Thursday, December 17, 2015

The Mark of the King: Chapter Twenty-Two

I am genuinely excited for you all to read this chapter. 

Not that I'm typically not excited for you to read anything (what kind of writer would I be if not?) but this one.. Oh this one. Fret not! Nothing extraordinarily terrible transpires. It's basically a lot of sitting around in a dark dungeon deliberating delivery during which we learn a character's backstory (Alliteration anyone?). Anyway, it's a character who, from what I've heard from you lot, is quite the favorite.

Also, I made some alterations to the ages of the main characters to better suit the story. In case you're interested, here are their ages from youngest to oldest:
Catrain - 17
Eoin - 18
Aidan - 19
Muriel - 19
Skandar - 20
Oliver - 21
Flynn - 23

Aidan and Eoin had tracked the hunters tirelessly for days, sleeping fitfully, and hardly concerning themselves to eat regardless of how their stomachs complained. With their throats tight from apprehension, neither thought they possessed the capability of swallowing. From behind the safety of arborous branches high aloft in the trees, they observed, biding their time as Catrain instructed, although neither particularly patiently. Eoin grumbled constantly, his displeasure and tension looming over them like a thundercloud fed by his hunger, ready to break at any moment. At first, Aidan tried consoling him, but he felt his brother’s anxiety amplifying his own, and exhausted his efforts preventing himself from bending beneath the weight of his own fear.
            So they waited. Besides, aside from malnourishment and the occasional slap in the face, their friends suffered no immediate threat. Once, when a renegade began to play with a strand of Muriel’s hair, she had whipped her head around and bitten him, sinking her teeth deeply into the soft flesh below his thumb. With a howl, the man recoiled, clutching his hand. Eoin had caged the laughter that shook him, nearly falling from his perch in the process. After that, no one dared come near Muriel again except to adjust the ropes around her wrists. He worried not about Catrain’s well-being at their hands, for a hostile glare darkened her expression, never leaving. With such ferocity, Eoin wondered, smiling for a fleeting moment, how her face did not hurt by the end of the day.
            Then he remembered that she was absent from his side. The inseparable archers, the other knights in Corrthaine dubbed them the time she first held a bow and he began teaching her what he knew. Inseparable, he scoffed miserably.
            In sullen silence they trailed the bounty hunters to Pennaeth, but remained behind in the town while the others journeyed on to the castle. With what little money remained in their purses, they paid for a room at the tavern and spent the day inside huddled in a corner against the wall, listening to gossip and practicing the heavy accents of the Niwls. Each of the Four Kingdoms had their own individual language, but being the largest, Corrthaine was spoken as a common language among them all.
            “How does this sound?” Eoin asked.
            “Good, but not exact. Slur it, perhaps,” suggested Aidan, running his hands down his face. “And what of this?”
            Eoin shrugged indifferently. “You don’t sound drunk enough.”
            “If I have another ale, I will,” Aidan joked, humor void in his tone.
            “It has been two days. Two days of doing nothing while our friends sit in prison or worse,” Eoin seethed, “Do you think that Cat,” he berated himself for not catching her name before it alighted from his tongue, “that they will…?”
            Reaching across the table, Aidan grabbed his brother’s shoulder and shook him fondly, sensing his despair and regret. “She’s strong, little brother. They all are. Give it another day. You have feelings for her?”
            Eoin looked up with the expression of a startled deer before hastily glancing at a knothole in the table and admitting softly, “I cannot lie to you. I myself didn’t realize it until recently, a day or two before the hunters abducted them.”
            “I suspected as much. But pray, why flirt with all the other girls in Corrthaine? Surely there is a reason.”
            “I suspect I wanted to attract her attention; she never appeared to acknowledge me as anything other than a friend when in her company,” he began tracing the darkened patch of wood with his finger, uneasy beneath his brother’s inquisitive gaze.
            “You attracted her attention, little brother. I’ve never seen her so jealous, though she masked it well with indifference.”
            “She despises me.”
            “She does not.”
            “Why else would she send us away from the fight when I could have prevented her capture?”
            “You do not know that; for all you know you could have died in the fight, and then neither Cat nor I would forgive ourselves. Or you for your stupidity. Mayhap she understood your rashness,” seeing his brother’s scowl, he said, “aye, rashness! Deny it or accept it but it drives you. Mayhap Cat wanted to protect you the only way she was able at that time.”
            Meanwhile, Eoin’s finger paused its circling and he stared thoughtfully into the grain of the table. Then clearing his throat, he changed the subject back to the matter at hand. “What did you see when you went to the castle this morning? You should have woken me; I wished to accompany you.”
            “You were sound asleep. You haven’t slept well for days and I did not want to disturb you. As for the castle, it was boring, really. Nothing happened aside from the scurrying of servants and knights and the usual bustle that occurs within a castle. I could not gain entrance, but I lingered outside the gate for a time and tried to glean anything useful.”
            A serving girl passed by and laid a platter of bread on the table.
            “There is a new guard,” Aidan said, tearing a handful off the loaf, dipping it in his nearly empty ale mug, and taking a bite. While chewing, he continued, “They stationed him at the gate during the second and fourth watches, from what I gather. They operate things differently than Corrthaine Castle, but I noticed some similarities. Anyway, mayhap we can persuade him to allow us through. Other than that, I doubt he will prove of use as far as an audience with the king is concerned. Oh, that reminds me of another thing,” he swallowed and explained about the death of King Caddock and the coronation of the former prince, Morfael. “He, his wife, and young sons, babes by the sound of it, are observing the mourning rituals with the rest of the castle. They say the king has a sister, but from what I heard she hasn’t left the castle since her father died.”
            “Again, no use there,” groaned Eoin.
            “At ease,” Aidan attempted to reassure him again, although he himself felt crushed beneath guilt and despair. “We shall go together tomorrow, I promise, and there decide what shall be done about rescuing our friends.”

            Time passed sluggishly within the confines of the castle dungeons, the day dragged on seemingly without end. Skandar and his companions attempted to track the hours by the amount of light seeping through the small windows in the wall, but soon fell prey to boredom and abandoned the boorish notion. The light appeared and disappeared with the daily birth and death of the sun, reminding them that, as the heavenly orb hung in the invisible sky, so their lives hung in uncertain balance.
“You would think someone would have done something with us by now,” Oliver paced the length of his shared cell. “Tortured us, killed us, or at the very least offered us decent food and water, not bits of charred bread.”
            “We are their prisoners, Oliver, not their guests,” said Catrain, who bound straw into what curiously resembled a crude knife.
            “Even so, why go to all the trouble to bring us here to rot?”
            “And why not? Your father and Flynn intended the same for me had not Sir Reuben intervened,” remarked Skandar, his speech slurred. He lay on the straw, curled into as tight a ball as his aching body allowed to ward off the chills that shook him, even though sweat glistened on his skin.
            “Not true,” Flynn corrected, “Lord Joran wished me to instruct you, as I did. Sir Reuben’s negotiations resulted only in you residing with him and not in the Knight’s Quarters.”
            “So why the dungeon then?”
            “Lord Joran did not want you to miss the customary welcome.”
            Skandar sat up abruptly. The prison cell swam around him in a fit of sudden dizziness. When it passed, he spat, “So you toss all your visitors in the dungeons? Funny, I did not see the Niwl ambassador and his knights-”
            “Fools!” Catrain hissed, cutting him off. “The castle is in mourning. Have you not heard the guards?”
            Their collective silence granted her the answer.
            “King Caddock died. According to Tir O Niwl’s customs, no executions are to be carried out within the period of grief out of respect for the dead.”
            Then without warning, the door to the dungeons flew open, banging sharply against the wall. In a fluid motion barely noticeable to anyone, Catrain stuffed the improvised straw weapon behind her back.
            Four armed guards clad in dark purple tunics, black trousers, and padded leather jerkins entered, stopping before Flynn’s cell. The rat-faced jailer heaved a raspy cough into his fist before unclipping a ring of keys from the hook on his belt, fumbling around for a moment before selecting one and unlocking the door. It creaked as it swung open on rusted hinges. Two of the guards unchained Flynn from the wall and snapped shackles around his wrists before escorting him down the corridor. To his left, Flynn saw the corridor turn sharply, branching to another hall full of prison cells. He and the guards walked only a few more steps before they stopped at the end of this hall and the wooden door. They disappeared inside, returning momentarily without Flynn, and rejoined their companions.
            One of the prisoners muttered under his breath.
            “What was that?” asked Skandar groggily.
            “What did you say?” he tried again. “I do not speak Niwl...”
            “Torture,” the man replied. “That is where they take them. Expect to hear your friend’s screams soon.”
            “Well, Oliver,” Skandar said smugly, turning to his friend who ceased his pacing and stood staring fixedly at the door. “You did mention torture, did you not? Better him than any of us, I say.”
            “Watch your tongue, Skandar,” warned Muriel. “Any one of us may be next. Perhaps they selected Flynn first because his cell is nearest the entrance of the dungeon. If that be the reason,” her lower lip quivered, “then either Catrain or I are next.” Panic seized her, her bravery faltering and she whispered, “Oliver?”
            In two strides he reached her side and, reaching through the bars, brought her slender hands to him, kissing her fingers gently before rubbing them, encouraging the warmth to return.
            This is my fault, Skandar thought, redirecting his anger now that Flynn was no longer around to receive it. “At the tavern… if I had not…” he stammered aloud. “The hunters would not have seen Flynn and we wouldn’t be here.”
            “You acted right at the tavern, rescuing that girl,” assured Oliver, his back still to him. “You have a heart for the weak, Skandar, for those defenseless. No one questions your courage when it comes to protecting another. I saw that clearly the first day we met and you wished to go back to the farmer’s wife and her daughters. You care. Do not blame yourself for that and never apologize.”
            Muriel pulled away from him and curled into a ball on the floor. Straw stuck in her disheveled hair and her clothes bore stains of mud, dirt, and ash from campfires. Her shackles clanked together around her inflamed wrists, the skin beneath them once pale, but now cracked and bleeding. When she moved her arms and the cuffs scraped against the tender flesh, she moaned between closed lips, unable to ignore the pain any longer.
            Skandar’s heart sank. She deserves better than this. She deserves to be wed to Oliver, happy and safe, not here.
            As though reading his thoughts, Muriel said, “I made a choice, Skandar, whether I wished to aid you or journey to Tir Thuaidh with my family.”
            Seething in anger, Skandar sought someone else to blame, scouring the visages of everyone remotely responsible. Sir Reuben, King Fendral, even his own father. But Lord Joran manipulated and used them all. This is his fault. Not mine. Whatever happens from now on is his fault, and he will pay the price demanded, not I. I swear he will pay by the Sword of Bródúil.
            Then the door opened once more and a young man, trailed by a single guard stormed in, purple robes billowing behind him, his legs churning and carrying him swiftly through the hall, hardened stare fixed on the opposite door. Ash brown hair lay in short curls atop his head, his brow slanted sharply, overshadowing deep brown eyes; in the light, Skandar caught a glimpse of a pale white scar streaking from just above his left eyebrow to the side of his temple. His deep mahogany boots, polished until they shone, clopped like horse’s hooves on the stone floor, the sound resounding through the dungeon. When he reached the torture chamber, he paused, hesitating for a mere second before throwing open that door and disappearing inside.
            “Who was that?” Skandar breathed, breaking the stillness that had fallen over the prison in the wake of the man’s absence. A coldness seeped through the stones and seemed to settle in the air.
            “King Morfael,” replied Catrain. “I know him by reputation only, from what my grandfather said while holding court. What little I heard is far from agreeable. Not unlike his father, Morfael is stubborn and wily, oftentimes refusing the simplest of requests for the sake of argument. A thousand curses my grandfather heaped upon his father’s head. Alas, it would not be foolish to consider that, in his grief, Morfael may prove either more compassionate that usual or he may exact greater penalties.”
            “But no executions?” wondered Muriel.
            “Not until the end of the month, I venture.”
            “What do you suggest we do now, Cat?” inquired Oliver, one hand rubbing the back of his neck.
            “We pray that the True King softens and bends Morfael’s heart in our favor, and,” she added smugly, “we introduce him to the son of Lord Joran. Your father orchestrated the alliance with Tir O Niwl, did you know that? He negotiated the terms on behalf of Corrthaine, what promises he made and favors he ensured even I do not know their extent, and I doubt my grandfather understood what he signed in his illness. Therefore it is not overly ambitious to assume that King Morfael is acquainted with your father and his,” she coughed, “means of authority.”
            “You wish for me to adopt the guise of my father?”
            “What else would he expect from the son of Lord Joran?”
            “This is Flynn’s idea, isn’t it,” sighed Oliver, grinding the heels of his hands into his eyes. “He addressed me with this plan earlier on in our venture, lest something happen that my father’s reputation could absolve.”
            Catrain nodded. “He said as much, and also that, although you were wary, you agreed that it may indeed be the best course of action.”
            “Aye, and reluctantly so I did. What else did Flynn say?”
            “Nothing. We spoke only a few words last night, enough to concoct the framework of a plan. Then the guards moved closer.”
            “Ah, and when Morfael returns…” Oliver’s voice trailed off as dreams mingled with reality in Skandar’s drowsy mind. He heard his friends as though listening to someone speak through several wool blankets, muffled, slurred, and indistinct. His limbs felt heavy, and he wished to cure the persistent, unrelenting throb of his side and arm with sleep. It called to him, inviting and comforting. Never mind the fact that he slept in a cell; never mind that his life hung upon the decision of one man; never mind that he might never find his father or Bródúil. Chills wracked his body and fevered dreams enveloped his senses. He yearned solely for sleep and an end to his suffering. In moments, he succumbed to its summons.
            Even when the door creaked ajar, Flynn did not lift his head. The cramped chamber reeked of decay and the pungent stench of death and agony. Metal instruments of horror hung along the wall to his back, some coated in rust and the dried blood of the last victim they greeted in their cruel embrace. The room itself was stifling hot despite the coolness of the dungeon outside, for but for a single chimney, beneath which a fire blazed, no windows allowed for ventilation or exits for the smoke of the torches that adorned all four walls. Sweat already formed beads on his face and bare chest; the guards had removed his shirt and discarded it in a heap in a corner. His arms, the chains secured through a ring on the ceiling, held him on his feet, which were likewise chained to a ring fitted between the stones. A man of average height would be dangling with his toes brushing the floor until his shoulders popped from their sockets. Flynn himself witnessed that happening on more than one occasion, heard their screams of agony vividly in his memory.
            There are too many, he thought, too many voices. Too many screams.
            He sensed the other men standing in the room and still refused to look up. It mattered not who inflicted the pain, only that he managed not to disclose information fatally harmful to Lord Joran or his traveling companions.
            In Niwl, a familiar voice spoke, “When my men reported to me of your imprisonment, I accused them of falsehood, for surely a man of your talents would not so easily be brought down by the ilk of bounty hunters.”
            Flynn raised his head and squinted with his good eye through the hazy light of the small chamber. Though four years passed since last he heard the speaker’s modulated voice, it was one he could not readily forget. Two foggy silhouettes loitered beside the door, one presumably a guard, the other… On unsteady legs, Flynn shifted his weight; white sparks flashed before his eyes as he disturbed his broken ribs with the action, and he stifled a groan, lest he display weakness of any sort.
            “I refused to believe the news until this morning until I finally settled to see for myself. It would be a lie to claim that I hoped it was merely a man who resembled you,” King Morfael stepped closer, frowning and examining Flynn with a critical eye. “You have the scar I gave you?”
            “Aye,” Flynn spat, knowing that his dark, wiry beard concealed the wound along his cheek and jaw. “It split open again, no thanks to the accursed bounty hunters. I see the one I gave you healed nicely,” he noted, implying the thin line across Morfael’s forehead, barely visible in the flickering light. The young king reached up and touched his temple lightly, as if testing it for fresh blood.
            Then he strode toward the rack containing the instruments forged from cruelty in its purest essence. Flynn knew how each of them worked. He knew the different screams each one caused, and he trembled. Fear of this nature was a new sensation for him.
            His rapid pulse pounded, deafening in his ears, matching the speed of his breath. Salty sweat dripped down from his soaked hair, as wet as if someone tossed a bucket of water over him, running in rivets into his eyes, parched mouth, and open cuts, stinging and burning the raw flesh and the cracked skin of his lips. He strained to see out of the corners of his eyes in a vain effort to discern which device Morfael selected with the hopes of knowing what to prepare himself for, but the young king stood in his blind spot. So he waited, feeling as though eternities passed, gazing at him with their unseen, mocking gazes.
            He heard the clink and rustle of iron, then heavy footsteps behind him, echoing as though they carried the burden of a thousand ages when they only carried a young, uncertain king still raw in his position. They were, Flynn realized, reminiscent of his own.
Sensing an opportunity, he asked, “Do they haunt you?”
“Who?” replied Morfael as he circled around and stopped, a glowing brand held firmly in his hand. His shadow stretched out in odd directions, distorted across the blood-stained floor.
‘Tis not so bad, Flynn thought, regarding the orange, blazing tip. Not when compared with the others… Aloud, he continued carefully, “Their faces. When you close your eyes at night, do they haunt you, prevent you from sleep? Does your wife wake you from the nightmares that plague you each night?”
“Out,” the king ordered the guard gruffly.
“Sire, are you certain?”
“You are dismissed, or are you deaf? Out, I say.”
Ducking his head in a half-bow, the guard obeyed, closing the door tightly behind him.
A long silence hung, tangible in the thick, hazy air, all the while Morfael examined Flynn, his expression sullen and unwavering. “They do,” he surprised Flynn with the answer. “However, how could you know of such things? Guilt is not your nature, or so I believed, and my belief remains so. Am I wrong? Never mind; your lack of defense against my claims allot me the answer I seek. How different we two have become in these four years. Both of us sought power, you and I. You gave up everything you had and fell to ruin. I obtained it, and gained what you lost, yet I am no happier for it.”
“Leave her out of this,” Flynn growled, fighting against his bonds. The violent strain tore at a knife wound at his side, and he gasped as blood oozed down his skin.
Grimacing, Morfael inspected it and said, “Come now, tis but a graze. You’ve suffered worse.”
“Indeed, but it does not make it hurt any less,” retorted Flynn, breathing deeply, fighting for untainted air.
Then Morfael pressed the brand against his side. Flynn ground his teeth against the pain until an agonized roar ripped from his throat as the acrid odor of his own burning flesh flooded the stale atmosphere of the chamber. When the king pulled the brand away, Flynn’s head dropped to his chest. The pink skin around the wound smoked, but the blood had ceased to flow.
“That should help it heal,” Morfael crossed to the table and lay the brand on top of it. “My father is dead. Power I inherited from him, but even now that power’s limits and reaches are tested. My kingdom lies in a state of disarray; many are angered by the treaty with Corrthaine, a treaty my father signed and I must uphold. I do not yet have the respect of my people. Should I seize it from them, and punish dissenters with an iron fist? For your crimes of murder, theft, and treason you deserved the axe and block under my father’s rule. Unfortunately, the mourning period must be observed, and it prevents executions from occurring. Or should I stay my judgement?”
“If it is the respect of your people you desire, that would prove to them that you are a merciful king.”
 Morfael laughed, a mirthless bark that bounced harshly off the stones. “You would say as much, be that it is your head at risk. What of your companions? The other two men and the two women curiously garbed in pants and jerkins like a man,” a disdainful look flitted across his features. “Does Corrthaine allow their womenfolk to dress as such these days?”
“Nay, but it is less cumbersome to ride astride a horse in pants rather than a dress.”
“Is it now? But enough of these exchanges. Should I pardon you?” he inquired, a hint of a sardonic tone fringing the edge of his words. “Or should I execute you and your friends?”
“Do the latter,” Flynn replied, implementing the plan he and Catrain conjured together, “and our mutual friend will seek to destroy you with everything in his power, which by now could be the entire force of Corrthaine.”
In the darkness, Morfael paled, resembling a deer caught in a trap during the final moments of a hunt. “What could possibly be of such importance to him?”
“His son is among my companions. The fair-haired man named Oliver,” he smirked, pleased with the exchange of fear for control.
“If you lie, Flynn,” Morfael hissed, “I swear I will swing the axe myself. Until I can be sure, you and your companions shall remain imprisoned.”
“I expect nothing less.”
Casting a final scornful glance in his direction, Morfael opened the door and departed, his purple cloak swishing behind him.
The young king stormed through the hall toward the entrance, and stopped before Oliver, who rolled to his feet and sauntered up to the front of the cell, his shoulders and back erect, his stature exuding condescension. Both men stared daggers at each other, mutual skepticism and rancor fairly oozing from their countenances. In that moment, Oliver became his father, adopting the cold malice and antagonistic confidence born by Lord Joran that caused even the noblest of men to shrink away in fear.
It was Morfael who first broke the cold and stifled silence. "Flynn tells me that you are the son of Lord Joran? Is that true?"
"Yes," answered Oliver, sighing heavily as though the encounter bored him. "My father will be displeased at our treatment. My servants and I," he nodded toward Muriel, Catrain, and the sleeping Skandar, "travel on orders from my father. Flynn acted as my personal guard."
"Your guard? He will as soon stab you in the back as protect you."
"If that be the case, my father will have him hunted and when he catches him, which I assure you he will, he will have Flynn executed. Flynn fears my father for good reason and trust me," Oliver leaned closer to the bars and to Morfael, his face contorting into a vicious snarl, "you would be wise to fear him also."
"So I have heard," Morfael shifted away uneasily, "they say Lord Joran's eyes are black as pitch, black like a raven, black like the devil's soul."
Oliver's lips curled and he sneered, "Imagine what lengths he will go to in order to avenge my imprisonment and that of his second in command."
Tense silence stilled the air; the nearby prisoners craned their necks to see who it was that dared to challenge the king and strained their ears to hear. Muriel and Catrain held their breath.
"Very well," replied Morfael, mustering his air of authority about him like a shield of protection, "Guards!" He bellowed sharply, and two stepped forward from the wall. "Find the jailer!"
As they hastened away, he turned back to Oliver, who grinned smugly, and said, "You will be released as soon as that imbecile of a jailer returns. Your friends will remain here as insurance."
"Insurance of what?" Oliver demanded.
"In case you lie. Guards!” He yelled again, and though loud and sharp, Oliver did not even flinch. Too accustomed was he to his father’s outbursts.
The two guards scurried from around the far corner, the rat-faced jailer trailing behind and fumbling for his keys.
“Release our friend and deliver him to the guest chambers,” ordered Morfael, and the guards quickly set about obeying him. They led Oliver out of his prison, marching him toward the door.
Oliver cast a final hesitant glance over his shoulder at Muriel, a glimmer of uncertainty flickering in his bright green eyes, and then he left.
Catrain released her held breath slowly and whispered, “Well done, Oliver.”

In the moments that followed Morfael’s departure before the guards entered to release him, Flynn mulled over the nagging question that power did not satisfy Morfael. Why? How could it not? When I have striven for it all my life, how can he stand there and claim to be no better for it?
            Instead of returning him to his lonely cell, the guards threw him into the one occupied by Skandar, finding to Flynn’s mild amusement and satisfaction that Oliver was gone. Catrain’s plan worked. Still, the answer to his question continued to elude him. Creeping to the darkest corner, the one beneath the window, he leaned against the damp wall, drinking in the cool relief the stones offered. The sweat on his body grew cold.
            He stared, past the cell door and its bars, into the shadowed recesses of the opposite prison. Vaguely, he was aware of Catrain sitting down in the adjoining corner of her shared confines, but did not acknowledge her until she spoke.
            “How do you fare?” she whispered.
            “Fine,” he snapped distantly, perturbed by her interruption. “I have suffered worse. Oliver played his role?”
            “Aye, he did marvelously. The king regarded him oddly, half-frightened out of his wits, which I took to be a favorable sign.”
            “Indeed. What of Aidan and Eoin?”
            “No word yet, although I wonder how they would send it…” her voice trailed off. “Nevertheless, they will not abandon us. And though my frequent attitude of them suggests otherwise, I know they are truly clever. More so than most others credit them with, which works in their advantage.”
            “I fear you put too much faith in them.”
            “I do not have faith in them. I have faith in the True King. The brothers are loyal, time upon time have they proven that. Anyway, when they arrive, Oliver will be ready to receive them and vouch for their lives.”
            Sighing, Flynn said, “Even the deepest loyalty between friends lasts only so long before it is broken and betrayed.”
            “You mentioned betrayal last night,” she prompted gently, “and although you refused to elaborate on it, your guilt spoke volumes.”
            “Speak not of my guilt,” he snarled, the flaming tendrils of his ire singing the air between them.
            Boldly, not unsettled in the least by his outburst, she pressed, “You’re protecting yourself, but in doing so, you also destroy yourself.”
            Masking his discomfort with indifference, he indulged her, replying, “Quite perceptive, aren’t you? Fine, then I yield. From what do I seek protection?” This becomes too personal, his mind warned. Too close to the past of which he never spoke to anyone, not even Lord Joran. However, though he wished to keep it hidden, he yearned to tell someone. Despite the inner turmoil waging a civil war in his heart, he decided to trust her, knowing somehow it would not be mislaid in Catrain.
            “You shield yourself from your guilt and your pain, so you bar them from entering, or so you try.”
            He swallowed, nervous, for she guessed the truth. “How do you know this?”
            Catrain hesitated, a flicker of distrust lighting in her eyes, green gateways to knowledge beyond her years. She fiddled with her fingers for a moment before admitting, “I see an expression similar to that you wear on my own face, a sorrow in my own eyes not as great as yours, but there nonetheless. And now that I have taken lives, I imagine more resemblance in them than before.”
             “Guilt have I, and pain accompanying it,” he confessed, but yielded nothing more on his own accord.
            Chewing her lip thoughtfully, Catrain considered the possibilities in his past, weighing them against each other, before selecting one she deemed the most fruitful. “Have you ever loved anyone, Flynn?”
            She heard his sharp intake of breath and knew the answer before he spoke it.
            “Aye,” he breathed after a long while. “Before I came to Corrthaine.”
            “What was her name?”
            “Magge,” he whispered reverently and so softly that Catrain barely caught it. “Her name is Magge,” he leaned his head back, eyes closed, and a faint blissful smile tinged with sorrow toughed his lips.
            “That’s a beautiful name.”
            “It is,” he replied, “A beautiful name for an equally beautiful maiden. She was small-smaller than you, even. Her head didn’t quite reach my shoulder even when she stood on her toes. But she was strong. Strong and spirited with a temper that matched the deep red of her hair,” he smiled again as though the memory of her caressed his soul. Then he paused and asked, “How many years are you?”
            “Seventeen. Eighteen this spring.”
            Nodding, he continued, “She was your age when we wed and I a year older.”
            “You were married?”
            “I am,” he corrected.
            “Where is she now?” Catrain inquired, crawling closer.
            “Gone.” The single declaration weighed heavily in the air for it bore the pieces of not one shattered heart, but two. “We were poor, but happy. And then an early winter struck with fury during our first year of marriage. Our crops and livestock died, despite our desperate efforts. Work was scarce; I found nothing. We were starving, and Magge was with child; she had to eat.”
            Catrain stared at the grey cracks between her boots, envisioning their struggle, their misery, and their fear. She listened quietly, without interruption as the pieces of his heart fell out of the shadows.
            “I began to steal a little money here and there; only enough to purchase food, nothing more. One thought angered me, that if my father had not sent my mother and me away from Corrthaine that my wife would not be in anguish and that hunger pains would not wake her during the night. In Corrthaine my family had position, wealth, we would not starve there. I stole more, hoping that we could pay for passage from Tir O Niwl to Corrthaine. One night a nobleman caught me fleeing with a chest of silver. I panicked and killed him. He was highly esteemed in the Niwl court, and outrage broke out. No one knew of my involvement, but when the hunt began to find the killer, I turned to the only friend I could trust.”
            “Morfael,” Catrain guessed. “How did you meet him?”
            “As I said, my mother and I left Tiem at my father’s bidding. The plague was coming, and he wished to protect us, promising he would join us later.”
            “Tiem?” she interrupted.
            “My birthplace,” he enlightened.
            What a coincidence that he and Skandar once shared the same town as their home.
            “My mother and I travelled with letters of credentials explaining my father’s position of nobility, but even still my mother worked as the queen’s maid. Morfael and I were playmates, schooled together and trained together. Hearing my plight, he agreed to cover my secret.”
            “With conditions and his own agenda.”
            “Indeed. I would kill those who opposed him, and in turn he would offer me protection and payment. I traded my soul for money, but in the end, none of it mattered,” his usually smooth voice became husky and raw with grief. “There were complications the night the child was born. He was early, much too early. There was nothing anyone could do. Magge survived, but my son died. When Morfael demanded my continued services, I refused, and he turned on me, betraying my thievery and assassinations. King Caddock placed a price on my head, thus the bounty hunters. Like the coward I am, I fled, abandoning my grieving wife and ran until I arrived in Corrthaine’s Capitol." 
            “You wear black because you are in mourning,” she said thoughtfully.
            His shoulders sagged when he sighed. “Lord Joran offered me the power I desired. I had nothing left to trade, so I traded the lives of whoever he wished for that power which is my birthright.”
            “Love, be it for a person, power, or riches can provoke a man to do foolish things he else would not do,” pondered Catrain aloud. “Yet love grants us the thing we all pine and hope for.”
            “What is that?”
            “Salvation, forgiveness, and hope.”
            “So much evil have I done that no good I accomplish in what little life I have left could ever atone for it. I am a dead man already; a dead man waiting to die. After the grievances I have committed, why should anyone forgive me?”
            “You are not the same man who left Corrthaine,” she said. “That man would never appear as you do now.”
            He hesitated before asking, “And how do I appear?”
            Sniffing, Flynn tilted his chin up, peering down at her in his arrogant manner, all traces of the broken man swept behind his lordly mask. “If that so-called salvation and hope rescues us before we all rot, then I may consider asking for forgiveness. That is,” he cast a wary glance at Skandar’s sleeping form and half-laughing, “that is if he does not kill me first.”

            The shadows in the dungeon cells deepened as outside, the light diminished as the sun slipped behind the unseen hills. Night fell upon them, and Catrain, fingering the completed makeshift weapon and allowing a smug smile to pull at her mouth, vowed that, one way or another, it would be the last night she and her friends endured in the prison.  

As always, your comments are welcome.
I wish you a Merry Christmas as we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ!
And for those of you who celebrate other holidays, I wish you a wonderful time.
God bless you!