The sunlight of morning opened Arthur’s eyes. Before sitting up, he had a moment of nausea as a dull thumping pain suddenly developed over his right eye, reminding him of where one of the thugs had hit him. Everything was hazy, like a fog clouding his minds eye, but after a brief extent of time he remembered Merlin. He looked left and right but found he was alone. They had taken him.
The prince climbed to his feet. A ringing noise buzzed erratically around in his sore head, thoroughly annoying him.
“Merlin?” Arthur shouted, cupping his hands over his mouth, but knowing that he would get no reply. He wasn’t mistaken.
As he dropped his arms again, a glimpse of something red caught his eye. It was an only too familiar scarf, hanging from one of the boughs of the tree. He pulled it off the branch, careful not to tear it on the smaller twigs, and gripped it tightly in a clenched fist.
The touch of the familiar item suddenly caused fury to bubble up inside him, coming dangerously close to exploding point. He took a deep breath to calm himself. But what was there to be calm about? His best friend had been kidnapped and taken to work on ship – probably never to be seen again. But maybe there was a small glimmer of hope…
Arthur only vaguely remembered the conversation he had overheard by the fire, but there were two words stuck fast in his mind. Emrys and Brinkwell. Emrys must be the name of the ship, and Brinkwell was of course, the port. This was everything Arthur needed. All he had to do was somehow get a ship and follow The Emrys until he caught up with it.
Then he could rescue Merlin.
But if he was to save his servant, however, then he was going to need help. Unfortunately that would mean asking his father’s permission, which meant he was probably going to be rejected…again.
The prince sighed, frustrated, and looked down at the scarf in his hand. He rubbed a thumb over it and bit his lip. Well, there was nothing for it. He would have to confront the king.
Stumbling a little, still nauseous, Arthur began to began to stagger back through the forest towards the great white castle in the distance.
It wasn’t far. He could make it…right?
Someone screamed as they saw a lone figure shuffle through the gates of the city. Recognizing the man, a few guards rushed over to the prince who was swaying on his feet and had a large lump on his forehead where he had apparently been hit.
“Are you alright, sire?” one of the knights asked, supporting the angry prince.
“Leave me alone!” Arthur growled, waving them away. “I’m fine,” he had to take a moment to gather his bearings and wait for the world to stop spinning beneath him before asking, “Where’s the king?”
Not even waiting for a reply, Arthur continued to stumble across the vast courtyard, clutching his throbbing head with a hand. He staggered up the steps and quickly made his way to his room, hoping to clean himself up before asking an audience with the king. Then again, on second thoughts, maybe it was a better idea to keep this private. His father would be in his chambers, rifling through reports at this time of day. Arthur could go there instead of making a public enouncement in court.
Having made up his mind, the prince hurriedly took a bath and dug out some clean clothes. After emerging from behind his screen, he caught sight of Merlin’s scarf which he had left on the table. He walked up to it slowly, almost gingerly. Before he knew what he was doing, he picked it up and knotted it around his neck, just like Merlin always had it.
Tucking the best of the scarf into his shirt, feeling a little odd, he made his way out of the room, shutting the door behind him.
Merlin had no idea where he was. The hood over his head made sure of it. Deciding that he wasn’t going to discover anything by sight, he concentrated on his other senses.
The first thing that hit him was the smell – a horrid mixture of sweaty bodies and dead fish. The second was that he was being jostled around with what seemed like at least a dozen or so other men.
Also, his hands were bound behind his back again, but this time, not with Arthur’s. Arthur was gone. Merlin didn’t even know if the men had left him alive. All he remembered was being smacked hard over the head and then…nothing, just this jolting and bumping and the sound of what must be seagull’s overhead.
He had tried many times to remove the dark hood from his head, but had received either a glob of spit on his shoe or a laugh at best, as was the same when he had attempted to talk to someone who was walking along by the side of the cart – which is what Merlin believed it to be. Judging by the voice of that someone, it had been one of the men by the fire – Merlin recognized it.
The heat amongst the bodies he was crammed up against was almost unbearable. It was stifling and humid, and Merlin had a stupid urge to tear off his sweaty clothes and jump into something, preferably ice cold water.
A particularly large lurch of the cart sent a nearby man crashing into him, thereby knocking Merlin into someone behind him.
“Oi, watch were yer going!” the man snapped and elbowed Merlin hard into yet another man, who kicked him angrily in the leg, causing him to crash to the floor in a tangle of limbs, confusion and fear.
“Keep it down,” someone hissed, and there was the sound of a tarpaulin moving as a man stepped inside the back of the cart that had just came to an abrupt halt with a jerk that sent everyone careering forward.
“All right, everyone out,” the man barked, pulling nearby captives out of the wagon.
A riot of questions erupted at the sound of his voice, but he ignored everything put to him, and continued to file the men out.
Still lying in a heap on the floor, Merlin tried his best to dodge the crushing feet of the people around him, but he soon found himself trampled and kicked by countless boots and shoes. Everything was a confusing blur of sound, movement and heat. The cacophony blinded all the young warlocks senses and he didn’t hear the angry tone telling him to get out.
He felt a sharp toe impact with his stomach and he quickly scrambled to his knees, coughing a little from all the dust and grime that had flown up his nose.
“Didn’t you hear me? I said get out!”
Merlin found himself on the floor again as he was punched hard across the face. Feeling blood drizzling out of his mouth, he climbed to his feet. He wasn’t fast enough and the man grabbed the scruff of his shirt, throwing him hard out of the cart where he was caught by huge rough hands and passed between grasps, up a stairs.
The inside of the hood, though stained with his own blood, was considerably lighter, and judging by the fresh air on his skin, Merlin deduced that he was outside. But it didn’t last for long.
Once again, he was plunged into darkness and thrown into someone who just shoved him away to a wall. Merlin found it was curved and most likely made of wood.
As he slumped, exhausted, busied and breathless to the floor, there was the sound of footsteps and a voice spoke.
“Alright, everyone,” it was Sheridan, “welcome to your new home.”
There was the sound of fingers being snapped, and all of a sudden, the men around Merlin were taking either deep breathes, or just subsiding into a muted silence as their hoods were removed.
Merlin’s own hood was yanked off carelessly, and light blinded him for a second even though the place was murky and dark. He, along with a handful of other men, appeared to be in some kind of deck of a ship. Barrels, boxes and huge coils of ropes lined the sides of the room. And, swinging slightly, hammocks were strung between rafters and thick wooden pillars. Everything seemed filthy, covered in years of salty grime. Merlin was oblivious at the time, as he stared at his surroundings, but he was soon to discover that he would be staying a long time on this ship that was now beginning to set sail.
“CAST OFF!” someone above yelled; his voice slightly muffled by the ceiling.
Calls of ‘cast off’ sounded for a moment and there was a dinging of a bell as the ship’s anchor was pulled in on its huge chain.
“Right,” Sheridan said, pacing up and down the room, glaring at everyone with dark eyes, “quick update.”
Everybody stared back. Some were wide-eyed and fearful, while others just looked plain scared, but a few seemed to belong perfectly, roughly dressed, fully armed and filthy.
“You have been brought upon this good ship – The Emrys – to serve as crew. Ask no questions and I tell you no lies,” Sheridan went on, digging his hands into the pockets of his dark, green-ish brown coat. “Rule one,” he held up a grubby finger, “I, being boson of this vessel, must be obeyed at all times. Anyone who disobeys will be either thrown overboard or given twenty lashes.”
Everyone swallowed. “
“This is the first-mate, James Edwards,” Sheridan announced the arrival of a man who wasn’t smartly dressed, but positively cleaner than the rest of the inhabitants of the deck. He had a rather boring face but his hair was wild and curly. “He should also be obeyed if you don’t want a keelhauling. Rule two, there must always be someone in the crows nest. If I should find it empty at any time of the day or night, there will be hell to pay. Rule three, everyone, apart from those who need to be above deck, will be asleep by nine pm,” Sheridan finished with a clap of his hands. “Now, we start work immediately. You will each come forward to be resigned to a post. Form a line.”
No one argued with his orders – Sheridan was that sort of a man. Merlin found himself wedged between to chesty men who were at least a foot taller than him.
The line began to move forward as each man was given a task. Some asked questions while others actually looked pleased to be there.
“Name?” Sheridan asked as Merlin was shoved forward.
Merlin stared fearfully at him, taking a deep breath.
Sheridan looked up with mild interest.
“Ah, yes – you,” he spat, looking the servant up and down with a gaze that Merlin felt sure could see right through him. “But you got your name wrong. Are you going to answer he correctly or am I going to have to dish out punishments already?”
“My name is Mer –” the young wizard repeated, but Sheridan cut in.
“From now on, you shall be known as Runt, cause that’s what you are. I never supported the idea of bringing a…whelp into this establishment, but it seems I don’t entirely run things around here. You’re lucky, you know,” he hissed, leaning closer to Merlin who watched him warily. “If I had my way, I’d have killed you the moment I set eyes of you. It would have done the world a favour. Now,” he snapped out of his unwavering scrutiny, “you’re nothing but skin and bones so…we’ll have to put some weight on you. You can be scullery boy and all round job do-er. That means you get the most work,” he said curtly with a small flick of his quill to tick off the position.
Merlin was grabbed by a nearby sailor, but shook himself free angrily.
“Well, I won’t be here for long!” he snarled into Sheridan’s face. “I’ve got a friend – the prince of Camelot! He’ll come for me. I hope you have a replacement…”
Sheridan looked up with that mild interest again.“What’s this?” he asked in a honeyed tone. “Impudence? Talking back? We can’t have that. TWENTY LASHES!”