The forest was much cooler than by the lake. The floor was carpeted in a dry, dusty blanket of dead leaves that rustled and crunched underfoot as the two boys picked their way through the lofty trees, Arthur leading the way. He had played, hunted and camped in the forest since he was very young and knew the place better than the back of his hand, therefore he knew exactly where to find the herbs Merlin needed to ‘appease Gaius’s wrath’.
Merlin, however, was hopelessly lost and had no idea where they were. If he lost sight of Arthur now he would never find his way out of the wood, especially now a murky sheet of night was falling slowly over the forest, causing the shadows to darken, and the owls in the uppermost tops of the trees come alive. He spun round as one of them hooted and swept silently through the air behind him, but he only earned himself an amused smirk from Arthur to which he returned with a wry narrowing of his eyes.
After a few minutes, they found a patch of Parsley, and Merlin dropped to his knees beside it to start picking the green herb, using his scarf as a knapsack to keep them in. As he picked each stalk with extreme care and odd fascination, Arthur began to get bored. He looked around for something interesting to do, and noticed that the tree he was currently leaning on didn’t look that bad for climbing.
Swinging up onto a low branch, he pulled himself into the embrace of the tree and began to clamber up the trunk. As the prince reached the top, he found that the view was far better than he’d expected it to be. While pushing a few thin branches out of his face, he looked out over what would one day be his kingdom.
There was the castle, far off in the distance, pale in the diminishing light. Tall plumes of smoke rose from the hundreds of chimneys in the surrounding town, and small orange lights winked in the windows.
How was he going to rule over all this? It just seemed too big for him.
Arthur lent on the trunk of the tree and sighed at the world. It was at times like this he felt like a small boy again – not the man he knew he was. His knowledge didn’t seem to make any difference, however, and he just felt like he was shrinking as he looked over the vast kingdom.
“Arthur?” Merlin called from the foot of the tree, pulling him from his thoughts. His voice sounded slightly panicky…
“Yeah, what?” Arthur said, looking down to try and see his friend, but there were too many branches in the way.
“ARTHU –” Merlin’s cry was suddenly smothered by something.
“Merlin?” Arthur swung down a few meters where he could clearly see all around the clearing. “Merlin?” he said again, a little louder this time when he saw no sign of his servant.
Suddenly, he felt a hand latch onto his ankle and before he knew it, he was being yanked out of the tree. The ground was surprisingly hard as he hit it. Stunned, he lay there second before quickly leaping to his feet.
As he saw a band of armed men before him, one holding a limp and unconscious Merlin over his shoulder, the prince drew his sword, anger boiling up inside him.
“Who are you? Let him go,” Arthur growled in the finest princely tone of voice he could conjure, squaring his shoulders and holding the sword out with a perfectly straight and expert arm.
“I think we’ve upset him, lads!” one of the men drawled.
“I’ll say it only one more time, so listen closely. Let – him – go,” the prince snarled dangerously quietly, his eyes smouldering.
“Ah, well, we can’t do that, you see,” the man said, walking up so close that Arthur’s sword just prodded his chest. “Now, I suggest you put that thing down,” he gestured at the sword, “and come quietly with us.”
“I don’t think so,” Arthur said, shifting his weight from one foot to the other, waiting for one of them to make a move.
“Oh,” the man pretended to look surprised, and smirked infuriatingly. “Well, we’ll just have to do things the hard way, then,” he motioned to the men behind him who each drew a lethal looking weapon and began to slowly approach Arthur, who gallantly held his ground, keeping his eyes on as many of them as he could.
For a second, agitation hung thickly in the air as the men shuffled their feet, waiting for the opportune moment.
Suddenly, a man to his left flew at him but he sidestepped smartly, dodged another threatening sword and spun round to face his opponents. They quickly regrouped again, and without a moment’s hesitation, all shot at him with a war cry.
It was ten to one. There was no hope for Arthur, even if he was the best fighter in all of Camelot. A crack over the head from the butt of a sword sent him sinking to the ground beside Merlin who had been abandoned on the floor.
Arthur woke to the sound of a fire crackling. He lifted his head, and had a moment of dizziness before he managed to see where he was. Blinking in the flickering light from the fire, he gazed at the men who were gathered around the flames, each and every one holding a flagon of ale in a hand and laughing merrily at some joke one of them seemed to have just told.
The prince looked up at the sky and found that it was around midnight. Stars speckled the sky, clearly visible from behind the thin clouds that drifted over the full moon. Bringing his eyes back to earth, Arthur noticed that there were half a dozen or so other men asleep on the ground, all tied up. After struggling a little, he discovered he also had his hands bound behind his back with a coarse rope that dug terribly into his wrists.
He growled crossly and lent back on whatever it was he was propped up against. Thinking it to be a tree he was surprised when it suddenly stirred and groaned with a familiar voice.
“Merlin? Is that you?” he asked anxiously.
“Arthur? Yes, yes its me,” Merlin tried to turn around but found that his hands were tied to Arthur’s, which was the similar story with a few of the other captives around the camp.
“Are you alright?” Arthur said, dropping his voice to a whisper as one of the men by the fire turned around and swept a gaze over the prisoners.
“Yeah, fine,” Merlin replied, also in a whisper. “What do they want?”
“I don’t know,” Arthur shuffled himself on the leaf-covered ground to try and get away from a tree root that was painfully prodding his backside.
“Ow!” Merlin complained as the root decided to poke him. “Arthur –”
“Shh,” Arthur jabbed him in the back with a finger to silence him, wanting to hear what the men were saying, for they were talking quietly amongst themselves. The prince knew, being trained in these matters, that any information could be helpful in the future. As Merlin subsided into a disgruntled silence, Arthur pricked up his ears.
“When’ll Sheridan be ‘ere, d’you reckon?” one of them asked the man beside him, filling his flagon with more ale.
“Who can tell? He said he’d be late, anyways. Had to oversee the cargo transfer to the Emrys.”
Merlin, who was now listening just as intently as Arthur was, stiffened. The prince felt him tense up behind him, and turned his head.
“What is it?” he whispered.
“Nothing…” Merlin replied. He ignored Arthur and tried to hear what the men were saying. The young prince, albeit unconvinced, also turned back to the fire.
“What time did he say he’d leave Brinkwell?” the man went on, taking a swig of his drink.
“Can’t remember…” came the reply. “D’you reckon he’ll be happy with today’s spoils?”
“He’s a professional press-ganger. I’m sure he’ll know what’s good and what’s not.”
Thinking the same thing, Merlin and Arthur exchanged worried glances. So these guys were press-gangers? If that was true, then this didn’t look good…
“Yeah, but I mean, look at that one!” the man pointed at Merlin who instantly pretended to be unconscious along with Arthur. “He’s nothing but a bag of bones! He’ll be no good on a ship!”
“Yeah, well, we’ll see.”
“And what about Brun?”
“Brun’s still in Brinkwell. You know that.”
“No, I meant, don’t you think he’s a little…odd…?”
“Well –” the man started but cut himself off. “Wait…someone’s coming…”