Saturday, July 25, 2015

The Mark of the King: Chapter Nineteen

Well this has been a while coming. I apologize (yet again) for my tardiness. Is anyone sensing a theme here?
This summer has run away from me and here I find myself nearing its end with still a million things on my To-Do list that I had hoped to accomplish. Oh well.
One thing I did do today was post Chapter Nineteen on here, so that's something.


Chapter Nineteen

It seemed only seconds before an alarmed shout jolted him awake.
“No!”
Skandar groaned and turned over on his side, away from the noise.
“No no no! No!” the cry repeated as another voice joined in. “Come back!”
The ground rumbled and shook with the pounding of horses’ hooves. Skandar bolted upright as their horses galloped past, their mane streaming and their tails flying. Aidan and Eoin sprinted after them, dodging trees and bounding over roots and bushes, pleading frantically with the spooked animals. By this time, the entire camp was awake and on their unsteady feet, groggily scrambling after the horses across the soggy ground. Their efforts proved futile as the horses quickly outdistanced them and disappeared.
As soon as the last tail vanished, Flynn wheeled on the brothers, “I thought I specifically instructed you two to secure the horses!”
“We did last night and checked them again when we began our watch.”
“They were secure,” Eoin added.
“Then how did they escape?” Flynn snapped.
“Something startled them-”
“-In the woods; we did not see what-”
“-and they broke loose,” the brothers spoke over each other.
“Your ignorance means that now, not only must we walk, adding both time and unnecessary dangers to our journey, but our extra weapons, supplies, and rations stored in the saddlebags will be too much for us to carry without the horses. We must take only what is necessary and what we can carry in our bags and on our backs. Any extra supplies, food, and weapons will be left behind,” veins bulged on Flynn’s forehead and neck, pulsing with his ire and something else. Fear? What has Flynn to fear?
“Eoin and I,” Aidan said softly, “we can track the horses and rejoin you once we found them.”
“Nay, it is pointless. By now they are long gone. Captured by hunters or villagers.” Glowering, a black cloud hanging over him, Flynn stalked back through the trampled underbrush. “Back to the camp,” he snarled over his shoulder.
“I believe you,” Skandar heard Catrain whisper to the brothers over the squelch of the damp leaves underfoot. “And it was a good thought, Aidan, but Flynn was correct. We will never see them again. To search for them further would be in vain.”
“We will examine the branch where you tied the horses after we pack,” Skandar added, more to further spite Flynn than reassure the brothers. He wished they would discover something proving their competence, if only to witness Flynn’s sour reaction.
Flynn oversaw the sorting of the supplies stored in the saddlebags, determining what they would bring with them, and what they left behind. When they gathered what few belongings he permitted them to carry- an assortment of mostly spare knives and smaller weapons, and dried, salted meat –they prepared to depart, but not before Catrain inspected the tree. To Skandar’s bitter delight, she returned with short fragments of rein in hand; frayed ends dangled from her fist.
“Aidan and Eoin are not entirely to blame. They did secure the horses, as you,” she indicated Flynn, “ordered. The knots are still intact; inspect them yourself if you doubt me.”
Flynn snatched the pieces from her with a dark look.
“They were cut,” she added.
“Move,” Flynn said, his voice hoarse, quiet. Skandar barely caught the command at first. “Are you deaf?” the knight snapped when no one even so much as twitched. “Move. Now!”
On and on they walked; Flynn driving them like cattle, constantly urging them faster. Every tree, every rock, every root appeared the same to Skandar. He wondered how Flynn and Oliver kept them on the correct path through the forest that seemed to stretch on in all directions. Or are we blindly traveling in circles?
At first, Skandar counted trees, sorting them in his head by type, or at least, attempting to while his brain awoke. Many he did not know the names of. Abandoning that effort, he resorted to counting them, then counting rocks, then counting his own steps. Chatter behind him from Catrain, Aidan, and Eoin distracted him; more than once he lost the number and began anew. Finally, that, too, he abandoned.
Gradually, Skandar became aware that the ground, slick from the night rain, sloped gently downward beneath his feet. They slowed as the descent steepened. When Flynn urged them on again, his tone was rough, laced heavily with agitation, as though he struggled with the very earth itself.
By midday, blisters on the soles and heels of Skandar’s feet burst, leaving the raw skin to rub painfully against the inside of his boots. Wincing as each step increased his discomfort, Skandar shuffled along, falling further behind the group. When at last his heel slipped, whisking his feet from under him, and he fell with a startled cry, his companions took notice of his pitiful state.
“Blisters?” asked Catrain bluntly. “We all have them. Aye, they hurt. You are not the only one in pain. And yet the rest of us manage to summon the strength to continue onward.”
“That was cruel, Cat,” Muriel chastised, casting Skandar a sympathetic glance. The princess shrugged unapologetically, irritation with both Skandar and her own blisters evident in her rigid shoulders.
Skandar reddened with embarrassment as Oliver helped him stand. Brushing off his pants, he tried to brush away the humiliation. Only the dirt fell away. His bruised pride, on the other hand, lingered on.
”Tired so soon?” Flynn taunted, doubling back to see what kept them.
Skandar’s temper snapped. “Not everyone here has spent their entire life running, Flynn. Until recently, some of us lived pleasant lives in peaceful places where we belonged and where we were welcome,” he hissed, laying heavy emphasis on the final word. Widening his stance, he stood his ground. When Flynn erupted and lashed out, Skandar would be ready to counter his fury and this time, would not lose his footing.
“Do you not think I once had a home? A family?” Flynn, his voice taut, strained.
Skandar balked. He expected an emotional reaction from Flynn. He goaded him into one, but he failed to anticipate anything other than rage from the knight. His shoulders slumped as his mind rapidly worked to readjust to this new dilemma.
“You do not,” Flynn was saying. “You think of no one but yourself.”
“And you do not?” Skandar retorted, the words slipping unregistered from his mouth.
The hard, unreadable expression Flynn so often wore blanketed his face. Setting his jaw, he growled between his teeth, “Rest here for a short time and only a short time if we are to cover more ground before dusk. Ahead the terrain worsens. I will continue on, scout for a gentler path for the,” he glared at Skandar, “weaker members of our company. When I return, we walk. I’ll accept no excuses.”
Skandar, the brothers, and Catrain sat with their backs against a fallen, moss-covered tree near the edge of their path. Relieved to be finally seated, Skandar sighed and gingerly pulled off his boots, cringing at the sight of his red, raw heels.
“Those look how mine feel,” Eoin remarked sorely.
“I would not recommend removing your shoes just yet,” Catrain advised, too late. “But seeing as you have, bind your feet tightly- not too tightly mind you –so you can slide your feet back inside your boots.”
“Bind them with what?”
“Tear the hems off your shirts?” she suggested.
While Skandar ripped at his shirt, he tuned out his immediate companion’s conversation and focused his ears on Oliver and Muriel. They stood a short distance down the trunk. Either they wanted to steal time alone, or they wished to discuss matters without eavesdroppers.
This is my quest to find my father and Bródúil, Skandar reasoned. If it concerns that, it is my right to know.
 He watched Oliver take from his satchel a folded piece of leather. Opening it, he pointed to several places, and then looked to Muriel for her opinion. She frowned, worry creasing her brow.
Could it be a map?
“Cat,” Oliver called, “could you come here for a moment?”
Skandar scooted closer, straining to hear.
“This is incomplete,” Oliver said.
“I am aware of that,” Catrain replied. “Sir Reuben said that he encountered complications, and that you knew of them.”
Complications? The dead Niwl knight?
“Knew of them, aye,” Oliver sighed. “But I had hoped that they would not negatively impact the outcome of this. We miss at least half.”
“Half your father likely possesses,” Muriel pointed out. “It is too late to return to Corrthaine.”
“We need not return to Corrthaine. The other half is with us.”
“How do you figure that?” asked Muriel.
“Flynn is Lord Joran’s second in command. Did he say anything to you, Oliver, about your father giving him something? Anything?”
“Nay,” Oliver replied slowly, hesitantly, as though he himself were unsure. “Nay,” he repeated, this time with conviction. “However it was he who suggested we locate Bródúil, although I believe Skandar’s plan from the day I met him was to find his father and Bródúil, if he could.”
Subconsciously, Skandar bobbed his head.
“You think Bródúil is connected to this? That mayhap theses are locations where those before us searched and did not discover it?”
“Muriel is right; Sir Reuben did know many of the knights. They could very well have sent information back with the Niwls. It would have been a simple task.”
Catrain was thoughtful as she mulled over their ideas. “I agree with Oliver that the information was sent with the Niwls. Sir Rupert’s death confirmed that. However I disagree that this concerns Bródúil; the secret to its location, rather.”
“What do you think, then, Cat?”
“I would rather not say until I know for certain,” she resolved firmly. “Please understand.”
“We do, but I will not pretend I like this notion.”
“Oliver, believe me when I say that I will inform you when I have solidified my assumption with valid facts.”
“We do,” Muriel laid a hand on Oliver’s arm as though the physical connection would in turn reap an agreement. Oliver refolded the map and held it out stiffly to Catrain. With a puzzled expression, she took it.
“You should have it, then. Mayhap it will help you find your answer.”
When the princess slipped it into her satchel and rejoined Skandar and the brothers, Skandar waited, listening to Oliver and Muriel. Guilt nudged at him inside, prompting him to turn away.
Skandar relented, but not before he caught Muriel say, “I know how much this means to you. I know how you wish to prove your father wrong about you.”
“It isn’t that.”
Curiosity overcame Skandar, and he shifted back in their direction.
“You and I both know that it is. You needn’t prove yourself to anyone. Your father, my father… me,” she peered up at him through her eyelashes. “I love you. My father loves you like a son. It matters not what your father says or thinks of you. He does not see what I see.”
Bending, Oliver stooped and brushed a kiss on her cheek.
Skandar’s stomach tightened. He looked away and pretended to study the bark and moss pattern on the fallen tree, but continued to listen.
“There is something else, isn’t there? You are still troubled.”
“Flynn,” Oliver admitted. “I cannot help but feel angry, jealous when he is near. My father replaced me with him. He replaced me.”
Skandar heard the weight of Oliver’s words falling like rocks in a deep pond, sinking to be smothered by the pressing waters of his friend’s soul.
“And when Flynn claimed that my father threatened his life,” he laughed bitterly, “Muriel, I was glad. Finally he was out of my father’s favor.”
“Why did you allow him to come when you know he would be killed if he stayed?”
Silence hung between them.
Then Oliver murmured softly, “If I had done that, I would be no better than my father. Sentencing a man to death… I cannot do that. This Quest is my father’s way of executing people he opposes or, rather, who oppose him. People who are threats to him.”
Muriel’s voice dropped to a whisper, “He doesn’t believe Bródúil exists, then?”
“He does. Certainly he does. That is the only thing he strives for in this life. Bródúil and the power it will bring. I know my father.”
“Do you?”
“There is a ravine ahead,” Flynn announced, appearing from the woods like a phantom. His interruption abruptly silenced Muriel and Oliver’s conversation. “If we continue straight we end up in its center, between the walls. There is a stream that runs through it. It emerges from the ground at the ravine’s mouth; we can refill our skins there, and then travel by way of the cliff top. It is a steep trek, but we can climb it without much struggle.”
“What about the banks of the stream?” Skandar asked, dreading another grueling hike. “Are they wide enough to walk beside?”
“At the stream’s mouth, aye, but further in the ravine I do not know.”
“Why not travel through it, then?”
“Because I do not know if it cuts through the land or if it ends in a dead end.”
“But it might.”
“But it might not,” Flynn growled. “And with the high cliffs on both sides, we could be trapped. Without horses we cannot flee.”
“We cannot flee when we are stumbling, sliding, and slipping on a cliff top,” Skandar resisted the urge to shout.
Veins bulged on the sides of Flynn’s forehead and neck; a terror-laced ire flickered in his cold gaze. Then it smoldered and went out. “Very well. Though I believe it unwise, we go through the ravine.”
“What about food?” Eoin piped up when the tension had lessened.
“You have a bow,” Catrain muttered, “use it. Pren Gwyn is home to countless birds and other forest creatures, and you are the best marksman I know. It should not be too difficult for you to shoot something to eat.”

“Pren Gwyn?” Skandar repeated the name, spinning slowly in a circle, studying the trees and breathing in the air. Pren Gwyn. The forest along the border of Corrthaine and Tir O Niwl. We are in Tir O Niwl.



That's it! As always, feel free to comment your thoughts.
And I have a question my inner fangirl longs to know (but do not feel obligated to answer):
Do you have any ships in The Mark of the King? I'd love to know!! ;) 

Quick blog promo:
A friend of mine recently began his own blog. Here's the link if you are interested in checking it out! He may be more consistent than I when it comes to posting.

Thank you for reading, and may God bless your week.
~Abigail Blair