My throat and legs burned as I ran faster than I ever had. I could feel the breath of the Black dragon that chased me on the back of my neck, and I knew I could never outrun a dragon’s wings. Lines of fire seared into my shoulder as his claws grazed me. I dropped where I was and rolled clumsily in the muddy field. The Black’s claws closed on empty air.
There was a whoosh of sound and a confusion of massive dragon silhouettes above me. The Black dragon crashed to the ground, crushing tents and soldiers and scattering the bright embers of a campfire into screaming chaos.
Soldiers were closing on me from every direction. I spit out mud and grass, ignored the pain in my shoulder, and staggered to my feet to run some more. Just as I got to my feet, a powerful clawed foot slammed into my back. The ground, covered with angry soldiers of the Black army swept beneath my dangling, kicking feet. I struggled and fought, trying to wriggle free of the massive red scaly fist that held me, until a well-deep voice said, “Easy, boy. You’re safe.”
“Who else?” said the giant Red and Black dragon. He flapped his wings twice and we sailed over the walls of the castle. I could see my father standing next to one of the ballistas on the wall, hand on the man’s arm to keep him from firing a spear the size of a tall pine into Fafnir’s belly. A few arrows came our way, but Fafnir flicked his wings contemptuously and they fell without harm.
Fafnir sheltered me with his wings when we landed in the courtyard until Arthur’s voice rang out, ordering the castle defenders to stand down. As his wing’s folded back, Mother ran and embraced me tightly. Then she shook me angrily by the arms. “What were you thinking, boy? You could have been killed!”
I winced as my injured shoulder protested.
“The fault is mine, Lady Nyneve,” Fafnir’s rumbling voice spoke above me from a height that rivaled the castle towers.
Mother stood to her full height, near six feet, and glared up at the huge dragon with eyes that glowed hot. “What did you do, son of the Red? If you endangered my son, …”
“I told the boy that I would win this war if he could find real evidence that the Blacks were a threat to my people. When he went missing, I feared that he might have done something foolish like this.”
“And I did!” I said, excitedly. Then realized what I had claimed. “Well, it may also have been foolish, but I did it. I found what Fafnir needs.” The line between foolish and brave is a narrow one, Father always said.
Fafnir’s huge spiked head ducked down to look at me, bending his long neck nearly double. “What did you find, young wizard?”
“There is too much. Mother, can you use the crystal, to show Fafnir what I saw and heard?”
Lady Nyneve nodded. “I can, child. But your wound must be tended first.”
Merlin sailed gently from the castle wall to the courtyard beside us, without bothering to use wings. I would really love to know how he did that.
“There is little time,” Merlin said. “The Black’s attack has begun again. Robert roused them early.”
“I will heal without tending, Father,” I said. “But this information cannot wait.” I looked up at the huge dragon who had saved my life. “Fafnir, they hold one of your own prisoner, and have enslaved him with their venom.”
Fafnir’s huge red eyes closed for a moment. “There will be no saving him, then. Once the black venom owns a dragon’s mind, death is the only cure.”
I felt my mother’s grip on my arm tighten, and I looked up at her. Her lips were nearly as white as her skin, and a look of great determination tightened her features, as if she fought a battle even as she stood there.
I put my hand over hers, and she gave me a smile of reassurance.
We hastily retired to a small chamber. Mother took the images of all that I had seen and heard and showed it to Fafnir, Father, and King Arthur.
Fafnir paced the chamber, seething with rage that poured off his skin like waves of heat from his power.
Tears trickled down Mother’s cheeks. She ignored them, and her face was as filled with rage it its subtle way as Fafnir’s angry pacing.
I held her cold hand. It must have been even harder for her to see her little sister skinned like a beast than it had been for me.
Arthur’s shoulders drooped as if with a great weight.
Father, as he often did when others were overcome with emotion, looked thoughtful. “I understand now, how such magic could be done. Something of the spirit of the dragon must be forged into the armor and weapons of the knight. The dragon’s spirit would have to linger after death.”
“But why did they want Aunt Cion?” I asked. “They already have the black armor, and surely, they could use one of their own to forge another if needed?”
Merlin shook his head. “Black scales are not impervious to Red fire, nor do their warriors have the strength of Silver claws. Our Silver guardians are the only ones who could ever stand against the power of the Red. The Blacks need to steal their power in order to defeat Eric’s people.”
Fafnir growled, “Treacherous dogs will not live long enough to spread such evil blood magic. I will burn them into smears of soot.”
Arthur’s face lightened. “Then you will bring word to Eric to send his army to aid us?”
Fafnir shook his head. “It is too late for that, Pendragon. By the time I returned, there would be nothing left of your people to aid.”
Arthur sagged again. “You’re right, of course. I just hoped …” He waved a hand vaguely.
Fafnir went down on one knee before the king. “I gave my word to the young wizard that I would win this war if he but brought me solid evidence that the fight was mine. He has kept his part of the bargain at great risk to his own life. I will keep mine. All the might Fafnir, son of the Red, can bring to bear is yours to command.”
Arthur’s eyes narrowed in calculation. I remembered Fafnir’s demonstration of power when he first arrived. I was no tactician to calculate such power and its impact on our chances of winning a war, but Arthur was. “Your aid might just be enough, son of the Red, if used well. You have my gratitude and the gratitude of my people for giving it.”
“About time,” Nyneve muttered softly beside me. I don’t think anyone else heard her.
“And my gratitude to you as well, Sir Robert.”
Huh? I looked around the small chamber, expecting a knight with my name to have walked in without me noticing.
Arthur chuckled. “I’m talking to you, little uncle. I’ve knighted far older men for far less impressive service to the realm.”
Mother squeezed my hand, and favored me with a tight proud smile, though her cheeks were still wet.
Father looked surprised, not a look I saw on his craggy face very often. “The boy recklessly endangered his life, and defied all good sense. It is not behavior to be rewarded.”
I stood up to Father, and for once I knew the great Merlin was wrong. “I did as you asked, Father, and as you taught me. You told me I must find knowledge of the Black Knight’s armor if any of us were to be safe. I searched for knowledge in the one place I was most likely to find it.”
Merlin stroked his long beard thoughtfully. “Mm. So you did.” His lips turned up a bit at the corners. “Well, Sir Robert, next time, consider letting us know where you plan to seek such dangerous knowledge.”
I bowed slightly. “Yes, Father. I will.”
Arthur stood brusquely. “Your proper knighting ceremony will have to wait until after the battle is won, little uncle.” He took a thick gold chain from his own neck and draped it over mine. “For now, let this mark your new status. Prince Fafnir, come with me. We have a war to win.”
Fafnir flashed teeth between bristly red beard in a fierce grin and fell in behind Arthur.
“Grandmother, Grandfather, I will need all dragons working together. Gather Green and Silver, both flyers and fledglings who have come into their power. I think I have a plan that will defeat the Black.”
I followed in the wake of the mightiest beings in the land, and felt simultaneously very small and weak, and deeply honored that they considered me worthy to walk beside them.
I woke up, and as often happened, the sense that I was someone else, in some other time and place lingered for a time, even as the familiar sight of Dr Who posters and the flickering light of my charging laptop grounded me in the 21st century. The pride and humility my father felt in what had to be one of his proudest moments warmed me on a level I had never felt before. He became part of something greater than himself. He earned the right to walk beside the most powerful heroes of his age as one of them.
I made a decision then to follow in my father’s footsteps in a way I never would have considered a few years before. I was going to accept Liberty’s invitation to train with the Protectors.
Ma was not going to be pleased.