The squawk of a chicken as it frantically scurried along the dirt path that wound its way through the middle of the small village was accompanied by a joyous giggle from the mostly-naked toddler that chased the bird. Tiny bare feet splashed through a small puddle as the young boy made one last, laughing lunge for the the bird. His efforts were thwarted by the chicken’s own final leap, leaving the child lying in the dirt as he cried after the animal, “Chickeeeeee!”
The chicken, exulting in its escape, made a triumphant dash for the end of the long wooden building that they had been running alongside, where an opening in the short fence was all that stood between it and freedom. It stopped short however, at the sound of a sudden and somewhat terrifying crack of wood against wood. The chicken screeched to a halt, skidding in the dirt as two older children, a boy and a girl and each twelve years old, emerged from the same hole that it had been fleeing toward.
The crack came again as the youths each swung the roughly sword-shaped sticks they held at one another. The boy backpedaled a couple steps, nearly trampling the chicken as he quickly blocked three subsequent rapid blows from the girl. Each was small and scrawny, their waif-thin bodies countered by the exuberance with which they swung their makeshift weapons. Their faces and matching black hair were caked with dirt.
“Roman dog!” the girl crowed while pressing the attack. “Flee like the rest of the cowards!”
“Never!” the boy shot back just as intensely, straightening as he moved to counterattack with several wild swings. “Begone to the marshes, filthy Saxon barbarian swine!”
The chicken, frantically trying to escape from between the two children’s legs, was caught up by the toddler, who yanked the bird to safety and clutched it against his bare chest. “No hurt chickee!” he snapped, with all the righteous indignation of youth untempered by age.
“Arthur!” The call came from the woman who stepped out of the wooden building and onto the deck beside the dirt path where the children were playing. She moved to the edge of the railing, looking to the three. “Arthur, run to the well and fetch some water.” The instruction was accompanied by a tossed wooden bucket for the boy to catch. “Chadwick,” she added toward the toddler who still clutched the chicken to his chest, “Come inside and put a shirt on before you catch your death. And put the poor chicken back in her pen. Chicken, pen, you, shirt.” Her summary was accompanied by a point and whistle to show that she meant business.
Taking the bucket as it was tossed to him, twelve-year old Arthur turned on his heel. “Come on, Morgana,” he mumbled to the girl while walking that way. “We best do as Mother says, and be quick, or Father will hear of it.”
“Our mother,” the girl, Morgana pointed out while moving to catch up with him. “Only your father, as he is so quick to remind me time and time again. As if I could ever possibly forget.”
“Father cares for you as well, Morgana,” Arthur firmly assured his companion as the two of them made their way swiftly through the busy village. “He just has his own way of showing it.”
At that point, the two passed another figure. Their eyes turned that way, finding an unfamiliar face. A stranger, who stood at the edge of town. His unnaturally pale face would have drawn their attention by itself. But coupled with his hair, its own shade as blue as the sky, and both children instantly stopped. A stranger, with strange hair and a pale face. What could he–
And then the question vanished, along with all thought and memory of the stranger, as the two continued walking.
“His own way,” Morgana echoed Arthur’s previous words, giving the boy a disbelieving look for a moment, her dark hair falling in front of her eyes until she pushed it back. “Yes, he has quite his own way. One might say that he speaks more with his hands than his mouth. And his hands say that I am no child of his. You and Chadwick are his children. I am a reminder of his shame and the betrayal of his wife and best friend, nothing more. Whatever he sees me as, it is not his child. It will never be.”
Arthur clearly wanted to say something more to that, but in the end, he just sighed and continued walking. Together, the pair of half-siblings walked past a dozen other villagers who were all going about their business. Some waved to the children and greeted them by name, while others ignored them in favor of their own work. Darkness was fast approaching, and all wanted to be done with any chores that required them to be outside long before last light.
Making their way to the well just outside the edge of town, uphill from where any waste would travel, the two filled the wooden bucket. Though Arthur had been able to carry it out by himself, once the bucket was full both of them had to work together to carefully start hauling it back.
The two had only just gingerly picked up the bucket, mindful of any spills, when the sky grew dark, as if the sun had fallen behind a cloud. Which, considering that up until a moment earlier, the sky had been completely clear without a cloud in sight, was more than a little surprising.
“Rain?” Morgana asked quizzically while turning her face upward. What she saw, however, made the young girl gasp out loud. She lost her grip on the bucket she stared at the sky.
“Morgana!” Arthur yelped, unable to hold the large, full bucket by himself. It fell with a loud clatter, dumping its contents onto the ground and over both of their feet. “What are you–”
Then he looked up, his own gaze following his half-sister’s to see what had captured her interest. And in that moment, the protest and complaint vanished from the boy’s lips along with every other thought that had been in his head. He just stood there, staring in shock.
The creature’s size went against all reason. From the tip of its nose, down its bronze-scaled body and to the very end of its tri-pointed tail, it was seventy meters long. Almost two hundred and thirty feet, with a total wingspan of over five hundred feet. The monster’s sheer scale defied all logic.
“Dra… dra…” The trembling Morgana started, her voice breaking from terror as the two stood, watching in horror as the creature’s long neck turned. Its eyes seemed to take them in, even as high as it was. With a rustle of leathery wings, it changed course, flying toward the village.
“Dragon!” The scream went up not from either Morgana or Arthur, but from one of the men of the village. He came tearing out of the nearby woods riding a gray horse, its hooves pounding against the ground like thunder as he galloped right past the children without noticing them. His eyes were on the sky, his mouth bellowing the terrible warning once more. “Dragon!”
The cry was taken up by others, which turned to screams of horror as the villagers erupted from their homes, turning their eyes to the sky to see the descending death as it came upon them.
More men took up arms, a few wielding actual swords and axes, while others held pitchforks and other tools. They screamed at the dragon, trying to draw its attention while others scattered and fled. Confusion and terror filled the air, until both were overtaken… by fire.
That terrible mouth opened, and the heat of the sun engulfed the village. In a single breath, half of the buildings, along with everyone in or anywhere near them, were annihilated. All that was left, all that remained where the ball of fire had struck, were ashes and dust. Nothing more.
The force from blast sent Arthur and Morgana to the ground, even as the heat nearly burned them alive. Crashing down hard on his side with a pained cry, the boy’s vision went black for what felt like only a scant handful of seconds. Then he was being shaken violently, a faint, distant voice barely reaching him, as if someone was shouting from the far side of Miller’s Lake.
His eyes opened, finding Morgana kneeling there. The girl was shaking him. From the look of her face and the way her mouth moved, it was clear that she was screaming at the top of her lungs. Yet her voice was barely audible, after the blast from that dragon had deafened them.
“Move!” the girl was screaming, “Arthur, get up! Please! Arthur, you have to get up!”
Painfully, he sat up before turning his head. Then the boy blinked, staring disbelievingly at the sight in front of him. The village… it was almost entirely gone. Fire had spread everywhere. Bodies, some half eaten, lay scattered throughout the ruins. Smoke left it almost impossible to see very deep into the village itself, and the very few buildings that remained were empty, broken skeletons, their features somehow even more terrifying as they were half-visible through the cloud of dust and smoke.
And just above the middle of the village floated the dragon, its head turning back and forth as the thing sought its next target. Those terrifying wings gradually flapped up and down, moving entirely too slowly to have anything to do with its ability to keep itself in the air.
Before he knew what he was doing, the boy was on his feet. His eyes were wide as he screamed, “Mother! Father!” The heat and smoke were already burning his throat, and he coughed violently then, hacking a few times while Morgana pulled at his arm.
“Th-they’re dead, Arthur! They’re dead!” she shrieked, tears flooding her eyes. “And we’ll be dead too! We have to go! Run! Arthur!” She pulled at him.
Eyes wild, he looked to her. “We don’t know that!” he shouted back. “They might be alive! They might be hurt! I have to find them, Morgana! They might need me!”
“I need you!” the girl shouted back at him, hysterical as she clung to the boy’s arm. “Arthur, please! They’re gone! Don’t go in there! If you go in there, you’ll die! It’ll kill you, that thing will kill you! We have to run! Arthur, we have to run!” Her voice quieted then, tears filling her eyes she pleaded in desperation. “Please, Arthur. Please don’t leave me. Please.”
For a moment, he hesitated. Heart pounding as fear and doubt filled his mind, the boy looked over his shoulder. He stared into what looked like the abyss of hell for several seconds before turning back to his half-sister. “Run,” he told her, pointing to the woods. “Run to our spot and wait for me! I’ll meet you there, I promise! I’ll be there, I just have to check. I have to know!”
Morgana’s pleas continued, even as Arthur turned, pulling himself free to move. He shouted one more promise to meet her by their spot in the woods before running full-out into the smoke.
It took far too long to find his house. When the boy finally arrived, coughing and hacking as he stumbled to a stop, he found the building still half-intact. Half, because one of the dragon’s feet was occupying the other half. It had landed. The remains of his father’s body lay just outside the house, burned almost beyond recognition, while his mother’s upper half hung from one of the half-broken walls, impaled on the sharp spikes that remained. Her lower half was nowhere to be seen.
For an eternal second, the boy stood there, staring at his dead parents as shock filled him. The truth of it was unfathomable, the horror indescribable. He might have screamed, might have begged, might have vowed vengeance. But he did none of that. He just stood, mouth open as a noise that was unlike anything a living creature should make slowly escaped him. It was the loss of a soul, the loss of innocence. It was the loss, in some ways, of his childhood.
Arthur might have stood there forever, until he died of smoke or some other, more direct cause. But a sound caught his attention. The sound of crying. As the boy’s eyes snapped that way, he saw his little brother. Chadwick was lying just at the end of the porch, near the hole in the fence. He had his beloved chicken clutched to his chest, sobbing violently.
The dragon heard it too. With a rustle of wings, it spun. The thing’s head came down, and the thing glowered at the sight of the toddler and his favorite bird. With a growl that shook the ground like the passing of a thousand strong horses, the monster slowly opened its mouth.
“No!” The scream tore its way out of Arthur’s throat, even as he found himself moving. His mother was dead. His father was dead. Not his brother. Not Chadwick. Not him. No. No. No!
The dragon’s head whipped around toward him, seeming to open more in surprise at the sight of the twelve-year-old boy sprinting at it than from its previous intention. For an instant, it was frozen.
And that was one instant long enough for Arthur to reach the dragon’s lowered head. With a primal scream of rage, loss, and denial, the boy hurled himself at the monster. In the background, he heard Chadwick call his name. Then there was nothing save for that looming, open maw as the dragon’s cavernous mouth rose to fill his entire field of vision.
He was in the mouth, inside the monster. Its enormous teeth, as large as Arthur himself, somehow managed to just narrowly miss the boy as he found himself astride its massive, wiggling tongue. As the dragon yanked its tongue back toward that open throat, the boy leapt aside. He landed hard on the bottom of the mouth, drenched in saliva while desperately reaching out to grab the nearest thing that he could. His grasping, searching fingers found one of those deadly, spear-like teeth, and the boy clung to it for dear life even as the dragon shook its head violently back and forth. Still, the boy held on, pulling himself up against that single tooth while a noise that was half-shout and half-sob escaped him.
The constant rumble grew louder then, and Arthur felt the heat rapidly rise. Fire. The dragon was about to breathe fire once more. Eyes widening, he pitched himself up and forward, flinging his body out of the mouth at the exact second that the monster whipped its head in the opposite direction. His hands still held tight to that tooth, and the sudden motion of his body falling one way with it while the dragon’s head jerked in the other direction tore the tooth from the monster’s mouth. Blood came with it, and Arthur landed hard on the ground, tooth falling on top of him while the blood from it coated his body. Some seeped into his mouth, but he was too stunned, too broken, to care.
In the background, the boy heard the dragon’s fire fill the air. He prepared himself to burn, prepared himself to go to the same place as his mother and father. He whispered an apology to Morgana, to Chadwick. He closed his eyes as the dragon roared.
Then… nothing. The air was silent, save for the crackling flames and his brother’s own cries. The expected pain, the expected end, never came.
What did come, instead, was the sound of footsteps gradually approaching. When Arthur opened his eyes, he found himself staring up at an unfamiliar woman. She was shrouded in smoke, her short brown hair seeming to glow from the surrounding embers. In the distance behind her, he could see the faint shape of the dragon disappearing in the sky.
“Br…broth….” He tried to form the words, tried to tell the woman to take Chadwick.
“Shh.” Taking a knee next to him, the woman put her hand against his face gently, her touch as tender as he had ever felt. It made him want to cry. “Easy, brave one,” she whispered. “Rest now. Rest.”
As if a spell had been put on him, the boy did just that. His eyes drifted closed, and for quite some time, Arthur knew nothing more.
One Year Later
Morgana was gone. The girl had disappeared by the time Arthur had woken up, and despite his insistence on searching the entire woods, there had been no sign of her. Which was fair, as two days had passed by the time he finally got there.
As for Chadwick, the boy and his chicken had survived. But Arthur had known that he couldn’t take care of him. But a family in a nearby village had been able to take in both child and bird, and Nimue had assured him that they would take good care of his brother.
Nimue. That was what the woman who had saved him that night, the woman who had taken him in and cared for him, trained him, over the past year called herself. When he had asked what kind of name that was, she had told him that, in the language of her people, the word essentially meant ‘teacher.’
For the past year, Nimue had taught him to fight. She had fed him, clothed him, and trained him. Not just in martial prowess, but also in education. She taught him numbers, reading, sewing, everything she thought that he needed to know. And, apparently, she thought he needed to know everything.
And she taught him about his powers. The powers of the dragon, whose blood had mixed with Arthur’s own, granting him an ever-expanding list of gifts that were only growing stronger with each passing day.
He was strong. That was the start of it. At the moment, one year after bonding with the dragon, he was capable of easily lifting a single slab of rock that had, according to Nimue, weighed as much as three full-sized horses. And every week, he found himself able to lift more. Similarly, he was tough. His skin deflected arrows and sling-launched rocks without a single mark to show for it. Nimue had thrown stones at him at speeds far higher than anything any human weapon could manage, only to gain the same results. A horse had kicked him full in the face and had not affected him in any way. Sword, spear, and mace had broken against his back without doing more than briefly stunning him. And lately, they didn’t even do that.
He was also immune not only to fire, but to any temperature change whatsoever. Nothing could burn or freeze him, be it natural or magical fire.
And as far as magic went, none of it would work if he didn’t consciously allow it to. Nimue had tried ever-increasingly powerful spells, and unless he made the decision to allow the spell to work, nothing did. Nor could any active spell continue working once he laid his hand on either the active effect or the source and made his intent known. Nimue had erected the most powerful barrier she could, only for it to fall apart the moment that Arthur put his hand against it and willed it to.
Fire obeyed him, as did water, air, and the ground itself. All four followed his will. And the first three: fire, air, and water, could be produced with a thought. They came from his mouth, a ball of flame that could melt a stone as large as a man, a geyser of water powerful enough to put a hole in that same stone, or a gust of wind of such strength that it would pick up that stone and send it miles away.
And finally… finally there was the last gift that he had, thus far, inherited. The gift that was, in many ways, the most incredible.
“Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!” The boy screamed. Yet it was a scream not of terror, but of exhilarance, of pure, unbridled joy. It was the cry of a boy who was the single happiest, most free person on the planet.
Or not on the planet. Because in that moment, Arthur was high above it. He flew, flew through the clouds, like a bird. Like a dragon. The ground far below whipped by at a dizzying rate as he pushed himself to speeds beyond what any horse could ever hope to reach. He was a blur in the sky, his small form a briefly glimpsed and quickly forgotten streak to the people below. He pushed himself as hard as he could, sending a boom of sound around himself before outrunning even that. He was moving significantly faster than the noise of his flight could keep up. In the span of only as much time as it had taken his old family to eat a decent meal together, the boy could fly from the southern-most tip of the Isle, all the way to the northern waters.
Finally, laughing wildly, the boy came to a stop. He dropped, landing in a crouch beside the woman who stood on the edge of a bluff that overlooked an open field. “Nimue!” he cried out happily, looking to the woman. “I made it all the way to the ocean this time, and I didn’t even have to stop!”
Nimue smiled at him, her expression fond as she reached out to touch his hair. “So you did. Perhaps it’s time for you to receive your gift.”
“Gift?” Perking up, Arthur asked, “What gift?”
With a flick of her hand, the strange woman produced a weapon, a sword sheathed in an elaborate scabbard. “I have been working on it for you this past year. It’s a bit big for you now, but you should acquaint yourself with it nonetheless. You and it are inexorably tied.”
Hesitantly, Arthur took the weapon. Holding it with one hand, he slowly drew the sword. The blade was white, pure white. Almost blindingly so, once it caught the sun. And it wasn’t iron, or metal at all. Or at least, not any metal that he had ever seen. In fact, when he looked closer, the blade appeared to be made of…
“Tooth,” Nimue confirmed. “Dragon tooth, that is. The same tooth that you tore from the mouth of the one you faced. I have… worked on it. The sword will serve you well, for the trials that are yet to come.”
“Trials?” Arthur echoed, blinking at her.
The smile that she gave him seemed, sad in a way. “Yes, trials. They will not be easy. But you will meet them. Of that, I have no doubt. Because you are Arthur of dragons.
“You are Arthur Pendragon.”