Thursday, September 22, 2016

The Mark of the King: Chapter Twenty-Six

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

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

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

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

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