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.