Thursday, January 23, 2014

The Mark of the King: Chapter Six

Alrighty, so I'm still working on editing parts of it, but here's the chapter I've been promising y'all for who-knows-how-long. Sorry about that, guys!

Chapter Six

The sun had not yet risen over the dark horizon when Skandar joined Sir Reuben’s family at breakfast the next morning.
“Good morning,” the Keeper welcomed as Skandar plodded sluggishly into the warm room, rubbing his arms to ward off the lingering chill.
Skandar lifted his head and mumbled a hasty and half-hearted reply and sat heavily in an empty chair. A maid placed a bowl containing a thick, grey mixture before him, which he raised questionably to his lips. Surprisingly enough, the sticky food tasted sweet and altogether, quite pleasant.
“I trust you slept well?” inquired Lady Morgaine.
“Yes, m’lady, thank you.”
When the first rays of sunlight appeared in the inky sky and the bowls on the table had been cleaned, Sir Reuben, accompanied by John, Muriel, and Skandar, departed the dwelling and began the walk to the castle.
The horns blew soon after they left, the gates opened, and the city rubbed its eyes and awoke. Venders and shop owners, who busied themselves opening their booths and businesses shouted joyfully to the Keeper as he passed.
A few friends, eh? More like the whole city.
Skandar shivered as the crisp early-autumn wind blew through the streets, wishing fervently he possessed a cloak with which to shelter himself from the coming cold.
By the time they reached the castle gates, the top of the sun- a fiery crescent –had risen above the tops of the trees and begun to burn through the chill. The interior of the castle bustled with activity; the sounds of voices and the bellows of animals echoed off the walls.
With no small amount of difficulty, they navigated the maze of people and animals and entered the torch-lit catacombs of the castle.
“M’lady?” Skandar asked timidly.
“Muriel,” she corrected.
“I don’t mean to pry, but yesterday I saw you training with the knights. Where did a young woman such as you learn to-?”
“Learn to fight?”
He nodded and stared at the grey stones of the floor.
“My father taught me when I was young. He believes that no matter who or what you are, you should acquire the knowledge to defend yourself. I come to practice and better my skills here in the morning and in the afternoon, I return home to help my mother. Coming here also gives me the opportunity to see my friends; learn new things; and meet new people.
“I must go now,” she announced, smiled, and headed in the direction of a staircase.
“Give the princess our greetings,” instructed Sir Reuben as the young woman departed and began to ascend the stone steps.
“I will!” she paused and waved slightly before she disappeared.
Sir Reuben then took the lead, guiding them through the labyrinth-like passages and hallways. Skandar marveled at the ease by which he navigated the complex corridors, but reminded himself that the knight lived in the fortress most if not his entire life.
As though reading his thoughts, Sir Reuben glanced behind him at Skandar and promised, “Fear not; you’ll learn the central workings of the castle soon enough.”
Suddenly a shout rang through the halls, chorused by several crashes.
“Ah, I see the knights have returned from breakfast,” stated Sir Reuben blandly. “Else we are under attack and do not know it.”
Drawing nearer to the chambers, the cacophony grew louder and Skandar fought the urge to cover his ears like a child when they entered the hall containing the barracks.
Sir Reuben pounded on each of the doors, bellowing some sort of threat inaudible to Skandar over the clamor, and one by one, the halls fell into silence.
“Well then,” he clasped his hands together in satisfaction, pointing with both forefingers to the door of the Keeper’s Chamber. “I have business I must attend to. John will show you to wherever you need to be.”
“Sir?” Skandar sprinted down the hall, catching the door before it swung shut completely.
The Keeper already sat behind the table, a quill in his hand and a scroll before him.
“Sir, I need to speak with you about a matter that has been on my mind.”
The Keeper folded stopped writing, waved John out of the room, and folded his hands under his chin. “Go on.”
Skandar closed the door, inhaled deeply, and inquired bluntly, “Did you help my parent’s escape?”
“Who was the other man? Yesterday Oliver said the King dispatched him on the quest, but he would say no more. He seemed scared when I pressed further.”
“The other man was Prince Garren.”
“The Prince? Our Prince?”
“The same. Sybbyl’s father also aided with the preparations. He was the stable master, you understand.”
“King Fendral arrested him for treason and sentenced him to hang without a trial.”
“If the Prince was sent to his death and my grandfather was killed for helping my parents, the why did you escape punishment?”
“I didn’t.” Sir Reuben stood and lifted his tunic. At the sight of the livid red, lattice-work of scars covering the Keeper’s torso and back, Skandar bit his lip and instantly regretted his words.
“They tortured me. For an entire month I was whipped, beaten, burned, and suffered other horrors I would like very much to forget as punishment for my actions.
“I wanted to die, Skandar; I begged and pleaded with the True King to end my anguish and take me home, but it seems He had something greater in mind for me. I was on death’s door when one day it all ended and they released me. A few months later, I received orders that I was to ride to Tiem and tell you and your mother your father was dead. I dreaded it, but I could not refuse.”
“Why did you leave us?”
“I had to. Believe me when I say this, Skandar, I wanted to bring you and your mother to the Capitol to live with me and my family, but I knew that if the King found out about your eyes and your mother’s, you would be in great danger. Even so, he somehow obtained the knowledge and you ended up here despite my fervent hopes.
“Now, is there anything else you wish to discuss?”
“No, Sir,” Skandar admitted, slightly ashamed of his previous questions. “Except that I hoped that you would tutor me, and not Flynn.”
Sir Reuben’s eyebrows rose with curiosity and he sat back down in his chair. “Oh?”
“Being my father’s friend, I thought you might be willing to train me,” Skandar explained. “But I understand if you cannot.”
“I make no promises, but I will see what I can do.”
“Thank you, Sir.”
He smiled and gestured to the door. “Off with you! John’s waiting.”
Once outside, John directed him to one of the halls and opened the door. Skandar stepped inside and instantly, every eye turned in his direction. He scanned the inquisitive faces of the young men for anyone familiar to him when Oliver elbowed his way through the crowd and emerged in front of Skandar
“You’ve only just made it!” he beamed. Then his expression sobered and he added in a lowered voice. “I apologize for yesterday.”
“No need,” Skandar assured. “You were called elsewhere.”
“No, I mean when you inquired about your parents. I should not have treated you as I did. You understand it is not a subject I wish to discuss when so many others are present.”
“I know, and I’m sorry for my outbursts.”
Oliver grinned and clapped him on the back. “Come on, then!”
The knights parted, allowing a narrow path by which to pass between them to the center of the long room. Double-bunks lined each wall, separated by short chests for storing clothes, and on the wall above them hung their weapons.
“This is where we live throughout the year. Occasionally, the men are allowed a holiday to visit their families scattered about Corrthaine.”
Skandar frowned and regarded the young man curiously. “Forgive me, but I assumed you lived with your father.”
“No,” admitted Oliver, and his eyes grew distant and his cheerful expression fell. “I haven’t been welcome in my father’s home for many, many years.”
A gong rang before he could elaborate further, and the men- young and old –leapt up and filed out of the hall, where they were joined by the knights from the other chambers. Skandar shuffled along in the mass of men- through the halls to the armory, and then from the armory out to the training fields.
The morning sun shone brightly in the clear sky overhead, causing Skandar to squint and shade his eyes.
They quickly located Flynn, who scowled when Skandar approached, accompanied by Oliver. “You here,” he pointed to Skandar and then to the ground before him. “As for you, Oliver, go back to whatever hole you and your companions crawled from.”
“I don’t believe it was he who emerged from a hole,” Skandar retorted under his breath.
Flynn cast him a dark glance and unsheathed his sword. “Begin.”
Other than occasionally critiquing his form, Flynn remained in his usual stony silence; his stern brow cast in a belittling frown as he glared down his sharp nose at Skandar.
“Does it pain him to show the slightest emotion other than disapproval?” Skandar muttered aloud.
One of Flynn’s charcoal eyebrows arched and Skandar prepared himself for the following blow, but it never came. Skandar’s upper lip curled and he provoked Flynn further by sticking his sword in the ground and folding his arms, mimicking the knight. “Which technique did you use to kill Peter, by the way?”
Flynn shoved his sword into the scabbard and tossed his hair out of his face. “The farmer?” A cruel remorseless grin spread across his features. “One we’ll not learn today.”
“What’s the matter? Did someone forbid you from hurting me?”
“As a matter of fact, yes,” Flynn replied coolly.
The black knight paced, brooding as he walked six steps, turned on his heel, and walked back. Then his attention snapped back to Skandar, who stood stubbornly refusing to touch the sword sticking upright out of the ground.
“Pick it up and continue. There will be no more talk from you, or I’ll turn you over to Dorman, the jailer. I may not be permitted to hurt you, but he made no promise. Believe me; it would give him no greater pleasure than to test his newest torture device.”
Images flicked through Skandar’s mind of Sir Reuben’s wounds, and obediently, he silently grasped his sword and continued on with the same slow sequence until it imprinted itself in his memory.

Meanwhile, Muriel emerged from the castle and stood in the shade of the wall with Oliver, one of her delicate hands rested gently on his strong arm.
“The princess?” Oliver asked.
“She attends a council with her mother and the King concerning the treaty before addressing the court with the matter later today. She assured me, however, that she will be here shortly.”
“Excellent,” his eyes roamed the training field. “How is Skandar, by the way?”
Muriel sighed. “I cannot say. That, and I do not know. He is not one to open up to anyone quickly, but taking into consideration everything that has happened to him in the past weeks I cannot blame him.”
“And your father?”
“He’s preoccupied- you know the reason –but well.”
A gentle breeze stirred her thick black hair, tossing a strand over her eyes. Oliver softly tucked it behind her ear, leaned close and whispered, “I love you.”
Her features lit up and she beamed. “I love you too.”
“Whoa, sorry! Are we interrupting something?” Aidan panted as he and Eoin sauntered over from one of the training rings. Their curly hair and red faces dripped with sweat; both breathed rapidly and deeply; gulping fresh air into their lungs.
Muriel glanced away, her cheeks flushing. “Not at all.”
“Good,” Eoin winked, not bothering to conceal his amusement.
“Care to practice? We could do pair off and do a foursome,” suggested Aidan and the other three agreed.
“I’ll fight the winner,” announced a girl as she entered the field, strapping a quiver and a sword across her back. Tossing her chestnut braid over her shoulder, she set her bow on the grass and grimaced. “I thought I’d never leave.”
“Catrain, how went the meeting?” Muriel stopped and asked her friend, who groaned.
“As well as can be expected, I guess. Everything appears to be in order for the treaty with Tir O Niwl, but it may be several weeks before we know for certain. I wish I could say more, but I fear I would make a mess of things.
“Is that him?” she bobbed her head in Skandar’s direction.
Catrain chewed her lip and studied the young man with intrigue. “If you’ll excuse me, I’ll be back in a moment.”
The princess crossed the distance quickly, arriving just as Flynn dismissed Skandar and retired indoors.
Skandar wiped his brow and noticed a girl standing close by.
“What do you want?” he asked gruffly, wiping the sweaty palms of his hands on his leather pants.
The girl smiled, which puzzled Skandar. Wonderful. I probably broke some code of conduct, which I have yet to learn, and she’s smiling because I’ll spend the night in the dungeons- again –as punishment.
“They said you were like that,” she threw a thumb over her shoulder. Skandar looked past her and saw Oliver, Muriel, Aidan and Eoin.
“Like what?” he grumbled crossly, tapping his fingers impatiently on his leg.
She laughed, and it was then Skandar recognized her as the archer he’d seen the day before. Her green eyes sparked with friendly merriment, surrounded by countless freckles
Her mouth was small; deep lines appeared at the corners when she smiled, giving her a childish appearance.
“You’re Skandar, correct?”
He nodded and was about to inquire her name when she introduced herself.
“I’m Catrain, by the way, though most people call me Cat.”
The name struck some familiarity in Skandar’s mind, and upon recognition, he dropped to one knee and knelt.
“Get up. Now. Please,” she begged and though bemused, he obeyed.
“I thought royalty took pleasure in having their positions acknowledged,” he thought aloud.
“Not this one,” Cat rolled her eyes and muttered something else under her breath.
She snapped back to attention. “Oh, sorry!” She stood awkwardly, absent-mindedly fiddling with her hands.
“Anyway,” she drummed her fingers on her leg. “If you desire anything I can acquire for you, inform me and I or one of the servants shall try to meet your need. That, at least, is a good thing about being royalty if nothing else.”
Skandar chuckled. “A new tutor, perhaps.”
Catrain cocked her head quizzically. “Flynn’s methods are strict-”
“I’ll say.”
“-but you would do well to listen to him. He knows much about combat; for someone as young as he, he’s seen more than most.”
“Yeah? And how did you come by that information?”
“Wouldn’t you like to know.”
Skandar growled in frustration and stared at her accusingly. The young woman fought the smile that tugged the corners of her mouth, but finally gave in and grinned.
“Now if you’ll excuse me,” she said. “I’m supposed to take the place of one of my friends over there, but it appears they’re stalling.”
A mischievous gleam entered her eye. “They’re afraid of me.”
“Really?” Skandar doubted anyone could scare Oliver and the brothers. Even Muriel appeared not to be the kind of young woman shaken by much.
Catrain waved a hand in the air as though swatting a pesky fly. “No. I honestly don’t think I’m very good at all with a sword; I’m much better at archery, though Eoin’s skills are far superior as I’m sure you witnessed yesterday. If I were to engage someone in combat, I would most likely die- not because my opponent was stronger or more experienced, but because I tripped and fell on my own sword.”
Despite his recent irritation with her, Skandar instantly liked Catrain’s light tone and the eager way in which she mocked herself. A warm chuckle slowly rose in him and spilled out.
“Pardon me for saying this, but that would be something to see.”
Her freckled nose wrinkled and she nodded. “When it does happen, let me know so I can see it too!
“Alright, I know it’s hard, but give Flynn a chance. You’ll learn much from him if you listen. I believe that in his heart, albeit somewhere deep, he means well.”
She strolled away as Flynn returned, and Skandar resumed his practice.
Maybe he does, Skandar thought with much disdain while stealing a glance at his frowning teacher. But I doubt anyone as harsh as he could mean anyone well.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

The Mark of the King: Chapter Three

Chapter Three

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.
The Capitol.

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!
~Abbie Boots