Thursday, September 22, 2016

The Mark of the King: Chapter Twenty-Six

For once, I have nothing other to say than 'enjoy'!

Oliver, Muriel, Catrain, and the brothers waited outside Skandar’s room, hesitant, each looking to one another to enter first, shifting from side to side as they stood. Then Muriel separated from the small huddle and pushed open the door. Those waiting in the hall heard the muffle of voices and the muffled rustle of heavy fabric along the light airy breeze that wafted through the stuffy chamber and into the corridor. One by one, they filed after another and each strained for a glimpse of their recovering friend as they crossed over the threshold.
Skandar sat, propped upright by several pillows, and groggily examined the room, his mouth pulled tight in a grim line and his eyes wide and confused. Woolen blankets covered his legs and rippled around his waist. His bare chest rose and fell shallowly as he breathed the fresh air floating in through the open windows, layered with the earthy scent of grass.
        Alasdair, who up until that point had been bustling about his patient, proceeded to gather his belongings into his arms and, with a dip of his head in respect to Oliver, sidled past them and left them alone.
       “Skandar?” queried Muriel, uncertain whether, in his apparent delirium, he noticed their presence or not. He snapped to attention at the sound of her silver voice and stared at them, his gaze hard and piercing. Then it softened, and the corners of his pale lips tugged faintly upward.
      Muriel stepped to his side and, ignoring propriety, threw her arms around his neck in hasty embrace, which Skandar returned, albeit limply.
      “Forgive me,” he croaked, “it seems my strength has yet to return.”
      “Nor did I expect it to,” said Muriel as she filled a mug with water and held it to his mouth, tipping it as he drank.
      “It is good to see you again with the living,” Oliver reached across Muriel and clapped Skandar’s uninjured shoulder, a hearty smile parting his face.
      “Tis good to be awake, however,” Skandar glanced at the bandage around his arm and grimaced, “while asleep I did not feel the pain.”
       “While asleep, you nearly died.”
        “So they told me,” he replied flatly, unsurprised by his brush with death. His legs twitched beneath the blankets. “How much time passed? The last I remember was the dungeon.”
       “You slept the past two days,” supplied Catrain, who leaned against the wall alongside the brothers. “Rest as long as required; we shan’t leave until you are hale and whole again.”
        Restless, Skandar readjusted his position again and breathed deeply, impatience filling him as readily as the air inflating his lungs. Every moment he spent recovering, he lost in his quest.
        Reading his concerns, Muriel rested a hand on Skandar’s buried leg and said gently, “If we leave prematurely, while you are yet weakened, you do nothing to help yourself or us. You hinder your mission. Patience comes not easily to you, I know, but when you feel ready to resume our travels, we will do so and then retake the time.”
        Skandar sighed, knowing that she, so like Sir Reuben, spoke reason he could not deny. Her presence in that moment, her attentiveness and serenity, reminded him of the Keeper and a raw emptiness formed a cavity in his chest. Although he knew Sir Reuben for a matter of months, Skandar missed him, the mentor who in a short time closed gaping questions that had followed Skandar since childhood.
       Then something cold slithered into the hole inside him, and an eerie sensation similar to that elicited by the tendrils of mist in his dreams coursed through him. Skandar shuddered and squeezed his eyes shut, his fists balled at his sides.
        Warm fingers pried open his hand and slipped into his palm. “Is it the pain?” asked Muriel, her voice layered with anxious and concern.
        His eyelids flew open; the room flashed gray, but returned to color with such speed Skandar questioned whether he imagined the change. His heart thumped and blood pulsed in his ears, momentarily drowning out all other sounds. No one else moved. They stood rigid, garbed in hues of reds, blacks, and browns. He blinked, and his attention flicked to Muriel.
        “My shoulder,” he lied, “but it has passed.” A calm, composed smile pulled his lips taut over his bared teeth in such a manner that sent tingling chills dancing up the backs of his friends. The irises of his eyes, once so purely silver, darkened another shade, but only Muriel, sitting on the edge of the bed, noticed.
       While the others were occupied in conversation detailing events of the past days to Skandar, Catrain stole out of the room and entered her chambers to retrieve a couple items she discovered earlier in one of the table drawers. Through the corridors, she paced herself so, to the guards stationed at the entrance, she appeared neither too fast nor too slow, but determined if aloof, and with a destination at the forefront of her thoughts.
       Minutes later, she arrived before the dungeons where the guards admitted her, but not without regarding her with much scrutiny. With two unexplained visits in one day, this time unaccompanied, one if not both men would talk. Gossip presented the likely reason for wagging tongues, but Catrain refused to reason out loyalty or personal gain when considering the motives behind how information traveled to the ears of the king. In this case, Catrain favored the latter. Often in Corrthaine, she discovered that, to win favor with those in authority, people suddenly remembered even the most obscure details.
       Flynn reclined on his back in his cell, studying the ceiling with disinterest.
      “I need your help.”
       Flynn eased himself into an upright position, wincing and clutching his broken ribs. “For all that is worth,” he grumbled. Then an eyebrow arched in mild intrigue. “About what?”
       “The Legend of Bródúil- have you read it?”
       “Indeed,” he frowned. “Lord Joran required it of me before this frivolous endeavor, for all the good it did.” He inched forward, his shackles scraping the stones. “What concerns you, Kate?”
       Shivering, Catrain vigorously rubbed her arms before folding them around her lean waist to ward off the damp draft. “Skandar concerns me. Something is happening to him… something the legend warned about those who bear the Mark.”
        “So it is true,” he grasped the bars and pulled himself closer, his face mere inches from hers. “I regarded it as myth. A fantasy. Truly you do not believe the darkening. I do not. However, I admit I witnessed things with Lord Joran that rivaled my doubt.”
        Catrain’s arms dropped from her waist and her hands found each other. As was her habit, she began twisting her fingers. “Lord Joran?” she prompted, but Flynn set his jaw and refused to elaborate further.
       “Before leaving, Sir Reuben entrusted to me a copy of the legend to give Skandar when, he directed, I deemed it necessary he read it. I fear I waited too long. I fear I missed the opportunity entirely. If things go awry, it will be my burden to bear.”
       Catrain’s lament confused Flynn. Her words spoke volumes of remorse and worry, but her manner of speech and the tone in which she said them held little to no amount of regret. It was as if she thought aloud and followed a trail of musings, mumbling them to herself without regard to anyone else in the room. She reminded him of himself, and a part of him wished to protect her, if he possibly could, from becoming cold and calloused like he so easily did. “I doubt you are to blame,” he responded after a while, knowing nothing else to say that might draw her out of her mind. He knew what a dangerous place, what a prison it could be when one resided in it too long.
       “Regardless,” she sighed, “whatever the outcome may be, it rests the hand of the True King. Do you believe in Him, Flynn?”
       He pondered his reply, examining it thoroughly for several moments, during which Catrain waited patiently, statuesque in her stillness. “I admit to not knowing much about such a being. Yet through the course of this quest, I find myself encountering things, feelings, stirrings in my soul foreign to me, that I cannot explain. I cannot refute nor can I ignore their existence any longer. If there is a True King, as you call Him, a Creator God who does indeed oversee and judge all that occurs in the world, I believe that when He sets in motion His plan, we can do nothing to corrupt or hinder it. We play the role He intended of us. There isn’t much we can do to mar the course that He cannot remedy, considering the stories are true,” he chuckled, bemused by his reasoning. “Odd how prison alters one’s perspectives about faith. Until this time, I gave it little contemplation. But time in solitude provided more than ample time to reflect. I admit that more than once I hoped for His mercy upon my past deeds.”
      “You need not pine for His mercy as though observing from afar. You ask.”
      Sly girl, Flynn nearly laughed, but the conclusion she tricked him into revealing lifted his heart so unexpectedly it shocked him. He would have to remember her skill of sliding past his defenses in the future. Though undeniably, the weight crushing him no longer drove him so deep into the mire of his guilt that he feared suffocating. It was as though she threw him a rope, a life line he need only grab hold of. Still, trepidation loomed as his sins burned holes through his soul. “I would ask, but…”
      “But you are afraid,” she completed his sentence. “You have yet to relinquish your pride. You wear both it and arrogance the way I wear confidence: as a cloak to conceal the brokenness and insecurities beneath. We both wish to instill intimidation lest others draw too close, become too comfortable, and thus glimpse our true colors, our vulnerability.”
     “By others, you mean Eoin? Days in the dark yield light into many past interactions, especially between the Twin Archers.”
       She shot him an icy glare that turned bitter cold at his use of the nickname.
Softly and with drudging reluctance, he whispered, “You are not wrong.”
      “Request the forgiveness of the True King; in it lies the remedy to your condition. As you yourself declared, He will grant you mercy without hesitation. With that comes peace and courage to request forgiveness from others.” She paused thoughtfully. “The True King softens the hearts of those He wills. Have faith.”
     “Perhaps another time,” he shrank back into shadows. “I deserve this prison.”
     “This physical prison, perhaps, but remember that this prison of guilt you resign yourself to is of your own decision. I will fight for your freedom.”
     “I do not think your friends share your enthusiasm.”
     “Regardless, we need you.”
     “So this is a matter of aim and ambition?”
     “Nay,” Catrain refused, but rethought her denial. “In a manner, I suppose it is.” She changed the subject as another thought of interest sprang from the depths of her mind. “A cook today mentioned that they have not received word of any kind from Corrthaine officials or the Niwl ambassadors. Do you know why that may be? Is it possible Lord Joran’s plot involved confining them to the Capitol to control Niwl royalty?”
     “He told me little, only what I needed to know to fulfill the orders given me. Truthfully, I do not understand why he sent me with you all when he could have easily commanded someone else. He understood the dangers of my appearing in Tir O Niwl,” he sighed and stretched out his legs, leaning back on his elbows. “Holding hostage the Niwls would betray the accords agreed upon in the peace treaty; its youth weakens it already, and Lord Joran would not jeopardize it further. Nay, more likely, something happened to keep them there.”
     “The death of a knight?” she implied Sir Rupert.
      His face turned into the shadows. “The death of a king. Or the rapid ailing of one at least. With the prince presumed dead and the princess disappeared, the crown and rule falls-”
      “To the lord possessing the majority of the court’s support,” she finished. “My grandfather was a mercenary. People feared him and swore their allegiance to him when he conquered. But even fear can be swayed and won through a snake with a silver tongue.”
      “Aye. Lord Joran rallied supporters among other lords and peoples in lesser positions of power often overlooked by King Fendral, each with warriors in reserve to back him.”
      “Why him? Why Lord Joran?”
      “You read the legend. I only saw it myself a short time ago,” replied Flynn with a hint of smugness. “You will understand without my telling you.”
      Chewing on her lip in concentration, her fingers twisting rapidly in her hands, Catrain mulled for a time before her eyes widened and her jaw slackened. “How did I fail to see that before?” she berated herself for her blindness. Of all the puzzle pieces she overlooked, that proved the most vital to completing the picture.
      “Mayhap you saw, but tried to understand the landscape rather than observe the flicker of a flame burning a blade of grass.”
      “What of Corrthaine?” she asked, her tongue thick and her mouth suddenly dry. “My people. My home.”
      “Speak with Morfael,” Flynn suggested, sitting upright once again with renewed interest. “Tell him the truth, or as much as you deem necessary. He may be a reeking rat, but I believe that he will grasp the gravity of the situation at hand, and once he opens his eyes, he may be willing to aid us.” Flynn shrugged. “As king he answers to the people of his country, therefore he is duty bound to seek their best interests.”
      “About Lord Joran,” she said, pulling a quill, inkwell, and parchment from the satchel draped around her shoulders.
       Flynn eyed them, asking, “What will you have me do?”
       Inhaling deeply, she replied, “Compose a letter to Lord Joran. Explain to him all that transpired during your journey with us. Omit nothing, save our conversations and plans.” She slid the items between the bars, holding them out until Flynn reached for them, lay them on the floor, and brushed damp straw over them. “I intended to bring them this morning. Eoin accompanying me was an unforeseen delay.
      “Tell Lord Joran in what direction we travel—west toward Talahm Glas—he studied the maps, yes?” she waited for him to confirm her presumption before continuing, “he will no doubt send a small force to track our progress from here, is that not what he commanded years ago? A force to slay the dissenters among the groups or reinforce the loyalty of those under his control. On horseback, the journey should not take them long.”
      “Less than a week behind us, by my estimation. To where do we voyage?”
      “To one of the locations drawn on the map, although to complete it, I will require your copy.”
      Flynn heaved a great sigh, “Which you shall have once I reacquire my sword. Be careful. You underestimate Morfael’s cunning. He laces spies in every village, every town, who report back to him everything they see and hear.”
      A dark brow quirked upward. “As you yourself laced spies to observe and report Sir Reuben’s movements?” Color drained from his already ghostly face, and she sat back, smugly satisfied with his astonishment and his momentary panic. “Alas, even I know not what the maps hide, so I doubt Morfael’s dimwitted, ale-sodden fools who listen for coins-” she paused for a breath as Flynn smirked “-will achieve much more. I have suspicions, formed through whispers, but…” her voice trailed off, her gaze growing unfocused as her sight turned inward. “I will return at dawn to retrieve the letter and send it when you finished.”
      “What then?” he asked turning his back to her. Then dipping the quill in the inkwell, he began to scratch the nib along the surface of the parchment, leaving scrawling black letters in its trail that, when wet, shone silver in the sunlight before drying. “You play a dangerous game, one filled with uncertain wagers. If plans go awry, and trust me- they will, what price are you prepared to pay in recompense?”
      She shrugged, indicating that, while she considered the various outcomes, she forgot to weigh the cost. Swallowing, she said, “You play your role, Flynn, and I shall play mine.”
      “And what part is that?”
      “The part I’ve played since my childhood when I began to see things not as how they appeared, but as how they were. I trust you. Betray me,” she added, lacing her tone with steel, “and you will rue that day for eternity. I shall not kill you, but neither will I prevent your death.”
      “I would expect nothing less,” the scratch of the nib paused. “Your trust I hold in the highest regard. I understand you give it not without careful consideration.”
      Catrain nodded curtly, “Until the morning.” Pivoting on her barefooted heel, she strode away, the distant scratching of the quill echoing faintly in her ears.

      “Wherever did you slip away to?”
      Catrain whirled around, her hand flying to her plait and swinging down again, a long hairpin clutched fast in her grip, and hissed when Eoin emerged from the concaved portion of the corridor wall that marked a door.
      Eoin’s eyes focused on the bone hairpin and widened. “They allowed you that?”
     “They provided me with it.” She slid it back into her hair, wincing as the sharp point scraped across her scalp. “Kind, was it not?”
      “Foolish on their behalf, beneficial on ours. Kind, however, even I recognize as a stretch of the truth.”
      She glared, her green eyes catching the light streaming through the iron grate window in the perfect angle that it appeared they glowed, igniting feline ferocity that contrasted with the fairness of her skin and the rich brown of her hair. The image stole his breath away, for standing there, she resembled not a human but one of the faerie folk of legends that enrichened his country’s culture.
     Noticing his lingering gaze, Catrain stepped away as in the heavens, a cloud drifted over the sun and the light vanished from her eyes, breaking the enchantment. She turned completely and walked to her chamber, more to prevent him from spying the dark red that flushed her cheeks than to enter them.
     “Forgive me,” apologized Eoin when he realized how uncomfortable she became. “My intention was not to… Cat,” he reached out and laid a hand on her arm as she paused to fumble with the latch. At his touch, she flinched and bit her lower lip, and he withdrew.
     Clearing her throat, she said, “Eoin, do you trust me?”
     Taken aback by the abrupt query, he paused. “Aye.”
     “If I requested your support, do I have it?”
      “Always,” he replied, void of hesitation. “Is this about where you vanished to? And about your conversation with Flynn this morning?”
      She lowered her voice barely above the hum of a whisper. “I sought Flynn’s counsel on a matter and he suggested we tell Morfael the truth. Part of it, at least.”
     “Which part? I do not know it all, Cat. Do you not trust me with the truth?”
     “I do, but I fear the burden will harm you.”
     “Harm me? I-”
      “No, not harm you…” her fingers flew together, knitting and unknitting themselves in her anxiety. “…change you. This is where I need you to aid me and convince the others so we may determine, as a whole, what we disclose to the king. Will you do that?”
      “Aye, but why not you?”
     “You speak more convincingly than I.”
      “You convinced me to address them.”
      “One person,” she said flatly, “not a group. You asked to be included this morning…” she trailed off, effectively transferring his attention from her to himself.
      Eoin stared at her, and she resisted the urge to wither beneath his keen scrutiny. At long last, a boyish grin split his lips and he agreed, adding over his shoulder as he walked away, “But I shall not be the one to stand before King Morfael!”
      Smiling, she called back, “Nay, that responsibility we defer to another!”
     “Allow me one inquiry for the sake of clarity,” Oliver ceased pacing across the width of Skandar’s chambers, his composure slipping, slightly ruffled in his attempt to understand the proposition Eoin presented to their gathered group. “Morfael is to be told what we collectively know? That is not much.”
      “With embellishments, it will be adequate,” Catrain assured.
     “Adequate? Embellishments, Cat?” Oliver and Muriel spoke over one another.
     “Fine then,” Catrain resolved, “no embellishments. The truth in its roughest form.” She strode swiftly from one side of the room to the other, and stopped beside Muriel, her skirts swishing.
      Muttering to herself, Muriel glanced at the floor and then frowned. “Cat, are you barefoot?”
      “Catrain Garrendaughter!”
      Eoin hid his snicker behind his sleeve.
      Skandar, who had grown restless lying in bed, sat leaning against a pile of pillows stacked beside him with his legs hanging over the side of the bed. The meager effort strained him, proving enough to produce a sheen of sweat on his pallid face. Nonetheless, he spoke hoarsely in the following silence. “I concur with Cat. It is our only option to avoid further detainment and continue on our quest.”
     “The truth frees us from bondage,” Aidan mused aloud, the first he uttered in a long while. “We prayed to the True King to reveal to us a way out. Mayhap this is it.”
      Simultaneously, the two undecided members sighed, defeated.
      “We tell him,” said Muriel. Oliver sidled to her and dropped his folded arms.
      “And Oliver is our designated speaker,” Eoin announced jovially.
      Oliver’s eyes bulged. “I think not!” he sputtered. “This is Cat’s plan and therefore, ‘tis only fair she present it to the king.”
      “Correction,” Catrain raised her first finger in the air. “It was Flynn’s idea, and he currently sits in the dungeon. You by far are the best orator among us.”
      Flashing a dark glare, Oliver jutted out his jaw in her direction, “There are times when I detest the tutoring my father forced me to suffer.”
       “And there are times when you appreciate it?”
       He jerked his head to the side and scrunched his face, as though the admonishment left a bitter taste in his mouth. “Occasionally. I see a particularly blazing problem, though.”
        “And what, pray, might that be?”
        “None of us here collectively shared anything with another worth mentioning to the king to clear us and prompt him to release us from here, other than my paternal lineage.”
       Everyone in the room found sudden immense interest in drab details- the reflection in the metal water pitcher, the cracks and veins webbing through the floor stones, the birds dancing in the sky outside the window; none forthcoming in their reasons, no one willing to break the uncomfortable silence until Eoin piped up:
        “I came for adventure. A quest on which no one succeeded? Cursed, says some. Ill-fated say others. I thought it fascinating, more than sitting around the confines of the castle and endless training. There,” he leaned back, resting his shoulders against the wall, “I yield to you my reason.”
        Aidan followed, “I came to watch over that one,” he pointed to his brother, “and to return to my homeland if the True King wills it.”
       “I came to support my friend,” said Muriel, looking to Skandar, and then to Eoin, “And because I also craved adventure.”
       “To end my father’s tyranny and bring about his downfall.”
       “I seek vengeance,” confessed Skandar, “And I seek my father or in the least, I wish to uncover his remains. I quest for the Sword Bródúil, with which King Fendral and Lord Joran will pay for their treachery and the ruin they brought upon Corrthaine,” Skandar fairly growled the end through gritted teeth.
       Then after a long pause, Catrain, the final to admit her purpose, said softly, “I came to right the error done by my grandfather, and to fulfill that mission bequeathed to me by my father.”
       Another silence, and Oliver crossed his legs and lowered himself to the floor, understanding that no short time would pass before they puzzled out the entirety of their story, and he entertained no intention to endure that time standing. “Right then. Let’s begin, shall we?”
       With that, they circled around and discussed in detail their journey thus far, talking until their stomachs clawed at their bellies with hunger and the light through the window dimmed. At last, they settled back, satisfied, when a knock sounded on the door and Alasdair entered, flanked by several maids carrying trays with platters and bowls. The heavy aroma of roasted meat and the earthy scent of baked bread filled the room, and mouths watered as they breathed deeply and savored the various smells.
       “King Morfael thought you might wish to take the evening meal in your chambers, seeing as you neglected to appear in the Hall,” noted the physician with some disdain.
       “We beg his forgiveness and hope he understands that we had urgent matters to review now that Skandar is returned,” said Oliver cordially, slipping back into his role as the son of Lord Joran, although with less arrogance than when in the presence of the king.
       Nodding, Alasdair directed the serving girls to deposit the food items on the bedside table before he conducted a brief examination of Skandar, declared him well enough to manage solid foods, and promised to return in the morning before he and the two women departed.
       The minute they were alone, Muriel set about carving slices of venison from the platter and laying them on plates along with brown rolls, distributing them to each member of the group before sitting down herself to eat.
       Skandar’s hands shook as he raised the bread to his lips, and he silently thanked the cooks for not sending up something such as soup or broth. After he first awoke, the physician coaxed him to swallow simple broth, feeding Skandar who, in his befuddled state, could tell neither the handle of the spoon from the utensil’s bowl and would have succeeded in sloshing the broth all over himself. Even now, while regained most of his motor abilities, his shoulder ached acutely and caused his entire arm to quiver.
       The door flew open, cracking against the stones; the abrupt sound echoed long after everyone in the room snapped to attention, startled. Their mouths dropped at the sight of the figure standing in the doorway. All but Skandar staggered to their feet.
       Morfael entered, cloak billowing behind him, his head lifted proudly, brow sloping over eyes that passed over them with condescending authority. Aidan and Eoin bowed while Muriel and Catrain curtsied; Oliver, assuming his façade, dipped his head, as did Skandar, unable to display more reverence from his position on the bed. But he managed a nervous smile, and awaited the young king to address them.
       Sweeping the folds of his cloak over his squared shoulder, expression grave in the dying light and the scar along his brow adding a ferocity to his composure, Morfael announced, his words forced, “I hope you find your meal adequate.”
        He paused, and silence ensued. If Skandar listened carefully, he heard the dull clang of swords and the thwack of arrows from a distant training field, and he longed to join them, not dally any longer in a cramped chamber. On with it, he urged, sensing his energy draining as the seconds passed.
       Clearing his throat, Morfael continued, “After much consideration, and at the request of my sister, I decided to release your final companion.” Turning to the door, he waved his hand and ushered in a man lingering outside. Skandar’s blood boiled as he recognized the tall frame of Flynn limping inside.
       Flynn halted just inside, hesitated, and swayed as though intending to retreat back into the corridor as an uncomfortable and nearly tangible chill swept through the air. 
       A sly twitch tugged at Morfael’s smug lips as he surveyed the expressions of those in the room. The younger two men, the brothers, he thought, looked indifferent; the vain Joranson appeared truly shocked, as did his betrothed. The recovering man with the curiously colored hair seethed and ire glinted in his black eyes. The serving girl amused him, however, as she appeared neither shocked nor indifferent, rather half-amused and pleased and with a coldness seeping into his chest, deep-seeded fear, he wondered if she also lived beneath the thumb of Lord Joran.
His son, his son’s betrothed, his lieutenant and assassin, and a meager handful of guards. Theirs was no ordinary quest, to be certain. Swallowing hard, Morfael maintained his composure, forcing himself to remain hardened and unafraid. His concerns fled to his family—his sister, his wife, and his sons, mere infants. Did the visitors intend to usurp his throne by regicide?
Their stares unnerved him; tension thickened in the air and his throat tightened as he fought the urge to flee from his own guests, in his own castle. He released Flynn. Surely he proved his loyalty; surely Lord Joran would dismiss him as a threat and spare his family. He swallowed again, and without further reflection, nodded and strode regally from the room.
      Flynn remained long enough to meet Catrain’s eyes and tap his vest, still splattered with mud and blood from traveling and yet to be washed, before he, too, departed and wandered to his own personal chambers, guards not two steps from his heels. 
      When the knight was gone, Skandar gawked at his companions. They all shared the same bewilderment as him, all questioning to themselves what incited that change of mind, and each answering the silent query with a single name. Then he yawned. His hunger satiated, he suddenly felt the weight of exhaustion bearing down upon him as the flame of rage at the sight of Flynn flickered and snuffed out, and his eyelids drooped. Serving girls appeared and gathered up the supper items as Catrain and the brothers excused themselves for the night.
Swaying, he leaned back against the pillows, barely aware of the rustle of movement around him until Muriel lifted the bowl from his hands, saying, “You seem quite finished, Skandar, not to mention spent. We kept you longer than we should.”
“Nay, forgive me,” he replied, his words slurring together as though his tongue were weighted, “I make poor company. Perhaps tomorrow I shall act more myself.”
Muriel smiled and squeezed his hand affectionately, her fingers cool against his skin. “Sleep well, Skandar. If you need anything, hesitate not to call, regardless of hour.”
“Thank you,” he said, allowing his eyelids to fall shut. To his ears came the faint click of the latch as Muriel closed the window, and the thin membrane of his lids darkened from red to gray as Oliver extinguished the main torch, leaving a candle burning in the holder on the bedside table.
“Good night,” whispered Muriel from the doorway. “May the True King bless you, Skandar.”
Once outside, Muriel slipped her arm through Oliver’s elbow, resting her head against his shoulder. “’Tis been an odd day,” she murmured.
“Odd indeed,” agreed Oliver, kissing the top of her hair. “For a moment earlier this morning I feared Morfael would strike me. I was almost astonished when he didn’t. Then he releases Flynn.” Oliver sighed and massaged the back of his neck. “I don’t like acting this way. I worry that…” he trailed off. They stopped outside Muriel’s room and she circled around to face him.
       “You worry that acting like your father, while temporary, will change you, will turn you into him,” Muriel finished, voicing what he could not. With tender affection, she wove her fingers through his and squeezed his hand tightly.
Oliver gazed at her with burning desire before he threw propriety aside, encircled his arm around her waist and pulled close, pressing her against him in a tight caress. Her head nestled into his neck, and he stroked her thick black tresses that hung in loose curls below her waist.
“I love you, Oliver. You. I know to whom my heart runs, and it knows the truth,” she whispered tenderly and brushed her lips against his sparsely stubbled jaw. Pulling away, she cupped his face; he leaned into her delicate, but calloused palm. “Sir Oliver of the Silver Axe.”
“Silver Axe?”
She smiled shyly, “I thought it befitting. More so than Joranson.”
“And you, milady? Will you take this Silver Axe as your husband?”
“I gave you my answer once and I shall not revoke it.”
Heart gladdened, Oliver embraced her once more and bade her good night as they parted ways, she entering into her chambers and he into his, each pining for their reunion come dawn and dreading it, for soon after that, they must face Morfael with the truth.

Skandar awoke to a sound outside his chambers.
The room was dark, save a candle, little more than a lump of wax pooling around the candlestick, burned on the bedside table. He lay prone, listening, unsure whether he dreamed the noise or not. Curiosity besting him, he slid off the bed and onto the floor, the stones cold against his hands and knees as he crawled, following the hazy glow of the grate in the wall. Dropping onto his belly, he pressed his temple to the floor and peered through the iron crossbars to the exterior passage where a figure moved.
She stood with her back to him; her hair hung loose to her middle back, and she wore a dressing gown, her bare feet dampening all sound as she walked. Catrain.
She stopped before the door to the chamber facing his. Softly, she rapped on the door facing his, then knocked again when no one answered.
After a long silence following the second knock, she detected the pad of footsteps hurrying toward the door, then the turn of the lock, and she stepped back as it swung inward.
Flynn, pale and bedraggled for want of sleep, stared at her foggily, violet circles rimming his eyes. He heaved an exasperated sigh, folded his arms, and then accompanied her in the hall, but not before sweeping it up and down for movement in the curtains of shadows covering the walls. “’Tis the middle of the night, Catrain,” he grumbled crossly, “Careful or people may talk. Tongues in every castle fly when fed a rumor or other nonsense, and this one provides no exception.”
“I apologize for the hour, but I had a question for which I required an answer.”
“I will fetch the letter,” he made to reenter the room, but she stopped him.
“Later,” she continued. “You said your father was nobility, yet your mother worked here as a maid regardless of the papers of credibility he sent with you. After promising to join you and her in Tir O Niwl, he did not, nor did he send for you to return when the plague passed.”
“Kate-” he cast a shifting glance toward the guards stationed at the mouth of the corridor.
“You and Magge lived as commoners, starving during the winter with, as you claimed, no position to your name.”
Magge? thought Skandar, utterly confused. He never heard the name mentioned before.
“You knew Lord Joran would provide you with protection and position in Corrthaine. I know Lord Joran, mayhap not as well as you, but for him to act so welcomingly toward a stranger contradicts everything of his character.”
 “Princess,” Flynn hissed, reverting to her title to gain her attention.
In response, she shot him an indignant glare and continued bluntly, “Who was your father, Flynn?”
Expression dark, emphasized greater by the sleepless shadows and bruises in the valleys of his face, Flynn leaned forward, hissing, “Not Lord Joran if you imply that.”
“In that case, who are you?”
His lips curled into semblance of a snarl as he replied, “I am nobody. Goodnight.” Abruptly, he backed inside his chambers and closed the door, leaving her to continue puzzling in the hallway, their conversation unheard by anyone save Skandar.
She sides with him, he thought, unable to banish the malicious doubts from his head, recalling the phantom Flynn from his fevered dream. His heart pounded with memory of the fight; he opened and closed his fist around an invisible sword, envisioning Bródúil in his grasp, the sword’s power flowing through his veins. On trembling hands and knees, his strength yet to fully return, he crawled to the side of his bed; the distance short, but to his weakened perception, he may as well crawl the breadth of the Capitol’s vast training field. Once again lying among the feather pillows and thick blankets, he mused angrily, “If the princess sides with him, who else will she rally to them? Aidan and Eoin? Muriel?” Not Oliver. “Nay, his disputes with Flynn ensure his loyalty, and with him, Muriel. Cat and Flynn intend to steal Bródúil. Why else would they whisper at night? They desire it for themselves. They seek to gain its power. She has legitimate claim to the throne, but Flynn… that is why she concerns herself with his parentage. He either poses a threat or an ally to her.” He balled the sheets in his fist until his fingers ached and then numbed. “They cannot steal it from me.” His breathing stilled as an ominous calm crept from the shadows and filled him, allowing his focus to narrow to a point. “Bródúil is mine.”
            Quieting his mind with his resolution, Skandar retreated into the realm of dream and mist. 

Comments are always appreciated, even if it's something as simple as "oh hey, I like this character" or "oh no" or "I can't believe this happened" or even the frantic "what are you doing???" 
As a writer, it's fun to read people's reactions and thoughts about my creations.
So please comment if you feel inclined!
You all are amazing, and I cannot thank you enough for reading.
God bless,

Sunday, August 21, 2016

My Testimony

Tonight I want to do something different. I want to tell you a story. My story.

I don't quite understand why. I've never bared my soul to anyone; not even my closest friends. Only two people know the story I tell you: myself and God.

But I want to share this with you now, a calling perhaps, a prompting that nudged me for a while. Until tonight I've been a coward. I don't wish people to get too close. I don't want them to look at me differently or with pity in their eyes. I"m sure some, if not all of you understand. My story isn't a grand redemption. But I share it with you with the hope that you will read it and be encouraged about the might, grace, and love my God abounds with.

It began one night at supper with a bowl of macaroni and cheese. I was five months shy of my fifth birthday. Throughout my life, my parents brought me to church where I attended Sunday School; Wednesday mornings I accompanied my mom to Bible study. At both, I learned about Jesus sacrificing himself to redeem us from sin and about his resurrection. That night, as I sat at the dinner table over my bowl of mac&cheese, the pieces suddenly clicked in my tiny brain.
I remember bursting into tears and when my mom asked what was wrong, I told her that I couldn't fathom why someone would go to such lengths to hurt someone else, or why someone would desire to endure such pain. She explained to me the reason, and I accepted Christ into my heart that night, praying to accept his salvation. I also told my mom that I never wanted to intentionally hurt anyone. That statement, however simple, lingers on, a shadow behind me at all times that has grown into another thing. More on that later.

The years passed, and I regularly attended church throughout elementary school, middle school, and into high school; I participated in church choir (and the mission trips they included) and acted as many believe Christians should. I learned. Heaven knows I learned, but I never delved deep into my faith as I grew older. I learned, yes, but I never studied. Sure, I read my Bible on a regular basis, but more to mark a check off my daily list rather than because I possessed a hunger and desire to read.

Trouble began my sophomore year of high school. As classes and homework piled up, I frequented the pages of my Bible less and less until finally I stopped reading it save Sunday at church. Then stress hit and with it, depression. And I fell deep. I've never been good with emotions; I bottle them up until the dam bursts and all that I pent up washes over me in a tidal wave of anger and rage because I lost control. Sometimes it would strike and I would be doubled over, unable to breathe because the pain stole the air from my lungs. I retreated inward; not outward to God. I thought that, in time, I would learn to control the depression, rule over it instead of the other way around. Needless to say, I've always struggled with control issues, a battle I fight even today and probably will over the course of my life.
Eventually my mom and I analyzed what I was feeling, a process that took months (yeah, I'm that bad as deciphering feelings), and as the school year ended, so did my problems. Or so I thought...

...when out of the blue my first full-fledged panic attack happened. Over the last two years I've learned somewhat to recognize my triggers, but again, I believe that's God reinforcing the notion that I cannot control everything. Depression came and went in waves. It still does. During the summer months I read my Bible consistently and through the process of familiarizing myself with the symptoms of anxiety and depression, I prayed the words "Okay, God, I 'trust' you," more times than I care to count. I write 'trust' because I trusted God in words only. Never once did I relinquish control of my life to Him entirely.

Senior year. Not even twelve months ago. You've arrived at the part that only a couple people know bits and pieces of, and what only God and I know.

Looking back, I realize how blessed I am to have been raised by my parents, to have the people in my life I do, and to have the church and mentors that surrounded me with the unfailing love of Christ during this particular period of time. It was only a short time ago that I came to the chilling realization that, had I not been a Christian, I could very well be in a wooden box buried six feet under, having committed suicide. Even as a Christian, I contemplated the outcome. But I believe that God values all lives. And I knew I couldn't pass the burden of my death onto my family. I couldn't hurt them. I couldn't. To my parents reading this now- please know that I'm sorry. This was never your fault.

Again, I sidelined my Bible and it sat, collecting dust on my shelf. Dealing with depression for over a year provided insights about means to hide the pain. And hiding it, I excelled at. I wore a mask, became the happy Christian teenage girl people expected me to be. But inside, it felt as though someone hollowed out my chest, leaving a cavity filled with pain and anger.

I cut in such a way that, if someone noticed and pointed it out, I blamed it on playing with our cats. I cut beneath the band of my watch, leaving it to conceal the scars. I also cut along those scars to cover up the number. I didn't want my parents to share my burden, my pain.

This summer, on a mission trip, one of the adults accompanying my group, sponsors, we call them, shared her testimony and it convicted me. Again, I'm horrible with emotions and never cry when in a group environment. But I cried. I sat in the corner against a wall and cried. My heart broke, and later when our group dispersed, I confessed most of what I'm telling you now to my mom.

I also rededicated my life to Christ.

That was June.

Since then, God has come through in more ways than I can name, but I'll list the most frequent one. I prayed about finding a small group in which to study and grow in my faith; out of the blue a dear friend, a brother of mine, invited me to attend his. Last Monday we switched some things up. Our group leader decided to send us out onto the streets and evangelize. Suddenly singing to inmates in juvenile detention centers seemed easy, preferable, in fact, to talking to a complete stranger about my faith.
I prayed the entire drive to the leader's house, pleading with God to tame my anxiety and to provide me with a small group alongside at least two of the three people in the main group whom I'm comfortable with. And He did.
At the restaurant, the three guys I was with began conversations with several diners, leaving me to scope out the room, reluctant to venture outside my comfort zone. On one of my sweeps, my eyes fell upon a middle-aged woman, and I felt a slight nudge in my heart, to which I immediately answered "nah." Another sweep, and the nudge returned, harder. Again, I thought, "nah." A third time, and the nudge practically shoved me out of my chair. The conversation with the woman was actually quite encouraging. Prior to that evening, I dreaded conversing with people, especially concerning my faith, but God is faithful and never ceases to work wonders. I won't delve into further details, and what I said probably passes for rambles, but it's important to the next event.

Through Tuesday I floated on what I call a Jesus-high. It was as though I stood atop a mountain, close to God. Then before I knew it, I found myself lying in a crumpled heap on the pavement with no memory of falling.

Depression sucks.

Thursday it struck, and then I recognized a pattern: Confusion-> frustration-> fear-> anger. Confusion that my plans and God's plans conflicted; frustration because I prayed over them, so why shouldn't they line up? Fear because events appeared to spiral out of my control. Anger as a result of the mixed emotions I was clueless to direct or diffuse. All summer I've sought to retain control over circumstances in my personal life; that struggle with God causes pain. I know that battle I will fight for the remaining time I have left on this earth, but I've tried to resign myself with the peace of Jeremiah 29:11, which says "'For I know the plans I have for you,' declares the Lord. 'Plans to prosper you, and not to harm you. Plans to give you hope and a future.'"

I still endure bouts of pain and depression. But it's aided in how I relate to other people.
Part of how my anxiety and sensory sensitivity works is that I'm almost fine-tuned to analyze behavior and recognize subtle changes in body language, facial expressions, tones of speech, etc. (the downside of which this means problems due to my tendency to over-think nearly every memory and situation that occurred throughout any given day). But in regards to the people I care about, I deeply and genuinely care about them. A lot. I loathe seeing someone else hurting and feeling helpless to ease their pain. God answers prayer. He doesn't wish his children to suffer.

For those of you whom I know personally, if I ask you often whether you're all right or not, it isn't because I wish to pry into your private life. It isn't because I'm trying to flirt (or however else I may come across). It's because I care and am concerned about you- more than I'm inclined to openly display.

I apologize if I rambled a bit through this post. It's late here and I'm quite tired, but I knew I would be unable to rest until I shared what lay on my mind and heart. It is my prayer that my testimony is encouraging to those of you who may be struggling, and those of you who are not. I've bared my soul tonight, an uncomfortable and terrifying feeling, I admit, but God is greater than my fear and He works in ways I cannot begin to comprehend.

I wish you all a good night. May God bless you,

Thursday, July 14, 2016

The Mark of the King: Chapter Twenty-Five

As atonement for dropping out of the blog world for several months, here is an extra long chapter.
I've been working on writing The Mark of the King with the hopes of finishing the rough draft by summer's end. Unfortunately going back and typing up what I had previously written wasn't
a main priority for a while, but when I changed my calendar to July, I realized that more time passed than I thought. Oops.
Without further excuses (and time)...

Time transpired slowly within the mist-shrouded realm, so slowly Skandar believed a snail might outpace it. Minutes elapsed into hours, and hours into days, during which he wandered aimlessly, following whatever whim he fancied in the moment of its birth.
Mist warped and rolled around his legs, swirling whenever he stepped. He drifted to the precipice and leaned out over the edge, watching as the fog wafted and tumbled over it and cascaded into the unfathomable abyss. For countless miles he strolled beside it, balancing over the rim, never once fearing the fall with the might of Bródúil in his hand. The phantom sword gleamed in the starless, eternal night, appearing to emanate a light of its own that cast a spectral glow across his arms.
Bored of walking, Skandar veered away from the cliff and meandered inland, wondering why his newest idea never occurred to him before. “How long since I last practiced with a sword?” Vague memories, like those from a distant dream, flickered before him in the whirling shapes created by the mist; first a castle and soldiers performing combat exercises in an open field. Skandar stopped as the memories materialized around him. Then they disintegrated before winding together and growing skyward, forming the trunks and branches of skeletal trees and between them, the hazy outline of six horses and riders. Those, too, blew apart when touched by the tendrils of an icy breeze.
As he began to turn away, the mist converged again and adopted the appearance of his parents. Skandar inhaled sharply, blinking, certain his eyes betrayed him. But there they stood, side by side, although paler, sharper imitations of the living, breathing people he remembered. From behind them, a toddler emerged, brandishing a stick and stabbing the curls of fog before running into the embrace of the mist and toddling out of sight.
Edmund slid to Sybbyl’s side and slipped a wraith-like hand around her waist. Lifting his head, he stared at the elder Skandar, his gaze cold and unnatural in its ferocity. His lips twisted into a smile that was eerie in its imitated warmth before he vanished.
“No!” Skandar cried and dropped Bródúil, the exclamation echoing through the ethereal stillness of the plain, and lunged after him. His fingers encountered only air. Dismayed, he reached out for his mother, but his hand passed through her. He recoiled. Sybbyl raised her arm and her misty hand traced his jaw, her mouth moving as though trying to speak. Despite the muteness of her voice, Skandar understood, by something in her expression, a sense of urgency, that she meant to plea with him. Before she finished her sentence, her apparition billowed and sank into the earth as the foggy sea claimed her.
Shuffling back to where the spectral sword floated six inches above the plutonian ground, he bent and grabbed the hilt with both hands. “Bródúil or my family,” he decided aloud, appalled at his apathy at losing his mother yet again and his desire for the weapon. “I cannot gain one without losing the other.” Eyeing the weapon held in his clammy grip, he memorized the way the flawless blade refracted its own ethereal light, the dyed leather binding the hilt soft against his palms.
Skandar observed the barren plain around him and announced, “Here is as good a location as any.”
Slowly and in a controlled, methodical manner, he rehearsed every combat position and variation he recalled from the fading tendrils of the memories granted him by the visions. He held each until his muscles ached, and then moved on to the next consecutive pose. As he exercised control over the foreign blade, he began combining defensive and offensive patterns, and, as his phantom younger self had done minutes—or were they hours? —before, began battling invisible foes. His imagination seized control and he progressed, faster and faster, his feet flying over the flat ground, and Bródúil slicing through the air in frenzied motion.
Panting, he stopped. “This is all well and good,” he said into the mist, awaiting the answer of the disembodied voice that often called to him in his dreams, “however, would not my skills be better tested against an opponent?”
Skandar walked in a slow circle, awaiting a response from the void.
Out of the mist flew the figure of a person. Black hair floated around his shoulders, glowering eyes blazed through the darkness above a pointed nose. He barreled toward Skandar, his arms upraised and a sword gripped in his gloved hands.
He swung, the blade arching down toward Skandar’s head. Skandar whipped his sword around and parried the impending blow, surprised when Bródúil quivered as it absorbed the strike. Skandar expected his opponent’s sword to disintegrate, the same as the other apparitions, but instead it felt solid.
Barely had he recovered before the phantom knight struck again, first at his chest, then spun around and jabbed at his neck. Skandar blocked the first, his arm wrenched by the unbridled strength of the knight. The second he dodged, ducking low and rolling to the side. But the knight was ready, tossing his black hair out of his face while Skandar stood upright and began to circle.
Skandar’s eyes narrowed. Even though created by the writhing mist, the knight was unmistakably Flynn, sneering at him out of the darkness. As Skandar continued to shift around him with deliberate steps, his eyes roved over Flynn, searching for a vulnerable point at which to focus his assault. When his cold stare met Flynn’s, Skandar stumbled, his knees suddenly shaky beneath his weight. It was Flynn, that he knew beyond a doubt. Only instead of the ice blue, the knight’s eyes burned molten silver, penetrating the engulfing blackness.
“How?” he choked, blinking rapidly, his sight and memory vying for truth.
His attention broken and his blood pumping ice though his limbs, Skandar fought to regain his footing before Flynn lunged, but the knight was already in motion, hacking at Skandar’s left arm, his weaker limb.
Again and again, Skandar blocked and parried one attack after another, mind and body growing increasingly weak as he shuffled away from the onslaught. Once he moved too slowly, and the icy bite of a blade bit into his shoulder, the tugging sensation familiar yet distant, a memory from another life. Ire burned hot and he howled in both pain and rage. Skandar leapt forward stabbing at Flynn as he advanced, turning the tables in their duel.
He slashed at Flynn’s leg, slitting open the knight’s calf as he turned to greet a blow that never landed. Skandar snarled, pleased with the feint. Flynn shrank back, careful to keep his injured leg behind him.
Force him to place his weight on it, Skandar thought, knowing that by doing so would upset Flynn’s compromised balance. He jabbed at Flynn’s torso, his chest. Frustration grew as the knight, although injured, refused to allow Bródúil to land. Metallic peals rang out across the empty expanse every time the blades met in lethal dance.
An idea presented itself in Skandar’s thoughts. It may succeed… he thought, ignoring the dangers. I cannot die here, he reasoned, and implemented his plan.
He struck wide, to the side of Flynn’s head. As anticipated, Flynn reached to block it, extending his arm out, exposing his chest. In blind desperation, Skandar pulled back his sword, threw himself forward, spinning around just before colliding with Flynn. With a savage bellow, he cocked his elbow and slammed Bródúil’s pommel into Flynn’s face. Flynn’s head jerked back with a snap and he fell over backwards; his sword dropped to the ground where it vanished into the swirls of mist.
Black blood poured from Flynn’s nose, but the shadow knight paid it no mind. He knelt in submission before Skandar, who prepared to finish their duel with a lethal sweep of Bródúil. But as he swung back, the sword vanished from his hands, leaving him gripping only air between his fingers. Bewildered, he whirled about, searching for it.
When he looked to Flynn, his jaw hung agape as the tip of a sword burst through the kneeling knight’s heart, black blood coating the point and oozing from the wound. Skandar need not see the entire sword to know the slim tip as belonging to Bródúil. Flynn disappeared into a cloud of vapors, revealing another figure standing behind him, tall and ghostly pale, a crown resting upon white-blond hair. Lord Joran. His thin lips twisted into a cruel imitation of a smile before he, too, began disintegrating. The silver orbs of his eyes were the final things to disappear, staring hollowly, burning though the vapors and into Skandar’s troubled soul. Bródúil floated to the mist, hovering above the obscured ground. Skandar stared, fixated on it, paralyzed save his hands, which quivered with fear.
“What does this mean?” he cried, his chest and shoulders heaving with every ragged breath. “Why silver? Both Flynn and Lord Joran. What are you telling me?” Tendrils of warmth seeped into his limbs, rendering him able to move. He paced, his mind a deluge of unanswered questions laid out like a labyrinth, each one leading deeper and deeper into confusion and despondency.
            Then the wind raged. Mist swirled in a cocoon around him, pressing in on all sides. Skandar rooted himself to the ground, screaming, pressing his palms to his ears to dampen the deafening shriek. Despite his efforts, it wormed its way between his fingers, penetrating and stabbing. Tears welled in his eyes, stinging, burning, and he collapsed onto his knees, his forehead pressed to the ground.
            A wailing scream tore from his throat, but the howling gale stole it away, rendering him breathless. His screams died, leaving him alone.

            Muriel awoke to the slamming of a door and the rapid scuffle of footsteps proceeding hastily down the corridor. Shadows shrouded her chamber. Dawn had yet to paint the sky with morning colors.
            A scream echoed through the room, entering through the grate that glowed faintly, pale orange from the light of a passing candle in the hall outside. She sat upright, shoving off the blankets that warded off the damp chill and shivered when cool drafts shifted through her nightdress. Fighting the urge to sink beneath the blankets and lose herself in the warmth of the bed, she slid her legs over the side and glided soundlessly toward the door.
On the way, she lifted a thick robe from where it lay across a carved trunk at the foot of the bed, and wrapped it around her, the material soft and comforting. To her delight, she discovered the latch unlocked. Opening it, she poked her head through the crack and into the hall.         
From around the corner of the entrance to the corridor, a portly gentleman emerged carrying a small box in one hand and a flickering candle in another, umber robes flapping wildly behind him. The two guards nodding off at their posts stirred as he passed, but he paid no mind to them or Muriel, continuing past all three before throwing open a chamber door. It banged against the stone wall before closing shut behind him, echoing the sound that first woke her.
            Skandar’s room, she realized, and she shivered as cold numbed her body, cast not by any draft, but by dread. She slipped outside and trotted after him, jiggling the handle and pushing the door ajar.
            The scene inside halted her at the threshold.
            Four torches burned in brackets fastened to each wall, their smoke drifting through the open window. The gentleman in brown robes bustled back and forth across the chamber, muttering to himself. Sweat poured down his face and his gray-flecked beard bristled wildly, as though he had risen from bed without any time to groom.
            “Who are you and what are you doing?” demanded the physician, noticing Muriel in the doorway for the first time since her arrival.
            “Lady Muriel of Corrthaine,” she stated hesitantly, and gestured toward Skandar, who lay in the bed. “This man is my friend.”
            With critical, deep-set eyes rimmed with dark circles, he surveyed her for mere seconds before beckoning her inside. “Come in, come in, I could certainly use the help. Your friend here has become entombed in delirium. A maid I stationed here found me when the fits began. It seems for the moment that they have ceased.”
            Muriel crossed the room and stood before an empty chair positioned in the corner near the bed. “Your name, Sir?”
            “Alasdair,” he replied, noting something in a thick ledger he pulled from the mantle above the empty fireplace.
“Pleasure to meet you.” She offered her hand. He reached to take it, but an agonized wail seized his attention, and he turned away, bustling across the room and dropping the ledger onto the floor.
In the bed, Skandar thrashed wildly about as Alasdair struggled to pin his arms to his side; one of Skandar's rigid limbs tore free from Alasdair’s grasp and swung to the side, striking the physician in the temple. Muriel observed in horror, too stunned by the violence of Skandar’s fit to move.
Alasdair muttered an oath and staggered back, his hand pressed to the side of his head. He blinked several times before returning to Skandar in renewed effort to calm the young man. He managed to hold Skandar's arms down against the mattress, veins bulging on his smooth forehead with the effort. A deep red mark colored his temple where the heel of Skandar's palm landed.
Unable to loosen himself from the physician's vice, Skandar arched his back. A throaty scream erupted from his mouth. It echoed off the walls and reverberated through the hall, so long Muriel thought the strain would tear Skandar's vocal chords in half.
"What is happening to him?" Muriel shouted above the commotion.
"If only I knew!"         
Skandar's howl ceased in a gravely rasp, and his body fell limp. Sweat broke across his brow and began to roll in drops down his clammy face.
Alastair slumped into the empty chair beside her and there dabbed at his forehead with his sleeve.
Muriel stared wide-eyed at the physician, awaiting an explanation.
Instead, Alasdair leaned forward and laid a hand on Skandar’s clammy forehead. "His fever has broken," he puffed and eased his bulk against the back of the chair. "Whatever held him in its claws did not want to release him without a fight."
Relief swept through Muriel, a tidal wave of cleansing water washing out the scum of dread and worry that clung to her.
"He may yet sleep a while longer while he heals," Alasdair continued. "When he wakes, I will send a page to fetch you and your friends."
Clasping her hands before her, Muriel smiled, nodded, and said, "My thanks, sir. My friend and I are in your gratitude."
Alasdair slowly pushed himself off the chair and began heading toward the door. Reaching it, he paused, turning, and bowed. "Think nothing of it, my Lady. I am merely doing the job assigned me." With that, he opened the door and gestured for Muriel's departure, but before she crossed the threshold, he said, “I’m no superstitious man, my Lady, but I do wonder why the fits and fever possessed him as they did. Never have I seen the like in all my years, though I have witnessed many a strange ailment…” he trailed off, leaving Muriel to wonder whether his musings were of significance, of the ramblings of a sleep-deprived aging man.
Offering a weary smile, she slipped across the hall and into her own chambers, where exhausted, she fell into bed. However, her thoughts refused to quiet and, resigning herself to the understanding that, for her, the night had thus ended, she padded to the window where she waited until dawn painted the sky pink and then gold.
When at last the gold of the morning faded into light blue and the sun hung above the hills, she arose, stiff from sitting against the wall. She stepped away from the window at the same moment a short knock sounded on the door, and a maid entered with a fresh dress draped over her arm. Wordlessly, she aided Muriel out of her night shift and into the thicker day attire.
Muriel thanked the girl, the simple appreciation the only Niwl she knew, and in response, the girl dipped her head and curtsied before departing. Muriel followed a minute later, sweeping into the hall and bumping into Catrain.
The princess scowled, a momentary lapse in her customary controlled expressions, but recovered and mumbled a barely audible greeting.
“You left supper early last night,” Muriel said, ignoring Catrain’s glare.
“I cared not for listening to Eoin’s incessant chatter about the weather and whatever whim he fancied at the time. Leaping from topic to topic like a frog bounces in the shallows…” she sighed, dodging the real reason for her early departure. “It’s exhausting. Even prison offered silence and solitude.”
“Do you honestly think so little of him?” queried Muriel, stopping to scrutinize her friend and gauge her response.
Catrain shrugged, her lips pursed in a tight line, and to Muriel’s annoyance, uttered only one word. “Nay.”
“Nay,” echoed Muriel with a hint of teasing mirth in her eyes that had been absent for some time, prompting her to continue.
“Although normally I would suffer Eoin’s pleasure of hearing his own voice resound off the walls, I was tired and decided it best if I retire early and rest.” Catrain resumed walking, and Muriel hastened to catch her, lest she be left behind.
“Is that all?”
“What other reason do you see?”
“Jealousy, perhaps.”
“Jealousy?” Catrain scoffed. “As though I would be plague to such a petty disease,” her mouth twitched, itching to smile and betray her amusement at Muriel’s assumption.
Muriel stared at her for a long moment. “Cat, do be gentle,” she cautioned, her tone serious.
“Whatever do you mean?”
“You know what I mean.”
“I assure you,” Catrain’s brow furrowed with confusion, “I do not.”
When Muriel refused to elaborate further, Catrain fidgeted with her fingers, twisting them between her hands, uncomfortable beneath her friend’s gaze. “What?” she demanded, unable to withstand the sensation of someone boring a hole through her soul, even a friend.
“For someone as keen and perceptive as yourself, Cat—and forgive me for being blunt—you are blind to things before you.”
“Not everyone can enjoy the luxury of short sight,” Catrain snapped, “Some of us must look ahead to benefit others, not ourselves.” The remark stung, as she intended it to; however, when she noted the effect in Muriel’s glassy eyes, she regretted it.
Before she swallowed her pride long enough to utter an apology, Muriel already turned on her heel and walked away, wiping her thick lashes free from the tears that clung to them.
“I may be narrow sighted in your opinion, Catrain, but at least I suffer through petty speech and countless other drudgeries because I care about the people and refrain from treating them as something to use and then discard.” Lovely, Muriel, she berated the instant the words entered the air, lovely. What would Father say? She needed no large amount of imagination to hear his disappointment. “I’m sorry.”
“As am I. It appears I still lack more sleep than I gained last night.”
“Thoughts. They swirled too thick to relax and dream.”
“Skandar’s fever broke an hour or so before dawn. Alasdair, the physician,” Muriel explained and Catrain nodded, “promised he would send a page to alert us when he wakes.”
Catrain squinted. “That isn’t all you know.”
“Fits overtook him before the fever broke, violent fits. He said nothing; only screamed,” she shuddered, shaking the unpleasant memory to the back of her mind. “I cannot remember a time when I was so scared.”
“Alasdair believes he will wake today, though?”
“He appeared confident enough. Did you hear nothing else?”
“Nothing else I care to dwell on. He heals, that blessing is enough.”
By this time, the young women arrived at the closed doors to the dining hall where they met Oliver, who paced outside with his hands clasped tightly behind his back. Muriel stopped and watched him, a comforting warmth creeping though her that only presented itself when in the presence of her love. He was clad a clean burgundy shirt and black pants; she grinned slightly when she noted the worn boots covering his feet. Dusty and ragged, they were the only articles of the Oliver she adored so dearly he refused to cede in this place. Even his pale hair, which he normally wore loose around his shoulders, was pulled back and tied at the nape of his neck. All part of a role he assumes. My Oliver will return when we depart from these walls.
Oliver noticed them standing at the intersection where corridors met and ceased his pacing, crossing the gap between them in two strides, and embraced Muriel with a light kiss on her cheek. Muriel beamed while nearby, Catrain took interest tracing the cracks spider-webbing the wall stones.
“Morfael awaits inside, but I wished to wait for you and Cat, as it happens,” Oliver whispered, his breath hot near her ear. He slipped his arm through the crook in hers and escorted her to the door.
The Great Hall of the Niwl castle differed greatly from its Corrthainian counterpart. To Muriel, it resembled a grand hunting lodge more than it did a hall to entertain, feast, and receive disgruntled gentry.
Where elaborate tapestries hung in the Capitol, the walls here were decorated with the ivory skulls of deer, their long and pointed antlers adorning them like jagged, rustic crowns. Soft pelts hung on the red stone walls, serving the dual duty of sealing in heat and dampening sound. A fire blazed hot and bright in a massive hearth in the wall opposite the main entrance to the hall; smoke rose a hundred feet to the flat ceiling above and disappeared through special vents leading outside. A lonely rough table, notched with evidence of countless years of drunken knife-wielding guests who, eager to carve into their meat, wounded its surface instead, sat in the middle of the hall, three occupants in seated in several chairs around the head it.
King Morfael sat at the end of the table, his perpetual scowl decorating his chiseled face. The scar along his forehead, deepened the wrinkles, casting a darker gloom across his countenance. His wife sat to his right, her presence silent and ghostly. She appeared lost in the vast environment of the room and in Morfael’s brooding nature, but Muriel observed by the way the king’s fingers rested against the pale skin on the back of her hand that he cared for her a great deal.
Fluttering of wings drew Muriel’s attention to a speckled falcon perched upon a stand behind Morfael’s high-backed chair. A leather hood covered its eyes, and its head jerked around constantly as it listened to the slightest sound in the hall. It bobbed up and down, yearning to stretch its wings and take flight, but a strap fastened above one of its razor talons restrained it to the perch.
Behind her, the door banged ajar, and Aidan and Eoin rushed inside, falling in line on either side of Catrain, who glared at both, a silent rebuke for their tardiness.
As the small group approached, Morfael stole a piece of raw meat from a small plate near his elbow and held it up to the falcon, who snatched it up with its wickedly curved beak and proceeded to rip apart the meat with its talons. Then Morfael stood and waved a hand in the air over the table and its furnishings, waiting until they were all seated before resuming his place.
“Please excuse the absence of my sister. This morning finds her unwell,” he apologized stiffly.
“She is all right, I hope?” Aidan inquired cordially, ripping apart a meat pie. Although he tried to sound indifferent, his concern was evident in the slight crease along his brow.
Catrain’s curious gaze flickered to meet Eoin’s, who sat across the table from her and beside his brother. He regarded her with impish amusement, but betrayed nothing, leaving her to draw her own conclusions.
“Brynna took ill with a headache,” Morfael replied, and said no more.
Attempts at further conversation were futile; everyone seemed content to sit in uncomfortable silence and eat, save the occasional screech of the falcon. Oliver abandoned antagonizing the young king, and even Eoin, who leaped at the opportunity to converse with someone new to his acquaintance, remained uncharacteristically quiet. Catrain and Muriel shared a relieved glance. If no one spoke to them, they were not obligated to reply.
The meal dragged on until, to everyone’s immense gratitude, it ended, freeing the members to go their separate ways. Muriel, along with Oliver, made to show the other three around the castle with Morfael’s consent, which he yielded reluctantly at Oliver’s bidding.
Outside the hall, Muriel turned back when she noticed Catrain pausing at the doors, noticing her apparent confliction.
“Aren’t you coming?”
“Nay,” she shook her head, “at least, not yet. I will meet you later. For the moment, I wish to retire to my chambers and rest.”
“I think I will do the same,” Eoin said, wheeling about on his heel and strolling casually back.
“You need not-” Catrain objected, but he smiled and side-stepped past Muriel.
“Come now, I will escort you.”
The battle lost, Catrain relented, nodding, her gaze locked on the floor.
“Very well. Until then,” Muriel smiled, and then hastened to catch Oliver and Aidan, leaving Catrain to slip down the passage to the courtyard with Eoin at her heels.
“We are not retiring, are we?” asked Eoin.

Knowing no other way to the dungeons, Catrain skirted the edges of the near vacant courtyard, which contrasted eerily with the bustle of the previous day, and entered the door the guards had escorted her through. It was unlocked, swinging open at her push.
            “Village life treated you well, I suppose?” she asked once they reached the solitude of the corridor.
            “Terribly, actually. I nearly died from boredom.”
            “While you suffered at boredom’s hands, we starved in cramped cells. But we devised a ploy, and Oliver vouched for us all. Most of us,” she sighed. “If Morfael expected Lord Joran’s son, then that is the man he sees.”
            “Even so, he plays his role quite convincingly. For a moment yesterday I believed he had reverted to his old self as a result of some confinement-induced ailment.”
            “Where are our weapons?” she changed the subject, noting the dagger strapped to his side. His and Aidan’s larger weapons—Aidan’s axes, Eoin’s bow, and their swords—likely not permitted by visitors roaming freely about the castle, were stored away in their chambers. Catrain hoped they discovered a means to retrieve the rest of their collective arsenal and provisions from the bounty hunters. Alas, such a chance, she realized sadly, was slim.
            I was fond of my bow. And my sword.
            “Gone. However,” Eoin added, “Aidan thinks he may know who to entreaty to have them returned.”
            “The princess?”
            “The princess.” Then he frowned. “Why do you want to speak with Flynn?”
            She chewed her lower lip, conjuring up a viable story to satisfy him. “If you were in a cell, would you not want someone to talk to? I know you, Eoin. After a while, you crave interaction. Who denies that Flynn does not require the same? Plus,” she patted her skirts where a slight lump bulged at her hip, “the food from this morning is better by far than that they served in the dungeon. I cut a slit along the seam of my skirts, which I will mend later, and tied a satchel around my waist. I stowed food into it when no one watched.”
            “Thief!” he exclaimed and laughed. “I assumed you to be abnormally famished.”
            Frantically, she shushed him, fretting that a guard posted at the end of the corridor might overhear the echo and lock her away.
            “I was quite famished, but not enough to eat all that.”

            “I do not suppose you brought anything else,” Flynn licked the meat juice from his fingers and eyed the satchel in Catrain’s hands with hungry desire. He wiped his mouth and unkempt beard with the back of his hand.
            “Unfortunately we gave some to the guards to buy their silence and gain entry.”
            “Well,” he exhaled and shifted to lean against the wall, “I suppose that will suffice.”
            “Always the grateful one, aren’t you?” Eoin snapped, his hostility toward Flynn unbridled in his contemptuous glare.
            “Pardon me, but I fail to remember requesting your visit.” He turned to Catrain, “And I do not recall any promises on your behalf, unless,” he paused and a mirthless chuckle reverberated from deep within him, cut off by a groan as he disturbed his broken ribs. “The food. Indeed, it appears I underestimated you.”
            “I am not callous, regardless of what you may believe,” Catrain declared, kneeling beside the iron bars opposite Flynn. “I seek answers, as do you.”
            “Kate,” Eoin hissed, wary of the guards, “you deal with the devil!”
            “Merely one of the devil’s minions,” Flynn replied smugly. “Make your query. You provided me sustenance, and in return I shall provide an honest answer.”
            “If you cede the truth, omitting nothing, I believe we may aid each other’s causes.”
            “You have my word, however much it is worth to you.”
            Swallowing hard, Catrain organized her words, habitually twisting her fingers. Order was a simple thing, yet to her, imperative, for she feared speaking wrongly. “First, of something predating this venture. Sir Rupert, the slain Niwl knight, carried with him a piece of a map. I know you know of what I speak.”
            “After acquiring those pieces from him and the other lords you assaulted, you delivered them to Lord Joran, correct? What did he do with them?”
            “You draw many conclusions,” speculated Flynn, his steely gaze boring into her unwaveringly. “And you are not wrong. Lord Joran consulted known maps of the Four Kingdoms, as did Sir Reuben, and by them he constructed a map containing the information carried by Reuben’s circle.”
            “Your copy. Where is it?”
            Expression darkening and wrought with malice, Flynn stared into the shadows. “Hidden within the hollow hilt of my sword, which per my great misfortune, lies in the hands of the bounty hunters who captured us,” he spat bitterly and cursed beneath his breath.
            Catrain groaned inwardly, her stomach plummeting. Without his half, her copy of the map remained incomplete and useless, unless by some miracle they recovered it along with their other belongings.
            “How is it you kept hold of yours? Mine I hid well, but they searched everything." Flynn squinted at her sharply with hollow eyes surrounded by ghostly pale skin marred in places by dark bruises.
Heat flushed Catrain’s cheeks. "Everything but us. I kept it…” she bit her lip, “close.”
“Clever,” admitted Flynn with a hint of pride lacing his tone.
Crouching at her side, Eoin leaned close and whispered, “We should go.” The sensation of beady eyes peering at them from skeletal faces of which he caught faint glimpses in the scattered shafts of sunlight unnerved him, sending chills up his spine. Jealousy, too, tugged at his heart, jealousy that she withheld something so vital from him. And the fear that she had done so with such ease caused him to question what else she might have hidden. Once, he had thought her open. Now, he realized with numb recognition that her openness was a shield protecting the things she wished no one to know.
He soured at the notion. Then, looking at her, he saw her anew and pitied her. She does it to protect another. The burden of that I cannot imagine. In contemplative silence, he watched as Catrain bade Flynn farewell, and guided her from the stench of mildew and the dank darkness of the dungeon.
When beyond earshot of the guards posted at the outer door, Catrain pulled him aside, admonishing, “It is imperative we see our weapons returned to us. Also, what you heard in there must remain confidential while inside these walls.”
Nodding profusely, he began to stride away, but she caught his arm and forced him to meet her stare. “Not even your brother may know.”
“Understood. What now?”
“We meet the others. Oliver, Muriel, Aidan, where are they?”
“Oliver mentioned that after they tour the castle, they were to attempt to gain access to Skandar’s room. His fever broke, did you hear?”
“Muriel told me before breakfast.”
“Shall we see if they aren’t there?” he offered his arm. She hesitated, her own half raised, before slipping it through the crook of his elbow and allowing him to guide her down the corridor.

Skandar lay on the bed, propped up by several pillows, still and asleep. Sunlight streamed through the open window, the light falling across Skandar’s face, illuminating it beneath the shaft’s warm glow. Faint traces of his ruddy pallor tinged his cheeks under the red wires of his beard. Sweat beaded along his forehead and dripped from the ends of his damp hair.
Muriel sat in the chair at his bedside whispering to Oliver, who leaned against the fireplace and stared at the grey ashes that littered the hearthstones. Aidan sat with his back to a wall, legs splayed out on the ground before him. His head rolled upward when Eoin and Catrain entered.
“He has not woken?” Catrain eyed an empty space on the simple woven rug at the foot of the bed and sat, tucking her legs beneath each other.
“Not yet,” Oliver replied, rubbing his temples, and then explained the absence of Alasdair and the physician’s assistant. “He journeyed into town to replenish his medicinal stores, and the girl needed food. We volunteered to watch over him until she returns, which should be any minute.”
“And Skandar’s arm? How long until it heals?”
“Alasdair stitched and bound the wound. He believes that Skandar will recover fully in time and will regain the strength to travel in a few days.”
They listened to Skandar’s breathing, shallow, but no longer labored, accompanied by the distant chirping of songbirds drifting in through the breeze. With it, the light, sweet aroma of budding flowers wafted through the open window and scented the air in the room. Despite the draft, the room grew stuffy.
The door swung inward and a girl with dark hair and watery eyes stepped in, a small platter of bread and cheese held loosely in her hands. She ushered them away, sending the group filing out the door.
They stood in a circle, staring at each other with the same questioning look, each wondering where to spend the remainder of the morning.
“The ramparts offer a view of the valley,” suggested Muriel.
Oliver stepped aside, allowing an opening to the remainder of the hall. “Lead on, Milady.”
By midday, after losing their way thrice through the winding passages, they emerged out onto the high parapet overlooking the rolling hills that sheltered the village, the edges of which they glimpsed below, a thick spattering of sloped rooves. From their vantage point, the land stretched out around them, an emerald sea broken only by the silver sliver of the river that cut its way through the dale. Beyond that, the hills continued to ripple, cresting and sloping through the countryside; in the distance, if Catrain and Eoin, who saw better than their friends, squinted hard and focused on the horizon, they recognized the dark and ragged border of the forest.
“What are you doing?” a soft, female voice carrying a thick Niwl accent called up to them from inside the castle’s courtyard below. Aidan leaped to the side and peered over the wall. His face brightened instantly, breaking into a wide smile.
“Princess, I hope the morning finds you well!” He ran a nervous hand through his mop of tawny curls.
“I fare better than earlier today, yes,” came the reply. “What are you doing?” she repeated.
“Admiring the scenery,” Aidan explained jovially. “It is quite lovely.”
“It is,” she agreed. “Wait a moment and I shall join you!”
“Aidan,” Catrain beckoned when Brynna vanished from sight into the stairwell at the corner of the bailey, “please entreaty her to consider reacquiring our belongings, if she is able.”
“I shall. Cat? Forgive us for abandoning you all in the dungeon for so long. We tried.” His shoulders drooped.
“In the end, we were released, were we not? It made no difference. The bounty upon Flynn’s head no one, not even I foresaw, and that he personally knew King Morfael never crossed my mind. He hides his accent well. You and Eoin acted as well as you could, considering the circumstances,” she commended him, “Well done.”
Aidan’s gaze flicked over her shoulder and he dipped his forehead forward. “There is the princess. I’ll ask her, but Cat, why don’t you?”
Shrugging, she said, “You are acquainted with her. I am not.” Turning, she walked past Brynna to the gaping maw of the turret stairwell.
“Where are you headed?” Eoin called after her.
“To find something to eat. I’m famished.”
“Oh, if so,” Brynna chimed in her lilting voice, temporarily pausing her conversation with Aidan, “allow me to tell you the way to the kitchen. The head cook is a friend of mine. Tell her I sent you, and she will provide you with what you desire.”
Catrain recited the directions as Brynna administered them, thanked the princess cordially and dipped, bending her knees slightly and bowing her head as would a maidservant, before entering the shadows and descending the steps, flanked by Muriel and Oliver.  
In the kitchen, down in the lower bowels of the castle, the cook, a short, round woman with a gentle, flushed face, and frizzy, fading red hair tucked beneath a white cap, at first denied the request of the three Corrthainians, but as Oliver dropped his façade and told her who sent them to her, she obliged.
“Anything for the dear princess,” she beamed, setting before them plates of leftovers from the midday meal. “True King bless her.”
“Truly, it is good to hear another speak His name!” Muriel remarked, delicately chewing and swallowing a bite of brown bread.
“Aye,” agreed the cook as she bustled around the table the three sat at. “But not often does one hear it here. Princess Brynna, sweet soul, myself, and a few other servants are the only ones.”
“I cannot fathom you few are alone.”
“Years ago, we were not. Then one-by-one, they left.”
“Any particular reason for their departure?” Catrain queried, suddenly interested.
“Oh,” she sighed, “some married. Others simply left.”
“At the same time?”
“No, miss, here and there.”
“One more question,” this time, Oliver spoke. “When is the ambassador expected?”
The cook planted her hands firmly on her wide hips. “Funny you should query that. ‘Tis an odd matter, really. We do not know. And the maids usually know everything that happens, gossiping about it all the day long.”
She moved to stir a roiling pot. “We have not heard from him. King Morfael is concerned, you understand. His agitation is due to that, not you, I hope you know. He has never been the agreeable sort, but he conducts his affairs diplomatically.”
“Who?” Aidan appeared in the doorway with Eoin, both youths breathless and their shoulders heaving as they collapsed onto vacant stools.
 “Have a nice run, did you?” muttered Catrain.
“Quite nice, aye,” Eoin reached for a hunk of bread, “What were you discussing?”
“Strange dealings with Corrthaine. We will elaborate further at a later time. You spoke with the princess?”
Aidan took a swig of ale from a mug Oliver passed to him. “The men have not left the village; they await their payment. She promised to pay whatever necessary to see our belongings returned to us.”
“Then as soon as Skandar recovers his strength and our supplies are back in our possession, we depart.”
“Pardon me for asking, miss, but where are you headed?”
Catrain’s wary gaze shifted between her companions. “You claimed that the maids gossip about all occurrences. Have you heard tell of secret villages?” She shifted uncomfortably under the fixated stares that turned on her.
The cook paused, tapping a spoon against the rim of the pot, and tossed another log into the stove. “I have. A girl mentioned them, some three? Four years ago? Poor dear. She appeared out of nowhere, not much older than yourself, miss,” she indicated Catrain. “Seems she just lost her husband and her baby and desperately required a job. I could not refuse her, and I was not disappointed. For a feisty, little thing, she worked hard. I was sorry to see her go.”
“Yes, but what did she say?” prodded Catrain.
If the cook was even the slightest bit irritated with the interruption, she concealed it well, answering placidly, “I recall something about refuges, nothing more. She set out northwest of here. That’s all I know, miss.”
“You have my gratitude,” Catrain said, standing and placing her empty plate in a sudsy basin filled containing other dishes waiting to be scrubbed. “I warn you: careful who you speak of this to.”
“It’s no secret, however, most consider the villages a myth.”
Catrain blinked, disbelieving that information so vital to her mission passed from person to person as common folklore. “I suggest you flee yourself, lest the man in Corrthaine who detains your ambassadors sends soldiers to question people for information.”
“Me?” the cook laughed, displaying a few missing teeth, and patted her round belly. “I am much too old to attempt a journey like that. These weary bones would not last ten miles. Besides, I am safe enough here. With me gone, who else would cook the king his favorite stew? Been making it for him since he was a child. I appreciate your concern, miss, but I’ll stay here.”
From the doorway, someone coughed, and the group spun around, frightening a young page, where he stood attentively. “Pardon me,” he said once he recovered from his fright, “the physician sent me to fetch you.”
Muriel’s brow knit with worry. “What has happened?” She need not voice the horrid possibilities flitting through her head that grew worse with anticipation; her friends read it plainly.

“Nothing at all, my Lady,” the page shook his head. “Your friend is awake.”

Thank you for reading! 
As always, comments are more than welcome!
By the way, I mentioned earlier in this post about writing ahead of what I have posted.
As of right now, I have about a fourth of story remaining until the rough draft of 
The Mark of the King is complete. Needless to say, I am quite excited!

Anyway, I wish you all a lovely week.