Sometimes, the chants came unbidden, a secret knowledge hidden deep within Merlin's soul. He had little doubt that this knowledge was the source of his power, handed down for many generations and settling into his chest, his head, and his heart. An inkling of destiny roused him every morning, and settled him to sleep every night.
It unnerved him. He saw Gaius watching him from the table, and bent over his work.
He'd been unsettled for some days. He couldn't explain why he felt the odd sensation; the prickling at the back of his neck, his tendency to spin on his heel with no provocation, yet expecting an attack. Eventually the prickling settled between his shoulder blades like tiny needles. Arthur had teased him just that morning of being scatter-brained. Merlin knew he couldn't focus on his jobs, but truth be told it wasn't as though his chores required a lot of focus. Gathering laundry, polishing mail or boots, these things were second nature to him and allowed his thoughts to reach out to more important matters, like the prickling sensation that did not bode well.
"Your mind is wandering, boy." Gaius was frowning as he glared at Merlin.
"I'm sorry," Merlin muttered, giving his head a shake to rid himself of unwanted thoughts. He bent over his book, but the words blurred before his eyes. Wiping at them in disgust, the young wizard tried once more to read.
He heard the old man rise and shuffle across the small room, and tensed as he stopped directly behind him. Merlin did not turn. His eyes rose from the dancing print to the edge of the scuffed wooden table, and stayed there. The man's presence behind him exacerbated the nervousness Merlin already felt. It was bad enough to believe he was being watched, but to have a man stand behind him and solidify the sensation was enough to drive him mad.
He slammed the book closed. "Perhaps I shouldn't take lessons today," he said, polite yet firm.
"Bah!" Gaius turned sharply and returned to his seat. "You young people are all the same. You seem to think everything will just come to you, out of the blue. You are in a position, Merlin, where you cannot afford to neglect your lessons, any lessons. Medicines. Warfare. Potions. And yes, even this magic you must hide from the world."
"I'm not able to concentrate," Merlin countered. "What is the point, if I cannot absorb what I'm reading? This isn't learning, it's a study in futility."
"So I see." Gaius leaned back and folded his arms. "And what is on your mind?"
Merlin's mouth opened, but he wasn't sure how to tell his mentor and friend what he felt. "I'm out of sorts," he started, but that did not even begin to cover the confusing emotions. "Gaius, have you ever felt like something awful was going to happen to you?"
"To me or to you?"
Gaius frowned. "What is going on, boy?"
What to say? Merlin fidgeted. "I feel as though something is watching me," he said slowly. "Here. In Camelot."
Gaius leaned forward, folding his hands on the table. "A person?"
If there was one thing Merlin appreciated about his mentor, it was that the older man knew when to take him seriously. "I don't know. I sense it when no one is around. When I'm alone, or when I'm falling asleep or waking, I feel it. It knows me."
"I see." Old eyes narrowed, but he didn't dismiss what Merlin was saying. "And how long have you been feeling this sensation?"
"For several days now. I sense it in the streets. I'm. . ." he picked at his fingers. "I'm nervous to go out." He looked up, sheepishly. "Sometimes."
"And yet you've been going out. You've been seeing to Arthur's needs."
Merlin nodded. "Yes. Under cover. I do not dare step into the open."
Gaius frowned. "This isn't like you, Merlin."
"Have you told anyone else about these feelings of yours?"
Merlin barked out a laugh. "Who would I tell, other than you?" And it was hard enough doing that. He gave Gaius an insecure glance.
"You can tell Arthur."
Again, Merlin laughed. "I'd sooner tell the dogs in the kennel! Arthur would just label it paranoia and give me an extra chore to prove his point. Out in the open, with my luck."
Gaius was silent for a time, and Merlin suddenly wondered if he'd said too much. "Perhaps," Gaius said solemnly, "I could talk to Arthur myself."
Merlin grew alarmed. "And say what to him?"
"That you are being watched."
"No. Gaius, that is a bad idea."
"But surely he would believe me. Do you not think so?"
Merlin steeled his jaw. "He would question you. And he would discover you've heard this from me, and he would think me mad. And then he would give me chores out in the town square just to prove to us that nothing is going on."
"And this would be a bad thing?"
"Yes! It would!"
"Because something is going on!" Merlin shouted, slamming his fist onto the cover of the book. He closed his eyes, but not before seeing the look of surprise cross his mentor's face. "Sorry. I'm sorry."
Gaius snorted. "You are right about one thing. You are distracted. Very well, then. Set the book aside and lay down for a while before Arthur has need of you again. You would do well to present a better mood to him than you have to me."
"Go." Gaius waved him away and turned to his bottles.
Merlin pursed his lips then climbed the stone steps to his small room.
It didn't take long for the summons to come. And when it came, it was urgent. Merlin found himself in Arthur's chambers hastily securing a leather strap that held Arthur's armored breastplate in place. "Are you sure?" he asked. "Going out to kill this beast may not be such a good idea." He stepped back quickly and surveyed his work.
"Your faith in me is touching, Merlin," Arthur quipped as he rolled his shoulders. "I glad I don't have to rely on you for moral support."
"Where is this beast?" Merlin crossed the room for the prince's sword.
"Not far from here."
"That's not very precise."
"It flies about, Merlin! As such I do not know precisely where it is! They say it is fast as lightning, and about as bright."
Merlin hesitated before handing the sword to Arthur. "As bright?"
Arthur sheathed his sword. "I figure it must have scales. Perhaps the sunlight is reflecting off them. It's already attacked two villages. We must ward it off before it reaches Camelot."
"Just another day, then, is it?" Merlin offered a small smile.
Arthur cursed lightly then took a moment to brace himself on the table, looking despondent. "Monsters, magic, and angry knights. Why is it that one battle seems like the next? Is this to be my lot when I become king?"
Merlin was taken by surprise. If he didn't know better, he'd say the prince was depressed. "Are you all right?"
"Of course! What sort of question is that?" Arthur straightened and made to tug at his tunic, which wasn't effective underneath the chain mail. He rolled his shoulders uncomfortably.
Was he nervous? Bored? Merlin couldn't tell.
Arthur often hid himself. His teasing and brusque manner was obviously a mask, and Arthur well knew what he was doing. It was such an effective mask that Merlin had a hard time getting a sense of the man beneath. Prince Arthur was truly an enigma, which was how it should be if he were to become the most celebrated king who ever lived. Merlin had started to catch glimpses of this future king, and what he saw surprised him. Then, in true Arthurian style, the mask would slip back on and the king-to-be would become the spoiled, demanding son of Uther. No charisma, no loyalty, only a walking irritation with good hair and white teeth.
It made Merlin glad he had his magic to fall back on. "I should come with you." Protect you, was what he really meant.
"Merlin, I believe you've grown over a foot in the past month. My horse can no longer hide you."
"Funny. Has it never occurred to you that maybe I'm your good luck charm?"
Arthur had been striding toward the door; now he turned in shock. "My what? What did you say?"
"I'm your good luck charm." Merlin smiled widely. "You do realize every time you've battled a creature and I've been at your side, you've come away undefeated. Well, with the possible exception of the Questing Beast, but that was taken care of, was it not?"
Arthur looked uncertain. "I thought maybe you were teasing me, but you may have a point."
"Great! I'll get my things."
"What?" Merlin balked. "Why not?"
"Because it's too dangerous."
Merlin's brows raised. "Too dangerous? Since when has anything been too dangerous?"
"Since now." And Arthur looked uncomfortable, which was disconcerting at best.
Merlin shook his head slightly, feeling puzzled. "I don't understand. Has something happened?"
But his friend had turned his back, and was heading for the door.
"Arthur! Blast it all." Merlin grabbed his bag and darted between the closing door and the wall.
Whatever misgivings Arthur may have had about Merlin's company, they were never voiced. The men rode underneath the dappled cover of sunlight for a full day with no sign of the beast. The summer green closed in around them, and had a large creature been anywhere in the vicinity, Merlin felt sure they would see it with advance warning. The trees were thick; there was no possible way a large creature could not be heard, at the least.
Despite the beauty, Arthur was in a foul mood. He sent a messenger back to the castle with word that they had yet to track the creature; indeed, to see sign of anything afoot. The villages which were said to have been ransacked were intact, and the residents looked puzzled when asked about an attack. After the third village proved to be unharmed, nearly a full day's journey from the castle, Arthur halted his men and ordered they set up camp in the forest beyond.
Merlin tended his horse and watched the young prince as he sulked by the fire, cup of ale in his hands. Merlin knew Arthur hated his time being wasted. So as the prince sat, Merlin saw that his horse was fed and watered then hesitantly joined Arthur on the log he had pulled close to the flames. He sat beside his friend in silence for some time before asking, "What now?"
"We head back tomorrow," Arthur said, and gulped down the rest of his ale. He made a face, and belched loudly, inserting both his manhood and his vile opinion of events for all the world to hear. A couple of nearby knights smirked, then returned to their own talk.
Merlin took the empty cup from him, and made no offer to refill it. "Do you think someone was playing with us?"
"I'd like to get my hands on that messenger, that's what I think. He was an excellent actor, I'll give him credit where it is due. Then I'll lop off his head."
The corner of Merlin's mouth quirked then turned down in seriousness. "But why would someone lie about a creature like this? To lure us away from the castle?"
It was evident by the pain on Arthur's face that the thought had occurred to him. "The King is well protected," he said in a low voice. "I've brought only a handful of knights with us. If the kingdom were to come under attack, odds are very strongly in my father's favor. It would make no sense to lure us away."
"Unless you are the one they want."
Arthur studied his hands, and said nothing until Merlin's stomach erupted in a loud growl. "Haven't you eaten?" Arthur asked him.
"Not yet. I wanted to make certain there was enough for everyone."
"Oh, really." Arthur sighed, and reached for a wooden bowl which held some broth. He handed it to Merlin then tore off a hunk of bread from the half-loaf which sat in his own bowl. "Here. I can't stand to see hungry men. You need more meat on those bones, Merlin. I can't have you falling out while scrubbing my floors."
Merlin noticed the deflection from the conversation, and took the bowl. "You're all heart," he said with a half-smile.
"Why are you so thin, anyway? Is Gaius not feeding you? Or is he that bad a cook?"
"Actually, I do a lot of the cooking."
"Oh! I see. That explains much." Arthur smirked, then leaned his elbows on his knees, staring into the fire.
But Merlin recognized the same troubled look on the prince's face that he'd seen earlier. He was further alarmed by the fact that he hadn't been dismissed, but was allowed to sit beside the prince as he ate. He wondered if Arthur felt he needed the company. Or reassurance. "I'm sure there is a good explanation for what has happened," he offered.
"Sure. Someone getting their humor on, making a fool out of me." Arthur rested his chin on his hand, looking like a young boy.
"Oh, I could see how that would be tempting." Merlin ducked a cuff, and threw his head back, laughing. Then he dropped his bowl and stood quickly.
Large yellow eyes were watching him from high above. And they were coming closer.
"Merlin!" Arthur had jumped up as well, wiping Merlin's spilled broth from his breeches. "Have you taken leave of your senses?"
The eyes were gone. Merlin spun, his own gaze on the limbs high above them. Had it been in the trees? Was it above the trees? Was it that creature? "Arthur, take your sword!"
The sword was unsheathed with a musical scrape without question, and the other knights, now all at attention, followed suit.
"I saw something. Up there. It was looking down at me. The eyes were - huge. I've never seen anything like it!" Merlin pointed above them. "They were glowing yellow, almost cat-like, but they were so big!"
"Anything that big, and we should have known it was there," Arthur argued, scanning the trees, his sword ready.
"Yes, I know! But I saw it, I swear I did." And the pinpricks were back, chilling the area between his shoulder blades. His breath quickened. This was the thing that had been watching him. But why? "Arthur, it's still here. I can feel it, it hasn't gone anywhere."
"I don't see anything!"
Arthur looked like he didn't want to, but he ordered his men to fan out and search the area. His sword pointed towards the darkness, his free hand extended and ready. Merlin took an instinctive step behind him.
The growl was unlike anything they'd ever heard, and they spun as one when a man cried out in terror. A bloodied body flew through the air and landed with a heavy thump a few feet away from the fire. Both men stared at the body, then jumped as a loud screech filled the night sky.
Yellow eyes hurled out of the darkness, followed by a massive, scaly body. Large teeth flashed in the firelight. Merlin hardly had time to shove Arthur to the side before he was snatched up in one immense claw and pulled into the sky.
He heard Arthur shout his name, but couldn't see him. The stench of the creature was overwhelming. The claw that held him was dirty and scaled. He couldn't see enough of the creature to make out what it was, but he could see the campfire fading beneath him as they soared upwards. Trying to release the creature's grip would only mean falling to his death, so he dangled and held on.
With a dizzying dip the creature turned and was diving again, this time aiming for Arthur. Merlin could only panic as the ground rushed up at him. He threw his arms across his face, hearing Arthur yell as he was snatched up, his sword falling to the ground.
Merlin's stomach churned. He grabbed the claw that held him as the beast launched upwards once more. "Still think I was seeing things?" he yelled out. "Arthur, stop fighting it! Do you really want it to let you go?"
Arthur eased his struggles and looked down, breathing heavily. "I see your point."
The wings beat above them with a hearty rhythm. The creature's grip was tight, and strangely enough Merlin found himself relaxing into it. Arthur had stopped trying to work his way free, keeping kept his arms in a death-lock around one large toe.
They flew for some time. The air grew colder, and thinner. Merlin's breaths deepened, and he realized each one was harder to take.
Arthur was having trouble as well. "What's happening?"
But Merlin could only shake his head as the atmosphere thinned, then darkened with Arthur's nervous calls ringing in his ears.
The wind whistled around him. It was a frigid breeze, and brought Merlin to consciousness with a start. He instantly started to shiver, each limb tightening and curling into his body. He was lying in snow, his clothes covered with it, and wet. He tried to blow hot breath onto his fingers, but only felt spasms of pain.
He huffed loudly, forcing air in and out of his lungs. His surroundings were bleak, nothing but grey stone, white snow, black sky. White moonlight, which darted in and out of the partial cloud cover. He had to move. He would die there if he didn't move.
He forced his stiff limbs to push into a crouched position, squinting through a snowy fury. In the distance he could just make out a glint of metal glint of armor. Arthur.
Merlin half-crawled, half stumbled to the fallen figure and turned him over. Arthur's eyes were closed, his cheeks red and chapped. Merlin did his best to clear snow from the man with frigid fingers. He blew on them, clapped them together then laid his fingers along Arthur's neck, feeling for the heartbeat that he sometimes saw when the prince exerted himself on the battlefield. He could just feel it. Good.
First things first, though. Merlin winced and took in his surroundings. The best he could tell, they were on a mountain top. He vaguely remembered flying over mountain tops before passing out, so there was no doubt they were either very high up, or a very long way away. Neither thought pleased him.
He stood, clapping his hands against his arms, forcing his legs to move, dancing a jig to keep himself warm in his threadbare clothes. He wondered idly if Arthur's armor would make him warmer, or if the chill would penetrate the metal and make things worse for him. With slippery steps Merlin braved the elements and walked away from the wind. A rock wall revealed itself, and a large hole. A cave.
Merlin quickly doubled back and grabbed Arthur's arms, and tugged. His body rebelled, planting him back in the snow. He yelled out in anger, slapping his hand flat against the drifts which of course did absolutely no good, and grabbed his friend's arms once more. He tried to drag the limp body through the snow, slipping on the ice. His numb fingers fought to free the man of his heavy armor, but to no avail. Merlin gritted his teeth, and pulled with all his might, his mind too frozen to conjure a spell to literally lighten his load. The words weren't coming to him. All he could think of was motion, just keep moving. Do not stop. You will die if you stop.
The mantra continued until he had pulled Arthur into the mouth of the cave, and there he let himself collapse. He rested, then took Arthur's arms once more and pulled him farther in, leaving the bitterness outside. He conjured a small flame between the two men. Feeling tingled back into his numb fingers. He slowly freed Arthur from his cold armor and set it to the side, shaking out small clumps of snow which the wind had forced through the kinks. His clothes were soaked through from the snow that had melted inside the armor.
Merlin raised the flame to a small fire. He positioned Arthur beside it then lay back, hearing the eerie wind howling just outside like a dog who had lost its prey.
His eyes opened to see the dragon towering over them. He gasped and rolled, then stood quickly, backing away. The prince had moved little during his sleep, and the dragon was watching him intently. "Arthur! Arthur, wake up! Oh, Gods, take it all! Arthur! Open your eyes!"
The prince groaned and moved. Blue eyes could just been seen through slits, then were wide and determined and ready as he bolted to his feet, instantly joining Merlin's side, one arm out to keep the wizard back behind him. Arthur instinctively reached for his sword, cursing when he realized he no longer carried it. He was defenseless.
This dragon was much larger than the one Merlin had freed. The scales shone silver as moonlight, the eyes were golden and angry and aimed at them. "You," the dragon growled, "you are to blame. You released my foe, my enemy. I had delivered him to the Pendragon, and you set him free!" Teeth gnashed at him, and Merlin jumped back.
Arthur grabbed Merlin's arm, pulling him away from the gaping jaws. "What is it talking about?"
Merlin didn't take his eyes from the silver dragon. "I-I don't know!"
"You do not know?" the silver one bellowed. "All the time you spent in the caves below the castle has lost its influence, has it? Is your memory so shallow? You bargained with the beast. You released it." The massive head thrust forward, forcing Merlin and Arthur back against the rock wall. "I should kill you where you stand, but I must know where he's gone."
"We don't understand! What beast?" Arthur yelled up.
But Merlin knew exactly what the dragon was talking about. Oh no. This wasn't good, not at all. He should have known this would come back to haunt him. Merlin looked at Arthur, and saw the confusion on his face, mingling with fear.
Arthur seemed to realize what the silver dragon meant right as Merlin was ready to voice it.
"Our dragon? You're talking about the one that was underneath the castle."
"Your dragon?" The silver one laughed. "Your dragon! That dragon belongs to only one man, and it isn't the likes of you!" It laughed again, the sound bouncing along the walls, loosening rocks. Small stones rained down, and the two men shrank back, trying to stay out of the debris.
"Why do you want him?" Merlin asked, against his better judgment.
"So I may destroy him and rid the world of this plague!" The silver dragon reared angrily, brushing the ceiling of the cave and raining more small stones down on the men.
Merlin shook his head in disbelief, and was surprised when Arthur stood his ground. "You are mistaken!" the prince shouted at the beast. "The Great Dragon escaped. Merlin had nothing to do with it!"
"No, you are mistaken, boy!" the silver one roared down at him, and the rock walls trembled. "The Great Dragon did not escape! He was set free! He now comes at the bidding of his dragon lord." The massive head leaned down, leering at Merlin. "Call him, dragon lord, so that I may finish him!"
Arthur actually laughed. "What, Merlin? A dragon lord? You've got the wrong person, you. . ." he trailed off, losing his words, and glanced at Merlin. Again, Merlin could see Arthur lining up events in his mind. "The dragon lord was killed," he said quietly.
"It is you who are mistaken! The dragon lord stands before you! Summon the Great One!"
"No," Merlin said quietly, "I won't." His face tightened; he dared not look at Arthur.
But Arthur dared looked at him. Merlin could feel the tension as Arthur continued to piece together the accusation with the events at the castle, with their ride out to find the dragon lord, with everything that Merlin had tried to hide from him. He could feel the anger mingling with confusion and disappointment, all dripping off the man. And why not? He had betrayed them. The king, the kingdom, and his friend. He had betrayed all of them.
"Merlin, for the love of Camelot, tell me you did not let that dragon go free. Tell me you are not to blame for those deaths. Please, please, tell me you had nothing to do with any of this." Arthur wanted so much to believe Merlin was innocent. Merlin wanted to believe it himself.
But he couldn't. "I'm sorry," Merlin breathed, his voice barely above a whisper. He glared at the silver one, his heart racing, dread consuming him. He dared a glance at his future king. He'd never seen Arthur look so somber, so regretful. "I did not know, I swear it! He was my friend. I trusted him."
"And I trusted you!" Arthur yelled.
"I'm sorry! I had no choice! Camelot would have fallen. I couldn't let that happen!"
"And why not, hmm?" the dragon asked. "You were not born there. What loyalty have you toward that particular kingdom? I suppose The Great Dragon mentioned your destiny?" The dragon raised its head. "That's right! I suppose it told you that the two of you, together, are destined to do great things. It is a typical ploy of his. He has spoken this same story many times before."
"How do you know this?" Merlin asked in a low voice.
"He filled your head with nonsense, boy! Do you not realize that! Destiny! HA!" Laughter filled the cave, and it was terrible. "There is no destiny! There was only a creature who was desperate to escape." It sneered down at them, flipping its long tail. "So desperate he would tell a lonely boy anything he wanted to hear."
"That's not true," Merlin said, his voice breaking. Because it wasn't true. Was it? "He wouldn't lie to me."
"Merlin, what is that thing talking about?" Arthur asked, his eyes on the dragon but darting quickly to the young wizard.
"We are talking about you, Arthur Pendragon," the silver one said, dipping its head low to gaze directly at Arthur. "We are talking about becoming the king of Camelot and Albion once your father perishes, ruling the land with Merlin, of all people, at your side! Well! What else would a poor lad want, but to befriend a king and secure his own place in history?"
"No, it's not like that!" Merlin insisted.
"Are you sure, young Merlin?"
Merlin shook his head rapidly, turning to Arthur. "I swear it. You know it's not like that."
Arthur seemed to think about it for a moment. He slowly met the dragon's golden stare. His shoulders squared. "No. You've got it wrong. Merlin is the least ambitious person I know." He glanced at Merlin, and took a deep breath. "I do not feel he would betray me. I know he would not."
"Hhmm. Your slave puts on a good show. See how he has already taken you in? Do you forget he released the Great One? Did he put on a good show for you then? Did he allow you to try and kill the dragon? Even now he can summon it. He can bring it back whenever he likes, to destroy you, Arthur, and your kingdom." The golden eyes narrowed. "Perhaps so he may lay claim for himself? Rule the kingdom with his dragon at his side, striking fear into the hearts of the people?"
"NO!" Merlin shouted. His eyes blurred in frustration, his hands balled into fists. He suddenly felt like a child being taken to task when he had done nothing wrong.
The silver one laughed once more. "Oh, good! Go ahead, young Merlin! Show your prince your other secret! Let all be revealed!"
Merlin restrained himself, and unclenched his fists. "I don't know what you're talking about. It seems you are the one who puts on a good show."
The silver one made a heavy sound, like a sigh. "A pity," he said. "Oh, we can debate who is right and who is lying, but in the end it is all words. Only action may speak in cases such as this. Let us see just where your loyalty lies." His eyes sparked and he growled deep in his throat. "Who shall it be, then? Your dragon. . .or your future king?"
One claw lashed forward and grabbed Arthur. Arthur yelled in surprise and Merlin reached out, but not quickly enough.
Arthur lay on his back beneath the dragon, looking up at the massive scales. He started to sit up and backpedal, but gasped out as he was slammed back to ground, the dragon's paw resting heavily on top of him, long toes curling over his shoulders. The dragon sneered, and pressed hard. Arthur grunted in pain, his face contorting.
"What now, young Merlin?" the silver one asked. "Should I take care of your future king for you?" The large teeth gnashed. "Give me the Great Dragon, and he lives. Deny me and I crush the very breath from his lungs like the insect he is!" His words were punctuated by another pained grunt as the creature bore down on Arthur.
"Stop this!" Merlin shouted.
"Then you must summon the Great One! If you believe in your destiny, boy, you will call upon him so that you may save your so-called king!"
"Merlin. . ." Arthur grunted out. The dragon pressed harder, and Arthur cried out, then quickly clamped his mouth closed. His head rose, but it was the only part of his body he could move. It thumped back hard against the ground, his struggles minute and useless.
Merlin felt his rage grow, and with it, his power. He aimed his hand at the dragon, feeling the chant form in his mouth before he could think to speak it. But seeing the satisfaction on the dragon's face halted him, and he pulled back. He couldn't do it, not even to save Arthur. Not now. Arthur would know, and as much as he valued their friendship he did not know if Arthur would keep his secret. Well, that was a stupid thought. Arthur was slowly being crushed right before his eyes, what else was he to do?
He was supposed to protect the future king at all cost…unless the silver one was telling the truth. Had the Great Dragon lied to gain its freedom? Had he been played for a fool?
His glance drifted down to Arthur. The prince had gone still, his eyes closed, his lips pinched tightly together. Merlin realized Arthur was trying not to move, trying not to make a sound, trying to remain under control. Putting his life in Merlin's hands. Trusting him.
No. Prophecy or not, Arthur was his friend. At the same time, he couldn't do it this way. He couldn't magic them out of this. He had to let these dragons take care of their own affairs. This wasn't his battle to fight. "Okay, I'll do it. I'll summon him." Merlin's eyes caught were on Arthur's disciplined form.
The silver one let up, just enough for Arthur to force out a hacking cough and roll over, but wouldn't release him. The paw planted itself firmly on his lower back and legs. Arthur managed to raise his head and barely lift to his elbows, but could go no further as the dragon pressed once more. He struggled to breathe, and watched Merlin. Was he worried for Merlin, or for himself? The wizard didn't know, nor did he know what to do next. If he summoned the dragon, it would reveal himself as a dragon lord, and Arthur would be saved, but all trust between he and Arthur would be lost. If he didn't summon it, Arthur would be lost.
"Well, boy? I'm waiting."
"Merlin, don't do it." Arthur coughed around his words.
Merlin looked at Arthur in surprise. "What? Why not?"
But Arthur was caught in another coughing fit and could not answer. He tried to pull himself from under the claw. He pounded his fist on the ground in frustration, and rested his head on it, fighting for breath.
Why did Arthur not want him to summon the Great Dragon? Merlin had to stall for time. "If I summon him, you must answer me this," he said quickly. "Why do you wish the Great Dragon harm?"
"Because he was responsible for the destruction of our kind!"
Merlin shook his head. "That's not true."
"And I suppose you know this because you were there? Is that what he told you, boy? Did he tell you the Pendragon was responsible? He was the one who made himself known to the Pendragon, at a time when we had sworn to leave humankind to destroy themselves. He deceived the Pendragon. Of course the Pendragon killed all of the dragons! My kind!" The silver one raised his massive head and gave a mournful howl. Arthur pressed his head to the ground as the dragon shifted dangerously above him. When he looked up, his face was pained.
"Merlin," he muttered barely above a whisper, "this Great Dragon of yours…how strong is it?"
Merlin's breath caught. His eyes were tearing as his head pounded with indecision. "Strong."
Merlin suddenly knew what he was asking. "Yes."
"Then call him."
"If he is on your side, then he is on my side." Arthur winced and then gasped in pain as the paw on his back settled heavily. "Call him!" he forced out.
"Yes!" the silver one cried out. "Call him so that I may destroy him!"
Once more, anger was growing inside Merlin. He was tired of being threatened, tired of not knowing who to trust, tired of being toyed with and deceived. His gaze fell from the terrible beast to Arthur, looking at him with such determination that he knew where his loyalties lay. Their eyes locked, and suddenly Merlin knew what it would be for Arthur to become king. And he wanted that with all his might.
He felt the power growing within him, a white-hot flame that started in his gut then consumed him. He waited until he could stand it no longer, until he felt the burn in his eyes, and the voice growing deep within the hollow of his soul, a place that frightened him. "Ddraig aur!Yr wyf yn galw ti!"
The chamber echoed with the Old Power. The very rocks rumbled, the words soared out of the mouth of the cave. With a roar, the silver one followed it, releasing Arthur and lumbering out into the cold air.
Arthur gasped loudly and rolled onto his back, then his side, looking as though he were trying to find proper air or free himself from the pain. Merlin was instantly beside him, bracing him, not sure if he should urge him to stand or let him rest. The continued rumbling of the cave made his decision for him. "We've got to go. Arthur! We must leave now!" Arthur merely nodded and stood with Merlin's help, holding one sore arm close to his chest. Merlin braced him, and was surprised to feel an arm loop behind his back, bracing him in return. Together they rushed out of the cave as the rocks started to fall around them.
Outside, there was nothing but howling wind, frigid air, and a very long drop to oblivion.
They stumbled together. Snow caked on their clothes, in their hair. Exhausted, Merlin couldn't feel his arms or legs but he knew they were there, propelling him forward as though he didn't know how to stop. Arthur pushed him along, his limbs jerking from exposure but his stubborn streak showing. Every time Merlin tried to stop, Arthur goaded him, poked him, called him names, threatened the worst punishment if he so much as slowed his pace. When time had come where no punishment could match what he was going through, Merlin finally collapsed in a heap and refused to move.
"Oh, no, noono. No, you do not get to quit on me now, do you understand?" Arthur was yelling in his face, but Merlin wasn't sure he could hear the words. He wasn't even sure he could see Arthur's face, it was a blur against a white backdrop that was slowly brightening as the sun rose. "Training, Merlin, that's what you need and when we get back to Camelot, training is exactly what you'll get. Do you see me? I'm still moving, because I train." But Merlin knew the prince was barely able to move himself. In fact, it seemed that his determination to see Merlin out of this mess was the one thing that pressed him onward.
"You - do not fight in snow - Arthur."
"I have done!"
Merlin wanted to smile but managed only to raise his eyebrows. "Not in this."
"Merlin, I am ordering you!"
He gave a faint smile. "Order all you like. I'm not moving." In fact, he felt surprisingly calm, for one who was dying. But he could feel the desperation pouring off Arthur, and he didn't like it. "You go ahead."
"You're out of your mind." Arthur growled and pushed to his knees, pulling Merlin up by his arm, cursing as Merlin's head tilted back in fatigue.
"You are not about to carry me," Merlin protested, but knew it was useless, especially once his world flipped upside down and he found himself facing the snow-covered ground with a sharp shoulder planted in his gut..
"Training and food," Arthur continued, staggering. "You weigh as much as my cat."
"You don't have a cat," Merlin mumbled into his back.
"If I had a cat, it would weigh as much as you." Arthur stumbled then regained his balance.
"You can't do this," Merlin slurred, and was rewarded with a loud curse and cry, and landed face-first in the snow.
He felt himself being pushed onto his back, felt freezing fingers try to clear the snow from his eyes and nose. The world was bright white now, and Arthur was a frigid statue before him, one day's growth of beard coated with ice, his hair platinum and soaked. Even his eyebrows were white. Merlin slowly raised a hand to his own face, but he couldn't feel anything. He wasn't even sure he moved his arm.
Arthur collapsed right beside him. "Destiny?" he asked, barely above a whisper. "Is that what your dragon said to you? It seems you are destined to freeze by my side, Merlin."
"Not dead yet," Merlin muttered.
"No," Arthur agreed, but his voice was weak, weaker than Merlin had ever heard. He wanted to tell Arthur not to give up, to carry on, but he couldn't manage.
"Why did you set the dragon free, Merlin?" Arthur asked breathlessly. "Just tell me that."
"I trusted him," Merlin forced out.
Arthur managed a single laugh. "It seems your trust was misplaced."
Merlin forced his head around to see Arthur's face within inches of his own, his eyes vivid. "My trust is never misplaced," he insisted, and it was proven by the shadow which suddenly hovered over them. The snow spun in a frenzied whirlwind as two large, familiar claws gently lifted him and Arthur from the frozen wasteland towards the sun.
It was the first thing he noticed. He was warm, he wasn't trembling. But he was hurting. Oh…gods…he was hurting! Swords were stabbing him, he was on fire! His breath quickened, gasping, and he whimpered then cried out, his head twisting against the pain. He felt hands on his arms; warm, steadying hands that gripped him carefully and matched an equally steadying, familiar voice which told him to rest easy, that he was safe, that it would hurt for a while but if he drank this draught, he would sleep through most of it. He managed to mutter a name, heard something that may have been reassurance, felt something press to his lips then a liquid burned his throat….
He woke, and his eyes opened.
Gaius was there, elbows on his knees, staring at him. Such was the intensity of the gaze that Merlin startled and sat up, only to be pressed back down. "Easy, my boy! I didn't mean to frighten you. Do you know who I am?"
"Of course," Merlin gasped. "You're Gaius."
The old man looked pleased, and nodded. "Very good. I see the cold hasn't completely numbed your brain." But the worry persisted.
Merlin looked around him. He was covered head to toe in several blankets, and a fire was going, but he could see the green trees outside. Gaius looked very uncomfortable in his robe. It was wet. He was sweating.
The blankets were suddenly flung to the floor despite Gaius' protestations. Merlin stumbled to the window. Warm air flowed in from a summer's day. "Gaius! Put that fire out. You'll give yourself a stroke."
"You were ill, frozen near to death," Gaius argued, but he sounded all too happy to concede to Merlin's request. "You - needed to be warmed. I thought we would lose you."
Merlin turned from the window. "What happened?"
Gaius stifled the fire, but didn't turn to face him. "You and Arthur were found in the town square. Both frozen solid, completely covered in snow and ice." He spun. "What happened to you, boy? The knights had returned and said the two of you had gone missing. They said it was a great winged beast that carried the two of you away. So many have searched for you…" his voice trailed off.
"How is he?"
"Arthur? Same as you, getting warm in his room."
Anxiety filled Merlin. "I must see him."
"You must rest!"
"Later, Gaius!" Merlin whipped his sleep shirt over his head. He stumbled as he searched for the rest of his clothing.
"This is insanity!" Gaius offered no help. He stood in Merlin's way, but Merlin dodged him, finding his shirt and breeches and pulling them on. His boots were under the bed, and still damp. "Arthur needs his rest as well! If nothing else, think of that!" Gaius insisted.
"Gaius, I must go to him. It is important."
"As your physician, I order you-"
"And as my friend?" Merlin pleaded with his eyes.
Gaius glowered but relented. "Very well. But be quick about it. The last thing you need, and the last he needs, is to fall ill because you refuse to let your bodies recover. I don't care how young those bodies may be, neither of you are indestructible!"
"I know. And Gaius. . .thank you. " Merlin flashed a smile, and hurried out.
Merlin hesitated outside Arthur's room, then knocked. He heard a deep mumble which he assumed was an invitation to enter.
Arthur was sitting on the edge of his bed, wearing his day clothes. He didn't seem surprised to find Merlin walking in. "Are you well?"
Merlin was taken aback by the concern in his voice. "Yes. And you?"
Arthur gave his boot a final tug and muttered, "I'll live."
"I'm glad to hear it." Merlin smiled. It faded as he took in the serious expression on Arthur's face. He fidgeted.
Arthur pushed himself up from the bed and slowly walked to the window. He leaned against the stone wall, his arms crossed, looking down over the square. "You heard what happened?" he asked.
"They found us frozen. Right down there."
"No mentions of dragons though." Arthur glanced up at the sky.
Merlin swallowed heavily. "I should of…I mean I shouldn't have -"
"Many people died, Merlin!" Arthur spun to face him, his arms dropping to his sides. "We nearly lost Camelot! We could have lost Albion."
"I know. I know, and I'm sorry."
"Why did you do it?"
"He…he said he would help save Camelot."
"Only to destroy it himself?"
"I - didn't know. At the time, I didn't know what had happened. It wasn't until after-"
Arthur threw out his hands. "Did you think it was a pet? Did you think we had him chained down there as some sort of attraction? The Great Dragon of Camelot? Tell me, did you think at all, Merlin?"
"He helped me!"
"Helped you? With what?"
Merlin bit his lip, and lowered his eyes. "When I came here, I had no one. No one at all. Of course you wouldn't know what that's like, would you?" Hot eyes met Arthur's. "Your Highness."
Arthur blinked a few times, then leaned against the wall once more. "You might be surprised," he mumbled, folding his arms and studying Merlin. "So you befriended a dragon?" It was a genuine question. "What was all that the silver dragon said? About destiny? What did this Great Dragon tell you about us?"
Merlin sighed and ran his fingers through his hair. "It doesn't matter."
"If it becomes the subject of your ridicule, no! It doesn't!" Merlin spat out, and regretted it.
Arthur straightened. "I'm not that bad, am I?"
Merlin let his gaze fall. "No, sire."
When he looked up again, Arthur seemed hurt. He turned and faced the square once more. "I should tell my father, you know. Was it your dragon that rescued us?"
"Yes. It was."
"So it won the battle?"
Merlin had wondered that himself. He shrugged lightly. "I don't know. We don't know if there was a battle."
"So…there could be two dragons out there. Two very angry dragons."
Merlin said nothing.
Arthur hesitated. "Your dragon didn't smite Camelot when it brought us back. We were defenseless. It could have easily burned down the kingdom."
"I have its word that it will leave Camelot alone."
"And this word is good?" Arthur faced him again.
"He's saved my life twice now. His word is good."
"And what if it isn't?"
Merlin shrugged. "You said so yourself. It had a chance to destroy Camelot, and take revenge on the king. That did not happen."
Arthur shouldered away from the wall. "The other one, it called you the dragon lord."
Merlin managed a nod.
"Answer the question."
He didn't want to answer. It would raise too many other questions, too many painful…"I seem to be."
The prince's chin rose. "I see. So you command this dragon. Our dragon."
Our dragon? Merlin checked. "It - does my bidding, yes."
"And it will protect Camelot."
Merlin nodded, fixing uncertain eyes on Arthur.
Arthur sighed in turn. "Then it is a useful ally, and one I cannot risk losing. Therefore, I will keep it a secret." He walked right up to Merlin, staring him in the eyes. "I trust you have no further secrets?"
Merlin swallowed hard. "No, sir."
"The dragon said you have another."
"Dragons lie." Merlin gave a nervous laugh.
"But not yours?"
He was silent.
Arthur cut him a look from the corner of his eyes and headed back to the window.
"Arthur," Merlin dared, "You are to be the one true king, the one king that will be remembered. The one who will unite all the land." He stepped forward, emboldened by the truth within his soul. "You asked before if your lot as king will be to face the beasts and angry knights. It is. But you will be so much more. And that is why you must face all these foes, these beasts. You said you trained. This is a part of your training. There is a purpose."
"Beast. Angry knights." Arthur sighed. "And what of magic?"
Merlin couldn't help it. He felt himself swell inside, and he smiled widely. "Oh, yes," he promised. "There will be lots of magic. Yes."
Thank you for reading! Reviews are welcome.