Saturday, April 25, 2015

The Mark of the King: Chapter Sixteen

So I decided to atone for my lack of posting on this blog by giving you, the faithful few, an extra long chapter. Extra long for me, that is. ;)
Good news is, school is drawing to a close. Bad news, it's a rapid sprint to the end, and I probably won't post until after everything is over and done. Not that that does much to alter my posting frequency... *grimaces*
Ah, well, at times like these I just remember how long it took Tolkien to write The Hobbit and I feel much better. You, on the other hand, probably want me to hurry up and finish the book already ;)
That being said, I'll stop right there and let you read Chapter Sixteen.

Chapter Sixteen

    Through the night, they covered much ground. Sometime before dawn the saddle-weary travelers emerged out of the forest and into winter-deadened fields. Only a few hours into the morning, Carn appeared, a tiny speck on the horizon. Seeing it there, ahead of him in the distance, Skandar recalled the first time he laid eyes on the city, remembering the awe that filled him at its size. Then, he had thought it quite large, but after his time in the massive Capitol, Carn lacked much in comparison. About three miles from the city, far enough away to ensure the guards’ faulty eyesight, Oliver wheeled his horse around to the front of the group and addressed them.
            “Here we separate; Skandar and Flynn with me, Aidan and Eoin with Muriel and Cat.”
            “And,” Flynn cast a chilling glare at Aidan and Eoin, “do nothing to draw attention to yourselves. You are travelers, peasants, hunters; nothing more.”
            In the meantime, the girls slid off their horses and pulled from their satchels each a plain, folded deep brown dyed cloth. Unfolding them, they fastened what Skandar understood to be skirts of some sort, around their hips and over their pants. The simple cleverness he thought ingenious. The two of them, accompanied by Aidan and Eoin, continued on foot to Carn. With the four extra horses, Skandar, Oliver, and Flynn quickly overtook and passed them.
            “Watch the girls. Protect them,” Oliver issued one final command before riding on.
Skandar smirked. Oliver knew full-well of both Muriel and Catrain’s abilities in a fight.
Aidan cupped his hands to his mouth. His voice reached Skandar’s ears clearly. “The
True King go with you!”
            “And with you!”

            Muriel watched them continue onward and turn though the field in the direction of the road, while she and her companions followed the path of trampled grass created by the horses. She whispered a quick prayer for protection.
            Entering Carn proved less difficult than she anticipated; almost easy. Once they reached the road, they walked the few miles remaining and trailed a larger group of peasants into the city. Inside, they wandered about in search of shops marketing food with prices that would not empty their purses. In time, they purchased what they needed for the coming days. Pocketing their final purchases, they stopped and congregated in the warmth of an open market doorway.
            Shops and market booths lined both sides of the narrow road, their light and heat spilling into the street. People milled about with baskets on their arms, pushing carts, and carrying their goods to and from various businesses. Some even stood in the center of the market street itself, waiving their merchandise and shouting prices, desperate to be heard by potential buyers over the influences of their competitors. The doorway offered a temporary relief from the continuous clamor.
            “How much longer until we are to meet Oliver at the tavern?” asked Muriel.
            Aidan tilted his head skyward and squinted when he detected a brief appearance of the sun through the thin clouds. “Another hour. Maybe a little while longer.”
            “What will we do in the meantime?”
            “I know what I am going to do,” Eoin spied a young woman and her little brother walking down the opposite side of the street. Without waiting for an explanation, he jogged over and hailed the girl, gesturing to the steaming mug in her hand. Smiling, she nodded and pointed up the street. Eoin thanked her and promptly returned.
            “Right,” he adjusted his cloak and examined the contents of his personal coin purse. “Anyone fancy a mug of warm cider while we wait?”
Catrain stared into the amber liquid sloshing around in the wooden mug. Spiced vapors rose from the cider’s surface, smelling both sour and sweet with a hint of apple. Raising the container to her wind-chapped lips, she sipped a miniscule amount and grimaced as the cider burned her tongue. She replaced the mug on the table, deciding to wait a moment for it to cool before she drank again.
            “Too hot?” Eoin guessed.
            “Maybe a little.”
            “Do you want mine? It might be cooler,” he offered and slid the cup toward her.
            “I will wait for mine to cool,” she replied, and then hastily added, “thank you, however.”
            Taking up her mug again, she swirled it around.
The shop from which Eoin purchased the cider sat in a secluded street off the main marketplace. The noise, although not quite vacant from their ears, was quieter, and permitted them to speak without requiring them to raise their voices. They huddled around a table just outside the shop and watched as people passed by.
“I hate to be the herald of bad news, but does anyone else feel exposed here?” Aidan asked.
“No, and besides, ‘tis better we remain here for the time being.”
“Why, Cat?”
“We have kept our hoods up and our heads down, behaving as anyone other traveler would, and doing nothing to attract undesirable attention to ourselves. We have no reason to hide or to be wary. Unless you two,” an eyebrow quirked as she suspiciously scrutinized the brothers, “managed to do something while Muriel and I looked elsewhere?”
“We have not had the opportunity. You have successfully deprived us of fun,” Eoin teased.
Catrain smirked, and went on, “If we hide, people in Carn may question the reason. Until it is time to congregate at the tavern, we stay here.” She sipped her cider, which cooled enough not to scald her tongue, and settled back onto the bench. “Besides, should something occur, what is more obvious to those seeking us: four peasants among other peasants enjoying cider at a shop, or four peasants darting alone through alleyways?”
Aidan rubbed the back of his neck and pondered what she said. He knew when he was beaten, and he was too tired to argue. He knew when he accepted the task of an additional watch for Skandar that sleep deprivation would eventually take its toll. “The latter,” he replied.
“How came you by that conclusion, Cat? Either my ears deceive me or you sounded like Flynn?”
“When pursued by killers, Eoin, one does well to think like a killer,” replied Catrain icily.
“You expect us to become killers?”
“I expect you to use your head. I am sure you will discover some form of intelligence concealed away in it.”
“Easy now, Cat,” Eoin clutched his chest in feigned agony, “you wound me!”
An exasperated look from Muriel cut the humor short. “It is time,” she said quietly.
They stood, leaving the mugs on the table for someone to clear.
“As much as I love listening to your petty squabbles, something assures me I will hear more of them in the weeks to come than I care to hear in my lifetime,” Aidan joked, placing his arms around Eoin and Cat’s shoulders. Catrain shoved him away, sending him stumbling into his brother.
“Do not touch me,” she snarled.
Eoin broke free from his brother and left him to walk alongside Catrain, leaving Aidan with Muriel. Catrain and Eoin’s bickering continued from ahead.
“It will be a miracle if they do not kill each other by the end of this journey,” noted Muriel.
Aidan chuckled. “We are fortunate if we all do not end up killing each other.” Muriel remained silent. Normally she laughed at jests of that nature. Her stillness probed at Aidan. He turned to face her, but her solemn expression answered the question rising to his lips.
What he intended as a joke he quickly realized was an unpleasant reality. Lost in the overwhelming probability of this grim presumption, Aidan mindlessly trudged through the streets of Carn to the tavern. He understood her distress. He would feel the same if Eoin, instead of Oliver, was in the company of a man such as Flynn.

On the interior side of Carn’s gate, Flynn maneuvered to the front of their small group, leading the three of them to his acquaintance’s stables and fresh horses. The citizens of Carn scrambled to avoid the horses and their stately riders, opening the roads and permitting them to travel faster. A young boy chasing a mangy hound darted into the road, just ahead of Flynn. Skandar sucked in his breath. The child was too close.
The boy skidded to a stop just before colliding with Flynn’s black stallion in a manner reminiscent of a startled mouse unexpectedly meeting a barn cat. Yanking sharply on the reins, Flynn barely managed to stop his horse before the animal trod on the boy. He gawked at Flynn with eyes wide with terror, scrambled to regain his footing on the loose stones, and dashed away, forgetting the mutt, who loped on and out of sight. Flynn’s withering stare followed the boy until he, too, disappeared from view, and then he spurred his horse forward again.
“I did not think he would stop,” Skandar confided to Oliver once they passed the place of the near mishap.
“Nor did I.”
“He does not seem that kind of man,” noted Skandar, recalling Sir Rupert’s bleeding corpse and Peter’s daughters.
“I cannot say if he is,” said Oliver. “Flynn’s past is not known to many, if any. I doubt even my father, in the four years Flynn served him, learned half the story.”
“Story?” Skandar scoffed. “You say that as if it is some heroic tale a mother inspires her children with at night.”
“Many a time in the Tales of Old the heroes become the villains.”
This seized Skandar’s attention afresh. “What do you mean?”
“Even the best men can become corrupted. It is our nature as humans,” Oliver waited until Skandar listened with his ears and heart to continue. While he spoke, he thought of his father. “If we turn our backs on the True King and reject him, evil always lurks in the shadows, waiting to pounce on its prey, rendered vulnerable by separation from the King.”
I should not have asked. Scenes from Skandar’s dreams flitted through his mind. ‘Evil always lurks in the shadows,’ Oliver had said. Skandar shivered, but not from cold. The hairs along his arms and on the back of his neck stood. Fool, he berated himself. You allowed him to spook you. But the unsettling sensation lingered on.
“How did Flynn enter your father’s service?” He changed the subject.
Oliver shook his head. “I do not know. Something about him struck my father.”
“From the time I met Flynn, he seemed familiar to me. I wish I could understand why. It worries me,” Skandar admitted.
“Between the two of us, we should be able to observe him for anything that may prove threatening. Trust me, Skandar.”
The feeling had not subsided when they arrived at the stables. Skandar longed to shake it off.
Skandar expected the stable master to be unpleasant, but, despite his connection to Flynn, he willingly agreed to exchange their weary horses for fresh animals. Neither he nor his stable hands questioned their reason for secrecy, which Flynn surely enforced by way of some debt owed. After the stable master promised them the horses the following morning, Skandar, Oliver, and Flynn continued on foot to the tavern.
Flynn winced visibly and limped each time his injured leg bore his weight. His slow gate placed him in a fouler mood than usual. What if they discover me here? They nearly happened upon him last time; he spent the night in a dark corner in a back alley rather than in the inn with the rest of Lord Joran’s company. Then he had controlled full use of both legs. I have been in worse situations, he brooded. And I’ve always managed to find a way out. Though physically impaired, his confidence lacked nothing.
Not much time passed, the three stood outside the door of the tavern, a large establishment compared to the modest, shambled dwellings of the street in the poorer region of Carn. Boisterous noise from within filtered out through cracks between the planks of the door and the thin boards comprising the walls. Flynn opened the creaky door and waved Oliver and Skandar inside.
A reeking, sour odor assaulted Skandar’s senses as he crossed into the front room. He wrinkled his nose. Someone brushed against him. Oliver’s hand clamped onto his shoulder, pulling him back.
“Watch your purse,” whispered Oliver gruffly into Skandar’s ear, and then released him.
Skandar nodded gratefully and pushed his way forward through the room. Although spacious, the room contained so many people it was cramped and nearly impossible to navigate without bumping into some ale-sodden drunkard. Men seated at the tables scattered about the room shouted slurred sentences to each other, roared with laughter, and drank from frothy mugs. Girls around Catrain and Muriel’s ages weaved in and out between various obstacles the dining hall of the tavern offered, trays of ales and plates piled with some sort of unappetizing food clutched tightly in their hands.
Flynn pushed past Skandar and stalked to the long wooden bar near the center of the room. Behind it, a woman bent over fished something out of a drawer. Flynn cleared his throat, and the woman shot up and smiled, revealing blackened teeth.
“What can I get ye?” she wheezed, eyeing the visitors curiously. Her soot-colored hair was piled atop her head in a messy, greasy bun; strands of it stuck out stubbornly in all directions.
“One room, three beds, and two meals,” Flynn stated directly and clearly.
“Right,” the woman marked something in scrawling writing in a book, all the while bobbing her head. She looked up. “How long?”
“One night,” he dropped a black velvet purse on the bar. Skandar regarded it curiously. One more thing that wielded some familiarity.
She lifted a ring of jangling keys from a hook under the lip of the bar and grunted, “This way.”
 The stout tavern keeper brought them around to the other side of what Skandar assumed to be the kitchen located behind the bar, where stairs rose through a hole cut in the ceiling to the second floor. She mounted them, shuffling her way to their top. The old wood groaned and creaked in protest as Skandar and his companions followed. Skandar gripped the rail, hoping the stairs would hold. They did, much to his extreme relief.
Imagine all this only for the stairs to collapse beneath me, and I fall and snap my neck. What a story that would make.
  The stairs emerged at the end of a long corridor of closed doors. The hall stretched on ahead of them, turned a corner and continued on. The woman led them only a short distance before unlocking a door.
“This’ll be yers,” she said. “If you gentlemen will excuse me.”
Oliver pushed the door open. It, like the rest of the tavern, squeaked on its rusted hinges. The room mirrored the deteriorated state of the tavern: grungy, broken, and possessing a peculiar, rancid odor that caused Skandar’s lip to curl. Fortunately, at least, the room was located on the outer side of the tavern. A widow opened out to the street, allowing fresher air into the room. Three beds lined a wall, leaving hardly any space to move in the cramped chamber. Skandar, Oliver, and Flynn squeezed together in the doorway, inspecting the room, each with clear disdain contorting their faces. Shrugging, Oliver crossed the threshold first.
“Tis better than nothing at all,” he remarked optimistically. “Tonight we sleep in beds, not on the backs of our horses.” He slapped the backboard of the nearest bed. A chunk of splintered wood broke off, falling to the floor. Shocked, Oliver gaped at the mutilated piece of furniture. He did not even notice when Flynn appeared at his shoulder. For a moment neither spoke, regarding the bed with nearly identical expressions. The resemblance, Skandar observed, was uncanny.
“That one is yours,” Flynn remarked casually.
Oliver swallowed. “I think I shall sleep on the floor.”
Flynn eased himself onto the middle bed, stretching out his long, lean body on its firm surface. “I doubt that will be much improvement, however if you do not mind sharing with the mice…” his voice trailed off.
“On second thought,” Oliver’s eyes darted around the base of the room, noting the gnawed holes in the walls. “The bed does not appear so bad.”
Skandar occupied the remaining bed. He placed his satchel and sack on the floor by his feet and stared out the window. From his position on the bed, he only saw the sky, grey with thin wispy clouds. Everything around him lost focus, fading gradually into blackness.
“Skandar?” Oliver’s urgent call from behind him roused Skandar from his stupor. Color returned to the room.
Skandar released his vice-grip on the tattered blanket and inhaled deeply as an uneasy tremor went through his body. The feeling from earlier had not subsided. He twisted around and briefly nodded at Oliver, who also sat on the edge of his own bed.
“We still have time before meeting Muriel and the others downstairs,” said Oliver. “We should rest.”
He and Skandar looked at Flynn. The knight lay on his back, his hands folded behind his head. Eyes closed, he appeared asleep, but Skandar received the impression that he was awake, listening, waiting.
Oliver’s attention flicked back to Skandar. “I am going to rest. I suggest you try the same.”
Laying on his side, Skandar tucked his elbow under his head. The ground would be favorable to this rock, he grumbled inwardly regarding the bed. A chill swept through the room, possessing no hearth in which to light a fire. Grateful he neglected to remove his cloak, Skandar pulled the thick material around him. The instant his eyes closed, his memory replayed the eerie dreams that plagued him each night, clear as if he experienced them over again. He thought someone stood behind him. His lids flew open, and he bolted upright. The room was still. Flynn had not moved from his position; Oliver lay face-down on his own bed, seemingly asleep. Shadows fell across the room differently than before, shorter. The sun moved as time elapsed.
Skandar stared at a stain on the plaster wall, stubbornly determined not to sleep. However, boredom and fatigue instituted other plans, overruling Skandar’s own.

Flynn cautiously sat up, mindful not to creak the bed louder than necessary. Half an hour passed without interruption or disturbance of any kind, save the muffled chorus radiating from downstairs. His leg throbbed.
Stifling a groan, he lifted his legs over the edge of the short bed. He slid off a boot and struggled to roll his pants up over his swollen knee and high enough to see the wound. Clean, but painful, the dual puncture marks stood out, dark marks against his pale skin. The stitches binding the torn flesh survived better than he expected when he hastily sewed them the night before their flight. He hummed softly to himself as he unrolled his pants and pulled his boot back overtop them.
Slouching, his shoulders slumped, he sighed. Then he straightened, hearing as well as feeling his back yield a satisfying ‘pop.’ He limped to the door and unbolted it.
Once in the hall, he muttered something about a basin of warm water and a rag to soak the wound. The scar on his cheek and jaw itched. Absent-mindedly, he scratched it, adding another item to his mental list. Basin, hot water, rag, and a razor.

Something warm and wet slid down Skandar’s face. He moaned and blindly swatted the air above his face. Despite his efforts, he had drifted off to sleep. Several more drops plopped onto his face. Oliver stood beside the bed, wringing a wet, moth-eaten cloth over Skandar’s head.
“Clean yourself up,” Oliver instructed and dropped the cloth over Skandar’s scrunched-up face. “They will be here soon.”
Drowsily, Skandar groped for a corner of the rag and pulled it off. In addition to the holes, it bore dark oily stains. Grease, no doubt. One, however, caught his attention. “Is that blood?” he asked aloud.
“Get moving,” Flynn ordered, setting a basin at the foot of Skandar’s bed.
Unclasping his cloak, Skandar folded it and lay it beside the flat pillow. Taking up the rag again, he dunked it into the lukewarm water and vigorously scrubbed his face. He cupped a hand and splashed water on the back of his neck, letting it roll in droplets into his shirt and down his back.
“One more thing,” Oliver held out a rough piece of metal that resembled a small knife with a thick blade. Gratefully, Skandar took the razor and ran his thumb over the uneven blade. Although uneven and slightly dull, it would do the job.
When he finished, he tied his unruly, wavy hair back at the nape of his neck before trailing Oliver and Flynn downstairs. The cacophony of the main room filled his ears. He wished he could drown it out, or at least ignore it the way Flynn did. By some miracle they acquired an empty table.
Back to the door, Skandar could not see Muriel, Catrain, Aidan, and Eoin upon their entrance, but he knew from the way Oliver’s eyes sparked and lit up that they neared. He opened his ears, weeding through the chaos, and listened intently for familiar voices.
“Two rooms, with two beds each. Two meals.” Skandar’s jaw slacked, and he fought to keep his mouth closed. The voices belonged to Aidan and Eoin, of that he was certain. Gone were the feathery lilts and smoothness of their Talahm Glas accents, replaced by the elongated vowels and stern sophistication of Corrthainian speech. Their mimicry was flawless.
A girl came and placed foamy drinks on the table before them and hurried away to the kitchen. Skandar wrapped a hand through the rough handle and drummed the side with his fingers. His mind, flooded with renewed energy, raced with giddy, childlike anticipation as the realization of their quest hit him once again. Anticipation hinged with dread. What if they failed to find his father? What then, would be left for him? What would be left for him if they did find his father? With the Sword. What is it called? Bródúil? Yes, that was it. The Sword with Power. With Bródúil, I could possess power over anyone I wished. King Fendral. Lord Joran. Flynn… he cast a dark glance at the knight. They would fall to their knees. All of them I could bend beneath me.
An irate shout arose, louder than the rest. Skandar ignored it. But more shouts ensued, eager and threatening. Their voices elevated as did the tension in the very air. It hung, thick around them. Lifting his head, Skandar peered up at both Oliver and Flynn. They focused on something behind him; the origin location of the shouts, that continued on even though every other sound in the tavern ceased. Twisting around, Skandar saw the cause of the commotion. The rest of the tavern’s occupants saw it too. None of the onlookers spoke a single word; everyone wanted to see the argument play out.
Two rough groups of men, ten to twelve in each, confronted each other. The leaders of the group produced most of the shouting. Their supporters broke in when the chance arose, but for the most part, they glowered at the members of the other party, their muscular arms and clenched fists hanging stiffly at their sides. Skandar’s heart thumped apprehensively. A hard lump rose in his throat. Many of the men wore furs and leather clothing. Dark reddish-brown blood stained their mud-caked boots.
Hunters. Killers, Skandar assumed. That failed to comfort and calm him. Slowly and steadily, the guests in the vicinity of the verbal, disputing hunters began to steal away to different parts of the large common room.
Skandar observed the leaders. One was tall and broad; three scars ran from his brow, over a dead, foggy eye, to his jaw. The other was shorter and stockier, and shouted so loud his face turned livid red. Veins stood out on both men’s necks and foreheads. Tensions rose. The level of their rage and fury amplified in the air, reminding Skandar of just before a gale blew in from the coast. The air would become thick, heavy with the strength of the oncoming storm, growing and building as it neared only to lose its fury and tirade on the world.
Then it happened.

Don't you just love cliffhangers? As always, feel free to comment your thoughts, questions, etc. I'll try to reply as soon as I can.

I actually have a few prayer requests.
I've mentioned before about my struggle with anxiety. Needless to say, it hasn't gone away, not that I think it ever will. But I find myself worrying almost constantly about things that are out of my control concerning the inevitable declining state of my country and of the world itself.
Please pray for my country, that we as a whole will return to God and to what is morally right. We are rapidly falling away and it is reaping fatal consequences.
Please pray for strength for my fellow Christian brothers and sisters around the world that we will take a stand against immorality, even if it means offending certain groups of people. Pray for courage and bravery to do so.
Also please pray for me, specifically, that I will learn to rely more on God and not on my own abilities to combat my anxiety. Without Him I am failing. Please pray that I will learn that I cannot control everything, but that God can and that His timing is perfect for His plans.
Please pray that my fear will not overwhelm me.
Thank you, and I pray you have a blessed week.