Arthur had never been to his father’s room before. Never. The door was big, made of wood and strangely imposing. Or maybe it was just his imagination…
Be professional, he told himself, don’t go loosing it now. Taking a deep breath, he opened the door and stepped in stiffly, seeing his father behind a desk.
The king’s room was set out into a similar style to his own, except there was a long desk with a chair and a huge window with a slightly blue tinge to it. There was a long shelf crammed neatly with books that seemed to belong to the same series, all either maroon red or dark navy, with gold squiggly lettering down the spines. Thick brown furs covered the bed and scarlet curtains hung from the posts, much like Arthur’s own.
Self-consciously, the prince took a step forward, and his father looked up, peering at him curiously, wondering why his son was here; he never came to his chambers.
“Arthur?” the king quizzed, forgetting the report in his hand.
“Father,” Arthur said while biting his lip.
In a sudden flash, he was reminded vividly of the time when Merlin had died, just after he had opened the cube to save him…his father’s pitiless face looming over him with not an ounce of sympathy for the dead friend in his arms…the pain he’d felt…the utter sadness and despair. It all came back to Arthur in an unwelcome jolt of terror…he had a sudden urge to turn and run away, run away from this man before him who was scrutinizing his every move. The prince felt naked in his gaze.
“Arthur,” Uther narrowed his eyes with concern, “are you alright?”
Arthur took a deep breath and composed himself invisibly.
“I – err…” he cleared his throat, sweat beading down his forehead. “Yesterday, Merlin and I went down to the lake in the forest. We were ambushed by press-gangers who kidnapped him –”
“Wait,” his father held up a hand and Arthur’s heart jumped with fear, “I thought that servant of yours died.”
Arthur was about to explain, when he suddenly realized that the truth wasn’t going to help in this situation. It was too…magical. People didn’t come back to life, yet Merlin was living proof. Arthur was more than happy to let this slip, but he knew his father would see it differently. He would have to lie.
“He did not die, I was mistaken. He was merely ill, and Gaius cured him,” the prince said, his heart beginning to burn with worry, like a pressing deep inside his chest. Uther looked a little sceptical for a moment but he motioned for Arthur to go on. “He was kidnapped by press-gangers who, I think, plan to take him to work on a ship. I…” Arthur took yet another deep breath, “…I have come to ask your permission to find him and bring him back to Camelot.”
Uther looked at him for a moment, thinking. He was remembering his son on the day he thought his servant had died. He had been miserable, almost dead himself with grief. The king thought this a little peculiar. Why was Arthur so caring for a servant?
Uther also remembered the moment he had discovered Arthur’s mysterious illness that had been the doing of the cube. That servant – Merlin – had looked after him so much beyond the call of duty – yet another display of loyalty the boy had shown his son.
The king ran his gaze up and down Arthur for a moment, missing the struggled breath and fervour in his son’s eyes. He did notice a new addition to the prince’s attire, however. A red scarf, tucked half into his shirt but still visible. Uther found it strangely familiar. The recognition of the item suddenly popped into his head.
It was clear Arthur felt strongly about this.
Uther began to see the prince’s subtle expressions that betrayed his feelings. His slightly clenched fists, the sweat on his brow and the ever so small shifting of weight on his feet.
“Very well,” the king said. He was surprised by Arthur’s obvious blanching at his agreement but went on, “I give you permission to find him, but I cannot spare you any knights. You shall have to go without an escort.”
Arthur tried not to stop his mouth from hanging open, and only just succeeded. The king looked on, waiting patiently for his son to speak.
“I…” Arthur mumbled, then raised his voice. “Thank you.”
Uther nodded, keeping the worry for his son behind his grey eyes.
“Be careful,” he said.
“Yes, father,” Arthur replied with a small bow.
“But you do realize, son,” Uther went on unexpectedly, “that he may already be dead.”
Arthur made very sure to show no emotion after his father finished speaking, but the truth was that a storm of feelings was raging around inside him as his father fixed him with his solid gaze. Unable to stand being stared at any more, the prince quickly left, shutting the door slowly behind him.
Grime covered the saucepans of the ships kitchens. Merlin had rubbed a pan a little with a rag he had found, and he could now see his reflection in the steel. His back was striped with long, scarlet gashes from the twenty lashes he’d received. It was so painful that the sting hadn’t quite set in yet, but Merlin was reminded of the bite of the whip as he pulled his shirt back over his head. Maybe it was best just not to wear it.
After peeling the shirt of his bloody back again, Merlin took the rag he’d found again, and dipped it in water before dabbing the wounds that littered his shoulders. It smarted horribly, but he had to get it clean. Though, having said that, the water in the bucket was anything but sterile, with lumps, specks and goodness knew what else in it.
He quickly dropped the rag and retook his position on the floor, peeling potatoes with a rusty knife, as the door suddenly swung open on its creaky hinges. One of the press-gangers stepped in.
“The list,” he said shortly, tossing a scroll at Merlin. “Sheridan wants it all done…by tonight.”
Merlin unfurled the scroll and began to read, becoming increasingly worried. It read…
Jobs For The Runt
1. Swab the deck until faces can be seen in it.
2. Boil the potatoes for lunch. (Enough to feed the entire crew.)
3. Cook a stew for supper. (Enough to feed the entire crew.)
4. Check the rigging.
5. Mop the lower deck and upper deck.
6. Polish the doorknobs.
7. Set up the extra hammocks.
8. Laundry duty.
9. Clean the toilets.
10. Run errands for the first mate.
11. Peel more potatoes.
12. Wash the flag.
13. Crow’s-nest duty.
Merlin looked up with horror. How was he supposed to do all this by the end of the day when that was only a matter of hours from now? The press-ganger had already left, however, so he wasn’t going to find any help there.
Looking back at the list, Merlin decided if he was to get all the chores done in time he had better get a move on. He grabbed the knife by the sack of potatoes and set to work on the vegetables, cutting off both the long roots that had grown on them in the damp, and the mouldy skins.
Cutting his fingers a few times, Merlin often got a little blood on the potatoes, but he left it there, hoping no one would notice – he was too preoccupied with running the currant situation over in his mind, turning it around and around. Would Arthur come to find him? Did the prince know where he was? Where was he now? Did he even care?
Merlin decided not to dwell on thoughts of Arthur, so pushed on with the potatoes and soon had them finished. Taking another look at the list, he grabbed a nearby brush and bucket of water to go swab the deck when he realized he had no idea what to do. He wasn’t a sailor; he didn’t know how to maintain a ship. Perhaps it was just best to try his hardest – maybe that would get him out of any trouble he would probably land himself in if he did nothing.
Having made up his mind, Merlin made his way above deck where dozens of men were milling around, doing various jobs. Looking about, the young warlock found the coast had long since disappeared and had been replaced by a hazy blue horizon. There wasn’t much else to see other than choppy water. The ship itself was far more interesting, with three tall mast, vast white sails hanging from them, flapping slightly in the wind. On the far side of the vessel was a higher deck with the wheel, a tall gangly man standing behind it, turning it ever so often.
Thankfully, there was no sign of Sheridan, so Merlin quietly set the bucket down on the floor, trying not to attract unwanted attention, and began to rub the swabbing brush over the wood, finding it to be covered in a salty, tar-like substance.
“Put yer back into it, Runt!” someone said behind him, laughing nastily as he kicked the bucket over, sending the water all over the deck and Merlin.
Merlin gritted his teeth, stood the bucket up again with supreme calmness, and continued brushing. Slightly disgruntled by the young wizards lack of response, the man sauntered away again. Merlin glared at his back angrily as he retreated.
Thinking he had himself to himself once more, Merlin didn’t notice Sheridan emerging from below deck and spot him with a definite hint of morbid glee…