Friday, 24 August 2012

Chapter 6

Chapter 6

Arthur emerged into a large ovoid pit, surrounded my imposing banks, brimming with rowdy village folk, chanting and jeering at his hesitant entrance. At the opposite end of the arena, a fully armoured figure appeared, raising his sword to the midday sun in presumptuous victory. The crowd erupted into explosive joy, and from this Arthur deducted that he was not the favourite to win in this match. He also concluded, from the harshness of the crowd that this was no plastic sword fighting either: the warriors would fight to the death.


While the crowd built up the tension, Arthur wondered why the crowd were so biased; although coated in a thick layer of untarnished armour, his rival was clearly around the same age and athletic build. He also wondered who was behind the armour, and whether they would be of a kind enough disposition to call it a draw.

Arthur peered through the slits in his visor at his opponent, who quit attending to his fans and began to pace in a wide ring, his heavily clad boots pounding the earth in deep, monotonous strides, pacing and pacing like the swinging of a clock pendulum.

This repetitiveness took Arthur back to that night in his bedroom when Time arrived tick-tock-less. His gazed was drawn to a black shadow in the spectator stands, where a poorly formed figure wavered for a split second, and then was gone.

In a sudden snap, while Arthur’s attention was distracted, his challenger lunged at him, and splinters scattered where sword met shield. They withdrew. Then, stroke after stroke came a successive rally of hits. Above and below, jabbing and slashing fearlessly. Each one Arthur fended for his life. Each one grew stronger. Each one encouraged the roar of the crowd.

The fight subsided a little, and the pair returned to pacing warily around each other. Arthur felt the rasping of breath and the pounding of his heart. A bead of sweat trickled down to the end of his nose and clung to it, baiting Arthur to lift his helmet to itch it off.

Arthur had no choice but to remain steady, while the sun warmed his chainmail and his nerves shattered. He heard someone calling him. Their voice was travelling distinctly on the autumn breeze, and he jerked his head around to see his single supporter: it was Robyn. 

All of a sudden, her expression changed from timid support to desperate warning, but Arthur didn’t react quickly enough, and an exploding blow struck him from behind, knocking the breath from his lungs. He fell onto all fours and gasped deeply. The crowed were deafening echoes ringing around is helmet. His eyes glazed over.

Arthur’s heart pumped more desperately by the second, blood was coursing through his pounding head. It was too much effort to raise himself. His life was over. He knew now; he was destined to die for the entertainment of a crowd, surrounded by medieval life but alone in a world he did not even begin to understand. He tried to let go; relax in his final moments, but all he could see before his eyes was Robyn’s shy smile the first time they had met…

His eyes snapped open like a tiger on the hunt, and with a mighty roar he threw himself at the other boy with renewed pace and purpose. Metal screamed on metal. Arthur’s body strained but his willpower overruled everything.

The other partaker was caught a little off guard but continued to defend heroically, and despite his astonishment, he still had the upper hand. Arthur was progressively being pressed towards the wall. His sword and shield were kicked out of his shaking hands and a final jousting thrust caused his helmet to go flying off into the audience stands and he was completely trapped, defenceless, slumped against the wall. 

His eyes watered as he realised that yet again his worthlessly short life was over, and he shut his eyes thinking of all the life he would miss, all his unanswered questions like: “Why is there not another word for synonym?”

He anticipated the final blow… but it did not come. Arthur sagged helplessly in profound relief, and let out the air he had been clutching onto for the past minute. He looked up to see the armour clad figure drop his sword, and kneel down before him. The boy reached up to his helmet slowly, and lifted the visor.

The next instant was, for them both, like looking in a mirror. Each of their features were identical, right down to the bead of sweat clinging onto the end of their noses. They simultaneously wiped this annoyance off and stared at on another in disbelief.

The boy breathed heavily onto Arthur’s face and said: “Meet me by the Royal tent.” And with that he strode away, not looking anywhere but the ground. The crowd, uncertain how to react to an unclear victory, cheered nervously whilst their protagonist exited. They had not seen either of the competitor’s faces, the fact that something was not quite right reached them all, and there was a distinct level of muttering as they drifted back to their day jobs.
•••
Arthur peered through a gap in the Royal tent’s entrance and saw an older man, dressed finely, talking to the cloned image of himself. “What the hell do you think you were doing out there?! There was more than one opportunity when you could have run him straight through. You can’t just walk away from an easy fight like that. The crowd were clearly disappointed, I’m certainly disappointed, and you should be disappointed in yourself. You’ve brought shame on the Oras Tournament, and I, as king, will have to regain our reputation tomorrow.”

The boy at which all of this was aimed seemed to paying less than a slight interest in the counsel. The king presently sighed and said, “Look son, you are the only hope for the future of this monarchy, and I need to know that you can handle the authority and role of a prince, not to mention as the next king. You need to raise your game. You’re too old to rely on me to mother you.” With this, he stormed out of the tent, muttering “May God help Camelot if I should ever die.”

After realising he was about to have a conversation with royalty, Arthur raised his hand to knock for permission to enter but could not find a sufficiently solid surface on the entrance of the tent shelter. Not wishing to intrude rudely into private quarters, he deliberately cleared his throat.

“Enter,” answered the boy, dejectedly, without lifting his head from his hands. “But do so at your own risk of decapitation.” Arthur faltered. “You don’t think I’m serious do you? My father’s always so serious. I don’t like him. He has no sense of adventure or humour.” Arthur perched awkwardly on an intricately carved stool, and absorbed the display of grandeur surrounding him. Despite the canvas walls of the room, it housed embroidered rugs, polished candlesticks and silver tankards on a serving tray with a jug of mead. 

There was a separate corner for all the armour and spare armour a knight could ever need, and two young men were crouched over it. The first was bright in appearance and fussily polishing a helmet. The other looked to be his brother but was a lot rougher in his appearance and was sharpening a sword methodically.

The prince turned to face Arthur and his face hardened. “You’ve got some cheek arriving in my father’s Kingdom looking like… well me. If my father saw you he’d have you immediately for treason or wizardry. How did you recreate my beauty?”

Arthur hurriedly said, “No no, you don’t understand, this is me. I am me, I’m not pretending, I don’t understand it, myself. I’m not even from here. My mum’s a secretary and my dad’s a policeman. We live in School Close in Hollywell and I have a pet goldfish called Ed…”

“What a load of waffle. Clearly the magic kind. I’m beginning to lose my patience with you lot. I’ll ask you one last time to surrender and hand yourself in or the consequences will be far more unwelcome. Speak now if you have anything to say.” Arthur remained silent and kept his lips pursed in annoyance and helplessness. “The by the power born unto me, I hereby arrest you.” The prince grabbed Arthur’s shoulder and dug his fingers in mercilessly. 

“But I… I can’t help it. I didn’t do anything. Time stole me and made a mistake and-“

“You shall spend the night in the cells; there’s a hanging tomorrow morning that you are due at by royal invitation.”

He made for the tent opening but doubled back. “On second thoughts.” The prince reached for a brown sack and tugged it onto Arthur’s head. “Just to avoid any confusion,” he muttered.

Arthur was blind to the world as he was dragged roughly through the streets of Camelot. The prince handed him over to two nearby guards and they bound his wrists together. His shameful walk sparked little interest other than the usual condemnation from the peasants. Even Mrs T did not realise she was spitting in disgust at her own refugee. She watched the prisoner disappear round a corner and then turned to Robyn, and with some urgency in her voice said: “We have to do something to save that boy.”

Robyn laughed and said “He’s just like any other thief or criminal, is he not, Mrs T. Mrs T?”

“I’d recognise that darning on those socks anywhere,” said Mrs T, frowning.
“It’s Arthur. He’s got himself into trouble by the looks of it and he needs our help. Follow him Robyn, watch where they put him. There’s gonna be a breakout tonight.”

Robyn rushed off down the street, towards the castle, and for a split second Mrs Tailor felt a lonely pang of emptiness inside her ribcage. What if they didn’t get there in time? What if they all got caught? And if the Prince’s father, King Uther, got involved the boy would not last ‘til dusk. All she could hope for was that the prince played by the rules slightly better than his father and Arthur’s hanging would be tomorrow’s dawn.

The sun beat down on Arthur’s neck as he was marched across a courtyard. The guards stopped and he heard the fiddle of keys and a rusty clang as the door to the cells was opened. Arthur was pushed into darkness and the cool damp of the castle prison. The sack was ripped off him and the prison guard looked over him with beady eyes.

“Blimey. Best one I’ve seen so far, must’ve took some doin’.” And with a final shove Arthur found himself in a dank, dusty cell, locked with no hope of escape.  

Only the thought of a new experience was before him: Death.

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