It is a long journey from Tintagel to Camelot. When word came, his party made haste, and at first with only six to their group, they were able to travel apace. Then the smoke began to rise. First as distant columns, then in breathtaking waves. They were too late.
The king is dead. Arthur's father is dead.
Arthur has never much noticed the weight of the Pendragon ring that has swung from his neck since he was a child. The worn leather has been replaced many times over. Now he feels the thing strike his chest with every hoofbeat.
When he was small, he loved to touch the dragon's form that twists around its circumference. He pretended it was his pet, endlessly loyal and which he could take everywhere. His nursemaid would chuckle at that and allow him to tell of his dragon's adventures to pass the time.
Though she was a witch, she was never a powerful magic user, not like those Arthur had seen training with his father's troops. She could hurry along a pot of tea, sometimes, and seemed frustratingly prescient about when Arthur was about to get into some trouble. But one summer--her last with him--he'd held her hand as he leaned far as he could over a river bank, telling her his dragon was soaring over the high seas. He'd noticed her eyes pool briefly with tears. That day, she'd tapped that heavy ring over his heart and promised that his time as king would be something to behold. That he would bring the dragons back, and they would bow before him.
Well, he thinks wryly now, the dragons are certainly back. But he is sure none will bow during what promises to be his eventful but abbreviated kingship.
They've learned, at a painful cost, that the roads are too exposed to travel along. Kay had been snatched off his saddle so neatly that his horse had continued trotting along behind them, untouched. No one had seen him taken, not until they noticed the shape of him in a set of jaws, far overhead.
Now the five of them make their way slowly, picking through the forests by day, dreading meadows, as the shadows of beasts drift over head.
They must always find cover before the sun sets. Dragons' eyes are wickedly sharp in the dark. They learned that the hard way as well. While they drag branches for their makeshift shelters, Bedivere painstakingly skins rabbits or spoons soup one-handed. They must be finished before sunset, so they can extinguish the fire for the night to come.
Bedivere's brother, Lucan, watches his struggles warily. Yet Bedivere grumbles at any offer of assistance. "I may as well be of some bloody use around here," he says, snatching the pot from his brother's grasp. "I can still hold a sword, and I can certainly deal with a damned pot!"
Arthur holds up a hand to Lucan before he can protest. "His cooking's bad enough without your help."
He tries not to eye Bedivere's bandaged stump too anxiously. Bedivere had bit gamely down on a strip of leather when Tristan pulled a sword from the fire, pressing it to the jagged wound where his arm once had been. Lamorak, Lucan, and Arthur had done their best to hold him down; Lucan still sports the bruises on his arm where his brother had gripped. Miraculously, Bedivere had not lost too much blood, and grows stronger again by the day. Now there's only hoping the rot won't set in. Tristan says all they can do is keep it clean, and wait. Arthur's seen such disease too often take down men even larger than Bedivere, and less seriously wounded. He won't risk the man wasting his energy now, even on argument. Not when they're so far from help, and not likely to find any soon.
Bedivere snorts at Arthur's insult. "As though you could pass judgement about my cooking, when a man cannot taste a thing through this ash?" he says, plunking the pot over the fire and spilling stew. It's true. The villages grow closer together as they near Camelot, and the dragons seem bent on revenge upon every one. A fine fog of gray floats at all hours, dimming even the daylight. "This might be the finest feast in all the land, and I, a chef deserving of song and legend. How could anyone know?"
"One can't forget your cooking that quickly, Bedivere, and more's the pity," Lamorak says dryly then, delivering more tinder into the fire. "With you as our cook, the ash is a blessing."
There is no time for ceremonies. No crowning or feast to mark the start of his reign are to be had, nor funeral rites to mark the end of his father's. When the smoke began and they'd all seen the truth of what was to come, his uncle Tristan had merely kneeled, the rest of Arthur's few accompanying knights following suit. "The king is dead. Long live the king."
They had buried Kay later that day, or what little the dragons had left of him.
There will be no funerals for his knights either, as Arthur, in his first and perhaps only days of kingship, fails them one by one.
Their hope of reaching a safe, somehow untouched Camelot shrinks with every passing day, with every burning town they cannot make themselves turn away from.
They cannot save every one, cannot even save most. Those who live thank him simply and move on. For those who die, he stays long enough to help bury them. He stands knee-deep in the earth, blood and ash under his fingernails, skin and hair as chalky and gray as that of the men and women beside him. He's grown used to the stench of charred flesh and torn clothes covered in grave dirt.
No one recognizes him as the prince--as the king. Arthur can't say this out loud, not in front of his knights, but he wonders if it might be better that way. This is nothing like the legends, not even the stories he'd heard, first- and second-hand, of his father. This is no honorable battle he can lead his men into. They seem only to march grimly toward death now.
Lamorak rushes inside a burning home, toward the voices of a screaming family, and none of them ever come out. The house burns completely. Arthur cannot even bury him like he has the countless strangers on this journey.
Arthur should sit up straight, but his head droops despite the halting tread of his horse navigating roots and brush.
Bedivere jostles him with an errant shoulder, trotting by Arthur's horse, and Arthur jerks his head up. From his other side, Tristan reaches to set a calming hand on his shoulder.
Arthur blinks hard. "It's not time to camp, is it?" he asks stupidly, squinting at the still-high sun through the tree canopy.
"No, my king!" Lucan whoops, galloping past them after his brother. "It's time for action!"
Arthur glances at Tristan, who points ahead. There is a clearing through the trees, and beyond it--
Camelot burns. It burns, yet its men still stand.
Even as they watch, a boulder lined with crackling magic sails from behind its walls, punching through the closest dragon's wing. The beast screams, sounding nearly human as it spirals away, and the land reverberates with the sound.
Tristan almost smiles, a rare feat for his serious uncle even in less dire circumstances. Arthur's heart can't help but race, too, at the prospect of something like a fighting chance for his people.
His subjects are few and far between, his kingdom dead and scattered. Most had fled Camelot, or perished, within days of Uther's death.
They have done what they can for those few knights and citizens who stayed to fight, to protect their homes or to tend to the wounded. A young servant, Guinevere, had led the safe evacuation of people and supplies with her knowledge of the castle's tunnels. Bedivere, even moments after kissing his brother's forehead and lowering Lucan's body to the ground, had continued to help her in hauling food and belongings into carts one-armed, though tear tracks shone through the ashes on his face.
From the top of the highest tower, they brought down another dragon, the largest one and the last of the fire-breathers. The city was already aflame, and the other beasts were dangerous even without the ability to set the world alight. But killing the one who appeared to be their leader bought them enough time to get the living out. In the fray, Arthur did not even see Tristan fall.
It was two weeks before they could risk returning to claim their dead, but Lucan and Tristan are buried just beyond the broken city's walls now. Guinevere tells him flowers and herbs grew there, before. It hasn't rained in some time, and the earth is dry and wasted. But perhaps one day they will grow there again.
Arthur presses his hand into the thin layer of ash scattered over their grave. "I'll return with something like proper headstones next time," he promises the earth. His own voice sounds odd cutting through the empty silence that hangs in this place. He clears the dust from his throat and rises, and enters his empty Camelot.
He only has a few more homes to search--for supplies, for bodies--before he will have to either stop, or move onto the castle. Though he supposes it must have once been luxurious and teeming with life, he found it gloomy and intimidating the few times he had been as a child. He'd dreaded his father at every turn. Now its burned-out skeleton still seems haunted by the dead man who had doomed it.
In the last house, Arthur stops short at the body.
Though a last sweep for bodies along with food or useful tools had been his excuse for coming, he truly thought all the bodies here had been devoured, burned, or buried. Twice already, he's been back to Camelot. To gather supplies, he tells Bedivere. And alone, because it is safer that way. The dragons are attracted to groups. Easier to smell or spot, or merely a more worthwhile meal, he doesn't know.
Bedivere keeps claiming he'll beat Arthur to within an inch of his life if he sneaks off on his own one more time. "What, your king?" Arthur replied. "Why, I'll have you banished from Camelot."
Bedivere is the only person he can speak lightly of his kingship with. His father's knights treat him warily. Only Leon recognizes him and treats him with any real joy. And why should the rest of them? Arthur fell easily enough into formation with them, knew all his father's drills, but they had never before fought beside him.
He had trained in Tintagel, had rarely showed his face in Camelot--for so long he was a stranger, a missing prince, a subject of suspicion and strange prophecy (he will bring back the dragons--they will bow). He materialized at the last moment of battle, to lead men who had been fighting for days, and expected to be celebrated? Where had he been the past week? The past twenty years?
Their stares in the camp are sometimes too hard to take. In Camelot, he can be alone.
So he thought. The body at his feet stirs and Arthur lays his hand upon his sword.
It's a young man. He's sprawled on the dirt floor as though it's the most luxurious of beds. The sweep of his eyelashes is white with dust.
Arthur breathes out hard and draws his sword. It won't do to be too trusting in these desperate times. The boy is as likely to be a bandit as any citizen of Camelot.
"Was this your home?" he demands, and the boy wakes up coughing.
The sunset, gleaming through the broken window, sparks the boy's eyes almost gold in the moment they meet Arthur's. Arthur finds himself shifting closer, and cast in shadow the boy's eyes are a wide, clear blue. Arthur has certainly never seen him before.
The boy makes a slip when he speaks, revealing that he has a companion somewhere close. Yet--yet there is something about this person, and Arthur, who has not felt safe for any stretch of time for weeks, sheaths his sword.
The boy's name is Merlin, and his companion is a dragon.
Arthur's face must reveal the shock that runs through his body at the sight of the creature, because Merlin throws up his hand as though that could protect the two of them from Arthur's sword, should he choose to use it.
Then again, Arthur realizes, blinking, the swirl of gold that Merlin suddenly wields in his palm could explain Merlin's ability to survive this long traveling alone and unarmed.
"Arthur, please trust me--"
"How do you know my name, warlock?" Arthur asks slowly. The little white dragon is cocking its head at him unnervingly. No stranger has recognized him as the prince on sight since he left Tintagel.
"Well," Merlin says reasonably, "I am a warlock."
Arthur does not so much choose as he is compelled to roll his eyes. "Thank you," he says. The "idiot" is implied. Merlin grins sunnily and Arthur swallows, finding his throat has gone quite dry. Luckily, the dragon chooses that moment to wriggle from Merlin's pack and flutter down to Arthur's side, nosing at Arthur's bag.
"Would, ah, would the two of your like some food?" Arthur finally says, resolutely digging through his bag to avoid watching for that grin again.
Merlin claims, between inhumanly large bites, that he is a dragonlord, and he and the tiny creature with him will help Arthur save Camelot. Albion, he actually says, as though Camelot and the kingdoms beyond it have been united as one land within living memory. He says it with such confidence that Arthur nearly wants to believe him.
The way he looks at Arthur, as though Arthur is someone to be trusted, someone to pin the hopes of a kingdom on--Arthur wants to believe that too.
They run through the castle, kicking up ashes and bumping shoulders. Aithusa flaps wildly after them. Arthur shows Merlin the kitchens, the nooks and crannies he hid in during visits as a boy, to avoid the courtly life he never grew accustomed to.
They slide to a stop at the edge of a charred chasm, a whole wing of the castle, destroyed. It once held his father's chambers. Arthur recalls that during the battle, a wounded dragon had flown into it and crushed it.
Merlin blinks down into the abyss of black stone, and turns to Arthur. "Well, why don't you show me your mother's?"
In a nearby wing, the ceiling of the hall has half come down and they must pick through rubble until they reach a badly dented iron door. A heavy, rusted lock keeps it shut. Merlin's hand glows again when he grasps the padlock and pulls as easily as one might pick an apple from a branch.
The inside is untouched by ash, only dust. They don't even cough when they shake out the sheets, which are a miracle of untouched white after the burned-out black of the castle. Arthur sits on the bed, then lies down, swallowing back emotion. His mother's chambers were the closest thing he had to home when he was in Camelot. Now, in the strange skeleton of the castle he was supposed to call his, he finds comfort in this dusty white room again, and the stranger who settles in next to him feels just as familiar.
He elbows Merlin, who is starfishing over the bed as though he owns it. They have only known one another for a couple of hours, yet he finds he can't stop pushing into Merlin's space and Merlin into his, haven't been more than a few feet apart since the moment Arthur clapped eyes on him.
Arthur can only compare the energy between them to the crackle of magic he's seen warlocks produce between their fingers, a buzzing connection between them even when they do not touch, and when they do, it's as good as a jolt to the heart.
Merlin pulls Arthur in by his necklace and kisses him. They both taste like dust and warmth and want, and Arthur has never done this before but he can't stop fumbling under Merlin's clothes for more of that perfectly electric skin. He wraps a hand around Merlin's cock like he does for himself when he's alone, and they gasp together.
Merlin finally touches him, everywhere, jolt after jolt to Arthur's heart until it hammers and his blood rushes in his ears.
Aithusa is the first one up, perched on the windowsill. It's gray outside, as usual. But when he joins Aithusa, he feels the humidity press in, sees the gathering clouds. A burst of light electrifies the sky, and with a clap of thunder, the skies open up to quench the parched earth.
Aithusa chatters at him. He doesn't understand, but Merlin says that the little beast is learning how to express itself quite quickly for a dragon. He doesn't know if the dragon understands humans other than dragonlords, but he holds a hand out and Aithusa bows his little head to nuzzle at his fingers.
Aithusa has joined him on his shoulder by the time Merlin wakes. Merlin's hair sticks up and he smiles crookedly at Arthur and looks utterly ridiculous. Arthur can't quite breathe when he looks at him.
Merlin's expression of awe and joy at the rain, at Arthur, is even worse, and Arthur has to kiss it off his face despite Aithusa's annoyed chirping, which makes Merlin laugh into his mouth. Still, Merlin pulls away to touch Arthur's cheek and say, solemnly, "You are my king." The way he says it is like a ceremony.
He turns his face to the window, Merlin warm at his side, and sees a future, and a kingdom he will lead there.