Chapter Nine: A Blood and Fire Type of Magick
Disclaimer: Excalibur is my breadknife and Camelot is my crowded garage.
... Dreams of farmland swaying,
Magicked fires murmuring
Bloody roads of Mordred's coming,
And red-tailed nightmares warning:
Emrys is emerging ...
-Taken from The Myrdin Maw, "Bleys' Bardsongs for Babes", 2nd Ed.
The answer comes.
I sigh, resting my head on the stone of her final resting place. It's cold against the fever of my skin, and Arthur's warm hand is on the back of my neck, squeezing.
A dragon, I think. That's how we stop him.
When I cry, it is not for my mother, but for Kilgarrah.
It's not a fairytale, or a bedtime story, or even a real poem. But it dances around my head like the Sidhe, repeating, repeating, printing letters in red across the inside of my eyes.
Hundreds of little voices chanting. Thousands of tones invading my restless sleep. Within, my body feels hot and weary where the words reach me, and outside there is nothing but cold. I am tangled somewhere in between, just floating, rocking on the words, drawn farther and farther out into the black of my mind. And something more than words, tangible and real, pulling me back out into the cold light.
One warm word shuttles me into reality. An aching reality where my neck hurts and a warm hand shakes my shoulder, rocking my forehead on my folded arms. I lift my head to blink at the streaming daylight through the high-arching windows of the Hall.
Arthur, rumpled and red-eyed, stands beside me. He gives me one last shove, strangely gentle, and lets me go.
"Merlin," he repeats. "It's a new day."
I look back down at my numb left hand, wrapped tightly around the pale, stiff flesh of my mother's corpse. I bow my head to kiss her frigid knuckles and let go, standing to a woozy height beside Arthur. As we stand there a second more, several half-hearted and half-witted replies spring to mind, some more bitter than others. But I cannot bring myself to speak, to care to speak, and I ultimately find that sharing this silence with Arthur endears him to me more than any pledge or assurance he could possibly say.
So, we each bow and depart from Dragon Lady and her slumber, closing the thick doors behind us.
He is beating, breathing, baring and he is coming.
I called and he is coming.
He is coming and I might be crazy.
Because I know He's not going to be pleased with me.
Not many can tell you that grief is like fear. (1)
It's like a sickness that settles in you, spreading, wounding, debilitating. It can fetter you to a bed for weeks, making you some useless, thoughtless, grey-faced hiccup. It can surprise you, as soon as you think you've healed. Little things (always the littlest things) hit you like a sword. Suddenly you're back to that moment, the exact moment when you knew they were lost to you, and you to them. There are the crippled, and then there are men who inhabit another form of that ghastly virus: the kind that are cornered and foaming.
Felix, bleary-eyed and with his dark hair sticking up every which-way, hobbles out of his rooms and into my quarters.
"Sir," he says. He's being cautious, which is rare for him. I appreciate the sentiment, because I'm either caught in grief or in fear, and it's nice to not be alone.
"Good morning." He leans against the desk and watches me, rubbing his eye. "Why are you wearing that?"
"That" is my only set of light armour- a thick leather cuirass over enchanted-nickel chainmail. I made it for battle years ago, as a servant under Arthur. Because he never touched it or lifted it, he never knew about the magic wrapped in every fold. He just assumed he'd have to make me carry fewer supplies to compensate for the weight of the armour. That had been a definite bonus. But seeing as I was wounded in the leg during that battle and carried off the field only in the nick of time, the armour hadn't amounted to much. Arthur refused to let me into the thick of things ever again.
It collected dust for many years, moving from my closet to my wardrobe when I was promoted to Counselor, and now I am finding that my shoulders have grown a little since last time. I pull the hood from under the cuirass and arrange it down the back, keeping most of my longish hair out of the way of the links.
"Do you want a helmet?" Felix presses against my muteness. He becomes a little more aware for every moment he's awake. "Merlin, are we in a fight? Is it Mordred?"
I pull a buckle taut and strap it, checking and pulling, looking for holes. "Go find the Lady Morgana."
He steps forward, but stops when I put a hand up.
"The odds," I say, "are very in my favor. But I don't know how good they are for you, or anyone else."
"We are in a fight!" Felix exclaims angrily. "And you want me to hide behind Aunty Morgana's skirts!"
"Yes, Felix, that's exactly what I want. Now hurry." I grab the staff leaning against a dusty bookcase and brush magic residue from the jewel-like tip. "We don't have much time before-"
Before two things happen in quick succession.
The first being the arrival of Arthur, who throws open the door with bugging eyes and a reaching hand. He opens his mouth and says "Merlin!" before the second thing happens.
There is a terrific CRASH and something makes the whole tower sway. All three of us stumble. Arthur is yelling, "Come on! Come on!" and I have Felix by the back of the neck, throwing him forwards into Arthur's reaching arms. The tower sways again and leans and even though Arthur catches hold of the door frame, I slide backwards on the clean, smooth stone floor until I hit the far wall, my head cracking hard against it. Trinkets and furniture rattle and shake around me. Spells and barriers crack. Protective wards splinter completely.
A roar like grinding iron, bellowing like a lion, rends through the air and the stone barely supporting me. I can see Arthur clap a free hand over his ears, wincing and pulling my servant against him in protection. Felix's eyes are squeezed shut and his mouth is open like he's yelling, but I can't hear it. Instead, I feel Morgana's magic sing inside of me, and Arthur can only look my way, terrified, before he vanishes.
I'm alone in the falling tower, the window beside me almost has a perfect view of the ground, and the loose stones that are already plummeting to their doom. And, on the side where the doorway used to be, lurks a single, giant, yellow eye. Focused and furious at me.
It had appeared out of cloudless sky and descended on the tower before they could even sound the alarm. Arthur had seen it first, taking off at full speed to the Western Tower, seemingly racing it, to where the Counselor Merlin resides. For a while, there was only a flurry of taking up arms, testing swords and shields, and Leon had a flashback to the last time a dragon had decided to attack Camelot. By all means, he should have died that night, but by some miracle he, Arthur, and Merlin had survived.
Considering recent events, Leon begins to wonder if it was Arthur who had dealt that mortal blow after all.
Or, perhaps, if the "mortal blow" part of that story hadn't been a tad exaggerated.
Sir Leon lets out a breath of relief when King Arthur comes running into view. Counselor Merlin's servant in tow and they are both covered, head to toe, in white debris from the crumbling tower.
"Thank God," Leon blurts out. "Sire, how did you escape the dragon?"
Arthur, grey-faced and swallowing, cannot answer before Sir Gwaine runs by with two other knights, the three of them hefting a harpoon launcher.
"Hurry, Sire!" the knight yells. "The brute's nearly ripped the tower in two!"
Arthur grabs Leon by the front of his chainmail and drags him forward at a dead run, the servant boy sprinting just behind. They burst from the winding passages of the armory into blinding noon sunlight, and Gwaine is yelling, "Get ready!" as a monstrous dragon, brownish grey and spitting fire, tears his talons into the stone of the tower walls, ripping whole chunks into the courtyard below.
"Look!" the servant boy cries, and this time, the talons retreat from the wall with something darker than the white stone, something kicking, and Leon's heart climbs into his throat as Arthur screams out, "Merlin!"
It is Merlin. And the dragon drops him.
It's too intentional, too methodical, to be an accident. It lifts the boy up long enough to look at him in the eye, and then lets him go. Merlin's thin form plummets with pieces of the tower walls, books and rugs. Gwaine is yelling at the knights to fire, but the dragon is eerily quick for a beast of its size, slithering, upside down, down the side of the castle, leaping off to catching Merlin's flailing form just before he hits. It ascends on a flap, gains air until it's flying high above.
It drops Merlin again. Leon is brutally reminded of a cat playing with a mouse- eventually breaking its fragile spine under a sharp paw.
"Move!" orders a new voice, and they all turn to the sight of the Lady Morgana descending the steps, her black and white hair streaming, her armor glittering. With burning eyes, she raises a hand and shouts a string of words, lashes of fire blooming from nothing and striking out at the dragon as it darts after Merlin's form. If there was ever any doubt of which side Morgana stood for, it was answered now.
"Get Bleys!" she roars. "Get all the sorcerers you can!"
No one dares argue with her.
I've seen Kilgarrah mad. Furious, even. He's a Dragon, not some garden lizard. I've watched him burn down half of Camelot because of grudge, but that was clearly nothing against the rage boiling inside of him now, reserved completely and expressly for me.
His voice is like a thunderbolt bursting in my skull. I'm blinded by the sheer volume of his anger, by the continuous rush of air and weightlessness and terror.
I HAVE WARNED YOU SINCE THE BEGINNING, BUT YOUR ARROGANCE AND STUPIDITY WILL BE THE DEATH OF US ALL.
The magicked armour, at least, holds under the abuse of those wicked, catching claws. My organs, as far as I can tell, are intact. But my breathlessness was not a factor I had considered, and now I cannot find the air to reason with him, falling, rising, pitching, flaring back and forth at a dizzying speed. I'm distantly grateful to have skipped breakfast.
THAT POWER, MEANT NOT FOR MORTAL HANDS, PASSED LIKE A DISEASE. AND STILL, YOU PATHETIC WELP, YOU FLIRT WITH DISASTER BY TRUSTING A DRAGON.
Wind is whistling, wailing, by me, and I get lucky. Something not wind, crackling and angry, flies upwards, beside me, grazing me with raw heat. It strikes Kilgarrah's side and he wheels in the air, missing me by a hair.
I kick at the fast-approaching ground, cobblestone and close, suddenly far too close. I throw my arms up in front of my face, feel a spark of something like magic, but it's not mine, not Kilgarrah's, and not Morgana's. It flares from my arms like a comet's shield, and when I hit the ground, it dents under me, the force of my landing cushioned, and then repelled. I bounce back up a few feet and, this time, land on my back. The remaining air in my lungs rushes out. I lie gasping on the ground until several figures surround me, saying my name and swearing, some cursing in Druid tongue.
"Get back," I rasp, gingerly sitting up and waving them away. "Get back, you idiots!"
Kilgarrah is screaming shoots of blooming fire, flapping hard at us with an open maw.
I jerk to my feet, pushing my friends back, and scream right back.
He careens to halt just before, wings trembling, righting their folds. His teeth are bared, a growl low in his throat, wild ire still in his eyes.
"Bow!" I roar, my voice barely human, calling on that ancient, blood and fire magick. "I am the Last Dragonlord still."
Stripped of the power of Emrys, there is still one gift that my dying father passed on to me. If I could be Emrys before I was a Dragonlord, then I can be a Dragonlord after I cease to be Emrys. There are but two dragons in existence, being the young, white Aithusa, and the old, wise Kilgarrah. And before the eyes of the court of Camelot, the Dragon Kilgarrah bends his ancient knees, and bows his serpentine head low. When his nose brushes the dusty ground, his voice, gravelly and grave, says, "Such a small lord with such a small kingdom."
"I'll take what I can get," I reply shortly. "As for Mordred- I had no way of knowing what he was capable of."
"You knew of the threat he carried," Kilgarrah snaps, sharp jaw clicking at the air. "And still you thought to bestow your typical, unnecessary mercy."
"I can't change my choices, and I wouldn't anyway. You are here because I have need of you."
He laughs, short and terribly not amused. "Will there ever be a day when I am not helping you fix your grisly mistakes?"
"Perhaps sooner than later."
Those around us have fallen completely still. I can feel the weight of their eyes and I am too tired to care. I place my hand on Kilgarrah's bloody maw and lean my forehead against him, thinking, Brother.. Morgana's magic is wary of the ancient power that echoes around fortressed scales and rippling muscle, where my own would have been singing in an amber rush. If I hold very still, I can feel a whisper of that, but Morgana's magic is too flighty to stay, and all I feel is cold.
Very quietly, Kilgarrah observes, "You are dying, Merlin."
"Arthur needs us," I say desperately. "And the world needs Arthur."
And after a moment, "Then I will help you. "
I laugh, relieved. Kilgarrah's great, scaly head, rubs against my shoulder as he raises it and takes in our audience. Resting a hand on his hide, I search out Arthur, surprised to find him a step behind with Excalibur drawn and at the ready. He meets my eyes and grips my shoulder, obviously intending to draw me back to the defensive line of sorcerers and witches, Morgana burning at the foreground.
"It's all right," I say. "He's safe."
"It's not his safety I'm worried about," Arthur mutters. But he stops trying to frog-march me. "Are you all right?" In a voice too low for the others to hear, "Are you hurt?"
"Nothing a nap won't cure," I reply.
My King nods to the ruins of my home, crooked and ragged at the top of the Western Tower, his face grim. Castle repairs aren't cheap. Not for Emrys-less castles, anyway.
"Oh," I say vaguely. "That's all right. We have a Dragon on our side now."
"Two Dragons," Kilgarrah intones. The entire company freezes in the face of perfect English, but I nod.
"Two Dragons. Where is Aithusa, anyway?"
"I'm not his mother, Merlin" Kilgarrah growls.
I cannot tell what upsets Arthur more: that a Dragon would toss his own Dragonlord around in the air like a ball, or that said Dragonlord would let him.
In order to assuage all worry from King and court, I am escorted (dragged) to the physician's quarters, where I am promptly tossed onto a bench and plied with every foul sort of medicine, nerve tonic, and burn paste known to mankind. And while Physician Brunhilda attempts to make good health come out of my ears, Arthur paces the room like an irate bear, growling every once in a while to complete the picture.
"Do I even want to know where is head is at right now?" Arthur demands. His hands are shaking, as are his mouth, his voice- Arthur just isn't in a very steady place at the moment.
"My head is fine."
Brunhilda shoots me a look, but it lacks Gaius' ire, and I smile cheekily back at her. She tsks, wrapping the burns on the side of my leg. I find it a little funny that the same leg is injured whenever I wear this armour. I just hope it doesn't become a habit, like Arthur's tendency for unconsciousness. Now there's a place you can't be injured too often without permanent results.
"Don't think I don't know," Arthur snaps. "Don't think I don't realize- That I can't relate!"
"Can you even speak?" I wonder. He's not making any sense.
Arthur waves his hand once. It's such a cutting motion. If he had magic, something would have been irreparably damaged. As it is, Brunhilda, the current physician, lets my loose bindings hang and bows, exiting the room as quickly as she came. Arthur takes the opportunity to swear. Loudly. I watch him rake his hands through his hair, pacing to the fireplace, all movement and anger.
"No." Arthur turns on me. "I want to know what's going on with you."
"You want a list? You've been with me- You know what's going on. Mordred, right?"
"When you called the dragon, did I know what you were doing?" Arthur challenges. "When you prepared to be tossed around like a chew toy, did I know about that?"
His eyes fall on the dangling bandage ends and throws himself down at my side, picking up where Brunhilda left off. While he struggles to wrap the wound, he continues in a biting mutter, "Did I know anything? Ever?"
Years ago, he'd sat as my prince on this same bench, grabbing my shirt, threatening, "You're disobeying orders, Merlin; I'll have you in the stocks for this," as he bled out. And not too long after that, as my elevated friend, stole my breakfast from under my nose, happily wed and glad to see me for what was the first morning in his life. And after that, as my own brother, promising that I would always have a home in Camelot, no matter what happened, and Gaius gasping his last in front of us.
I watch the pallet in front of the fire, just behind the folded wooden screen. Gaius, transparent and blank, stares back.
"You of all people," I say, "should know how much I trust you."
As one, Arthur and Gaius speak, their voices mixing in my ears, "Then tell me."
"To my death."
Arthur's head drops (with shameful tears, or no, I do not care to see) and Gaius smiles at me with a nod.
"I'll trust you to my death," I swear.
And those thousands of voices cry out from the Otherworld, gleeful and teasing.
"Dreams of farmland swaying,
Magicked fires murmuring
Bloody roads of Mordred's coming,
And red-tailed nightmares warning:
Emrys is emerging...!"
(1) This line is shamelessly adapted from the C.S Lewis quote, "No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear," from A Grief Observed.
All right! I know some of you might think Kilgarrah is OOC for this chapter, but I'm drawing on what I know about dragons to shape his response. Dragons are not fluffy bunnies, guys.
Next time: We see how Mordred is doing with Emrys' power, in the penultimate face-off. It will be brief, but it will be intense. The end is nigh, guys. This baby should be wrapped up by chapter fifteen.
I now have a Facebook account as "Tonzura Onetwothree" where I'll post updates on chapters and new stories I'm working on, or just to chat about good books etc.
Hope you're all having a wonderful summer!
P.S: WHO SAW THE SERIES FIVE TRAILER?