“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-”
“-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.