Morteus became aware of an acute pain around his hands. He fumbled about with his hands, trying to reach something, but found that they were tightly bound around the wrists.
He tried rubbing his eyes with his arms and winced as he pulled his shoulders. Where am I? He sat up with a little difficulty and leaned against the wall. If that is a wall. He tried standing up, teetering on the edge of falling. A sudden jerk sent Morteus crashing to the floor. Struggling to get up, he gave up and lay lethargically on the floor.
I’m in a moving caravan. He heard the clip-clop of horse hooves and a familiar protesting bray, followed by vexed shouts and another pained and subdued neigh.
“What are we going to do with the boy?” A hoarse voice rasped.
“Perhaps we could convince him we’re friends, not foe. It would be much easier if he cooperated,” Another voice remarked.
“We’d better untie his hands before the drug wears off, then,” Morteus heard a loud groan and the whinnies of horses as the cart pulled to a screeching stop. The entire caravan shook as the flap opened, letting the faint light of early morning in. He closed his eyes hastily as he saw a large, hunkering figure enter, wishing fervently that he had not seen him awake.
He felt his hands being pulled up roughly, and a sharp twinge as the roped was pulled off his wrists. He resisted the urge to flex his fingers and hands, and waited until the rumbling of the cart to be sure that the man was gone.
“Giddyap!” The caravan lurched forward again, sending Morteus tumbling across the wooden ground. He didn’t pick himself up, and just lay there.
After what felt like an eternity, the cart stopped abruptly and Morteus opened his eyes and looked up, right into the smiling face of a grizzle-haired man. He had hard brown eyes, and a body of firm muscle.
“Yer awake,” a wider grin flashed across the man’s face, but it didn’t reach his eyes. “Name’s Valerius.”
Morteus blinked and stared blearily into his face, putting up a show. “Where am I? Who are you?”
“Don’t yer worry, prince, we’re here to help yer,” Valerius pulled Morteus up, beaming at him.
He led Morteus out of the caravan, and the early light of dawn was still starting to show. Morteus examined his surroundings. It looked like he wasn’t so far away from the castle. The paths and buildings still looked the same in the sandy gold, although they were shabbier and a few broken bricks were lying here and there.
A rusty, grubby-looking pub greeted them.
“Well, don’t yeh just stand teh,” The fat man grumbled and hopped off the seat of the caravan, making the cart shake precariously. A loud whinny reached Morteus and he turned.
“Majesty!” He couldn’t control the momentary relief he felt.
“Yeh horse will be fine,” The rumbling man groused. “Now follow me into the tavern will yeh?”
The torn down sign read ‘The Tavern’. How original. “Why are you taking me here?”
Valerius smiled and put a reassuring- actually, restraining- hand on his shoulder. “We’re taking you to somehow who can help your situation,” he pulled him towards the dusty doors of the tavern.
It was very dark and shabby inside, with dozens of broken tables and a bar lined with grimy beer bottles and mugs. Surprisingly, there were at least half a dozen people gulping down beer, most hooded or cloaked.
“Whom are you taking me to? You’re not turning me in to the king, are you?” Morteus’ tone was unmistakably worried.
Valerius and the fat man exchanged glances. “Of course not,” Valerius said soothingly. “Do we look like King’s servants ter yeh? Besides,” he dropped to a low whisper, “There’s people offering double the king’s price for yeh, that’s righ’ eh, Flavian?”
Flavian muttered something under his breath, and looked around, his attention caught by a slim figure at the bar. Although she was cloaked, it was easy to tell she was a female.
“Why hello there, m’lady,” Flavian attempted to bow, but his belly slammed against her chair and she rose, her delicate hands withdrawn. Flavian hustled backwards, embarrassed. “I didn’t know I’d be doin’ business with a beautiful lady as yer,” he breathed in an undertone. “Care fer a beer? And perhaps a little something after?” Flavian raised his eyebrows comically, simpering.
Morteus felt his blood boil. A woman shouldn’t be treated that way.
The lady chuckled, but in obvious distaste. “Let’s keep this professional, shall we?” She smiled from under her hood and slid a hand underneath her cloak.
Morteus’ attention snapped to him and the lady. Doing business. Valerius looked at him and pulled him to a table, plopping him down in a rickety seat. “A beer fer yer?”
“Uh, no thanks,” He eyed Flavian and the woman, who was now discreetly exchanging packages under the table. He saw Flavian motion to them, and the woman gracefully floated towards their table and greeted them.
“Well, hello Morteus,” She inclined her head, and he could see her slanted eyes shining from underneath the cloak. “My name’s Isoldé, and I’m glad to finally be able to meet you.”
Morteus averted his gaze and looked at Valerius, who seemed to be engaged in conversation with Flavian.
“You won’t have to deal with them anymore. Come with me,” her voice was soft and charming.
Morteus’ mind spun, and he felt like he was swimming in deep water, with no sense of direction. Part of him wanted to go with this woman, but to whom would she bring him? And if he didn’t, what would Valerius and Flavian do?
“I’d be happy to bite at the bullet,” he swallowed, waiting for her to smile and reach for his hand. Valerius and Flavian smiled smugly, and Morteus could see them fingering strings of coins in their hands.
In a split second, he moved aside the lady’s outstretched arm aside and bolted towards the door, only to have his cloak pulled back with a dexterous flick of her wrist. She pulled him close in what seemed like an embrace, but whispered ominously in his ear, “I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”
She released him, but the force of it blew his hood backwards, revealing his curly hair.
A collective gasp around the room told Morteus he was in trouble.
There was a taunting pause, and then the pub erupted into an uproar of chaos as everyone got up and started advancing on Morteus, fighting amongst themselves to get hold of him. Morteus backed away, bewildered, and saw that his three captors were hastening to hold them back. Even the bartender had dropped the cloth he was using to wipe gritty glasses, and was trying to get past the small herd of people.
Morteus made his way softly towards the door and stepped outside, pulling his cloak back on. The moment Morteus closed the door, a man in a brown cloak gripped his arm.
“Let me go!” Morteus exclaimed, before the man clamped a hand over his mouth and pulled him over to the side of the path.
“There’s no time to waste,” the man said, shaking Morteus a bit. “I’m not here to hurt you,” he shook his cloak back to show his face.
Morteus inhaled sharply and stopped grappling with him.
“Who are you?” He asked, marveling despite the compulsion to run away. The man standing in front of him was… himself. The same mass of curly hair, the same sparkling blue eyes, the same tanned muscles. Morteus shook his head. It was like looking at his reflection, except this man was slightly taller than him.
“I’m Lancelot. I can’t explain right now, but I’m sure we’ll see each other again,” he said, unfastening his brown cloak and motioning for Morteus to do the same. Mystified, Morteus took off his black cloak and handed it to him. Lancelot put on the black cloak and helped Morteus with his brown one, pulling him behind Valerius’ cart to hide as the shouts coming from inside the tavern amplified.
“They’ve probably realized you’re not there,” He whispered anxiously. “I need you to take your horse,” he paused, hastily untying Majesty from the cart, “and ride as fast as you can away from here.”
Morteus frowned. “Why are you helping me? And- they’ll chase after me,” He said, confused. “And I need to find-”
“It’s not safe for you in town,” Lancelot said firmly. “They won’t chase after you. I have a plan.”
The door of the tavern swung open and Lancelot quickly pushed Morteus up onto Majesty. Morteus looked down into the kind, benevolent eyes of his saviour. “Who are you? Why are you helping me?”
Lancelot paused for a second, his hand on Majesty’s back. A small tear formed in his eye.
“I’m doing this because you’re my little brother,” he said softly, then rapped Majesty’s rump as hard as he could. “Now go!”
Majesty lurched forward and Morteus turned back to look at Lancelot, seeing a mob of angry drinkers swarm around Lancelot.