Ghosts from an ignominious past

Disclaimer: All characters from the series belong to the BBC, only the others, dead or alive , belong to me.

1. Capturing the Bait

"Surrender your sword Pendragon or your men are dead!"

Arthur was panting heavily after the brief but intense fight which had ensued as soon as the attackers had sandbagged him and his small escort. He scanned the battle scene which some moments ago had been a peaceful clearing in a tranquil forest, just right for a short rest.

Four of the unknown knights lay on the ground, dead or knocked out. He himself had killed two more. But it was no use. There were still the two men in front of him and six other fighters had already disarmed Sir Margath and his two companions.

The young Prince realized with shock that the youngest of Margath's men, Gareth, was down on the ground with a sword point at his throat. Baffled by the situation Arthur held his sword up self-consciously but his two attackers didn't stir.

"Who are you?" he yelled. "What do you want from us? If this is meant as a challenge, show your faces!" Arthur inwardly sneered at himself. If this had been an official challenge from one knight to the other they wouldn't have hidden their identity in the first place.

"For the last time, My Prince, you are the only one we need alive, so surrender or your friends die." The tall knight in the black armoury seemed to be the leader.

"Sire, get away from here" Margath shouted and earned himself a blow on the head which sent him to the ground, gasping with pain.

This did it. Pendragon threw away his weapons and raised his hands. "All right then, you've got me, leave my men alone. No need for more bloodshed. At least not until my father hears of this."

While one of his opponents held him in check the other one opened his helmet and gripped Arthur's hands to tie his wrists. The Prince hit the man directly into his face and he fell to the ground, grasping his broken nose. The other one pushed his sword towards Arthur's throat who pulled back until his back met the tree behind him.

"Stop that! Are you mad?" His leader's command made the attacker pause but Pendragon could still feel the sword point touch his skin. He flinched when he heard Gareth yelp in pain.

"Leave him be. I will come with you, willingly, you have my word. There's no need to tie me up like a common criminal."

Meanwhile the leader had strolled over to him. He took off his helmet and Pendragon saw a face that was virtually covered in masses of grey-brown beard and hair. The man's piercing ice-blue eyes were his most significant feature. "Sorry, Your Highness, can't be done" he said, very friendly. "You're worth a King's ransom and I will not put that at risk to serve your whims. Either my friend here binds you as he sees fit or your men are history. You choose."

Arthur saw the blades pressing into the other knights' throats or chests. „What kind of a knight are you? This is disgraceful!"

"I am the kind of knight who has to eat and drink. For that I need money, the kind of money you are worth. Your men, as I said before, are not worth a farthing."

Arthur lowered his head in defeat and when the other man came back for him he didn't resist. It was only too obvious that only his leader's presence prevented the man from taking revenge for his broken nose then and there. As it was, he made a very thorough job of tying Pendragon's hands behind his back and fixing them to his waist before he threw another rope around Arthur's neck.

"Take your filthy hands off him" Margath yelled and tried to get up. He came as far as to his knees before the blade of the bandit who guarded him cut through his throat.

"No!" Pendragon tried to break free but the leash around his neck was pulled tight immediately and strangled him until he had no other choice but to hold still. "You will live to regret this, you brutal swine!" he said hoarsely. "This was senseless. He couldn't harm you!"

"Perhaps, but every second this futile resistance continuous it could harm you" the bandit replied serenely. "And as I said, we will be paid rather nicely for capturing you in one piece."

With that he pulled a scarf and a piece of cloth out of his pocket and gagged his prisoner despite his resistance. The stranger contemplated the Prince appraisingly before he turned to his men.

"I think we're done here. Finish them off!

The tone of that order had been that blasé and casual that Arthur didn't get it's meaning at first. Only after they had been killed he understood that this remark had referred to his two remaining young knights.

Stunned by the useless brutality he watched the bandits clean their swords before they turned to the horses. They ripped off every sign that designated the animals as Camelot property and tied them to their own animals.

"I take it you will prefer your own horse." The bandit leader took the end of the leash and Arthur had no other choice but to follow the rope's pull. They tied the rope to the saddle horn of his horse and his feet to the stirrups before the leader took up the bridles and led the horse to follow his own. They crossed the clearing, giving Pendragon a last opportunity to look at his dead men. The shock and anguish which were frozen in their faces made him sick as the forest engulfed him on their way westwards. He turned in the saddle once as far as his restraints allowed, thinking he had heard a muffled outcry somewhere in the brushwood. But he couldn't see anything and his captors didn't seem to mind.

Considering the utmost care the rogue knights took to cover their tracks Arthur gave up any hope that someone would find out his whereabouts any time soon. Some hours later they crossed Camelot's border unseen and unheard.

The ride seemed endless. The moment in which the restraints had changed from a nuisance into a torment had long passed before the leader ordered a halt. The sun had set a while ago and a blue velvet summer night dawned. Under the trees it was already very dark.

Pendragon didn't even think of screaming but fought for every breath after they had finally pulled off the gag. When a canteen was put to his lips he gulped down the water as fast as they would let him.

Surprisingly the rogue knights' leader gave him ample time to recover before he tried to clog his captive's mouth once again with the rag. "Come on, son, hold still!"

With a violent jerk of his head Arthur shook off the man's hand. "Take your hands off me, you filthy pig."

The radiant eyes didn't even blink. The leader took a firmer hold of Arthur's face and forced the rag back in, deep enough to make him retch. After he had secured it once more with the scarf the man lunged out and slapped the prisoner's face. Not very hard but enough to make his point.

"Alive and in one piece I said, nothing more! So don't make this harder on yourself than it already is." To Arthur's dismay the stranger shackled his wrists behind his back with metal handcuffs which he additionally fastened to his waist before he cut through the ropes. "I know you weren't knighted for your title only. But other than from the ropes not even you will break free from these pretty manacles." He grinned in genuine amusement when he heard his captive moan in frustration while he also cuffed Arthur's ankles tightly together. Subsequently he searched for a stable branch of the nearest tree and tied the leash's end around it, safely out of Arthur's reach. "Have a good night. If all goes well you'll see the last of us tomorrow, when our employers come to pick you up!"

Pendragon furiously fought against his restraints once his captors had left him alone, humiliatingly confident that he had no chance whatsoever to free himself. When he finally gave up the mismatched fight between human flesh and solid iron he was covered in sweat.

His mind went back to his dead men, their faces coming to him from the dark, frozen in the anguish of their last moments. Young, good-humoured Gareth with his child-like dimples, always ready to laugh, Anwar who had silently mourned for Morgana after she had been taken from Camelot, thinking that his feelings were a well hidden secret while they had been plainly written in his face for everyone to see. And finally Sir Margath, Arthur's teacher at the sword who had trained his Prince until even King Uther had found nothing to criticise – all of a sudden the old mantra that no man is worth your tears sounded hollow and embarrassingly inadequate. They did deserve them, and much more.

Unable to express his rage and grief Arthur found his sole consolation in the thought that at least his servant had escaped death. It still seemed like a miracle that Merlin hadn't been back from searching firewood at the time of the attack. Ever since the young man had accompanied his Prince into the fight against the Great Dragon and had come back with him Arthur had, if only to himself, given up pretending that Merlin was anything but his best friend. The mere thought that his clumsy, defenceless official manservant and unofficial close companion could have been among those recklessly slaughtered sickened the Prince until he choked under his gag.

The night seemed to drag on endlessly until, in the first dawn, another group of knights reached the makeshift camp. The 'employers' had come to claim their prey.