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!