A/N: So I've started a sequel. The complete first chapter should be up under it's own story heading…

A Challenging Quest

Chapter 1: Disappointment: The Vagaries of Destiny and Fate

(Mere months ago…)

Mordred's eyes stung with tears and he let them fall. His hands were too grubby to wipe them away anyway.

Maybe he'd discovered his destiny after all. To be perpetually rejected and alone. To be meaningless and abandoned, to die unnoticed.

Weariness overwhelmed misery and he slept, curled up and hunched over in the roots of an old tree.

Some inadequate time later he woke to find a man standing over him, gray-streaked brown hair pushed back from his face and curving long to cover his ears. The man grinned widely through a patchy beard.

"Well, what do we have here?"

Mordred's eyes dropped to the battle axe hanging from a loop in the man's belt, next to a dagger as long as his arm, and he panicked.

Using magic to shove the stranger backward off his feet, Mordred scrambled up to run – too tired, too slow, too stiff and cold.

Too stupid.

Pain slammed through the right side of his jaw and his vision blanked long enough for him to tumble into the frost-hardened ground.

"Don't hurt him!" he heard a man's voice shout. "I want him alive! Did you see that? He has magic! He could be a-"

Mordred had to escape. Every part of him condensed to a core of agony and he screamed, without making a sound.

But he'd misjudged his endurance.

He woke a second time to a thudding headache, the ground icy-hard beneath his cheek and shoulder and hip, a shaft of sunlight piercing winter cloud-cover and skeletal branches overhead to blind him with momentary tears. Twine rubbed his wrists numb and raw in front of him.

The long-haired, wide-mouthed man sat near him, tending a fire that roared confidence and pride in size and strength. He had Mordred's bag open between his feet, and was riffling through his meagre belongings. He gave Mordred a sideways glance.

"You're a druid," he stated.

Shifting in discomfort, Mordred realized that he'd been searched while he'd been unconscious, his clothing disarranged. They'd have noticed the triskelion tattooed on his chest, then. He said nothing, only stared dully at the stranger.

"I'm called Ragnor," the man added. "Are you on your own, boy? Running from Uther, perhaps?"

Mordred didn't answer.

"We could use your magic," Ragnor told him. "You'd have a place with us. It would be safer for you than trying to survive alone." He gave Mordred a nasty, leering sort of grin, and snickers echoed from unseen positions – all around him, it seemed.

Bandits. Mercenaries. It didn't matter – at least it didn't sound like they were going to turn him over to the knights of Camelot.

"I bet you're hungry," Ragnor suggested invitingly, leaning forward to snag a small pot from its place nestled in the coals at the fire's base, with the prod-stick in his hand. "Come, boy, have something to eat and tell us your name. Promise to use your magic for us and not against us, and we'll leave free your hands. That sounds fair, dunnit? Here we go…"

…..*….. …..*….. …..*…..

Balinor ached like he'd been fleeing for his life for days. Like he'd been sleeping on rocky ground and scraping for sustenance, muscle and nerves taut with constant strain of wary fear-

Why? He was safe in Ealdor, wasn't he? Hunith lingered over him – eyes, and smile, her hair unbound and almost drifting over his skin. He lifted his chin, needing, wanting – why did she hesitate and delay? – trying to lift arms too heavy and cold, arching his back from the bed in the hut-

The pallet in the cave-

If his lips could whisper, could form and force her name, she'd be real, she'd bend down to him and lie with him, warmth and comfort dearer than life itself, soothing his starved soul-

Balinor wrenched himself free of immobility, prying open closed eyes to sharp moonlight and deep shadow on rough natural stone walls. He was trembling; he swore breathlessly, repetitively. His words were echoed by a dripping at the far back of the cave where he dwelt, alone and yet not, anymore.

It was punishment. It was atonement. Who could say where one ended and the other began?

The oldest creature alive, maybe.

Balinor rolled off his pallet, finding his feet and leaving his cave.

The entrance was hidden from the path, a narrow treacherous track once used by the warily solitary creatures of the White Mountains, but he'd used it for nearly two years, as long as he and the other had resided there.

He turned his steps upward to the higher eyries. Even in the dark, his feet were sure on the path – sure, and weary, and slow. Maybe Kilgarrah was better than no company, but maybe…

The air was luminous pre-dawn gray by the time he reached his destination, but the eyes of the great dragon gleamed open. Kilgarrah shifted and the darkness of his bulk against the rest of the mountain resolved into a supine dragon shape. Balinor seated himself upon a nearby rock with a sigh, making no effort to keep his back straight or his shoulders up.

"I wish to speak of Ealdor," he told his hands.

The great dragon huffed. "You are as repetitive as a child."

"And Hunith?" he couldn't help insisting.

"She is not important to your destiny any longer." Kilgarrah gave a shudder that unfurled his wings, and launched himself off the side of the mountain as the first light of the sun shot over the horizon.

…..*….. …..*….. …..*…..

Gwaine didn't know quite what to say, standing at the mouth of the cave, hands on his hips, listening to the trickle of the stream and watching Merlin poke through the meagre belongings scattered through the interior. He breathed; it was marginally cooler here surrounded by rock and earth than under the thick green canopy of the forest while summer expired reluctantly toward autumn.

"For what it's worth," he offered. "I'm sorry."

Merlin grunted, abandoning a small table fashioned of lashed branches to inspect a natural shelf angling across one wall.

"I didn't really expect him to be here," the prince of Caerleon said absently, his thoughts otherwise occupied. "There's no space for a dragon anywhere near – it's thick forests and villages. Not that a great dragon needs a minder, exactly, I just thought… they might stick together, after escaping Camelot."

Gwaine grunted. No lie, he'd been anticipating meeting the man also. Curious if Balinor remembered him, as a very small child. Curious to talk to someone who'd known his father as a friend.

"But you're still disappointed," he commented.

"It was logical to start here," Merlin told him, moving away toward a darker corner and a bedframe. "I'd say no one's been here for a couple of years – maybe since he left to go to Camelot to free the dragon."

"My mother will be disappointed, though," Merlin told Gwaine over his shoulder, retrieving his reins and swinging up to his saddle.

"Can't really blame her," Gwaine agreed, mounting and directing his horse to follow Merlin's gelding.