Thursday, June 11, 2015

The Mark of the King: Chapter Eighteen

So a bit of a shorter chapter, but hey, it's a chapter nonetheless. Besides, shorter chapters make the story move faster, right? Maybe not. I don't know. I'll let you be the judges of that as my readers.

Chapter Eighteen

            Skandar bounced on his toes in the stable yard the next morning. His sore jaw opened wide as he yawned, and blinked his swollen, puffy eyes. A result of his broken nose, Catrain had said. His dreams that night he wished to blame on pain.
            In them, mist shrouded him, except that this time it swirled around in a cyclone, Skandar trapped in its center. Panic rising, he frantically scoured the whirling surface of his prison for a way out. There was none. The water vapors stung any bit of exposed skin they contacted. Skandar threw his arms over his eyes, shielding them from the raging torrent. Blindly, he stumbled around, the wind and mist driving him in a single direction. Alone and powerless to fight any longer, Skandar felt emptiness beneath his boots as his toes reached the edge of a chasm. Skandar removed his arm in time to catch a fleeting glimpse of what lay beyond the mist. Immediately the wind died, and the mist settled, falling to drift around his legs. It rolled over the edge of the chasm, which spanned the endless space before him. Behind him, a distant roar sounded. Paralyzed with fear, Skandar’s legs refused to budge away from the cliff. Too late, he recognized the roar. Wet, powerful, and dangerous. A tidal wave of water.
            Skandar panicked again, his wobbly knees yielding to terror. They folded beneath him, and he plummeted headlong into the chasm.
            Shuddering, he awoke himself from the memory. There had been no taunting whispers in the darkness. No alluring summons. Only his fear behind him, the unknown before him, and he teetering on the edge of uncertainty. He knew not what it meant. It played over and over in his mind, different than the previous dreams, more ominous. Trepidation lingered in his thoughts and heart.
            In the time it took them to collect the fresh horses, Skandar spoke nary a word. Not until Carn was a mere speck in the distance did he relax. For the present time, Muriel, Aidan, and Eoin occupied Oliver with merry chatter. Oliver’s constantly cheery disposition was, at times, helpful and appreciated, but grew tiring and exhausting to Skandar. He wished to be left alone, a request his companions appeared happy to grant.
            Just before he fell into the chasm, he had looked up and seen…what? What did I see? Skandar shouted in his mind. Growling with frustration, he smacked his hand flat against his thigh. The horse startled and lunged forward, but calmed when Skandar stroked the young stallion’s neck in a gentle apology.
            “Does something trouble you?” Catrain’s voice broke through his chaotic thoughts.
            “No,” Skandar lied, wincing as the princess stared holes through his feeble falsehood.
            “Are you certain? Your horse senses your distress. That is why he is so jumpy.”
            Skandar stared at the back of his horse’s head, avoiding her analytical eyes. When still he refused to provide her with an explanation, she rode ahead and began conversing with Muriel. Guilt riddled him. He thought of Catrain as a sister and loathed lying to her.
            I cannot share with anyone my dreams, at least not yet. Not until I myself am certain of their meaning. They must be associated in some way with Bródúil. Finding it means their end. I can do this on my own. I can.

            The next morning he found himself sandwiched between Aidan and Eoin, laughing heartily at their ceaseless jovial banter. Out of the two, Eoin was quicker and possessed a sharper, if more abstract wit than his brother, but he lacked the direct, deep focus of Aidan, which the older boy used often to stump Skandar with riddles.
            “When you see him, what will you say?” asked Aidan during a lull.
            “Your father. What will you say?”
            It was a question Skandar had pondered often working long hours in Peter’s fields. “That depends on the circumstances of our meeting, I assume. After years of rehearsing various scenarios in my head of what I would say or what I will do, I am still uncertain. Of course, none of that matters if he is dead.”
            “We understand,” Aidan offered, his brother unusually quiet. “Ages have passed since we last saw our Ma and Da.”
            “We do not even know if they still live or if the plague stole them away after we left Talahm Glas.”
            “I forgot about that,” Skandar hung his head. “I have been selfish and never once did I stop to consider another’s troubles. Your troubles.”
            “In this world, ‘tis easy to do, I’m afraid.”
            Skandar frowned. “What do you mean, ‘this world’?”
            “I mean now. It’s human nature, the desire to satisfy our desires, to focus on our needs. I am thankful the True King does not, otherwise we would all be dead and in a place worse than death.”
            Skandar recalled his mother saying something similar when he was a child, barely waist-high. He remembered the calm serenity that washed over her face the night she died, even after years of constant worry and suffering. In the end, her tears were gone and she had known peace. Is it possible? Is it possible for someone, the True King, to bring about such peace in a world as ours?
            “Skandar, are you alright?”
            Skandar cleared his throat and dodged the query, “What happens when we reach Loryl?”
            “Same as in Carn, I imagine,” Eoin answered in a bored manner.
            Skandar winced, his face swollen and sore. “Hopefully not the exact same.”
            “Right,” Eoin grinned and lightly tapped the side of his own nose. “After Loryl, the real adventure begins.”
            Skandar caught himself looking over his shoulder more and more often. In Loryl, an unimpressive village serving as the final official Corrthainian town before the border with Tir O Niwl, he spied both of the hunting parties they had unpleasantly encountered in Carn. They seemed to have settled their dispute and grouped together outside a tavern.
            The other members in Skandar’s company dismissed it as a mere coincidence, assuming they traveled for spring hunting in Tir O Niwl. Skandar found their presence odd and unsettling. Flynn alone shared his concerns, which irritated Skandar. My friends should support me, not my enemy. Even still, they collectively agreed to depart Loryl immediately.
            As dusk fell across the sky, Flynn brought his mount around behind Skandar’s. Skandar’s fingers twitched. He released the reigns, gripping the horse’s sides with his legs, and reached across his body for his sword.
“At ease,” Flynn ordered. “I will not harm you here. Not now.”
Skandar paused with his fingers curled around the hilt of his sword and pulled it partially out of the sheath. Pale moonlight reflected off the flawless blade.
Flynn’s mouth curled at one corner. “I advise you to put the sword back before you sever a finger. That is not a training sword, remember. The blade is sharp.”
Skandar shoved the weapon back in the sheath with a sharp scraping sound.
“I came to inform you that you and I will take the first watch tonight.”
“I refuse.”
“Tell that to Oliver or Aidan who have so graciously taken your watch for the past week, denying themselves rest so you could.”
“With the others asleep, and the two of us awake and alone, what is to reassure me that I won’t drift off to sleep and then awaken to the bite of your blade between my shoulders?” Skandar spat the acidic words at Flynn’s snide face.
At last, Flynn replied hollowly, “Nothing. None of us know if we will wake up tomorrow the same people as those who fell asleep. But if you refuse to sleep while I remain awake, then I suggest you rest during the day. Or prepare yourself for a long night.”
“There’s a clearing up ahead,” Oliver called to them from the front.
“Good,” Flynn barked. “Send Muriel and the Princess to gather firewood, and the brothers to catch something to eat. A bird, rodent, whatever you manage to kill, I care not as long as it is fresh meat. No! On second thought, scrape together what food you find from Loryl. There will be no fire. Not tonight,” he cast his gaze skyward, where wisps of clouds gathered, blowing in from the north. On the tops of the trees, they piled atop one another, creating towering, billowing clouds, moving with the damp, earthy wind. “There will be rain tonight.”

Nearly two hours into Skandar’s watch, when everyone else lay deep in slumber, the clouds loosed their cargo, dousing the forest with a deluge. The rain began, gentle at first, a pitter patter in the leaves of the trees and dripping to plop on Skandar. Then all of a sudden, the sky released, and water poured from the heavens. Skandar pulled his soaked cloak tighter around himself, the cloth heavy and doing little to dry him. He settled against the rough base of a gnarled tree, its canopy providing Skandar with some coverage and protection. Across the small clearing, Flynn paced, the folds of his black cloak billowing behind him. Skandar’s other companions tossed and turned, moaning and groaning in their sleep from beneath the trees as the intrusive rain stirred them.
Skandar arose, his legs and back stiff, and stretched them gently. The rain slowed to a drizzle, ebbing from the downpour. The air hung heavy with the earthy smell of damp soil and leaves.
“How long are the watches?” Skandar yawned.
“Three hours,” Flynn replied. Stroking the long nose of his horse, he uttered a clicking sound that turned the creature’s ears.
Sighing, Skandar turned and began to pace. Having nothing else to occupy himself with, he counted his steps. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven…Twenty-six. Twenty-seven. Twenty-eight. He reached the edge of the trees. Turn. Over and over, back and forth, edge to edge until the final hour passed. With each second that ticked by, Skandar’s legs became heavier until he dragged them across the mud, unable to lift them any longer. Gratefulness surged through him when the hour ended and Oliver was woken to replace him. Skandar shuffled to his damp blanket laid out on the ground beneath a tree. His knees finally buckled, and he collapsed, barely managing to unbuckle his cloak with fumbling fingers.

His final thought was of the water. Not the rain, but the wave washing over him, engulfing him. Before panic overcame him, sleep did.

This month, very soon actually, I have the opportunity to go on a mission trip with my church. I like to ask you to please pray for safety and health for all of us going, for strength to spread the Word of God, for courage when mocked, for compassion toward the people we are witnessing to and toward each other, and finally for hearts. That our hearts will be right with God so He is able to shine through us and work through us, and also for the hearts of those we are going to witness to, that they will soften to His Will and be receptive and open. 
I also have a personal request that my anxiety will not be a problem, and that God will remind me that He is in control and that His plan is perfect, I need only to trust Him. As a control freak, it is difficult for me to remember that. Thank you!
Where God opens doors, His work will be done. We are the tools, He is the Builder. 
He is the True King. I believe that. Do you?