Death's Watchful Eye
Death's Watchful Eye
The first time Arthur nearly died. One shot.
One could say that you escape death every single day. Life is balanced on a knife edge. A decision you make could determine whether you lived until you were sixty or died when you were barely old enough to talk. Death is with us in every step we take whether it be lurking in the shadows as we draw a bath or stalking us as we walk to the shops. Your last breath could be in the moment when you realise you have lost your footing on an icy patch of ground before falling and breaking your neck or when you taste a ludicrously juicy apple, ripe from picking, only to choke on the next bite. But no one thinks about the ifs and buts, if we did then the world would just not go round.
However, death seems to visit a select few on more occasions than most, waiting in the darkness ready to take the hand of a relative or a loved one and lead them on into the beyond. Sometimes someone just has the misfortune to be marked out by the grim reaper from the moment they are born. No matter how many times they dodge and dart away from death it will always be there, haunting them, until their luck runs out.
There was a certain boy, that had been burdened with such a curse; the death curse, and he was about to have his first encounter. He was but seven years old.
Dawn fell upon the kingdom of Camelot in the usual fashion, with sleepy farmhands waking up to have a breakfast of porridge or broth before trekking out into the fields just as the rest of the population awakened. Mothers would be roused by restless children, eager for the day to begin so that they could meet up and play with friends. They would one day understand how irritating it was to be woken before they needed to be but until then they remained oblivious. Tired carpenters and blacksmiths would make begin chopping wood or lighting the kilns ready for any business that should come their way. Horses would be turned out into the meadows or paddocks so they could graze on the dewy grass.
Up at the castle it was not much different, with servants hurrying to and fro, organising the kitchens for breakfast, cleaning the fireplaces ready for lighting, exercising the royal dogs and doing pretty much every task possible before the King himself rose from his bedchambers. Once that happened they could breathe a sigh of relief.
One servant in particular believed he had the most difficult job possible and that was taming the young prince before he threw a tantrum. A tantrum that would surely wake the King and lead him to a merciless beating; leaving him bedridden and in pain for days. He didn't want that to happen again.
The child was a handful. He did what he wanted when he wanted and didn't give two hoots about what anyone else wanted. The servant believed he was the epitome of self-centredness and arrogance. Still, on occasion, when he really tried, the young boy could be good. And on those days his manservant would thank the gods for their kindness.
Right now, the said youngster was insisting that they go on a ride at this unbelievably early hour. Of course he was refused so he got angry.
"I will go riding," the obnoxious boy stated, his tone allowing no space for argument.
"And I say you will not young master."
"Toly, this is not a case open for discussion," the prince said curtly, in that royal voice he used when he would not listen. Toly blamed partially his father and partially his tutor - who had taught him such an adult vocabulary - for the boy's vile manner and smart-tongued mouth.
"I agree the discussion is over because you are not going riding, sire."
The child jumped down from the chair he was sitting on and pushed by his servant who could do nothing but stand back and watch as the prince marched from the room, head held high with defiance. Toly hated it when the boy got like this, the only way it would end was in disaster, most likely for him.
"Master Arthur, come back!" The manservant cried after him but knew the recall was fruitless – he never listened. Instead, the man hurried after the escaping boy, grabbing his jacket from its hook as he went. The prince was very susceptible to the cold and Toly didn't want him catching pneumonia.
Outside of the castle walls, in the large courtyard were the stables, housed in a low stone building with a thatched roof and few windows. The lack of windows meant the place was constantly warm, a safe and comfortable refuge for the King's most prized animals. Inside the building was strewn with hay and smelt strongly of sweat and horse fodder. There were ten stalls in total, not all full, but around eight beasts lived in the outhouse. They were all thoroughbred, bought from good trainers, as the royal steeds could only be the best.
This was the dwelling that young Prince Arthur headed for as he stormed out of the main building and into the cool, crisp morning air. He breathed in the scent of freedom and smiled to himself. As he reached the large wooden double door that led into the stables the boy looked behind him to see Toly hurrying after him, an annoyed but somewhat panicked look on his face. Arthur couldn't understand why he always worried so much, it wasn't like he was trying to get himself killed.
Once inside the building, Arthur inhaled the sweet cedar wood aroma and wandered down the aisle, running one small hand along the rough wooden fences that kept the horses in their pens. He liked the feel of the solid, coarse material beneath his smooth finger tips. When he reached the end of the building he came to an enclosure that was slightly smaller than the rest, just big enough for a young pony to be held in. This was his pony.
Despite being a great deal smaller than the rest of the creatures he shared his home with the pony was not less of an animal. He still had a fine bone structure, powerful back legs and a thirst for speed. His fur was dark grey, speckled with white, and his mane was cropped short. The young prince had named him Dinias.
Cooing gently to the animal, the boy began to go about the business of saddling his horse up; despite having most of his tasks done for him up to the point he barely needed to dress himself anymore he still knew how to prepare for a ride. Both his and Dinias' ears pricked when the faint noise of the door opening sounded: Toly had entered the stable.
Arthur did like the servant even though he seemed not to. He had learnt from an early age that to be cruel and unreachable was the best way to hide his feelings and not get hurt. It was much simpler to ignore the servants than to make friends with them because he had no idea how long they would stay. His father was a bit unpredictable with his temper and was known to sack, punish or kill servants that did not do their job right.
The young prince remembered the first time he had grown attached to his nursery maid. She was a wonderful girl with laughing eyes and a constant smile that warmed the then two year old Arthur to his core. They had great fun together playing games like hide and seek. However, one day she just vanished without a trace and there was an older woman as a replacement. The toddler was deeply hurt and mourned for days at the loss of his 'Nunny' as he called her. Later he overheard how the King had had the adolescent hung for spilling oil on the floor in the Great Hall which led to his slipping up and hurting his back.
That's why he was horrible to all the servants now and they believed him to be a vicious nuisance who was just out to get them into trouble. Occasionally he would hear night-time conversations of the castle staff cursing his antics and his abominable character, he couldn't deny that didn't smart but he continued the cheeky charade even so. It was better if they didn't get too close.
However, the Welsh man, Toly, seemed to have survived much longer than any of his other menservants and Arthur enjoyed his company in spite of appearances. The servant was kind, considerate and always looked out for his well being.
"Master Arthur, I really think you should consider this being a really bad idea and come back into the castle for your breakfast. If the King finds out I let you on a morning jaunt then he'd skin me alive."
"Don't be daft, Toly, it'll be fine. Why don't you saddle up that mare there if you are so worried and you can come?" The prince chuckled at his servant's exaggeration as he tightened the stirrups on the saddle and adjusted the pony's mouthpiece.
Toly decided he may as well give up. There was nothing he could do to change the stubborn child's mind; both he and the boy knew that. He had little power over the King's son despite being put in charge of his care. If Arthur decided to complain to Uther then Toly really was in with a chance of swinging from the end of a rope. With this in mind, the Welshman began to tack up a horse.
The road was quiet and deserted. Little traffic did travel this early in the morning. Traders were the only ones to grace the highways with their mules and carts but they appeared around midday. Therefore the boy and his servant had a clear path on which to ride. Arthur took this to his advantage and kicked his pony into a canter and then a gallop. The animal complied with eagerness.
As the wind whistled through his hair the child surveyed the countryside. To one side were the undulating hills on which grazed animals both domestic and wild: horses, cattle, sheep, goats, rabbits and deer all enjoyed the greenness of the gentle grass slopes. Several brown cows looked up as he flew past, mouths full of cud. He offered them a wolfish grin. They stared on, bemused. On the other side were the dark forests of Camelot, full of the crooks and bandits and outlaws that had been cast out of society. Arthur was never allowed to venture into the depths of those untamed trees, it was forbidden. However, on this day, he decided he would break that rule.
Pulling his fiery pony up short, the boy tugged on the leather rein in order to guide the animal off the track and into the foliage. He heard an angry shout from behind but ignored it. Toly couldn't stop him.
Adrenalin pounded through his veins, exciting his senses and stimulating his mind. He was in the forest; he had disobeyed his father and it felt great. This place was like a whole new world, so separate from the meadows just on the other side of the trees. Dimly lit and silent but for the occasional bird call or locust chatter, the forest was creepy but somehow thrilling. A magical world full of mysteries and intrigue.
Arthur slithered down from the pony and gazed around him in awe, enraptured by the utter stillness. He wandered idly over to the massive trunk of an oak tree that had to be at least ten times his breadth. It was old and gnarled like a wizened old man with knots and scratches disrupting the natural contours of bark. The boy ran his index finger down the grooves, following them like the line of a river.
That was when he heard the crack of a twig. He assumed it was Toly, attempting to spook him so that he would want to leave the forest immediately. But there was no way he was going this soon. There was too much still to explore.
"Well, good morning to you, young sir," a voice whispered softly in his ear and a pair of gorilla arms gripped him round the chest. Arthur screamed in shock. A grimy hand, rough with calluses, smothered his protests as the sharp tip of a dagger taunted his neck. "Shh, there's a good boy, don't want to go attracting any attention we don't be needing."
The boy's heart beat quickened, thumping against his small ribcage in its panic. Blood rushed in his ears, deafening him. He could feel the man's hot breath on his neck; it smelt of stale ale and fish. The stench turned his stomach. Looking around him Arthur saw that his assailant wasn't alone; there were three other men in a circle around him, all dirty and feral looking. He had no chance of escaping he realised with a sinking feeling.
And then Toly appeared, short sword in hand and fire blazing in his eyes. He took out two of the outlaws with one swipe of the weapon, slitting their throats with the same blow. Then with a grunt of effort he thrust the sword forward and drove it through another man. The young prince could do nothing but stare; he had no idea that his reluctant manservant was capable of such swordsmanship, such bloodshed. With one last cry of anger, the Welshman dived at the remaining bandit who released his hold on the terrified child and bent his knees in a defensive stance. Toly stabbed him in the stomach, pushing the sword in and twisting it.
Arthur was astounded. His servant had killed an entire band of outcasts single-handedly, he would have to ask the man about his skill when they returned home.
However, as Toly stepped back from his victim there was an almost comically shocked expression on his face – his lips forming an 'o' shape. The youngster noticed the fast spreading stain on his cream coloured jerkin, dark and foreboding. The manservant looked at his master with sad, deadened eyes before spitting out a mouthful of blood and pitching forward into the dirt.
The forest was quiet once more but this time Arthur did not find it to be enchanting and peaceful. This time it was eerie and unsettling, a sort of sombre tribute to the man who had just lost his life defending his future king. It was all but a graveyard now.
The boy dropped to his knees and wept. Death stepped back into the shadows, disappointed, but not for the last time.
Okay, so what did you think? I have to say (in all modesty) I am quite proud of this piece so I hope you enjoyed it and don't be too mean in your reviews! :D