Balthazar shifts behind the tree, careful to keep his hind end concealed. The noonday shadows are not yet long. It's taking considerable effort to resist swishing his tail in the presence of the flies lingering near the seagrass, but Balthazar is disciplined; it is imperative that the boy not spot him.
He sensed the child's presence yesterday afternoon when a bus filled with Muggle orphans arrived in the village; centaurs have always been able to pick magic-wielders out of a crowd, even those of non-magical descent. As the village near the forest in which Balthazar's tribe dwells rarely sees a hint of wizardry, the clan leaders requested that someone patrol the edge of the woods. Of course, it's seldom that wand-carrying humans present a threat, but the centaurs have always been of the opinion that it's best to regard the unfamiliar with caution. Besides, Mars was bright last night; unusually bright.
Mindful of his footing on the rain-sodden moss, Balthazar edges into a position that offers a better view of the bluffs. The children have piled out of the bus that brought them from the village and are spilling out onto the grass, nearly all of them eyeing the windswept landscape dubiously. All are dressed in the drab orphanage uniform and drift about like flat grey thunderheads against the salt-stiffened backdrop that the bluffs provide.
Balthazar scans the group intently. There can't be more than thirty of them, but the troupe encompasses all ages from young adulthood to infancy, which doesn't make the subject of his attention much easier to spot. The youngest ones he can eliminate, but that leaves him with a good two dozen to comb through. Fortunately, the foreign environment and sharp wind seem to have them moving rather sluggishly. It's a little like picking through a friend's mane for fleas — though admittedly with less jumping involved.
It turns out, after a minute of study, that the child is fairly easy to recognize and difficult to lose track of once spotted. Balthazar blinks in surprise as his senses zero in on the slender, dark-haired boy; the magic emanating from him is powerful, enough so to prompt the passage of a trickle of uneasiness down Balthazar's spine. He has felt such magic only once before, and in a wizard much older and more disciplined than this mere mite of a child.
It is possible, of course, that he is simply unaccustomed to sensing human magic, there being little in the immediate area. Somehow, though, Balthazar finds himself in doubt. Centaurs are wise and ancient creatures; it does not stand to reason that his perception could be so easily transfigured. Besides, a centaur's lifetime is long, far longer than even that of an exceedingly powerful warlock; Balthazar has not forgotten what it was like to feel the air pulse with waves of magic when Merlin so much as twitched his pinky. This child, though admittedly weaker, has the obvious potential to claim a throne fashioned of mangled human greatness.
Interest now thoroughly piqued, Balthazar moves into a collection of trees that juts out from the lip of the forest. From here, he will be able to observe the child as he and the other orphans begin games of tag and baseball beneath the hot sun.
No, Balthazar realizes with a small jolt of surprise; the boy shows no interest in playing. Instead, while the matrons are occupied refereeing a game of rugby started among the older boys, the young wizard is dodging determinedly through the crowd to where two other youngsters, a boy and a girl, are drawing lines for hopscotch in a patch of dirt. He speaks to them quickly, and Balthazar can see even from a distance how his dark eyes dart continuously towards the matrons.
Though he, the wizard, remains calm, it is rapidly evident that an argument of sorts is taking place. As he speaks, the little girl's face becomes pinched, and after a few snappish remarks by the boy, of which Balthazar catches the tone but not the words, she begins to protest. Her companion stands off to the side during the altercation, scuffing his worn shoes in the dust, his face composed but his shoulders oddly tense.
The wizard's gestures, while controlled and purposeful, have grown more definitive; the little girl's voice is rising. Straining his ears, Balthazar is able to catch a handful of words — "Mrs. Cole," and "watching," and, mostly sharply, "Tom." At that, the boy stiffens. Eyes flickering to the matrons, he takes a step closer to the two children. The girl winces, but it is the boy on whom the wizard — Tom — focuses his gaze, and a moment later the child is wincing horribly, falling to the ground with a bump and a yelp.
A matron swoops onto the little scene as Balthazar struggles to discern the cause of the injury, her voice harsh while she eyes the little boy's tear-streaked face and Tom's placid expression. Quick words are exchanged; Balthazar manages to catch an accusation and the little boy's teary and reluctant admission that "he didn't touch me none" followed by a declaration of their intent to go walking. After a minute, the woman appears satisfied, though disgruntled, and bustles away to deal out smacks to two boys squabbling over a football.
Once she has moved away, Tom steps over to the fallen boy. The child cringes deeply, apparently expecting violence, but to Balthazar's surprise, Tom simply offers him a hand. Warily, he accepts it, and the wizard hauls him to his feet, even going so far as to make a show of dusting him off before starting off away from the group and beckoning for them to follow. The girl lets out an uncertain sound, but when Tom turns sharply to her, expression fiercely challenging, she quiets and obediently follows.
Balthazar watches them move away from their peers in the direction of a distant group of boulders. Unease tickles his blood. The young wizard's intent is obvious; the other two children may see the rocks as their stopping point, but the brisk intent of Tom's steps and the angle at which he is approaching the cliff make it all too clear to Balthazar that the object of their exploration lies not ahead, but below. Part of him yearns to interfere, but there are far too many potential consequences to involving himself, not to mention his society's unspoken rule to leave human affairs to the humans. Besides, there is nothing he can do.
They will survive the journey, the boy being aided by magic, but the terror the descent will inspire will surely render them addled, the fear reaching deep into their minds to twist like an iron hand at their very brainstems. Watching them disappear behind the rocks, Balthazar wonders if perhaps young Tom has bitten off more than he can chew with this adventure — if he, too, will have the capacity for speech frightened clean from his mind for weeks by the perils of his ambitious expedition.
When they return hours later by the thin light of evening to the moor where the other orphans are beginning to prepare for departure, Balthazar finds his answer. The boy and girl move stiffly through the grass, postures strangely rigid as though turned partially to marble. The whisper of the seagrass is raspy and snakelike in their wake. Neither of them speak. No tears mar their windswept faces, but as they board the bus at the tail end of the group, Balthazar sees that their hands are wracked with tremors.
The boy follows further back, stepping from around the boulders as the last several children filter onto the bus. The matron, seeing him, hollers, and he lifts a hand in recognition of the summons but remains otherwise unresponsive. His attention seems to be absorbed in the landscape, and for a moment, Balthazar wonders if he has indeed been scared witless. After a brief pause, though, he begins to move again, his form silhouetted by the lingering glow left by the sun after it slipped below the sea.
As he draws nearer, he halts again for a moment, face now partially visible, and Balthazar finds himself shrinking back into the trees.
The boy's features are half-shrouded by shadow, but their partial illumination only serves to further enhance the terrible expression with which they are imbued. There is no grin upon his face, but a manic undertone seems to have penetrated his very bones; a wild delight has twisted the curvature of his flesh. Balthazar feels the harsh thrill of terror shiver down his legs. It is momentary; the expression exists only for a fraction of a second before morphing back into a perfectly ordinary countenance, but in that moment, Balthazar is under the impression that he is looking at something distinctly inhuman.
He shakes it off swiftly — the boy is just that; a boy, a harmless child possessing magic that, while powerful, should prove to be completely manageable. There is no reason to suppose that anything about this child is something to be feared.
Even still, Balthazar cannot shield himself from a tingle of unease. In that same, fleeting moment in which the boy's expression changed, he thought he saw a flash of scarlet in the child's eyes. Out above the bus, though, Mars is shining brightly; it may well have been only a reflection.