Author's Note - Thanks for all the wonderful reviews! The support is always welcome! :D
Oh, and I lied, this story is ending up being more than 8 chapters! :O
Uther looked wretched. His face was ashen, his eyes bloodshot and he couldn't stop shaking – whether it was with fear or anger Balinor didn't know. The young king scraped quivering hands through his hair in anguish and Balinor could tell that he would certainly do anything in order to retrieve his lost son. It was just a matter of finding the right bait for the changeling. After a fruitless and exhausting interrogation, the man had left the Great Hall and had made his way to an antechamber. Then he'd slumped inelegantly on a chair and held his head in his hands, the points of his elbows resting on the smooth surface of the table. For a few moments Balinor stared at the 'v' of the king's muscular arms and wondered how on earth he had found himself in this situation, as advisor and confidante to the King of Camelot. A couple of days ago he had been a peasant and now he was in a castle, helping Uther Pendragon to find the son he hadn't even realised he'd lost.
"Balinor," Uther said, his voice rough, "What can I do?" He sounded as if he was dragging his vocal chords across broken glass; each syllable was a painful struggle.
Balinor did not reply. He did not know what to say. And so the king continued.
"I've offered him everything I have: money, titles, lands…his own life. And yet nothing will sway him! Surely torture is the only way?"
"My lord…may I point out that if you were to torture this creature – who currently holds the form of your son – and then you received an answer and found Arthur…" Balinor paused, seeing he had Uther's complete attention. "How would you be able to look at your own son knowing you had tortured him?"
Uther frowned. "But it wouldn't be him!"
"That boy looks like your son. If you hurt him would you be able to forgive yourself? Would you able to look at your real son without remembering the screams that you tore from that mouth? Would you be able to forget the blood painted, by you, on your child's skin?" Balinor looked his monarch right in the eye. "Because, sire, I would not be able to do that if it was my son."
The silence that followed was almost tangible. A heavy, emotional silence which enveloped the king, blanketing him, as he contemplated the words of a man who was almost a stranger to him.
"What should I do then?" Uther finally asked. He looked completely broken.
"Offer him something not for himself but for his clan. That would be more difficult to turn down, especially if it would benefit his family."
Steel grey eyes caught his own, intrigued. "Such as?"
"Offer to rescind the ban on magic."
"I shall not!" Uther shouted. Energy seemed to fly back into his body, launching him to his feet and sending him forward several angry paces. Balinor took a measured step back. Spittle was flying from the king's lips now. "I cannot allow these magical fiends to coerce me in such a way!"
Balinor said nothing. He did not mention that his own son had magic and would also stand to benefit from this deal. He did not mention that Uther was a hypocrite for using magic to find his son and then wanting to kill anyone who practiced it the next. He did not mention that if Uther was not willing to do anything for his child then he did not deserve him. Balinor merely kept his mouth shut.
Uther was like a riled boar foaming at the mouth, looking to destroy anything that got in his way. He moved left and right, his stamping footfalls echoing around the hall, and roared with anger. Words and curses and insults cascaded from his contorted lips as he threw a heavy chair across the room and thumped his fist on the stone wall. Balinor spotted the blood collecting on his knuckles but refrained from getting in the way. He wouldn't like to see the damage the trained knight could do to him.
"I have a better plan," Uther suddenly declared, his eyes alight.
Balinor frowned and felt his heart judder. He didn't like the king's tone and the way he was eyeing him like a deer ready to be speared.
"Yes?" the peasant man said, uncertainly.
Immediately defensive, Balinor retorted: "What about him?"
"He has magic!"
"Yes but…" Balinor's heart thudded sickeningly in his chest.
"I can use him."
"To find this magic clan."
"How?" Balinor repeated, warily.
"Surely he can use his magic to find this clan? Or maybe he can communicate properly with this creature in order to get information?"
The king's naivety was astounding and Balinor merely stood with his mouth agape, wondering whether Uther would realise how ridiculous he sounded. After a few seconds though, he realised that the other man was deadly serious. Swiftly, the peasant man tried to gather his wits in order to explain to Uther how his plan had several monumental flaws without casting aspersions on his intelligence or status.
"My lord," he began, the cogs whirring in his brain, "Merlin, although a magic-user, does not have the power to just find a clan. They would be well hidden, perhaps even protected by enchantments. My son is not powerful enough to find such beings. And as for communicating with the creature in the other room….I don't believe that is at all wise. Firstly, because he threw Merlin across the room last time they met."
Balinor paled, recalling the horrific memory. He was just relieved that Merlin had bounced back so quickly. All the boy had now to show for his injuries was a tender shoulder, a gash on his head and a few bruises on his back. Balinor had checked very thoroughly.
"And secondly because there isn't a language all magic beings communicate with. They are different. Merlin is not one of them, whatever they are, and therefore the creature is unlikely to trust him."
"But he might!" Uther interrupted, abruptly. "Kinship is a strong persuader."
"I have it!" The king clicked his fingers. "Your son will form a friendship…"
"I don't think-"
Uther ploughed on. "With the imposter. It will be based on their mutual magic."
"And if Merlin were to release the creature, act as an accomplice…"
"He's four!" Balinor felt the need to point out.
"Then it would trust him. He could then go with the creature to its lair…"
"And we could follow and then get Arthur!" Uther clapped his hands proudly, his grey eyes sparkling.
"No," Balinor repeated.
Uther's joyful expression melted away and it was replaced with one of annoyance. He walked swiftly up to the other man, invading his personal space quite severely. Balinor found himself leaning back, feeling the definite curve as his vertebrae clicked into place. The moisture of Uther's hot breath peppered his skin.
"I'm sorry; would you care to repeat yourself?" Uther said, dangerously.
Gulping awkwardly, Balinor mustered his courage. He had to do this for his son. "I won't allow you to put Merlin in such a dangerous position. He's just a child. He cannot be expected to act as an accomplice to that creature and he cannot accompany it alone to its clan! If he blew his cover it would kill him for certain!"
"You were the one defending its innocence not long ago. Why the change of heart?"
Balinor gritted his teeth.
"Could it have something to do with the fact that your son is more important to you than mine?"
"Of course he is!" Balinor burst out. However, he immediately regretted it when he saw the king's face darken. Shadowy anger blackened his features.
"He is not! He never shall be. My son is the prince of Camelot. The future king and no one's life equal to his."
"I have to disagree," Balinor murmured, keeping his own fury at the king's disregard for Merlin's life at bay.
"You can disagree all you like," Uther shouted, "It does not change the fact that your son will help me to find mine. Its not as if I'm sending him to be executed, is it?" His threatening tone was not missed.
"You promised," Balinor growled. His spine prickled at this early show of treachery.
"And that promise shall be kept if Merlin does what I ask."
And thus Balinor had to concede.
Crouching on a rock, his knees tucked into his small chest and his fingertips resting delicately on the rough surface, he watched the sun rise slowly from behind the lake. Its shimmering light pooled across the mirror-like surface, a few tendrils splashing onto the shore and catching his upturned face with their warmth. His hawk-gaze picked out a tiny pond-skater skimming across the water, leaving miniscule whirlpools in its wake. The insect glistened prettily in sunshine, throwing off multi-coloured cataracts of water as it glided.
A little way off, his sharp eyes located a heron, statuesque and silent, standing at the edge of the water. They waited patiently together, just watching the surface of the lake. Each muscle was frozen in place; taut. Not even his smooth face twitched. A dragonfly landed tentatively on the rock beside his hand, waltzing elegantly across the grey surface and not even noticing as its spindly legs passed from stone to skin. Still he did not move.
Something shimmered beneath the waterline, smooth and sleek. Several more silver dashes skidded below the surface and his eyes honed in on the closest one.
His hand was quick as an arrow, darting into the ice-cold water and retracting, squirming fish held tightly in small fingers. He could feel the flex of its spine and the fruitless beating of its fins as it twisted and turned. Its scales were slippery and smooth but his grip was experienced and he didn't let go. Swiftly, he put the suffering creature out of its misery, bashing its head on the rock. The fish went limp.
The voice smashed through the silence like a fist through a pane of glass, shattering the peace and tranquillity and leaving them broken on the floor. He shuddered and turned.
A group of children charged towards him, lithely running over pebbles and leaping over rocks. Their bare green feet were light and agile, gripping onto the smallest of crevices and the shallowest of grooves. Soon they would not even need to use their feet, he thought bitterly and tried to push the thought away.
"Artos! What are you doing?"
A tall boy with beetle black eyes and long curly hair reached him first. Finnian.
"He's catching fish with his hands again!" Another boy joined him and guffawed.
Nastily, the child reached over and knocked the fish from Artos' hand. Artos had tried to move out of the way but they were too quick for him – they always were, no matter how hard he tried to keep up – and he had to watch as the fish hit the ground with a wet slap. He said nothing.
"When you going to learn to do it proper, eh Artos?" Finnian sneered.
With a rough elbow planted squarely in Artos' chest, Finnian pushed him out of the way and stood over the water. He did not wait patiently by the water; he did not see the pond-skater or the heron or the shoal of fish playing beneath the surface. He merely held his hand out and summoned a fish from within the lake. Not only did one fish fly directly into his hand but five quickly followed suit. Artos could only look on mutely, jealousy gnawing at the pit of his stomach.
"Got nothing to say, Arty?" Goov sniggered, pushing him hard onto the ground.
The boy didn't even let out a sound as his hands and knees hit the rocks. He felt his skin tear. Deep inside he felt his anger bubbling but he held it at bay.
One of Finnian's cronies picked up the dead fish and smacked him round the head with it. "Not so special now, are you Artos?" They all jeered and shouted their appreciation of the boy's words.
Artos supposed he couldn't blame them. On the one hand he was an outsider: he was pale-skinned, pale-haired and his eyes were the colour of the sky. But on the other hand, he seemed to be revered, loved, because of these differences. He didn't quite understand why but the elders viewed him as their favourite. He was, as Finnian and his friends' put it the 'special' one. And therefore there would undoubtedly be jealousy and dislike which resulted in bullying – away from the adults of course. Artos took the beatings and the insults without a word. He never told the elders. He wasn't sure why but he saw them as a kind of balance to all the pampering and care that was poured on him by the adults.
In fact, the bullying was sort of a reprieve. Mainly because neither he nor his peers could understand the preferential treatment that was bestowed upon him. He did not like being rewarded for doing nothing, especially as he was so obviously less able than all the other clan children. They could summon objects and run fast without even trying and would soon be able to fly – when their wings developed – and he could do none of these things. Of course he'd tried, tried so hard, to be every bit as good as them but it was impossible. And that left Artos feeling like a failure.
Thus he'd developed alternatives to the skills he could not master. He could not run the fastest but he was somewhere near the middle of the pack after months of hard work and perseverance. He's raced against the deer that lived in the forest and found that he could just about equal the little ones. He could not summon objects but he could hunt and fish with speed and accuracy enough not to lag too far behind. And although he could never hope to fly – his parents had told him that he could not – he was adept at climbing. He could scale an almost sheer wall with relative ease, even carrying a bucket of water on his back that was twice as heavy as him.
And also, as a result of near constant bullying and a determination to push himself to the limits, he'd developed a very high pain threshold. Which was fortunate considering what was about to come next.
Finnian caught his wrist in spindly fingers and twisted maliciously. Artos could feel the skin begin to burn and his bones shifted painfully.
"Does that hurt Special One? You going to do something about it Special One?"
"He's too scared, Finnian," Goov cackled. "Look at his face. It's all screwed up! Make him scream! Go on scream, you coward!"
The anger that he'd harnessed so well within him suddenly snapped its bindings and roared forth with surprising voracity. With a speed that none of them would have anticipated of the small boy, Artos launched himself forward in a somersault, dragging Finnian with him. The two of them slammed into the rocky ground, ending up in a tangled pile of bruised limbs. Artos was first to extricate himself – the vice on his wrist having loosened – and he sprung agilely to his feet. He was panting heavily. Finnian still lay moaning on the ground.
"What did you do?" Goov shrieked, furiously.
The stocky green-skinned boy threw himself at Artos who only just managed to dodge out of the way. Goov was moving so fast but somehow the blond-haired boy managed to dodge his most damaging blows and land a few of his own. However, the more punches he dished out the angrier his opponent got until he was practically spitting like a wildcat.
Rolling out of the way of a particularly heavy sideswipe, Artos felt his hand close around a long piece of driftwood. Leaping to his feet, the boy brandished the weapon in front of him. He wasn't sure what he was doing but this seemed like a good idea – it would give him more reach and keep him out of harm's way when Goov struck out at him. A thick arm came towards his head but he had time to duck and then pop up again in time to give Goov a hefty thwack on the chest. The other boy gasped and doubled over, his face paling.
Looking around him, he saw that the rest of the group of children had frozen on the spot and were staring at him with a mixture of anger and fear. Eventually, though, seeing the lethal weapon in his hand, the fear won out and they all fled. Goov and Finnian were quick to follow.
Artos was left on his own, standing in the middle of the beach, the plank of wood still clutched tightly in his hand. He had won. This time.