“He’s mine!” Someone wrestled forward, roughly grabbing Lancelot by the sleeve.
A colossal, dark tattooed man hunkered forward and heaved Lancelot up onto his shoulders like a sack. “No, he’s mine,” he bellowed. Lancelot winced and hung limply there, not quite sure whether anyone would be able to tell him apart from the real Morteus. He caught Isoldé staring in silent rage and suspicion at him, and quickly turned away.
“Let me down!” He hammered on the man’s back, but to no avail.
“I’m taking this young rascal to retrieve my money,” the man thundered. “Anyone want to challenge that?”
The indignant but submissive looks on the faces of the other men said it all. They shrank back into the pub and continued with their drinks, somehow more surly than before. A few edged forward, nettled, but then seemed to think better of it and backed off.
The olive-skinned male leered at everyone and grabbed a sack draped on the horse-driver’s seat of the caravan. Valerius showed signs of annoyance, but didn’t stop the man. “The prince’s horse has gone too,” he muttered to Flavian.
“Wait!” Isoldé called out, her hands drawn together in a gesture of respect. “May I ask the prince something?”
The man swung around and stared at her. “What’s a fine ‘lady like yer doin’ here?” He towered over her imposingly.
Isoldé wound her fingers together. “Lord knows, perhaps I’m just joining you to have high tea…” She muttered, drawing a laugh from Valerius. She spoke louder for the man’s benefit. “Now, if you’d just excuse me a second…” She moved forward and looked up at Lancelot. “Morteus- why did you let your horse go, and not escape yourself?”
Lancelot tried to avoid looking at Isoldé. “Well- well-” He fumbled to find an excuse. “I wanted Majesty to escape. If I went on the horse someone would’ve come after me,” His flimsy excuse was unconvincing, but it was all he could think of. “Now- let. Me. Down!” He pounded on his back. “I refuse to return to the king!”
Isoldé looked dubious, but she caught the impatient and intolerant look on the man’s face. She turned away and stalked back towards the bar, as the swarthy man threw the bag over Lancelot and swung the sack higher over his back. He trundled off, towards a black carriage. Valerius stared at the carriage in awe. It was sinister-looking, with steel bars and spikes protruding out of it, and drawn monstrous dark horses clad in black cloth.
He turned away. “We’d better leave, ‘fore she comes lookin’,” Valerius whispered forcefully, dragging a reluctant Flavian along with him towards the carriage.
“Not so fast, lads,” Isoldé slid over, one of her hands in her cloak. She drew her cloak back slightly, revealing a dagger. Its blade glinted dangerously in the morning light. “You got your money, but I didn’t get my man.”
“M’lady, we delivered ‘im, fair n’ square,” Valerius protested, belligerently.
Isoldé drew the dagger out further, menacingly.
“Alrigh’ Alrigh’,” Flavian’s eyes widened in fear. “Ow!” He rubbed his leg, glaring at Valerius, who kicked him viciously. “What do yer expect us ter do? Return yer money?”
“No, I expect you to go after Morteus,” Isoldé smiled coyly.
“What?” Valerius exclaimed in outrage. “And defy that man?”
“It’s either you deal with him, or deal with my master,” Isoldé arched her eyebrows. Valerius and Flavian both turned deathly white. Isoldé slid her dagger back in her cloak and swirled the black cloth around her. “Good. I expect him back in two hours.”
With looks of horror frozen on their faces, the pair rushed towards their cart. They stumbled and tumbled over their feet, and their robes flapped amusingly around them. They quickly bounded up the caravan and turned the horses around, galloping after the man.
Isoldé clapped her hand over her mouth to stop the giggles. She abruptly stopped laughing as she thought about her master and his fury. Morteus. What trouble he had caused. They needed him back before noon. Walking a few steps towards the caravan that the pair had left behind, she picked up a few brown strands of horsehair.
It doesn’t make sense. Why would he let his horse go? Unless he was sending a message? Or… Isoldé’s heart raced. How could I have been so stupid?
She whistled, and a large horse came bounding up to her. Holding up the horsehair, she let him sniff it, then mounted the horse.
“After him,” she whispered in the horse’s ear, and they galloped off, leaving a trail of dust behind them.
Where am I going? Morteus’ legs were sore after a few minutes of riding. Letting Majesty gallop forward into the horizon, Morteus stared at the empty streets of the early morning.
I met my uncle and my mother… And now my brother? Is this fate? Morteus shook his head. Was there such a thing as destiny?
He let Majesty slow down to a trot as the sun came out, the hot weather enervating them. With closed eyes, he leaned forward against Majesty, listening to the steady clopping sound of the horse hooves against pavement.
A distant clip-clop sound disturbed the rhythm of the hooves. Morteus’ eyes snapped open and he turned backwards to see Isoldé on a sleek black horse, galloping down the path. She was barely a few hundred meters away.
“Hurry!” Morteus sat up and dug his heels into Majesty’s ribs, and he spurted forward, desperate to escape the mysterious woman behind him.
“Wait!” Isoldé called after him, and urged her horse to go faster as well. Majesty was no match for him. “I come in peace! I don’t mean any harm!”
That’s what Lancelot said. Morteus faltered.
Isoldé charged forward, and was barely ten meters behind him now. “I paid the two rascals to buy off your freedom. There’s nowhere for you to go anyway,” she was on par with him, just ten centimeters to the right. “Please, just stop to hear me out.”
They rode alongside each other though the path was barely big enough for both horses. Morteus sensed the truth in her words, but didn’t want to acknowledge it. He crouched forward, pushing Majesty to sprint forward. Isoldé tapped her heels into her horse, keeping pace with ease. The two flashed by the stalls side by side with frightening speed.
“Morteus, stop!” Isoldé shouted, but her words fell on deaf ears. Majesty wavered dangerously for a millisecond, but recovered and galloped forward, even faster than before.
“Fine, you leave me no choice,” She carefully lifted her feet off from in between the stirrups and stepped on top of them. While keeping her grip tight on the reins, she judged the distance between the two horses, swung her right leg over the horse, and launched herself off its back. Time seemed to slow as she was suspended midair, her cloak flapping behind her. Morteus turned backwards in wonder and watched as Isoldé soared through the air and landed squarely on Majesty’s back.
She grasped Morteus’ shoulder as her cloak flew out behind her from the momentum. He was too stunned to shake her off. “How did you do that?” His eyes were as round and shining as orbs.
Majesty slowed, and Morteus turned around to stare at Isoldé in shock. With her cloak gone, he could see her clearly. Isoldé was staggeringly beautiful. Her slanted dark eyebrows were set above shining tawny brown eyes. There were streaks of red in her long wavy auburn-coloured hair that fell down to her waist. Her skin was smooth and pale, with contrastingly luscious red lips. Morteus squinted. She looked so familiar, yet he couldn’t place his finger on where he had seen her before.
“Skills,” she smiled, the force of her charm alluring.
“Halt,” Morteus pulled Majesty’s reins back, and the horse came to a stop. “That was amazing. You’re amazing.”
“Thank you,” Isoldé motioned or Morteus to get off the horse, before she leapt off herself. “How else would I have made you stop?”
She whistled for her own horse, which was about a hundred back. Morteus was mesmerized by her willowy grace as she glided over to him.
“So. If you’re Morteus, who was the doppelganger back there?” Isoldé inquired.
“That was my brother, Lancelot,” answered Morteus. In his own mind, he doubted his words. But who else could it be? Who else would look exactly like him, and have the motivation to save him? Speaking of which, why would Isoldé have any reason whatsoever to rescue him?
“Your brother. I see,” Isoldé’s brows knitted tightly together. “I never knew you had a brother.”
Morteus led Majesty by the reins and stood alongside her. What am I doing here? “Neither did I, until he helped me.”
“And now he’s gone, probably being sold off to the king,” Isoldé murmured. “What are you going to do?”
“I don’t know,” Morteus told her truthfully, aware that he had said this before. I’m so woefully dependent on other people. If I wasn’t with Marlin, or helped by Lancelot… Where would I be? He knew the answer. At the castle. Deep down, he knew that the king would catch up with him, and he would end up back at the castle.
“It’s not safe for you out here, at all,” Isoldé said. “And you don’t have time- even if the king’s soldiers don’t find you… You’ll-” She pursed her lips, and Morteus had a feeling that she had said more than she meant to.
“You can come hide with me,” Smiling beguilingly, she took Morteus’ hand and helped him mount Majesty. She jumped lithely onto her own horse. “Follow me.”
I have to go with her. I have no choice. A throbbing at the side of his head probably meant that a headache was coming on. He gripped Majesty’s reins in frustration. I rely on people too much.
Flicking the reins, Morteus sat on Majesty as she trotted after Isoldé’s horse. “What happened to my two kidnappers?”
Morteus sensed a smile in her voice. “They’ve gone chasing after a man.”
“I thought they were more like ladies than gentlemen,” Morteus chortled. He followed after her, ambling through the streets. People were starting to awaken, and beginning to set up their stalls. Morteus looked up, and with a sinking feeling, he realized they were traveling in the direction of the castle.
“You’re taking me towards the castle,” he accused, making Majesty slow.
“I know a safe place near the castle,” Isoldé replied swiftly, lifting her shoulders in what seemed like a sigh.
They reached a place a few hundred meters away from the castle. Morteus shifted uneasily in the saddle, looking at the small figures he was sure were soldiers. “I’m sorry, I can’t go any nearer.”
“We won’t have to,” she assured, dismounting her horse. Morteus got off his horse, frowning as Isoldé lifted a heavy piece of metal off the floor.
“You’re suggesting we hide in the sewerage?” He couldn’t hide the disbelief in his voice.
“No, but we have to go through that,” Isoldé chuckled at the martyred expression on his face. “Don’t worry, there’s no bodily waste in there.”
She smiled and motioned for him to go first. Morteus slid into the manhole and landed on his feet in the darkness. His head brushed against the roof of the tunnel, and he crouched a little, rubbing his head in case there was dirt coating the dark walls. He moved aside and heard Isoldé land softly on the ground beside him.
“Okay…” Morteus felt slightly insecure as she reached for the metal cover. “Are you sure this is good idea?”
“Just relax. We’ll be there in a minute,” Isoldé sounded oddly triumphant.
“Where-” Morteus’ voice was cut off.
Then everything was silent.