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The Route to Advancement: A Most Unfortunate Hunt

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Percy had frequently heard it said that Brutus was a very stupid horse. Of course it was mainly his father who said this, but even Percy had been known to say it once or twice. All right, maybe only once (but he had deserved it). Brutus had had a habit, mostly cured now, of blowing out his stomach whilst being saddled. Naturally Percy had got wise to this very quickly — being deposited on the floor in front of half his father's guests on fair day tended to do that. But his father had not. So when, some four years earlier, Lord Wyldon had strode into the courtyard of their castle on a bright May morning and imperiously called for Brutus to be saddled for his morning hunt (his own mount being lame) Percy should really have been more worried. Even when Brutus had been led out to stand, beautifully groomed and suspiciously barrel shaped, by the mounting block Percy had not suspected. It was only when his father swung himself confidently into the saddle and Brutus suddenly deflated like a brown furry balloon that Percy realised that his morning was about to take a truly awful turn. In hindsight he knew that Brutus hadn't intended for his father to slide off into the puddle (he was, after all, just a horse) but it took a long time for his father to see it that way. Of course Percy had had to take the blame for that one — he had forgotten to repair the frayed girth, he decided — but afterwards he had looked long and hard at his horse and told him he was a very stupid horse indeed. Naturally his sister Isolda had thrown her arms around his neck and told him not to listen to Percy and Brutus had looked at Percy in a way he would have thought very smug — if he hadn't reminded himself, again, that Brutus was just a horse.

All of which had nothing whatsoever to do with how Percy and Brutus had come to be standing knee and hock deep in thick, clinging mud except to cause Percy to conclude (weighing past evidence with their present predicament) that Brutus was indeed very stupid.

They had been hunting when it happened. After a moderately successful morning Percy had dismounted with the other Knights to lead his horse along the narrow forest path to the spot where Prince Arthur had decreed they would stop, briefly, for rest and food. He'd been quite happy to drop back behind the rest of the party, enjoying the chance to stretch his legs at last, when Brutus had suddenly shied, dragging the reins from his relaxed grip and haring off through the trees like his tail was on fire. In reality, Percy thought gloomily as he tried to move and only succeeded in sinking a bit deeper into the cold mud; it was probably just a rat. Or something that looked like a rat. Or possibly just something vaguely grey and rat sized. Or even just a small leaf that Brutus had decided could, in a certain light, resemble a rat. It seemed that ever since the tournament last winter Brutus had developed a marked dislike for that particular rodent. On the one hand this meant getting him to gallop when required was no longer such a problem (although really, shouting 'rat' when everyone else shouted 'charge' could hardly be deemed much of an improvement), but unfortunately Brutus had also developed a slight tendency to see rodents at every turn. Percy thought that this could hardly be normal, even for Brutus, but Isolda had just laughed and said that a career with the travelling players likely awaited Brutus when his charging days were over. Right now, however, an illustrious career seemed a rather unlikely prospect for either of them.

He looked at Brutus, trying to ignore the feel of the mud in his boots.

"I don't know why you're looking at me — this was all your fault." Brutus, unsurprisingly, offered no comment. "And you needn't look so pleased with yourself; you're going to sink before I do."

Brutus threw his head up and down and tried to move again, before looking, rather pathetically, at Percy. Percy sighed. He supposed that really, he couldn't blame Brutus entirely for this. After all, imaginary rat or no, he might not have had to chase Brutus at all if he'd been paying attention to his horse and not admiring the way the sunlight dappled the forest floor. However he felt that being found stranded in a bog was going to be bad enough and he didn't really need to mention that part too.

It was at this point he heard the sound of someone, at last, approaching through the trees. He spared a brief moment to hope that it wasn't Sir Meurig or, even worse, Sir Rhys, when Merlin came crashing through the bushes, spied Percy, looked immensely relieved and started forward. Percy had barely had chance to say, "Be careful! It's really—" before Merlin promptly fell down the same slope as Percy, grabbed wildly at a nearby tree branch, missed and fell into the bog. "...slippery there," Percy finished, somewhat after the fact. He reached out, a little awkwardly, and helped Merlin to his feet.

"Oh," said Merlin, looking around.

"Exactly," said Percy, gloomily.

Brutus stretched out his neck and lipped softly at Merlin's collar. Merlin patted him absentmindedly. He looked even worse than Percy who had, at least, only waded into the mud. Merlin's trousers and tunic were caked all down one side but at least he didn't seem to be panicking — not that Percy had ever seen Merlin panic.

"So..." said Percy, looking at Merlin "What are the chances of us getting out of this in a heroic fashion?" Brutus sneezed and sank another inch. Merlin and Percy stared at him for a second and then looked at each other.

"Probably not good," said Merlin. He wriggled a little, experimentally, and succeeded in moving slightly closer to the bank. "But I don't think the others will be here for a while yet, " He moved fractionally again. "So perhaps if I go really slowly I can get out and then we can salvage some—" He suddenly flailed wildly and nearly fell over again before grabbing hold of a surprised looking Brutus and hanging on grimly. "Or perhaps not."

Percy looked at the thick gloop now around his knees and wondered how the King would make 'death by bog' sound honourable to his father.

"I suppose we'll just have to stay here 'til someone comes looking for us." He grimaced. "I hope it's not Sir Rhys." Sir Rhys was one of two new recruits who had joined the Knights in March and he had made his opinion of Percy's complete and utter ineptitude clear from the start.

Merlin gave him a sympathetic look (Sir Rhys's superior attitude extended to the servants) but pointed out, "Better Sir Rhys than Ar—"

"Merlin! You idiot!"

Merlin sighed. "Never mind."

Percy twisted round with some difficulty to see Prince Arthur at the top of the slope staring down at them, surrounded by Sir Meurig, Sir Edwin, the second newcomer Sir Geraint and (because this was Percy and he could expect no less) a very smug looking Sir Rhys. Percy supposed he should feel more offended that none of the Knights, the Prince least of all, could even pretend to look surprised at this turn of events. Indeed, Prince Arthur looked as though he was finding this even more amusing than the time Merlin drank three tankards of Honeymead and knocked himself out trying to open a door. Regardless of what Sir Rhys might think, Percy felt it was time to intervene.

"It was my fault Sire; Merlin was just trying to help me."

The Prince raised an eyebrow. "And you came to be in a swamp because..?"

Percy hoped his red face was slightly less obvious from the top of the slope. "I, er, thought I saw something through the trees and rode to investigate."

"And yet your vigilance didn't stretch to the enormous patch of mud in front of you?" Sir Rhys put in in an insufferably superior tone.

"Shall I throw some mud at him?" Merlin muttered, leaning in his direction as much as he was able. "I'm reasonably certain Arthur won't let him kill me after." Percy bit his lip, managing to suppress the smile that threatened. He noticed Prince Arthur was giving his manservant a look that suggested he was either excellent at lip-reading, or knew Merlin far too well.

"Well, regardless of how this occurred." The Prince's tone, and the look he gave Sir Rhys, were very final. "I suppose we ought to find a way of getting you back to the castle in one piece."

Percy tried not to feel too mortified at the ease with which the Prince and the four Knights climbed down the slope, coming to stand at the very edge of the bog. Sir Rhys, who seemed unable to help himself, gave Brutus an unfavourable look.

"I thought horses were supposed to be able to sense things like this?"

Brutus, who was probably supposed to be able to do a great many things, looked singularly unmoved by this pronouncement. In fact, Percy thought, he seemed to be eyeing an overhanging tree branch in a speculative fashion. But before Percy could make any comment in defence of his (actually quite indefensible) horse, Merlin spoke.

"Is there any chance we could hurry this up a bit? I think I'm actually sinking."

"Oh don't be ridiculous Merlin," said the Prince with a snort, "It's hardly deep enough to drown you." He stepped to the edge and thrust his hunting spear into the mud, "See? It's hardly even up to—" He struggled with the spear suddenly, only just managing to drag it back out with a loud squelch before it vanished completely. Merlin looked at him pointedly. "It's probably deeper in some places than it is in others!" The Prince snapped. Merlin rolled his eyes. Percy sank a little further.

"Right," said the Prince with a last glare at Merlin, "Edwin, go and fetch the rope from my saddlebags — I'll try and edge along the bank towards—"

"Sire!" Sir Rhys cut in in a scandalized tone, "I can hardly stand by and allow you to endanger yourself!"

The Prince looked horribly offended. "I assure you I am perfectly capable of—"

"Your Highness?" Now it was Sir Geraint's turn to interrupt. "Perhaps I should go first? As Sir Rhys says, it is hardly fitting for you to risk yourself. I'll do my utmost to get them out." He gave Merlin a warm smile that seemed to annoy the Prince even more than Sir Rhys's comment.

As Sir Edwin clambered back down the slope the Prince snatched the rope out of his hands and glared at Sir Rhys and Sir Geraint. "I shall make the attempt." He announced in his most commanding voice, "You four will stand by in case anything goes wrong."

"But Your Highness!" said Sir Rhys at the same time as Sir Geraint said, "Really Sire, I think that—"

"Oh for goodness' sake!" interrupted Merlin loudly, "I don't care if one of you lies down and the others use you as a bridge, just will someone get us out of here."

At Merlin's outburst Sir Geraint immediately abandoned his attempt to persuade the Prince and concentrated on telling Merlin to breathe deeply and try to keep calm. Prince Arthur merely told him to stop being such an old woman but, Percy was relieved to see, promptly began to edge along the side of the bog whilst Sir Rhys hovered nervously on the bank, Sir Meurig looked completely bored and Sir Edwin just looked amused.

It was some time before the Prince got close enough to use the rope, by which time Percy and Merlin had both sunk a little further and Brutus had stopped eyeing the branch and finally begun to appreciate the gravity of the situation if the slightly nervous whinnies were anything to go by. Percy was the closest, and perhaps the easiest, to pull out although it took some minutes before he could move enough to be tugged free by the combined strength of the Prince, a length of rope and a sturdy tree. Merlin was a little more problematic. But the Prince, ignoring Sir Geraint's repeated offers to help and looking daggers at Sir Rhys when he suggested simply leaving him there, persevered. It was Percy, who felt entirely responsible for Merlin's predicament, who suggested lashing the two thick tree branches together with rope and laying them on the surface for Merlin to use as leverage. He had seen something similar used at home, when a ride along the coast in high winds had resulted in his father's best hat taking an unexpected detour into a patch of quicksand. Even with the temporary bridge however, there was a brief struggle when Merlin seemed slightly more concerned about leaving his trousers behind than getting out of the bog alive. The Prince solved this through the simple expedient of ignoring Merlin's protests completely and firmly hauling him out of the mud whilst Merlin squawked and hung doggedly onto his clothing. With Merlin, and his trousers, safely on dry land it remained only to salvage a soaked and somewhat belligerent Brutus. This took the combined efforts of the Knights and Merlin (even if Sir Rhys's contribution was somewhat grudging) and seemed, for a while, to be doomed to failure before Percy finally swallowed his pride and asked the Prince if he happened to have any food in his saddlebags. Once a suitable incentive was provided the men could at last, using ropes and several now-ruined cloaks, drag Brutus to safety. There was a small moment of embarrassment, narrowly averted, when Sir Rhys elbowed Brutus a little sharply and told him to stand and Brutus nearly took his fingers off, but all in all, Percy thought, things could have gone a lot worse.

It was, however, a dishevelled group that made its way slowly back to Camelot, the Prince and his manservant riding in front, with Percy and Sir Edwin just behind and Sir Geraint, Sir Rhys and Sir Meurig bringing up the rear. Brutus squelched miserably along, only cheering up when they emerged on to a wide and verdant forest path and the prospect of food presented itself once more. But even Brutus seemed better off than Merlin, who was both wet and cold and appeared to be entirely brown from his shoulders downward.

"I'm never going to get clean again," Merlin said dispiritedly, brushing at the wet and sticky mud on his sleeve. He looked sorrowfully at the Prince who was riding next to him, "I suppose I'll have to wash under the yard pump." Prince Arthur didn't say anything so Merlin repeated, "I said, I suppose I'll have to wash under the—"

"I heard you the first time Merlin." Prince Arthur cut in, ignoring the loud and disapproving tut from Sir Rhys at Merlin's forwardness.

"Oh," said Merlin. He rallied immediately. "Or I suppose I could carry a few buckets to my room and wash in those." The Prince merely looked at Merlin before quickly catching his reins to pull his horse out of the way of an low-hanging branch. Merlin looked vaguely surprised at having been so nearly knocked unconscious.

"I suppose you will." The Prince drawled, letting the reins go once more and steering his own mount along the path.

"It could take a while though." Merlin continued, in a tone that suggested he was pronouncing the imminent death of a close relative. "My room's so cold, even at this time of year." He gave a small but heartfelt sigh. "I'll likely just catch an ague and die." Prince Arthur stared resolutely forward. "And then I suppose Gaius will struggle, you know, to manage without my invaluable support." At this Sir Edwin, riding close behind, gave a snort of laughter which he quickly turned into a small cough as Merlin continued, "And my mother will miss me horribly. And I suppose you'll have to get another manservant and he'll move things about and bow all the time," — as far as Percy could tell the Prince did not look exactly horrified at this prospect — "and he'll be so perfect that you'll never be able to put him in the stocks, or call him an idiot, and every time you eat a potato you will think of me." Merlin looked nobly into the distance as if gathering his courage to face whatever awful fate awaited him at the castle pump. Prince Arthur huffed irritably and shot his manservant an extremely long-suffering look.

"Merlin, whilst I appreciate that washing in cold water is a torment beyond imagining, I think it highly unlikely you will actually die from the experience."

"You don't know that!" said Merlin, "I might have a weak constitution. You know, from all those years living in Ealdor, sleeping on the cold, hard floor and only eating meat on Sundays and—"

"Oh for heaven's sake," snapped the Prince, "If you get the worst off in the yard you can use the bath in my chambers. Anything to stop you sulking around the castle for the next six months."

"Oh no really," Merlin said in a selfless tone, "You don't have to..."

"Merlin," the Prince interrupted, warningly.

"Very well Sire," said Merlin meekly. "If you think it best."

Percy risked a look at his fellow Knights. Sir Meurig looked resigned at this exchange and Sir Geraint and Sir Edwin, deeply amused. He sighed inwardly at Sir Rhys's expression, a look of disapproval Percy was all too familiar with from his father. After four months at the castle he thought Sir Rhys would be rather more familiar with the Prince and Merlin's rather unconventional master/servant relationship, but evidently he still had some way to go.

Finally they clattered into the inner ward of the castle and Percy thought he had never been so glad to dismount. Placing himself between Sir Rhys and Brutus (who had eaten his way through several bushes and was back to eyeing the Knight somewhat hungrily), Percy stretched and thought of the hot bath, clean clothes and food that would soon be waiting for him in his chambers. Speaking of which — he looked around for Merlin and immediately spotted him trying to sneak off into the castle. He had barely managed three steps however before he was caught by Prince Arthur and turned very firmly in a rather different direction.

"He's lucky he's only got to get the worst of it off out here," laughed Sir Edwin as he followed Percy's gaze, "that water's freezing."

"He's lucky the Prince puts up with him at all!" Sir Rhys sniffed, with a disparaging look at where Prince Arthur was firmly hauling a protesting Merlin towards the pump in the castle yard. "I would never allow a servant of mine to get so above themselves as to—"

Sir Rhys's haughty tones were abruptly cut off when Brutus, who had at last succeeded in sneaking around a temporarily distracted Percy, reached out his neck and happily sank his teeth into Sir Rhys's arm. Naturally Percy very properly pulled Brutus away (almost immediately) and apologised to the incensed Sir Rhys, looking horribly shocked at his horse's unpardonable behaviour. But as he tugged his unrepentant horse towards the stables he allowed himself a (very small) smile and thought that perhaps Brutus wasn't so stupid after all.

 
The End