Friday, March 27, 2015

The Mark of the King: Chapter Fifteen

Well that certainly took long enough, didn't it?
Thank God for spring break and the rainy Saturday afternoon I spent typing and editing this monster. I'm not sure monster is the right word...... oh well. My brain is fried and I can't think of a better word to describe this chapter.
I hope you enjoy it!!

Chapter Fifteen

Soft shades of pink streaked across the waking sky when Skandar and his hooded companions reigned their horses to a halt within a grove of barren trees. Overhead, the bony ashen limbs groaned and creaked in the gusts of cold wind. Skandar blinked and squinted at the deserted countryside around him. It had been late summer the first time he traveled through this region of Corrthaine. The fields, now laden with a thin blanket of hard snow, had been golden brown; their feathery heads waved in the early fall breeze. When Skandar closed his eyes, he envisioned them that way, rather than dry and dead as they were now. 
He shivered, but not from the outer cold. Inside, he felt numb. When he realized Flynn was among them and that Oliver frequently sought his council during their escape, every ounce of trust Skandar possessed for any of them slowly began to melt away. Reigning his horse’s head around gently, he pulled the graceful beast into a tight circle while the others found their bearings. His eyes roamed the wide gaps in the trees, and he wondered if he ran how long it would be before they overtook him?
I doubt I’ll have the opportunity. An arrow from either Eoin or Catrain’s bows would easily bring about his untimely end before he reached the refuge of the forest only a short distance away. 
“Where do you think you’re going?” inquired Oliver in an accusing manner from beneath his rich brown hood. 
Skandar tugged both reins this time, stopping his horse’s continuous circling. “Nowhere. I was scanning the area for Lord Joran’s men.”
Oliver’s eyes narrowed. He didn’t buy the lie. “We save your life, and this is how you repay us?”
“I do not think it was just my life you saved,” Skandar noted, implying Muriel.
“Oliver,” Aidan called, “we shouldn’t tarry long. The other provisions are ahead.”
“Right,” Oliver wheeled his horse around, but not before he cast Skandar a warning glance. “Trust us.”
“I trust you,” Skandar sighed. “But not Flynn.”
“I never asked you to. But if it reassures you, it would be Flynn against the six of us.”
“Do you trust him?”
“No,” Oliver said bluntly, showing no signs of a lie. Skandar believed him, but still retained reserved doubts.
“Why did you permit him to come?”
“He has something that we need, according to Cat,” said Oliver cryptically through gritted teeth. “I am sorry but I cannot say much more at this time. Not until I myself know more.” 
“But Cat knows?”
Oliver shrugged. “No one but Cat has the ability to answer that question.”
And Cat does not seem one to talk about something she doesn’t want to become common knowledge.
They rode on, entering the thick craggy wood and deeper into the darkness. The sun barely shone through the withered branches. Skandar imagined how dark the wood would be were there leaves to block out the sun entirely. No noises disturbed the morning stillness save the cracking of dry twigs and the occasional soft crunch of snow beneath the horses’ hooves. Although they followed no apparent path, Aidan and Eoin lead the company with deft surety, and presently they arrived at a ledge created by the roots of an old gnarled tree. The ledge itself provided a sort of hollow over a small embankment hidden to most passersby. The brothers dismounted and trudged to the edge where they stepped off and landed a few feet below. Their heads and shoulders disappeared below the roots momentarily before emerging once more. One by one, several large misshapen sacks were tossed over the side, landing upon the woven roots with audible thuds and metallic clanks.
Hearing them, Skandar remembered the sword given to him by Sir Reuben. During the ride he had strapped it to his belt. Taking advantage of the lull in activity, Oliver, Aidan, and Eoin needed no help sorting through the contents of the bags, Skandar drew the sword from the plain leather sheath and examined it in the light. Identical in size and weight to that he used during training, the sword felt natural in his hand. The polished metal of the blade gleamed in the pale sunlight and the razor sharp edges glinted. Skandar’s admiring eyes roamed down the blade to the pommel. His eyes widened. A gold plait wove over and under the crossguard and around the blade, twisting and overlapping in the center with an intricate knotted cross. How long it took the goldsmiths to make, Skandar was left to wonder. He marveled at the sword.  Then he smiled quietly to himself. The sword was costly. Sir Reuben paid a great deal for it. For Skandar. His heart warmed, despite the chilly air. He missed the Keeper, more than he thought he would. After only a few months, Sir Reuben had become more of a father to Skandar than even Peter. 
By the time he completed his thoughtful examination, Oliver, Aidan, and Eoin finished sorting items ranging from food to extra weapons into seven piles designated for each of the seven riders.   
“Cat, Muriel, these two are for you,” Oliver pointed to two piles slightly larger than the other five. “Since you both are smaller, your horses can carry more extra weight than ours. Gentlemen, take your pick of the lot. We all have the same, as far as food rations go.”
Sheathing his sword, Skandar dismounted, unfastened his saddlebags, and walking the short distance to the piles, began filling the remaining space in the bags with the supplies. 
“Oh, Muriel!” exclaimed Oliver, standing suddenly. His face squinted as he tried to think. “Where are the maps?”
Muriel tapped a satchel that hung by her sword at her thigh, both partially hidden by the folds of her cloak.
“By the way, Cat.”
“Well done with the sleeping drug.”
A corner of her mouth lifted in an odd smile. “It was fun.”
“Where does a princess obtain such a drug?” Skandar inquired once they began their travels again. He purposefully maneuvered his horse so as to ride beside her so he could ask. It took his mind off other things, and kept him alert. He dearly wished to sleep, even though noon had not yet arrived. 
Behind him, Eoin piped up, “Do tell, Cat!” Quieter, Skandar heard him smirk, “I love this story.”
Catrain blushed slightly from embarrassment. “Well,” she began, a little shakily at first as she suppressed her laughter, “I happened upon them several years ago while rummaging through some of my father’s belongings. As usual, my curiosity bested me. My mother received quite a scare when she found me asleep on the floor and gave me a decent scolding when I awoke a couple hours later. And that was only from accidentally smelling the stuff!”
The horses carefully picked their way through the trees and shrubs as they navigated through the extensive forest. The pale sun shone through the thin clouds, which blew in mid-morning. For hours, Skandar checked behind them in search of pursuers until his neck ached. He saw no one, nothing save birds and other small forest animals startled by their group. Did we lose them so easily? He doubted that assumption, but he thought of no other. Or did they opt to travel the road and trap us whilst we waste time here?
“Besides Carn, where are we going?” Skandar asked, hoping someone else would echo his question. If more than one person agreed and echoed his query, he might receive an answer. 
“Aye, does anyone have a plan? Merely out of curiosity.”
Skandar smiled to himself. Catrain never failed to pose questions that others responded to if she herself did not first think through an answer. Boring holes in the back of Oliver’s fair head, he waited for his friend to reply. Please, Oliver, do not make this up as we go. Skandar did not enjoy entertaining the idea of acting on a whim, recalling that the last time he tried, it earned him a bruised jaw and his wrists bound as Lord Joran and his men hauled him to the Capitol. 
“Uh,” Oliver twisted in his saddle so he faced those riding behind him. “Two days from now, by my estimate, we reach Carn, as Cat mentioned. After that, we ride further west for Tir O Niwl.”
“Wait, two days?” We journeyed three, I believed, from Carn to the Capitol- on the road. Try as he might, Skandar failed to understand how they could manage that feat in less.
“We ride through the night, without stopping,” Flynn announced.
“There,” Oliver went on, “we will replenish and purchase whatever supplies we require to reach Loryl, some three days ride beyond Carn.”
“I hope those supplies include fresh horses, if we are to ride through the night.” Skandar reached down and stroked the muscular neck of his horse.
“Most certainly, provided we locate a man with horses for free. That, too, should delay my father’s men as they return the horses to the Capitol. At any rate, how much ground we cover between now, Carn, and Loryl will determine the length of our journey, which at the moment, allows us a week at the most to Tir O Niwl.”
“I know a man in Carn who will trade us fresh horses,” Flynn offered. “The rest of you know how to sleep in the saddle without falling and breaking your neck? If not I suggest you learn quickly.”
Already, Skandar’s legs and back ached from the thought of spending the night rigidly-stiff in the hard saddle. 
From behind him, the princess voiced yet another valid question. “What is to keep the horses from turning around and running back to the Capitol while those not on watch sleep?”  
Well that unexpected separation would be more than problematic, Skandar agreed silently.
Releasing a heavy, arrogant sigh, Flynn reached into his saddlebags. He rummaged around before withdrawing a tawny coil of rope. “Come dusk we tie it to the bridles of the first and last rider, looping it through the rings of the remaining bridles. Two people will remain awake at all times to guide and direct the horses. They must also keep a vigilant watch; I do not wished to be surprised by a wolf pack or worse. Does that answer questions the rest of you may pose?” he shot a less-than-friendly glance to the other members of the group, as though daring them to even vaguely inquire about anything else. 
Skandar repositioned his hands on the leather reigns, loosening his grip, and allowing the mare freer motion of her delicate head. The docile beast tossed her flaxen mane and whinnied softly. He patted her fuzzy neck again, her winter coat thick against his bare, cold fingers. Telltale signs of spring were evident in the budding trees, but the weather refused to warm, at least, not yet. 
They happened upon a small clearing a couple miles later. At its edge, Oliver called for them to stop and dismount. Welcoming the opportunity to stretch his stiff legs, Skandar dismounted along with the rest of his company. They fastened the reigns to sturdy branches, and Oliver walked to each of them with a water skin. While waiting his turn, Skandar observed the others as one-by-one, they cupped their hands, forming a bowl into which Oliver poured the cool liquid. They did not drink. Instead, they placed their hands beneath the horses’ velvet noses and let them slop up the water. When Oliver reached him, Skandar did the same. Poking an exploratory muzzle toward his hands, his mare sniffed, and then lowered her lips to his palms. When she emptied his hands, she snorted contentedly. Skandar wiped the residual slime from his palms onto his pants before stroking her long nose. 
Oliver came by again, this time with a small loaf of bread and a bit of dried meat. “Save what you have in your bags for emergencies. For now, we ration the food we have collectively.”
Skandar stared at the meager amount of food he held. Even among Lord Joran’s men he ate more than this. 
Aloud, Eoin voiced his thoughts. “Is this it?”
“For now, yes,” replied Oliver. “Food will be among the supplies we purchase from Carn.”
It had better be, Skandar raised the dark bread to his lips. He stopped and lifted his eyes when the groups fell suddenly silent. At first, his heart leapt, fearing something wrong. All but Flynn, who apparently shared Skandar’s confusion, stood with bent heads and closed eyes. Uncomfortably, Skandar shifted his weight from one leg to the other. Flynn reacted the same. The older knight was just as, if not more confused as Skandar. Somehow, it pleased Skandar to see his discomfort.
When Oliver began to pray aloud, Skandar respectfully bowed his head, but kept his eyes opened. It seemed foolish to him that, given their situation, they all willingly temporarily blind themselves to whatever may be waiting for such a circumstance to strike. He listened, although not enthusiastically, as Oliver prayed for the True King’s blessing and protection on their journey. 
Protection? My father believed in the True King. So did my mother. She prayed daily for my father’s protection. Where was the True King’s so-called protection when my father vanished? Skandar’s string of thought ceased when Oliver’s prayer ended. He nibbled the bread, which he found to be a little stale. But, reminding himself that stale bread was better than none at all, he finished the loaf and began to tear at the strip of meat. Too soon, it was gone. Licking his chapped lips, he paced back and forth until his companions finished their meal, and he found himself back in the saddle once more.
Beneath him, the chestnut mare plodded rhythmically over twigs and roots, steadily progressing throughout the remaining daylight hours. Disappointment tugged at Skandar’ heart. As a child, he had envisioned the quest for his father as a grand adventure. Save the excitement early that morning, the first day reaped nothing but the sore muscles he would likely feel the following day. I did receive a sword… he sighed and yawned, blinking back sleep that weighted his eyelids. 
Gently, he tugged at the reigns until the mare stopped. He swung his leg over her side and dropped to the ground. To no one in particular, he announced, “I’m going to walk for a while.” Maybe walking will keep me awake. The muscles in his legs protested as he walked stiffly at first, but with growing ease as his muscles relaxed. By and by, Catrain and Eoin also joined him on the ground. The three drifted to the back of the group and led their horses along side-by-side. 
 Gradually, the grey clouds overhead thickened as night began to fall. An owl flew silently between the trees. For the last time until breakfast the next morning, they all stopped, watered the horses, and ate the same rations Oliver handed out earlier in the day. Flynn brought out the coil of rope and unwound it. Its length surprised Skandar. The tight coil Flynn stored it in made it appear shorter than it was. In the manner he described, Flynn tied them together in a line. “They’re secure.” He followed the rope back to his stallion at the head of the line. Before remounting, he leaned close to his horse and rested his forehead against its sleek black neck. The animal’s ears twitched when Flynn whispered something to him and stroked his strong jaw.
Skandar’s eyes widened. Cruelty and brutality he expected from the knight. Not sentimentality or affection. He cares more for that animal than he does for people, he concluded angrily. Crossly, he climbed onto the back of his mare. She began her slow stride and not much time passed before Skandar’s head drooped and nodded in unison with the mare’s. Soon, he fell into his reoccurring dreams.
Dark mist swirled around his body and the voice resonated from the depths of the fog, beckoning to Skandar with promises. This time, the voice was louder, the mist thicker and colder. Skandar extended an icy hand, waiving it in front of his face. As always, the fog refused to clear. Beneath his feet, the ground opened up and he plunged into darkness. His arms flailed wildly and he grabbed hold of something warm and solid. Opening his eyes he realized with much embarrassment that he clung to the neck of his startled horse. The rest of his body hung halfway off the saddle. In his sleep, he had nearly fallen. As far as he could tell, no one else noticed. With some difficulty, he shifted himself upright.
The crisp night air burned Skandar’s nose and lungs when he inhaled. Shivering, he reached down and grasped a corner of his cloak, wrapping it over his lower face. No longer breathing in icy knives, Skandar entwined his numb fingers tightly in the mare’s coarse mane. 
I’ll not be falling off again tonight…  

What did you think? As always, feel free to let me know!!

Please remember to keep the families of those who died in the plane crash in Germany in your prayers.
I hope you all have a good weekend!
God bless!