“We are gathered today to celebrate another year of peace.”
Five sets of banners representing the Five Kingdoms were hung around the banquet hall. A long table was at the front with two other perpendicularly placed on its sides. Four of the houses sat on either of the side tables and the one that acted as the host sat on the head.
Every year, these kingdoms held a feast to commemorate their victory against Daobeth. And on this seventh year of peace, it was the Pendragons that housed the dignitaries.
King Uther was smiling as he continued, “Let us raise our cups to those who laid their lives for peace and, of course, to each one of us who are alive for keeping it.”
Most stories have a happy ending if you stop them at the right moment. And this moment, when everyone, especially the king, was buzzing with joy, seemed a good time to end this story.
The court sorcerer sat to the king’s left-hand side and the queen on the other, both were alive and well. The walls of the castle sung with delight as the king proudly announced another cause of celebration: his wife was finally with-child. The air glittered with magic and the land was content. The people were happy and free.
Yes, this could have been a good ending, but alas it was only just the beginning.
Once, the Land of Albion was united in peace. Everyone was each other’s brother and no conflict remained unresolved for long. Then the land’s children grew apart, borders were established, resources were parted. And their children followed suit, as did their children’s children. Cracks within the land extended into branches that grew longer and wider each decade. And the people’s hearts forgot the time when the rifts in between were filled.
Peace was no longer among them.
Tolerance between countries was treated as an inconvenience. It was easier to go to war and win it rather than to sit down and negotiate. Powerful kingdoms bully the smaller ones and take what they can.
And the most powerful of all was Daobeth.
Its king was a cruel man. He condoned slavery and perverted use of magic. The people were suffering, the earth even more so.
Daobeth seemed to be indomitable until one man decided ‘no more.’
Uther of Camelot was one of the lords that dared to defy Daobeth. He was twenty winters old when he inherited his father’s land, and for another three, he managed to evade the tax collection required by the king. In doing so, he spared his subjects of the unjust loss of their income.
He also formed alliances with four other lords who longed for peace. Whispers of their names gave hope across Daobeth, but they couldn’t take bolder action. Not yet.
They needed a strong magical ally, so Uther travelled to the northern border. Beyond the Mountains of Andor was the Castle of Denaria, home of the Dragonlord Derethnor.
However, fate was not kind to the young lord for when he arrived, the dragonlord had passed.
Uther paid his respects but never lost sight of his mission. He sought out the new head of the house, who was barely a man. Balinor was only seventeen and now he was responsible for his father’s fief-holders and seven dragons.
“I know how a sudden change could make you feel,” Uther said to Balinor as the latter tried to ignore him while they trekked to the Vale of Denaria, “But this is just the beginning. A war is coming and we need you.”
“You mean you need my dragons,” Balinor replied with contempt.
“And of course, their dragonlord.”
Balinor scoffed, “And why should we fight your fight?”
“You may be near the border, but you’re still part of Daobeth.”
“Yes. The kingdom you seek to destroy.”
“Only so we could build it back up, stronger and better. I’ve heard that dragonkin prefer to keep to themselves, but surely you know how the king treats his subjects?” Uther grew tired of the boy’s inability to stay still and stopped him with a hand on his shoulder. “Will you stop running away?”
“And you think that you could do better?” Balinor slapped the hand away and ignored the young lord’s implication that he was a coward. “King Uther is here to save the day? You don’t fool me. You’re just like the rest of them, you only want power.”
“What I want is peace!” Uther’s voice was raised and it carried out through the forest, disturbing the birds from their perches. “Don’t claim that you know me. I had and always will adhere to the Knight’s Code. My intentions are pure and I only want what is best for the kingdom. If that means that I have to go against the king, then so be it.”
With a tired sigh, he continued, “I thought the same nobility can be seen in dragonlords. If you’re content with turning a blind eye to the rest of the country, then I will be on my way.”
Uther had walked a few steps before Balinor spoke, “I also want what is best for my people, but going against the king is a hard feat. Are you willing to sacrifice the safety of the people for war?”
“The people aren’t safe, to begin with. Those with magic are traded as slaves. The farmers toil all harvest time, but they still starve during winter. The king and those who are close to him live in luxury while the people suffer. We shouldn’t just stand by and let all these continue. We have to fight for our right to live.”
Balinor pursed his lips, deep in thought. A few moments passed and Uther thought that Balinor would remain unmoved, but the dragonlord knelt in front of him and held one of his hands. A brief moment of silence was shared between the two and the forest. There was no wind and the birds stopped their singing and flight. Uther bated his breath as he stared the dragonlord and the dragonlord stared back.
And then Balinor bowed his head and said, “Here do I swear by mouth and hand, service to thee, Uther Pendragon. Mine dragons are thine until the day of either of our deaths or the moment thy shed the name I have given.”
The dragonlord met Uther’s gaze just in time to see his eyes flash gold, signifying the power within the words. Uther wasn’t entirely sure what happened and it must have shown in his face because when Balinor got to his feet he sported a small smirk.
“Close your mouth, my lord,” Balinor said with mirth in his eyes. “That was the Oath of a Dragonlord.”
“Not that I’m ungrateful, but why the abrupt change of mind?”
Balinor tilted his head, considering if he should share, “I’ve heard stories.”
“So you have heard of the resistance,” Uther huffed.
The dragonlord shook his head, “Older stories.” He gave Uther a half-smile, “Of a king that would unite all kingdoms of Albion. Your heart is strong, Uther Pendragon. And I think given the chance, you could bring about the Golden Age.”
The fight against Daobeth didn’t start until two summers later. And it took another two until they were able to bury the citadel in ash.
With time, Uther and Balinor’s relationship grew. They were brothers in arms and in all other ways that mattered. So when the war was won, it was to nobody’s surprise that Uther asked Balinor to stay by his side.
“I will need a court sorcerer,” the would-be king said, “There’s nobody else that I trust more.”
“I have my duties as a dragonlord. And my father left me an estate, Uther. I cannot abandon my subjects.”
“Name Alyana as your stewardess. Your sister is more than capable. As for your dragons, I’ll have the architects design a cavern below the castle, large enough to house them.”
“It seems you already figured everything out,” Balinor raised an eyebrow. “Do I even have a choice?”
Uther gave him a knowing grin, “Not really.”
Balinor sighed, “Well you are my liege.”
And that was that. No more words were said as none were needed. Balinor would serve his king in all the ways he can. If it was counsel he asked, the dragonlord would provide it. If it was friendship, then he will not ever leave Uther’s side.
The land was divided between the five lords. The Kingdom of Daobeth turned into the Five Kingdoms: Camelot, Deorham, Dyfed, Nemeth, and Gawant. The five lords, now kings, signed a treaty for lasting peace.
The neutral parties pledged their allegiance to the king of their choosing. And one such is the House de Bois that swore fealty to Camelot’s. The symbol of their House was a white phoenix, which amused the King and his dragonlord very much.
The new citadel that was being built at the heart of the kingdom was as white and resilient as the phoenix in their crest. And it just seemed so fitting that the de Bois family would choose Camelot as their home.
And like it was destiny, Uther was drawn towards Ygraine de Bois. A dragon and a phoenix, both were creatures of fire, both were actors of passion and love for their kin. It was only a matter of time before they fell deeply and got married. And Camelot loved their king and queen as much as they loved her.
Balinor regarded the woman before them with suspicion.
Her name was Nimueh and she spoke of a solution to the king’s problem. Five years into his marriage to Ygraine, and they were still yet to conceive an heir. The members of the council were growing restless, they feared that the throne would permanently go without insurance. Enemies would see this as an opportunity to strike. If the king fell, then the kingdom would be ripe for the taking.
The king and queen were becoming desperate, and recently they turned to magic. Balinor tried his best to help but to no avail. So it was unlikely for someone to step forward. Balinor wasn’t a prideful man, but he knew that he was more powerful and knowledgeable than some.
As if reading his thoughts, Nimueh smirked, “Don’t be so sullen, Dragonlord. You just didn’t know where to look.”
And then she explained, “I am of the Isle. We preserve the art of Balance, as our patron goddesses do: Cailleach rules over death as Brighid to fertility and birth.”
She smiled at the monarchs, “And the Triple Goddess would be delighted to gift you a child, my lord and lady.”
However, Balinor was still sceptical and had his concerns. In particular, “For the Balance to be kept, a life must be given for a life. Isn’t that too high a price?”
“Yes, that’s correct,” Nimueh’s smile waned. “However, magic does not care for who would pay the price. It could take the life of an already ailing man from a distant kingdom for all we know.”
“This is too risky,” Balinor insisted.
Although when he looked back at the royals, it seemed like they had already decided. The queen held up her hand, “And it is a risk we will have to take.”
Uther took his wife’s other hand and brought it to his smiling lips, “I agree.”
Balinor started to protest, only to be cut off by Uther, “Oh stop worrying too much, Balinor. If what Nimueh said is true, what could go wrong? Besides, don’t the gods owe it to us for freeing the land?”
Such pride is the downfall of kings.
Wars begin quietly.
Perhaps in a silent room, with a king’s sister and her whispers of glory that comes with conquest. Or maybe with a life-long slave and their decision that they couldn’t take any more, soundless sobs wracking their body. Or with two soldiers from opposing kingdoms wordlessly nodding at each other along the border, only for one to become too paranoid and let their sword slip.
The war against magic started the same hushed way. It started so discreetly that no one could pinpoint the cause with certainty. Except, of course, the gods. They bore witness of the darkest night of Albion.
The king held his crying and bloody son in his arms before handing him to Ygraine. She sobbed in relief as she took her son in. He was beautiful and she knew right then that she would love the boy with all her heart.
She never got the chance though. Her cries suddenly faltered into a halt and she took one last breath. The babe, sensing the abrupt inaction of his carrier, also stopped his cries.
This alerted the king and he rushed to their side. When he found his wife unblinking, he let out a drawn-out breath, a silent scream. The shock stilled the tears in his eyes, blurring his vision.
The midwife was by the side with her hand on her lips, capturing her gasp. The court physician and record-keeper solemnly bowed their heads. The court sorcerer and the priestess stood very still by the door.
No one dared to move or speak because in doing so, the illusion of paused time would fall and everyone would have to face the truth.
The queen was dead. Long live the king.
Uther stayed in his chambers for almost a week.
He didn’t emerge the day after the birth of his son for his naming ceremony. He didn’t emerge three days later to attend the feast for yule. He just stewed in his rooms, barely eating or washing.
Nimueh had fled. And his wife was dead.
“My lord?” Balinor said on the sixth day. “Sir Tristan is here to see you, your majesty.”
Said knight did not care for permission. He bumped pass Balinor and stood before Uther. His face in an ugly grimace and a low growl on his lips. He took off his gauntlet and threw it at the king’s feet.
“Pick it up,” his voice unwavering. When Uther did not make any move, he stalked forward. “If you have even the slightest decency, you will pick it up.”
With steely eyes that never strayed from Sir Tristan, Uther took the gauntlet. “Name your challenge.”
“Single combat. Noon, tomorrow. To the death.” And with that, he swiftly turned and left.
“But, sire,” Balinor appealed, “You are in no state to fight.”
“Tristan de Bois has always been a stubborn man. He thinks I killed his sister.”
“All the more reason to withdraw.”
“He thinks I’m in the wrong here,” Uther all but snarled. “If I yield, my people would also think so. My honour and ability to lead will be questioned.”
“They will know a sound-minded king.” Balinor’s tone was patient, hoping that his king would see sense.
“No. They will think me weak, which I am not. Now leave me be.”
Balinor wanted to say more, but the conviction in Uther’s eyes took the fight in him. And so he, too, left.
The seventh day passed and the first blood was spilt.
It was the first council session without the queen. The council members were careful with the king, only speaking when prompted and keeping their reports brief. The king was easy to anger these days and it made everyone uneasy.
He was still grieving, they will tell themselves. They would not have to speak of it if it were not for the king’s announcement just then.
“I wish to plan an attack to the Isle,” Uther said in a cold, loud voice near the end of the session.
Balinor was the first to overcome his shock. “Come now, Uther, I’m not sure that is wise.”
“Are you questioning my leadership?”
Uther’s voice was dangerous and sharp, which Balinor replied to in a dissuading manner. “Of course not, sire. I’m merely saying that maybe your grief is clouding your judgment. It could happen even to the best of us.”
“My path has never been so clear to me.” With bared teeth, Uther said, “I am declaring war against the Isle of the Blessed.”
Then came the outrage. Seven councillors had magic. And they knew very well what this would bring to the kingdom, so their protests were the loudest.
“A war against them is also a war against the Triple Goddess and the Crone,” one of them, Heshenka, had said.
Uther hit the table with a resounding bang. The council fell silent and Uther pinned down Heshenka with a hard stare. “One of theirs had committed a crime against the Crown. Nimueh killed the queen.”
No one had the heart to tell the king otherwise, that Nimueh loved the queen and would never do such a thing. Instead, Gwion, the ambassador of the druids, offered a completely different solution. “We should not be so hasty in making a decision. Since this matter concerns Brighid, perhaps we could use the help of another triple goddess? I know where the Disir resides, we could ask for the guidance of The Morrigan.”
Uther huffed, “I wish no further disappointment from the gods.”
“Careful, Uther,” Balinor warned.
“No matter, justice must be met.” Uther glared at the lot of them, “I will not dishonour my wife in such a manner.”
“We wish the same, Uther, but it is as you’ve said, Nimueh is theirs and their laws apply to her, not ours. She will be judged and punished by their terms.” Balinor laid a hand on the king’s shoulder, trying to ground the man.
Uther shrugged off the hand as soon as it touched him. “I am not a fool, Balinor. I know that those hags would never lay a hand on their own. I have to take justice in my own hands.”
“But sire—“ Balinor tried. Uther had always listened to him and always welcomed his challenges. However, there was some shift in their dynamic recently. His friend had retreated within himself, only hearing his voice.
“Enough!” It was a word that seemed to be used by Uther more frequently. There was no use to waste time hearing what the others thought. His resolve was unshakeable. “I am your king. My will be done.”
The tyrannical words were what made them pause rather than the implied order. As always, Balinor was the first to comply, the first to support his friend and king. “Of course, my liege.”
Orange light licked the indigo night sky. One would think that the red dawn broke early. Screams of different pitches filled the air, accompanying the crisp smell of burning flesh.
People ran in all directions. Those who bumped into the man with murderous intent and unforgiving hand staggered for a second before running away from him with fearful looks.
Overhead, heavy batting of leathery wings drowned the people’s screams. A terrifying roar was the only warning before lines of fire scorched across the castle.
At the centre of the courtyard was the last high priestess. She was chanting a spell that the man surmised to be a protection spell. A spell that brought fortune to its recipient. Upon its completion, the priests and priestesses would get away and the battle would be for nought.
The man, for he was not a king right then and there but a mere man who had succumbed into his need for revenge, took a step. He dodged the spells from the high priestess’ three acolytes that protected her.
With one swift move and some other, the acolytes fell. He approached the high priestess, who tried to defend herself but could not afford to lose concentration from her work. When he was close enough, he plunged his sword through her back.
Then the sky cried out and the earth trembled under his feet.
“You’re a traitor,” Nimueh spat.
Amidst the chaos, Balinor was able to locate Nimueh. They were in the topmost halls overlooking the central courtyard. He cautiously approached her, “You have committed a crime against Camelot’s sovereign, Nimueh. And by harbouring a fugitive, so did your brothers and sisters.”
Nimueh lets out a manic laugh, “We serve no mortal king. The only crime I admit to doing is risking the Balance, which is something I did for Uther. I warned them. You warned them. They said they fully understood the consequences. A life for a life. And I told them that I have no control on who dies. So tell me, Dragonlord, does that warrant death?”
“I’m sure if you didn’t run, then all of this would have been easily resolved.”
She frantically shook her head, “Your king wasn’t in any mood of talking that night. He tried to run me through the moment he realized what happened.”
“Surrender, Nimueh, and the attack will cease. Come back to Camelot. Appeal to Uther. You will have my support.”
Balinor reached out his hand and stepped forward, while Nimueh took a step back, “Do you think that a mad man would hear me out?”
“Uther is a merciful man. He would–“
“Look around you, Balinor! He ordered you to do a massacre. Does this look like the work of a man that’s willing to forgive?”
Balinor opened his mouth to reply, but a scream, almost inhuman and unlike any other, pierced through the walls of the hall. Nimueh turns her head to the general vicinity of its source and screams herself. Her eyes are golden, unshed tears made them seem like molten gold. Other priests and priestesses around them followed suit, and soon the air is filled with their shrilling voices.
And then, the stars screamed with them.
White light filled the night sky like an angry god. The fighting stopped and the dragons bowed their heads to look away from the blinding light. Nimueh was shaking and fell on her knees. She hugged herself and whispered, “The last high priestess is dead.”
Balinor felt it, too. The sudden release of power shook him to his bones. The earth was shuddering and cracks started to appear on the walls of the castle. It’s only a matter of time before it was reduced to ruins.
“Don’t make me face that monster,” she looked up at Balinor with fear and anguish. “We were friends once. If you have even the slightest care for me, you would let me go.”
“Nimueh,” Balinor tried again but found himself not knowing what to say.
“Do you still think that Uther will show mercy?”
Balinor sighed. He was sure before, but now that all nine members of the High Council fell by the king’s sword, he wasn’t anymore. Uther was reeling with rage. Much blood had already been unnecessarily spilt tonight. So Balinor reached a decision.
He helped Nimueh stand up and said, “Gather as much of your sisters as you can. I will send Aethea and Kilgharrah to you. They can bring you to safety. I’ll take care of Uther.”
“Come with us,” Nimueh urged the dragonlord. “It’s now unsafe to be in Uther’s court. The gods are angry,”
However, Balinor shook his head, “I can’t. Uther just had a grievous loss. He needs me.”
“How can you still stand by him? After what he just did? How long do you think before he decides to kill all the dragons and their lords as well?”
“He would never do such a thing. Even so, he is my friend. He was there when I had no one. I won’t abandon him, especially at a time when he needs the voice of reason the most.”
Nimueh nodded once in understanding, “If there is someone who could pacify Uther, it would be you.”
She turned from Balinor, but before taking off she said, “May you have the courage of stars, Balinor. I hope we’ll meet again in a more favourable circumstance.”
The king was holding an audience for the people’s petitions. Most of them had been about the recurring earthquakes across the kingdom. Infrastructures were damaged, people were injured and a few had died. The people were scared and looking to the king for security.
However, the only possible thing he could provide was compensation for the disasters. He did not know what was happening and so no solution came to mind. That was until the last petitioner.
He was wearing long white robes and held a mighty staff. A Keeper of Unicorns, Balinor recognized.
He did not bow deeply, just enough to acknowledge Uther’s title and it irked the king. With pursed lips, he listened to what the man had to say.
“I am Edren of Gedref, my lord. I seek an audience for you have upset the Scales, sire. The wrath of Brighid would be merciless. Even just a day after your attack, the seas started to rise. Three days later, almost half of Gedref is flooded. I must implore you, sire, to swallow your pride and make amends with the Triple Goddess.”
Uther gripped the armrests of his throne tightly. “I will do no such thing. I will not be known as the cowardly king who doesn’t stand by his actions. Justice needed to be met.”
Edren tapped his staff on the tiled floor. With the resounding bang and accusing eyes, he said, “You mistake justice for vengeance. You need not desolate the Isle, and yet, you did.”
When Uther kept quiet, the keeper’s expression softened. “No matter your intentions, sire, may I remind you that Brighid rules over spring that would affect the harvest? As long as her anger is on Camelot, it will suffer.”
However, this was heard by deaf ears as the king was prideful and stubborn. “Camelot is strong. It will endure.”
“But for how long?”
Uther must say that he would have admired the man’s bravery if it were not for his insolence. “Enough, Edren. You are starting to speak past propriety.” Then he leaned back to his chair and waved a flippant hand. “If you’re so scared, why not leave? Take your glorified horses with you. We would have fewer mouths to feed, and you could rest easy.”
Edren’s brows were furrowed, “When you took your oath as king, you promised to protect all your subjects. They include all the living things, sire. If you are not willing to save my home for me, then you should do so for the unicorns.”
“Gedref is being reclaimed by the sea, it is home to no one anymore. Leave and go somewhere else. I care not where.”
“Do you even hear yourself?” Edren’s voice wavered, “You ask us to abandon our home rather than you face the truth of your actions? You were wrong, Uther Pendragon. You must accept that, or Camelot will fall.”
That made Uther stand up tall, imposing and looking down at the keeper. “Is that a threat?”
“Merely a warning. I didn’t listen to the unicorns before. They hear the prophecies of stars, you see. They heard of a dark time, one which you would bring forth. Many will suffer. And you, Uther Pendragon, will die unloved and unhappy.”
The king charged at the man, hand raised and ready to strike. It was only Balinor’s soft call of his name that stopped him. He regarded the man before him and then said, “You are no longer welcome to Camelot, Edren of Gedref. You and the other keepers must leave before dawn or you will burn.”
The keeper only nodded as if he didn’t expect anything else besides this outcome.
When Edren was out the door, Uther turned to Balinor. “Gather your dragons and their riders. As soon as light touches the shores of Gedref, burn Edren’s herd.”
“Surely you don’t mean that. You know the consequences of a unicorn’s death.”
“They undermined my authority. Edren should have hanged tonight but instead, I’m banishing him. That is enough leniency.”
However, the king did not just banish Edren. “You banished all of them. Edren is but one keeper, why punish them all?”
“The action of one is an act of all. How can I trust them when one of theirs has openly spoken against me? And you heard what he said about that so-called prophesied dark time. A lie, of course, to shake us. Clearly, they are conspiring against the Crown.”
Uther’s paranoia and the hasty generalization were like cold water on a winter night, shocking and freezing. Balinor’s reply faltered as he remembered Nimueh’s question. How long do you think before he decides to kill all the dragons and their lords as well?”
The dragonlord shook his head to clear his thoughts because Uther would never betray him like that. His reply only came forced and hoarse. “Even if that were true, there is still the matter of killing pure and innocent creatures. A terrible curse would befall on Camelot.”
“That won’t happen.” Uther snorted. A grin that should not be there appeared on his face. “The gods are on our side. They will protect us.”
It was almost laughable. The sheer audacity of this man. Balinor wanted to tear his hair out in frustration. In a strained voice, he asked, “What makes you say that?”
“Look up the sky, Balinor. The gods have blessed us with a second sun that shines during the night. A newborn star to guide us in our conquest against the forces of darkness.”
It was ridiculous how blinded his friend had become. “That isn’t–“
And of course, Uther ran out of patience then. “Enough. You will not disobey me! You swore an oath to me, Balinor, Son of Derethnor. Now go. Be sure that by dawn, Edren’s herd is no more. If Anhora and Heshenka refused to leave, burn them as well.”
However, Balinor was not a man without principles. He could never attack a fellow custodian of magical creatures much less the creatures that they protect.
He stayed within the castle walls and waited for the king to find him.
“You dare defy me?” Said Uther as he came crashing through the door of his rooms.
“Yes,” Balinor’s voice was firm and steady, “I dare. How could you ask me of this?”
“I am your king—“
It was Balinor’s turn to cut off Uther. “You were my king. I could never serve a man who refuses to listen to me.”
Uther staggered back as if he physically received a blow. “You wish to leave my service?”
“You have stopped serving your people, Uther,” the dragonlord said in a small voice. And in a louder one, “I do not wish this, but you have given me no choice. You’re my friend, Uther. I wish you would remember that. I only want what is best for you, but I cannot give you that if you won’t listen to me.”
Uther looked like he was going to burst into tears, but his expression quickly turned stony and cold. “You were my friend.”
And then Uther turned on his heels. His bellowing cloak waved a goodbye that left Balinor with a grim sense of foreboding.
Balinor never left the castle.
No matter what was said between them, he could never leave Uther. His friend was hurting and he did not help with his callous words. He waited for Uther’s anger to cool down to talk to him, but almost a fortnight passed and Uther was still persistent in ignoring him.
Then one night, it became eerily quiet in his mind. He should at least hear one of his dragons on their telepathic link. He went to the caves, taking two steps at a time down the stairs.
He was greeted with a horror straight from a dragonlord’s nightmare. The bodies of his dragonriders littered the floor. His dragons shackled with chains that reeked of dark magic, blisters were starting to form where the cold iron touched their hide.
“How—“ he started to ask, but he could not find his words.
“Balinor,” a voice he couldn’t believe he was hearing. He looked at its source and saw Uther. There was no denying it now, with that manic gleam in his eyes and stoic expression. The time he feared had come.
“Why?” Balinor’s broken voice reverberated in the cavern.
“You know why.” And Balinor most certainly did not. “You have openly disregarded my order, have been mocking my decisions. This is your punishment.”
“They were innocents, Uther. They served you.”
“But you are their dragonlord, are you not? They only serve me as long as you did. And you made it clear where your heart truly lies.”
The dragonlord choked on air. He had known that Uther was angry, but he never anticipated this. “I have always been loyal to you, Uther. I only said what I said to make you realise what you’re doing.”
“So you’ve manipulated me.”
“No!” How could Uther say that? “I wanted you to see it for yourself. I never wanted to put thoughts in your mind or words in your mouth. You are a good and just king, Uther, you’ve just strayed for a bit and I wanted you to see that. Only then can you get back on track.”
Uther regarded him with a vacant, cool look. “If you are truly loyal to me, then prove it. Kill your dragons.”
“What?” Balinor screamed. “Why would you ask me that?”
“There is a clear imbalance of power between the two of us. If you really do not seek to control me, then you would be willing to surrender your power.”
“I already have! Do you not remember?” His voice was now hysterical. “I took the Oath of a Dragonlord.”
“That means nothing to me. I need tangible proof, not some empty promise. Or do you have a problem with losing your power?”
“I have a problem with killing my kin! We share an ancestry. You know this, Uther. We are of the same blood.”
Uther pursed his lips as if he was dealing with a spoiled child that had become unruly and not a longtime friend that he had just ordered to kill his family. “Perhaps a little incentive?”
From the shadows emerged three knights. They were flanking a prisoner in chains. It was Alyana with a bruised eye and busted lip. She walked in a limp and was clutching her left side. Who knows what other injuries she had.
“A test of blood. Which one is thicker?” And Uther had the gall to laugh.
Balinor roared, deep and almost animalistic, “You will not harm her.”
“I won’t if you do as I ask.”
The dragonlord started to attack and a guard held a sword on his sister’s throat. Balinor was halfway towards them and the knight had cut Alyana when a feminine voice stopped them.
“Dragonlord,” one of the dragons said, “Enough. Do as the king says.”
“It is our choice. We would ask for no more than an honourable death. Do not deny us that.”
Balinor’s eyes burned. He stood still as tears stained his cheeks. He balled his fists and his nails dug hard enough to break his skin.
“You heard her, Balinor.” Uther impatiently said. “Do it.”
He approached Aethea. Her dark blue skin glittered under the low light of the caves like lapis lazuli. Balinor was not supposed to have favourites but he can never deny that she was his. He stroked her flank and rested his forehead on hers.
The dragoness let out a pained whine. Then Balinor heard her speak in his mind. Take heart, Dragonlord, she had said, for we will meet again someday.
With shaky breath and a small voice, he whispered to her, “In Sibbe Gerest.”
She let out a long exhale as her breath was expelled from her lungs. Her body turned to stone and then broke into a million pieces.
One by one he did the same to the rest and soon the cavern floor was filled with debris. As he approached the last one, Kilgharrah, Uther stopped him. “No, not him. What kind of conqueror am I if I don’t have any spoils to keep?”
Balinor slowly turned to him. He could not believe that he called this man his friend once. The thought was dizzying and nauseating. “You are one sick bastard, Uther. You do not deserve the name Pendragon.” He spat at the king’s feet.
Uther took it in stride. “Thank you for your cooperation.” He nodded at the guards and while Balinor thought it was to free his sister, it was actually a sign to cut her down.
As she fell, Balinor felt his magic thundered with his rage, clawing its way out to be released. He lost control of the reins and a powerful shockwave burst from him. The knights and Uther went flying. He heard the guards’ necks crunching.
Uther fell headfirst with the distance that should have left him unconscious, but the king got to his feet. He had a long gash on his forehead. Blood covered the right half of his face. He looked demented, eyes wide and bloodshot, as he dashed towards Balinor.
He was thwarted, however, by Kilgharrah. He blew fire on Uther’s path and yelled Run! to Balinor.
The earth was relentless that night. Tremors formed fissures on the castle walls and floors. Furniture was toppled over and so did the candles, which started a fire.
Balinor didn’t know where to go. He didn’t know how to navigate through the tumult. He just ran as quick as he could, ducking away from incoming soldiers. He was hiding under a staircase, thinking about how to get past the numerous people in the courtyard, when the Court Physician found him.
Balinor stared at the man, who stared back. They were not enemies per se, but they weren’t friends either. The dragonlord waited for Gaius to make his move. Balinor asked any gods who were willing to listen that he would not need to harm the gentle man.
And he thanked them when Gaius beckoned him over, “Come. I know the siege tunnels like the back of my hand. There is no time to lose.”
The toll of the bells was like an avenging spirit, majestic and inexorable.
Even at a distance, Balinor could still hear the ringing. A constant reminder for him to run faster. He ran east of Camelot. Ealdor, Gaius had said. He was to go to Ealdor and find a woman called Hunith. She would shelter him, the physician assured him.
His feet could only bring him so far though, and soon the knights’ galloping horses rumbled at his heels.
They rained bolts and Balinor tried his best to block them. However, one struck him on his leg. All his magic was now focused on the wound so it did not have the time to block another bolt that went through his shoulder.
It made him topple over the ravine that he did not see. And then he fell into an icy, roaring river. He struggled to keep his head afloat. He had inhaled much water when he finally got his bearings back.
He let the river carry him wherever. And to take his mind off the biting cold and throbbing pain in his shoulder and leg, he looked up the violet sky. The stars were laughing at him, it would seem. The second sun was judging him for he had failed.
He failed his king. He failed his family. He failed the gods and the land.
He was wishing for death when darkness finally took him.
The king stood tall in the parapet.
He addressed his subjects the same way he always did. The only difference was that he was alone, one could barely see the two guards in the background.
Most of the lower town residents gathered in the main square, eager to listen to their king. Was this about the commotion just before the crack of dawn? And where was the court sorcerer? Soft murmurs broke out amongst them as speculations were exchanged.
Uther raised a hand and the people ceased their musings.
“The Dragonlord Balinor has committed the most grievous of crimes,” he said in a loud, booming voice, “He tried to kill me. He is now an enemy of Camelot as well as those who aided him and will aid him in the future.”
Silence fell like a heavy blanket. The people didn’t know what to make of the king’s announcement. For a decade, Balinor had been loyal to Uther. Everyone knew that he was Uther’s most trusted friend. Had there been a mistake?
“I know some you of couldn’t believe it,” Uther acknowledged everyone’s shock. “I wouldn’t believe it myself if I didn’t see it with my own eyes.”
He paused for a moment, rubbing his hand on the upper half of his face, “I didn’t notice it at first, but for the past months, Balinor has been more insubordinate. His actions weren’t for the good of the kingdom any longer, but rather for power. He sought to manipulate me, to use me. And once I stopped listening to his poisonous words, he acted out, killing his sister in the process.”
It is always easier to lay blame to somebody else, to face monsters than to admit to yourself what you had become. It is easier for this gives purpose, a monster to kill.
“He was my friend,” the king continued. “He wouldn’t have acted the way he did in the right mind. And I know what drove him to madness. It killed your queen, my darling Ygraine.”
And that was the moment when everyone knew. As the king sobbed for a few heartbeats, the people knew that that day was what they were dreading. They knew it was soon, but they remained in hope – in denial – until then.
“It was magic.”
A few livid shouts rang through the whole square. Many started to look at their friends with magic with suspicion. Then fear swiftly replaced the feeling with Uther’s words, “Magic corrupts the soul. It is the price of using the power of the gods. Magic shouldn’t be among men, but we greedily took it as our own.”
“You’re wrong!” A brave woman shouted. She was a healer from the northside of the town, “Magic is a gift!”
Uther’s face twisted in an ugly scowl, but he ignored her. “From this day forward, magic is now punishable by death. Anyone who had dabbled with the art or has even the slightest drop of magic in their blood will be bound in cold iron. And they will die by noon.”
The townspeople didn’t see the knights coming close. They were either looking at the king in disbelief or to their fellows in fear. The knights took them by surprise and those who were recorded of magic possession were grabbed and bound.
They tried to fight, but most were inept in combatant magic. They tried to struggle against their captors, but the absence of their magic made them weak in the knees.
It wasn’t long before the executions start.
Long lines of men and women slowly walked to the gallows. The elderly and others that were least likely to fight got the axe. And the children, who were small enough to fit in the well, were drowned.
The whole affair was disturbingly silent. The only sounds were just the faint sobs from those who could still shed tears. With the rapid fall, the ropes crushed their windpipes. The fall of the axe was a small mercy of quick death. And no one could ever hear the muffled screams by the children underwater.
This lasted for a whole week. And just as everyone thought that it was over, a dozen pyres were built. “These are for those who actively maimed and killed,” the king said.
One of them was the healer from before. She wouldn’t hurt a fly even if she tried, but there she was. An example for those who would so much as think to speak against Uther Pendragon.
When the fires were lit, the king watched with grim satisfaction. The guttural screams and smell of burning flesh started to fill his hollow chest, but it wasn’t enough. He despaired that nothing would ever be enough.
The bodies from the previous executions were burned outside the city. The ashes from there and the pyres within caressed the castle like dark hands. They painted the walls grey, and it wouldn’t wash away no matter how much the servants would try.
The gods’ shining beacon became so soot-laden that they feared that no spark would ignite it ever again.
Balinor woke up to the smell of sage. He tried to move but found himself unable to do so. Fear bubbled up his chest and screamed for help. His throat was starting to hurt when an old woman came to his field of view.
“Oh quit your yapping!” The woman said. “And stop thrashing around with your magic. The restraints are only there so that you won’t hurt yourself any further. If you continue probing on them, you’ll get a massive headache.”
“W-who are you?” Balinor calmed somewhat, but he vigorously scanned where he was.
“Names are just names. It matters not who I am, but rather that I saved you. Now rest.” The old woman touched his forehead and without a cue, Balinor fell into a deep sleep.
The next time Balinor woke up, he found himself free to move. The old woman was preparing food and barely glanced at him. He looked out the window and tried to get a sense of where they were.
He opted to just ask the old woman as the only sight that his eyes could reach was the thick trees.
“Somewhere deep within the forest of Ascetir.” Her terse reply was. “Do not worry, we are safe here.”
Balinor gave a noncommittal hum. He wondered how long he was asleep, how much time had passed and changed Uther.
That was when white tufts started to fall, but that cannot be right. The last thing he remembered, it was just into harvest season. It was too early for snow. Or had he been sleeping for so long?
“That isn’t snow,” the woman said, startling Balinor since she was now behind him. They both stared outside. Although Balinor had noticed that the woman was blind. A surprise since she acted as if she could see.
Balinor mentioned none of it and brought his gaze back outside. When some clumps came close to him, he caught them. It was definitely not snow but ash, he realized. He looked at the woman, the question at the tip of his tongue but he was too afraid of the answer to ask it.
The woman looked sullen. “It’s the citadel. Sorcerers. Dragonlords and druids, too, no matter whether they actually have magic or not. The king has been rounding them up and…” She trailed off and went back to her work.
Burning them. Balinor didn’t need it saying. He had truly lost his friend. He felt ashamed for not being strong enough for Uther. His leaving was the final straw.
Then it all came crashing back why he had to. His riders, the ones he swore to protect, were dead. His dragons, his kin, the very last few left, were dead but one. They were killed by the very man he swore his and their lives to. The man he entrusted the name Chief-Dragon.
And by the gods, his sister was dead.
His stance swayed, and if it were not for the woman, who guided him unto a chair, he would have aggravated his wounds by falling over. He let his tears fall. He never got the chance to properly grieve since he was running for his life. He never even got the chance to look at them for one last time.
He cried in time of the tremors pulsing periodically through the land. The earthquakes grew in number, he observed. He let the soft chinking of the woman’s belongings around him as they shook lull him.
He was calm and bordering on numb when the woman said that dinner was ready.
They ate in silence until the woman let out a rather loud harrumph and looked up, again as if she could see. She asked his companion, “Is the sky especially red tonight?”
Without waiting for Balinor’s answer, she continued, “The night sky is red. As red as the blood spilt in this war. The echoing crimson of the fallen ones. It’s almost finished.” Her eyes flashed gold, the milky film clearing.
“What’s almost finished?” Balinor asked. It sounded like a vision. The woman must have a gift of Sight.
“Don’t you know, Dragonlord?” The blind giggles and raises an eyebrow, “The star’s death is an hourglass. The sand falls as the gods bid their time. Tinkling grain against the glass as the gods patiently wait and mourn for their children.”
“What are they waiting for?” Balinor grew more impatient and frustrated. Seers always had a knack for riddle-like speech and he hated it because he thought they just did it to make themselves sound mysterious. He had no tolerance as of now for such roundabout talk.
“Why, their champions of course! When the star shines its final light, the preparation comes to an end. The Once and Future King and his Emrys will soon rise to give back what was taken from the earth.”
“They are nothing but a legend, Seer.” Balinor’s face twisted into a grimace, “It would do you no good to cling on false hope.” Something that Balinor had foolishly held fast to. And now look where it got him.
“A legend, yes. A legend once and a legend they will be.” The old woman started to tap her hands on the table in an indiscernible pattern, “The queen is dead. Long live the king!”
That made his blood boil and he clenched his fists, almost breaking the cutlery. “You celebrate a murderer?”
“Oh but, see.” She grabbed Balinor’s head. For a dainty old woman, her grip was strong. He was left with no choice but to stare at the woman’s unseeing eyes. “I don’t mean the king of the present, but of the past and the future. The gods and Albion’s High King! They’ve already chosen one champion and now we shall wait for the other.”
The seer stood, opened her arms out wide, and tilted her head up. The gold in her eyes had completely cleared them. Balinor didn’t want to believe what she was saying, but he couldn’t deny the power in her words. “When the earth stops trembling, the sea stops roaring, and the sky stops bleeding, there would be a son born of the three. He will be Emrys and he will bring peace with his King.”
She slumped back to her chair. She gave him a mournful look, “Everyone thought that it would be you and Uther.”
A shot of pain passed through his chest. Others had also seen what he saw in Uther over a decade ago. He was a kind and just king. How could one night change a man so much?
“They weren’t too far from the truth though,” a wistful smile formed on the seer’s face.
“What do you mean by that?”
She smiled covertly, “Do you really think that I saved you out of the goodness of my heart? Especially at a time like this?”
“I didn’t ask for your help,” Balinor reminded her. Maybe it was better if she did let him die. At least then he would be with his family in the Otherworld.
“No, but the gods did. I saved your life so that Emrys may live.” She cradled his head on her hands again, but this time it was less forceful and her face was kinder. “Don’t lose heart, Dragonlord, for you will see your kin again. As Emrys rises, so too shall the fallen.”
And then she hit his hand and pushed his plate towards him. “Now eat up! I won’t have you dying under my care.”
Hunith was a beautiful woman, both inside and out.
She took him in without questions asked. Balinor just needed to say that Gaius sent him and she treated him like a friend.
She was very brave to continue to let him into her home even after she found out why he was hiding. In return, he helped around as much as he could. He worked in the fields all day for food. He sold woodcarvings for coins.
He built a life for himself in Ealdor. And he could not have done it without Hunith. She taught him how to live with his past and the pain that came with it. He could almost forget the hurt now and focus on love.
They fell into bed a year after he fled from Camelot. Balinor did not intend to, but Hunith had been so sweet and she offered comfort and love. He held her tightly and vowed that he would not let any harm befall her.
It was almost dawn and Balinor had not had a wink of sleep. He spent the rest of the night watching Hunith. Strong-willed, but kind. Stubborn, but selfless. He would marry her, Balinor decided. He would ask her today by the river with the blossoming lilies.
He got up from the bed to fetch some water to start the day. As he went outside he remarked that the recurring quakes had stopped. And the red sun, which usually can be seen until noon at this time of the year, was gone.
Was this what the seer had told him of? Had the gods truly chosen their Emrys?
A smile came unbidden. There was hope for Albion after all.
It fell too soon for he saw a different kind of red, on horseback and birdlike hunting prey. Soldiers of Camelot in Escetir? It was foolish even for Uther.
He ran back inside his home and gathered his things and a few bags of coins. He moved to wake Hunith but stopped himself. Where would they go? How could he let this amazing woman spend the rest of her life on the run? She had already given him so much. It would not be honourable to ask for more, to ask her to leave her home for him.
So with a heavy heart, he kissed Hunith’s brow. A single tear traced down his cheek. He whispered his apologies and thanks, hoping that she would hear him in her dreams.
Then for the third time in his life, he fled from Uther Pendragon.
The boy who was with the Prince of Camelot called himself Merlin.
He wore raggedy clothes as if he wasn’t shining bright with his magic. He worried about the prince and stood by him as if the prince was his friend. He asked Balinor to help Camelot as if he cared for the kingdom that would see him dead.
He pleaded to Balinor like he needed the good for nothing dragonlord.
They sat opposite each other over the fire. The dancing flames caused the boy’s shadows to flicker and Balinor could see the silhouettes of those he had failed. He saw the imposing figure of his father and his mother with her arms outstretched, beckoning to the shades around her.
Flames don’t cast a shadow but their smoke did. And for a small fire such as theirs, its smoke’s shadow filled the walls of the cave in dark wisps. Tall rods holding bodies surround them. Some were swinging on a rope, others had pyres at their feet. Balinor wanted to look away but he can’t. Anywhere he faced, he saw death, so he closed his eyes.
The boy was still talking, still hoping that the dragonlord would help. This made Balinor angry. Why should he help the man that hunted him like an animal? Why should he care about the people who stood by and did nothing about the injustice that reigned their land?
Balinor was not Emrys, the seer he met some two decades ago was sure of that. The land wasn’t his responsibility. He had come to accept that long ago. He should not feel guilty over the things he failed to do when it wasn’t his destiny to fulfil.
After his tirade, he didn’t give the boy a chance to say more as he left. He left the taunting ghosts and the disappointed look on Merlin.
The next day, Balinor could not make himself face the boy. Even though Merlin still wanted to try to convince him, Balinor brushed off his advances. However, the boy is nothing but stubborn. And gods’ mercy, he reminded Balinor so much of the people he lost.
As the boy’s farewell, he said, “Gaius spoke of the nobility of dragonlords. Clearly, he was wrong. I was hoping you were something better.”
Balinor almost laughed. In another life, someone once told him the same jab. Little did they know, he hoped the same thing as well. He wished he was better, that he lived to be worthy of being the last of his kind.
He didn’t say anything or watched the two men go. Before he stepped inside the cave though, he caught something in the corner of his eyes.
Sunlight struck the prince in a way that he glowed. His golden hair soaked up the light greedily. It only made the sun shine brighter as if the sun crowned the prince as his king.
The boy in his side wasn’t any less brilliant as his magic protectively glittered around them. His reflection on the stream by his feet didn’t show him, but rather Aethea with eyes equally taunting and encouraging.
Balinor stopped seeing the cruel past in the shadows as the intensity of the new day overwhelmed them. Everyone he failed seemed supportive now than accusing.
He stopped seeing a mere prince and his manservant.
He saw the Once and Future King and his Emrys.
Balinor let out a gasp and his knees buckled. He shut his eyes for what felt like an eternity. By the time he opened them again, the two were gone.
I saved your life so Emrys may live, the seer had said. Everyone had a part to play in this war. If Balinor wanted peace then he must help the home that shunned him. This was his destiny.
All his life he had been told a lot to be braver. And now it was Emrys – the gods – that had challenged him. He would answer in the only way he could. The time for running had come to an end.
He was bound to face Uther again anyway. Who was to say that the time hadn’t already come?
Balinor packed his bags and hurried to catch up to the destined deliverers.