A/N: Last chapter, oh no!
It wasn't totally necessary, but Merlin was in a hurry, so he slowed time so he could travel through the encampment unnoticed again. He didn't use his own time, the knights didn't have magic so he couldn't release it near them, he stayed within the earth's time and slipped quickly back to Arthur within a few seconds of leaving Morgana. He wouldn't be in it for long, so he knew he'd suffer no ill effects from it.
He thought about reappearing again from behind the bushes he'd originally disappeared from ... but then ... no, he decided he wouldn't. Arthur needed some cheering up and a distraction from his thoughts, and a decent fright was definitely one way to do it. Kilgharrah hadn't arrived yet, and it looked like Arthur was in the middle of some sort of discussion with all the knights and Nathaniel and Iseldir. Merlin positioned himself right beside Arthur, where he'd certainly be noticed, and waited for the right moment to reveal his presence.
"Why, you ... God, Merlin!" Arthur yelped and nearly jumped out of his skin at his sudden reappearance, as did everyone else except Iseldir, who just lowered his head and seemed to be struggling to smother a smile. Borin took two steps back and crashed into Ronan who nearly fell over.
"Really, Arthur? I'm not, but ... well, if you think so, then thank you." Merlin was quite pleased with himself.
Arthur shook his head in exasperation, Merlin knew the prince was trying to hold back a grin. Arthur asked, "Was that fun?"
Merlin neatly sidestepped a punch to the arm. "You mean my dramatic reappearance?"
Merlin managed a nonchalant shrug. "Actually yes, it was. Except perhaps when Borin over there reached for his sword, but as you can see he didn't actually draw it, so since I've still got my head, yes it was enjoyable." A sudden thought occurred to him. "Oh no. You did mention the magic part to them, didn't you? Not just the dragonlord thing?" He gestured at four of the knights.
"Yes, Merlin." Arthur rubbed his hand over his mouth and tried to frown, his grin was escaping. "You're in good mood."
"I gather things went well, on your ... er, errand?"
Merlin remembered just how well things went, and shifted uncomfortably. He decided somewhat regretfully that teasing Arthur was not always prudent. "Um, yes." Arthur looked ready for another round, but then ... Merlin sensed the change in the air that always came with Kilgharrah's presence. "Ah, perfect timing."
Merlin jerked his head in the direction of the clearing and said unnecessarily, "He's here." He bent down and picked up his pack, hooking it over his shoulder. He passed the other pack to Arthur, the prince copied his movement.
He weaved through the trees, Arthur walking with him, and they reached the small clearing just as Kilgharrah landed. The knights and Nathaniel and Iseldir all followed, but stopped a safe distance behind them under the canopy.
The gusts of wind from Kilgharrah's landing settled, and the dragon peered behind them at the Knights. "The Knights of Camelot have multiplied, young warlock."
Merlin nodded, registering but ignoring the shocked surprise behind him, and glanced at Arthur. "We need to return to Camelot immediately Kilgharrah, and I need you to take us."
"You're speaking in plural Merlin. Who is us?"
"Me and Arthur."
The dragon lowered his head, his golden eyes on his proposed passengers. He said lightly, "You're asking me to carry someone who is not a dragonlord? And for what reason, Merlin?"
Merlin wasn't sure he wanted to tell him why, but he couldn't see a way out of it. He said reluctantly, "Uther is dying. We need to get there quickly."
The dragon's voice rumbled. "Is that so? You wish to see the tyrant before he breathes his last. I cannot see why, we should all rejoice in his death."
Merlin was annoyed. "Kilgharrah, enough! Now is not the time for insults."
"Very well." The dragon bowed gracefully, his eyes moving to Arthur who was regarding him steadily.
Merlin's voice had cooled. "Will you take Arthur in safety?"
"Of course. I have no wish to harm the Once and Future King."
Merlin gave the dragon a long look. "Thank you. Then we need to leave now." He turned to Arthur and said quietly, "Arthur, sorry about that. He doesn't like your father."
Kilgharrah had heard. He asked mildly, "Would you like someone who sought to murder your entire species, then imprisoned you for twenty years in the bowels of the earth? There was a time when dragons roamed freely, and were revered by people."
Merlin was about to respond but the prince beat him to it. "Dragon, I understand your hatred. I'm sorry for what my father did to you." He took a step forward. "I'm not him, but he's still my father and I care for him. I want to see him, just one more time."
Kilgharrah regarded Arthur thoughtfully. "I don't hold you responsible for the sins of your father, young prince. My words were ill chosen ... I ... apologize."
Merlin was surprised. He said softly to the dragon, "Thanks, Kilgharrah."
Arthur nodded slowly and Merlin turned to him. The prince had changed out of his sleep shirt, but that wouldn't be enough. "Arthur, pass me your pack."
"What for?" The prince shrugged it off his shoulder and handed it to him.
"You're going to need something warmer on than just a shirt." Merlin unbuckled the bag and rummaged through it, pulling out Arthur's leather jacket. "It can get freezing when I'm up that high. I usually fly at night with Kilgharrah, I haven't flown with him much during the day but even with the sun on us, the speed at which we'll be flying means the wind will be strong, and it'll be cold. I'll probably need to use a warming enchantment on you, too. That be okay?"
Merlin held the jacket up and Arthur slipped his arms into the sleeves. Merlin frowned. "And maybe another enchantment so you don't fall off, it can be difficult to hang on sometimes when he banks sharply."
Arthur's eyes moved from Merlin to the dragon's neck, Merlin wondered if he was re-evaluating this flying idea. Merlin smiled to himself, he had no concerns about Arthur's safety. He picked up Arthur's pack, handing it back to the prince and adjusting the fit of his own pack across his shoulders.
He turned, ready to make his farewells to the knights and the druids, but then Kilgharrah said ominously, "Young warlock!"
Merlin jumped, he hadn't heart that tone from the dragon for a while. He said defensively, "What?"
Kilgharrah was regarding him with offended suspicion. "What's in the bag you carry on your back?"
Merlin was puzzled. "Uh, clothes, supplies, nothing much."
"There's something that smells most unpleasant, in there!"
Merlin scratched his head, bemused. "Uh, dirty socks?" They needed a wash but they couldn't be that bad, could they? He noticed that everyone had taken several steps back at Kilgharrah's sudden irritation, except Iseldir who hadn't moved, and Arthur, who had walked forwards to stand right beside Merlin.
Kilgharrah's rumble was getting louder. "Perhaps. Although you know that is not what I meant!"
"Kilgharrah, honestly, I have no idea what your problem is. Spit it out, why don't you?"
The dragon stuck his head down to Merlin's level and snapped, "You have been consorting with wyvern, Merlin!"
"There's something in your bag that has wyvern scent on it. I do not like it."
"Huh?" Then he remembered. "Oh, yeah, that'd be my neckerchief. It's still covered in wyvern drool."
The dragon growled, "I do not approve of wyvern, Merlin!"
Merlin couldn't believe this conversation. "Yeah, I'm starting to get the idea. What's wrong with them anyway? This was just a young one, he followed me everywhere, he was kind of endearing for a wyvern, wasn't he, Arthur?" He looked over at Arthur, the prince seemed to be having difficulty keeping a straight face.
Arthur shook his head. "Oh no, you're on your own, Merlin."
Kilgharrah was peeved. "Young warlock, of course he followed you, you're a dragonlord. But wyvern are foolish creatures, they're pests, they're completely unreliable, and not at all intelligent. They can't even communicate with humans properly, like dragons can. You should not encourage them."
Merlin tipped his head to one side. "I don't know. Their lack of speech is looking very appealing right now, Kilgharrah."
A hiss of smoke escaped out the side of the dragon's mouth, he flicked out his tail irritably, it hit a tree. The trunk of the tree fractured and with a slow creaking groan, it fell against its neighbour, the branches of both shook then settled. Leaves feathered through the air to the ground.
Merlin gave the dragon a long look of disbelief, and waved away the clouds of smoke in the air, coughing slightly. He shook his head and said soothingly, "Alright, alright, Kilgharrah, now calm down." He reached up to the dragon's head and rubbed his hand up and down the side of his face, and added placatingly, "I'm very sorry, I promise you I didn't seek them out, they found us. I won't go looking for them if you don't want me to. Now no huffing, no puffing, and absolutely no more breathing fire and burning trees, or knocking them over either. You'll end up scaring everyone, and then Arthur will be cross with me."
"Hmm." The dragon allowed the scratching to continue. "Very well. But I will not take that neckerchief anywhere unless you command me, and I do not like it when you do that, Merlin."
"Fine!" Merlin shut his eyes and massaged his temple, and then took several deep, calming breaths. Then he dropped his pack on the ground and rummaged through it until he found the offending article. He dragged it out and stalked across to Gwaine, thrusting it at him. "Please, Gwaine? Will you take it back? It's my favourite."
Gwaine held the neckerchief gingerly between his finger tips. "Anything for you Merlin."
Borin, Ronan, Henry and William had been watching this exchange with wide-eyed amazement and complete disbelief. Even Percival and Elyan were astonished.
Merlin met Arthur's eyes, the prince tried to bite back a smile. Merlin's mouth twitched in response, he shrugged and turned back to the dragon. "Right, Kilgharrah. It's gone. Now, are we done? We need to get going."
They made their farewells, Merlin got a hug from Lancelot, a hug and very messed up hair from Gwaine, a couple of friendly punches from Percival and a slap on the back from Elyan. The other knights seemed awestruck and after one quick glance at them he avoided looking their way. Kilgharrah lowered his head, but Merlin usually found it easier to use a touch of magic to climb onto him rather than trying to hold onto his scales to pull himself up, so he grabbed onto Arthur's arm and elevated them both without warning onto Kilgharrah's back.
Arthur recovered from the surprise of being suddenly airborne fairly quickly, Merlin waited for Arthur to get his balance and pointed to the dragon's neck. "It's easier to sit between his spikes, Arthur, it'll give you something to hold onto. So sit right behind me, actually, no. You sit in front so I can keep an eye on you."
"I need to watch you in case you start to fall off. Although I suppose I could try a binding spell, but those sorts of enchantments don't work that well with Kilgharrah, I can't actually bind you to him. But I could bind you to me, yeah, that's what I'll do."
Arthur's only response to that was a raised eyebrow, so Merlin motioned to him to climb up the dragon's neck. "Don't touch the end of his spikes if you can help it, they're really sharp, I've cut my fingers on them a few times. Try holding onto the sides, here."
He waited for Arthur to climb up up Kilgharrah's neck, and followed him, it was easy once you got used to it, and Arthur's sense of balance on Kilgharrah's neck was better than his own. Or maybe Kilgharrah was being extra still, he didn't usually bother being quite so docile and cooperative when it was only Merlin clambering all over him. "Now, I'll have to sit right behind you, because it's easier for me to keep the enchantment focused if I'm actually touching you, I don't have to touch your skin so I'll hold onto your arm. But don't panic if I let you go, I won't let you fall, okay?"
Arthur muttered a response, Merlin was sure he heard something suspiciously like "fussing" in it, but he ignored it and once the prince had settled himself between two spikes near the top of the dragon's head, Merlin sat down behind him. He took hold of the prince's jacket and incanted a binding spell as well as a warming enchantment.
Kilgharrah didn't bother to ask if they were ready, he never did, he seemed to take it for granted if Merlin was sitting down and still for half a minute then he was ready to fly, and today an extra passenger made no difference to this routine. The prince let out a stifled yelp as the huge beast lurched into the air, Merlin barely had time to register the amazed expressions on the faces below before they'd cleared the tree line, and in his stomach he felt the familiar swooping thrill he never grew tired of, as Kilgharrah took them higher and higher into the air.
The flight to Camelot was the most amazing experience of Arthur's life, better than the thrill of winning a battle, better than succeeding in a quest, better than his first kiss with Gwen, better than anything he'd known. Merlin was right, the wind was strong enough to make Arthur's eyes water, and the air was chilly, but the heat from the warming enchantment spread out from Merlin's hand and ran right through Arthur's body. And the prince was enjoying himself far too much to worry about something as trivial as the cold.
He settled back against one of Kilgharrah's spikes, with Merlin's hand loosely gripping the edge of his jacket. He was aware there was a stupid grin plastered across his face that would have rivalled one of Merlin's, but the prince was too excited to care, and anyway there was no one from court here to see his lack of decorum.
He found himself whooping with the sheer thrill of it all as they passed above and through clouds, not at all bothered by Merlin's laughter from behind him.
"Everything is so different up here." Arthur couldn't believe just how different his kingdom looked from high up in the air. So vast yet so tiny, and seemingly flat, the hills only gentle undulations in the ground. "I'd do this every day, if I could!"
Merlin laughed, and patted Kilgharrah's neck. "Someone mightn't be agreeable to that, Arthur. Doesn't like being a horse so he says."
The dragon swivelled his head sideways, trying to see them, and he banked and lurched and his two passengers screamed in mock fear, but he wasn't really trying to throw them off, and they both knew it. While Merlin hadn't been able to bond Arthur to Kilgharrah so he didn't fall, he was able to bond the prince to him, and the link between dragon and dragonlord was always strong in flight, and Merlin had no concerns about falling, even if Kilgharrah tried a display of acrobatics.
The prince twisted around, nudging Merlin and gesturing off to his left. "Look over there, the Northern Plains go on forever, you can't even see where they end. I had no idea." Merlin grinned and the prince pointed again. "And the Darkling Woods, they're shaped so differently to they way I thought they were from the ground. The trees are are so tiny from here. And look," he couldn't stop, and Merlin was amused at his open enthusiasm, he'd never known Arthur to babble. "Do you think that'd be the White Mountains way over there as far as the eye can see?"
"Yeah, Arthur, I think so." Merlin didn't think Arthur really required a response. And in truth, he was almost as fascinated as the prince, riding on Kilgharrah was something he never grew tired of, it was the best part of having magic, and riding him in daylight showed a completely different world to the one he saw at night. And riding Kilgharrah now, and sharing the experience with his friend, was simply amazing.
They travelled for almost an hour before Camelot appeared on the horizon, Arthur was first to spot the towers and seemed to think he'd won a competition because he turned around again and smacked Merlin's arm, pointing it out to him jubilantly.
But Merlin was puzzled, the closer they approached to the castle, the more it looked like they were about to fly into the path of a mass of multiple colours and light, something that appeared to be a rainbow. He knew rainbows were an illusion that moved with the eye, but this one was different, it appeared to be originating from Camelot itself, and it wasn't moving away as they flew nearer.
It was magic, Merlin knew it, the closer they flew, the more he could sense the sheer power humming through it. It wasn't magic like his own, and it didn't come from the earth, it was different and unusual, magic from the heavens or something otherworldly.
And even Arthur sensed something, although of course it could just be that he was aware that rainbows weren't meant to be stationery either. "Are you doing that, Merlin?"
"No!" He spluttered, and waved away a stray bug he'd almost swallowed that was attracted to the light show they'd just flown into. The dragon's scales rippled and shimmered with colour. "It's not me! Kilgharrah?"
"No, young warlock, this is not my doing. I do not make magic rainbows!" The dragon sounded insulted by the accusation.
They flew on, the dragon flying inside the magic light path, they passed over the villages and fields surrounding the castle and then they were there, they all looked down, the rainbow ended in the centre of Camelot's courtyard, almost like it was guiding Kilgharrah directly to their landing spot. But the dragon didn't land, he veered off track, and began circling the castle.
Arthur asked again, gesturing at the vibrant stripes of light. "Merlin, are you sure you're not doing this?"
Merlin wondered if he should be offended. "I told you it's not me, it's too clichéd, I'm not doing it!"
They circled the castle three times, Kilgharrah gliding unhurriedly on the updrafts of air, and occasionally giving a lazy flap of his wings. Dozens of white flags were fluttering from every vantage point, Gaius must have arranged for every white sheet in the storeroom to be flown. The towers were manned from every lookout, it seemed the whole of Camelot and the surrounding villages had crowded the battlements to see this spectacle. Several children were crammed together near one opening overlooking the main entrance; they waved and pointed enthusiastically as the dragon passed them, and Arthur and Merlin waved back.
Kilgharrah slowed and began to circle the courtyard, the windows overlooking it were jammed with faces, the crowds lining the courtyard stretched out into the streets of the town. There was a large open space in the centre of the courtyard where the rainbow ended, the space was surrounded by knights and guards, although none seemed to be pointing weapons. And then they began to descend, the dragon flying through the rainbow to this designated landing space, and the crowd hushed suddenly, and the only thing to be heard was the sound of Kilgharrah's wings beating through the air as he turned to land.
And they were there, the dragon settled slowly onto the ground, his head still high in the air, high enough that his two passengers were almost at eye level with all the faces in the windows on the upper levels overlooking the courtyard. The crowd was silent and watchful, most staring with open fascination and amazement. The rainbow bathed the dragon and his two passengers in a festivity of colour, in front of Merlin, Arthur was shimmering and otherworldly. Merlin looked at his own skin, and wondered if anyone else felt like he did, he felt like he was being immersed in layers of magic.
Arthur's head moved from one side to the other as he viewed his subjects, then he turned around and said quietly so only Merlin could hear. "Look at them. They're not afraid."
"Yeah?" Merlin hoped it was true, and wondered if it was something to do with the rainbow. It might be, but it might be more than that, maybe they could accept this, and him. He hardly dared to hope.
Arthur put a hand on his shoulder. "Thank you, Merlin."
Merlin felt the smile growing on his face, Arthur mirrored it, then they both noticed a movement from below, and looked down.
Leon stood right in front of the dragon's head, and he was weaponless and relaxed, smiling at them. He craned his neck upwards. "Welcome back, both of you." Merlin wondered if his choice of words was deliberate.
The dragon began to lower his head so they could jump off easily, but Arthur called out, "Wait!", and Kilgharrah drew back, twisting his head questioningly.
They were back again at eye level with the crowds lining the second storey of the castle, and Arthur turned around to Merlin, hooking an arm over one of the spikes on Kilgharrah's neck, a slight smile on his face. He said quietly, "Let's do this properly. Can you use your magic to get us down?"
Merlin was amused. "Now who's the one going for the theatrics, Arthur? Isn't the rainbow enough for you?"
The prince lightly smacked the back of Merlin's head. "Well? Can you?"
By answer, Merlin stretched his hand out to Arthur and offered it, palm up. Arthur took it, and Merlin swung one leg over Kilgharrah's neck so he was sitting sideways. "Arthur, are you ready?"
"We're going to jump!"
Arthur looked down, the ground was a long way away. His grip tightened on Merlin's hand, he nodded, and Merlin fought the urge to duck his head before straightening and allowing his magic free reign, facing the crowd through eyes that flared a brilliant, rich gold. He tugged Arthur's hand, they jumped, and it was a simple matter for Merlin to slow their fall. They floated down slowly, there was plenty of time to take in the gasps of astonishment and exclamations of wonder from the people watching.
They touched the ground with no more force than they would have if they'd just taken a single step, Arthur stumbling a little as if he'd expected a harder landing. Merlin's eyes faded to blue, and as their feet touched the cobblestones of the courtyard the rainbow erupted into a a kaleidoscope of colours, blazing in a rush of warmth and light and magic, dispersing through the crowd, through the streets and inside the buildings, into the castle and up high in the air.
No one seemed fearful at the obvious display of magic, and Merlin smiled to himself at destiny's sheer power, she was not going to be thwarted, not now, not ever. He took a few steps forward, reaching out to brush the dragon's head, instinctively pressing his forehead against him for a moment and shutting his eyes, and whispering a quiet word of thanks, unaware of the interest and surprise his actions drew.
"Merlin?" Arthur's voice was quiet, Merlin opened his eyes and smiled at the prince, Leon was waiting for them both.
Leon stepped forward, and bowed his head to Arthur, before placing his hand on the prince's shoulder, murmuring a few quick words of greeting. Then he turned to Merlin, and to Merlin's complete surprise, put an arm around him and gave him a quick one-armed hug in the manner of Gwaine, then ruffled his hair and grinned at him like he was a valued little brother. "Thanks for bringing him back safely, Merlin."
Merlin nodded, overwhelmed, not only by Leon's acknowledgement of him in front of everyone but also the complete lack of hostility from the crowd. He darted a few quick glances around then studied his feet, a little uncomfortable with the attention that he suddenly realised wasn't just focussed on Arthur.
Arthur seemed to be taking this all for granted. "My father?"
"He's still alive, sire, but it won't be long now. Gwen and Gaius are with him. He's not aware of much." Leon cleared his throat and said in a low voice, "We think he's been waiting for you."
Arthur swallowed, and Merlin saw the dichotomy of feelings in him, part of him was devastated as he knew his father was about to die, the other part hadn't forgotten the sheer excitement that came from riding Kilgharrah and seeing his kingdom from above, and knowing this too was his destiny.
Arthur put a hand on Merlin's shoulder, Merlin sensed it was not only to show the prince's support of him, but to steady himself. The prince waved to the crowd, and the cheering begun, quickly swelling to a crescendo. They walked away a few steps, towards the castle, but then Arthur stopped, and Merlin stopped with him. They turned around. They waited, the crowd hushed. The dragon was watching, his eyes calm and golden, Leon was standing nearby.
The prince called out, loud enough for most in the courtyard to hear, "Thank you, Kilgharrah."
The dragon bowed, deep and graceful, a gesture he'd only shown previously to Merlin. His response rang through the castle. "You're welcome, young prince. Mind well my dragonlord, and you'll have my loyalty."
Merlin and Arthur exchanged grins at the astonishment on many of the faces; yes, the dragon could talk.
And as Merlin looked around with Arthur's hand gripping his shoulder, at the cheering crowd, the dragon in the courtyard, and the kaleidoscope of colours shimmering on everyone, he knew his time had come, his and Arthur's, their destiny had arrived, the time long prophesied, of Emrys and the Once and Future King.
A/N: Well, that's it, hope you enjoyed the journey, this fic could have gone on to be the neverendingstory, and it felt like it some of the time I was writing it! It's over 100,000 words! I had no idea it would be so long when I first started. This is the first fanfic I've written in about 10 years, it's been a blast, although my family have missed seeing as much of me as they once used to, I keep disappearing to get this done. :-)
I've been working on a second merlin fic which should be quite different to this one ... and I hope to start posting it in a week or so (I'm stuck thinking of a title) so keep en eye out for it.
Thank you to everyone who's reviewed to date, reading (and re-reading, and re-reading) reviews help keep me motivated because I actually know that someone out there likes what I'm writing. And so saying, if you've read this far I'd love you to drop me a line and tell me what you thought! Don't feel you have to write tonnes in a review if you don't want to, although I totally love it when I get the long reviews, I'm still more than happy with just a one line or a smiley face, so whatever you feel like writing in a review, I don't mind. :-)