“Are the women and children safe?” Arthur quietly asked no one in particular.
Elliot stood up from where he had been cradling his father. His face was ashen but hard. This boy had seen enough of war and knew that grieving too heavily for his father would not bring the man back.
“Yes.” He croaked and fell into a chair.
“Father!” Someone shouted and Amy ran out from a tent where she had hid after the alarm was raised. She knelt beside her father and tears dripped from her face as she hugged him for the last time.
She looked up and sniffed in despair, looking as though she was about to die herself with grief but then she saw Merlin, or to be more accurate the cut on his forehead.
“Merlin! You’re hurt!” She cried and went to fuss over the cut, a reluctant Merlin subjecting himself to a damp cloth being draped over his forehead, muttering something about being fine.
Arthur looked over the wrecked camp, tents crushed and a few injured men being helped up by their comrades.
“Umm…someone find Bryce and ask him to help the wounded.” He ordered and a shocked man who had overheard the conversation between Adrian and Arthur scuttled away, “Elliot, can you oversee the rebuilding of the tents?” Arthur asked, turning to Elliot who was slumped in a chair, staring into space.
He stood up silently, his expression unreadable, and regrouped a few men to repair the tents.
“Do you want me to wrap up that cut…umm…sire?” Bryce suddenly appeared, his moustache bristlier than ever as it hopped up and down on his lip.
“Huh? What?” Arthur asked distractedly, suddenly realizing there was a long cut on his forearm, “No, no. Go help the others first.” He said and Bryce reluctantly obeyed.
Arthur took a deep breath.
He had just been made captain of a bunch of men he had known for less than a day and for some reason he wasn’t apprehensive about it. All he had in his mind was to do as Adrian’s last words had instructed and lead the old man’s men to victory.
He thought logically.
He would need a second in command for starters. He considered Elliot but he needed someone he knew better and could trust completely. Arthur trusted Merlin with his life and he was the obvious choice.
“Merlin?” He said and Merlin looked up from where Amy was patting a wet cloth over his forehead (even though all the blood had gone.)
He managed to escape the girl and went over to Arthur, a questioning look on his face.
“What?” He asked.
“If I’m to lead these men to the best of my ability, which is what I intend to do, I need your help. I need you to become my second in command, for now at least.”
“Me?” Merlin’s eyes went wide with surprise.
“Well…umm…what do you want me to do?” He mumbled.
“Go help Elliot rebuild the tents then gather everyone in one of the tree houses. I need to talk to them. If they don’t do as asked then tell them to talk to Elliot. Okay?”
“Okay.” Merlin replied and jogged off to find Elliot, slightly dazed.
Amy made to follow him but stopped and walked away, wiping a tear from her cheek as she saw her father out of the corner of her eye.
Arthur had some men take Finnie and Adrian away to be buried, Adrian in a place of honour and Finnie far away. Elliot and Amy went with them and came back with stony faces.
By that time the tents had been repaired, Merlin had successfully gathered everyone in the largest tree house, where they waited for Arthur, unsure of what exactly was going on and why some strange guy was ordering them around.
Arthur made his way in and stood on a table that had been brought to the middle of the room.
He cleared his throat and swallowed a lump that had grown there, nervous at all the eyes that stared at him in a seemingly accusing way.
“What’s going on?” One of the men piped up, “Who are you? Who’s he?” He said, jabbing a finger in Merlin’s direction.
“I am prince Arthur of Camelot.” Arthur said, causing confused murmurs to ripple through the crowd, “And this is Merlin, my loyal friend and manservant who I have appointed my stand-in.” He said, dragging an unenthusiastic Merlin onto the table with him.
The crowd continued to mutter.
“Go back to your castle!” What gives you the right to boss us around? Someone shouted.
“You’re quite right to question about that but just before he died Adrian made me your leader.” Arthur tried to explain.
“You expect us to belive that?” Someone else yelled.
“You should.” Elliot spoke up, pushing to the front of the crowd, “It’s true. I was there.”
Murmurings erupted again.
“We may have won the battle but we haven’t won the war if that is indeed what this is.” Arthur said, hinting that he wanted an explanation of why there was a war going on.
“Almaric took our land! Forced us out!”
“Then let us take it back! You can beat them but only if we help you!” Arthur parried.
“What do you want in return?” Someone shouted.
“Only to go home.”
The crowd frowned as one but then gathered into a circle so that they might decide Merlin and Arthur’s fate. They turned back, Elliot at the front at their spokes person.
“We’ll help you get home if you help us drive them out of our land.” He said and the men behind him nodded in agreement.
“Thank you.” Arthur said.
“Well then “leader” what do you want us to do?” Alistair asked.
“Almaric’s men will be sore from our fight today. If we attack as soon as we can then it will be easier because they will be weaker and not expecting an assault so soon.” Arthur mused, “Have you any maps?”
“Maps?” Elliot frowned.
“We were held captive in their camp for a few days and I have a pretty rough idea of where it is. If I have a map I’m sure we can find it.”
Elliot motioned to one of the men and he scurried away, returning with a bunch of scrolls and maps, which he spread out on the table top as Arthur and Merlin jumped off.
“We know they’re near the river somewhere but we never could find it.” Elliot informed them as they poured over the maps.
“The dungeon was carved out of a rock. Maybe it’s that one.” Merlin said, pointing with a long finger at a picture of a hill that was near the river.
“Yes and there was that forest and long track by the river.” Arthur said, running a finger along the track’s line.
“So the camps there?” Elliot asked, indicating the shadow of the rock.
“Should be, yeah.” Merlin said, nodding.
“I knew it! I knew it!” Elliot slammed a fist into the table angrily.
“If we go around-“ Arthur began, sweeping a hand across the river but was interrupted by a shout that sounded from the window.
“Truce! Truce!” A voice yelled.
Everyone flew to the window and saw a stranger standing in the middle of the camp, waving a white flag on a stick like a spear at two sentries who were trying to apprehend him. Arthur recognized him as Lenndred, one of the bandits who had found him in the forest when he had dragged himself from the river.
Arthur leapt out of the door and once they were at the foot of the ladder that led to the ground Lendred recognized him and Merlin and tried to approach but a guard held him back.
“He carries a white flag, let him speak.” Arthur ordered and the Lenndred yanked himself free of the sentry’s clutches.
“I have come on behalf of our leader Almaric to strike a deal with the captain of this side.” He said, leaning the flag on his shoulder and gazing at the group before him, “Which of you is Adrian?”
“Adrian died defending himself from your leader’s Leftenant, who is also dead. I am the new captain of these men.” Arthur said in the tone of voice he used for business.
Lenndred’s eyes narrowed with surprise.
“Then is that case Almaric wishes there to be single combat between him and you, that will decide who owns the land. Winner takes all, sudden death.”
Arthur pondered this over for a minute.
He knew that Almaric was good, you could just tell with some people. But he also knew that he was better. He stood more than a good chance of beating the man and if he did decide this offer then it would stop a battle that would have many soldiers die on both sides. If he agreed to this deal then he would be saving the lives of many brave men.
“I accept these terms. Where and when does Almaric wish this to take place?” He asked.
“The swamps south east of here at dusk tomorrow.” Lenndred replied.
Swamps and dusk didn’t sound at all easy going to Arthur but he didn’t want this offer to evaporate if he refused.
“I’ll be there. Now get out of here.” He said and Lenndred scuttled away through the trees, back to his own camp.