I hope I didn't lose any of you in the wait, for which I offer my sincerest apologies.
(Anybody hearing a broken record...?)
Shall we say that there is a reason I earn no money blogging, the reason being that, frankly, I'm awful at balancing it within my other activities, namely an insignificant little thing known as 'education' (intense sarcasm intoned). No, really, I'm grateful to live in a country where I am given the opportunity to learn. It's a blessing I often take for granted.
Since it's been so long, here I am including the link to the previous chapter in case any of you forgot where we left off (mainly because when I haven't read something in a while, I tend to forget the plot, so this is for those of you who are like me in this aspect): Chapter Twenty
Seeing as I've stalled enough, here's chapter twenty-one of The Mark of the King.
“Stop!” breathless, Aidan called to his brother, whose silhouetted figure bobbed through the trees ahead. Once more he shouted between breaths, and this time, Eoin’s form stilled. “We can’t track them tonight, not without the moon.”
During the skirmish commencing atop the cliff, they had reluctantly obeyed Catrain’s hasty orders to abandon the rest of their company in favor of escape. After dispatching the final hunters on either side of the ravine, they turned and ran back to its mouth, exiting well after dusk. It would have been foolish to attempt to scale the wall when there could be hunters lying in wait for them. They stopped only momentarily to refill their water skins at the stream they fished in earlier that afternoon. Darkness crept into the woods when they began the hike up the rising walls of the ravine, walking away from the edge so as not lose their footing and plunge to their deaths.
Eoin lifted his eyes to the inky skies. Stars glittered in the darkness, but the pale orb was shrouded in shadows. “Perfect time for a new moon,” he grumbled sourly. The shadow of his hood fell on his indignant face, but Aidan detected the anger and frustration blazing in his brother’s eyes. Both emotions burned deep in his own heart.
“Dawn’s first light, we resume, alright?”
Eoin nodded, but inside his temper boiled. He leashed a rough growl, loosing pent up rage and frustration, and drove his fist hard into the trunk of a nearby tree. Bark chips flew from the impact. Pulling his hand away, the archer fumed, glaring at the droplets of blood oozing from the raw wounds on his knuckles inflicted by the tree before smearing them across dry skin.
“I hope that tree deserved the blow,” remarked Aidan soberly.
“Why did Cat go with them?” Eoin whispered, disregarding his brother’s comment. “Rather, why did I allow her to leave? She may be dead. They were outnumbered.”
“You know as well as I that Cat does as she pleases, and,” he added, “can defend herself. She would be fuming if we did anything but follow her instructions.” Clapping a hand fondly on his brother’s shoulder, Aidan shook him reassuringly. “Have faith.”
“I have faith,” whispered Eoin, his voice raw and husky. “But I also have fear.”
“It is well to have fear, as it strengthens your faith,” Aidan said, reading the angst in his brother’s blue eyes. “However do not allow your fear to stifle your faith.”
Shaking Aidan away, Eoin stepped back, studying his brother by the scarce starlight. “Since when did you become wise?”
Aidan chuckled heartily. “I do not know. What now shall I do with this new-found wisdom? Advise the king?”
“Not King Fendral, certainly,” Eoin replied, adopting a lighter tone. “And Catrain wouldn’t have you any more than she would have me. She would laugh and call us fools before ordering us to clean the stables.” Then his mood dampened.
“What is in the satchel she gave you?”
Eoin’s hand strayed to the bag hanging around his body. Flipping open the top, he squinted and held the bag nearer to his face. “True King bless you, Cat. She packed extra food rations.”
“Is that all?”
“What else did you expect?” Closing the flap, Eoin dropped the satchel once more to hang against his hip.
“Nay,” Aidan paused, “but she did seem quite urgent for only food.”
“Are you suggesting the satchel contains something valuable?”
The swish of Aidan’s cloak indicated that he shook his head by way of response. “Check tomorrow, when we have light. Make camp where we are. The ground seems decent enough to sleep without rocks or roots digging into our backs.”
“In Talahm Glas, who would be king now?” inquired Eoin after several moments.
“I know as little as you do on matters of our homeland,” Aidan lay back, the hood of his cloak folded beneath his head and the rest of the thin fabric draped around his body.
“The older I get, the less I remember of home,” he heard his brother lament. “I miss it. I miss Ma and Da. I miss the archery lessons Da used to give me.”
“I miss watching him work, fletching arrows, forging their heads,” reminisced Aidan, in his mind’s eye suddenly transported to his childhood.
“His fiddle,” they named in unison.
“And Ma’s voice when she sang to us at night.”
Eoin’s silence hung between them before Aidan prodded him in the ribs with his elbow. “Are you alright?”
“I cannot remember how it sounded. The melodies are clear, the words less so, but her voice…” his hoarse words fell away.
“If the legend is right,” Aidan attempted to cheer him, “Bródúil lies hidden in Talahm Glas. We are going home, little brother.”
“What then? Mayhap we bring them to Corrthaine with us; the plague is gone and work is plenty. Famine is naught there as well.”
“Perhaps so.” Aidan did not voice his concern aloud, knowing that his brother worried enough about Catrain; the burden of their parents he would bear alone until clarity returned to Eoin. Perhaps so if they still live, he thought glumly. True King, please let them still live.
Sleep visited Eoin, but detected Aidan’s wakeful mind and passed him by. He listened to Eoin breathe rhythmically in the stillness of the night, revisiting treasured memories and praying.
True King, make their path obvious and clear to us tomorrow. Show us a plan, show us how to rescue and save our friends. Please do not let us lose hope. Please do not let them lose hope. Give them strength. Your will be done.
Skandar lurched as the rope binding his wrists tightened, wincing as the coarse hairs bit into his chafed flesh and drew fresh blood. Willfully, he forced his pace to quicken to a trot, and then stumbled on a tree root. What meager sleep he was allowed the night before little replenished his drowsy state. Exhaustion lingered on the edge of consciousness. The only thing keeping Skandar alert was the ceaseless tug sending needles of pain through his arm and side. Blood oozed hot from both wounds, trickling down his sweat-soaked skin.
He cast a sideways glance at Flynn, grimaced as bile rose in his throat, and quickly averted his gaze. The knight’s pale face was badly bruised, discolored, and disfigured where bloody cuts and puffy skin met. His body moved limply with the motion of the horse on which he rode; the hunters lent him use of the bay after he collapsed for the third time the night before. Ropes looped through the bridle and tied to the saddles of two hunters riding closely on either side prevented him from fleeing. In his current lethargic state, Skandar doubted Flynn was aware enough to concoct even the simplest fragmented idea, let alone formulate a strategy of escape. Occasionally, Flynn moaned, the only reassurance for Skandar and his friends that the knight still drew breath.
Oliver, Muriel, and Catrain suffered little physical injury during the fight. Cuts and bruises were the only outer marks they bore. By their hollow stares and listless ambling, Skandar sensed that inside, they were as lost and hurt as he. I killed a man. Left him bleeding on the ground. The guilt washed over Skandar in a continual deluge. In self-defense, he reasoned. He would have just as easily slain me. But the man’s agonized groans and cries echoed through Skandar’s memory, refusing him peace. And when the other hunters sprung from the forest, he had faltered instead of fighting with his friends. That error, he believed and blamed no other for it, allowed the hunters to capture them.
Birds tweeted mockingly in the leafy shelter provided by the trees. From time to time, one ventured to spread its flighty wings and glided from branch to branch. Skandar envied their freedom as his bonds grew taut again. The sun burned in the clear spring sky, sending antagonistic heat waves beaming down through the budding arbor and glistening off the beads of perspiration forming on Skandar’s brow. Worse, with his hands bound and fastened taut in front of him, the sweat ran into his eyes with nothing to wipe it away. The stench of hot horse choked the air, adding to his misery.
Sullenly, he shuffled on. Anger burned in his heart, boiled over, and spilled its heated fury into Skandar’s eyes. His vision grayed. The instant Skandar became aware of the color change in his surroundings, he suppressed the swelling hatred. Harbor my rage for a later time. He shuddered, realizing that he sounded reminiscent of Flynn. I will never be like him, he vowed before contemplating another pressing problem. Where are Aidan and Eoin? Wondered Skandar, not for the first time. Whether they were shot down by archers or if they failed to complete the climb up the cliff face, Catrain yielded no information. Not a word had she uttered since their capture nearly a day before. If the hunters discovered one of their prisoners was Corrthainian royalty with the treaty fresh and yet to be enacted, Skandar feared the consequences that may befall her. She had become like kin to him. She, Oliver, Muriel, and the brothers he thought of as his family. He despised the notion of harm visiting any of them. I would die before that happens. A strained chuckle escaped his lips. In all likelihood, he would be the first to die, having received only a few months’ worth of training compared to their years.
Not to mention they stole my sword. The loss of Sir Reuben’s final gift disheartened him more than he expected it would. In the fortnight he possessed it, he had, in a queer sense, bonded with the sword. It served him well in the skirmish, and he loathed parting with it. He especially despised seeing it hanging from the belt of one of the hunters, so he avoided glancing in that direction as much as possible. He found it difficult. Both his mind and his eyes wandered from person to person, tree to tree.
Muriel’s muted sobs broke him from his trance. The fear and guilt gnawing at her all night and into the morning finally burst in the tears that streamed down her cheeks, leaving streaks in the dust and grime coating her skin. Oliver slowed his pace to walk alongside her, whispering things in his soothing voice. Too far away to clearly hear, Skandar guessed what his friend said. Always optimistic, sometimes naively so, Oliver likely comforted her with hollow promises.
Ahead of Skandar and to his left, Catrain marched, sullen and silent in her stiff expressionless manner Skandar had come to recognize as the façade she wore when around strangers or when contemplating some deep matter.
Hours dragged on. The sun shone in front of them as it began its lazy descent behind the western horizon, its crimson top peeking above the arborous treetops.
At the first star’s appearance in the fading sky, the hunters stopped and set up camp. Flynn they strung between two stout trees, his long arms, spread out to his sides like wings, weakly supported his battered frame. His head bobbed against his chest. Blood dripped onto the thin woven fabric of his loose-fitting black shirt. His jacket, like all their other supplies and belongings, the hunters seized.
Skandar relived his surprise at how rapidly the hunters had forced Flynn into submission. The knight was a fighter, a murderer; ruthless and cunning. Why would he allow himself to lose so easily? Is it a ruse? A plan to get us all captured? The severe beating he endured at their hands proved otherwise. What if it was a ploy to aid us escape?
Before Skandar delved deeper into that possibility, one of the hunters appeared before him. His, Oliver’s, Muriel’s, and Catrain’s hands he and three other rogues untied, only to rebind all together, connecting them in a tight circle behind their backs. Skandar’s fingers tingled. He wiggled them, encouraging the feeling to return.
In the meantime, the hunters constructed a fire, which they all circled around, wineskins in hand. Boisterous, rowdy laughter erupted from the group. The loss of some of their own affected them little, if at all. Fortunately, their loud behavior provided Skandar and his companions with the opportunity to speak without fear of being overheard.
“Cat,” whispered Skandar over his shoulder, glad to finally voice the concern bothering him all day. “What happened at the ravine? Where are Aidan and Eoin?”
“They did what I asked of them,” she responded cryptically. “They’re close by.”
As if on cue, two owls hooted from the depths of the trees.
“How are you certain?” Oliver queried warily. He rotated his wrists to a more comfortable position. That action, however, pulled on Skandar’s arm. Skandar bit his lower lip as the sharp throbbing began anew.
“We three played mimicking games as children,” Catrain explained briefly. “I know.”
Flynn cracked open a swollen eye, a dry smirk appearing on his lips. The princess is cleverer than I credited her for. Shifting his weight to relieve pressure from his broken ribs, he sighed, stifling a groan, and continued to listen.
The princess nodded at Skandar’s wounded arm. The bleeding hadn’t ceased. “That will need to be cleaned, dressed, and stitched before it becomes infected.”
“Do you see clean rags, and perhaps a needle and thread? Out in the woods, finding anything beyond healing herbs is a failed cause. Even locating herbs is impossible when we are bound.” The hairs on the back of Skandar’s neck prickled, and he imagined the icy glare Catrain shot him. “The arrow, thank you for that,” he amended. “I would probably be dead.”
“You have too little faith in yourself. Flynn trained you, and despite your sentiments toward him, he is a good teacher, and you a good student.”
“I faltered, hesitated when I should have defended myself, fought back harder. I gave fear the reins to control me, and it did just that.”
“Fear is a powerful thing. It is an easy matter to allow it to overcome you.”
“Yet you seemed unafraid,” Skandar pointed out.
“Truthfully, I was terrified. I still am.”
“Where are they taking us?” inquired Muriel, her silvery voice thin and raw from lack of water.
No one answered. No one knew until finally Flynn murmured hoarsely through closely parted lips, “Pennaeth.”
Tir O Niwl’s capitol? Skandar pictured the maps he poured over in Tiem. “Why?”
“They are not ordinary hunters,” Flynn rasped.
“What does that mean?”
Flynn swallowed, winced, and said, “Bounty hunters. None of you were the target,” he breathed as deeply as his broken ribs allowed, shifting his weight. “You were merely caught in the presence of a fugitive.”
“You ran,” Muriel speculated, fitting Flynn’s thoughts into her own mind, “not because of cowardice, but because you wished to draw them away from us. You tried to protect us.”
“It was neither cowardice nor courage,” hissed Skandar. “It was a trap. Lies to imprison us all.”
“Put your petty hatred and your pride aside for once,” Catrain snapped bluntly. “The True King foresaw this long before it ever happened. I know you reject Him and our belief, but nothing occurs without a reason. He brought us all, even Flynn, together for His purpose.”
“Whatever His purpose may be,” he whispered bitterly, squeezing his eyes against the throbbing ache in his arm, “He isn’t doing it fast enough.”
The bounty hunters ran them behind their horses for another day, forbidding them food, water, and respite until Skandar and his fellow prisoners believed they might faint from exhaustion. Flynn crumpled and was dragged roughly across the rocky ground for several yards before three burly men hefted his unconscious body onto the back of a spare horse. Skandar envied his rest, however fitful and uncomfortable.
Night after night, dreams plagued Skandar; what little sleep he attained was wrought with fear and apprehension.
By morning, the onset of the third day, the forest ended abruptly as rolling jade hills spanned from horizon to horizon, encompassing them on all sides. They stole Skandar’s breath away, reminding him of home. A well-tread dirt road cut through the countryside like a brown snake in the tall grass that tickled the bellies of the horses as they waded through. The hunters steered their mounts toward it, riding between the deep cart and wagon ruts carved into the hard-packed dirt. After what Skandar estimated to be an hour during which they passed no one, the road branched, becoming more populated with travelers who glanced curiously at the bounty hunters and their prisoners in tow before hurrying on in their separate ways. Most were indifferent to the plight of Skandar and his companions, but one or two turned an apologetic eye toward Muriel and Catrain. With their faces streaked with dirt and flakes of dried blood, their eyes hollow and shadowed by violet circles, and their long hair loose and wild, no doubt the young women no doubt appeared to the travelers as helpless victims of the brutish men. Skandar nearly smiled. If they only knew how frightening they are in battle… he left the thought incomplete. Better Catrain and Muriel appeared innocent. It may spare their lives, he dared to hope.
As they crested a hill, Skandar saw their destination. A rust colored castle encased by a wall lay ahead of them. The road stretched to it, broken only by a silvery river in the deep valley below it. Shading his eyes from the sun, Skandar made out the dark purple background and the coiled silver dragon of Tir O Niwl on the pennants flapping in the breeze atop the broad turrets. Then they descended the slope, and the castle disappeared behind the wall. Nestled between the hills on the way to the ford, simple two-story beige plaster houses with thatched roofs and smaller single story dwellings constructed of stones clustered together formed a small but prosperous village. No wall enclosed the village, but wooden towers stationed at intervals along the perimeter allotted for some protection. Across their flat tops, behind shallow battlements paced sentries clad in leather armor. Skandar gathered that in case of war, the royals of Tir O Niwl regarded the safety of their own lives above those of their citizens. The guards stationed at the towers cast lazy eyes toward the odd company as they rode and walked by, but otherwise offered no challenge. Upon entering the village, the hunters located the stables, boarded their horses, and continued on foot through its center.
Townsfolk appeared in the doorways of their homes and shops. Mothers placed protective hands on the shoulders of their children, silent warnings to run from troublemakers and renegades. Skandar remembered the rare occurrences in Tiem when Sheriff Fawkes’ knights paraded through the streets with a thief or another petty criminal, cautioning those who dared to break the town codes. For his faults and his severe nature, Fawkes judged and sentenced fairly; treatment Skandar only hoped would be dealt to him and his friends. Flynn, for all he cared, could hang in the gallows he spied looming down a side street.
They exited the village, continuing down the road toward the swollen river, which ran between the hills and snaked around to circle the castle and disappeared from sight. Subconsciously Skandar held his breath and, despite his raw, bleeding feet and his exhaustion-weighted limbs, he nearly sprinted to the safety of the firm earth on the opposite side. Instead, he forced himself to walk, slowly, painfully, dread threatening to sweep him away with the water that gushed beneath the bridge. The bridge itself was solid underfoot, albeit weathered, its planks hewn from sturdy oak. Skandar latched on to the rail, an action made difficult with his hands bound, but he managed and tentatively trusted his weight to it as they crossed.
Although steep, the hike to the top of the hill and the gate permitting access through the outer wall was nothing compared to the trek before the bounty hunters captured Skandar and his companions. Imagine laying siege to this castle dressed in armor, Skandar thought, panting. Drawing nearer, Skandar saw what he missed before. The banners on the wall and castle flew lower than their poles allotted. Mourning? He recalled King Fendral mentioning something about King Caddock being ill and ailing the day of the banquet. Even the air around the castle seemed thick, heavy with palpable grief. Skandar deciphered no other reason save that their king was grievously sick. Perhaps dead.
The portcullises were raised, and the hunters lead them through the gates of the outer wall and the inner wall of the castle. Like Corrthaine castle, the gate opened up into a courtyard filled with gloomy-faced peasants standing about as though life offered and reeked of nothing but sorrow and death. Before Skandar reflected any further, guards having taken one glance at Flynn, pushed the people aside and surrounded them. Once the guard in charge approved the bounty hunters, he bade them admittance into the innards of the castle. As for Skandar and his companions, shackles replaced ropes. None too gently, the guards marched them into a gaping door different than that their captors had entered.
Skandar blinked as the corridor swallowed up the light from outside. Torches hung on the walls offered little respite from the darkness. At the end of the hall, stairs rose in the interior of one of the turrets, wide and tall. The jangling of chains and the heavy thuds of their boots on stone echoed, becoming almost overwhelming the higher they ascended before emerging before a door sealed with an iron lock on the outside. Behind it, a hall of cages, prison cells, stood awaiting its newest residents. Another closed door marked the end of the long passage.
The guards threw them into adjacent cells without bothering to remove their shackles- Muriel with Catrain, Oliver with Skandar, and Flynn alone. The dungeon, noted Skandar, was far more agreeable than Corrthaine’s. Only a few prisoners inhabited the other cells, silent as men awaiting their deaths. No screams of terror and anguish emanated from behind the wooden door at the end of the corridor. Straw covered the floor; dust particles rose from it and swarmed in the air, illuminated by warm shafts of sunlight beaming through small, rectangular windows cut just below the ceiling. Skandar sniffed, At least the straw is fresh and not mildew-infested. Infested. His eyes darted about the tiny confines, seeking the slightest movement that indicated a rat or other rodent. The search was in vain, as most of the cell was shrouded in shadows. Kicking the straw into a pile, he lay down. To him, he may as well been laying on a feather bed in Corrthaine castle.
Flynn groaned, gasped, and then groaned again, louder, spoiling the peace in the prison. Iron chains bound him to the wall of his cell, which was located on the opposite side of Catrain and Muriel’s. Smugly, Skandar grimaced. Part of him pitied the agony Flynn felt, but another part of him believed Flynn received the punishment he deserved for all the lives lost at his hands. My hands are not clean anymore, either, Skandar realized somberly. But that man would have killed me had I not… Nay. Focus on something else. Why can I not focus? Everything seems so… muddled.
Whispers captured his attention. Oliver sat against the wall separating him from Muriel, she on the other side, mirroring him, their hands clasped and their fingers entwined. In the deepest shadow of the corner furthest from them, Catrain hid. The only thing clearly visible were the dusty tips of her boots. She had hardly spoken since the first night. The first night after they killed. Skandar remembered every detail about the gory memory. The scar from the sword slash on his arm would serve as a constant reminder. Is this how Flynn became a murderer? Does the guilt ever wane? Or does it linger on, numbed by time and still more death? But he couldn’t dwell on it. Not now. Now, he desperately needed sleep. Every aching muscle, every wound, every weak and heavy limb screamed at him for rest. He shivered violently as a sudden chill ripped through him although he felt no wind, no draft blowing through the tiny windows.
Skandar rose from the pile that only moments before seemed so comfortable but now grew prickly, jabbing him in the side and back. He scooted across the floor and wedged himself in the corner, seeking solitude in the shadows. Tucking his knees against his chest, he wrapped his arms around his legs, willing warmth to creep into him.
Back to the beginning, sighed Skandar inwardly. If I continue this quest, it is possible that I will see the inside of every dungeon and prison within the Four Kingdoms.
His stomach growled. Heat flushed Skandar’s cheeks as the three sets of eyes belonging to his friends turned quizzically toward him. Uttering a nervous, exhausted laugh, Skandar feebly attempted to joke, “At least now we get to eat.”
“Princess?” Flynn rasped, hoping it fell on the sleeping ears of others save hers.
Catrain lifted her head. Night blanketed the dungeon in complete darkness, and she strained to peer through it.
“Princess?” he tried again, desperation thick in his tone.
“Here, Flynn,” she replied. “But never speak to me by that name while here. Call me Cat, or at least, Catrain.”
Idiot, he thought of himself. Surely he knew better. The beating addled my mind. I am not thinking clearly… He heard her crawl hesitantly across the floor, the straw swishing and scraping as she brushed them aside, heard her sharp intake of breath when one of the stiff ends stabbed her palm, heard the scrape of the chains. With each sound, he winced. In the silence of the prison, the noises may have been a thunderclap, certainly drawing the unwanted attention of the guards.
“Catrain,” he tested the name, finding it unfamiliar and odd. “When are Aidan and Eoin coming? They must break us out, and soon, before our time- my time -expires.”
Shaking her head, forgetting he could not see in the dark, she said, “They will come when they have a plan.”
“True King have mercy if they must concoct a plan on their own.”
“Indeed,” she smirked. “Flynn, why is there a bounty on your head?” She asked bluntly, finding no reason to skirt the evident cause of their dismal state.
“I angered an old friend, one of my only friends. He believes I betrayed him four years ago before I arrived in Corrthaine. In truth, I only betrayed one person, and,” his voice cracked, filled with unbridled emotion and grief, “and it was not him.”
Well, what do you think?
Please comment your thoughts, ideas, criticisms, and whatnot- they're welcome, but if you comment, I ask that you keep it clean (not that I think you won't, but it happens).
I will try to post one chapter at the very least before the end of November if school allows. If I can't do that, I'll see about possibly posting a (very) short story for you all.
Thank you for reading, and may God bless you!
Until the next time,