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