Friday, December 27, 2013

The Mark of the King: Chapter Five

Chapter Five

“I hope you don’t mind my asking, Sir, but why do you live in the town when you could live in the castle?” Skandar asked while he, Sir Reuben, and Sir Reuben’s son, John, walked through the streets of the Capitol.
“My family and I chose to reside here because it allows us to better know the people we serve.”
“Know, Sir?”
“Yes, Skandar, know.”
“But why? Why should a man of your standing care about the peasants and townsfolk?”
“It matters not to many Lords, Knights, and even Kings the names of their subjects. But I have found that if you learn their names, the things they delight in, and their interests, you befriend people, poor yes, but genuine people. If you earn their friendship and trust, you receive not only their respect, but comrades and allies who will remain true to you not matter the danger. These are good people, Skandar, and I have found many friends in the people around me.”
“The men I knew in Tiem governed their people out of fear.”
“As do most,” the elder man shook his head. “Our King among them.”
“Father, hurry!” called John, Sir Reuben’s son, from further up the street. “We don’t want to be late for supper!”

Muriel pushed a strand of her wavy black hair behind her ear as she bent over the boiling pot of soup, which she stirred carefully with a long wooden ladle while a serving girl cut vegetables behind her.
She glanced into the dining room, where Lady Morgaine, her mother, sat at the table with her younger sister Eliza and dreamed about her own home when she would marry next spring. Muriel smiled to herself and twisted her ring mindlessly.
“The soup is ready, Mother. Eliza, go check the door for Father and John, would you please?”
The little girl jumped off her mother’s lap and skipped across the room to peek out the door, her mousy brown curls bouncing as she hopped. “They’re home! And they brought someone with them!” the little girl shouted happily before she dashed out the door. Curiously, the two women crossed the hall and opened the door. Muriel straightened her simple sapphire dress and peered into the street where the familiar silhouette of her father, brother, and another man walked.
Sir Reuben and John stepped into the light of the home, hand in hand with her sister. The next man, however, was unfamiliar to her. He was tall, but shorter than her father; his body lean and lanky. Wavy red hair fell loosely to his shoulders, and a short, scraggily beard grew along his gaunt cheeks and jaw. But what startled her were the young man’s eyes: they blazed like liquid silver, burning holes into whatever they fell upon.
Skandar stood awkwardly in the doorframe under the critical eye of Sir Reuben’s wife and daughter. Finally, he bowed to the Ladies.
“I consider it an honor to meet you at last, for Oliver has told me some things about you. Though not as many as I hoped, I shall admit,” Muriel remarked, and she smiled.
“Then,” interrupted Sir Reuben. “we shall discuss this over supper!”
Sir Reuben hoisted the youngest girl aloft in his arms and kissed her rosy cheek. The sound of the girl’s happy squeals instantly reminded Skandar of Peter’s family and his vision tainted, as though he was seeing through a black screen. When his sight cleared, Sir Reuben stared at him, concern on his face.
“Are you alright?”
“Um, yes Sir. I’m fine,” Skandar mumbled.
Sir Reuben nodded, but his brow remained furrowed as he glanced sideways at his wife.
“Do sit down, Skandar.” Lady Morgaine beckoned to an empty chair, and Skandar sat. The lady was a tall woman, her brilliant azure eyes stern, yet gentle, set above prominent cheekbones. She wore a simple, but elegant green mantle, and her brown hair fell straight to her small waist. The resemblance between the Lady and her two daughters was striking, each as fair and beautiful as their mother.
John, who sat beside Skandar, truly was his father’s son. He inherited the curly, dark brown mane, thin face, and noble forehead of Sir Reuben. Like his father, he was tall for a lad of thirteen.
Smelling the soup and bread decorating the table, Skandar reached for his bowl, but paused. Noting the behavior of the family around him, he followed suit, folding his hands in his lap as Sir Reuben prayed.
“My King,” he began. “Thank You for blessing us with the meal before us, and for the company of dear friends. We ask You for Your continued protection upon our family and those closest to us. We also ask You to put your wisdom into the mind of the King. Let him see Your grace and mercy, and also Your love.”
Skandar stirred uncomfortably.
“These things we ask in the name of Your Son, amen.”
“Amen,” chorused the family.
“Why do you pray for the King?” Skandar inquired bluntly. The table fell silent; everyone looked to Sir Reuben, awaiting his answer.
“The King needs our prayers just as much as the next man; even more so, I believe.”
“And does the True King hear your prayers?”
“He always listens, Skandar.”
“Then why hasn’t He answered? Why hasn’t He rid us of this tyrant?”
“Shh,” warned Morgaine. “There may be men outside.”
“Why?” Skandar repeated softly.
“It may not be His time, yet. We must be patient, and wait for Him to act.”
Skandar shook his head. “You may have time to wait, but I don’t.”
“I trust Him. His timing is always right, Skandar.”
“Yeah, well I stopped trusting Him when he let my father and mother die.”
“Everything has its purpose, though we may not understand it.”
“I don’t. I don’t understand, and I don’t want to. I want nothing to do with the so-called True King!” Skandar shouted.
The table was plunged into an uncomfortable silence. Reuben and Morgaine shared a troubled glance; Muriel stared at Skandar with an unreadable expression; John gazed into his bowl of soup, and Eliza sat motionless, her hands still folded in her lap.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to shout,” apologized Skandar quietly.
“It has been a stressful day for everyone.”

Muriel pondered Skandar’s outburst. The poor boy, she thought sadly. My King, I pray also for Skandar. Fill him with Your love and forgiveness. He appears to be a gentle man, but his heart is filled with hatred and anger- that is clear to me. Please show me how to be a friend to him, and where and when to help him. Thank you, my King.“Skandar?”
Skandar jerked awake, hitting his head on the back of the chair as his eyes fluttered open. Cheeks flushing, he sleepily acknowledged Lady Morgaine push back her chair and stand.
“Come, you are tired and must rest. I’ll show you to your room.”
The graceful woman led him up a flight of stairs and to a hall filled with doors on each side. Stopping at one, she opened the door to reveal a furnished room.
“You may stay here, if you wish.”
Skandar mumbled, “Thank you,” and stumbled sleepily through the open door.
“I’ll be back in a moment with some of Reuben’s clothes. They may be a little big for you, but they’ll have to do until market day.”
“That’s fine, my Lady. Thank you.”
She closed the door behind her, allowing Skandar several moments to himself. Sitting on the bed, he looked around the room.
It was comfortable, not overly lavish, but not scant either. A coffer stood alone by the wall, and a trunk rested at the foot of the bed. A single window in the wall opposite the door allowed him to look out over the dark street below him. From where he sat on the bed, Skandar thought he saw the shape of a man in the shadows of the house next to Sir Reuben’s, but he blinked, and the man was gone.
He had just begun to coax his boot off his feet when Lady Morgaine, followed closely by a servant, entered. Both women carried small piles of clothes, which they lay neatly in the trunk and coffer. Before leaving, Lady Morgaine said, “If you need anything else, do not hesitate to find me or my husband. We will see that your needs are met,” and she shut the door.
Wincing, he gingerly tugged his boots free of his swollen feet; red blisters covered his soles. He hobbled painfully to the trunk and pulled out a clean pair of pants, which he exchanged for his own. Sliding his shirt off over his head, he threw it in a crumpled heap on the floor and fell into the bed.

“Skandar,” a cold, whispering voice beckoned from a thick black fog surrounding Skandar. The cold wisps of cloud played over his body, chilling him from his skin to his heart.
“Skandar,” the voice repeated from somewhere close, yet so very far away. “Join me, and I will give you everything you desire.”
“Who are you?”
A cruel chuckle emanated from the depths of the mist. “I am no man, and yet, I am in everyone. Join me. Join me.”

Skandar sat up- wide awake -and shivered. Cold sweat covered his clammy body. He looked wildly around; the room was empty. He was alone, but he could still hear the voice from his dream.
That’s all it was. A dream.

Here's Chapter Five! It's a little shorter than the others, so I was able to edit it in time for Thursday!! I hope you all had a merry Christmas!!
~Abbie Boots

Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Mark of the King: Chapter Four

Chapter Four

The company entered through a large gate, which rose slowly before them at Lord Joran’s command. In the dying rays of the sun, the ebony walls of the Capitol shone like marble.
Unlike Carn, the houses and other establishments sat spread apart, with enough space between them for four large carts to pass abreast without colliding. Deserted booths and tables lined the walls of the buildings, and though torches were wedged in between small piles of stones, the streets remained vacant.
“The citizens of the Capitol wake before dawn and are expected to retire before the gates close at dusk. It’s required, if they don’t wish to spend the night in the stocks or the dungeons.”
Presently, they arrived at another fortified wall, whose gate, like the first, rose at an order from the lord.
“How many gates are there?” inquired Skandar.
“Four walls and gates divide the upper and lower towns from the castle, which is situated next to a large field and forest. With five heavily fortified walls on the first three sides, and woods and a large river on the last, the Capitol is difficult if not impossible to breach.”
“Is that your father speaking?”
“Quite possibly so.”
When they passed under the last gate, the turrets and towers of the castle loomed overhead, a low note reverberated from the trumpeters positioned on the high walls.
“That,” Oliver said before Skandar opened his mouth to speak. “is the call for the gates to be closed. Once that sounds, no one enters or exits the city, save the King and select members of his noblemen.”
Four guards on either side of the portcullis hailed them, exchanging several words with Lord Joran and Flynn, before the heavy iron stakes rose, and they were granted entrance. Skandar realized that, with the number of knights stationed on the battlements, a dozen crossbow bolts would instantly drop anyone who displayed any form of hostile behavior.
Beyond the gate, a massive courtyard divided the heavy metal bars and the castle itself. Men-at-arms loitered around fires, warming their hands and faces from the cold night. Torches hung on the stone walls, illuminating the darkness with their rings of glowing light. Passages, some open and some concealed behind wooden doors, lined the walls of the bailey to Skandar’s left and right.
“Dismount!” commanded Lord Joran.
Stable boys instantly appeared and led the horses away; Lord Joran hastily dismissed the members of the company, leaving Skandar alone with Oliver and Flynn.
“Come, Oliver,” beckoned Lord Joran. His features contorted into a sneer, reminding Skandar of those of a gutter rat. “We must inform the king of our success.”
After he cut the ropes binding Skandar’s hands, Flynn prodded him with his dagger hilt into one of the passages, which gaped like a mouth- ready to swallow them whole. They followed the straight passage and at its end, descended down a dark stairwell in one of the castles turrets. The path ahead was illuminated only by the light of a single torch carried by Flynn. Deeper and deeper they walked before the winding steps came to an end, and Skandar found himself peering into the dungeons.
The damp chamber reeked with the stench of mildew, death, and rotting food and flesh. Upon entering, Skandar gagged and coughed violently. Then he felt the blunt end of Flynn’s dagger between his shoulder blades once more and he staggered forward into the light.
Numerous gaunt faces stared pleadingly at Skandar from the deep recesses of their confines; their pale, skinny limbs strained to reach him; their cracked voices cried out for food and water. Guards sat idly nearby, ignoring the desperate pleas of their prisoners. When Flynn cleared his throat, both men jumped and stood, upsetting their table and chairs.
“One for the cells. Treat this one special; King’s orders. I’ll come fetch him at dawn.”
Each guard took Skandar by an arm and hauled him to a small, empty cell, into which he was unceremoniously thrown.
“What are you here for, laddie?”
Skandar sat, his back against the rocky wall, and placed his hands between his knees.
“I don’t know,” he lied, staring straight ahead to avoid the man’s prying gaze.
“You don’t know,” scoffed the prisoner. He cackled and then collapsed into a coughing fit.
Skandar sighed and studied his neighbor. The man was rough and underfed; his bloodshot eyes sunken and wild. A scraggly beard grew on his thin face; his skeletal hands, which clutched the rusty metal bars between them, were ragged and scarred.
Somewhat agitated and repulsed, Skandar turned away and did not answer, nor did the man attempt to further their conversation.
The dungeon remained eerily silent, save for the constant scratching and squealing of mice and rats, and the clanking of chains. Skandar rested his head as comfortably as he could against the wall, shut his eyes, and fell into a fitful sleep.

He startled awake. It took him a moment to realize what woke him: the sound of a cell door clanging shut.
Two guards, both dressed in black garments, hauled a prisoner- the man Skandar exchanged words with earlier- down the corridor and through a locked door at its end.
At first, Skandar thought nothing of it, but then they began.
Unearthly screams echoed through the silent dungeon, sending chills up Skandar’s spine. Feebly, he attempted to block them out, but the prisoner’s agonized cries continued; on and on for hours it seemed until they ended abruptly and the dungeon was plunged into a dark silence.

When Skandar woke again, he rubbed his stiff limbs and glanced around. The cell next to him stood vacant; its occupant still gone.
Skandar resituated himself and settled back to wait. Presently, a jailer came along and slid loaves of burned bread and grimy mugs of water under the cell doors. Skandar half-heartedly gnawed at the black bread in silence. Wondering. Watching. Waiting. Though for what, he did not know.
Finally he stood, brushed himself off, and paced the small room, trying to encourage blood into his legs.
Some time later, Sir Joran and another man stepped out of a torch lit passage and stopped in front of Skandar’s cell. Both men strode with airs of commanding authority, but the second man’s seemed different, somehow. The second man stood tall beside Lord Joran, his shoulders broad and his body lean and hard with muscle. Curly locks of dark brown hair fell about his face; his eyes, which sparkled like large sapphires set above his sharply chiseled cheekbones, filled with compassion when they rested on Skandar.
“This is the boy,” the dark-haired man finally said.
“Yes. Guards!”
At his beckoning, the two jailers unlocked the cell and dragged Skandar out.
“Easy,” the second noble urged, and the men relaxed their grip on Skandar’s arms.
“You may leave him with me, Joran. I’ll see to it personally that he arrives at the Knights’ Chambers without incident.”
Lord Joran huffed, but agreed.
The stranger placed a gloved hand on Skandar’s shoulders and steered him out of Lord Joran’s sight. They ascended several short flights of stairs and exited at the end of another lengthy corridor.
“It has been many years, since we last met Skandar,” remarked the knight. “I am Sir Reuben.”
Skandar halted and stood awkwardly, not knowing whether to bow, stand, or kneel before the nobleman. Finally, Sir Reuben extended his right hand. Skandar took Sir Reuben’s forearm, just below the elbow, and found his own seized in a firm grasp.
“This, lad,” instructed Sir Reuben, releasing Skandar’s arm. “is how you greet another knight. When greeting any other nobility, such as lords, kings, or another high member of the court, you either bow or kneel. Do you understand?”
“Yes, sir.”
“Good! First and most important lesson learned.”
“Important, sir?”
“Yes. If you do not show the proper respect, you’re likely to lose your head.”
Sir Reuben’s words, though serious, were betrayed only by his eyes, which held a mischievous glint when he spoke.
“You’re just like your father, Skandar.”
“Did you know him?”
“Oh yes,” nodded Sir Reuben, and he began walking once more. “I knew both he and your mother very well. You have his features, if not his eyes. You inherited your mother’s eyes. Silver eyes ran in her family, apparently. Her brother, Andrew, had them, too.”
“She never told me about her brother,” Skandar remarked sadly, unwilling to admit the uncomfortable fact that Sir Reuben possessed more knowledge about his family than he himself.
When they arrived on the opposite side of the castle, Sir Reuben waved a gloved hand at a corridor containing many long halls and announced, “These are the Knights’ Chambers.”
He led the way past the rows of rooms and unlocked a heavy wooden door with a key, which he took from a ring on his belt. A large wooden table stood in the center of the room, surrounded by suits of armor and at least a dozen different weapons hanging on the wall. Numerous scrolls of various sizes occupied the table itself.
“This chamber belonged to my father until he was accidentally killed in a tournament two years ago, leaving his duty as Keeper to me.”
“Oh, then you have my condolences, sir.”
Sir Reuben smiled warmly. “Thank you, lad. But I’ll see him again.”
Though puzzled by his answer, Skandar didn’t ask what the noble meant. Instead, his inquiry was, “I’m sorry. Keeper of what, sir?”
Reuben clapped him on the back. “Of knights, lad! I chronicle the names of every knight trained, their families, and their deaths; the manner of their death, and the location or battle where they met their end. Alas, many a good man hasn’t stepped foot in this castle since they embarked on this foolhardy quest.”
Then he sat at the table, and chose a scroll from one of the piles. When he rolled up his red sleeve, Skandar glimpsed a tattoo on the underside of the Keeper’s right forearm. From what he could see, the intricate design was that of a knotted cross.
Sir Reuben dipped a quill into a bottle of ink nearby, and wrote:

Son of Edmund Skandarson of Tir Thuaidh,
And of Sybbyl Garethdaughter of Corrthaine

The quill ceased its scratching. “How many years are you now?”
Skandar paused to think. “Twenty years, sir.”
The Keeper added that under his previous inscription.
“There,” he proclaimed. “Now that that business is finished, we shall go to the armory and find you a training sword.”
On the way, Skandar surveyed the empty halls and asked, “Sir, where are the other knights?”
“I believe some are eating, and others are guarding the castle and the city. Well, at least they should be.”
The armory door swung open at Sir Reuben’s touch, and he and Skandar entered. Four doors permitted entrance to the massive square room; one from every direction. Racks supporting broadswords, longswords, shortswords, sabers, knives and daggers lined each of the four walls of the large stone room. Battle axes, bows, quarterstaffs, lances, and maces hung on iron hooks above them. Skandar ambled to one of the racks and hefted a blunted broadsword. Immediately, he replaced it and looked at Sir Reuben, who studied him closely.
“It was too heavy.”
The Keeper nodded in agreement. “Try another.”
Skandar’s hand hovered over the plain pommels and he hesitantly withdrew a longsword. Lifting it, he jabbed the air with the slender blade.
“This one. It feels right.”
“You chose well, Skandar. That is the very kind your father chose many years ago. If it proves to be a worthy blade, I shall instruct the blacksmith to forge you one of equal design.”
“Please, you don’t have to go to all that trouble.”
“It’s no trouble at all,” reassured the knight. “It would be my absolute pleasure. And now, shall we see about fitting you for armor?”
From the rack holding leather vests, Sir Reuben removed one and handed it to Skandar, instructing, “Put this on.”
It fit perfectly over Skandar’s loose shirt. While Sir Reuben assisted Skandar buckle the vest into place, a young man stepped into the room. His shaggy blonde hair fell before his eyes and he grasped Sir Reuben’s forearm.
“Good morning, Oliver.”
“Same to you, Sir Reuben.”
“Oliver, I must tend to some business in my chambers. Can you escort Skandar to the training fields? I have been informed that he will be met there by an instructor.”
“I’m standing right here,” Skandar muttered under his breath. “Not that it matters.”
“Right. Off we go, then!” Oliver began to walk away.
“Sir Reuben?”
“When the day is over, meet me back here. I’ll see to it that you don’t spend another night in a cell.”
“My thanks, Sir.”
“Sir Reuben is Muriel’s father,” Oliver announced once they departed the armory and strode through the hall outside. “She’s in the training field, now, I believe.”
Several other young men joined them as they walked the short distance to a large door. Two guards stood on either side and slid the heavy iron bolt to permit the youths through to the outside. Another door stood ten paces behind the first, which was bolted and guarded as the first.
“I understand the need for fortification, but is all this necessary?” Skandar whispered to Oliver.
“It’s to keep anyone from entering, or leaving, without the King’s admission.”
“Then how did my parents escape? Do you know?”
“Years ago, the castle wasn’t as protected, and they had help.”
“Do you know who-?”
“Yes. But don’t try to locate him. King Fendral dispatched him almost a decade ago after Corrthaine made peace with Tir Thuaidh.”
“Why after?”
Oliver chewed his lower lip nervously. “I’m sorry, but it’s not my place to say.”
“How did the King discover the man?”
Oliver wheeled about and stared wide-eyed at Skandar. “Please, not here. I can’t tell you any more, now, I’m sorry. When the time is right, you’ll know what you need to know.”
“What?” he snarled.
Oliver’s gaze softened. “I really wish I could tell you more.”
“It’s fine.”
When the final door opened, the knights stepped out into the sunlight. A massive field, enclosed by a thick semi-circle of trees and the south side of the castle wall, stood before them. In rings made by taunt ropes tied to stakes in the earth, knights sparred with swords, quarterstaffs, and maces. Targets were positioned in a long row alongside the castle wall; people stood before them with bows, axes, knives, and spears in hand. Young boys in two straight lines lunged at each other with wooden swords under instruction by an elder knight.
It was to one of the rings that Oliver led Skandar. “Remain here while I fetch your instructor.”
Skandar seized the moment of solitude to study the people around him. Twenty to thirty archers fired arrows into the circular rings. Two stood out to Skandar, being the youngest of the pack. From what little he could see of them, they were several years younger.
Hold on, he squinted at the shorter of the two. That’s a girl! Is she Muriel? He wondered.
The girl wore a loose plain shirt belted at her waist, and black pants tucked into brown boots. A quiver, half-empty, was strapped across her broad shoulders; her plaited, chestnut hair hung past her shoulders and swung as she moved. Her companion, a young man with wavy black hair that fell to his shoulders, said something and the girl froze. She feigned a serious look, but a smile tugged on the corners of her mouth. She said something in reply, and both returned to their targets.
No, she can’t be, Skandar decided. Then, something blue caught his eye. Another woman sent daggers spiraling head-over-end into a target. This one appeared older than the other; Skandar guessed she was around his own age. She, too, wore a loose shirt, sapphire in color, and brown leather pants that tucked into her boots. Ebony hair crowned her head and fell in gentle waves to her slender waist.
Suddenly, she turned her head and her brilliant blue eyes rested on Skandar. She smiled at him, and he found sudden interest in the dying grass beneath his feet.
When Skandar looked up, Flynn stood before him, his powerful arms folded across his chest.
“Draw your sword.”
“Where’s Oliver? He said he would return with my instructor.”
“I am your tutor, and you will not question me. You will do exactly as I tell you or there will be consequences.”
“Like what? You’ll kill me?”
Flynn drew back his hand and struck Skandar so hard and so fast that Skandar didn’t have time to react. The blow sent him to the ground and he sat there, dazed.
“You will do as instructed. No questions asked. Do you understand?”
“Yes, sir,” Skandar spat.
“Pick up your sword.”
For hours, Flynn led Skandar through a series of combat positions until the sun was high overhead. Skandar’s arms ached and shook violently as he attempted to go through the commands given by Flynn.
His mind strayed from his task to his surroundings. Muriel and the other girl returned to the interior of the castle. Oliver, the dark-haired boy, and another young knight sparred in one of the rings. The other man, his caramel-colored hair pulled into a ponytail at the nape of his neck, fought with a battle axe in one hand, and a broadsword in the other. The field, once teaming with life at the beginning of the day, was almost empty as most of the knights retired for the midday meal.
Then Flynn struck Skandar’s hand with the tip of his sword.
“Pay attention,” he ordered.
Skandar picked up his fallen sword and examined the back of his hand. A wide, red whelp already formed behind his knuckles.
“Run eight times around the field, and when you finish, you may retire for the midday meal.”
Skandar nodded grimly, and began to set his sword down when Flynn stopped him.
“With your sword. And always,” he growled. “answer with ‘yes Sir.’”
Skandar dragged his eyes to meet Flynn’s steely gaze.
“Yes, Sir.”
The first few times around the field, Skandar ran with little difficulty, and then his fatigued muscles ached and begged him to stop. His heart pounded, and his breath came in rough and ragged gasps as his abdomen seized in a painful cramp.
Then he heard footsteps behind him. Fearing it to be Flynn, Skandar’s pace quickened. But Oliver and the two boys appeared at either side.
“How many do you lack?” asked Oliver.
“Four,” Skandar puffed.
Oliver and the others nodded and easily kept pace with him.
“Aidan,” said the caramel-haired man to Skandar’s left, and he grinned.
“Eoin,” waved the other, whom Skandar identified as the archer.
Skandar listened as Oliver, Aidan, and Eoin carried on a conversation- speaking of horses, battle tactics, and last night’s meal.
Aidan and Eoin, Skandar noticed, spoke in slightly accented Corrthainian, but he could not catch his breath long enough to inquire their origin.
As if adding to his misery, Skandar’s stomach complained loudly.
“Cheer up!” Oliver encouraged. “One more lap and we shall eat.”
After what seemed like ages to Skandar, the four slowed to a halt. Skandar doubled over and vomited water, and struggled for air.
Oliver and Eoin each placed an arm around Skandar’s shoulders and helped the trainee to a shaded bench near the castle wall.
Aidan, meanwhile, grabbed a rag hanging nearby and, having soaked it in water from a bucket nearby, lay it across Skandar’s red neck.
The water dripped through his sweat-soaked shirt and ran down his back. Elbows on his knees, Skandar cradled his pounding head with shaking hands until the nausea left him, and his breath returned.
“When you feel well enough, we shall make for the Knights’ Chambers. There, in our dining hall, you will find food.”
Just then, a page boy ran out of the castle to Oliver.
“Sir,” he addressed the knight. “Your father requests your immediate presence.”
“Thank you. Please inform him I will attend him shortly.”
The boy nodded curtly and scampered off.
“Can you help him?” Oliver asked Aidan and Eoin.
“Aye, we can.”
Skandar rose slowly, inhaling deeply, and unclenched his trembling hands. The brothers supported him as he regained his strength and they entered the shadowed halls of the castle.
“Who is the eldest? Forgive me, but it’s difficult to tell.”
“I am,” said Aidan. “I’m nineteen, he’s eighteen.”
“Where are you from?”
“Talahm Glas. Our Ma and Da sent us here to live with Uncle Reuben when the plague came.”
“They wanted to protect us,” Eoin said sadly.
“Are they still alive?”
“We don’t know. And due to unrest in our country, it is impossible to send a message to them.”
“Aye, rebels and outlaws inhabit every forest. They cause trouble for nobles, mostly, or at least, that’s the way things were when we left.”
Once in the dining hall, they ate the meal quickly. Skandar’s dizziness left him almost immediately, and he began to feel better.
Eoin and Aidan leapt onto the long table, and the laughter and speech of those around them silenced. Skandar put down his spoon, curious to see what was about to happen. The brothers opened their mouths began to sing a boisterous melody, stomping their boots to the tune.
Skandar shook his head in bewilderment as the other knights joined them in song. When it ended, Aidan and Eoin jumped off the table and sat on either side of Skandar.
“Do you do that often?”
“Aye,” Aidan said grimly. “It helps keep the men’s spirits up. One never knows when your name may be called for the quest. Just last month, we lost a group of twenty-four to it.”
“How often are they dispatched?”
“Um,” Eoin counted his fingers. “Usually every two months. Sometimes sooner, other times later. It all depends on the Lord Joran’s mood,” he smirked.
“Lord Joran? But I thought the King…”
“Nay. Long has it been since the King gave up the quest. But longer still has the King been influenced by Lord Joran’s ideas and heeded his counsel.”
A smiling kitchen maid walked by with a pitcher filled with ale. One by one, she filled the mugs with the liquid. It burned Skandar’s parched throat as he drained the mug in a few seconds. The blonde girl promptly refilled it, all the while casting flirtatious glances at Eoin.
When he finally looked at the girl, Eoin grinned and the girl beamed. Then she glided gracefully to the opposite side of the room, taking her place beside the other serving girls who stood in a line against the wall.
Skandar’s eyebrows rose as he critiqued Eoin. “Does that happen often?” he muttered to Aidan.
Aidan choked on his ale. “Often enough.”
A bell rang, and the men stood and began to file out of the crowded hall. With a satisfied stomach, Skandar stood and bumped into the pretty maid. Goblets and trays clattered loudly to the floor. Heat crept up his neck into his face as every eye in the room turned, and rested on him. Out of the corner of his eye, Skandar saw Aidan and Eoin snicker behind their hands.
Embarrassed, Skandar dropped to the floor, mumbled an apology to the angry girl, and gathered up the scattered items. Handing them to the maid, he apologized once more, and followed his companions out of the hall.

The sky overhead changed from blue to a pale orange before Flynn allowed Skandar to retire along with the other knights. Skandar followed them to the armory, where he replaced the sword and clothing articles he borrowed to be mended by servants.
He scanned the room for Sir Reuben and found him standing by the door, speaking to Flynn. The dark man had not relinquished his weapons and rolled his eyes as the Keeper spoke.
“My orders are to take him to the dungeons, where he will be under guard for the night,” Flynn pressed as Skandar approached.
Sir Reuben shook his head, causing his dark curls to fall across his brow. “You may inform Lord Joran that the boy will stay in my home.”
“I must insist-”
“There, I am certain he will be watched,” Sir Reuben stared into Flynn’s eyes. Flynn’s mouth twitched. “And I will see to it personally that he does not escape. End of discussion.”
Flynn’s features contorted from defiance to rage, and he stormed away.
Sir Reuben watched him as he disappeared down the hall. “Come,” he beckoned, and Skandar followed.

“It is as you suspected, my Lord.”
“Well done,” Lord Joran commended.
“What would you have me do?”
“Post guards around the house, but be sure they’re hidden from sight.”
“It will be as you say. Is that all?”
“For now. Oh, and Flynn?”
“Yes my Lord?”
“Try not to kill anyone.”

Alright, here's Chapter Four! Let me know what you think! Next week is Christmas, so Chapter Five probably will not be up. Thank you all for your patience! God bless you all and I hope you have a wonderful Christmas!

Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Mark of the King: Chapter Two

Chapter Two

Exhausted and bleeding from numerous scratches, Skandar staggered into Tiem. Skandar held his hand out in front of him, facing west. The sun was two finger-widths from the horizon; soon, it would be dark.
Few people milled about Tiem at this time of day, but those who did stared with curiosity at Skandar. Most knew him, but none shouted the usual greeting. The only things Skandar received from the villagers were stares and a few cold glances.
He slowed his pace to a walk and tried to appear calm as he made his way through the winding streets to the butcher’s establishment. Along the way, he could see some villagers whispering, but he kept his eyes averted and strode hastily forward.
The butcher’s shop stood near the outskirts of Tiem, opposite Skandar’s home. It was a modest wood dwelling whose windows and doors remained open at all times of the day. The butcher, a wide, gruff-looking man, stood outside tanning the hide of an ox when Skandar approached. He glanced up from his work and scowled at Skandar from under thick, dark eyebrows. Placing his tools on a nearby workbench, the large man wiped his burly blood-stained hands on his leather apron, which was fastened around his wide waist.
“What do you want, lad?” he growled.
Skandar swallowed. His dealings with the butcher had never gone well, and the very presence of the man made him nervous. Maybe it was the lethal blades hanging in the dwelling behind him. Maybe it was the way he studied him as a hunter stalks his prey. Either way, the mistrust in Skandar’s heart deepened.
The youth shuffled forward and held out his bag of coins. “I came to buy meat, sir.”
“Did you now,” wheezed the butcher, sarcasm dripping from his mouth, and repeated, “What do you want?” he turned and walked slowly through the open door into his shop, leaning from side to side as he moved.
The smell of dead animals and rotting meat hit Skandar like a stone as soon as he stepped across the threshold. Dried meat hung from the ceiling, and raw, red slabs lay on the tables and shelves around the room. He coughed and gasped, “I need to buy meat, sir.” He opened the money bag and drew out five coins.
The butcher came over and examined the money. “Eh, I’d say that’d equal about half a squirrel,” he rasped.
Only half a squirrel? This amounts to two on market day! Skandar grumbled silently and pulled out three more coins, leaving only five left in the small purse. I don’t have time to barter, man!
“One squirrel,” the butcher grinned, displaying two rows of yellow teeth as he greedily eyed the money.
Skandar viewed the remaining contents of the bag. He sighed, ground his teeth, and replaced the money. “Thank you sir, but I’ve changed my mind.” He strode quickly out of the shop, all the while feeling the butcher’s lingering gaze boring holes in his back.
Filling his lungs with clean air, Skandar once more measured the sun with his fingers. The sun was now at his last finger, and he realized the reason for the butcher’s outrageous price. The hair on the back of Skandar’s neck stood on end, and he suddenly had the uncomfortable feeling that someone unseen watched him. He began re-tracing his steps through Tiem, casting glances over his shoulder for whoever observed him, but the streets were now vacant.
Then a shadow moved behind one of the houses and Skandar nerve broke. In and out of the buildings he dashed until he reached the baker. He slowed to a stop and turned around, glancing behind him. Once sure of his safety, he pushed his uneasiness to the back of his mind, opened the bakery door, and stepped inside. As he did so, the sun sank behind the trees of Tiem now, and darkness blanketed the town.

In the shadows of a dwelling across the street, a man pulled a dark hood over his face and watched by the scarce moonlight as a young, red-haired man entered the bakery of Tiem. The butcher detained the youth long enough for him to catch up with Skandar Edmundson. He successfully tracked him from his home, through the forest, and now to Tiem. The man grinned smugly, folded his arms across his chest, and leaned against the wall to wait.

Meanwhile, Skandar bought several small loaves of bread, and hastily left, venturing into the forest. He wandered for some time, stumbling blindly over roots and tree stumps in the darkness before he happened upon a shallow cave near a stream. There, he lay down and fell into an uneasy slumber.
Skandar woke in the early morning with stiff legs. He stepped cautiously out of the cave, which was little more than a hole in the damp earth, to stretch them. Mist rose from the shallow water nearby and covered the forest floor. Skandar leaned over the stream and splashed the cool water on his face and neck. He crouched there, surveying the eerie stillness of the woods around him, before he slowly rose and ambled sleepily toward a large rock that sat in between the cave and his position by the stream.
Once there, Skandar pulled out one of the bread rolls and nibbled it mindlessly. What should I do? He silently inquired. Now was the perfect chance to go to the Capitol. If I go, I have a small chance of finding my father, or someone who knows of him. He pondered this, and had no notion of how much time passed until the forest grew silent. The chorus of the waking birds suddenly vanished and snapped Skandar out of his thoughts and into reality.
Suddenly a twig broke the silence. Skandar bolted back to the safety of his cave like a frightened rabbit, and there he waited; pressing himself against the earthen wall and watching the surrounding foliage for any movement. For several agonizing heartbeats, nothing moved. Skandar hardly breathed.
Then just as he considered exiting the cave, two mail-clad knights appeared out of nowhere across the stream from where Skandar hid. He stood perfectly still and strained his ears for pieces of their conversation.
“What is so important about this boy?” One remarked in a gravelly voice.
“Lord Joran didn’t say.” The other sounded younger than the first. “But it has something to do with the-“
Skandar strained to hear, but he still couldn’t make out the last word, which the man whispered.
“Lord Joran also mentioned something about his eyes and that he could be very,” the younger man paused, “Harmful.”
My eyes? Skandar couldn’t produce any rational idea explaining what Lord Joran meant by that. There is nothing special about me or my eyes. His intrigue rose, and now he not only wished to discover what happened to his father, but Skandar also wanted to uncover the mystery concerning his eyes, and Lord Joran's interest in them. Why?
While he searched his brain for possibilities, the men moved across the stream and closer to Skandar’s hiding place.
“Sir Reuben knew his father, I heard,” continued the gravelly-voiced knight. The name sounded familiar to Skandar. He searched his earliest childhood memories and finally found fragments of one. In it, he saw a curly-haired man and his weeping mother. The memory brought back several painful memories: the very last time he saw his father, and the death of his mother. He pushed the unwanted emotions deep within himself and he turned back toward the knight’s conversation.
He faintly caught the mention of his name and ‘Tiem’ before the men moved past and out of sight.
I have to go back if I have any chance of making it to the Capitol alive. He waited for several moments to be sure the men were gone; he wanted to make his departure his choice, and not appear a criminal or fugitive. Cautiously, he meandered through the forest in the direction of Peter’s farm. Skandar’s leisurely pace was quickened as he drew near Peter’s farm and heard the shouts of men and the thunder of horse’s hooves. He halted at the edge of the tree line and crouched in the shrubbery to observe the men.
Men on horseback surrounded the home. They wore the red and silver of Corrthaine on their cloaks and on their shields the crest of the royal family- two swords crossed at the hilts, and two dragons entwined around them. They were armed, but none wore metal armor, only leather vests, which, when in combat, would provide them with some protection, but not much. They were not expecting him to fight. Skandar’s attention was then directed to one man who appeared to be giving orders. He was mounted upon a massive ebony charger, who stamped the plowed earth impatiently with its hooves. He wore a black leather jacket and pants of the same color. Long, white hair fell smoothly past his shoulders and barely moved as his horse pranced.
What Skandar failed to notice, though, was the man concealed in the forest behind him. The man crept hesitantly toward Skandar, until a twig snapped under his foot. Skandar wheeled about, and the young man sprung onto him. Skandar struggled for a moment and began to have the upper hand, but then a shadow moved out from behind a moss-covered tree and joined in the fight. A black leather vest covered his torso and broad shoulders; a lock of the man’s thick, wavy ebony hair fell across his ice blue eyes, while the rest reached his shoulders.
Skandar had only a moment to take in every noticeable detail about the man before the knight threw a gloved fist at his face. It struck the side of his head. A searing pain shot through his temple and jaw before Skandar fell to the ground. So much for not appearing a prisoner, Skandar chided himself as everything before his eyes went gray, and then black.

“What were you thinking?” the younger man shouted desperately. “I had him!”
“No, you were simply in my way,” answered the dark knight, his voice deep and thickly layered with cold malice.
The blonde man threw his hands in the air before surveying the unconscious man lying on the forest floor between them.
“How do you suppose we should go about moving him?”
The dark man silently grasped Skandar’s arms and hauled him roughly into his back. And now to interrogate the famer and his family.

Skandar awoke to a throbbing pain in his jaw. He could feel grass and dirt beneath him, not the roots and leaves of the forest floor, and the smell of a dying fire drifted to his nose on a whisper of wind. He slowly opened his eyes. The harsh sun blinded him for a moment, and then his eyes adjusted. Someone leaned over him, and Skandar identified him as the knight from the woods, the first one who had attacked him from behind.
“My apologies, friend,” the young man said. His sincere, green-brown eyes crinkled at the corners as he smiled quickly. “My orders were to wait until you appeared, and then bring you into the camp. I had no idea Flynn had been tracking you.” He gestured to the dark knight. The knight, Flynn, was mounted on a raven horse riding beside the blonde man, who Skandar guessed to be none other than Lord Joran.
Even so, he sat up and pointed to the lord. “Him. I think I’ve seen him before. Who is he?” It was only then did he realize the resemblance the boy beside him had to the lord. They were identical in every way, except that the younger man’s hair was short, cropped close around his ears, and his face was neither grim nor cruel.
“He is the Lord Joran and my father,” the lad confirmed Skandar’s assumptions. “I am Oliver. If there happens to be anything you require, I shall do my best to help you in any way I can.”
Oliver extended a calloused hand for Skandar to take, which he did and rose unsteadily to his feet.
They stood in awkward silence until twelve knights formed their horses in a circle around them and prodded their mounts to walk. As they passed by Peter’s home, Skandar whispered so only Oliver could hear, “What of the family who lived there? Are they well?”
Oliver hesitated. “When we searched for you in the house and inquired your location, they resisted.”
Skandar’s stomach dropped as Oliver’s expression fell. “The woman and her daughters are in the village, safe, for now.”
“And the man?”
“Flynn and Sir Joran ordered some of the men to beat the women to reveal where you hid. When the man intervened, Flynn killed him.”
Skandar’s heart burned steadily with loathing for Flynn. How could anyone be so heartless?
Oliver cleared his throat. “Afterward, I made certain the women remained safe.”
Skandar nodded, “Thank you.” His voice was husky. As they arrived at the road, they were joined by a dozen more knights from Tiem. A man led two horses through the sea of warriors for Skandar and Oliver. As they mounted, Sir Joran and Flynn wheeled their horses around to the front of the formation and they urged their mounts onward. Skandar surveyed the men surrounding him.
Most were older than he and they were heavily armed. They rode expressionless and in silence. All except Oliver, who rode beside him.
Skandar then turned his gaze ahead. The once familiar hills and welcoming fields now seemed foreign and uninviting. Their colors appeared dull to him, as though the joy had been drained from them. Not from them, he thought. From me.
The rhythm and movement of the animal beneath him lulled Skandar into a hypnotic wakefulness. The hills and fields rolled by endlessly throughout the remainder of the morning. The sun was high above them before Lord Joran shouted an order, and the company stopped. The moment he dismounted, six men surrounded Skandar and marched him to the side of the road. They ate quickly, and before much time passed at all, they were in the saddle again.
Several hours later, they entered a forest and were finally given relief from the sun. As dark fell, they entered a clearing and the men set up camp. Four men positioned themselves, one on every side of the tree line, as guards. Skandar observed this as his hands and feet were bound with a thick rope. As he lay back, his eyes shut slowly and he drifted off into an uncomfortable sleep.

Sorry this took me so long! I didn't feel it was quite ready yet, so I decided to edit Chapter One last week and save Chapter Two for this week. Stay tuned for Chapter Three next Thursday! I hope you enjoyed it!
~Abbie Boots

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Mark of the King: Chapter One

Hello! This begins the tale of Skandar (cool name, eh?) and a story that I have been plotting for a while now. I hope you enjoy it!

Chapter One

The messenger scurried down the dimly-lit stone corridor. His message came from across the borders and was of the utmost importance. He broke into a run down several more passages until he finally entered the king’s chambers. Upon Edmund’s arrival, the king straightened and leaned forward in his wooden chair.
            “You have news?” demanded King Fendral of Corrthaine. His graying hair fell to his shoulders, framing his pale angular face. His beard, which was a slightly darker gray than his hair, was neatly trimmed around his jaw and chin. The king’s piercing ice blue eyes glared at Edmund beneath his bushy eyebrows.
            Timidly, Edmund answered, “Aye, Sire.” Bowing low before the mercenary king he quietly spoke, “The knights you sent to fetch the sword either perished or vanished, same as the others. We received word from Talahm Glas that they passed through Scioból and were traveling to Feirme, but they never reached the village.”
            King Fendral leapt to his feet and made a low, guttural sound, almost a growl. “All of them?” he hissed between clenched teeth and sent a goblet flying across the chamber with a back sweep of his hand. Red wine spattered the wall as the cup hit the stones, its sound echoing off the wall.
            A shaking servant replaced the goblet and shrank noiselessly into the safety of the shadows as the king spent a moment studying the map spread out on the desk. After several minutes, he glared up at Edmund as if demanding his response.
            “Yes, Sire, all of them,” Edmund explained slowly, choosing his words. “Some of them were attacked by something in the forests. We have heard tales of beasts, though none are consistent from one person to the next; and still others simply disappeared. To our knowledge, no one inhabits the forest of Cosaint.” He paused for a long moment and looked around before adding quietly, “Whether they encountered a band of renegade outlaws or some other evil, no one knows.”
            Drawing his own sword, King Fendral stepped around the large table. Pointing the sharp, glinting tip at Edmund, he threatened, “Tell Durrendale I order him to send out more of his knights. If they too, fail, tell him their families will be punished.”
            Edmund, trembling, bowed after the king dismissed him. He turned and strode hastily out of the king’s chambers and down several passages. Quickly, he half-ran down many long flights of stairs and through more corridors until he entered the throne room.
            The throne room itself was constructed entirely of stone. Two doors allowed entrance to the room; one near which Edmund stood. The second below him, admitted entrance to the immense chamber from the kitchens, dungeons, and lesser rooms of the fortress. A single golden throne stood unoccupied near the back of the room. The high windows and flickering candles cast eerie shadows on the cold undecorated walls.
            Edmund scanned the vacant room for Sir Durrendale. At a sound from the doorway behind him, he spun around, groping for the knife at his belt.
 “Easy, Edmund.” The smiling woman, his beloved wife, spoke to him as though speaking to one of the horses in her father’s stables. She wiped dirt and other grime off of her hands onto her stained apron and ran into his arms.
            “Sybbyl,” Edmund murmured, his face in her golden hair. “Sybbyl, gather your belongings. We leave tonight.”
            The kitchen maid pulled away and studied Edmund’s face. “Why? What has happened? How is my brother?” Sybbyl placed a hand on his ruddy cheek.
            Gazing into her worried, silver eyes, Edmund drew Sybbyl close to him once more. He quickly scanned the room. Once certain they were alone, he whispered, “Andrew and the knights the king dispatched are safe.”
            “They arrived?”
            “Yes. But that places you in greater danger. I am working on a plan- one that will allow us to slip out of the castle and into safety.” Seeing uncertainty written on the young woman’s face, Edmund explained, “King Fendral ordered me to tell Durrendale to dispatch more knights on the quest. If he discovers your eyes…” his voice trailed off. He finished the thought in his head, He will take you.
            “To Durrendale then,” Sybbyl marched down the stairs and out of the room through the lower door.
            With a heavy sigh, Edmund followed his wife.
            He quickly caught up to the young woman, and they walked the shadowed passages in silence.
            Both blinked when they entered the courtyard. Not a single cloud hung in the pale mid-morning sky. A crisp autumn wind whipped through the open space; bringing about the pleasant aroma of flowers from the orchard and gardens that littered either side of the intricate walkways. This courtyard, unlike the one on the front of the castle, possessed a cheerful air, where the other, its sole purpose defense and punishments, reeked of death and pain.
            Servants milled about the courtyard, picking flowers, tending to the gardens, or passing through on their way to work in the castle kitchens.
            Then, a young man strode out of the orchard on the far side of the courtyard. Curly dark brown locks fell in front of his startling sky blue eyes, which crinkled at the corners, indicating he smiled often. He possessed a slender, yet noble frame, and walked with the self-confidence, but not arrogance, of a noble’s son. Waving to the couple, he greeted them, “Fine day, is it not?”
            “Greetings, Reuben,” Edmund smiled and embraced his childhood friend.
            “What is the word from the border?” Reuben circled in front of Edmund and Sybbyl; walking backwards to see their faces.
            “Where is your father?”
            “In the Knights’ Chambers, why? Is it about the-” he stopped waking mid-sentence and stared at Sybbyl, and then at Edmund. Seeing their hopeful expressions, everything suddenly became clear to Reuben.
            “They made it.”
            Edmund inclined his head slightly and relayed the king’s orders.
            “He’s insane!” roared Reuben.
“I know, I know. Hence the reason we,” he motioned to Sybbyl and himself, “leave. Tonight. If the king finds out about her eyes like he did Andrew’s… I must see your father.”
            Reuben walked with them across the courtyard, and then he suddenly grabbed Edmund’s arm. “I want to help you.”
            “What? Have you any idea how much trouble this will cause?” Sybbyl and Edmund spoke over each other in strained voices, wishing to avoid the attention of the servants.
            Reuben, who had a knack for finding himself in and out of trouble, smiled. “Of course I do. Which is the very reason I wish to help you.”
            A grin slowly spread across Edmund’s face, and he clapped a hand on his friend’s broad shoulder. “Many thanks,” he said with gratitude.
            The small group walked, quietly and quickly, through several more dark halls and emerged in a part of the castle where the Knights’ Chambers- four massive halls -were located.
            “Remain here, Sybbyl, until we have finished.”
            The slender young woman met Edmund’s concerned amber eyes and nodded with understanding.
            Without another word, the two men opened a large, heavy oak door and stepped inside.
            “I’ve been expecting you,” Durrendale said gruffly, not bothering to look up from a scroll he was examining on his desk. Weapons hung on racks around them: swords, bows, daggers, pikes, axes, and other tools of battle. Scrolls and ledgers varying in size were piled in corners and on tables around the quiet office.
            Reuben cleared his throat. “Father.”
            Sir Durrendale lifted his head, his steely blue eyes locking on the two younger men before him. Edmund crossed his fist across his chest and knelt in salute to the lord.
            “Sir, the king requests you dispatch more of your men on the Quest to find the sword. The men you recently sent out failed to reach their destination. Some never even arrived on the soil of Talahm Glas,” Edmund spoke clearly, meeting the knight’s cold gaze.
            The middle-aged man was silent, though Edmund could see fury boiling in his eyes.
            “He wants more?” Durrendale fairly shouted. “Already we have lost so many!”
            Reuben, attempting to calm his father, pleaded, “Father, do not heap the fault upon Edmund; he is only the messenger. Please refrain from yelling at him. If anyone deserves a good shouting, it is King Fendral.”
            “Ah! Now there is a bit of truth,” growled Durrendale. “You can tell the king I must wait several months to train more men.”
            “Right away, sir.”
            Outside the Keeper’s chamber, Reuben wrinkled his brow in agitation. “Well that went exactly according to plan,” he groaned. “Now we have angered both my father and King Fendral. Brilliant!”
            “You managed to anger both in one day?”
            Edmund and Reuben jumped at the sound of another voice.
            “Quite a feat!” the chestnut-haired young man standing behind them with Sybbyl grinned.
            Reuben and Edmund bowed mockingly to the prince, and then their faces broke into large smiles.
            “Why, good morning Prince Garren.” With teasing smiles still lingering on their faces, Edmund and Reuben each grasped their friend’s forearm in greeting.
            “I was returning from fencing practice,” explained Garren, “when I bumped into Sybbyl. She told me of your,” he hesitated, “situation concerning my father. You are correct in believing her safety is compromised. If you desire my aid in any way, please, do not hesitate to ask,” offered the prince. “My father is not all he once was. He listens to the counsel of people who mean him harm. Power and wealth now consume him, and I fear the worst is yet to come.”
            “You are a good friend, Garren, to help us,” whispered Sybbyl.
            The four exited the corridor, hurriedly making plans in hushed whispers for that night.

            Later that evening toward dusk, four cloaked figures met in a huge, dimly-lit room at the top of the castle.
            “Father,” pleaded Garren in a quiet voice, “the quest for the sword Bródúil is a failed cause. Your people fear you. I beg you! Let it go! Innocent people lay dead because of your-”
            “Sire!” the second man drowned out the last of the prince’s words with his rough voice. “I beg you not to listen to the lies your son whispers in your ear. Grief over the lost clouds his judgment,” insisted the man. He smiled, his teeth glittering in the firelight.
            The king’s fierce stare scanned the flickering faces until he found that of an old brother-in-arms. “What is your opinion on this, Durrendale?”
             “Sire, with respect, I agree with Prince Garren.”
            The pallid young man across the huge circular table scoffed, “Sire, again, I beg you not to listen to these fools.”
            “Silence, Joran,” commanded the king. “I shall hear your opinion later.”
            “With your permission, my king, I shall continue,” Durrendale fumed. King Fendral nodded his approval.
            “As Keeper of the Knights, I firmly agree with your son. We have lost too many knights on this frivolous quest!”
            “Frivolous?” King Fendral bellowed.
            “Yes, Father! Frivolous is indeed a good word.”
            King Fendral pounded a gloved fist on the table and the room grew eerily silent.
            “My apologies, Highness,” continued the Keeper.
            “You and my son are dismissed,” the king stood and gestured to the door back behind him. Prince Garren and the Keeper rose from their chairs and exited the room without a word.
            “What is your pleasure with me, Sire?” inquired Joran, running a calloused hand through his long hair.
            “Stay,” the king stopped speaking until the prince and the Keeper’s footsteps faded. “I have need of your private counsel.”
            Meanwhile, Sybbyl and Edmund met Reuben in the stable yard. Sybbyl’s father, the stable master, prepared them with enough food to last several days in two old and unused saddle bags. Mournfully, he embraced his daughter and son-in-law while Reuben stood guard.
 The royal stables stood just outside the castle walls with a large gate for the knights and horses to pass through into the castle between the fortress and stable. A large enclosed field surrounded the stable that allowed the horses to graze and run about.
“Where’s Garren?” Edmund questioned the other young man.
“I do not know. He said he would meet us here with the final preparations.”
Edmund shook his head, deciding that he and Sybbyl would leave immediately, whether the prince announced himself or not. “We head north to my hometown, Daingean, in Tir Thuaidh.”
“No!” Garren stepped from the large gateway connecting the stables and the castle’s main courtyard. “The borders of Corrthaine and Tir Thuaidh are guarded; you as well as I know that. Go south, to Tiem.”
“Tiem?” questioned Sybbyl.
Garren pulled a piece of parchment from a leather pouch hanging at his belt. It was a map. “Take this,” he said, handing the map to Edmund. “Go past Carn and then follow the Straight Arrow River through Old Wood. There, at the town Riverside,” the prince traced the route with his forefinger, “the Straight Arrow merges into the Light Water River, which flows by Tiem. He lives there. Find him, and he will help you.”
“Thank you,” the red-haired man took the map from his friend and tucked it securely into one of the saddlebags littering the grass and stone pathway.
     Sybbyl spoke up once more, “I slipped the drug you gave me into the sentries’ food, Garren. Reuben checked moments ago, and they sleep soundly.”
“Well done. Now, gather your things.”
Edmund and his wife simultaneously hoisted their bags onto their shoulders and together, they slipped out of the stable yard and disappeared into the silent streets of the Capitol, looking back once to wave farewell.
“Farewell friends,” whispered Garren into the night air.
Reuben waited until Sybbyl’s father walked slowly into the stable before turning to Garren.
“Do you believe they will make it to Tiem?”
“With His help, I believe so.”
Together, the two young men knelt and prayed.

A cloaked figure watched from the top of one of the castle battlements as two people made their way out of the stable yard and into the streets. Two more remained kneeling on the paved walkway between the stable and the courtyard below him.
The hooded man smiled wolfishly, and vanished into the intricate passages of the castle.

Though their journey proved difficult, Edmund and Sybbyl arrived safely in Tiem several weeks later. They located the man whom the prince mentioned, but only once did they speak to him.
Two years passed, and in that time, Sybbyl bore a son. They named him Skandar, after Edmund’s father who lived north in Tir Thuaidh.
The red-headed toddler squealed with delight as his chubby legs carried him across the grassy yard in front of the cottage and into his mother’s arms.
Her eyes creased at the corners as her lips spread into a wide smile and she laughed.
Edmund came around the corner of the small wooden house, wiping sweat from his brow. Affectionately, he ruffled his child’s fiery-red hair before kissing his wife.
“Peter and I finished planting the wheat today,” the man announced.
“Wonderful. Have you heard any word from the castle?” Sybbyl inquired the daily question with worried anticipation.
“No, Love. None.”
The family of three sat in the middle of their yard, the parents watching with joy at their two-year-old’s discoveries while the sun began its descent toward the western horizon.
Fields of grain, wheat, and barley surrounded the cluster of wooden homes of Tiem, a quiet village located in the south of Corrthaine. Although the village possessed no walls, the brave hearts of the men who called it home defended its people. Among the houses in the heart of Tiem, a large stone structure stood smaller than a castle, but large enough to hold many people. There lived the sheriff, Falkes, and his guards who maintained the peace in the village.
   One evening, the small family sat around their wooden table when someone pounded impatiently on the door.
They froze, their food halfway to their mouths. Edmund set his down as an all-too-familiar voice demanded, “Open this door on behalf of Fendral, King of Corrthaine!”
Edmund rose slowly, glancing nervously at his wife before striding across the dirt floor and opening the door.
Joran stood outside the door, accompanied by the sheriff and a dozen armed knights.
“Well, well,” the pale man laughed. “Two long years spent scouring the countryside and we find you here. Of all places.”
Edmund stepped outside and shut the door behind him.
“”We searched Tir Thuaidh, Tir O Niwl in secret, and even attempted to search Talahm Glas, but storms prevented us from making the crossing.”
            “Joran,” Edmund tried again.
            “But we never believed you and your wife would be foolish enough to remain in Corrthaine,” he sneered.
Joran paused to breathe, and Edmund took the opportunity to speak, “What is it you want, Joran?”
            “‘Lord Joran’ now, and you see, there waits a bit of unfinished business in the Capitol. Uncomfortable, nagging business, you understand.”
            Edmund shifted his gaze from his foe to the sheriff. He had only once met him in person; afterward he saw him riding his ebony horse through Tiem, surrounded by his knights. The sheriff refused eye contact; his wavy black hair fell to his shoulders and across his rough face.
            Joran continued, “The Sword.” He grinned, barring his teeth.
            A slight breeze blew the sheriff’s hair out of his face. Edmund set his jaw in a stern grimace. Except for their hair, Lord Joran and Sheriff Fawkes appeared very similar. Too similar to be mere acquaintances.
            “Thank you, brother,” the Lord turned to the sheriff. “Edmund, have you met my elder brother, Fawkes?”
            “No,” Edmund lied. “Listen, Joran, I have a family!” he shouted, shaking with rage. “My wife!”
            “I have a wife as well, Edmund.”
            He stared at Joran. The knight’s words almost sounded sympathetic. But then Fawkes laughed smugly.
            “Alas, I have not been with them for many months. I long for them terribly.”
            Edmund stepped back and pressed himself against the door.
            “What, pray tell, are you saying?” he spat.
            “King Fendral ordered you return to Corrthaine Castle and embark on the quest.”
            Edmund breathed, relieved it was him and not Sybbyl the king requested. Still, he pleaded, “As I said before, my wife-”
            “Can live without you,” the blonde man hissed. “If you fail to comply,” he drew his sword. “I shall be forced to kill you, and Fawkes will throw your wife and child in the dungeon.”
            Edmund stiffened, his features rigid.
            “You heard me. On your knees.”
            Shaking with rage and humiliation, Edmund obeyed and uttered hoarsely, “Please, Joran. I beg you to leave me and my family in peace.”
            “No.” Joran sheathed his blade. “Gather your belongings. We depart at dawn tomorrow.”
            “Surround the house! See that no man escapes!” yelled Fawkes.

            Sybbyl held Skandar and sat, praying in silence.
            When Edmund closed the door slowly behind him, Sybbyl knew something troubled her husband.
            “I must go, Sybbyl.”
“The sheriff’s men surround the house. They wait, and if I refuse,” Edmund paused. “If I refuse, Love, no one can predict what Joran, Fawkes, or the king will do.”
            Edmund hung his head in defeat.
            Tears spilled down his wife’s pale cheeks. Edmund’s strong, tanned arms encircled her and held her close.
            “I love you,” he whispered. Then they both felt two small arms wrap around their legs.
            Skandar gazed up at his parents with an expression of pure innocence. His face contained the very likeness of his father, except his eyes, which burned like liquid silver.
            Edmund hoisted the child and held Skandar between Sybbyl and himself. After several long, silent moments, he released his family and set his only son on the floor.
            “Sybbyl, whatever you do, please do not go into Tiem alone unless you and Skandar feel threatened or you are in danger. If he notices your eyes, Joran will come back, next time for you.”
            Sybbyl nodded. She cradled Edmund’s ruddy, freckled face in her hands and kissed his lips. There they stood for several agonizing moments, their son at their side before Sybbyl moved away. She took her husband’s calloused palm in one hand and her son’s tender hand in the other.
            Then alone, Edmund walked out the door and met the men surrounding his home.

            The last clear memory Skandar had of his father haunted him every day. He and his mother stood on a hill, watching as a large group of men on horseback wound their way through the valley below. One man turned around, smiled at Skandar, and waved.

            Less than six months later, Sybbyl opened the door to receive an old friend.
            “Reuben!” she exclaimed, throwing a rag over her shoulder. “How good to see you.”
            His only response was to smile sadly and gesture toward the little boy tugging at his mother’s skirt.
            “Edmund told me about your son during his time in the Capitol. I assure you he told no one else,” he said.
            Sybbyl smiled, patting the boy’s shaggy red hair. “His name is Skandar.”
            “Hello young friend.” Reuben extended a well-calloused hand, which the normally shy child took readily.
            “Please, Reuben, come in.”
            As he stepped across the threshold, Reuben looked down at the child walking beside him and said, “I have a daughter almost your age. Maybe someday, when all is put right, you shall meet her.”
            Sybbyl, overhearing Reuben’s comment, smiled for the first time in many weeks. “When did you marry Morgaine?”
            Reuben pondered this for a moment. “We wed three months after you escaped.”
            Sorrow blanketed his features once more. Sybbyl noticed this and inquired, “What troubles you, Reuben?”
            He sighed and gestured to the chairs. “Do sit down, Sybbyl.”
            Her face blanched and her hands trembled as she sat and placed her son in her lap. Reuben sat opposite and folded her hands in his.
            “It is Edmund, is it not?”
            “Yes, Sybbyl,” Reuben’s voice grew husky. “He departed several months ago with a company of knights. We received reports that they made the crossing into Talahm Glas, but they were attacked. From what little information we accumulated, there were no survivors.”
            Sybbyl covered her face with her worn hands and wept audibly. Skandar patted his mother’s shoulders and looked lovingly at her with understanding eyes.
            Reuben, who had seen this expression written across his best friend’s features, let a single tear slide down his bearded cheek. “I am so sorry,” he choked.
            Reuben left before twilight that evening and never returned to see Sybbyl or her son in Tiem again.
            A single candle flickered in the darkness of the home, illuminating the small figures of a heartbroken woman and her young son.
            Peter and his wife, Elaine, the neighboring family, aided Sybbyl and Skandar by bringing them food, water, and supplies. Skandar befriended their three daughters, and they in turn adopted Skandar as if he were their own brother. 
             One afternoon when Skandar numbered five years of age, he and Peter and Elaine’s youngest daughter ran into his home to find their mothers speaking in low tones. The children stopped laughing.
            Curiosity won, and the young boy asked simply, “Momma, what is wrong?”
            Sybbyl, who had become thin and frail, glanced at Elaine with tired eyes. “The Plague has swept through Tiem, Skandar.”
            The child stared at his mother, confused.
            “Many people have died. We want- need- to keep you children safe.”
            Elaine’s eldest daughters sat quietly in a corner of the room, playing with small, plain, faceless dolls.
            The middle girl looked up from her play and said in a nasal voice, “Momma says we can’t go into Tiem anymore. She says we might fall ill and die.”
            Fear gripped Skandar’s small heart.
Elaine scolded her daughter, “I offer my apologies, Sybbyl.” She then took the hands of her daughters and led them toward the open door. “If you need anything, Sybbyl, please do not hesitate to ask.”
When they were gone, Sybbyl placed on the table the bag of grain brought to them from Peter’s fields.
 “Are you going to die, Momma?” the little boy moved close to his mother’s side, his arms outstretched.
“By the grace of the True King, no,” she patted her son’s head and held him to her side. “No, by His grace, I shall remain with you for a little longer.”
But Sybbyl did fall ill, and like so many before her, she died. Elaine and Skandar sat motionless at Sybbyl’s bedside when she faintly squeezed her son’s chubby hand, looked at him one last time, and did not breathe in again.
Skandar stared at his mother’s face. Peace blanketed her features and she appeared to be sleeping.
“Momma,” he said, shaking her arm. “Momma?”
But she did not awaken. Skandar did not understand; his mother always aroused when he called. 
“Momma?” he tried again.
Elaine’s cool hand rested on his shoulder. Wet tears rolled down her face as she knelt down to face Skandar, cradling his head in her hands.
“Your mother is gone now, Skandar. She will never wake up. I am so sorry.”
He shook his head, unwilling to believe his mother was gone forever. “No.”
Skandar touched his mother’s hand. “Momma!” he wailed, pleading with the True King to bring her back.
Elaine stayed with him that night. Finally after several hours it seemed, Skandar cried himself to sleep.
Sybbyl was buried the next day in the graveyard of the church in the center of Tiem. Peter and Elaine were there, as were Elizabeth, Anne, Mary, and several other men and women from the town. Sheriff Falkes and a dozen of his armed men sat on their steeds. They remained completely motionless except for their eyes, which kept a careful watch on the people and forest outside Skandar’s home.
Skandar stood in silence, his face expressionless as his men lowered his beloved mother’s body into the ground. After the funeral, Sheriff Falkes dismounted and approached Skandar. As usual, the sheriff dressed in black. The dull buckles decorating his ebony leather vest moved and clinked together with each step. Halting directly in front of Skandar, he peered down at the small child, his muscular arms crossed. He knelt, and Skandar felt Fawkes’s black eyes bore holes into his own.
“I offer my condolences for your loss. I am certain it must be very difficult for you.” Though the sheriff’s words held sympathy, his tone was forced. “I have been ordered to offer you a home either with me, or in the Capitol.”
At that moment, Elaine walked over and put her hands protectively on Skandar’s shoulders.
“T’was his mother’s wish that the boy remain with us. If you have any honor, fulfill her last request m’lord I beg of you.”
Sheriff Fawkes stood. Elaine was a tall woman, but he towered over her. His dark eyes flashed and the corners of his mouth lifted into a sneer. “As you wish.”
Fawkes marched back to his horse, mounted, and quickly rode off with his men to his home in the wealthy part of Tiem.
From that day on, Skandar lived with Elaine and Peter as a member of their family. Soon after his mother’s death, Lord Joran seized Edmund and Sybbyl’s land, leaving Skandar with no inheritance and little money. Each week, however, someone left a small sack of silver coins on Peter and Elaine’s threshold. They never discovered the donor, but they accepted their gift in gratitude as it helped Peter and Elaine buy food each week for their family.
As he grew from a boy to a young man, Skandar aided Peter in the grain fields, becoming stronger by the day. During his spare time, Elaine taught him to read and write alongside her daughters. One day, he happened upon a scroll containing a map of Corrthaine. He stayed awake every night studying the parchment and learning the lands surrounding his country with the hopes that someday he could journey to find his father, or at the very least learn of his fate.
Skandar worked hard, pouring everything into his duties around his home. By his fifteenth birthday, he earned a position trading in the village markets every Tuesday. Once there, he began to notice something unsettling as he worked with Elaine at their stand. No matter where he ventured within Tiem, the sheriff’s men were never far away. At first, he ignored their presence, believing they upheld their duty to keep the peace, but as they became more and more frequent, he developed the nagging sense that they watched him.
The winter of Skandar’s seventeenth year, Sheriff Fawkes suddenly fell ill and died, and life went on for Skandar as usual: working in Peter’s fields, trading in Tiem, and reading during every spare moment.
One evening after harvesting the fields, Elaine knocked on his bedroom door. Hastily, he threw on a clean shirt before opening the door and admitting the woman.
“Skandar,” she said in a hurried voice. “I want you to buy meat in Tiem.”
He glanced around the room. “But we have plenty here, and market day is tomorrow.”
She gestured for him to draw closer with one of her slender fingers. “Lord Joran arrived in Tiem today, Skandar.”
He staggered back. “Lord Joran? The man who-“
“The man who took your father? Yes.”
Skandar walked quietly to his open window and stared at the green fields of Tiem. “But… why?”
Elaine joined him at the window and placed a hand on his shoulder. “You are a clever lad. Why do you think?” she inquired.
Skandar slowly turned his head away from the window to look her in the eyes. “Me.”
She nodded sadly.
“Why then,” Skandar questioned, walking away from the window, “do you want me to go into Tiem if he is there, searching for me?” In that moment, something unknown to him entered his heart. Uneasy, he dropped his head as he realized his mistake. “He is coming here.” Skandar went to a shelf and took from it a leather satchel, which he filled with another pair of pants and shirt. He took his belt from his bed, fastening it around his waist before exiting the room.
Elaine followed him all the way to the door. She handed him a small bag containing a few coins. “Take this. Buy food in Tiem, anything you need to survive on your own for several days. Do not travel through the open. Go through the woods instead. Hide there if you have to, and please promise me you will stay hidden and safe.”
Skandar noticed that she repeatedly cast glances out the window as she uttered a rushed goodbye. Turning, he saw a cloud of dust moving quickly on the outskirts of the fields. Metal glinted in the sunlight. Weapons, he thought.
He quickly embraced the woman who cared for him like a mother since the death of his own, and slipped out the back door. He bolted across the barren field, his satchel slapping his legs as he ran. He breathed hard from the exertion when he came to the bottom of a hill and began climbing the steep grassy slope. Gasping for air when he reached the top of the incline, he turned and melted into the wood.