BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG!
“Oh, not again…” Arthur groaned, pulling his pillow over his head, as Matilda and her early morning wake up call continued to sound from above like a vicious battle of saucepans.
His ears bleeding, Arthur pulled on some clothes and drowsily made his way onto the main deck. He was surprised when he found that the boat was docked up at a harbour, land only a few feet away. They must have made port while he was sleeping.
“Welcome to Stormwake docks!” John addressed the bleary eyed Arthur after Matilda had relinquished the war of noise. “This is where we leave you, I’m afraid.”
Arthur remembered John telling him a few days ago that they would drop him off at this dock, which was not far from the mountains of Berwyn, and he nodded enthusiastically before heading back to his cabin to begin packing the clothes and belongings that were strewn about the floor.
He was excited. Finally, he was one step closer to Merlin. All he had to do was hire a horse, ride to the mountains, and then somehow rescue his friend from the ship. And that would be easy with Excalibur on his side.
Arthur often found himself staring at the sword while polishing it, admiring how it glinted in the sun. He had practiced with it a few times above deck when he had had the time, using an old pillow tied to a pole as a target. The sword’s balance was perfect, and it swung in his hands as though it were as light as a feather, thus making it easy to wield. He would have no problems cutting down anyone who tried to keep him away from Merlin.
He strapped the handsome sword to his belt, hitched the rucksack onto his back, and made his way out of the cabin again to where John, Matilda and Kaelan were waiting to say their farewells to him.
He had grown attached to this small seafaring family in his time on their ship and was extremely grateful to them, so made sure they knew how indebted he felt. Matilda even gave him a kiss on his cheek and there was a tear in Kaelan’s eye – though he tried to hide it, embarrassed – as the prince set off down the pier, waving goodbye, rucksack on back.
It was dawn and therefore time for breakfast in Arthur’s agenda, so he entered the town and made his way to the nearest pub and purchased a meal. After he had eaten, and thinking he should get to the mountains as soon as possible, he efficiently found himself a stable where a large man with a stubbly chin was reclining on an old barrel by one of the stalls. Arthur noticed, with some disgust, a thick, horse-like scent hanging around the man as he walked briskly up to him.
“I’ve come for a horse,” he told him shortly, trying not to wrinkle his nose at the plangent stink.
“Well, why else would you be here?” the man replied rudely, sticking a finger in his ear, twisting it about, removing it with a ‘pop’ and then putting it into his mouth.
“Can you show me to a horse?” he asked, wishing to leave quickly.
“We’re not open.”
“I’m in a hurry!”
“Tough – we’re not open.”
“When will you be open?”
“Yes, next week. Now, if you don’t mind, I was very busy, so beat it.”
Arthur stared, revolted, before turning smartly on his heels and sailing out of the stable.
Busy indeed! A week indeed!
He crashed heavily onto a crate just outside the doors of the stable and scowled at a passing chicken, which eyed him carefully before pecking a stray strap on his rucksack, finding it unappetizing and strutting off again. The prince watched it go, glowering.
He wondered whether he should steal a horse; he had seen many in the stalls he had passed; it would not be too difficult to sneak in a take one…but if he broke the law, then he’d have the authority on his tail…and then he would never get to the mountains…
Leaning his head in his hands, he sighed and did not notice a shady figure sideling up to him.
“Oi – you,” the bloke poked him hard in the shoulder with a small dagger, “gimme your wallet.”
“Get lost,” Arthur growled, rising to his feet and towering over the man, sending him a superior glare.
“Wrong answer…” the guy motioned behind him and five more men appeared from around the corner, all brandishing knives.
“I really wouldn’t if I were you,” Arthur told them breezily, casting them all a disinterested look.
The prince quickly realized that they were not the types to take a warning when they heard one, because they now began to approach him, hopping agilely from one foot to another, waving their knives. He took position in front of his rucksack that he had dumped on the floor to keep it protected from one of the men who had just tried to grab it.
A few of the thieves jumped back as he drew Excalibur with one, smooth pull, but some of them held their ground. He loosened his shoulders, tensed his legs and held the sword tight in his hand – all the things he had been taught to do.
He did not wait for them; he made the first move. If their leader went down, the others would most likely follow – a fact Arthur knew well – so he went straight for the first of the men he had seen. He clearly had not been expecting Arthur to make the first move, and reeled for a moment as the prince rammed into him, before recovering, straightening up and flicking his dagger around his fingers.
“Nice sword you’ve got there,” he said, eyeing Excalibur. “We’ll be taking that too…”
Arthur twisted his wrist around, swinging Excalibur to show his skill in sword fighting and to perhaps scare the thieves. But they were not easily intimidated; they seemed to be even more interested in the sword now he had showed it. Before the thieves could do anything else, however, Arthur attacked once more.
This time, the leader saw him coming and stood ready to defend himself. He had bent his knees slightly, and jumped to the side as Arthur hurtled towards him. The prince missed and almost tumbled to the floor.
“Why have a sword and not use it? Better give it to us before you get hurt, boy.”
Arthur’s eyes narrowed and he swung the sword again.
“If that’s what you want…” he mumbled, and jumped forward to attack. The thieves did not have other weapons than their knives and the leader was only carrying a small dagger, but they did know how to handle their weapons. While Arthur attacked, all five of them struck back.
From the outside it looked like a complex tangled mess of arms, legs and blades that flickered in the sun. However, it was a more organized than appearances let on. Arthur was in the centre of it, trying to defend himself from the six men who had him surrounded and tried to stab him every time he wasn’t looking. None of them succeeded, though of course.
Arthur ducked when somebody tried to cut him, and managed to crawl away between all the legs. The men quickly discovered their victim was gone, and turned around to remain in visual with the prince. Arthur was standing just a couple of feet away, waiting for the men to attack him again. This time the leader took control of the situation.
“You wait here. He’s mine,” he said and stepped forward to face his victim. “It seems you’re able to use a sword! Where did you learn it all – from your daddy? I bet you’re a daddies boy!”
“Shut it!” Arthur hissed through gritted teeth, gripping the hilt of his sword even tighter.
“Oh, look! It speaks!” the leader turned away to laugh with his mates. Suddenly, he turned back and ran towards Arthur, holding the dagger in front of him to attack. Arthur was not surprised whatsoever, and was prepared to take the blow. With Excalibur, he withstood it. He fought the leader all the way to a wall, so the man’s back was against it.
“Do you yield?” Arthur asked, the tip of his sword dangerously close to the man’s throat. The leader did not answer; he instead swayed his dagger, trying to hit Arthur. With one kick, the dagger flew away; far out of reach, and Arthur pressed the side of Excalibur against the man’s neck.
“Do you yield?” he asked again as he saw blood trickling down his sword.
The man screamed with anger. He managed to pull a hidden knife out of his pocket, and lunged it at Arthur.
Excalibur seemed to slide into the shoulder as if it was made of soft butter. The man gasped for air, before he slumped to the ground. Arthur pulled back his sword and turned to the other five men who all stood next to each other, staring at the man who had just killed their leader. They had completely frozen and the idea of running away never entered their minds. They were as submissive as a couple of sheep. Suddenly, Arthur had an idea.
“Listen!” he said. “I had no intention of harming any of you, but you made it difficult for yourselves. LISTEN!” he yelled when the men started to disagree. “If you don’t do what I tell you, I will make sure you won’t live to see a new dawn!” he knew he was being harsh, but it was needed. “And if you succeed the way I want, maybe there will be a reward.”
With the last statement, the eyes of the thieves started to twinkle. Anything for money…
While Arthur kept a wary eye on their weapons, he asked the men to come closer and listen to the plan he had in mind. He was not going to tell them the reason why, but he was in need for a horse.
“Just inside of this stable, there’s a guy who rents horses, but he claims he won’t be open until next week.”
One man dared to open his mouth and speak.
“And you want us to go in there and get a horse for you?”
Immediately, Arthur raised his sword and pointed it at the man.
“Silence! Do not speak before you’re asked to! But yes, that’s what I was thinking of. I don’t care how you do it, just get me a horse,” he still had to show he was in charge, and the guys seemed smart enough to figure something out.
After some planning between the thieves themselves, they nodded at Arthur and walked into the stable. The same man who had spoken before spoke again.
“We need a horse,” he said without further ado to the large man on the barrel. The man did not put his finger in his ears this time, but scratched the top of his bald head and then checked his nails for anything edible.
Arthur, who was standing just outside the stable, peering through a hole in the door, noticed that the thieves did not wince at the smells or the strange habit of the man. The thieves did not smell that good themselves, though…
“Why does everybody keep coming in here for horses? I guess you want five of them? Can you count? How many are there in this stable?” the man replied grouchily, gesturing at the three horses that were in their separate stalls.
“Actually, we only need one,” the thief said, cracking his knuckles with his other hand. The man started to laugh.
“What? One horse for the five of you?”
“You heard me,” the cracking sound doubled. The thief behind him had joined in, but it did not seem to bother the man. “We want a horse.”
“No. We’re closed.”
“Excuse me?” suddenly a knife flashed in front of his eyes. A bead of sweat ran down his face, but the man still tried to act like nothing was going on.
“We’re closed?” his voice sounded exceedingly small. The knife turned into five knifes and a dagger.
“Maybe you still didn’t hear me correctly. We want a horse and we want one now – not tomorrow, not next week. Now,” the thief said as he cleaned his nails with a knife, like he didn’t care.
The man swallowed hard. He could handle the boy who came in earlier, but five grown man were just a little too much…
Arthur grinned as he saw that the guy seemed to have shrunk a couple of sizes.
“Take that one,” the man pointed at one of the stalls where a horse was standing. “It’s the best one I’ve got! Take it! Don’t hurt me! Please!”
That was Arthur’s cue. He walked into the stables; his head up high as he led the horse to the door and climbed onto it. The man’s jaw dropped as he recognized the prince and he started to protest, but a knife pressed against his cheek quickly silenced his objections.
“Thanks a lot, men. I said I was going to repay you if it all worked out well, and it did,” Arthur pulled a couple of coins out of his pocket and threw one at every man. They all caught it eagerly, and even though it was not much, they still seemed happy with it.
Arthur rode out of the stables, leaving the men with their earned riches, and finally went back on his way to find Merlin.
Soon he had left the harbour behind him, and he found himself with two options. He needed to reach the mountains as soon as possible. The road in front of them had split into a fork and there were two different ways to go. With the first, there was the road that would bring him further into the land, where he was definitely going to pass other villages. And the second, was a road which led to the beach, where there were no more places to stop until the next harbour.
Arthur quickly made up his mind. He was already missing the sea breeze caressing his hair and face, even though it had only been a short time that he had lived at sea. Maybe the sound of the braking waves could help him clear his mind so he could think; therefore he turned his horse, took the left path and could already smell the salty water.