It was all Merlin could do, not to yelp with pain each time he stretched out to scrub the deck. The long, raw gashes all down his back were stinging awfully, and with every scrub, Merlin could feel each and every stripe of ripped flesh as though the dreaded whip was tearing away at his delicate skin right there and then.
Sheridan, who was waiting eagerly behind him, pounced on his opportunity as Merlin let out a little squeak of agony.
“Hurts, doesn’t it?” he sneered down at Merlin having sidled round him. “Not that I’d know of course. I’ve never had twenty lashes.”
“Aren’t you the little angel?” Merlin muttered under his breath, carrying on with swabbing the deck, determined not to let the man get to him.
“Not talking back again, are you, Runt?”
Merlin bristled angrily and his fists clenched.
“My – name – is – Merlin.”
“Not if I say it isn’t, Runt,” Sheridan replied, causing Merlin’s brush to fall to the floor in anger. With serene calmness, the young warlock picked it up again as Sheridan went on, “I’m in command of all you low-life’s. If I say jump, you ask how high. Savvy?”
Merlin stood up, brush and bucket in hand, his knuckles white on the handle, and threw the man a sideways glance of deepest loathing.
“No,” he hissed through gritted teeth, his eyes smouldering pits of azure blue.
“Well, then, it looks like I’m gonna have to teach you,” Sheridan bent forward, smirking. “Jump.”
Merlin wanted to hit him. Really wanted to hit him. But instead, he walked away and set his bucket and brush down before beginning to scrub the decks again.
“No, no, no!” Sheridan drawled, swaggering over. “You’re still not getting it,” he grabbed the scruff of Merlin’s shirt and pulled him to his feet. “JUMP!”
When Merlin did nothing other than glare at him with savage defiance, the young wizard suddenly found himself smacked hard across the face. Wiping his bleeding lip with the back of his hand, Merlin picked himself up and quickly regained his posture.
“Jump,” Sheridan snarled again.
“How high?” Merlin asked, grinding his teeth together.
“Pardon?” Sheridan cupped a hand to his ear.
“How high, sir?” Merlin repeated, feeling his eyes begin to prickles with the sensation he had when about to use his magic. He fought the overwhelming urge to burn the man before him into ash, and instead let his tensed shoulders drop and took a deep, calming breath.
“Hey up, lads!” Sheridan called, turning to the crew behind him who were either half-heartedly milling around, watching Sheridan and the scullery boy, or had stopped altogether, staring intently. “The runt is gonna put on a show for us!”
As though told Christmas had come early, everyone surged forward, gathering into an eagerly awaiting crowd.
“Right, Runt,” Sheridan said, turning back to face Merlin. “I want you to jump one foot.”
Merlin stared at the crowd that had accumulated around him in a tight circle, Sheridan standing at the head of them with his arms folded and a sneer on his face. The young warlock’s skin began to burn with embarrassment and shame. It would be humiliating but he could live it down, and besides, Merlin did not want another twenty lashes, so he jumped.
Everyone cheered and erupted into bursts of clapping, mocking him. Merlin felt his ears go red.
“Very good!” Sheridan sniggered. “Now jump two feet.”
Merlin jumped two feet.
With a little difficulty, Merlin jumped three feet.
The crowd was in fits of laughter at this point, most of them doubled over and clutching their stomachs. Merlin couldn’t see what they found so funny. One of them clapped him heartily on the back, sending him to his knees. He quickly climbed to his feet before Sheridan had time to ridicule him further, and shot the sailor a death glare.
Sheridan began tapping his foot, waiting for the fourth jump.
Restraining himself from tearing someone’s throat out, Merlin gathered what was left of his integrity and jumped once more. Again, everyone burst into laughter, except Sheridan who looked thoughtful.
“Whoa, hang on, lads,” he said, raising a hand for silence, which he got immediately without question. “I don’t think that was four feet. What do you say, Toms?” he turned to a ginger haired man on his left.
“Now you come to mention it, yeah, that wasn’t four feet,” Toms replied, also staring at Merlin analytically.
“Why didn’t you jump four feet, Runt?” Sheridan addressed Merlin with mock incredulity.
“I did my best –” Merlin began.
“You know what I think?” Sheridan went on, totally ignoring him. “I think you’re being disobedient. But I’m a giving man. I’ll let you try again. Go on, jump.”
Merlin stared warily around him again. He just wanted to be left alone. Why did they find this funny? Arthur might not be the perfect man to work for but he would never do something like this. Merlin caught himself wishing the prince were here, with him. But he wasn’t. Nobody was going to fight his battles for him. He had no choice but to just jump and get it over with. Maybe then they’d all go away and leave him in peace…
Merlin jumped again.
“Nope, that definitely wasn’t four feet,” Toms said, shaking his head.
“So, you think you can get away with disobeying me, do you, boy?” Sheridan stepped towards Merlin who backed away until he hit the ships guardrail. If he went any further, he would fall into the sea. The crowd began to close in.
“I don’t tolerate disobedience on this ship,” Sheridan continued, now inches away from Merlin.
“I tried but four feet’s too high –” Merlin attempted to explain, leaning as far away as he could from the man.
“You keep your mouth shut, boy! You’ve disobeyed me and now you have to pay the price,” there was no hint of amusement in Sheridan’s eyes now as he motioned to the men behind him. “C’mon, boys. Make the runt pay.”
Before he had time to react, Merlin felt a huge fist impact with his stomach. Coughing up blood, he looked at Sheridan, begging him with his eyes, as he was grabbed by both arms and pulled off his feet.
“Carry on below deck,” Sheridan ordered, utterly ignoring Merlin’s silent plea. “We don’t want the captain getting a look in.”
Merlin just had time to wonder who the captain was, before he was hauled away, his legs dragging on the floor and the crowd still jeering at him.
As Arthur neared Brinkwell, and the small seaside town came into view from over the hill, the prince stopped his horse for a moment. Taking a deep breath while scrutinizing the dock for any ship by the name of Emrys, he was sorely disappointed when he found the only ships tied to the pier were a beaten up old dingy and small boat with a single mast – both far too small to be called a ship.
If The Emrys had already left, which it apparently had, things were going to be just that little bit harder for the prince. But there was always plan B. So, spurring his horse on again, Arthur soon found himself in the midst of the town.
The houses were mostly white and with long washing lines strung between them, all types of clothing hanging from them, flapping slightly in the breeze. Other houses had huge fishing nets suspended from the windows or carpets being beaten viciously with long sticks.
The stable boy’s face was hidden in shadow in the fast diminishing light, as Arthur dismounted his horse and handed the kid the reins and a few coins. Reckoning it to be around five or six in the evening and not wanting to waste time, he made his way out of the stables.
He should probably start asking around for the whereabouts of the ship or any other information he could acquire, he decided, so walked out into the bustling crowd. Barely having room to move in the tightly packed stampede of people, Arthur tried to stop someone and ask about the ship.
“Excuse me, do you know anything about –?” he was cut off by a severe shaking of the head, and the man scurried away.
Muttering ‘idiot’ under his breath, Arthur shouldered his way through the crowd and stopped another person.
“Do you –?” this time he was halted even quicker and the girl disappeared into the river of heads again.
Several negative fishermen later, Arthur felt ready to shout at someone, hold him or her at sword point and demand to know where The Emrys was. Instead, he only found himself jostling along with the crowd and pushed towards the edge of the herd of people, where he found himself in front of a tavern…