NOTES: Final chapter of The Dragon's Son!
Legends Of Camelot
The Dragon's Son
They ride out of Camelot to the cheers and farewells of the townspeople who only know that the day is grey and miserable with the rains of spring, and that their king is young and handsome and riding out of the city with a dozen of his knights and a scarecrow dressed in a prince's cast-offs.
So perhaps 'scarecrow' is a little harsh. Merlin actually looks presentable in a set of Arthur's cast-offs, trimmed down for his lighter frame and simplified appropriate to a yeoman's status. He doesn't look quite so much like a waif who's just happened to find a good set of clothing and a horse.
"Do they have the faintest idea what we're doing?" Merlin inquires as they ride out, their cloaks flapping around and behind them as the people cheer and wave and hold their children up to see the King and his knights.
"Probably not." Arthur calls over the neck of his horse. He doesn't mention that he hardly has any idea what they're doing, other than going to reclaim the sword.
Of course, this doesn't stop Merlin from commenting on it. "You don't know what we're doing either, do you?"
"I am the king. You could show some courtesy." They're out the gates of the town now, and on the road to the forest, hooves clattering on the hard dust.
"Shut up and don't fall off your horse."
"I haven't fallen off in ye--" Even while jouncing up and down on the back of the horse, Merlin catches Arthur's glare. "Right. Shutting up."
They take the trail that leads off through the forest, heading up into the hills, then down into the valley. After they reach the forest, Merlin takes point, his mount delicately picking its way through the leaves still slippery from the morning damp.
They're deep in the forests now, tending south, and the scrub is growing thicker, no longer just the trees and deadfalls on last year's leaves, but clumps of green that are already showing signs of budding and bloom. It's spring and the world is green and growing - a new season for a new king, said Gaius yesterday.
The new king feels at once old and jaded, and new and unnerved. Arthur does what's required of him as King, but there's a part of him that yearns to be just 'Prince Arthur' again, subject to his father the king.
It was simpler that way; maybe not always comfortable, not often right, but simpler.
Very few reports of the dragon have come - the occasional vanishing sheep and the sight of it flying over the villages in the north-east, but not much else. A surreptitious watch has been placed on the cave where Lancelot tracked it, but all knights, guards, and would-be heroes have been ordered to stay back. Arthur isn't going to throw more men at something that took out six knights and his father and never took a scratch - not until he has something he can be reasonably sure will work.
After twenty-five years chained, Arthur understands why the dragon did what it did; but he knows what he has to do, too. A king is dead, and the responsibilities of the kingdom lie on his shoulders now; he can't let that pass.
Maybe that's what Merlin means when he speaks about destiny - about the sense that there's something bigger waiting for him. Maybe this is Arthur's destiny, complete with kingdom, sword, and dragon.
Now all he needs is a fair maiden and all this will fit nicely into a ballad.
"We're close." Merlin points ahead to where the silvery shimmer of a lake can be seen through the trees and shrubbery, and reins in his horse. "We'll go on foot from here."
They tie up their horses and trek through the rich undergrowth to the edge of the lake, where the cloudy sky is reflected over forbidding evergreens and dark mountains that haven't yet lost their snowy tips.
Arthur treads carefully along the ground, still boggy from the spring rains, as Merlin clambers with the infernal agility of a man unhampered by chain mail or armour, although the cloak appears to be giving him some grief.
The slim dark-haired figure pauses at the edge of the lake.
"What is it? Can't you get it back?"
The needling is petty but satisfying. Merlin's exasperated look suggests he's tempted to say they're not going to get the sword after all, and they can all get back on their horses and ride home empty-handed. Arthur smirks a little, and Merlin turns back to the lake and lifts his hands.
He's seen his friend perform magic a lot in the last moon - small things, like doing several tasks at once, cleaning all Arthur's armour while taking away the dinner plates, for instance.
This is something else.
He doesn't recognise the incantation - how could he? But the tone... Arthur turns to look at his manservant and sees the blue eyes glow with gold, like a flame lit within Merlin's soul.
Water ripples, bubbles, churns. Like a tide dragging the water away from the shore, whatever sorcery Merlin's casting is clearing the lake, parting the water like the Biblical Moses parted the Red Sea for the Israelites to cross.
And in the middle of the lake...
A meadow. Lush and green and bright with the sun of full summer, gleaming with flowers that would rival the jewels of any woman in Camelot court, and the black block of stone that sits in the middle of it, a pedestal in which is thrust...
"Excalibur." Arthur takes one step towards the stone, then hesitates and looks back at Merlin, whose incantations have stopped and whose hands fall to his sides. "You did this?"
"No." From the expression on Merlin's face, this comes as a surprise to him, too. "I only threw the sword in the lake. This isn't something I recognise..."
He trails off.
Arthur turns and his breath catches in his throat.
There's a woman walking towards them down the long avenue of the land beneath the water, her gown pale against her skin, a few dark curls of hair hanging down her throat. Her arms are bare bronze in the golden light of an unearthly sun, and she moves with brisk grace, like a deer, yet unstartled.
"Guinevere." His throat is tight and closed as she pauses at the edge of the lake, one step from what would be the shore if the water weren't held back by Merlin's power. "I... You... Are you well?"
For a moment, she smiles, and in it are equal parts unbounded joy and an unspeakable grief, a strange expression on the face of someone they once knew and no longer do. Then she's just Guinevere again and almost smiling at him - that shy, hopeful smile that always made him want to see the full-blown version. "You've come for Excalibur; it's waiting for you as was foretold."
Then she holds out her hand, palm up for Arthur to take.
He's not sure what to expect when his fingers touch her, but her hand is soft and warm, human flesh. It's more than a little strange to feel her grip - so familiar - even as the smooth skin of her palm says that, whatever she does in the land of the Sídhe , she's no servant.
She draws him down into the lake bed, and he begins to follow her like a man in a dream.
This smile is real - pure Guinevere, unguarded, untainted - and jealousy clutches uselessly at Arthur's heart as she answers. "Merlin." She steps to the very edge of the lake and her free hand reaches out to pull his head down for a kiss on his cheek. "It's good to see you again."
Arthur sees the other man's eyes close, sees the gleam of grief against the lowered lashes as Merlin murmurs, "We've missed you."
"I've missed you, too." Guinevere lets him go, and although Arthur can't see her expression, he can see the wonder on Merlin's as he looks down at her. "Your destiny found you."
"Not quite. Soon, I think." And his gaze raises to Arthur.
She looks back, and the smile softens, grows still. "Yes. Soon. You'd better come; there isn't much time for this..."
Arthur follows her like a man in a dream, her hand leading him past walls of water that show a kingdom beneath the waves, of beauty beyond human imagining or his own pitiful powers of description.
But his attention draws back to Guinevere, always.
"Are you going to talk to me at all?"
"What is there to say? You look well, my lord. The crown suits you."
She doesn't even look at him, and Arthur feels stung. He'd hoped for more from her than this careful politeness that has nothing of what they meant to each other at the end - nothing of what he thought might be between them.. Is this what they've become - strangers making meaningless conversation? Or was her friendliness all just showing the Prince what she thought he wanted to see?
Halfway down the path, standing in an impossible meadow, Arthur stops and his grip on her hand tightens, forcing her to turn and face him.
In the faery sunlight, unshed tears gleam on her lashes.
Guinevere closes her eyes, as though in pain, and the gleaming trails of salt spill down her cheeks. Arthur reaches to wipe them away and she turns her head aside without looking, leaving his hand hovering over her cheek. "Don't make this difficult, my lord."
"How could it get more difficult than..." His own emotions choke him and he tightens his grip on the hand in his. There's nothing to say but, "Camelot isn't the same without you."
Her lashes rise, and the tears glitter on their dark wave like tiny diamonds. "I'm not the same without Camelot, either, sire." He feels her fingers against his cheek, such a light touch to burn like fire. He turns his head into her touch and watches her expression soften.
The hand drops. "It's not that simple." And her eyes flicker beyond him, back to the edge of the lake, where Merlin and the knights are watching. "You need to claim the sword, sire."
Her fingers lace with his as they walk through the water, and as they approach the stone, Arthur suddenly thinks of a cathedral - the gleaming crystal of the land beneath the lake, the dark columns of the firs on the lake shores, the pale-tipped mountains looming high into the sky, yearning for the heavens.
"Merlin said he just threw the sword into the lake."
"And thought he could just part the waters and send you in to fetch it?" He can't see her face, but he can hear her amusement. "The Land Under Wave found it - the Tír fo Thuinn. They saw the power of Excalibur and took it to hold against misuse."
They draw close to the stone - a great black basalt thing in which Excalibur is sheathed to the hilt.
"How do they know I won't misuse it?"
And she looks back at him with solemn eyes. "I told them you wouldn't." And he sees in her face the trust that always humbled him - the belief that he was better than the arrogant prat he could be in his worse moments.
That trust has a weight, Arthur discovers, and it's both a comfort that he still has it and terrifying in the possibility that he doesn't deserve it. "I won't disappoint you."
Guinevere holds his gaze. "I know."
Then she steps back and the sunlight picks out bronze in the black of her curls, a faery princess in a faery land. "Arthur Pendragon, can you read the stone?"
He looks down at the pillar from which the sword protrudes - thrust in at an angle, as though waiting for someone to draw it. And as he stares at the blank surface, gold letters appear, as though carved in the stone and gilded "Yes."
"What does it say?"
His Latin is atrocious, as Morgana accused, but Arthur doesn't need book learning to read this; "If thy heart fails thee, trust not in me."
"Then draw Excalibur if you can."
He sets his right hand to the hilt and hisses, jerking back. The skin over his right hand is criss-crossed with welts, as though he was lashed with a thousand tiny whips. "What is this?"
Guinevere winces, but only says, "Try again."
His right hand throbbing, Arthur reaches out with his left. This time, when his hand jerks back, blood wells as though from sliced wounds in his skin, and the thin lines sting.
"Guinevere, is this a joke?" One look at her face confirms what he already knew; this is not a jest but a test.
"Try again, Arthur."
He catches his breath at the sound of his name on her lips. And for one moment, he thinks about grabbing her shoulders, kissing her senseless and leaving the sword where it is and to hell with the dragon and his destiny.
It only lasts for a moment. He can't give up who he is, who he was brought up to be - not for Guinevere, not for anyone or anything. He is Arthur Pendragon, sired of Uthyr Pendragon and Igraine de Bois, and it is his destiny to rule.
This time, Arthur uses both hands to take the sword's hilt.
Excalibur doesn't quite leap into his hands, but it draws smooth as silk. Runes gleam down the blade, flashing fire in the brilliant sunlight.
"All hail the bearer of Excalibur!"
"All hail Arthur, King of Camelot!"
"All hail the Pendragon, King of Albion that is yet to be!"
The great cheer surprises him as it rises in the swelling chorus of a thousand voices.
Arthur looks around him and realises that the water is full of people - that the meadow isn't empty as he first through, but crowded with the folk of the Tír fo Thuinn. Their clothing would put Morgana's wardrobe to shame, their beauty would eclipse the moon, and they are made up of folk of all types and kinds - some with skin dark as the finest ebony, some with flesh translucent as glass, some who could walk into the court at Camelot and almost go unnoticed - but for the fineness of their clothing and the fierce passion of their faces.
And among them, standing close enough to touch - to kiss! - Guinevere.
"Arthur?" Merlin's voice echoes across the lake, as though from far away. "I can't hold the spell much longer."
Arthur turns to Guinevere and holds out his hand - uninjured, whole. "Come back."
She shakes her head. "I can't."
"You have to. I..." I don't want to do this without you. But he can't say it. They're not his words to say. He'll fulfil his destiny without her, become the foretold king. Yet the kind of king he wants to be is the king he dreamed she'd believed in. How can he be that king if she's not there to believe in him?
"No harm to come to them, only that they remain with the Sídhe forever," she quotes. "This isn't forever, Arthur."
But he wants it to be.
"One moment, Merlin!" Arthur doesn't look back at the shore. All his focus is on the woman he can't lose, not a second time, not like this. "Guinevere, please."
Her eyes track over his shoulder, and he turns, instinctively, bringing up the weapon and pushing her behind him. But the man who stands before him is no threat, only holding his place as he spreads his hands wide. "Lower your sword, Pendragon; I mean you no harm."
Arthur knows authority when he hears it - even a Sidhe authority. He lowers his sword and steps aside, but doesn't relinquish Guinevere's hand as the Sidhe king addresses her.
"You wish to return to the land of your birth, my daughter?"
She hesitates, diplomatic as ever. "You have been kind to me, my lord. Kind as a father to me in my time in Cameliard. But this is not my land or my people; I don't belong here."
"And yet you will not belong in the lands above, either." The king is older and harder - merciless in his pronouncements. "Do you not understand, Gwenhywfar? Your destiny lies here; you bound it to the Sidhe when you gave up your life."
"There's no other price?" Arthur asks, and the grip he has on Guinevere's hand is only matched by the fierce pressure of her own fingers on his. "Nothing you'll accept from me?"
The dark gaze is terrible to behold. "You cannot pay such a price, Pendragon. Do not think to offer."
Arthur turns to look down at Guinevere. He can't stay. She can't leave. He'll grow old and fade away into dust, with only the memories of a woman who taught him what it meant to be noble and not just highborn. And she? Will she remember him after a lifetime - multiple lifetimes - among the Sidhe?
"Go," she says. There's a break in her voice, but her will is steel as much as the sword in his hand. "Please, sire. Just go."
No time for a kiss or a word or a last goodbye. Arthur tears himself away before he forgets duty, honour, and that damned destiny which holds everything of glory and nothing of love, and sprints for the shore. The walls of water are rippling, trembling, he can see Merlin standing at the lake edge, hands raised, lips moving in an incantation to hold off the waters; but his strength is ebbing. Behind him, Arthur can hear crashing thunder as the water reclaims Tír fo Thuinn.
As he reaches the shore, Merlin is shaking like a leaf as he snaps out the last syllable, crisp and sharp.
Arthur turns to look back, the water lapping over his boots.
Only the grey sky and the snow-tipped peaks reflect back from the shattered mirror of the lake, surrounded by bitter pines.
Merlin's never done a spell that big before.
He's not sure he'll survive to do another one.
The mud is cold against his knees, oozing between his fingers. He can barely keep himself from falling face-first into the mud, he's so weak. And there's something burning in his chest...
Wait. That's Arthur's arm wrapped around his body, trying to heave him up one-handed.
"How is it that someone so spindly can weigh so bloody much?"
"'S a gift I s'pose." He half-staggers, half-is-carried away from the muddy shore where the lake's water laps roughly at the greenery and collapses, managing to avoid falling on the sword that Arthur's still holding in his right hand and slicing himself in half. "Excalibur."
"That's what you said it was called." There's a bitter note to Arthur's voice, and Merlin squints up at the shadow that looms over him. Well, crouches, but in his present state of mind, it feels very looming.
"She had to stay with the Sídhe."
"Ah." It's all he can manage right now. He remembered seeing Arthur take her hand when the Sídhe man - not the one from last time, but another - stepped out of the wall of water and addressed Gwen. He'd thought that meant she'd be coming back. From the haunted weariness in Arthur's face, it looks like he did, too.
The proud, closed face glances at Merlin then turns away to look out over the smoothing surface of the lake. "I'm guessing you're not going to be much good for a while yet. We'll take a rest; get some food into you before we head back."
Arthur stands up and begins to head back to the horses.
He's going to be like this for days now - Prince Broody. Except that now it's King Broody. Not that Merlin can blame him.
Gwen. So close - his cheek still burns from the kiss she placed there, he felt the strength of her spirit in the brief hug she gave him: Your destiny found you.
If he could part the waters again, would Gwen still be there? Or would it only show a muddy lake bed, the gates to this faery land now closed? Merlin doesn't know. And something in him wants to cast the waters back, to go in and plead for Gwen to come back - not for Arthur, or Morgana, but simply because he misses his friend.
Merlin's seen it, too. The way the lake surface shivers, rings rippling out from its middle, something gliding through the water towards the shore on which their party stands.
"I don't know what it is." He struggles to his feet and uses the solid arm of Sir Breunor to hold him up as he stares out across the water. "Arthur..."
"I see it." He's already walked back down to the water's edge, and waits, sword in hand, not quite ready against an attack, although he could move in an instant - and would if it came to it.
Merlin readies the only thing he can be sure of at this moment - a spell to shove something back - and the words blur in his head.
Dark curls break the water, rising from the lake as though she's merely climbing stairs. She's not quite smiling - her expression is almost uncertain, as though she's secretly terrified of her reception - but she walks like a queen, moving through the murky waters without so much as a drop clinging to her skin or clothes.
Merlin dares a glance at Arthur's face, sees the agony of naked hope on his friend's face, and looks away.
Gwen halts just shy of the shore, close enough for Arthur to touch if he wished - if he wasn't standing there like a complete idiot, staring at her like he's having a vision. Nothing is said, no-one moves; then Arthur holds out his hand to her, tentative, as though he expects her to turn around and walk back into the lake. "You said you couldn't come back."
"I was wrong." Her hand slips into his, and Arthur brings it to his lips. Then, gently, he leads Gwen out of the water and out of the faery realms.
They ride out of the forest one more than they went in.
It puts Merlin in mind of another trip out of a forest; Arthur, Gwen, and he - of course, this time, there's a cavalcade of knights around them, and Gwen's riding pillion. He offered to walk, she told him his horse could carry both of them and he wasn't in a fit state to walk back to Camelot.
Arthur rides alongside them, his eyes regularly straying from the road to Gwen - as do the gazes of the people they pass in the fields and the villages - a woman clad in shimmering white, the flowers in her hair gleaming brilliant as any court jewels.
And Merlin listens to her asking after the knights' wives and children, their lives and loves, as easily and casually as if she'd only been gone to another town for a few days, listens to the smile in her voice as she answers Arthur's questions, and smiles to feel her laughter ripple out against his back.
He can't wait to see Morgana's face when she realises.
There are questions he wants to ask her, things he wants to know. There's a dragon to be dealt with and a new King's rule to see in.
Merlin winds the reins about his hand a little more securely, and rests his wrist on the hand about his waist.
For the moment, it's enough to be riding home.
- fin -
LAST NOTES: Thank you to those of my readers who've left reviews! I'm so glad you've enjoyed the story. I'm presently trying to write Book III of the series "If Thy Heart Fail Thee, Trust Not In Me" which will elaborate on all the things I've hinted at here, but have left unsaid. Operative word in that sentence is 'trying'. We'll see how it comes along during the month of January.