So technically, where I live at least, it is still Wednesday. Very late Wednesday. but Wednesday none the less. So I kept my promise.
Oh man you guys, typing up what I've written so far, I realized how close we are. You see, I've broken The Mark of the King into at least two, maybe three parts.
We are almost at the end of part one. I have about two more chapters to post until it all goes down.
For the first time.
I may or may not post Chapter Thirteen next week. Being Thanksgiving week, things get a little hectic. But I am going to post a Thanksgiving thing next week... Chapter Thirteen will be up the week after next.
Without further rambling, Chapter Twelve!
Half a dozen men met behind a locked door guarded by four trustworthy knights high in a turret tower of the castle. Five were from Tir O Niwl, the sixth Corrthainian.
“Tonight is the first of many,” declared Sir Reuben. “The time is close upon us. Even as we speak, things fall into place. Our patience is well rewarded. We need only wait a little longer.”
“So soon?” One of the men spoke up, his voice layered with uncertainty. Soft candlelight illuminated his concerned expression. “Now? When we number so few…”
“More will come!” reassured the Keeper. “Once the word spreads, and the people catch wind of our plan, they will band together. When the one we’ve been waiting for rises up and assumes his place, they will follow.
“The question now, my Lords and knights, is whether you continue to aid our plight or sit idly by and watch the Four Kingdoms desolated? The pieces you hold may very well seal your death sentences. I give you a choice: you may either relinquish your pieces to me, or you may burn them, thus freeing you from all other obligation of our cause.”
The youngest of the six stood. Barely past his mid-twenties, the man displayed an eager readiness and will beyond his fellow Niwls. “Sir, you know I would gladly give my life to protect the people of the Four Kingdoms. And if the knowledge I possess does indeed strike a blow in our favor, I consider no greater honor than for that to be my final act here on this earth.” With that, the fair knight drew a curious weapon from his sheath. It looked like any other dagger, but instead of a single blade, two razor-sharp blades emerged from the hilt. He laid the dagger on the circular table.
Sir Reuben eyed the unique weapon, and then laid his folded hands on the table. He nodded with quiet approval at the knight. “You’re a good man, Rupert. And what of the rest of you?”
“Aye,” answered one immediately, laying his sword on the table. His response was readily followed by two others.
Staring into the round face of the final lord, Sir Reuben raised an eyebrow questioningly. “What say you, Ulric?”
The large man answered, albeit reluctantly, “Aye,” and placed his sword on the table
Sir Reuben reached down to his belt and withdrew his own sword, with which he completed the circle. That finished, he leaned back in his chair and sighed.
“Each of you bring your pieces to me between tomorrow morning and the end of this week, trusting you heeded my advice and did not bring them with you here tonight. Be careful not to come too quickly, else suspicion is cast. Bide your time wisely, and watch your backs. Always, enemies lurk in the shadows.”
Catrain paced back and forth outside the Great Hall. Her mind raced with words, ideas, and possibilities, all in a seemingly endless jumble. Just when two pieces appeared to fit together, another piece rose out of the pile and obscured them. The longer she paced, the deeper her frustration became.
Outside, bells rang, signaling the end of the watch and the changing of the guard. At last, Cat thought as the large doors opened, and noblemen filed out in long lines. She stepped to the side as they passed her by. Most took no notice of her, except Lord Joran, who regarded her with stern interest. Coldly, she met his unwavering gaze, and when he had passed, tried to analyze what she saw in his black eyes. I am missing something. It’s staring me in the face, I know it. She waited until the final man had left the hall, and then slipped inside before the guards closed the doors.
She hesitated for a moment at the top of the stairs overlooking the hall. King Fendral sat alone at the large table on the platform where they feasted the night before. Even from that distance, the king's features were pale, abnormally so. He weakens overnight. The weight is too much for him to bear. The crown has finally taken its toll on him.
King Fendral wearily glanced up from the pile of parchments on his table and squinted at her with dark-rimmed eyes. With a trembling hand, he waved her down.
Catrain descended the wooden stairs cautiously, her eyes trained on the steps before her. After years of wearing dresses and long skirts, Cat had still not mastered the art of walking or moving gracefully in them. She reached the bottom, to her relief, without tripping over the thick hem. Her footsteps echoed lightly in the empty hall, the empty sound lingered long after she stopped in front of the table.
“Sire, there is a matter I wish to discuss with you. A question, actually.”
“Go on,” he answered in a thin voice and leaned back in his chair.
“At summer's end, Lord Joran brought a young man from Tiem to the Capitol.”
The king sighed, “This is not unusual. Tiem is part of the land I granted to him for his services to me years ago.”
Catrain shifted her weight from one foot to the other and twisted her fingers nervously. “Sire, he did it under the impression that you ordered him to capture this young man and train him. If that be the case, why then have you not summoned him?”
She studied the king's blank face. The only expressions she read in it were confusion and exhaustion.
“I did not know, nor did I order this boy to be brought here,” King Fendral lurched forward as a coughing fit came upon him. His body shook violently until the coughs ceased.
Catrain waited for the king to regain his breath. “He trains as a squire. His name is Skandar Edmundson.”
“Edmundson,” said the king hoarsely. His face furrowed with deeper confusion as he tried to recall the name long forgotten. “The messenger.”
“Why bring him here?”
“That is the very question I wished to ask you. I hoped you knew the answer. I do know that it concerns Bródúil,” she studied his features closely. At the mention of the sword, her grandfather looked as though he'd been stricken.
Tears filled his cold eyes. “I sent my own son to his death because of that sword. I killed- I killed your father. I killed my son.” King Fendral trembled with the force of his hidden grief. In that moment, Catrain almost pitied the old man. “So I ended it.”
“Ended what?” she demanded, harsher than she should have, she knew.
“The quest,” he replied. “I ordered to end the quest. Some of the lords objected, yes.”
“Who? Was Lord Joran among those against your order?”
The king didn't reply, but stared through Catrain with empty eyes.
Catrain stepped onto the platform and gripped the edge of the table until her knuckles turned white. “Tell me,” she nearly growled.
King Fendral appeared startled. To Cat, it seemed that for a moment he forgot she was even there. “Joran was strongly opposed, but he agreed with it soon enough.”
Catrain released the table, the jumbled pieces beginning to fall into place around the border of the picture. “Thank you,” she said quietly.
Turning, she stepped off the platform and crossed the room. Just as she mounted the stairs, her grandfather's frail voice called after her. “When does your mother return?”
“She is due from Tir Thuaidh near summer's end,” replied Catrain coolly, continuing to climb the stairs.
“Too long.” She barely heard the king whisper. His head drooped to his chest, and he sat, slouched on the throne.
But not long enough.
“Sir Reuben?” Catrain knocked on the Keeper's door before she opened it and stepped inside. She was met by a man she recognized as a Niwl noble, and slid to the side as he passed her and departed. Briefly she made eye contact with the man when he walked by, and he bowed his head slightly toward her. She dipped her head in acknowledgment, and then waited until he was out of hearing range.
“Princess,” Sir Reuben buried a small piece of leather under a pile of scrolls, but not before Catrain caught a glimpse of it.
Another piece, she thought. In the hearth, half a dozen stout logs burned. The mesmerizing flames distracted Catrain from her purpose for meeting with the Keeper. So bright. So alive, and full of life. But that life is short, snuffed out in a single moment. Yet while living, it brings light and warmth to a dark world. Then reluctantly, she tore her gaze and her thoughts away.
“My grandfather soon will be no longer capable of the throne. You know he is ill, and the physicians have done what little they can.”
“Yes,” Sir Reuben folded his hands, laying them on the crinkled scrolls covering the table. “We are almost ready.”
“Do you have all the pieces?”
“As of this moment, one is in my possession; five I lack.”
“Only one,” she repeated for clarification. “Would it not have been easier to have had them all give you the pieces last night?”
“The more pieces a single man carries with him, the larger the target on him.”
“Will you be ready in a fortnight?”
Catrain nodded, a smile tugged at the corner of her mouth. “I can be ready sooner than that. Does Muriel know?”
“Some. Morgaine and I will tell her the rest tonight.”
“Then I shall inform Aidan and Eoin, if you have not already done so.”
Silence from the Keeper told her that he had not.
Catrain started to walk out of the room, but paused with her hand on the door. “When do you expect to obtain the other pieces?”
A single log in the fire snapped, breaking in half and sending sparks showering out of the hearth. They smoldered for a moment on the stone floor, and then died.
And now slowly, the picture becomes clear.
In this chapter we learn a little more about Catrain. What do you think of her?
What do you think of Sir Reuben's secret meeting? Do you have any guesses as to what's going on? Feel free to comment and let me know!! As always, I'd love to hear your thoughts!