Flying Change: (noun) a movement in riding in which the leading leg at the canter is changed without breaking gait while the horse is in the air. (Oxford Dictionary)
It was always like this after a visit to London, Arthur mused, chastising himself for his maudlin thoughts. Whenever he was away he longed for nothing but home, but as soon as he returned, he could hardly wait to leave again. He stood and paced to the window that looked out over the green acreage towards the stables. A ride would be just the thing, but first there were emails and accounts to settle. He sighed and, with one last look, returned to his desk to open his laptop.
An hour later his mobile buzzed against the mahogany wood.
“Hello Arthur, are you there? To hell with this bloody phone. Hello?”
“Hello, Mithian.” Arthur strained to hear through the traffic breaking up the connection. “Isn’t it illegal to speak on your mobile while you’re driving?”
“Sorry, Arthur, sorry. Just a moment. Well bloody well go around me, then!” He could almost picture her offering choice hand gestures to the other driver. “Sorry. Listen, I got your message but I don’t have much time to talk; I’ve just got out of a late concert.”
Arthur cleared his throat. The time difference was always an issue in their communications. “Yes, well. I wanted to discuss the terms of Mordred’s trust with you; I’ve revised it to give him his first sum at eighteen for university. He’ll still get the balance at twenty-five as we discussed, and then of course when I die, the whole lot.”
“Oh, that’s wonderfully generous, darling, thank you. And while we’re at it, I have some exciting news. Geoff has asked me to marry him.”
“I see. Congratulations to you both.” He leaned back in his chair. “When’s the happy day?”
“At the end of next month, actually. June thirtieth.”
“Well, we don’t really see the need to wait. It’s not the first time for either of us and neither of us is getting any younger. I want to have another child before my ovaries shrivel up and drop out of my old, desiccated body.”
Arthur rolled his eyes. “Thirty-four is hardly ancient. I’m sure your ovaries have a few good years left.” And they were quite fertile. It had only taken one round of unprotected sex back at uni to produce Mordred, after all.
“That’s easy enough for you to say; men just get better looking with age, and you can father babies until you’re ninety.”
Arthur snorted. “An abhorrent thought. What does Mamá say?”
“She thinks he’s a fortune hunter.”
“Of course, who isn’t? Anyway, it hardly matters. I love Geoff and it’s all settled.”
“Splendid, so where do I fit in? You can’t want me to give you away.” He could imagine the headlines now.
“No, not a bit!” She laughed. “I’d like you to take Mordred for the summer, would you?”
Arthur straightened up. “You want to send him here?”
“Yes, just to give Geoff and I some time to settle in together. Mordred hasn’t taken the news well and . . . to be frank I think he could use some fatherly influence.”
“Are you sure he wants my influence?” Arthur tried to keep his tone even. He’d been toying with the idea of asking Mordred to come for a couple of weeks so he could teach him about the family finances, but Mordred for the whole summer, without Mithian? The last time they’d spoken he got the feeling his son and Geoff didn’t exactly get on, but then again Mordred hadn’t said much—he never did. Talking with him was increasingly like trying to draw water from a dry well, all one-word answers and bored indifference.
“Please. He’s your son, too.”
Arthur bit back the retort on his tongue; it was so like Mithian to play the your son card when it was convenient. He could already hear the triumph in her voice. “When do you want to bring him?”
“In a couple of weeks, once school is out. Oh, Arthur, thank you.”
“Does he know of your evil plan?”
“I haven’t told him yet. I wanted to check with you first to make sure it would be all right, but I know he’ll be just thrilled.”
This time Arthur didn’t try to rein in the sarcasm. “I’m sure. Which is why he hasn’t wanted to visit for almost two years.”
“Oh, don’t start now—you know how hard it’s been for me with the orchestra. And you know you can always come here if you like.”
Arthur had a lot more in his arsenal ready for deployment. Every time he visited Los Angeles, Mithian made his life difficult. She refused to take Mordred out of school or interfere with any of his activities; most of the time Arthur was left waiting for a two-hour window in which to see his son. Not to mention he hated the traffic and congestion of the city—it held no charm for him, being nothing but strip-malls for miles. Yet in spite of these very rational, very sound reasons, guilt wormed its way into his gut and made him uncomfortable. He was about to issue a weak objection when Mithian spoke again.
“There’s something else, Arthur.” Her voice grew quiet. “He’s been getting in trouble at school. Quite a bit, recently.”
“What kind of trouble?” Even as he asked, he already knew.
“His magic.” She was a mere whisper now. “His power is getting stronger and I think . . . the other children don’t understand. He’s teased and he lashes out. I’ve tried to talk to him, but I’m at my wits end. He set Geoff’s car on fire.”
Arthur wasn’t sure he’d heard right. “He what?”
“It was an accident! He didn’t know what he was doing. He just gets so angry sometimes, he thinks something and it happens. I . . . I think maybe it was wrong of me to take him to America. There are so few of his kind here.”
Arthur rubbed his temple to soothe the beginnings of a tension headache.
“I’m just trying to process all of this.” They had first noticed signs of magic when Mordred was a baby, but it was impossible to tell how it would manifest until he got older. Arthur had hoped for his son’s sake it would never be an issue—that Mordred would be only mildly telekinetic, as Arthur’s own mother had been. Even though the doctors had warned that puberty would bring an increased incidence in what they termed ‘wild magic’, he hadn’t expected it so soon. Then again, Mordred was already thirteen.
“Why didn’t you tell me before?”
“I didn’t want to worry you.”
“Well, it’s a little late for that.”
“We’ll talk more when we get there, all right? I’ll go ahead and book the flights this afternoon.”
After they hung up, the enticement of a ride grew too tempting to ignore. Arthur changed into his breeches and strode out over rolling green lawn that led away from the house to the lake and stables below. The pleasant smell of freshly cut grass filled the air but did little to lift his mood. Setting things on fire with just a thought? Arthur shuddered in spite of the sun warming his back.
Percival and Kara were preparing the lower flowerbeds near the lake for the summer visitors. When they saw him, they stopped their work and waved. Arthur hesitated before he approached.
“Going for a ride, your lordship?” Percival wiped his hands on his overalls. His large biceps flexed with the movement. “It’s a nice day for it.”
“It is, yes.”
Kara beamed up at him. “I’ve been to see Cally every day you’ve been gone, M’lord. Made sure he had plenty of carrots and apples. And sugar cubes.”
“Well that’s very fine of you, Kara. Thank you.” She looked more grown since Arthur had last seen her, no longer a little girl. He reckoned she was probably close to Mordred’s age, though he was horrible at guessing the ages of children.
Percival tousled his daughter’s hair. “I’m about finished with the new roses, and the orchard is coming along. We’re on schedule for opening next week.”
“Excellent news. Keep up the good work.” Percival’s answering grin showed off straight white teeth.
Arthur’s cock twitched as he regarded his handsome gardener, but he quickly suppressed the urge. It wouldn’t do to lust after a member of his staff. That thought turned his mind to Gwaine and the text message he’d received earlier that morning. He said goodbye and continued down to the stables where his prized stallion, Excalibur, was housed. The black horse whickered in greeting, butting his head against Arthur’s chest. While Arthur employed a groom to care for the stables and horses, he preferred exercising Excalibur himself when he was at home. “Good boy,” Arthur said with a pat to his neck. “Let’s have a ride, shall we?”
They galloped down the wide dirt lane that led from the lake to the lower town, and then skirted around and up the slope that led to Grayson Downs, clearing a few fences on the way. Arthur lost himself in the rhythm of Excalibur’s smooth canter. With just the slightest pressure of Arthur’s right calf, Excalibur performed a lead change and altered course towards Gwaine’s estate. He was the most responsive horse Arthur had ever owned, so well trained he could sense the subtlest movement of thigh or reins, and yet he could easily toss a rider into the air and cause serious injury if he had mind to. That sort of power demanded respect, and Arthur liked to think that he’d spent the last couple of years cultivating Excalibur’s trust. He never abused him, rode him too hard, or raised a harsh voice, and the horse rewarded him with flawless performance. It was a reciprocal, uncomplicated relationship; horses were much easier to understand than people.
His association with Gwaine was similarly straightforward; they both knew what they wanted from the other, and there were no strings attached, no jealousies or expectations to worry about. After he’d stabled Excalibur and made his way to the house on tired legs, Gwaine greeted him with enthusiasm and a well-practiced kiss. They wasted no time falling into bed. It had been a long time since Arthur had been fucked, and he revelled in the thick slide of the cock in his arse, the way it stole his breath and erased all thoughts of magic and sons and ex-wives. Gwaine made him come, and then he came—and that was that.
Mithian would only be staying for a couple of days, and then he and Mordred would be left to their own devices for the rest of the summer—three months to fill with togetherness. He told himself to look at it as a chance to finally bond with the son he’d never gotten to know. Still, another voice reminded him he wasn’t cut out to be a father. Having Mordred here would only prove how true that was.
The car pulled up early on Sunday morning, and Mithian was the first to emerge, lovely as always in a navy dress, a few tendrils of dark hair curling around her face. Her eyes sought Arthur’s directly. She didn’t look a day over twenty.
“Arthur,” she said. “So good to see you.”
“Mithian, you’re looking well.” He took the offered hand. A gigantic sparkling rock adorned her ring finger.
She smiled, and only then did her age show in the fine lines around her eyes. “As are you. Keeping fit, I see. I suppose you have to be beautiful for all of those handsome boys.” How funny that after all the heartache, it had become a joke between them.
Hughes coughed delicately to his right. He was an old-fashioned butler, a relic from the days when Arthur’s father had ruled Pendragon Manor. His sense of decorum was probably even greater than Uther’s had been.
Arthur startled at the voice in his head and turned to see Mordred standing a few paces away, regarding him with penetrating blue eyes. He was much like Mithian, but there was a resemblance to himself, too, in his straight nose and square jaw. Arthur’s heart swelled as he marvelled at how much his son had grown. He wanted to offer a hug but refrained, unsure it would be welcome. Mordred didn’t seem inclined to come any closer.
“It’s good to see you, Mordred. I’m sorry did I just . . . hear what I thought I did?”
Mithian frowned. “Mordred, you know you’re not supposed to do that to people when they’re not expecting it. Apologise.”
“Sorry.” Mordred stared up at him with his mouth set in a grim line.
“Sorry what?” Mithian asked.
Mithian sighed. “He’s your father.”
“It’s no matter.” Arthur dismissed the reprimand, not wanting to get off on the wrong foot. “You must both be exhausted. Let’s go inside for some breakfast. Mordred, I had Ms Smith cook all your favourites.”
Breakfast was a dismal affair. Though no one had informed Arthur, Mordred had become a vegetarian. He wrinkled his nose at the sausages and bacon, instead sipping his juice and poking the fried tomato with his fork.
“This is disgusting,” he said.
“Don’t be rude,” Mithian said.
“It’s all right.” Arthur shifted in his seat. “I didn’t know you’d stopped eating meat.”
Mordred sent him a dark glare. “Yeah, well you don’t know a lot about me. I refuse to eat the bodies of dead animals. Even the smell makes me sick.”
Arthur grimaced, his own appetite waning. He’d never quite thought about it in that light. “I’ll ring for some cereal.”
“Thank you,” Mithian said when Ms Smith set down a box of Shreddies. “Isn’t that nice, Mordred?”
Mordred stared at the box as if it were an alien species, then shrugged and poured himself a bowl. The rest of the breakfast passed with polite, strained conversation, Mordred remaining largely silent. As soon as he was finished, he asked to be excused and disappeared up into his rooms.
Arthur gazed after him. “He’s not too happy about being here. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea.”
“He’s a teenager, Arthur. He’s not happy about anything. And anyway, he’ll warm up if you give him some time.”
Arthur scrubbed his hand over his face and tossed his napkin onto the table. He’d barely been able to touch his own food. “So what happened earlier, when I heard him in my head—does he do that a lot?”
“Not so much anymore; he knows most people don’t like it. He just did it to test you.”
“I don’t think he’s very fond of me.”
She put her hand on his and squeezed. “Just give him a chance. I think this will be good for you both.”
Later that afternoon, Arthur knocked on Mordred’s door. When he got no answer, he pushed it open, shocked at what he saw: Mordred lay flat on his back listening to his iPod. The bed was levitating.
When he noticed Arthur, Mordred sat up and pulled the headphones off, sending the bed crashing to the floor.
“What are you doing in here?”
Refusing to let the rebuff dissuade him, Arthur stepped inside and gave the room a quick once-over. Mrs Thomas had set up the room with a flat-screen telly and new games console. On the table near the window sat a silver laptop, open to Facebook. “I just came to see if you were settling in all right. Have everything you need?”
Arthur paused awkwardly, on the cusp of staying or going. “What are you listening to?”
“Music.” The earbuds went back in.
The next day passed in much the same way. Mordred kept to his room unless he was required to be downstairs for mealtimes. Mithian told Arthur more about the trouble he’d gotten into recently at school. There were no other magical students, and the ones who weren’t afraid of Mordred teased him relentlessly. He’d reacted in the way a normal teenager would, by lashing out—only with his powers getting stronger, his tantrums had resulted in destruction of school property and a one-week suspension. Now the high school principal had requested Mithian send Mordred to a school for magical children, but the closest one was in Oregon, and Mordred didn’t want to go.
By the time Mithian was preparing to leave, they’d both decided that it might be a good idea to get Mordred a magic tutor during his stay. Perhaps if they began working on his control this summer, he could stay in regular high school the following year.
“I’ll call Gaius and see if he has any recommendations,” Arthur whispered as he saw Mithian into the waiting car. They hadn’t yet broached the subject with Mordred, agreeing it would be best to enlist a tutor first before eliciting any unnecessary angst. “He may know someone at Oxford.”
“Your father’s friend? My God, I can’t believe he’s still alive. He was ancient the last time I saw him.”
“Sometimes I think Gaius will outlive us all.”
“That’s probably true.” She gave him a kiss on the cheek and then pulled Mordred into a tight hug that he accepted but barely returned. “I love you, Mordred. I’ll see you in a few months, okay? Call me if you need me, love.” Mordred’s look of betrayal made Arthur think he wasn’t quite buying his mother’s tender parting words.
After the rumble of the engine had faded, a tense silence descended. For lack of any other ideas, Arthur proposed going for a walk down by the lake, since Mordred had hardly seen the grounds. They could swing by the stables and visit the horses on their way. A few months before, he’d bought a young, grey mare called Aithusa with Mordred in mind, hoping that on his next visit they could go riding together. He said all this, but the boy’s eyes remained focused on the drive where the dust from the car had begun to settle.
“So, what do you think?”
“I think it’s probably best we skip any pathetic attempts at father/son bonding. I don’t want to be here any more than you want me here.”
“I do want you here. I’ve been looking forward—”
“Right.” Mordred cut him off. “Listen, my mum’s marrying that idiot Geoff and I’m grateful not to have to be there to see it. But don’t start thinking you’re my dad or anything, because as far as I’m concerned, I don’t have one.”
With that, Mordred stalked away towards the house and left Arthur with a needling pressure in his chest.