As he leant his back further into the crow’s-nest basket, Merlin found himself to be trembling, shaking almost uncontrollably. He wasn’t sure whether it was from cold, utter shock or that frightening trauma that was eating away at him.
They had beaten him.
It was such an inhuman act of cruelty that it was surreal. He felt as though he was in a dream and all this was happening to someone else. That someone else had almost abandoned hope, hope of rescue. How would Arthur find him? How would he know where to look?
Once again, Merlin caught himself wondering if the prince even cared.
The young warlock shuffled a bit and hugged his knees tighter to his chest, resting his chin on them, trying not to linger on that thought.
Thin streams of cold air escaped into the crow’s-nest through the gaps in the basket, blowing onto his tired face like tiny pricks of ice. It caused him to shiver harder, but it made a welcome change to the humidity and smoke of the kitchens where, even though he had been bruised and broken, they’d forced him to cook supper.
There was a long table in the hull of the ship at which the crew dined. When he had dished the stew out into the grimy plates before each man, he’d had to block out all the jibbing, sniping comments that they had hurled at him, regarding his uselessness. They thought him weak for not being able to defend himself when they’d beaten him. It had been a dozen to one. Merlin never stood a chance.
The young warlock hadn’t looked at himself yet, but he was fully aware of a vast purple-ish, black bruise already forming on his right shoulder blade. Even the hole in his forearm was aching again where a sailor had seized and shaken him.
He lifted his head as a dark figure appeared over the side of the basket. Merlin eyes were lifeless and unseeing as he climbed stiffly to his feet and let the sailor take his place.
Glad that his crow’s-nest shift was over, the young warlock pulled himself onto the long rope ladder and began to descend it. He strongly decided that he wasn’t fond of heights as a salty breeze made the rigging sway precariously, causing his heart to skip a beat. Praying for a safe return to the deck, Merlin eventually found himself on sturdier ground and breathed a silent sigh of relief.
For some reason – he didn’t know why – he raised his eyes to the sky where stars littered the great black expanse, twinkling merrily.
He envied them.
They had such free lives, only charged with one task of watching the earth. The whole universe belonged to them.
Merlin looked for a moment longer, before shaking his thoughts from his head and making his way down the stairs to the lower deck.
Snoring sailors inhabited every hammock, which were resided between the hefty wooden pillars holding up the ceiling. They swung gently back and forth with the tilt of the ship as Merlin silently made his way down the centre isle, desperate not to attract any more unwanted attention.
Presently, he came across an empty one. He looked at it warily as though eyeing a dangerous animal that could attack at any moment. He’d never slept in a hammock before and the idea didn’t really appeal to him. It must, however, be a great deal better than the floor, so gingerly he clambered into it.
After a tense few seconds of the hammock rocking ferociously, it finally calmed and he tentatively lay down. It smelt weird – like fossilized socks – and Merlin wrinkled his nose in contempt. But it had to be better than nothing, he decided, so he soon found his eyelids beginning to drop sleepily.
There was a strange sensation of someone breathing on his face and, thinking it was only a breeze from an open porthole, he turned his head away from it.
Yet it persisted…
It was becoming annoying now and even though he was exhausted and could barely move, the young warlock opened his eyes to discover the source of the breathing. He was met by a grisly sight of Sheridan’s face inches from his own, breathing all over him. Merlin was quite certain his heart stopped for a moment and he let out a small squeak of fright.
“YOU’RE IN MY HAMMOCK!!!”
Sheridan yelled it so loudly, that it caused Merlin to fall right out of the hammock and land on the floor with a thud. Putting a hand on the hammock to steady it, Sheridan prowled around the column and advanced on the helpless boy, his eyes harbouring a certain fury.
“Have you got some kind of death wish?” he asked, towering over Merlin who edged away as well as he could, knocking over a small crate. “You shouldn’t even be here! We only picked you up because if you wandered any farther you’d have discovered our camp!” he pounced on Merlin who was still sprawled venerably on the floor, and grabbed the front of his shirt. “I always knew you’d be more trouble than your worth, which is not a lot. If I were you, I’d watch my back, boy.”
With that, he flung Merlin away into a heap of thick ropes where the young warlock found himself tangled and discarded like an animal. He didn’t feel able to crawl out and face the room with him in it, so he eased himself into a crook of the giant ropes and curled into a ball. His teeth began to chatter with the cold but he ignored it, even when his hands started to go numb and goosebumps worked their way all over his skin.
He had never felt so lonely and unloved. It was only his first night in the ship, but it already seemed like years.
One single tear rolled slowly down the side of his cheek.
He couldn’t stop them and soon his face was streaming with silent misery. Knowing that if anyone heard him they would have more reasons to insult him, he wiped the tears away. But they were almost immediately replaced again, and he soon found himself sobbing quietly in his little shelter from the world.
Arthur could have slept that night if he’d wanted to. The problem was he didn’t.
Should someone have gone down the stairs into his little room on the boat and asked why he was not asleep at such a late hour, that someone would have left again, disappointed, for the prince would not have told them.
Arthur had a mask. A concealing disguise to hide behind. And that’s what he was doing now. Hiding. He was hiding himself away and pushing his mask to the front where it stood tall, proud, hard, indestructible.
But was it?
Behind all this pretence cowered the real Arthur who was too afraid to come out and show the world his real face, for fear of being rejected by those around him. If he was thought weak – by his father especially – then people might question his future role as king. And even though his father was not there with Arthur, even though he was alone, the prince still cringed behind that mask he had created.
Maybe he was just being his own worst enemy. Maybe there was no one to gently take away the mask and help the real prince out. There had been someone once. His name was Merlin. And that was why Arthur had to get him back. Because he saw now. Merlin was the only one who could mould and shape him into a man who would one day become king.
By rescuing Merlin, Arthur was also rescuing the future – both Camelot’s and his own.
Shafts of moonlight from the open window slid over his face as he pulled the twisted sheets away from his body and made his way up the stairs to the deck.
The ship – Neptune, as it was called – had not set off yet – that would be tomorrow – so Arthur decided to make the most of his time left on land, and go for a walk.
He had only meant it to be short, and was quite surprised when he found himself in a dark patch of trees he did not recognize. There was a certain gloom surrounding him, one that was almost impenetrable, and he shivered with cold, his breath coming out as a sweeping white mist that drifted away into the sky.
The stars wheeled overhead as he stumbled through the wood, becoming increasingly lost with each step. Soon he was utterly astray. Wherever he turned, the darkness seemed to draw ever closer. The trees appeared to grow over the sky and all around, closing in, clawing at him with long wispy fingers.
He turned quickly as a twig snapped. A thicket rustled. The world began to spin, around and around, making him dizzy.
Fright and panic began to gather in Arthur’s mind as he took shelter in a crook of a tree root, trying to escape from the incoming dark that wanted to trap him in its icy depths, never to go free.
A frozen gust of wind blew over his neck, making him shiver. Quaking with fear, the prince shrunk further into his hole, looking around at his surroundings that were darker than ever before.
Someone was coming…