Wednesday, February 24, 2016

The Mark of the King: Chapter Twenty-Three

Sorry for the wait- life happens, and things not concerning life or death 
(academic life or death, that is) are pushed aside.
I hope you enjoy this, and as always, I love to hear your thoughts.

            Muriel lay awake in the dark cell long after the changing of the nighttime guards, unable to capture sleep and claim it for her own. Her mind and heart conflicted, torn between fretting over Oliver and reasoning his well-being, realizing he likely slumbered soundly on a proper bed and not a heap of straw and adorned in iron chains. To make matters worse, she heard the constant scratch of rats’ claws between the stones and feared that one of the bolder vermin would test her flesh for food. She did not blame them; she had eaten only a bit of burned bread twice a day for the past two days, and her stomach churned uneasily, growling for sustenance.
The night before, Oliver had talked her to sleep, but now Flynn occupied his place in prison, and she had long since resolved that there would be no speaking with him. He too, tossed and turned, visibly little more than a dense shadow amidst the moonless prison; Skandar lay near the wall on the farthest side away from him, asleep. Catrain, curled up in as tight a ball as her body allowed, breathed deeply, lost in dreams. Muriel envied her, wondering how it was her friend slept at a time such as this, and with such ease.
In the darkness, a rat squealed. She startled, her arms flying out to her sides in an attempt to push herself away from the straw; her chains rattled loudly in the quiet of the dungeon, and the cuffs tore at her swollen, chafed wrists and caused blood to bubble and ooze from her skin. She bit her lip as tears stung her eyes; the shackles hurt terribly. “True King,” she whispered, her lips mouthing the words and her parched voice barely slipping through, “deliver us from this prison. Protect Oliver this night and the days to come, however Your will deems, but please, deliver us.”
To pass the time, she sang softly into the crook of her elbow, the thick fabric of her sleeve muffling the sound. The melodies she chose were some her mother sang to lull her and siblings to sleep, and they comforted her, for they reminded her of home and the family she missed so dearly. Then the tears fell, running down her cheeks and dripping from her nose and wetting her sleeve. Her father’s gentle voice drifted through her mind, saying, “Do not lose yourself in misery. You’re my strong girl, aye?” He would tap her nose lovingly, then add, “‘Tis all right to cry a little, but remember that when the tears have come and gone, you stand to your feet and march on. And if you cannot muster the strength to do so, the True King will carry you.”
Hooking a thumb beneath the collar of her shirt, careful not to disturb her shackles again, she lifted out the delicate chain she wore around her neck that held her betrothal ring, grateful the bounty hunters had not helped themselves to it as they had their weapons and other provisions. Even with their greedy plunder, the rogues neglected to search both her and her friends for any hidden articles of value. She fingered the ring, a simple band of gold strands braided together with a single sapphire inset in the center. Pressing it to her lips, the metal warm from lying against her skin, she closed her eyes and mouthed silent prayer for Oliver and her family.
I am praying for a deception to succeed, she pondered, amused and somewhat ashamed. Yet by the time this quest draws to an end, I doubt now will be the only time I offer such a plea. A hopeless laugh escaped, and she murmured, “What would my father say about this?”
“He would say that you may go crazy talking to yourself.”
Muriel stifled a scream as Flynn suddenly interrupted her musings.
“Especially if you find yourself beginning to answer,” he added, then groaned as he raised himself to a sitting position.
“And how do you know this?” she dared to query.
“After hours of enduring torture, men speak nonsense, an endless flow of garbled words and whimpers, questions and answers which they provide for themselves- their only solace before death.”
“I dare not ask how you know that,” she shuddered. “Cat may enjoy listening to your tales, but I do not. You and I are far from friends.”
“While we are on the subject of incessant talking,” continued Flynn, ignoring her last remark, “Skandar will not cease his mumbling. I kicked him a couple times, but he would not wake. Does he usually talk in his sleep?”
Muriel frowned, recalling the nights she stood on watch duty, and shook her head. “He suffers from nightmares, but I cannot name a time he cried out. You however…” she trailed off, glaring at his shadow and willing her stare to transform into one of her daggers.
“Test his forehead,” Catrain whispered harshly from behind her.
“What?” asked Flynn.
“Test his forehead. His temperature,” she urged.
Flynn hesitated before replying, “Very well.”
The scrape of his chains across the stones caused both women to cringe, the sound grating like fingernails on glass and piercing to the bone. They sat still, waiting anxiously for Flynn to appear on the other side of the bars once more. In the eerie silence that settled over the dungeon, their ears caught the faint, frightened whispers uttered by Skandar.
“Can you make out what he is saying?” queried Catrain to Muriel.
            Muriel strained her senses, focusing her hearing, her mouth set in a grim line. “He is saying something about mist, I believe? Water? Bródúil, yes, just now, he mentioned the sword.”
            The clanking scrape of Flynn’s chains announced his movement; he exerted no effort to attempt to quiet them at all. “Fever burns within him,” he announced when the dreadful noise waned to a faint echo.
            “Are you certain?”
            “Indeed. Though how the fever set upon him, I haven’t the slightest notion.”
            “His arm,” Catrain said flatly, although inside she blamed herself for forgetting his wound, “During the skirmish on the cliffs, one of the men struck Skandar in the arm. The injury was not too severe, but no one ever tended to it.”
            “We must wake the guards,” Muriel suggested. Wide awake with fear pumping through her body, she began banging on the bars and walls of her cell, shouting hoarsely. Mimicking her example, Catrain added her voice to Muriel’s, inviting an onslaught of complaints and curses from the other prisoners, which only served to increase the chaos and attracting the attention of the guards.
            Soon, the jailer stormed into the hall, his rat-like features livid with rage. He screamed in Niwl above the clamor, and though Muriel did not understand the language, his domineering tone was clear enough; her shouts died in her throat as did the others, plunging the dungeon into a sudden stillness wrought with tension. The jailer squinted into the recesses of the cells. He spoke again, and Muriel frowned.
            “He demands to know who started the disturbance,” Flynn, who sat unmoved on the floor, translated, “he adds that they will receive a flogging in the morning. Wise plan,” he muttered condescendingly, “that will make them eager to step forward…”
            Bony fingers, pale and dirty and protruded from spindly arms suddenly appeared from within the cells, pointing accusingly at Muriel and Catrain. The jailer’s beady eyes laid to rest on the two women, and Muriel fought the urge to shrink away. She watched as the jailer ripped a torch from the wall and shoved his way between the guards and stopped directly in front of her. He craned his thin neck, his grimy face uncomfortably close to hers, and the rank odor of stale ale wafting from him nearly caused her to gag. Face souring, she stepped back, but met the man sternly in the eyes, emboldened by Catrain’s presence hovering half a pace behind her. With a hand that trembled of its own accord, she pointed to Skandar, whose limbs twitched and head lulled from side to side, all the while mumbling incoherently.
            The jailer waved the torch near the bars, illuminating the front portion of the adjacent cell in a flickering ring of firelight.
             “Our friend is ill. His arm is infected,” Muriel explained.
            “As if I have not heard that before,” the jailer grunted dismissively, “That does not save you and your pretty friend from a date with the whip.”
            However, Muriel remained calm and diplomatic. “You dare question my word?”
            “Depends,” he shrugged.
            “On what?”
            “On how much your word is worth,” he leered.
            “How dare you speak to her ladyship in such a manner!” Catrain snapped, prodding Muriel with her elbow in silent instruction to play along. “She is the Lady Muriel, betrothed of Sir Oliver Joranson, the man released by King Morfael earlier today. In Corrthaine you would be hanged for your insolence.”
            “Is that supposed to mean anything to me?” he asked, and prepared to return with another remark when Muriel intervened:
            “Forgive my lady’s maid, she forgets her place. Now, will you see to his lordship’s squire or not?”
            After shooting her a nasty glare, the jailer signaled to the guards behind him, six in all, with a jerk of his free hand. Passing the torch to one, he unlocked the door and allowed three more to file inside. Two assumed a careful watch over Flynn while the last man removed a glove and touched Skandar’s clammy forehead, waited a moment, then withdrew his hand and nodded a quick affirmation.
            The jailer groaned. Unknown to his men, he was under specific orders from his king about this specific troupe of prisoners. “I will see what the king will have me do, but as it is the middle of the night, I will not disturb him until morning.”
            “He cannot wait that long,” her throat constricted, as though even her body wished to swallow the words and banish them from reality.
            “That is not my problem,” he lied, knowing well that it would be. Still, he received hardly better care than the prisoners under his charge, so what did it matter, orders or not?
            “It will be your problem when Morfael discovers you knew and forgot to tell him,” Flynn absent-mindedly flicked the chain links, appearing disinterested but all-too familiar with the truth that lay beneath the pretense the jailer would have them believe.
            “King Morfael, scum,” the jailer hissed, eyes narrowed and flashing. “And why should I worry? Who’s going to tell him?”
            “I will,” Flynn clicked his tongue against the roof of his mouth. “Ah, that got your attention,” he said wryly. “As for king or not, he is no king of mine, is he? He certainly will not be yours when you are dead. Do you believe that prison awaits your failure? A prison certainly, inside a wooden box buried in the earth after your neck stretches at the end of a rope.”
            The jailer blanched and his hands fluttered to his throat. He growled an order to one of the guards in Niwl, and the knight scampered away.
            “Where has he gone?” inquired Muriel under her breath to Flynn, loathe that at the moment he was closer to Skandar than she; though she had only known him for a few months, she loved him as her own brother. Seeing him lying there, delirious and in agony, she felt drowned in helplessness, but determined to maintain a stiff upper lip. Think stone column, she thought, Think like Cat- confident, capable of anything.
            “…and return with help,” Flynn concluded.
            Capable of anything except hearing the answer to my own question, she groaned inwardly, inhaled a shaky breath and asked, “Could you repeat that? My mind wandered, and I...”
            Waving her off, Flynn sighed, “The jailer ordered the guard to wake Morfael and receive orders; should that prove optimistic,” he intoned sarcastically, “he will return with help, and Skandar at least will be free from this stinking pit.”
             True to Flynn’s word, the original guard arrived some time later accompanied by six sleep-deprived servants who yawned and shuffled their feet. They walked in two lines, carrying a long, thick cloth folded between two sturdy poles each line bore across their shoulders. At the cell door, they stopped, waiting for the reluctant jailer to open it; once he had, they filed inside. Laying the sling flat on the ground beside Skandar, they lifted his limp, lanky body up onto its center. The jailer paused, appearing to contemplate whether or not to remove the shackles around his prisoner’s wrists, even beginning to pocket the key, but shook his head in resignation and unlocked them. He waved the servants to continue. They stooped and hoisted the poles onto their shoulders again, the extra length of the cloth enclosing Skandar and shielding him from Muriel’s concerned gaze, then they carried him out of the dungeon.
            While the jailer swung the door shut, the guard whispered something in his ear. The jailer’s rat face scowled, twisting his grotesque features into greater resemblance of the vermin that shared his quarters. Unlocking Muriel and Catrain’s cell, he held it ajar. “King Morfael also requested the release of the Lady Muriel.”
            Muriel heard her name through a fog and it wasn’t until Catrain nudged her in the back that she realized the jailer referred to her. He gestured for her hands. Fitting the key into the lock, he turned it, and the iron cuffs sprang open. At last! She rejoiced, tenderly rubbing the swollen, red, and bleeding rings around her wrists. Her joy was short-lived as she thought of Catrain. She stole a glance over her shoulder at her friend, who nodded and urged her to go. Even so, she queried, “What about my lady’s maid?”
            “Just you.”
            “Just you, or you both stay. Get on with you. Servants outside the dungeon will escort you to your chambers.”
            “True King be with you, milady,” Catrain called after her as Muriel neared the door to freedom.
            “And with you,” she echoed, casting a final look back before stepping through the doorway and into the hall. Clean air, free from the rank odor that festered in the dungeon entered her lungs when she breathed; she swallowed gulps of the stuff in such a manner her mother no doubt would have disapproved of. As it happened, the Niwl servants regarded her oddly, unsure what to make of the lady from Corrthaine, with straw in her raven hair, dirt streaking her ivory skin, and garbed in a shirt, trousers, and boots like a man, of all things.
            Muriel, suddenly aware of her state of appearance, felt heat rising to her cheeks, and frantically began to brush away bits of hay clinging to her clothes.
            “Are you ready, my Lady?” a young man around her brother’s age stopped her fussing after a moment.
            “I am,” she replied, “Lead on.”
            Through the drafty corridors of the castle she followed them, traversing countless hallways until they arrived in the eastern wing of the castle, the side facing the forest spanning the borders between Tir O Niwl and Corrthaine. They stopped in a single, lonesome hall, at the end of which stood a massive window, stretching from floor to ceiling and covered by an iron trellis that crossed the empty space with diagonal intersecting lines. The flickering flames from the torches mounted along the wall reflected in the many panes of the glass.
            Turning her attention on the multiple closed chambers, she inquired, “The other man, the one who has taken ill, is he staying here?”
            “He stays in the medical wing under the care of the court physician.”
            She smiled, “If one were to try to find that area, could they entrust one of you to direct them there?”
            The servant, his companions having silently slipped away, sighed heavily, “Milady, with respect, I would not trouble yourself at this hour. That is your room,” he indicated one of the doors with a nod of the head.
            “And Sir Oliver?” her fingers brushed the cool metal of the curved handle.
            “In the chamber adjacent. Will that be all, my lady?”
            “Thank you,” she nodded, “and yes, that is all.”
            After she stepped inside the dark chamber, her gaze immediately fell on the dark outline of the four-poster bed, illuminated by a single candle burning on a table near its head. Feet fairly dancing, she crossed the room and leapt into bed, burrowed under the blankets, and lay awake listening to the silence void of rats scratching, prisoners coughing and wheezing, and no echoes of the clink of shackles that drew fresh blood from her chafed wrists... Guilt gnawed at her heart. Catrain… tomorrow I must arrange her release, if I am able. True King, she prayed, Protect Cat this night, alone with the rats. Guide Aidan and Eoin, wherever they may be and bring them to us. Give Oliver wisdom and foresight of the days to come, and please, tears pooled at the corners of her eyes and trickled down the sides of her face, please heal Skandar. True King, please, she repeated, heal Skandar, heal his wounds and his heart.
            Every night the dreams began the same, and, fever or not, this was no different.
Skandar drifted through the ocean of darkness, the mist wafting around his knees, an eerie stillness long since settled around him, a stillness the disembodied voice would eventually penetrate at some point. No wind howled yet, no rain dumped a torrential deluge, and no tidal waves crashed upon his head. He floated, weightless, through an endless wasteland, at the end of which he knew loomed the chasm, but for all his straining, he failed to determine where the mist billowed over the edge and into nothing.
            I should be afraid, he thought, recalling the past nights when he awoke stifling a scream in the hem of his cloak. I should be terrified. But instead he stood calmly, his bare feet rooted to the ground, cocooned by the emptiness that encompassed his fevered dream’s blackened reality. Come water, come wind, come falling over the edge of a fathomless abyss, he cared not. So he set out, curious and emboldened beyond his reasoning, to explore the boundaries of his nightmares.
            For ages he wandered, testing the ground before stepping in a painstakingly tedious process he hoped would prevent him from plunging over the mist-shrouded cliff. The silence ate at his mind, and he found himself wishing for the roar of the cyclone or the waves, the whisper of the voice, or anything to distract from the dream.
            “Hello?” he cried out in desperation, the dank atmosphere swallowing his voice. “Are you there?”
            No one answered, but he suspected as much.
            As the mist swirled, something caught his eye in the distance- a gleam of silver, the only hue other than black and gray in the drab void. Ignoring his fear of falling, he raced toward it, running tirelessly for what seemed hours. When he neared it, he recognized the shape in an instant, even with the distortion by the mist. A sword! He rejoiced, and quickened his pace, reaching it in no time at all.
            A longsword, it stood upright, held straight and above the ground by an unseen force; power radiated from it, pulsing through the vapors that whirled around it but never once touched it with their icy tendrils. The blade, the thing that first claimed his attention, shone pure silver, flawless with twin fullers running down the center length of the flat side, which bowed in the middle before broadening out and then finally tapering into a lethal tip. The gilded crossbars curved down toward the blade like talons, razor-sharp and cruel; the hilt was wrapped in dyed crimson leather and was long enough for Skandar to take with both hands and still allow plenty of space to fit a third between them and the diamond-shaped pommel that hovered at his shoulder level. On closer inspection, he discovered a delicately engraved dragon in the center of the pommel.
            Suddenly his sword, given to him by Sir Reuben, seemed plain and drab when compared in his mind’s eye with this piece of wicked beauty.
            He reached out and seized it by the hilt with both hands, turning it so the tip pointed toward the empty expanse above. The minute his fingers encircled the hardened leather, his vision flashed, and the dismal world turned black before his eyes. Several seconds elapsed with him lost in temporary blindness, before slowly, his vision regained the varying greys of the mist and the black of the sky. A chill rippled through the air, and Skandar shuddered, naming the sword aloud with the awe of a child seeing a coveted prize for the first time. “Bródúil.” 

I'll post the next chapter as soon as I can. I hope you all are well!
God bless you,