Chapter I: The Dragon's Gift
No one looking at the thin, gangly youth making his way through the halls of Camelot would ever guess at the power flowing through his veins. They would not imagine that he would one day command dragons, defeat armies, control the mirror of life and death. They would never guess that the man before them was a legend in the making, a prophecy come to life. They would never dream that his name would be spoken when their own bones had long since dissolved into dust. He was so small for so great a destiny.
But all legends must start somewhere, and this legend begins here, now, with this half-grown lad sneaking through the castle at the heart of Camelot, which is the womb of Albion. For in a land of myth and a time of magic, the destiny of that great kingdom rests on the shoulders of a young man. His name… Merlin.
The young man made his way down the stone stairs, fighting back a sneeze as his feet kicked up dust. The light from his torch made strange patterns in the airborne dirt, tiny eddies of almost unnoticeable wind. Shadows danced along the crude stone walls.
The stairs came to an end. Merlin stopped.
The dragon was huge, enormous, a behemoth of bronze and gold. His wings were folded to his side, but Merlin knew that they were like a bat's, thick leather strong enough to bear the great beast in flight. His tail curled around his forelegs, obscuring but not completely hiding the curving claws. His neck arched forwards as the nobbled head turned to face his guest. Golden eyes seemed to glow in the light of the fire. Even imprisoned, he was absolutely magnificent. Free, he would be incredible beyond belief.
"So you have returned already, young warlock." The dragon—Kilgharrah, he had said his name was—kept his voice level, but the twitches of the tip of his tail belied his apparent calm.
Merlin grinned, nodded. "Of course I'm back. How could I leave you here to rot?" The torch floated in midair, staying close to him but leaving his hands free. The light from the flames reflected off the dragon's scales, which made the dreary cavern brighter than it had any right to be. "Like you said, we're both magic. Kin." The warlock made his way down from his ledge to the very bottom of the cavern.
Kilgharrah was waiting when the human reached the floor. "Here," he said quietly, walking towards the warlock. When he stopped, he presented his chained hind leg to Merlin. The flesh around the binding was raw, the scales rubbed away. It would scar, they both knew that. But perhaps, if the source of the wound were removed now, it would not heal as badly as it might have otherwise.
Merlin raised the sword he'd borrowed from the prince, whispered a spell. Magic flowed through his veins, lighting his eyes with gold.
The sword swung down.
The cuff shattered, steel and sorcery ripping through sorcery and steel. Merlin had used a bit too much force in his strike; the sword's momentum propelled itself into Kilgharrah's wounded flesh, slipping off the scales into the raw skin. The warlock jerked back, an apology rising to his lips. The dragon, after a brief and involuntary hiss, shook his vast head. "No, Merlin. Do not apologize." Slowly, very slowly, he curved his neck around his body, stared intently at the limb. He flexed his clawed foot, rotated it, stretched. The golden eyes did not blink. "I am free."
Merlin grinned from ear to ear. "You're free," he agreed.
Suddenly Kilgharrah was spitting fire, the yellow plumes spewing from his mouth onto the ruined chain. Merlin, yelping, scooted back. He fell, but Kilgharrah paid him no heed. Snarling, the dragon released another gush of fire, his claws tearing at the superheated metal, cutting through the white-hot links like warm butter.
He had tried this before, of course. Many times he had turned his strength and flame and magic against the bindings, but it had never worked. Not until today, when a young warlock's spell had set him free.
Merlin goggled at him from his safe ledge of stone, wondering for the first time if releasing an enormous fire-spewing death lizard who had more than enough reason for going on a homicidal rampage throughout the kingdom was a good idea. Sure, Kilgharrah had promised that he wouldn't do anything like that. He'd even said that he would try to keep people from knowing about his freedom, that he certainly didn't want Uther suspecting he'd escaped. Yet now, venting his wrath on the chains which had held him so long, he looked almost like an animal, out of control with rage and madness. For what did Merlin know about the dragon anyways? He'd only been in Camelot for a week (and had in that time saved the prince's life twice from magical threats that no one else had had any chance of combatting. Seriously, how was Arthur even still alive?), and though he'd snuck out to talk with Kilgharrah every night, they really didn't know each other well. Kin or not, Kilgharrah had no reason to listen to him, and he had no reason to trust Kilgharrah.
The dragon flung the molten remnants of his chains against the wall of the cave. He was breathing heavily, flanks heaving, eyes wide and wild. Merlin didn't dare move.
Finally, the dragon lowered his head. He looked so old and tired then that Merlin was instantly ashamed of his assumptions.
"Are you…?" The warlock didn't even know what he was trying to ask. Was Kilgharrah all right? Of course not! He'd witnessed the massacre, the genocide of his people, then been chained in a dark and lonely cave for twenty years. Twenty years of grief and darkness, and he'd had to face it utterly alone. Merlin's soft heart bled for him.
"I gave you my word, Merlin, not to seek revenge," Kilgharrah reminded him. His voice was thinner than the warlock had ever heard it. He sounded tired. "If Uther Pendragon comes across me, I will kill him without remorse or hesitation. If I meet anyone with the blood of our kin on his hands, I will kill him as well. But I'll not seek them out."
"I'm sorry." And wasn't that just the most inadequate thing ever? But the grief in the dragon's voice, the utter misery…. Even the joy of his freedom was tainted by the memory of how he'd been imprisoned in the first place. Merlin pushed himself up, made his cautious way toward the great dragon.
Kilgharrah replied with the draconic equivalent of a raised eyebrow. He watched, depthless and golden and unblinking, as Merlin once again approached his still-raw leg. The warlock knelt down. His hand hovered above the injury. "Wish I knew healing spells," he sighed.
"One day, you will, young warlock," Kilgharrah promised. He turned both neck and body, lowering his head. They were close enough now that Merlin could feel the heat of the dragon's inner fire.
Kilgharrah pressed his snout against Merlin's shoulder. The boy gaped. The dragon's lips curled into a smile as slowly, hesitantly, Merlin raised his hand. Blue eyes met golden, silently asking if he was sure, and the elder hummed in the back of his throat. Swallowing hard, Merlin gently rested his hand on the dragon's muzzle.
Warmth filled his chest. This was, he realized, probably the first time Kilgharrah had touched someone in twenty years.
No touch, no warmth, no love for twenty years…. Merlin barely suppressed a shudder. He hadn't even been alive that long. He tried to imagine spending the entirety of his life here, in this dank, cold cave with no company, no night or day, no way of telling time except for his weekly feedings, knowing that all his kin—everyone he'd ever loved, Mum and Will and everybody in the village—had been murdered by the same despot who had imprisoned him. His usually rich imagination failed him. All he knew was that it was awful beyond belief. Instinctively, the young warlock moved a bit closer to the dragon, lifting his other hand until it, too, rested on Kilgharrah's pebbly scales. One hand stayed on the dragon's snout while the other gently ghosted over a part of his neck. The neck scales were bigger, a bit rougher, but still surprisingly smooth under his fingers.
A large part of him wondered if he was going too far, being too familiar, but Kilgharrah did not pull away. He didn't lean in, either, but Merlin thought that must be because of his dignity rather than a lack of enjoyment at his first physical contact in two decades. How awful, how completely and utterly awful to be so alone for so long….
No, Merlin did not regret freeing the dragon. He couldn't bring back the dead dragons or their lords, couldn't stop the red spiral of violence and hate and death, but this? This, at least, he could do.
"Walk with me, Merlin." Kilgharrah's voice rumbled in his ear. "I have no wish to remain in this cave any longer."
Merlin was a tall youth, but he still had to jog to keep up with the dragon's slow tread. They made their journey in silence, the torch floating above their heads, making the dragon's scales glitter like polished amber.
The air changed. Back where they had left the destroyed remnants of the chains, it was stale and still and tainted with a distinctly reptilian scent, though that smell had been overpowered by the stench of white-hot metal and of flame. Now the air danced about them as a faint breeze blew through the cavern. Even Merlin, with his weak human nose, could smell the mulch and pine needles of the forest that surrounded Camelot. An owl hooted somewhere, soft and low, and a short-lived gust rattled the pine branches.
Kilgharrah was walking more quickly now, neck stretched out before him. Merlin sped up until he was running full speed ahead.
They turned the final corner. Kilgharrah moved with such haste that his tail nearly knocked Merlin down. The warlock, realizing that he had been forgotten, stopped. No need to get in the dragon's way.
The world lay before them, dark green trees and a crescent moon in the star-studded sky. Kilgharrah was running now, the ground shaking under his claws, and when he reached the end of the cave his wings snapped open. His leg muscles bunched as he dropped into a running crouch. Then he was flying, wings pumping wildly, tail streaming out behind him like a banner, blotting out the stars. He skimmed the top of the tree line, then angled himself up, up, up, until Merlin could barely make out his silhouette.
Then Merlin couldn't see him at all.
He stared into the night sky for a long time, smiling quietly, wishing Kilgharrah fortune and whatever happiness he could get after being trapped and alone so long. It was, he thought, a fine night to be free: the air cool and fresh and stirring with only faint breezes; the skies clear of clouds; the stars bright and brilliant.
The warlock inclined his head. Yes, this was a good night indeed. He turned, began to make his way back into the cave.
The warlock paused, frowned. He wished he knew how to reply with mind-speech, but he hadn't asked Kilgharrah how. Unable to answer, he turned back around, faced the forests once again.
A dark shape dove from the heavens. Kilgharrah landed surprisingly quietly for such a huge creature, wings folding against his skin. Moonlight pooled in his golden eyes as he solemnly proclaimed, "I am in your debt, Merlin Ambrosius."
He had never heard the name before, never been called anything but Merlin, or (and only his mother was allowed to get away with this) 'my little falcon' and 'my baby bird.' Yet the name felt so familiar, clicking into place without hesitation. Gooseflesh prickled across his skin. The hairs on his neck stood on end. The name seemed to reverberate through his blood, settling into his bones and marrow. His heart thudded painfully in his ears, and though he could not see it, he knew that his eyes now shone with their native gold.
"Why did you call me that?" If the words came out breathier than he'd intended, it was only because he knew that something of great importance had happened. He just didn't know what, and that was a bit of a problem.
"Because," the dragon replied with some asperity, "that is your name."
Merlin was fairly certain that his name was Merlin. Perhaps (and his breathing quickened again) Ambrosius was a surname? All he knew about his father was that the man was a sorcerer who'd had to leave Hunith to keep her safe. His mother refused to say anything more about the man; she didn't want her reckless boy to go off on some months-long quest to find a sorcerer who might or might not be dead, who might be hiding anywhere in Europe, who had evaded the mad king's search parties and who would be endangered if anyone could find him. They would all be in danger, she had warned, for if Merlin found his father and Uther's men found Merlin with his father, or even if they found him searching for his father, Merlin would die. And so, to keep her lover (who would die as well if Merlin led the killers of Camelot to him) and her son safe, she kept them separate, breaking her own heart in the process.
For one wild moment Merlin let himself fantasize that the dragon knew his father, that he could bring together parent and child and make everything right. For a moment, he let himself imagine a family in Ealdor, a son and two parents and maybe even a younger sibling. Preferably a sister—he didn't think his poor mum could handle another son.
Then the same instinct which told him that Ambrosius was indeed his name whispered that Ambrosius was his name, not one that belonged to anyone else. It was his his his, not his unknown father's, and it had to have something to do with the destiny Kilgharrah had mentioned.
"Since when? I'm pretty sure my mum named me Merlin."
"It has been your name since the dawn of time," Kilgharrah proclaimed. "Merlin may be your name, but it is only the first of many. Ambrosius is who you are."
Merlin might have known Kilgharrah for only a week, but he already knew the dragon well enough to recognize that he wouldn't get any more information from him. So he settled for an "oh, I see" that he hoped sounded wise and sorcerer-ly.
Kilgharrah's eyes danced with amusement as he returned to his former line of conversation. "As I said, young warlock, I am in your debt. Even if I were not, our destinies are still bound together. Therefore I will give you a gift." He crouched down. "Take the scale above my heart. Keep it close to you at all times. When you have need of me, call thrice my name and I will come."
Merlin didn't move. "What?"
Kilgharrah stepped closer. "You will have need of my council, which means you will need a way to contact me. The scale will give you that ability."
"Are you sure?"
"Yes, Merlin. You freed me mere days after your arrival of Camelot, asking nothing in return but that I refrain from destroying the kingdom. Take the scale."
The warlock nodded, not trusting himself to speak past the lump in his throat. He made his way forward until he was standing by the dragon's chest. Merlin stopped, glanced up at Kilgharrah. The dragon understood. He lifted a clawed hand, pointed to a bronze scale about the size of a woman's fist. Merlin took ahold of it, nails digging into the dragon's armored flesh. He gave it a little tug, but was not surprised when the scale didn't give. Merlin pulled harder, yanking his arm back as quickly as he could. This time, the scale slid off, leaving a tiny chink in the dragon's built-in armor.
"Farewell, young warlock."
Kilgharrah backed away. His wings opened wide. With a powerful leap, he launched himself into the air.
And then he was gone.
Merlin stayed there for a long time, staring off into the night sky, absently rubbing Kilgharrah's scale. Incredible. Absolutely incredible. Two weeks ago, he'd been a frightened farm boy who hadn't left Ealdor for years. Now he was the personal servant and protector to a future king, a warlock with a spell book and a dragon's scale and a destiny.
At least, he thought he had a destiny. It was entirely possible that Kilgharrah had a few screws loose from his twenty years of post-genocide solitary confinement and that this whole 'two sides of the same coin' thing was nothing more than the desperate delusions of a diseased mind. But the dragon had seemed quite sane when he released him….
With a start, Merlin realized that he had made his way back to Gaius's chambers. For a moment he wondered if he'd somehow managed to accidentally transport himself back, but a quick inventory of his recent memories revealed that he'd made his way here by the more mundane method of walking. He'd just been too deep in thought to notice it.
Gaius was waiting up for him. The physician was waiting with his arms folded, eyebrow raised in a way that Merlin already knew meant trouble. The younger man grinned sheepishly. "Hullo, Gaius."
"Hello, Merlin. Your chats with the dragon don't usually last this long."
Merlin was not at all surprised to learn that Gaius knew what he did at night. "That's because we weren't just talking."
Gaius paled. "What did you do?"
"I set him free." He could have lied. He could have made up something, said that they were practicing magic together, that the dragon had demonstrated his fires. But there was something he wanted to ask Gaius, something important. So, before his guardian could do more than gasp in horror, he queried, "Why didn't you?"
Gaius stared at him as though he were mad. "Merlin," he said, "the dragon is the last of his kind. His kin died at Uther's hand. He will seek revenge, not just on Uther but on all Camelot! Are you out of your mind?"
"He promised not to," the warlock said defensively.
Gaius's eyebrows nearly flew off his head. "He promised not to," he repeated, voice saturated with incredulity.
Merlin flushed. When his guardian said it in that tone, it sounded a great deal less convincing. Still, the warlock continued, "It was a condition of me freeing him, the only condition I asked. Kilgharrah agreed. He said he didn't want anybody to know he was free, so he's not going to rampage or slaughter or anything like that."
"Merlin," Gaius pointed out, "you have known the dragon for approximately one week."
The younger man flinched, feeling very small. "I couldn't just leave him there."
"I fear for Camelot," the physician murmured.
"He's been free for a while already and hasn't knocked down the castle or set things on fire or anything," Merlin protested weakly. "I told you, he doesn't want anyone to know he's free. If someone did, Uther would send a hunting party to kill him for the crime of existing and then there wouldn't be any more dragons. Kilgharrah doesn't want to be the last of his breed."
Gaius remained silent for a time. Finally he nodded, sighed, "Perhaps you are right and this will not result in death. But Merlin," he leaned forward, voice earnest, "you must be more careful!"
Merlin stared. "I was hundreds of feet under the castle. The only person around was a dragon, and he's hardly going to go to Uther and accuse me of sorcery."
"For once, Merlin, I am not referring to your reckless use of magic. I am suggesting that perhaps you didn't think this through."
"What, was I supposed to leave him there to rot?" the youth demanded.
"You took a terrible risk! Even if the dragon does not voluntarily reveal himself, what if he lets someone see him by accident? What will happen when the guards notice that his cave is empty? Even if the guards don't see anything wrong, someone will investigate when the dragon's food doesn't get eaten! What then, Merlin? You've only been in Camelot a few days. You'll be the obvious suspect."
Merlin blanched. He hadn't thought about Kilgharrah's meals. He… probably should have. Oops.
"Even if no one suspects you," Gaius continued, "Uther will still know that there is a sorcerer on the loose. You haven't seen one of his witch-hunts yet, Merlin, and I pray you never do—but if you keep taking so many risks then you will, and I might not be able to protect you." He swallowed hard. "I promised to keep you safe, Merlin. Promise me that you won't make an old man's job more difficult than it needs to be."
Merlin looked up at his guardian. Genuine fear was written plain as day across Gaius's face, fear and desperation and a hint of anger. Guilt flooded the young warlock. "I'm sorry."
"Promise me, Merlin," Gaius begged.
"Why not?" his guardian demanded, not understanding.
Merlin struggled to explain. "I don't…. I could have left Kilgharrah there. I could have let Mary Collins or Sir Valiant kill Arthur. It would certainly have been easier for me. But… I don't think it would have been better." He sighed heavily. "I'm sorry, Gaius, but I can't promise to keep myself safe when a bit of risk can save someone's life or set him free. I just…. All I can promise is that I'll do my best to not get caught."
Gaius slumped. "I don't want to see you on the headman's block. I haven't known you long, Merlin, but you're already dear to me."
Merlin laid a hand on his guardian's shoulder. "And you to me."
The old man smiled, the expression thin and wan. "You should get some sleep, Merlin. You have a busy day tomorrow."
Merlin smiled back. "I will if you do, Gaius. You didn't have to wait up for me, you know."
The physician embraced his ward, held him tight for a moment before releasing him. "Then goodnight, Merlin."