There was indeed the sound of horse’s hooves approaching, and after a moment, a black stallion and rider emerged from the gloom that surrounded the trees. Everyone by the fire all raised their mugs and cheered as the rider dismounted and sauntered over to them, his long battered coat flying out behind him.
“Sorry I’m late. How’s the stock?” he said, pulling off his gloves and smirking.
“Ah, Sheridan, nice of you turn up. They’re all ready for inspection,” one of the men informed him, gesturing at the captives.
The rider began to make his way over to the prisoners, many of which had woken up and were now staring at him fearfully. He picked a stick up off the floor and lent it on his shoulder as he began to pick his way through them, jabbing randomly at the men as he past them.
“Yeah, he’ll do,” he said, towering over a young lad.
“Please, sir, what will I do for?” the boy asked with a quavering voice, eyes wide.
“No questions,” Sheridan snapped and pushed him roughly to the floor before continuing through the prisoners, announcing their uses as he passed them.
He came to Merlin and Arthur after three of the captives had been chosen and taken away to the other side of the clearing.
“Hmm, I’m liking the look of Muscles here,” he observed and stabbed Arthur’s arm with the stick, “but what are we meant to do with Skinny?”
“Shut it,” both Merlin and Arthur said together with equally sour glares.
Maddeningly, the man chuckled and peered down at the prince with small, dark, eyes. He poked Arthur’s forehead with the stick and rolled the prince’s head towards the firelight to get a better look at him. As the shadows on Arthur’s face disappeared, he took a sharp intake of breath.
“Why is he here?” Sheridan demanded.
“Eh?” one of the men by the fire got up and ambled over. He was thrust towards Arthur by an angry hand as he neared.
“It’s the prince of Camelot, you fool! We’ll have guards on our tail for the rest of our lives!”
“The prince? Are you sure?” the man said, rubbing the back of his neck.
“Positive. I saw him when I went to the castle once,” Sheridan growled.
“Right…” the other looked defiantly panicky. “And what about the other one? He’ll be of no use on a ship. I mean, look at him! He’s nothing but skin and bones!”
“We’ve gotta bring back one of them. You know Brun will have our necks if we don’t. It’ll have to be the skinny one.”
“We’ll take him to the Emrys with the rest of ‘em,” the man decided. “What are we going to do with his royal highness?”
“Knock him out and take him away somewhere. We don’t want any trouble so do it quiet like, yeah?”
“Yeah, yeah,” the man sighed. “But there’s no hurry, right? Come have a beer.”
Sheridan and the other man swaggered back to the fire, seemingly having forgotten their captives for now. As Sheridan turned, Merlin caught sight of a gruesome tattoo on the back of his neck – a lidless yellow eye, staring. The young warlock shivered.
“C’mon, we need to get out of here. Now,” Arthur decided, looking around for some means of escape. Merlin, however, wasn’t listening.
“They’re gonna take me…but not you…” he mumbled half to himself, staring into oblivion.
“Don’t be ridiculous!” Arthur snapped, his voice a little harsher than he had intended it to be. “I’m not letting them take either of us,” he said more gently, leaning ever so slightly into Merlin’s back to let him know he was there.
“There’s a pack over there,” Merlin said shakily, pointing his head over to a tree where a heap of bundles lay. “I think there’s a knife in it.”
Shuffling as quietly as was humanly possible, they managed to make their way over the leafy floor to the tree. Using the tip of his shoe, Merlin awkwardly nudged the knife out of the knapsack and it fell to the floor with a soft thud.
“Now what?” Merlin asked, unsuccessfully trying to scrape the knife towards him with his heel.
“Turn around,” Arthur responded, keeping a wary eye on the men by the fire.
They turned around, so that the prince was almost sitting on the dagger. He grabbed it, feeling the cold of the blade, and pushed it up between the ropes that bound his and Merlin’s hands together. After a tense moment of rubbing the knife back and forth and receiving no victory, the rope finally came apart.
Merlin brushed the twine off his wrist and massaged his grazed skin, while Arthur stuck the knife into his belt and began rummaging through the packs for a sword. Finding one, he stood up. Motioning for Merlin to keep silent, they began to creep away from the clearing.
Suddenly, there was a painfully loud thump, and Arthur spun around in horror to see Merlin, face down on the floor, having just tripped over a root of the tree.
At that point, the prince became ready to murder.
“Oi, what’s going on?” a man by the fire quizzed, hearing the noise. He caught sight of the pair; Arthur pulling Merlin up roughly, cuffing him over the head and darting away through the trees, dragging his servant with him.
“THE PRISONERS HAVE ESCAPED!”
In a split second, the forest was alive with the alarm of both crows and men, who grabbed their weapons and hurtled after Merlin and Arthur. The dark birds in the tops of the trees continued to cackle, as the two boys took refuge behind a large oak. Arthur drew the sword and threw the scabbard away, taking a deep breath.
“Okay, what ever happens, stick with me,” he told Merlin who nodded furiously, eyes like saucers. “I wont let them take you. I promise.”
“Don’t make promises you can’t keep,” Merlin said quietly.
“I don’t,” the prince reassured him, staring deep into the other’s eyes.
There was a crack of a twig, and Arthur turned to see an ugly head appear around the side of the tree, grinning mirthlessly. Ten or so other men also emerged from the surrounding gloom, each and every one brandishing a weapon of some kind.
“What? NO!” Arthur yelled as yet another press-ganger arose and clubbed Merlin over the head.
Merlin was out like a light and fell limply to the floor where the man hauled him onto his shoulder. His temper rising, Arthur made to send his sword plunging deep into the man’s heart, but another kicked him hard in the stomach, sending him crashing back against the tree.
“Don’t you know who I am?” Arthur stood up quickly and picked up his sword, outraged that anyone would dare to treat him and his friend like this.
“Of course we do, young prince!” one of them scoffed. “That’s why we’re here,” the man smiled at him, showing his awful, dirty teeth. “We don’t like you father, the great king Uther, and we know we can’t kidnap his kid – that would mean a death sentence,” all the men walked slowly in a circle, getting closer and closer to Arthur. “But your servant on the other hand…”
“Don’t you dare touch him,” Arthur hissed, putting the sword close to the man’s throat.
“I wouldn’t do that, son,” the other man who had Merlin threatened, snarling. The young servant slung over his shoulder was unconscious – he wasn’t frightened or scared. Arthur felt grateful for that.
“By the way, we don’t want to hurt him. We just want you to know that we’re taking him with us, and you’re not going to see him again. Not ever.”
Arthur took a step forward, but a moment later, something hit his head. It was fast, too fast. He couldn’t prevent it.
The prince got to his knees, swaying. His forehead started to bleed. He heard the men laughing, and although his sight was blurred, he could see them walking away, Merlin lying on one of their shoulders. Arthur blinked dazedly, reaching out a hand in a helpless attempt to claw Merlin away from them.
“Leave him…alone,” Arthur mumbled a moment before he hit the ground and lay there, unconscious.