When a Good Man Does Nothing
When a Good Man Does Nothing
The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing – Edmund Burke
Balinor had been many things in his life: Dragonlord, friend of a king and now a lonely fugitive, living in a cave in an attempt to avoid King Uther's attention. And that was no kind of life. It was survival, but that was just about it. Admittedly it had been worse. When he had first come to this cave, heart pounding so loud that he almost feared that Uther's soldiers could hear it and find him, it was just that: a cave. It was cold and draughty and lonely. He had probably never been closer to despair than then. He was alone in the world, hunted and unwelcome. Not even the dragons would answer his call now should he call upon them, because they were no more. And the only one that was there, he had helped to imprison. Even if Kilgharrah would somehow escape his prison, Balinor didn't think he'd be much inclined to help, and to force such a noble creature into anything was something that repulsed him.
And so he had to make do on his own, build up his life from nothing. It was nothing new; he'd done it before. But that last time he hadn't been alone. There had been people there. Hunith had been there. He didn't think too much about her, though; it simply was too painful to recall what exactly he had lost.
That didn't mean that he didn't think about her, about the life he could have had, about the people Uther had hunted down and killed. Not during the day, when he was working too hard to make the cave inhabitable. The physical labour at least kept those treacherous thoughts at bay. But they crept up on him in the middle of the night, making him wonder whether or not there was anything he could have done to prevent all the horrors he had witnessed from happening.
What if I ordered the dragons to leave the land before Uther could kill them all?
What if I had not been as naïve as to believe Uther when he said he wanted to make his peace with the last dragon?
What if I ordered the dragons to kill Uther?
What if I had urged that sorcerers and dragons make an alliance, so we could make a stand together? Would we still have been slaughtered like cattle by the dozens, by the hundreds?
Thoughts like that kept him up at night, staring at the ceiling or the stars, when his cave looked too much like the dungeon he feared and he craved the open sky overhead. They were bitter thoughts, thoughts of regret and what could have been. But not even magic could change the past and so all his thinking was pointless. This was what had happened and most people he had cared about in this life were dead and gone. What good would it do them, or him, to ponder about things that could never be?
And so he kept going, trying to make a living in the wild, living on what he could find and hunt; roots, herbs and game. He had never been a hunter, so learning that took some skill, which was good, because he could pour all his energy into it.
But he couldn't isolate himself altogether. There were things he didn't know, things one could not obtain in the woods, and so he was forced to search out civilisation sometimes. It was with the utmost reluctance, mind. It would be painful to hear what had happened in the world when he was not there to hear the news, since it could not possibly be anything good, and more painful still because there was nothing he could really do about it. Better by far to shield himself from even more hurt and stay well away from people, so he could be left to mourn his kin – because that was what the dragons had been to him, even if no one truly seemed to understand that – in peace.
True to expectations his first foray into a relatively large town to trade for supplies was nothing short of a disaster. Oh, he got what he needed. He traded game and herbs for clothes, blankets, pots and pans. People were grateful for what he brought; not many ventured into the woods themselves and Balinor brought things they needed. In terms of trade, the outing could certainly be called a success. It was the market gossip that was the problem.
'Did you hear about that Druid encampment just across the border?' one of the women asked him while he was trying to sell her a rabbit in exchange for one of her tightly woven blankets.
Balinor tensed, but controlled the urge to turn and walk away. He needed this blanket, and he was not known as a coward, despite the fact that he had fled from Ealdor with only what little he could carry and the clothes on his back.
'I haven't,' he replied as curtly as he thought he could get away with, hoping this would make the woman understand that he had no wish to hear the tale.
She didn't take the hint. 'Ghastly sight, so they say. Almost everyone slaughtered, bodies left to rot. Men, women, children, all.' She shook her head. 'Can't say that life here is perfect, but at least we're not treated like that here. Better to be ignored by the king than to have that particular kind of attention.' He supposed that was true. It was what made this land such a perfect place to hide.
'Almost everyone?' The words were out of his mouth before he could stop himself. Curiosity must be to blame for that, because Balinor really did not want to know what had become of Camelot and the people that lived there. There were so many to be mourned over already. Add any more and he might buckle under the weight of his own grief. 'What of the others?'
'Taken to Camelot for interrogation.' The woman seemed to have been waiting for a chance to gossip, and now that he had displayed some kind of interest, there was no stopping her. 'To find out the names and location of other people Uther suspects of sorcery. He had them burned after. It's said that at least he gave the children a quick death by beheading. Terrible business. Now, how about two rabbits for that blanket? It's very good quality, let me tell you.'
Bile rose in his throat and his vision went a bit blurry, even as hatred made his blood boil and his heart pound so loudly that it blocked out almost every other sound. In hindsight he couldn't tell what else he had said or done after that. He came back to his cave with the blanket, though, so he supposed that he had made the deal, but he had no memory of it.
After that he made a point of staying away from civilisation, because he couldn't bear to hear the news he would inevitably be told if he did go into town. It was all the worse because he couldn't do anything to change matters. His own powerlessness made him both angry and bitter. He couldn't do anything, nothing at all. He'd had his time to do something, and he had failed to take the chances.
They said that evil could only triumph because good men stood by and watched as injustice happened, but then, what could one man do against the hatred of a king?
Years passed, but they were all the same to the Dragonlord. Not that he thought he was deserving of the title any longer. After all, what dragons were there left? Uther might even have killed Kilgharrah by now, now that the novelty of having a giant dragon in his possession had worn off and he was done gloating about it. Now he might be reminded of the danger one live dragon might represent and he might have gotten rid of him, just to be certain that he would never be free again, as dragons were meant to be.
So, what was he? A fugitive with an empty title, a hermit, and quite possibly an old and bitter man. There were no mirrors in the cave, but every now and then he caught his reflection in brooks and streams. It wasn't a very cheerful sight that met his eyes, and so he stopped looking. It was not as if it mattered here anyway. He didn't get visitors.
Strangely enough it was only a few days after he thought this that they stumbled into his cave, the fair-haired prince of Camelot and the serving boy Merlin. The prince was ill, and it hardly took any effort at all to heal him. He wasn't that resentful yet that he would let someone perish at his doorstep, even if it would have been wiser to get rid of the prince and move on, so that he could not be found again. As it was, Balinor just wanted them gone, out of his cave and out of his life. He didn't know why they were here and neither did he want to find out.
'The Great Dragon is attacking Camelot.'
His wish wasn't granted. Merlin blurted it out the moment he learned of his identity, which had served to alarm Balinor more than the news that Kilgharrah had finally broken out of his prison and was roaming free once more. That was cause for celebration. There was something infinitely wrong about a dragon locked up. They were not meant to be kept as dogs in a kennel. They were nobler, wiser than that. He would have called out to Kilgharrah if he was not too ashamed to face him again, after he had for all intents and purposes betrayed him to Uther, even if he had been unaware of Uther's real intentions. He ought to have known anyway, and there was no excuse for his naivety.
It was more alarming to learn that the son of Uther Pendragon was looking for him after all these years, more alarming still that he had found him. Uther was capable of great evil, and despite the serving boy's clear loyalty to his master, Balinor was not convinced that he was indeed a "nice one."
'Kilgharrah doesn't act blindly,' he snapped at the boy who had all but begged him to save Camelot. 'He acts for a reason: vengeance.' He added a snort for good measure. 'It's of Uther's own making.' It has nothing to do with me. Not anymore. The truth was that he could not begrudge Kilgharrah his revenge, not when he had the power to take it and make Uther pay for all the wrongs he had done. The man deserved the vengeance that was his due.
The boy prattled on about innocent people dying, but he didn't understand anything, and Balinor told him as much in a waterfall of harsh and bitter words that he poured out over this Merlin's uncomprehending head. Innocent? How could anyone be innocent in that land when they had stood by and watched as his kind, and all the sorcerers and dragons with him, fell to quench the lust for blood of one king? Some had even sold out sorcerers for money. And those were the innocent this Merlin would have him save? No, it'd be better for them to have a taste of their own medicine.
'Let Uther die,' he counselled the lad. 'Let Camelot fall.' The world would be a better place for it. He had washed his hands of that place and its people a long time ago. There was no one left there he cared about. Uther had made very sure of that.
Balinor made sure to leave the cave, and to stay out of sight. Arthur Pendragon would heal just fine on his own from now on, and he had no wish to lay eyes on Uther's son ever again. Hopefully Merlin would see sense – he had looked properly horrified after Balinor was done talking – and would tell his master that he would be no help whatsoever. His mind was made up. In his life he had made a lot of mistakes, and he didn't want to add any more to his list. Stopping Kilgharrah now would be a grave mistake. Besides, who was to say what would become of them after? Death for both of them, just to ensure that none of these current events ever repeated themselves? Balinor could not claim that he felt like he was living – he felt more like being dead to be honest – but his sense of self-preservation won out.
And so he kept a lonely watch outside the cave until the sun rose over the top of the trees and he heard the sounds of the young men out and about. He couldn't make out what they were saying, but one voice he recognised as Merlin's. The other voice, Arthur Pendragon, sounded happy, carefree. Well, he would be. When had he ever seen real suffering? He had all the good things of life that had been so cruelly denied to Balinor. Like as not he would just turn back and find someone else to do his dirty work for him. He didn't know and he couldn't care.
So it was a bit of a nasty surprise when rather than leave, Uther's son sought him out. 'My serving boy tells me that you are Balinor.'
He heard him before he saw him, because his back was turned on him. 'What do you want?' Balinor asked as rudely as he could. he had no wish to speak to this Arthur, no matter what Merlin said about him.
'Why won't you come?' The tone of voice rang a few bells with Balinor. His father had that exact same tone when he wanted people to do things for him, and he had no doubts that his commands would be followed to the letter. But Balinor was not one of the Pendragons' subjects any longer and he had no intention to obey commands.
'Because Kilgharrah is right.' Nevertheless, he found himself answering the question, no, the demand for information. The anger was still simmering, just below the surface, but he was in control of it now. 'Let Uther have a taste of his own medicine; it's no less than he deserves.' The anger seeped into his voice again, and he turned around to face the prince, looking into startled blue eyes.
'There are innocent people dying!' When Merlin had said it, he had sounded pleading. When Arthur Pendragon spoke the words, he was matching Balinor for anger and indignation.
'Innocent?' Balinor spat, not unlike how he had done last night when Merlin had thrown that accusation at him. 'There are no innocents in Camelot, not when they stood by and did nothing while my kind was slaughtered.'
Merlin had backed off when he had lost his temper, but Arthur Pendragon was a knight, and he stood his ground. 'Children are dying!' he snapped. 'Have you no conscience?'
'How many of Uther's victims were children?' Balinor all but roared. 'Did your people take pity on them?' He squashed the tiny bit of guilt that had crept up at Uther's son's words. He was by no means a cruel man that he would abandon children to die in dragon's fire, but he would not willingly venture near Camelot again. He meant the words he'd spoken to Merlin the night before.
There was an angry spark in Arthur Pendragon's eyes. 'And if you sit here, you'll be as bad as the people you're accusing.'
He turned on his heels and left, but Balinor had not missed the passion in the young Pendragon's eyes and voice. Not that he heard any of those when he cheerfully informed his serving boy that "he'll change his mind." Arrogant and confident, and, so very like his father, he knew exactly what to say to make people do what he wanted them to do. That show of righteous anger he put on for Balinor's sake was not necessarily anything more than that.
And that decided Balinor. Maybe he would have been receptive to the request for aid if he had believed his intentions to be sincere, but Balinor had learned the hard way never to trust any Pendragon, whether they were old or young. The son sounded entirely too much like the father, and so he ignored the last attempt to make him change his mind.
'I will not help Uther,' he all but snarled at that king's son. In the end, that was the long and short of it. And he could never forgive Uther for the crimes he had committed.
'Then the people of Camelot are damned!'
And if you sit here, you'll be as bad as the people you're accusing. The guilt tried to make another appearance, but Balinor squashed it again. 'Then so be it.'
And in a way he was almost grateful for the almost incredulous 'Have you no conscience?' Arthur threw after him when he made his way back to the cave, because it granted him a good opportunity to give voice to the thought that had been in his head and heart for so long. 'You should ask that question of your father!' Had Uther shown any mercy, any pity when he had acted out his hatred of magic against innocents? Had he shown any conscience? Balinor knew for a fact that if Uther Pendragon had any conscience at all, it had long since been abandoned.
'And you're no better than him.' It was the boy, Merlin, who spoke, but he didn't speak in anger. It was disappointment that ruled his voice. 'Gaius spoke on the nobility of the Dragonlords, but clearly he was wrong.'
Gaius? Had Gaius been the one to send this prince his way? Balinor hadn't thought about the court physician in years – to be honest he had made a point of not sparing any thought to what he had left behind; it was too painful – but he could recall him very well still, even after all these years. He was the one who had risked life and limb – although life and head was probably the most accurate description given Uther's love for beheadings – to get him out of Camelot and smuggle him to Ealdor, to Hunith and the best part of his life. He owed much to him. Why he had stuck by Uther he would never understand, though.
'A good man,' he allowed.
'I was hoping you'd be more like him,' Merlin said, disappointment more obvious now. 'I wanted…' He didn't finish his sentence. Instead he only shrugged. 'Well, there's no point.' Defeat was written all over him as he turned and followed his master, leaving Balinor to wonder about what he meant alone.
And if you sit here, you'll be as bad as the people you're accusing. Gaius would never have spoken words like that. It wasn't like him to speak in anger. He was one of the most even-tempered men Balinor ever had the pleasure of meeting. Instead he acted. He had lingered at Uther's court even when Uther began to pursue so many sorcerers. Balinor knew that he was not the only one who had received help from him. Gaius was different from others in so many ways, he reflected. He didn't run, or turn bitter, like so many people. He tried to make things better. And there was no denying that he owed Gaius for the risks he had taken on Balinor's behalf. And he had never been a man to leave such services unrewarded.
And if you sit here, you'll be as bad as the people you're accusing. Maybe this was the guilt winning out. Balinor didn't know, but he found himself turning around to gather supplies for the journey to Camelot.
They said that evil could only triumph because good men stood by and watched as injustice happened, but then, what could one man do against the hatred of a king? He could at least try to find out.
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