TakeDown and I were up until the sun came up the next day, scouting, planning, buying equipment, doing everything we knew how to do to be ready to stop a holy war.
When my eyes started getting so blurry I couldn’t read my sketched blueprint and I could barely finish a sentence without yawning, TakeDown took me home. He said, “You’re not going to do Vlad any good tonight if you don’t get some sleep.”
I knew there was no way I could sleep as keyed up as I was, but I went through the motions anyway.
I tried to reassure Ma that everything was fine, even though she could see perfectly well that it wasn’t. I never have been able to get away with lying to her.
I told her I was just beat from training with White Knight, and went to my room. Brad and Jack weren’t home yet, thank goodness.
I got undressed, laid down in bed, and stared at the ceiling. Visions of blueprints and booby traps, and a thousand different ways for me, Vlad, White Knight, TakeDown, or all of the above to die horribly flashed in my brain. There was no way I was going to be able to sleep.
The next thing I knew I was back in Camelot in the middle of a battle.
I flew high above the battlements of Camelot, riding the fierce winds of a thunderstorm. The energies of the storm whirled through as well as around me. I guided the winds around the battlements and pushed the storm to spend its most potent energies on the darkest edge above the black army. I encouraged lightning to rain down on the enemy whenever enough energy gathered.
My magnificent young son, the newly knighted Sir Robert, stood on the battlements below me. He wore the heavy gold chain that Arthur had given him around his neck over a shirt of borrowed chainmail that could barely contain the child’s strong, growing shoulders. The mail had been modified to free the boy’s wings. He was far too young to fight, but we could not deny him the honor now. He had more than earned it.
Sir Gawain, my sister’s son, and Sir Cedric, the son of another of my clan, stood on either side of Robert. Both had given me their oaths to guard young Sir Robert with their lives in the battle to come. My grandson King Arthur, stood proudly on the other side of Gawain, with a half dozen powerful Green fledglings at his back.
Lining the walls were Arthur’s people, peasant and noble alike, who all looked up to him as a just and wise ruler.
These were my family. My people. I had sworn oaths from before I could ride the wind to protect this land, and to keep these people safe. And I loved them, with a fierceness that closed my throat, and made me want to weep and scream and rend someone to ribbons to see them put in danger.
My surviving sister Fiona soared beside me, aiding me in the control of the storm. I dared not let her mind touch mine too deeply.
All the love in my heart that normally made me fight as if a demon lived in my soul was drowned in a siren’s song of weak need and desire. Even now, my talons that could rend stone shook with it. My valiant young son had saved my life, but the Black venom sang a song in my veins that I knew I could not fight much longer. There was nothing the boy could have done.
As Fafnir had said, only death could free one who had fallen under the spell of the Black venom. I did not have the luxury of dying. My mate, my child, my nephew, my sister and my people depended on me to defend them. I ignored the ugly, beautiful thing singing in my ears to give up, and called down another lightning bolt on the rear ranks of the Black Army.
Let them believe that we could not call our lightnings too close to the walls. Let them believe that their best hope was to overwhelm us with their far greater numbers. Let them huddle close to the walls, believing that Camelot’s stone would protect them.
The ruse worked, and the Black army’s reserves who had held back from the initial assault, surged forward. From above, Camelot became an island of stone in a sea of attackers. Their greatest numbers focused on an assault on the gates.
It was time.
Merlin launched his ancient battle form from the highest of Camelot’s towers. For a moment, a surge of real emotion pierced the fog of need. He was magnificent, my mate. Emerald scales shimmered in a sleek, lean body with back-swept wings. Long graceful horns swept back from his brows that only the most ancient of us could boast.
I brushed just the edges of his shining mind. As always, visions of what was, what might be, and what would be swirled in his head. In those visions the flashes of melting silver scales dripping with blood burned strong. An overwhelming feeling of dread filled my beloved Merlin.
I shifted my flight path to fly beside him, all but touching wingtips for a moment. It was the only reassurance I could offer the one being who had owned my heart for more than a thousand years. I knew that even that small gesture was a lie. Once the danger was past, I would seek death to free myself from the siren’s song in my blood. My will was not without limits. I could not go on much longer without giving in, and I would not live as a slave to another’s will.
Merlin would never again hold me. Never again would we make love and hope for the miracle of a child born to two ancient warriors.
I saw a flash in his mind, a moment, he held me close in dragon form, and I laid my huge head on his emerald shoulder. It was a flash of what might be.
It was a beautiful image. But I, Nyneve, Lady of Avalon, could not believe in it. I could not afford to believe in beautiful dreams.
Merlin’s flight was the signal to all the defenders of Camelot, human and dragon. They dumped barrels of oil and pitch over the side of Camelot’s walls onto the Black soldiers and their siege engines.
There was no need to follow them with torches. Fafnir leapt into the air just behind Merlin.
The Red and Black giant blew his fiery breath in a long line a few feet in front of Camelot’s walls that ended at the mass of Black soldiers with a battering ram trying to break down the gate.
Hundreds of soldiers burned. Some died in the dragon’s breath, hotter than a volcano’s vomit, before they even had a chance to scream. Others burned in the ignited pitch. They lit the overcast night in the wee hours before dawn like living torches. Those had time to scream. They ran among their fellows causing greater chaos and destruction.
Fafnir dipped a wing and swerved out, away from Camelot’s walls, over the mass of the Black army.
“What are you doing, you fool!” I shouted at him. Arthur’s plan was for him to scorch a solid ring of molten fire around Camelot, not fly off when he’d only done half the job.
“I will not leave my kinsman like that,” he shouted back.
He flew out directly toward the Black Knight who sat mounted on the back of one of his own dragons, with four more dragons in battle form crouched around him, ready to launch into the air. A naked human stood beside him on the end of a chain.
As Fafnir approached the Knight’s position, all four Black dragons launched into the air. Only the dragon the Knight rode remained on the ground.
All four attacked Fafnir at once.
“Idiot!” I touched my sister’s mind. Fiona and I each dove on a Black to draw it away from Fafnir. Arthur’s plan depended on the Red prince. If he got himself killed, we would all die.
I pierced the dragon I attacked with my fangs as soon as I closed with him. The paralysis venom made him go limp and fall like a stone.
Fiona handled her opponent with nearly the same ease.
That left only two Blacks against the mightiest dragon warrior I had ever seen.
Fafnir roared a battle cry that blew white hot fire at the first dragon to get near him.
The Black screamed and beat its wings backward, trying to escape. Its wings still beat frantically in the air for a few seconds even after Fafnir’s fire had burned its head to smoke and ash.
The second dragon hit Fafnir from the side, avoiding his deadly fires, but it was far too small to do more than slash a triple bloody line with his claws into Fafnir’s side before the giant contemptuously batted the little Black hard to the ground. I was reminded of a cat swatting a sparrow.
The wound in Fafnir’s side bled freely, but he still flew on, directly toward the Black Knight.
The Knight leaned down and freed the naked human of the iron collar that held him.
Fafnir swooped down low, obviously intending to incinerate the Black Knight, his mount, and the man beside him.
The man shifted form and leapt into the air toward Fafnir, a dragon, about two thirds Fafnir’s size, but with every rib visible under his dull red scales.
Fafnir vomited a stream of fire on the spot where they had stood just as the Black Knight’s mount leapt into the air to one side, avoiding the blaze.
The Red dragon ignored Fafnir’s fire. He flew straight through the white hot stream with only a sign of annoyance, as if Fafnir’s searing weapon were a mere stream of water.
The Red closed with Fafnir and they tumbled in the air, ripping at each other with teeth and razor claws that cut through dragon scales like cheesecloth.
The Black Knight circled around the battling behemoths and went after my sister.
Fafnir fought for his life against one of his own clan who had a berserker’s mad strength. Without him, Camelot would fall. But I had already lost one sister to this battle. For a moment, I was paralyzed by indecision. Should I aid Fiona, or Fafnir?
I touched Merlin’s mind. With his understanding of the paths of possibility, my beloved could guide me
I looked into his mind, and saw a strange, bloody image of me, ripping a paralyzed Fafnir’s throat out.
I blinked, confused. How was that a possibility?
It was enough to sway my decision in any case. I flew away from Fafnir and to my sister’s aid.
I touched Fiona’s mind. “Do not let him touch you with his blade, sister. It carries a powerful dose of the venom of the Black.”
Fiona acknowledged the warning and dipped and spun in the air. She wouldn’t allow the Black Knight to close with her.
“Lead him back toward Camelot,” I said into her mind. Perhaps a few ballista bolts would slow the bastard down, or slay the dragon he rode perhaps.
But the Black Knight didn’t fall for the ruse. He allowed Fiona to escape across Camelot’s walls. His mount spun a neat reverse on a wingtip and flew back, directly at me.
Fine. Come face me, you son of a snake. I don’t give a damn if you do kill me as long as I take you with me.
He did something odd just then, took off his coif so I could see his face. His eyes glowed ember red in a face more beautiful than any man I had ever seen.
They were fascinating, those eyes. A thrill of sensual pleasure shuddered through me. The siren’s song in my blood swelled into a cacophony of something much like joy.
I pivoted on my own wingtip, an exact copy of the reverse the Black Knight’s mount had done. I flew beside him, wingtips almost touching, and felt another frisson of pleasure shudder through me. This was where I belonged, my blood whispered. At my master’s side was the only place where I could be at peace.
I matched the Black dragon’s pace. We flew in unison, wingbeats matched. One mind guided us both. It felt much like when I and my sisters joined our minds and flew together, only better. Flying was bliss as long as I flew with my master. I floated in euphoria, in stark contrast from the agony I had endured while we were apart. It felt so very good to give in. I could have wept from the sheer relief of no longer fighting for every independent breath I drew.
We flew back to where Fafnir fought with the other Red. As I watched, Fafnir sunk his claws into the stark ribs of the other dragon and literally ripped his countryman apart. Fafnir’s sides and belly were slashed with bleeding wounds.
He leapt into the air, struggling a bit, and flew back to Camelot.
We shifted our flight to follow him from a distance.
Fafnir, his personal need to free his kinsman from slavery sated, remembered his oath to Arthur. He rained down fire on the Black Army in a long line of chaos. As planned, the fledgling dragons all around the walls, each with a skilled human knight clutched in their legs, glided down as the fires died down, attacking the Black soldiers while they scrambled in disorder.
“Kill that bastard,” the Black Knight said aloud. The command echoed in my body and mind.
A surge of killing rage filled me. Fafnir had to die.
I screamed a battle cry and struck the enemy just in front of the gates of Camelot. I slammed into Fafnir from the side, pounding the giant into the sturdy oak gates. I rode him down to the ground, ripping at wounds that already bled. I tried to bite him, to bury my fangs in his flesh and paralyze him.
Fafnir twisted on the ground, screaming in agony and betrayal. He got one clawed hand around my throat and held back my fangs. His claws couldn't pierce my Silver scales.
I could feel his arm tremble as it held me back. The prince of the Red was weakened. He might have been able to defeat me at his full strength, maybe. But wounded, he was mine. I raked his body with my claws. He could do nothing to stop me without releasing the hold that kept me from biting him.
He took a deep breath.
I called the power of the storm into myself until my scales crackled with power.
The inferno of Fafnir’s breath flowed over me.
No fire could burn me in my strength, not even his. I closed my eyes and ducked my head into the fiery storm. Scalding fire washed over me as harmlessly as a hot bath.
I shoved hard against his weakening arm with the full weight of my body. One bite and the battle would end. I would rip his throat out while he was helpless to stop me.
I could see the fear enter my enemy’s eyes as he saw his death in my bared fangs.
Another enemy landed on my back, driving the breath from my body with the force of his strike. He locked my wings back, pulling my claws from Fafnir’s flesh. I snarled a curse and tried to bite the arms that held me.
My new attacker had to loosen the lock on my wings and arms to keep from getting bitten. It was enough to allow me to squirm and twist around. I slapped hard, claws slashing across my enemy's face, shredding scale and flesh and an eye, exposing bone from the long horns on his brow to his jaw.
Scarlet blood splattered on emerald scales.
Emerald scales, long back-swept horns.
Oh, dear mother of life. Merlin.
“Kill him!” my master screamed, and my body shuddered in agony as I fought simultaneously to obey and not to obey.
I snarled and tried to shove Merlin away so I could kill Fafnir. It would satisfy the order without doing the unthinkable.
Merlin’s arms and wings locked round me, holding me tight to him in a mockery of a loving embrace. “You can fight it,” he whispered in my ear.
“I cannot.” I snarled and punched his ribs with closed fists so I wouldn’t pierce his scales. “Let me go! I have to kill him!”
“No, my love. No.” His arms and wings squeezed me tight, ignoring the bruising blows I rained on him. I would have to genuinely hurt him to get him to let me go.
I put my back feet against his belly, claws out. I could disembowel him in a moment. I snarled in his face, threatening, but he did not believe that I would harm him.
I could not bluff Merlin, who saw in every moment a hundred possible futures. He knew that in none of them would I deliberately do him harm.
“Kill them both!” shouted the Black Knight, still circling us on his servant, an elder dragon reduced to nothing more than a winged steed.
I pointed my muzzle at the sky and screamed my defiance. “NEVER!” My body shuddered with agony so profound I screamed and writhed in my beloved’s restraining embrace.
Fafnir slipped free of me and struggled into the air, body covered in bleeding wounds. He flew toward the Black Knight, eyes burning with rage.
“NO!!” I screamed. Everything inside me yearned to leap to my master’s defense. Only one tiny part of my mind still remained free, but this time, both urged me to shout, “Fool! Keep your word to the king!”
Fafnir looked back at me, writhing and struggling against the pollution in my mind, and nodded acknowledgement. He flew back across the wall into Camelot, barely clearing the battlements and dripping a thick trail of blood.
The Black Knight’s mount landed in front of the gates of Camelot. His troops that had been scattered and disorganized, rallied behind their invincible leader.
“Kill him!” my master ordered again and pointed at Merlin.
My back arched in agony and Merlin held me as I fought not to obey. No longer did he seek to restrain me, only to offer comfort as I fought the demon inside me.
My claws dug into his belly, but he made no move to defend himself. I touched his face where I had cut him badly. Already his eye had started to heal. That was my beloved’s greatest gift, to heal, but he could not save me. “Only death will free me.”
I shed the power of the storm, releasing it all to my sister Fiona. She would be the Lady of Avalon now. I dug my claws into my chest and ripped a hole in my own scales. The fiery pain helped me fight the fog from my mind.
I dug my rear claws into Merlin’s body with enough force to disembowel. I had to truly intend to do it. I had to genuinely begin to hurt him. I knew he would foresee it. I knew he would stop me. But I had to genuinely do it. There is no bluffing Merlin.
“Forgive me,” he murmured, and his clawed hand plunged through the hole in my chest to grasp my heart.
I froze as his hand squeezed and my heart stuttered.
Huge tears streamed across his emerald scales. “Stay with me,” he begged, even as he killed me.
“Always,” I whispered.
… I was surprised to find that I kept my promise. All the agony and ecstasy of the Black venom faded to nothing along with the life in my body.
As I died, the Black Knight and his army charged, no doubt intending to slay the mighty Merlin while he was weakened by grief.
Merlin stood and faced the charging army… and changed.
He became a beast that had not walked on this earth in thousands of years. His scales vanished in thick mounds of shaggy fur. Curving tusks as long as the height of Camelot’s gate grew from his face and he raised a nose like a snake and trumpeted a battle cry just as the Black army charged.
Merlin ducked his head and charged them right back.
From the walls of Camelot fledglings glided down by the dozens. The gates opened and mounted knights sortied out.
Fafnir soared overhead, wounds closed though not yet fully healed. That was the work of my young son, Robert, no doubt. His flames sent the Black Knight scrambling back into the air ducking and dodging.
My sister Fiona, screaming a battle cry, fought off any Blacks that tried to attack Fafnir.
The great beast that my mate had become stomped and screamed and tossed soldiers aside like toys.
I watched the entire battle, filled with pride and sorrow. I dedicated my whole life to defending this land. Now, I could do nothing but watch as a shade of who I had been.
The battle decided nothing. Our forces decimated the enemy, but there were so many more.
The great beast that was my Merlin dragged my lifeless form inside walls, and began doing strange magic with it. Fafnir aided him with his fires so hot they reminded me of looking into the heart of the sun.
As the Black Knight and his forces licked their wounds and regrouped, Merlin forged a suit of armor and a sword the like of which the world had never seen. Tears streamed down his face as he pounded the metal. Working day and night with the aid of dragon's fire and magic, he completed work in three days that would have taken half a year by normal means.
Forged from my very scales and claws, the silver armor and sword could do what I failed to do. It could protect my family from the scourge of the Blacks.
It could make Arthur or Gawain into an invincible warrior who could match the Black Knight in the field of single combat. Without the Black Knight, the Black army would be broken.
I had sworn an oath to protect the land from enemies for all my life. That oath followed me even into death. This time, I would not fail.
I woke up with tears streaming down my face. My grandmother had failed to protect those that she loved while she lived, and so had vowed to keep her oath to protect her family forever, even centuries after her death. I would not fail. I knew that to Lady Nyneve, White Knight, direct descendant of her sister, Fiona, was the one to be protected. Vlad, who had fought with the Black army, was the enemy. It would be a hard thing to explain to her that they were both dear to me. I didn’t want to see either one of them die.
I got out of bed and started dressing. The next battle was mine.