Friday, April 15, 2016

The Mark of the King: Chapter Twenty-Four

To atone for my lack of posting any of The Mark of the King last month, I compiled an extra long chapter for your enjoyment. Or, at least I hope you enjoy it. If not, then I did something wrong.
Here's to wishing I wrote it right.

After the commotion in the dungeon waned to naught but distant and whispered memories and the foreboding silence once again reigned solemn king over its dismal domain, Catrain settled back against the wall and brooded. She and Flynn devised the plan in the beginning, and now it had moved on without them. Watching it walk out the door, leaving her behind and helpless to intervene if interference of any ilk occurred, gnawed at her.
            Skandar’s illness was an unforeseen circumstance, she thought, her mind racing with various schemes and contingencies, one that worked out for the better, thank the True King. Yet should his infection worsen, we shall gaze upon a dead body and an empty throne. Or worse, she shuddered involuntarily, the crushing throne of a tyrannical monster. Her throbbing heart sank. Time wanes, and we cannot wait for another.         
            Sighing, she fingered the makeshift straw knife and mumbled, “I guess I shan’t need this any longer.”
            Stretched out on the ground on the other side of the iron barrier separating them, Flynn groaned and rolled lazy eyes toward her. They widened as he saw the crude thing in her hand. He uttered a half-amused, half-strained chuckle. “Had I a sister, I should think she would be a bit like you.”
            Catrain blinked and held it out to him between the bars. “Do you want it?”
            Chains scraped as he rolled over and propped himself up on one elbow. He hesitated, casting shifting glances between the knife and the guards, who sat oblivious at a table with their backs to the prisoners, before sliding a hand toward her. Quickly, he balled his fist and pulled it back as if contemplating an obscure consequence. Drawing to a silent agreement within himself, he reached out again and took it from her open palm.
            He rubbed his fingers over the blunt edge and the sharper tip. If applied with enough force and in the proper place, such as the abdomen or the small of the back, it could inflict injury enough to temporarily incapacitate an opponent and allow a window of time in which to flee. Applied with brute force to a softer area such as the neck…Flynn’s mouth curled into a wicked smile. “If they caught you with this­-”
            “-the consequences would be severe; you needn’t remind me. If Muriel and Oliver act according to my speculation, I will be gone from here by tomorrow evening. Concern you show for my well-being, but do you spare none for yourself?”
            “Morfael would not dare harm me,” Flynn replied with self-assured confidence and slipped the straw knife down into his boot. “Harm me and he suffers the wrath of Lord Joran.” Mirthless chuckles penetrated the darkness before lapsing into agonized groans; Flynn lay back, gasping wheezing breaths, his features contorted with pain.
            “Stop pretending. The others are no longer here,” Catrain ordered when he regained his breath. “How bad is it?”
            Wordlessly, he struggled to sit and lifted his shirt to reveal his torso. Catrain grimaced. Deep purple, black, and red mottled bruises covered his lean abdomen, reminding her of rancid raw meat. One in particular spread from his side inward across his ribs.
            “Broken?” she inquired, internally processing the likely cause of such a livid mark.
            Flynn nodded grimly.
            “Someone should bind it. That would promote healing and provide support,” she suggested, as much to herself as to him.
            “I’ve broken ribs before,” he snapped harshly.
            “Yours or another’s?” she mused.
            Tone softening, Flynn mumbled a hasty apology.
            “Apologize to me only if you inflict physical harm or if you betray me. I care not whatever else you do that might offend someone of lesser fortitude.”
            “Very well,” he agreed, “as long as you vow the same.”
            “Consider your terms accepted, although forgive me if I struggle. The desire for control consumes me at times, thus I feel indirectly responsible for occurrences within my faintest grasp or within the farthest reaches of even my most fragmented plan.” Although I refrain from admitting it, at the time or any time hence.
            “A flaw you must overcome. Holding yourself accountable will allow your enemies control over you; they will exploit it as much as they are able.” He began to lower his shirt when another mark caught her eye.
            “Wait,” she exclaimed, leaning forward and squinting to examine what appeared to be a knife wound, yet it was neither open nor scarred. The torn edges of the surrounding flesh, puckered and singed, appeared to have been fused together.
            Reading curiosity in her unwavering stare, Flynn said, “That, I received in the skirmish.”
            “How came it to heal so readily?”
            “Earlier today, rather,” he corrected himself, “yesterday when Morfael confronted me, he took a burning rod and seared it.”
            “Remarkable,” she breathed. “I wonder; could the physician perform the same procedure on Skandar after the infection leaves him? We could renew our journey with haste, or, in the least, as great a haste as your injuries allow.”
            “Think nothing of me. Our quest demands hierarchy over all other problems, my current physical condition included.”
            “And Skandar’s?” In her mind’s eye, she saw him carried out of the prison, unconscious and lost in delirium. The panic initially felt earlier that night reared its head again, and she fought to keep it at bay.
            “He’s a paltry farm boy, not of noble birth and therefore has no right to the position granted him by this quest. His blatant stubbornness and refusal to heed instruction or advice will inevitably result in his injury or death. He sustained injury during one skirmish. Need I remind you that this entire quest and the recovery of Bródúil balances solely on him?”
            Catrain stretched out her legs and drummed her fingers against her thigh. “You despise Skandar,” she said, playing out Skandar and Flynn’s interactions in her mind. Hostility, biting remarks, and mutual loathing and suspicion pierced the memories like a volley of lethal arrows. “Why do you care whether he succeeds or whether he fails and we all die on this fools’ errand?”
            “His success and mine are bound together,” hissed Flynn. “He acquires Bródúil, we return to Corrthaine, and my head remains firmly on my shoulders where it belongs.”
            Puzzled by his sudden mood change, Catrain’s brows furrowed. “Lord Joran keeps his sword, you keep your head and your coveted power,” she declared coolly, “at the expense of Skandar’s life; do not deny that your master will slay him upon your return if you do not do so before.” In the silence that followed, she bit her lip until warm blood trickled into her mouth. Spitting toward the opposite corner, she curled her knees closer to her chest again and rested her chin atop them. “Oliver, Muriel, Aidan and Eoin… they die as well,” she stated, barely above the hum of a whisper.
            Flynn swallowed hard, his throat dry and rough. Agitated, he kicked out, striking the empty wooden mug and sending it tumbling into the darkness. The guards startled and turned around in their seats, but soon shrugged the disturbance away and returned to their dozing states. “Lord Joran ordered me to ensure Oliver’s safety; despite his lack of affection, Oliver is his sole heir. Aidan, Eoin, and Muriel should never have accompanied us. Their fate rests not in my hands but in their own, and they chose to toss it away.”
            “And what of me?” she dared to query, but cut him off before he could reply. “If you must kill me, promise to kill me swiftly, and with a real weapon, not that useless bundle of sticks I gave you.”
            A rat scuttled across the chamber in the darkness. Startled, Catrain flinched away from the faint sound and pressed herself closer against the wall. Moments elapsed unbroken by nothing save the whispers of shallow breathing that drifted through the stagnant atmosphere of the prison.
            Catrain cleared her throat. “I’ve kept you awake long enough. Until the morning.” With the rattle of her shackles, she rolled onto her side, her back safely against the wall, and stared at the rectangle expanse of pale moonlight shining on the straw-covered stones.
            Less than an hour after dawn and minutes before the changing of the guard, the jailer roused Catrain by kicking his boot against the cell door. Alert, her eyelids flew open and she leapt to her feet then leaned against the wall as the cramped room spun. When the dizziness passed, she straightened and stepped forward.
            Reluctance hanging onto him like a boulder lashed to his arm, he fitted the key into the lock. “The Lady Muriel wished for your presence, and his Majesty Morfael accommodated her request and commanded your release. You are to meet them in the outer courtyard.”
The door swung outward, squealing on its hinges. Almost haughtily, Catrain thrust her shackled hands toward the jailer, her glare boring holes through the man as he twisted the key in the lock and the cuffs snapped open. She wriggled her hands free and allowed the bonds to fall to the floor with a loud clatter and clink of the chains.
Cloaked by shadows, Flynn appeared asleep. But the moment she turned her back she felt his stare follow her until she exited the dungeon.

            Aidan and Eoin reached the peak of the long road leading uphill from the village to the castle, their legs aching and sore from the climb. In front of them, the crimson rim of the sun peeked over the top of a hill, painting the clouds shades of rose and gold.
After breaking fast on porridge, the brothers set out for the castle, their Niwl accents improved and fluent. They paid the tavern owner, and departed, dressed in new clothes they purchased in the village, believing it prudent to appear as ordinary wandering Niwl freemen than travelers from Corrthaine. Swords hung from their belts; Eoin’s quiver and bow were slung across his back, and Aidan’s twin battle axes rested in their straps against his shoulders. If anyone questioned them about the weapons, they agreed to attribute them to combating the dangers of the road and for hunting.
            “Have you your story, Eoin?”
Panting, they stopped. The castle gate lay a short distance away. A group of mounted men-at-arms rode through and thundered past, kicking up a spray of dirt clods and clumps of grass. Both brothers coughed as the dust cleared.
“Aye,” Eoin affirmed at last, ruffling a hand through his hair.
“Do you plan to tell me?”
“You sound like a horse,” Aidan intoned, attempting to cheer his brother. Noting the lack of a return quip, he added, “So, you expect to talk your way into the castle and rescue the lot while I wait and try to predict your next action. Waltzing in with our weapons warrants suspicion, unless getting captured is part of your scheme. Or are you merely hoping to alieve your guilty conscience about obeying Cat and abandoning the rest of our fair companions by dressing up in chains?”
Eoin’s jaw stiffened, the single outward sign that Aidan struck a tender nerve.
“You have nothing to prove nor a wrong to amend.”
Observing the new guard, a short, stocky man with close-cropped dark hair and an air of false-confidence, Aidan asked, “Are you waiting for an invitation?”
Mustering his courage, Eoin approached, his stride noticeably lacking his usual swagger. Aidan matched his step, lingering behind, waiting for an obscure cue to enter into the charade.
Before they crossed under the portcullis, the stocky Niwl barred their path.
“Pardon me,” Eoin hailed in his practiced and perfected drunken drawl. “My brother and I wish to make an inquiry about five prisoners recently captured and housed in the dungeons.”
“Go on then,” grunted the guard without any intention of permitting them through; his watchful eyes flicked to their weapons.
“Pardon?” repeated Eoin, exchanging a bewildered glance with Aidan, who nodded and urged him to continue.
“Make your inquiry to me. I know most of what goes on around here; who enters and who leaves?”
“Is that so?” the youth challenged, resisting the urge to call the man’s bluff outright, and proceeded to return with a bluff of his own. “My wife is a lady’s maid, you know sir.”
Aidan’s jaw slacked and he nearly gaped in astonishment. What is the fool thinking?  It was a game he, Eoin, Catrain, and Muriel often played during the long summer days of their childhood. As the elder, Aidan and cousin Muriel filled the roles of Lord and Lady of their respective providences. Eoin fulfilled his duty as Aidan’s loyal knight, and Catrain as Muriel’s maidservant. The game ended one evening when Eoin, ignoring the wiser judgement of his brother, tried to convince Catrain that their characters would wed, thus binding the two estates. Catrain had turned scarlet with embarrassment and her temper flared. If she reacted that way then, imagine how she’ll react now. Visions of his brother skewered by dozens of arrows, much like a giant pincushion, flashed before his eyes.
Meanwhile, Eoin elaborated his fabricated story. “Milady and her betrothed journeyed to visit milady’s sister in Hen Dref. My brother and I were members of their company, us and two of milord’s trusted men; he only selects the best. As it happens, we split away from the main host to hunt. Imagine our surprise and distress when we returned to the camp and discovered they disappeared. Word in the town says that bounty hunters apprehended a group of people matching our companion’s descriptions. One of our party must have been mistaken for a wanted man, else I see no other reason­—”
The guard, all the while stifling a laugh, could not contain himself any longer and threw back his head and roared. “Your wife?” he cackled uncontrollably, “You look hardly past a lad, let alone wed!”
Sensing the agitation rising in his brother, Aidan took hold of Eoin’s arm to prevent him from acting out in his rashness.
Eoin grinned, a strained effort to hide his vexation, “The former is an unfortunate circumstance, the latter however, is one of great fortune.”
The guard snorted with amusement, but still refused to grant them entry.
“Please, sir. Please,” Eoin let his voice thin, the final plea fading to a husky whisper invoking desperation and adding a hint of drama to the performance.
Aidan fought the urge to shake his head, wondering how long it would take to flee downhill before knights on horseback ran them down for lying.
“Why should I?” argued the guard, his stance rigid. “For all I know, you could try to break them out, if I believe your story.”
Eoin folded his arms and shifted his weight away from the guard. He inclined his head toward Aidan and with a wave of his hand, gestured for him to intervene.
“Then we seek an audience with the King Morfael. Understand that this is a matter most dear to us both.”
“Return on the morrow,” the impudent guard insisted, finalizing the conversation.
A protest smoldering on his tongue, Eoin opened his mouth, but the guard turned a deaf ear. Seething with frustration, Eoin allowed Aidan to lead him away like a docile pup. They meandered down the center of the road. Already, the sky dome overhead shone pale blue, all traces of the brilliant colors gone. Down below, people milled about the spattered houses of the sheltered village.
“This is hopeless,” Eoin moaned and clenched and unclenched his fist, scanning the area for an object other than Aidan to punch. A fence post, part of the rows lining the road, had broken from the crossbeam, the end of which lay angled on the grass. Unleashing a frustrated bellow that rasped in his dry throat, Eoin wheeled about and kicked at its base, striking it hard with the inside of his foot. The weathered wood cracked and splintered, broke in half, then toppled over, the top of it narrowly missing Eoin’s foot. Three villagers struggling to haul a cart of grain uphill to the castle, stopped and gawked at the ruined post.
“Not your wisest move,” Aidan commented under his breath after they moved on, the cart trundling over the ruts dug into the road. “We will try again, little brother, you shall see.” Even to his ears, the words sounded monotonous, repetitive, and forced.
“When? Tomorrow? Next week?” Eoin sighed and ran his hands down his weary face. “I fear next week will be too late.”
Before Aidan replied, the ground trembled and shook as another troop of horses surged out of the castle gate and careened toward them, nearly trampling Eoin. Wind rushed past him as Aidan hauled him out of the way by the hood of his worn cloak.
Heart pounding in his ears, his younger brother safe at his side, Aidan’s nerves snapped. “Watch it!” he shouted, realizing too late by the billowing, deep purple cloaks and jerkins embroidered with a silver dragon worn by the men that he had not yelled at ordinary knights, but at members of the Niwl royal guard. Fear seized his chest, rendering him immobile.
He and Eoin stood to the side of the road as the company, five guards accompanying a young woman, reined in their steeds. The excited beasts stamped and pawed at the earth, unable to completely quell their restlessness.  
The young woman disentangled her horse from the center of the herd and dismounted. Two of the guards followed suit, while the other three remained in their saddles. The young woman approached the two brothers, clearly upset.
Large hazel eyes set above rosy cheeks locked onto them; her full pink lips were parted slightly, the corners downturned in horror. Long golden curls framing her oval face cascaded over her narrow shoulders and past her slender waist, where they brushed against the folds of her obsidian skirt. A thin circlet of gold crowned her head.
Forgetting his anxiety, Aidan gaped at the beauty of the Niwl princess. Then Eoin jabbed him in the side and he snapped his mouth shut.
“Forgive me!” the princess exclaimed, her accent light and breathy with a slight lisp. “I hope you are not hurt.”
            Certain the young woman spoke to someone else, Aidan whipped his head around, searching for whomever she indicated. He saw no one within speaking distance, blinked rapidly several times, and turned toward the girl.
            Recovering faster than his dumbfounded brother, Eoin’s mouth slid into a charismatic grin and bent at the waist. “We suffered not even as much as a scratch, your highness. Ours was the error; we should have been aware of you and your guards, but,” he added, grabbing the opportunity to play to her compassion, “we were preoccupied with an urgent matter.” Stiffly, Aidan offered a latent bow as well, though neither as smoothly nor as charming as he hoped.
            The young woman’s features glowed, “What matter? Perhaps I may offer help and in that way amend this matter.”
            Irritated with Eoin’s flippancy, he thought, What did we discuss just yesterday? Finding his voice, Aidan shook his head and began, “That shan’t be necessary.”
            Eoin shot him a warning glare and said, “If the princess wishes to aid us, who are we to refuse? Such would be disrespectful, would it not, your highness?”
            She inclined her head in a graceful nod, smiled, and presented a silk-gloved hand to each of them. Respectfully, both of them took it, at the same time bowing once again. Aidan’s fingers lingered unconsciously around hers longer than necessary, but she regarded him shyly and appeared not to mind. “I am Brynna,” she introduced in a soft-spoken manner. “Princess of Tir O Niwl, and sister to the King Morfael, son of Caddock.” At the mention of her father’s name, a glassy mist fell over her hazel eyes. “Forgive me,” she apologized, dabbing at her eyes with a finger. Composing herself a moment later, she smiled, “Concerning your predicament.” She turned to the two guards standing like stone pillars a pace behind her, “Thank you for accompanying me, however, I shall forgo my morning ride now that I have other matters to attend to.”
            With a swish of her skirts, she pivoted and glided back to her horse, followed by the knights. Fondly, she rubbed the steed’s white muzzle as she spoke to the three mounted men. When they received their orders, they lowered their heads and rode away. One of the remaining guards boosted her onto her horse before he and the other swung themselves into the saddle.
They trotted forward, halting before Aidan and Eoin. “If you will follow us, I shall arrange an audience with the King,” said Brynna before wheeling her mount around and galloping down the road toward the castle, leaving the brothers to hurry along behind.
“Kindly explain to me what happened?” Aidan scolded when the riders were out of earshot.
“You rediscovered your voice,” noted Eoin, “funny, but I was about to inquire the same of you.”
Aidan grabbed his arm in a tight grip, forcing him to meet his furious gaze. “You manipulated that poor girl with your forward whims!” he lowered his voice, “That may be tolerated in Corrthaine, but here we are strangers, ill-versed on Niwl customs, not to mention Corrthainians parading as Niwls. What punishment such a crime deserves, I know not, save that at the least we wind up in prison for spying. At worse, we will become acquainted with the gallows. Your readiness to flirt might one day cross a dangerous line.”
Eoin listened to the rant with a placid expression, but an impish spark glowed in his deep blue eyes. Across his face fell the dark shadow of the castle’s outer and inner walls that, joined by the rampart, blocked the morning sunlight from shining on them as they strolled beneath it unopposed. “Be that as it may,” he granted, grinning slyly. Leaning close to Aidan’s ear, he whispered, “Look around you. We’re inside.”
Servants bustled about the courtyard in a morning frenzy, crossing from one side to the other. Some toted drab bundles of silks and linins heaped in their arms while others balanced covered platters on the palms of their hands in a complicated waltz. Horses stamped, their hooves clomping on the cobblestones as stable hands cinched girths around their rounded bellies while the riders, an arrayment of a half-dozen knights and squires, lingered in a close circle nearby. None of the inhabitants appeared to notice the newcomers.
Three boys led three horses, one of whom was snow white, through a wide, outside corridor. Aidan stood on his toes and craned his neck to scope the crowd for Princess Brynna. He spied her with her guards on the steps up to the largest set of rectangular doors, presumably those accessing the heart of the castle. Briefly, their eyes met and she pointed in the brothers’ direction, sending one of the guards to wade into the crowd.
“Come,” he said before rotating on his heel and marching away.
            No sooner than their boots touched the first stone step than the doors swung open and a small procession filed out. All activity in the courtyard ceased. Guards and servants alike dropped to their knees with a whoosh of motion.
            Recognizing the arrival of a royal, Aidan and Eoin immediately mirrored the crowd and knelt on the hard step, their eyes averted. In the distorted, blurred reflection of a silver bowl clenched in the hands of a servant girl, Eoin saw a young man in the forefront of the group dressed in formal black mourning attire, a purple cloak fastened across one shoulder and falling over the other billowing in the breeze. On his hip not obscured by the cloak hung a longsword. Gold glinted on his head, nestled atop ash brown hair. A woman hung on his arm, garbed in an ebony gown; her pale skin and white-blonde hair gave her a phantom appearance. Behind her loitered two women, wet nurses, Eoin guessed, by the twin babes cradled in their arms. The other members of the party remained encased in shadow.
            Detaching himself from his wife’s touch, King Morfael strode to the edge of the platform and barked a single command in Niwl that reverberated throughout the enclosure. In unison, everyone rose and continued about their responsibilities as though nothing paused them in the first place.
            The brothers gaped in shock as the figures behind the king and queen entered the light. Oliver, washed, shaven, and dressed in a clean shirt and trousers, and Muriel, her raven hair plaited neatly down the back of a deep emerald gown, gazed down at them with blank expressions at first. Joy dawned on Muriel’s pale face at the sight of her cousins, however, Oliver stared at them, his eyes cold, condescension riddling his manner. He portrayed the essence of his father.
            The resemblance was enough to make Eoin’s blood run cold.
            “You know these men?” King Morfael inquired, his noble forehead furrowed, marred by a white scar striping his tanned skin from above his left eye to his temple.
            Oliver nodded, his jaw uplifted and he peered. “They were members of my company before our unceremonious assault.”
            Morfael’s jaw tensed and his eyes narrowed. “An occurrence that I apologized profusely for, and shall not again. Your father’s influence sanctioned your release and protection, among countless items of trifle leisure, but does not grant you authority nor does it garner you the privilege of disrespect.” He wheeled on Oliver and snarled, “So for the final time, I suggest you know your rank.”
            Tension stifled the air until Brynna broke it. “These are your men?” she asked, her confusion evident. “When I spoke to them, their accents were clearly Niwl, yet they spoke Corrthainian I assumed, because they lived near the border.”
            Aidan squirmed, silently cursing his brother’s foolish lies. He prayed the guard stationed at the gate would not come forward and disclose their other falsehood.
            To his left, a set of doors opened and a prison guard emerged, Catrain at his heels. She squinted against the brilliance of the outside sun and threw her hand up as a shield, a dark shadow streaking across her pale face.
            “As promised,” Morfael was saying, “I ordered the release of your betrothed’s maidservant.”
            “Kate is her name, your highness,” Muriel declared, loud enough for her friends to hear.
            How…? Wondered Aidan, preparing himself to endure Eoin’s gloating later. No way they planned this together; when creating the ruse, Catrain must have thought of the same game…
            With confident strides, Catrain traversed the stretch of empty space between them, ascended the steps two at a time, and assumed her place behind Muriel. Nudging Aidan’s elbow, Eoin jerked his head in the direction of their friends, and mounted the stairs.
            “Kind of you to drag me into another one of your spontaneous schemes,” muttered Muriel out of the corner of her mouth to Catrain.
            “My schemes are never spontaneous,” Catrain returned, “they are carefully considered. This is and has been my plan from the beginning in the event we find ourselves in such a situation as this. And,” she added, helping herself to an apple from a basket carried by a passing servant and taking a crunching bite, “thus far you and Oliver have executed it well. Good thinking about my name; that was a detail I overlooked.”
            “I thought it simple and close enough to the truth that in the event one of us should slip, the error could be amended.”
            “Have you eaten breakfast?”
            “No, King Morfael announced that he wished us to accompany him into the courtyard, for your release, it seems.”
            “Good. I’m starved.”
            “Aidan and I ate already, but,” injected Eoin, leaning his head between them and ignoring the glares they shot at him, “I’m a bit famished now that you mention it.”
            Catrain rolled her eyes in irritation, muttering an incoherent phrase about silence before Muriel spoke again.
            “You should change first,” she said, indicating Catrain. “I argued on your behalf that you are to stay near me for the duration of our stay, including dining and rooming. Oliver would have pent you with the castle servants. He has taken his role with too much vigor, in my opinion.”
            “So I noticed.”
            At a silent command from Morfael, the company departed the courtyard, leaving behind the warmth of the sunlight and spring air, and entered the drafty corridors of the castle, lit by torches fastened at intervals where arching windows cut through the stone were absent. They proceeded inward and around several corners, Oliver and Morfael’s arguments revived, waking the sleeping twins, who added their wailing cries to the discord resounding through the hall. The cacophony masked all conversations from prying ears.
            Leaning toward Muriel while training her focus on constructing a mental map of the halls, Catrain asked, “Have you seen Skandar?”
            “What’s the matter with him?” queried Aidan.
            “He was taken ill with fever early this morning.”
            “How ill?” Eoin asked, voicing his concern.
            “The physician refuses to admit anyone until later this afternoon,” replied Muriel, her voice taut with worry. “Oliver petitioned to move him to the hall our chambers are located in, so he is near. After all of Oliver’s outrageous demands, King Morfael was only too willing to comply to such a small thing if it meant satiating him for a time.”
            Eoin’s mouth formed another question, but before it travelled out, Catrain answered it, as though reading his thoughts. “A bounty hunter inflicted a sword wound to his shoulder.”
            “Ah.” He grimaced. “Painful.”
            Clearing her throat, Catrain turned to observe a bird pecking at the soft cracks between two stones high in an arching window set in the wall above them. Four more windows illuminated the long corridor the group strolled down, passing first through shadow, then the sunlight wafting through the gaping opening in translucent shafts. She lifted her face to the sun, drinking it in.
            When she opened her eyes, the sun struck them in such a way that they appeared to glow, as though the vast forest within them was aflame. Eoin, who dropped to the back of the assembly, observed her from a distance. He smiled to himself. With his brother beside him and his friends before him, he felt at home, despite the alien surroundings and their ambitious masquerade that tottered on the precipice of disaster.
            Muriel pointed past Morfael and Oliver at the head of the procession, saying, “Kate, the hallway leading to our rooms branches off just ahead.”
            Catrain nodded.
            When they arrived at an intersection between the two perpendicular corridors, Muriel hastened forward and tapped Oliver on the shoulder. His counterargument combatting Morfael died in his throat as she whispered a short sentence into his ear. Then he snapped his fingers twice attracting the annoyed attention of King Morfael. Ruddy color deepened in the king’s cheeks, flushing his cheeks with renewed anger.
            “What?” he demanded, his voice tearing through his throat like a vicious growl.
            “The Lady wishes that a guard escort her maid to her room,” Oliver said, exuding a false humility that took Morfael aback. Eoin recalled that game from his youth, when Oliver bullied and manipulated him into obeying his every beck and call. First he engaged his target in a heated argument, and then feigned the meekness of the victim. Years past, before Oliver changed, Eoin had discovered through Catrain that Oliver used this as a defense against his father.
            And it worked. Morfael shouted, and moments later, a guard rushed down the hall to their right. When he assessed that no danger threatened his king, he bowed, received his orders, pivoted on his heel, and marched into the passage.
            “Should one of us accompany you?” asked Eoin.
            Catrain shook her head and without another word, trailed along behind the soldier.
            Eoin watched her turn a corner before asking Muriel and Aidan, “Should one of us have accompanied her?”
            “If she refused your offer the first time,” Muriel admonished, “then ‘tis possible she believes herself capable of managing on her own.”
            With a sideways look at his brother, Aidan whispered, “Let him go, else we shall never hear the end of it until she returns.”
            Understanding dawned on Muriel’s face, and Eoin jumped at the opportunity to explain.
            “I only thought that, after all that you and she endured in prison with strangers, perhaps a friend’s presence reduces anxiety-”
            Cutting him off, Muriel beamed, “Go, in case she requires a guide to the dining hall.”
            Eoin wheeled about and trotted away. He stopped after three paces, a sheepish grin creeping over his lips. “Where is the dining hall, lest I lead us both astray?”    
Catrain followed the guard deeper into the castle. New lines etched themselves in her mental map and staircases added depth until the picture formed and she felt confident that, if necessary, she could navigate her way back to the main hallway if necessary. When they arrived at a vestibule on the east wing of the castle, the guard stopped abruptly and Catrain, lost inside her mental map, veered to the side to avoid bumping into his armored back.
            Glancing up at her surroundings, she gaped. Before her, at the end of the hallway, a high, arching window spanned from floor to ceiling, but, what captured her awe were the diagonal bands of iron trellised across its width. Outside, hills rolled in emerald waves of a gentle sea.  
            A maid, a woman near the age of Lady Morgaine, appeared carrying a fresh dress draped over one arm and directed her to her chamber. The maid entered first, striding toward a four poster bed positioned against the far wall. She lay the dress atop a trunk at its foot and inquired if Catrain required anything else.
            Catrain replied, “No, all is well,” and the woman departed.
            Her footsteps resounded louder than normal, drawing Catrain’s attention to a grate about a foot long and a half foot tall fitted into a hole cut into the bottom of the wall.
            I must be mindful of that, she thought, wary of wandering ears.
            Overwhelmed by the myriad pieces gyrating around her slowly forming plan, Catrain sank onto the bed, relieved at feeling the goose-feather mattress beneath her back instead of stiff, pricking straw. Exhausted and her bones aching, she stared at the ceiling until the pattern of every crack in the stones seared itself onto her memory and basked in the solitude. At least on the road, watch duty allowed her ample time alone, a luxury denied her in prison.
            She patted the front of her leather jerkin that she wore over her shirt, hearing the satisfying, muffled crinkle of fresh parchment. Clenching her fist, she recalled the cramps that had nearly paralyzed her hand while she rushed to copy it down on Sir Reuben’s behest. Skandar lies ill and he has yet to read it. Did I wait too long? Doubt teased her. Everything we worked for ruined because I misjudged timing. Unfastening the cords that bound the vest up her back, she removed it and pulled the flat, leather-wrapped package from a pocket stitched inside.
            It smelled of sweat and ink and weeks of travel, but otherwise both documents—the parchment and the soft, thin leather folded around it—remained intact.  For the first time since capture, she unwrapped the leather and examined it, as was her custom the nights she assumed camp watch.
            An incomplete map of Corrthaine, Tir O Niwl, and Tir Thuaidh decorated the smooth surface, with large patches vacant from inside the borders of Tir O Niwl. While the pieces brought by Sir Reuben’s contacts within the Niwl ambassador’s entourage contained only Tir O Niwl, the Keeper had taken the liberty to include Corrthaine and the kingdom to the north so that, when they completed their quest, they would know where to meet with her mother, Sir Reuben and his family, and the rest of their amassing army in Tir Thuaidh.
            Giddy anticipation pounded her heart, squelched in a single instant by frustration at the empty gaps staring her in the face, resembling the missing pieces of her plan.
            Then the realization struck her like a lightning bolt.
            “He has them!” she exclaimed and smacked her forehead with the palm of her hand.
            Footsteps in the outside hall alerted her attention to the grate. She flipped over the side of the bed, landing in a crouch, and tucked the parchment and map between the mattress and the bedframe. She reached for her sword, cursing when she grabbed at air.
            Thieving scum.
            A knock rapped on the door and Eoin’s familiar voice called out, “Kate?”
            Guards are outside, she noted at his use of her alias.
            “Here,” she replied over her shoulder.
            The latch rattled.
“I’m dressing,” she added, shrugging out of her dirt-stained shirt and slipping the dress over her head. Retrieving the parchment and map from beneath the mattress, she cinched them beneath the bodice against her stomach. Once she unlaced her boots, she discarded her mud-splattered pants with her shirt and proceeded to finish the difficult task of tying up the back of the dress. She uttered an aggravated groaned. The shoulders were too narrow, the sleeves tight, and over an inch of fabric dragged on the floor, covering her bare feet.
            “No boots then,” she decided.
            She loosened her tangled plait of hair, combing her fingers through the snarls as she padded to the door.
            Eoin leaned against the wall outside, one foot tucked under him. When she emerged, still fussing with her hair, he shook his head and chuckled.
            “Permit me?”
            “Fine,” she grumbled and froze as he gathered her tresses and gently tugged them into a neat braid. He passed her the end, which she tied off with a strap, mumbling a quick thanks.
            “Muriel sent me,” he said. “She worried you would forget to eat.”
            “Did she?” Catrain mused.
            As they passed a closed door, it opened and a portly gentleman garbed in rich brown robes stepped from the room, carrying a thick ledger in one hand. He scanned the pages with deep-set eyes, his mouth pressed in a thin line above a trimmed brown beard that was flecked with gray hairs.
            “Are you the physician?” Catrain queried of the man.
            His head lifted from the ledger and he glanced around for a second, as though confused about who addressed him. His gaze rested on Catrain, and he bobbed his head. “Alasdair, court physician. How may I be of service to you?”
            “Not I, sir, but my friend. I believe you treat him?”
            “Ah, yes,” Alasdair motioned at the closed door. “The young man acquired a wound to the shoulder as well as a minor cut on his side. The injury to his arm, I fear, contracted an infection.”
            Catrain’s eyes flicked back and forth as she processed his assessment, which agreed with her own diagnosis.  “And?” she prodded.
            Sighing, the physician closed his ledger, holding it against his round belly. “While your friend is strong, and I believe that, allowed rest his condition will improve, the fever has not yet released its hold on him. ‘Tis rather strange, though.”
            Alasdair leaned closer. “I tell you this in confidence because you are the lad’s friends. Some years ago, King Morfael sustained a similar injury during a hunt. His wound, too, became infected, however, while my medicine cured him of his fever within a matter of mere hours, it works much slower on your companion.”
            “Forgive my ignorance, sir,” Eoin said before Catrain peppered the physician with another question. “but what do you mean?”
            “Either his affliction is worse than I suspected,” Alasdair paused and grimaced, “or he does not wish to fight it. Wherever he is,” he added, “he does not wish to depart. I, however, do want to leave. If you will excuse me, I am late for breakfast.”
            “Please assure me you do not believe him,” Eoin scoffed when the brown robes of the physician vanished around the corner. “Skandar unwilling to fight? His father, Bródúil, reasons enough to fend off the fever!”
            The princess set her jaw and balled her fists at her sides. Without explanation, she walked away, tripping on the too-long hem of her dress.
            Eoin trotted after her. She turned down a lonely passage and began descending a flight of stairs when he matched her rapid pace and caught her by the arm.
            “Cat, tell me your thoughts.”

            “There are too many at the present to decipher any explanation concerning Skandar’s ailment save that the medicine works slowly on him. Prayer ebbs my concerns about that, for the solution lies outside of my control,” she declared, twisting free of him and continuing down the stairs, she skipped the bottom most step and alighted on the landing. “My foremost thought is one of hunger. Where is the dining hall?” 

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I wish you all a good weekend, and God bless!