The chill awoke him early the next morning. Mist coiled above the grass, mingling with the smoke from the dying fire. It snaked around the waking forms of the men. The familiar scent of damp earth mixed with that of smoke and pine filled his nostrils.
Struggling, Skandar sat up and tried to stretch his stiff limbs. The other knights were in the process of rousing themselves, except for Oliver and Flynn, who were among the four guards.
Skandar, still bound, propped himself up on one elbow and watched them. Flynn moved slowly in between the trees, his eyes scanning the surrounding woods like a hawk. His sharp nose and thin mouth, which seemed to be perpetually curved in a self-satisfied grin, only added to the smug nature of his being. Skandar correctly assumed that he was a man of arrogant nature, remorseless, and not to be trifled with. His pale skin contrasted oddly, Skandar thought, with his inky black hair and attire. He strode proudly, his head held high.
Flynn cast his eyes into the camp and left his post, weaving his way toward Lord Joran.
Skandar’s attention was turned to Oliver, who stood opposite him, absentmindedly fingering his sword. Two small throwing-axes were strapped to his back and belt. When he saw the others making for the camp, Oliver too turned and walked to the place Skandar sat.
“Good morning,” he called once he was within hearing distance.
“I don’t see the good in it,” Skandar muttered to himself.
The young man threw back his fair head and laughed. “You may think it even more disagreeable were you to see yourself. You look terrible.” Then he sobered as he untied Skandar’s arms and legs. “But I assume that is to be expected.”
Flynn suddenly appeared before them. His pale blue eyes stared coldly at Skandar, scrutinizing him critically. Skandar’s eyes were daggers, boring into Flynn’s own.
But the dark man didn’t seem to notice. Instead, his eyes scanned the forest and he tapped a booted foot impatiently. He spoke, his voice deceptively smooth and low, “Gather your belongings. We shall break our fast and ride for Carn.”
As Flynn marched away, Oliver groaned. “I, unfortunately, must speak with my father.”
Skandar surveyed the pallet on which he lay. The men had confiscated what little food and supplies he had, leaving him with nothing except the clothes on his back and the boots he wore on his feet. He rubbed his jaw, and felt the stiff beginning of a beard. He sighed and sat straight, easing the pain out of his back and shoulders.
A man ambled to him and wordlessly handed him a piece of bread and a thin slice of cheese. He wasn’t hungry, but he nibbled the food. Only to keep my strength up.
When he had finished, he hauled himself to his feet and shuffled sleepily to join the knights. He soon spotted Oliver, who stood, arms crossed and stubborn-jawed, in front of his father. The lord was saying something urgent, Skandar could tell by the way he waved his arms about and pointed- at the horses, at Oliver, and then at Skandar himself. Oliver was shaking his head. Lord Joran jabbed a finger to Oliver’s chest accusingly, and with a wave of his hand, dismissed his son.
“Find something interesting, did you?”
Skandar jumped and stumbled forward.
Flynn stood directly behind him, a smug grin plastered across his cruel face. Without another word, he moved on.
“Mount up!” Ordered Lord Joran.
The knights hastily saddled their steeds, and packed their bags. In a matter of minutes the camp was cleared of any sign it had been occupied, save for the smoking remains of the fire. They swung themselves onto the beasts and urged them into a plodding walk.
Oliver, once again, drew his mount alongside Skandar. After several moments’ silence, Oliver turned in the saddle to catch Skandar’s attention.
He grinned lopsidedly. “This may not be the most opportune moment, but I can’t help but wonder.”
Skandar raised his eyebrow in response.
“Was there a fortunate woman in Tiem who caught your eye?”
A corner of Skandar’s mouth tugged into a smile. “No. Alas, I have never been so fortunate so far. What about you?”
Oliver gazed ahead, but Skandar got the feeling he wasn’t watching the pair of squirrels scampering up a nearby tree.
“Yes,” he smiled dreamily. “I was blessed to win the heart of the Lady Muriel. She and I are to be married, by the grace of the True King, next year.”
“The way you speak her name implies she must be something of a rare find,” mused Skandar.
“But she is,” Oliver replied. “She values the words of the True King. She’s strong, intelligent, beautiful,” his voice trailed off. “I’ll make certain to introduce you once we arrive in the Capitol.”
“The Capitol. What’s it like?”
Oliver didn’t reply. Instead, his smile faded, and his eyes shifted to the wood around them.
They had entered a part of the forest where the foliage grew thick around the horses’ hooves and the underbrush clawed at them from all sides. Green light filtered through the leaves and danced along the men and beasts.
Birds flitted through the treetops, sometimes singing, other times screeching. The underbrush rattled with the scurrying of rabbits and other small creatures. Occasionally, a dear could be spotted among the trees before bounding away. Skandar welcomed the distractions the animals provided, as it kept him from facing the reality of what lay ahead.
Around midday, they came to another clearing where they ate a short meal, but before long they were back in the saddle.
This went on everyday in the same fashion as the first two until one evening, the walls of Carn rose proudly before the orange sun. Its shadow stretched toward them; a dark patch on the countryside. The men, rejuvenated by the thoughts of hearty meals and beds spurred their mounts faster, reaching the gates of Carn minutes before they were shut for the night.
From the corner of his eye, Skandar saw Flynn scan the walls and rooftops of the large city and smile. At the sight of his curling upper lip, Skandar’s body tensed. He had seen that same arrogant look flicker in Flynn’s eyes the first time they met- just before Flynn knocked Skandar unconscious.
However, the dark knight did nothing out of the ordinary, as far as Skandar was concerned, and Skandar relaxed.
The streets narrowed almost immediately behind the gate, so the men dismounted and guided their mounts through Carn. They had only walked a little way before arriving outside an inn situated near the edge of the city. Though in comparison to other inns near the center of Carn, it was not as well-built nor was it as furnished, but the aromas and warmth radiating from its doors accounted for the dreary outer appearance.
After tethering their horses to stakes in the hard ground, they entered and were instantly met with laughter and music by the townsfolk within. Greeting the owner of the tavern with a few quick words, Lord Joran pulled out several large coins from a concealed pocket in his cloak and scattered them on the table before him. The owner eyed the money greedily, sweeping the glittering pieces into his hand and granted them admission. “Six rooms,” he scrawled something in a book, which he opened on the table. “One night.”
Suddenly becoming nervous, Skandar bounced on the balls of his feet and for the hundredth time, glanced at the knights surrounding him. It was then that he noticed Flynn’s absence. He was nowhere in sight, and yet, Skandar felt as though Flynn watched every move he made.
Everything around him appeared to be normal; men lined the bar, mugs in hand; women chatted; maids brought about trays of food for the tavern guests; candles burned brightly at every table. The merriment vanished, however, at the edges of the room. The corners were shrouded with thick, dark curtains that, Skandar guessed, could easily conceal people or objects of importance from prying eyes. For just a moment, he thought he saw something move deep within the shadows. Straining his eyes, he peered into the inky blackness, but everything appeared to be still and untouched. My mind must be playing games.
Shaking himself, he turned his attention to his leader. Lord Joran assigned four men to each room. Together, Skandar and Oliver hauled their meager possessions, along with the bulky packs belonging to the lord and Flynn, up the flight of stairs in the corner of the main room and into their chamber. Four small beds aligned the wall, and a single window allowed vision into the mostly empty street. Two tables stood on either side, a flickering candle on each.
Wearily, Skandar dropped the satchels on the cots and stared out the window. It overlooked not only the street, but several houses and other such establishments and back alley ways.
“Are you hungry?” Oliver appeared at his side.
Skandar turned away, and breathed deeply, taking in the savory aromas of stew and roasting meat wafted up from below. Oliver had crossed the room in a few quick strides and beckoned to him from the doorway. “Come, Skandar!”
Both young men descended the rickety stairs and reentered the common room where the rest of the company had already seated themselves around several connected tables.
The men in his company consumed the meal, which consisted of beef and vegetable stew and fresh bread, with boisterous jubilance. They talked, jested, ate, drank, and occasionally sang throughout their dinner. Skandar, however, sat in utter silence, opening his mouth only to eat and drink.
Oliver noticed this, and attempted to draw the newcomer into the conversation. But try as he might, he could not think of anything to say. Finally, “You’ll need nourishment for the remaining journey,” escaped his lips.
This seemed to rouse his companion. Skandar’s eyebrow raised and he reluctantly spooned some of the brown broth into his mouth. The moment the liquid touched his lips, a ravenous hunger took over and he engulfed the remainder of his stew. He ate until he could no longer do so, and leaned back in his chair.
Though the men surrounding him concerned themselves with food and drink, the sensation that he was being observed by someone unseen lingered on. It was not long before his eyelids became heavy, the room quieted, and the knights rose simultaneously and filed into their rooms.
Once in his shared chamber, Skandar stretched out on his bed. A shadow loomed over him and he bolted upright. Flynn stood before him, a rope coiled in his hands. “Lie down, commanded Lord Joran, who had just entered the room. Skandar obeyed and frowned when Flynn began to tie his wrist to the bedpost.
From where he sat motionless on his cot, Oliver threw Skandar a sympathetic glance and rolled onto his side. When Flynn completed the knot, Skandar heard his footsteps cross the room. Two puffs of breath later, the room was still and dark.
The company departed Carn the following morning before the sun peaked above the horizon. For two days, they travelled through endless fields and valleys. By the end of the second, they forded a river and halted. Ebony walls, larger than Skandar had ever imagined, rose before them. Guards were positioned on and around the battlements, and scarlet flags waved proudly on the pinnacles.
Skandar gaped in awe. Never in his life had he seen a city this large- or as menacing.
Alright, here's Chapter Three. It's not my best; it's a filler-chapter. Hopefully I'll have Chapter Four next week, but I can't make any promises because I'm still in the process of typing it out, and I haven't even begun editing it yet! Anyway, thank you all for your patience!