It happened while Arthur was laughing.
He was normally more alert when he was out riding, but it was such a lovely autumn day and the late October sun was dappling through the trees overhead, tinting the ground gold before him. His best knights rode beside him and Morgause brought up the rear, the unseasonably warm weather tempering even her usual solemnity. Gwaine cracked some kind of joke, Elyan rolled his eyes, and Elena was half slipping off her horse from sniggering so hard.
Arthur turned to Leon, his heart suddenly full of contentment.
“Let’s stay out another hour,” he said.
“I have no objections sire, if you can bear Gwaine’s prattling that long.”
Leon’s mouth was curved up at the sides; he looked as relaxed as Arthur felt. And why wouldn’t he be? It was a beautiful day, Camelot was at peace, and for once they had nothing more to worry about than Uther’s chide for returning home late.
“The day is young Leon, we may yet see Morgause magic Gwaine’s mouth shut again,” he remarked dryly and his friend grinned wide.
Leon was still smiling when his horse was suddenly flung up in the air, swiped off its hooves by some unseen force. He hit his head hard on a low hanging branch, fell to the ground, and lay still.
Arthur was shouting out in alarm before he’d even drawn his sword.
“Get back, sire!” Morgause cried, magical energy already crackling from her hands like lightning. But Arthur wasn’t listening. He spurred his horse forward, breaking out from the cover of the trees to find out who or what had dared to attack his friend…
His rage died in his throat and for a moment he couldn’t breathe.
A huge beast hovered in the air before him, monstrously dark against the clear blue sky. It had four great haunches, a long slender neck, and a thick black tail beset with tiny ridges. Arthur’s tongue formed its name even as his mind denied the truth as impossible.
But there were no dragons. Not anymore, not since the cull. They had been hunted to extinction, killed by power hungry men who would make spells with their blood and charms with their hides. There hadn’t been a dragon in Albion for nearly twenty years.
And yet it was a dragon that he saw before him.
The dragon opened its mouth to roar and Arthur’s horse reared in fright. The movement brought him out of his own shock, and stirred his rage again. He glanced to see Leon still lying rigid on the grass, no sign of life about him, and grief settled like steel in his blood. This beast had killed his friend. He would not let Leon go unavenged.
His horse was cantering backwards so he leapt from the saddle, sword held aloft, and rushed at the dragon. He could hear shouts from behind but he ignored them. Fury gave him momentum and he managed to evade Gwaine’s grasp as he pelted into the open, a great bellow coming from his chest.
The dragon turned at the noise, its long neck dipping downwards. Its shadow fell across Arthur, body big enough to block the sun from view. This close he could see the yellow of its eyes, the cold gleam of its inhuman gaze.
Arthur raised his sword, trying to assess its weakest point.
The eyes. But too far away… the underbelly? The jaw?
Its belly was closest to his reach. It flew towards him and he ran to meet it, ready to plunge upwards and hope he could find an undefended spot. Just as the dragon bore down on him, a silver pulse cracked through the air and the dragon lit up like a beacon.
“Get behind me, sire,” Morgause snarled, her lips white with the effort of maintaining the spell. The silver was surrounding the dragon like a net and it twisted in mid-air, trying to shake free. Arthur trusted Morgause’s magic though, he’d never seen her fail yet.
“Let me finish it,” he shouted, but it came out almost like a plea. He couldn’t bear not to be a part of this, Leon was his First Knight, it was only right that Arthur bring down the thing that killed him...
“Leave it, Arthur,” Elena shouted as she ran up from the trees. “We have to get you to safety-“
“No, let me just-”
“I can’t hold it,” Morgause said, and there was a tone of fear in her voice that Arthur had never heard before.
Elyan and Gwaine were pulling at him but Arthur resisted, couldn’t they see Morgause needed help? If he could just get close enough to stick the beast once and for all…
“Let me be!” he shouted, turning round to his knights. Daring them to disobey a direct order from their prince.
But their eyes went wide and Arthur took too long to realise why, and by then he could already feel hot breath at his back.
He sidestepped just in time as the dragon lunged forward. It drove into Elyan and Gwaine instead, knocking them to the ground. Dead leaves were swirling in the air, blown forth by the beating of its wings.
Arthur turned to see Morgause panting as she raised her hand for a second try at the spell but he knew it was no good. The dragon’s hide was too thick, her magic could not penetrate it like it usually would.
We were not prepared for this.
The dragon came at him again, snapping wide with that terrifying maw. Arthur slashed at it with his sword, but it was too quick, he couldn’t even graze it. Elena ran forward as it made a third attempt, and caught it with a quick gash to its forearm. A fine jet of blood sprayed out, soaking her mail. It was so dark red it looked almost black.
The dragon reared back for a second. Then it dipped down and pivoted. It was too late by the time Arthur saw what was about to happen. The dragon’s tail slashed across the ground, whipping their feet from under them as it did to Leon’s horse before.
Arthur landed with a thud and the world went white for a few seconds. When his vision cleared, he saw Elena lying a few feet away, her eyes closed and her body limp. Frantic, he crawled to her, and was overcome to see the tell-tale sign of her chest rising and falling.
The relief was short-lived. He went unguarded for too long and when he felt the dragon’s breath at his back again he threw himself over Elena’s body, hoping that at least his death might shield her life. When the dragon’s jaws closed around him, he could only think of his father and Morgana, and send the last of his love to them.
But the dragon’s mouth did not snap closed to devour him. Instead it encased him only enough to take firm grip on his body and then… and then…
He was lifted in the air. Raised upwards, the ground rapidly falling away. The jaws around him opened and he cried out in alarm, afraid the dragon had brought him up high to drop him down. But then he was caught before he fell, two huge claws circling around his torso, gripping him tight. As the dragon flew higher he could see Gwaine and Elyan stumbling to their feet below, Morgause running forward with her hand outstretched.
Her spells bounced harmlessly off the dragon, as if repelled. There was nothing she could do. Nothing anyone could do.
We were not prepared for this.
Arthur watched the ground get further and further away. The air was getting thinner and he was struggling to breathe. The last thing he saw before he passed out was a glimpse of Camelot red between the trees, a final reminder of his fallen friend.
Arthur’s eyes slipped closed. The dragon flew on.