilities that now flickered around Uther. No, not Uther himself. Uther had simply been the portal , through which a whole new future could come through. So distracted was Kilgarrah by the myriad of threads spinning from this moment in time that he missed the one he should have been prepared for all along.
"Balinor," Uther said. "Think of your kin."
Balinor, looking profoundly unhappy, said, and this time there was no mistaking the power of the dragon lord in his voice: "Oh dragon, remain still and allow us to chain you without harming any who put iron on you."
Iron had its own song, and one that, used in the right way around a dragon, could make a chain unbreakable safe by another creature of magic. That long ago ancestress who first saw her hatchlings emerge, irrevocably changed, could not feel more betrayed than Kilgarrah did right now. "I'm sorry," Balinor whispered. "But I had to think of my kind first. You are not the only one concerned for his, Kilgarrah. Uther promised that the dragon lords would be exempt from the decree against magic users if I allowed him to capture one dragon. He will not kill you, or harm you; he swore this to me with the most sacred oaths. But he needs one dragon in his power, to keep the others away."
"I, too, am your kind, dragon lord," Kilgarrah said scornfully. "And it seems we are both fools, I for trusting you, and you for trusting this man. For now that he has a dragon, what further use are you to him? You are only a threat, for you could order any of us to rise against him."
Being proven right gave him no pleasure. He could feel the other dragons die, one by one, their songs ending in his mind, until he was as alone in his heart as he was in his prison, locked away from the wind and the stars. There were no more dragons; he was the last. And of the dragon lords, only two remained, their existence flickering at the edge of his awareness, when he was in a state to feel again, which was not for a while. It was madness he fell into when the others died, madness as hot as any dragonfire ever had been, madness that drove him to soar again and again, no matter how much the chains around his claw chaffed and dragged him back again until even his scales, which withstood almost anything, were reduced to raw flesh under the iron. At some point, Uther must have been there, because Kilgarrah remembered him telling someone – "you see, this is what I am protecting Camelot against; this is what they all are, inside", remembered drowning in hate as a hatchling who never made it out of the sea to soar. Yet he never could recall whom Uther was talking to, or whether it was day or night. The earth could tell him, of course, even if he could not see the stars, but Kilgarrah could not bear to listen to the earth in those months, which might have been years.
At some point, the rage and grief receded enough to leave him numb, and mostly sane. But he needed something to feel the endless silence in his mind, and so he began to listen to the humans bustling in the castle above. For the most part, they were, as was expected in a Camelot under Uther Pendragon, utterly without magic, which meant that what he sensed of them was flat, like a line drawn in sand, something that was there, but had no depth or dimension. There was Gaius, Gaius the traitor, who had some limited magical abilities he never used; nonetheless, he had them, and so the dragon sensed him like a pebble thrown in water which causes a few, minor waves, which was at least more interesting than lines in the sand. Once, and only once, Gaius came to him, harrumphed and hemmed and then said hoarsely that Balinor lived, and he thought the dragon would like to know. Kilgarrah stared at him in disdain, and closed his eyes. He could have used the distraction a conversation would provide, but he was not ready to talk about Balinor, and certainly not with Gaius, whose pathetic loyalty to Uther surrounded him like a sickly pale light.
Time passed not faster for a being that, unless killed in violent ways, was immortal. It certainly did not for the last of the dragons. In the beginning, Kilgarrah nursed fantasies he was half ashamed to admit even to himself, of a repentant Balinor coming to free him. Kilgarrah would be gracious, forgiving; after all, the human was nearly in the same position as Kilgarrah was now, and all they had were each other. But Balinor did not come for him, and Kilgarrah began to understand he never would. Then he began to imagine some other human, a witch, a warlock who somehow came to Camelot undetected, seeking an ally against Uther, who would come and free him. At this point, Kilgarrah was ready to promise whomever freed him all the riches humans were so keen on owning, all the gold he could remember, and the jewels, too, from places around the world. But though the occasional magic user came to Camelot and sooner or later flickered out of existence again, none of them came. All the old sayings about the treachery of humans, of how they should never have been given the gift of magic, came back to Kilgarrah, and the bitterness in him rose even as he tried to fight it by telling himself that only through a human would he ever come free again. There was no one else. He needed them, and so he needed to believe there was something salvageable in them.
More years passed, and a new presence became a permanent fixture in Camelot; the lady Morgana, daughter of Gorlois, and now Uther's ward. She was still a child, but Kilgarrah could sense the potential in her. Morgana had magic, and it would manifest itself, sooner or later. He tried not to hope for much, tried to caution himself. It was not of much use. The loneliness in the dark, inside and out, was too much. The first time Morgana dreamed herself on the plane where all the possible futures lay, not knowing what she was doing, Kilgarrah joined her. He did not want to appear a beggar; he still had his pride, if little else. So he appeared as he had looked in his freedom, when once he had dived into a volcano because it amused him to do so, and emerged clad in fluid fire that burned through the night as he soared again. That was what he showed her. That was his mistake. For the Lady Morgana, just on the verge of becoming a woman and already chaffing under the new restraints womanhood provided her with, dreamt of being a knight errant, adventurous and free, with none of the dreary duties imposed on the knights she saw daily in Camelot. When she saw Kilgarrah in her dream, she cried "Foul Beast, I'll slay you!" and, wishing a golden lance in existence, hurled it at him. Had they been in the waking world, this would not have mattered; it would never have penetrated his scales. But they were in the world of dreams and possibilities, he had made himself vulnerable to her as he wanted to approach her, he was in her dream, not she in his, and thus she hurt him, deeply. Kilgarrah awoke, enraged anew, and never tried to speak to Morgana again. He did not forgive her, either. A part of him knew it had only been a girl's high spirits, but a larger part, growing ever more with every second of his captivity, took it as omen and proof that she, too, was treacherous. There were dark possibilities around her, as well as bright ones, but he would not give her the benefit of the doubt again.
When he nursed fantasies about his liberation now, they did not always end with him rewarding his rescuer, not anymore. Sometimes he imagined giving that person a quick death, and then burning Uther's precious castle to ashes, creating the long-delayed funeral pyre for his entire race on the bones of the humans who had destroyed them. He told himself this was pointless, that even if he did this, it would not bring the dragons back, but when he could feel Uther and his ilk thriving above and imagined the endless years ahead of him, tried to remember that the wind felt like and for a moment could not any more, it was a seductive fantasy to have.
There were other ways of imagining the future, too. Kilgarrah had not forgotten what he had sensed that day Uther had captured him with Balinor's help. Thinking back to the moment, he concluded that it had not simply been Uther around whom time tried to reshape itself, allowing for myriads of new possibilities that contained the prophecies of old. Rather, it had been Uther in conjunction with Balinor: pointing to what could be. There was also the law of balance to cling to. Uther had been so zealous in his attempt to exterminate all traces of magic from the land that there was bound to be a counterpoint. It was as if Uther had had tried to drain the sea, and the sea had withdrawn, but only for a while, and then it would return, crushing to the shore with a wave unprecedented in power and strength. With so many magic users dead, magic would find a vessel in a way it had not done before, Kilgarrah was sure of it, someone who would not die, and, once coming into his strength, would not be able to be stopped.
There was also Uther's son to consider. The boy did not have any magic of his own; but he had been created by it, utterly and completely, with his life paid in blood by so many, starting with his own mother. There was no way this could be balanced, safe one. Even for the dragons, who prided themselves on not having any rulers and who resented their dragon lord cousins because of this, the possibility of a once and future king among the humans had been talked about. Only the humans, ever greedy for immortality, saw it as an accolade, a reward. Kilgarrah knew better, especially now that his life had become a dreary slugging through every single heartbeat. Once and future, because one lifetime was not enough to pay back all the debt. The once and future king would be bound to the land by magic and blood, and there would be no peace for him until he had restored balance, until he had saved and guarded as many lives as had been lost because of him. But he was human, and so he would cause deaths of his own in addition to those caused for him. He would not be permitted to die after his tiny human life span was over, not permanently. He would return, again and again. And every single time, he would cause magic to return as well, being who he was.
That was a future worth contemplating. It still did not contain any dragons in it, but it was a better thing to think about than the dark lure of a pyre. He pondered and pondered, trying to find a way to return to this future what was lost to him as well. As long as Kilgarrah himself lived, there were still dragons in the world. Surely, that had to mean something other than letting him witness the dawn of a new age. If magic users had been proven unreliable and treacherous in the past, well, who had created them to begin with? Dragons had. This had to mean dragons should be able to best them at their own game. To use them, instead of allowing themselves to be fooled.
Kilgarrah noticed Merlin's presence in Camelot immediately. It was impossible for him not to. The wave he had been waiting for finally moved towards the shore. And he would shape it. One way or the other, he would shape it. And he would not betray just how glad he was to finally have company again, in mind and darkness both. If he tended to fly away the first few times the boy visited him after a few exchanged words, it was so Merlin would not notice how downright giddy it made him to have someone to talk to once more, someone who could not only hear his voice but carried his own bit of starlight inside, and whose heart was not entirely human. This child was not simply a vessel of magic; Merlin was a descendant of the dragon lords as well, and when Kilgarrah realized this, the last piece of what he had been pondering for so many years finally fell into place.
He did not tell Merlin, of course. He did not lie to him, either, but he offered selected truths, thruths designed to prod Merlin into becoming whom Kilgarrah meant him to be. There was only one person whom Kilgarrah did tell, and the fact he did surprised him as much as nothing after Balinor's betrayal had done. There were many reasons for it, not least the shock he felt when the woman entered his cave. There was no magic about her, and yet she looked at him without fear, and with awareness of who he was. He could smell who she was as well, Merlin's mother, Hunith, who would have died days ago to pay for her son's trade with the Old Religion, had it not been for Merlin offering the sorceress Nimueh instead. Hunith, for whose sake Merlin had told him he would see Kilgarrah imprisoned forever. Kilgarrah still raged about it, though he knew Merlin would not be able to keep to that resolution; the boy needed his advice too much.
"Kilgarrah," Hunith said, and the dragon grew very still. He had not heard his name said out loud by anyone for twenty years. How did she know? He had not told it to Merlin, either. Names had power, and he intended to keep all the power to himself this time.
"I meant to see you before," she continued, "the last time I was here, but then my village was in danger, and time was of the essence. "
"Why?" he asked at last, for he really could not imagine a reason for her to, and it was not a little humiliating that he, who knew the mysteries of ages past, present and future, should not be able to guess at the motives of a magicless human woman.
"Because," Hunith said, "ever since Balinor spoke of you, I imagined how lonely you must be." She came closer, well into range of his breath. He could have burned her to ashes then, simply for invoking Balinor, who betrayed him, or because her death would push her son closer to whom Kilgarrah meant him to be. There would be no remains for Merlin to recognize, not this close; only ashes.
"I'm sorry," she said, and unbelievably stretched out her hand, as if to touch him. He drew back a little. "I am so sorry."
"You do not know what you should be sorry about," Kilgarrah replied, and then he found himself telling her the story about the origin of magic, of the stolen eggs, and of the dragon lords, the story he would never be able to tell a hatchling of his own. Hunith listened quietly, and did not speak for a long time afterwards. Nor did she leave. Then she finally said:
"Did you tell me this as a warning or an excuse, Kilgarrah?"
"I told you the story because it pleased me to do so, woman," he said indignantly, for why should he wish to warn a human, and why would he feel she deserved an excuse? "What you make of it is your own business."
She looked at him, and he could see sadness and determination in her eyes. "No," she said. "What you make of it is your own decision. But you do not have to. Don't forget that. There always is a choice."
"And what do you think I will choose, Hunith?"
"I think," she said, "you want to do what that man you do not name did in your story. He stole eggs so he could make dragons into humans. What you want to do is take my son, and make him into a dragon, so you will not be alone anymore, and dragons will survive into the ages to come. But don't you see that this makes you just like the man you called treacherous?"
"Well," Kilgarrah said, and so many things moved him that he found it impossible to put them into words in a remotely adequate fashion, "I always suspected that I am one of the dragons with a human heart."
"He's my son," Hunith said, "and he will make his own choices." With this, she left. Kilgarrah did not see her again. Merlin, however, returned to him, and when he did, Kilgarrah made his decision. He asked for a promise. An oath.
Everything begins, they say, with the oath of a dragon.