I'm having a bit of trouble sticking with my long term stories at the moment, so this one will be short, three chapters maximum, just to keep my brain going. And I've missed my little Exiles, so I thought I would go back to them for a bit.
Merlin, Jonas and Robert went into the guardhouse, having discovered that was the rest of their group's location in the small town they were staying in. It wasn't meant to be a long stop but since Arthur, Rupert and Gareth had failed to meet them it had turned out to be a day longer.
"We should be able to get back into the lodgings for another night," Jonas mused.
"If there has been trouble, the guard may not want us to stay," Robert reasoned.
"And if there has been trouble, best to get Arthur out of town, just in case there are any patrols passing. They might recognise him," Merlin murmured as they went through the door.
They found Malek, the farmer they had been helping out recently and had travelled to the town with, talking to the guard. He turned as they walked in.
"I've been trying to explain to them, it wouldn't have been your friends fault."
"They caused a fight in the tavern," the guard announced stubbornly. "I know you said they were helping you Malek, but they're strangers, we don't know them."
"Yes I know that, they offered to escort us into town because of the robberies that have occurred recently," Malek said, the old man trying to be a placid as possible. One glance told the knights and Merlin it was probably best course of action, they took that lead and simply waited, letting Malek defend them.
"So they know how to fight?" the guard concluded, eyeing the swords on Jonas' and Robert's belts. Merlin gave his best harmless smile. He was unarmed, and unassuming looking. The guard didn't look impressed, but one glance at Malek seemed to help him make a decision. He turned back to Merlin and the others.
"If you can pay their fine and leave before dusk, then I'll release them. It's two gold coins each."
Jonas sighed but nodded. "Fine."
The guard relaxed at the easy conclusion. Malek gave the three of them an apologetic shrug. Merlin gave another smile.
"We can always head out of town and wait for you if you want us to travel back with you tomorrow. I'm sorry you ended up getting stuck for another day," he said to the old man. He would probably feel better knowing that. The old man nodded, and Merlin turned and ran to catch up with Jonas and Rupert, who had followed the guard to the cells further into the building. Merlin skidded to a halt and gasped as he looked into the cage where their friends were housed.
Gareth and Rupert were a little battered, but intact, Merlin scanned them and realised the injuries were probably superficial. Both of them looked sheepish and worried. And as for the remaining member of their troop.
Arthur was conspicuous by his absence.
"Come on sunshine!" A voice called loudly, it was accompanied by a clanging sound.
Arthur groaned, his head was pounding, and he automatically reached up to rub it, flinching as he found a tender spot on his temple and something cold smacked against his cheek. He opened his eyes, flinching as the red rays of the dying sun blinded him. Squinting his eyes he swallowed heavily, the rocking motion he was enduring making him feel a little sick, or was that due to the blow to his head.
"Oi, pretty boy!"
There was another clang, Arthur risked opening his eyes again, his gaze fixing on the manacle around his wrist. The sight made him jerk in shock, looking around, registering the bars of the cage he was in. One that appeared mildly familiar.
"He's awake boss!" the voice yelled. Arthur turned in the direction of the call, frowning as he recognised one of the men who had started the fight in the tavern. Arthur looked around again, he was propped against the bars of the cage, his wrists locked in the manacles that were attached by chains to the bars. Arthur yanked on them, looking around in shock. The cart stopped and the man driving hopped down moving to the side of the cage, to get a better look at Arthur. Arthur's stomach plummeted into his boots, flopping over a few times on the way down, just for good measure.
"Halig," Arthur stated flatly.
The bounty hunter gave a mocking bow. "Sire."
"Let me out of here," Arthur demanded. Halig straightened up and started to chuckle. The two men with him laughed as well, more as if they were just joining in rather than understanding the joke. Halig looked back up at Arthur.
"After all the trouble we went through to get you in there. No. The only moment I am going to let you out is when we are in the presence of King Uther. I dare say I will be well rewarded for bringing his errant son home."
Arthur jerked on the chains again, although it knew it to be hopeless. He glared down at the bounty hunter and lashed out quickly trying to make a grab for him. Halig stepped back, moving clear of the attack. One of his goons grabbed Arthur's arm, trapping it and twisting painfully. Arthur gasped, trying to get free. The man only stopped as Halig tapped him lightly with the club he was holding.
"Careful. Uther will not be pleased if his son is delivered back to him in anything less than peak condition."
Arthur blinked back the tears of pain that had risen and he looked around. He wasn't getting out of the cage, or the chains. He took a deep breath to calm himself, so he could think rationally. The others had to know what was going on. The only way he was getting out of this was if he was rescued.
It would be a week of travelling, if not longer considering the slow gait of the transport, to get to Camelot. He had time. Halig eyed him carefully and then turned, scrambling back up onto the seat at the front of the cart, one of the men walked next to the cage eyeing Arthur with amusement, the other climbed up and sat next to Halig as he urged the horses on. Arthur lurched in the back, sitting down and trying to relax, while eyeing the locks on the shackles.
The others would be right behind him, Arthur assured himself. They'd get him out of this mess. Merlin would get him out of this mess.
The five of them were riding silently, following the road out of town, having established which road Halig had taken, and confirming he had an unconscious, blond prisoner locked in the back. They had been silent ever since Gareth and Rupert explained what happened, and Gareth had, before he had been knocked out, spotted the bounty hunter in the bar.
No one but Merlin was going to break the tense silence as they rode out of town, just as dusk fell. Not while the storm clouds were brewing behind his eyes. None of them would speak to Merlin, until he had spoken first and probably given Gareth and Rupert the dressing down they knew was coming.
Over the last few weeks they had been teasing Merlin mercilessly, as they had helped Malek with shearing his sheep flock. The old man had been unable to do much, his hands crippled with arthritis. His son was the only one able to work. Robert had grown up on his father's lands, where many people had kept sheep and Robert had learnt the skills required, so he had offered to help and train the others to assist.
Merlin had proved incapable of even catching, let alone turning and pinning a sheep for shearing. In the end he had been relegated to helping Malek's wife and his sturdy, plump (although some of the plumpness was eight months of pregnancy,) daughter-in-law spin and weave the wool.
It had turned out quite well. They had two new blankets and several sheets of material that could be turned into clothes since the daughter-in-law had also taken it upon herself to improve Merlin's sewing skills.
The knights had spent their time teasing Merlin, in their usual good-hearted way, reminding Merlin, as he endured it, that he was very much the youngster of the group, who often got babied by them. Except on occasions like this, when Merlin became something else entirely.
He took his responsibility for Arthur's safety very seriously. Merlin, the sorcerer with a great destiny, could be a very different character indeed. That personality was currently brewing under his usually placid exterior. They didn't have to wait very long for the storm of Merlin's anger to peak, if nothing else, they didn't have the time.
"What the hell did you think you were doing?" Merlin bellowed, as they trotted their horses into the woods. The knights all jumped, not just because Merlin shouted but also he simultaneously conjured a light ball to fight the encroaching darkness.
"It was Arthur's idea," Gareth said.
"Let me guess, he wanted to measure the mood of the people," Merlin rumbled. Gareth looked embarrassed. Rupert found his horse's mane very interesting.
"Sorry," Rupert said.
Merlin spluttered. "Why the hell didn't you stop him?"
"He's the prince," Gareth said, hardly comprehending the idea of not obeying Arthur.
"He's also a prat!" Merlin snapped.
"To be fair, we had been around the town for three days now. None of us could have really expected to find anyone who knew Arthur in such a remote market town," Jonas said.
Merlin snorted, it made his horse jump and he pulled the mare to a halt. She paused and the knights jerked to a stop. Shifting his leg against her side Merlin got the mare to spin round so he could face the knights. She did so merrily, snuffling her nose against Arthur's riderless gelding, who happily snuffled back before pulling forward in Jonas's grip and starting to groom her neck.
"We can't risk it!" Merlin told them. "It's all very well on remote farms and outlying villages, I told you it was a bad idea to stay to long. We could have waited for Malek in the forest. Now we have had to abandon them. I shouldn't have left Arthur. This wouldn't have happened if I was there."
Not a single one of the knights disputed that. Rupert looked like he was counting every hair on the horse's neck. Merlin blinked as he looked at them, temper dissipating as he realised they were all waiting for him to think of something.
"They're only a day ahead," he said.
"And moving slower," Jonas added. "We should be able to catch them up by tomorrow."
"If I can keep the light glowing we can travel tonight," Merlin said.
"At least until you get tired," Robert said. "You can't ride if you have to put too much energy into it."
"If we get to that someone can hold me in the saddle," Merlin ordered. Jonas nodded. "And you need to make sure you lot start telling Arthur what he can and can't do. I'll tell him so!"
"Halig isn't going to hurt him, all he'll do is take him back to Uther, and he's not going to hurt Arthur."
Merlin sighed heavily, pulling his mare away from the gelding. She gave her own little sigh.
"I think there is a difference between Arthur returning in his own time under his own terms, and being forcibly taken back in a bounty hunter's cage."
"Which is a lesson Arthur is probably learning," Jonas said.