CHAPTER 7 : REINFORCEMENTS TO THE RESCUE
They were on the road early the next morning. They'd put up in at an inn for the night and left a daybreak. It was rainy and the woods were dark and gloomy but the road was good and they made great time. They broke mid-morning for the horses and stood around stretching their muscles. The rain had finally stopped and a pale sun was visible through the trees. They were approaching the border of Camelot and by lunch should be in the kingdom of Gower.
They'd ridden maybe an hour when suddenly, Thierry in the lead, stopped and held up his hand. They all followed his order. A lone rider was standing in the middle of the trail, hand resting languidly on the hilt of his still unsheathed sword. His horse swung across the track efficiently blocking it.
The rider lifted his head taking a good look at the travellers and said, "Gentlemen, if I we're to say, 'For the Love of Camelot', would I be speaking out of turn?"
Merlin stood in his stirrups as he heard the voice and yelled, "Gawaine! A sight for sore eyes, if I ever saw one." He pushed by Thierry and Leon and reached Gawaine first.
"Arthur's in trouble. We're the advance party in disguise..."
"Some disguise those destiers have Camelot stamped all over them!"
"But only to people in the know, not to the ordinary citizens." said Leon reaching out to shake his hand. "Will you join us, we need all the help, we can get. In return, I might even be able to get you a few days in Camelot."
"Oh, to see again the fair maidens of Camelot, the generous barmaids and alehouses of the town, a dream I always have." He turned winking at Merlin and the others laughed.
Leon rode next to him and brought him up to date. Gawaine had heard nothing about knights, horses and weapons. He knew Gower and said that by early afternoon they would be over the border. Leon called Evan forward introduced him and asked him to answer any questions which Gawaine might have.
Merlin felt that their chances of finding Arthur were looking up as Gawaine usually had his ear to the ground as he made his way across various kingdoms, alehouse to alehouse. He said that he had heard about the fire as it had been seen by many as it lit up the sky at night. He knew which valley it was in so they stayed on the trail until he told them to turn in a more easterly direction.
They dismounted and Leon had Gielbert blaze three trees in a row to show the search party where they had turned. Each slashed tree representing a knight. They discussed splitting up and having two knights follow the original trail of Arthur's escort but it was decided that there was safety in numbers and the main goal was to find the cowshed and the prince. Then the group could divide if necessary.
They tried to keep conversation to a minimum but Leon had Gawaine and Evan compare notes on the landscape. Evan at one point turned to say something to Merlin and stopped dead, saying, "I remember seeing that lake as there were deer there and I had thought it would be great hunting territory."
Slowly they were getting closer.
It was dark again. Arthur had noticed that Humphrey's breathing was getting worse. He was still intermittently sawing away at the rope and finally Arthur felt something give. He felt his elbows release and excruciated pains shot through his shoulders and arms. He gasped.
"Did I cut you?"
"No, the pain is in my muscles. They haven't been able to move and it is excruciating."
"I got through the last strand and can feel the cut end of the rope but it's too dark, I can't see anything to try to figure which knot I should be working on. If you can bear to stay where you are for the moment, I'll fiddle around and see what happens." Arthur felt a little less pressure on his arms and the pain surged again.
After what seemed like an hour, he felt Humphrey pulling the rope through a loop or knot. He made himself force his arms back and suggested that Humphrey try to slide the whole binding down below his elbows. Suddenly he gasped as one elbow was free. Tears came to his eyes as the pain shot up his neck and into his skull. Slowly sections of his arms were awakening and it felt like the worse case of pins and needles which he had ever experienced. Worse even, than when Merlin had slept on his arm all night. Merlin! He felt his heart constrict, then relax. One day...
"That's as much as I can do now. It will hopefully go faster in the daylight. Are you any more comfortable with your elbows loose? Tomorrow, I'll work on your wrists."
"Thanks, now try to sleep, it will make the night pass faster. Once I get my hands unbound, I'll free you and then the next thing I'm going to do when you are free is get to the stream. I'm parched. I keep seeing Merlin trying to pour water into goblets without splashing it all over the place. Even a drip on my lips would be heaven! Dear God, I hope I'll witness that again before I die."
"Arthur, don't talk like that once you wrists are free, you will be able to work on your ankles and then on me."
"Don't let me sleep in!"
Humphrey laughed. "All I can dream of is my chamber and my bed. I'll appreciate it all the more from now on."
"Yeah!" said Arthur but the bed he was thinking of wasn't empty. Someone very important was asleep in it and as he lay there on the dirt floor, he realised that he couldn't even hug himself as his wrists were still tied behind his back and he'd now been lying toppled over since yesterday. He kept thinking of a beetle that had flipped over and whose little legs were mercilessly beating at the air trying to figure out what had happened to the ground. He smiled, from now on, he would take the time to right any up-ended beetles. Merlin would approve of that...
Gawaine lay out his bedroll next to Merlin so that they could talk freely. Once it had become too dark to ride, they'd found a meadow with a stream and a woodlot and set up for the night. The sky was clear. They'd had a fire and Thierry had returned with two rabbits. Roasted on a spit, they proved excellent. A little bread from one of their saddlebags and water from the stream completed the meal.
"Why weren't you with Arthur?"
"The king refused me permission to accompany him and sent Humphrey."
"He's a good man but you know Arthur would prefer you with him."
"I might have been a distraction..."
Gawaine laughed outright, "You think...?"
Even in the dark, Merlin could feel his cheeks flushing. He hated this forced separation. Knowing what Evan had witnessed, he was worried as one of the captors sounded mean and small minded. Arthur wasn't too good at controlling his temper and if he were tied up and baited he would mouth off and get himself into more trouble.
"I couldn't ask for a better friend. I'm worried, Gawaine, remember Cave Two, what happens if things get out of control like that and you aren't there to save him?"
"I can't see anyone being able to mess with Arthur unless he is hogtied and the assailant is very strong but..."
"Now, you've made me feel worse," Merlin said with a catch in his voice.
Gawaine said, "Come here, you need a shoulder to cry on and a big hug."
Merlin fell asleep in Gawaine's arms, feeling the safest he'd felt in days. He dreamt that tomorrow was the day that they would find Arthur.
Gawaine woke early and reluctantly slipped his arms from Merlin and turned away from him to spend the rest of the night alone. Arthur would never really understand how lucky he was to have Merlin love him. However, Gawaine could see that although he would never do anything to break up their relationship, he would have no problem loving Merlin should the opportunity arise.
By daylight, they were mounted and on the road again. They were all scanning the horizon for a burnt hill with dead pines. They took an early lunch break and finished all the bread. There were few villages in this area but at one where they had stopped, the locals assured them that the hill was about a half day further ahead on the trail.
Again, Gielbert enquired about people with horses and tack available but no results. Nerves were getting short and Thierry had snapped at Gielbert who gave back as good as he got from the older knight. Leon stepped in and rode with Thierry sending Gielbert back to ride with Merlin and Gawaine.
Gawaine smiled, "Losing it, are you? Come now don't let any old age pensioner set you off. You need to keep all your strength if we run into trouble when we find Arthur."
Gielbert grinned and said, "Right on, Sir Knight!" Leon hearing him, turned back and smiled relieved that he had settled so quickly. Their nerves were all tightly coiled.
Arthur woke with the birds and tried to stretch but his body wouldn't cooperate. He lifted his head to Humphrey and saw that he was still asleep. He hadn't the heart to wake him even though he wanted him to work on his wrist bindings.
He lay listening to Humphrey's breathing and thought, 'Why haven't we been found by anyone? Was anyone looking?' He thought it was the twelfth day but realised it might only be the eleventh. They needed water. Humphrey was looking drawn and not well. Water would make them both feel a little better. He worried if he would ever regain feeling below his knees. The ropes were very tight and he couldn't feel his feet. If he could have one person with him besides Merlin, it would be Gaius. He would be able to check out Humphrey and then see to his legs.
He dozed off, he dreamt that he was back with Gaius sitting at the table having breakfast and he was being told off for sitting on his folded leg. "Sit on your bottom, that's why you have one!" He laughed and woke himself up.
Humphrey was awake and smiled at him. "Well, at least someone had a nice dream. All I dreamt of was food and sitting with friends in front of a very generous portion of mead."
"Don't worry, when we get out of here. I'll have a cask of mead sent to your chamber and you will be able to entertain to your heart's content!"
"I'll keep you to that, Sire. Can I try to undo your wrists in the daylight? I would say that we should do it after breakfast but that's not going to happen!"
Humphrey moved behind Arthur and grasped his wrists. "I can feel your hands, Humphrey, that's better than yesterday."
"This isn't going to take that long. I can see the way the knots were tied and with luck within the next hour, you'll be waving your arms and we can shake hands."
True to his word, Humphrey managed to get Arthur's hands free. He screamed as they fell to the ground but slowly the pain diminished and he looked in fascination as he slowly managed to command each finger to curl and relax. He managed to sit upright and lean forward. His muscles screamed as he rounded his spine. Once he had control, he hesitantly started to work on Humphrey's wrists. To begin with, he was all thumbs but slowly he got the hang of it. He was worried as one of the servant's wrists seemed to be at a strange angle.
Finally, he had his former manservant's hands free and gently massaged them until the colour came back into them and Humphrey's face had relaxed from the obvious pain. He then untied his ankles but forbade him from trying to stand, telling him to practice stretching out his legs, bending his knees and making circles with his ankles.
At last, with a little smile, Arthur bent over and started to undo the knots which held his own knees together. He cringed as gravity pulled them apart. He straightened them out and felt his muscles rebel as he pulled his feet towards his body and leaned over to work on the rope around his ankles. He gingerly stretched each leg and massaged each joint until he felt the pain as the feeling in his nerves and muscles returned and his feet woke up.
"I'm going to try to stand."
"Well, hang onto something. You'll probably feel dizzy and your legs will be like jelly."
"Thank you, Humphrey, for that vote of confidence." But he was right, Arthur knelt up and waves of dizziness struck him. He stayed still until they passed and then put one foot flat on the floor and tensed and shifted his weight feeling his weakness. He grabbed a wooden post and slowly pulled and pushed himself upright. Again, his head reminded him of a morning following a night out on the town and Merlin steadying him to get him upright.
"So far so good." Still hanging onto the post he reached over for the door post and managed to get there. He poked his head outside, in the warm sun. "Now, I'm going to get you up and we will both walk out of here for the first time, unbound."
He shuffled to Humphrey keeping at least one hand on something solid. He knelt and helped Humphrey get to his knees and steadied him as he managed to get one knee bent and one foot securely on the ground. Slowly hanging onto him he got him upright. He moved him so he was also hanging on the wall and the two of them slowly shuffled into the fresh air.
"You did it, Sire!" Humphrey had tears on his face. "I had my doubts that we would get out of there alive. I kept thinking that we would die of starvation."
Arthur helped him to the side of the building and left him propped upright against the wall. He didn't want him to sit in case he couldn't stand again. He found a stick and used it to give him the confidence needed, to walk across an open space. Slowly, he made his way to the stream. He knelt down and drank the water like a dog. He drank too much, too quickly and vomited it up when he tried to stand.
"Little sips at first, Arthur! Your stomach will rebel otherwise." Humphrey laughed, "Sorry, I forgot, Sire, that you are a grown man."
Arthur found a large flat leaf which he dipped in the water and balancing it carefully got most of it back to Humphrey. It wasn't much but his eyes lit up as the drops of cool water flowed past his lips and down his throat.
"We need to find something a little easier to use." Arthur went back to the stream and cupping both his hands placed the leaf in them and filled it with water and carefully stood up taking it back to his manservant. He let Humphrey sip out of his hands and was pleased to see that he made less of a mess than the day when Merlin had tried to feed him wine.
They rested a little while and then he helped Humphrey walk to the stream himself and sit on the fallen tree. Still using the stick, he wandered around trying to find some bowl or container. He was wandering behind the cowshed when he picked up a distinctly unpleasant smell. He recognised it immediately. A decaying body! Holding his hand over his nose and mouth, he traced it to the rotting remains of the third captor. Beside the body, glinting in the sunlight, he found one of the little hunting knives many knights carry. He retrieved it and returned to Humphrey.
"Things are looking up, we have a knife, we have water, we have a roof over our heads and I'm sure there must be good things to eat in the woods. Do you mind staying here while I see if I can find things to eat? I didn't spent ten years with Gaius without picking up some very interesting information about the woods."
True to his word, Arthur returned with some berries, mushrooms, nuts, leaves and four grasshoppers. He was as proud as any ten year old. He proudly showed the gooseberries, red currants, walnuts, mint, chives and wild parsley leaves to Humphrey. "We can eat any of these and won't get sick. Not too sure about the grasshoppers though."
"I think I'll pass on those, Sire, if you don't mind."
Arthur wriggled his nose saying, "I think you're right about that..."
They sat in the sun, enjoying the novelty of freedom and picked on a variety of food. Arthur had decided that if they stayed around for a few days, they would at least have water and they could regain some of their strength and possibly, Evan and Mulgan might be back with knights in the not too distant future. As it got cooler, they returned to the cowshed and Arthur had a good scout around. He picked up a piece of the miniature and slipped it into his tunic and sat down. Humphrey noticed and suddenly remembered Merlin's note which he had hidden in his tunic. He pulled it out and without a word handed it to Arthur.
Arthur opened it and his eyes filled with tears. He put his head in his hands and hid them from Humphrey. Suddenly he was on his feet, "I got it! I finally got it!" He turned and looked sheepishly at Humphrey and said with a broken voice, "Gooseberries mean anticipation." ...and he blushed.
Humphrey said quietly, "You found one in a million when Merlin came to Camelot. He's special, always remember to treat him with care, I have a feeling that you would be lost without him, both now and also for some reason in the future. I'm sure, you'll see him again. Must say, I'd like to see his happy smiling face as well! We're both emotional wrecks at the moment. I've been treating you like the little boy whom you no longer are and you have assumed the role of adult helping me out of the ropes and getting me on my feet."
"Humphrey, was I a nuisance when you had to look after me?"
"No, but on the first occasion I met you, and Gaius explained whom I was and what my job would be, you were quite furious and told me in no uncertain terms, that you had no need for a nurse-maid! You were quite amusing but when we first went to Yewdene, you relaxed and allowed me to look after you a little more.
"You were always on the ball and quite opinionated about everything from not being able to stay at Gaius's to whispering to me before you went to bed that one day everyone would find out that a big mistake had been made and that Gaius really was your father. I never told anyone for years but just last year I told Gaius. He became quite emotional and I knew that deep down he still considers you his little boy. You were the best gift that anyone could ever have given him."
"I was lucky wasn't I, to have been raised by a wonderful man with so much love and understanding?" Arthur fell silent as he relived little examples of Gaius's fatherly love.
"Sire, I think we should try to rest. Tomorrow, we will have some planning to do and some exercising to get this old body back into some sort of shape for the walk home."
"Well, I don't intend to walk, I'll commandeer some horses and we'll ride home in style."
"I think, I'd need to work a miracle getting you to look like a prince again. Goodnight, Arthur sleep tight!"
Arthur realised that people played such an important part in raising children and in working together for a common goal. Tomorrow, their push towards their common goal would commence as with his freedom secured, now he was able to look into the future and plan...