Monday, June 5, 2017

The Mark of the King: Chapter Twenty-Seven

Sighing audibly, Catrain crossed her room, a well-worn path marked through the dust and dirt from where her feet traveled for the past hour since the sun peeked over the horizon and flooded her room with golden light. That early in the morning, it was atrocious. Yet there proved little she could do to smother it before her body adjusted to the prospect of day and, despite the sleep lingering in her eyes, and forced her to awaken.
Flynn confused her. He posed an enigma, a puzzle demanding to be solved. Something about him failed to add up, and she sensed something about him of which she unsuccessfully named. His story rang true, but she knew he omitted much of it. She never thought well remaining in one place. So she began to walk back and forth from the window to the opposite wall, a path she now traversed with her eyes closed and her thoughts elsewhere.
Why Corrthaine? Why run to Lord Joran? Why would Lord Joran accept him and promote him to his right hand for that matter? The answers she sought, no matter how many times she turned them over in her head, eluded her. More than once, out of sheer frustration, she punched the wall, the pain exploding across her bruised knuckles offering momentary clarity and an escape from the thoughts cycling in and out of her mind in a ceaseless tirade of images and connections that never yielded more information than what she already possessed.
She swiveled hard on her heel near the inner wall next to the grate above the floor.
“Cat, are you pacing?” Muriel’s muffled voice wafted between the walls.
“Nay,” her footsteps stopped. “Aye.” They resumed again.
            A groan sounded from the next room along with the muted whump of a body falling back against a mountain of pillows. “You will wear a hole through the floor, and then where will you be?”
            The princess smirked. “One floor below, I suppose.”
            Another groan, louder this time, and Catrain snickered behind her sleeve.
Startling at the closeness of Muriel’s voice, she wheeled about and stared at the grate, which Muriel’s unamused, sleep-laden face filled almost entirely, her temple pressed against the floor stones. Catrain dropped to her knees and crawled to the grate, laying on her stomach on the ground with her chin resting on her hands.
“When did you and Oliver plan for us to meet with Morfael?”
Catrain nodded. “I have a few questions for Skandar that I hoped to ask of him before.”
One of Muriel’s dark brows arched with curiosity. “Of what nature?”
“Tiem nobility,” she sighed and rubbed the heels of her palms against of her eyes until sparks of light appeared amidst the blackness. “It is rather boring, actually. While in the dungeons, Flynn mentioned his childhood in Tiem, and I wondered…”
“It poses an intriguing coincidence if he and Skandar are somehow connected.”
“Coincidence or a divine plan? Personally I choose to believe in the latter.”
“Alright, you piqued my curiosity,” Muriel scooted closer to the grate.
“You are welcome to accompany me if you wish.”
Muriel beamed and lifted herself off the floor. Catrain heard footsteps walking away from her as her friend called back, “Allow me to dress and I shall meet you in the hall.”
Popping onto her knees, and then to her feet, Catrain discarded her night clothes and tossed a dress over her head, pulled her hair into a loose plait that hung down her shoulders, and waited outside her chambers for another minute before Muriel emerged. Together, they strolled down the walkway and stopped before Skandar’s door.
Glancing over her shoulder, Catrain noted the sunlight streaming through the iron-lattice window and knew that Skandar was more than likely awake. She knocked, and at a welcome shout hollered from within, they entered.
They blinked as their eyes adjusted to the darkness. Skandar sat with his back facing the window, over which hung a thick blanket that dampened most of the sunlight. All the candles, misshapen sticks of lumpen wax and sitting on metal holders, had long-since cooled and likely not tasted the consuming bite of the fire since the night before.  
"Skandar, how are you?"
Grimacing, he rubbed his sore arm. "According to the physician, I fare better than I did yesterday. Thank you for asking."
“He visited you already?”
“Earlier this morning, aye.”
Moving to the window, Muriel began to pull aside the blanket, a crack of light shining on Skandar’s face.
Sharp needles of pain stabbed Skandar behind his eyes. “Leave it!” he barked, his hands flying to shield his eyes, and she froze. “Sorry,” he apologized softly, “Alasdair believes the fever weakened my eyes, making them sensitive to light. He believes it will pass as I recover.”
After dropping the blanket back in place and returning the chamber to darkness, Muriel sat on the edge of the bed and touched his shoulder gently, wary of his wound. “Still, if it persists—”
“You will be the first to know,” he promised, flashing her a quick, but genuine smile. Skandar’s gaze shifted past Muriel and combed Catrain, taking in her weary face, plaited hair with wisps framing her head like a halo, and the simple dress that fit her too loosely before focusing on her hands, more specifically, her fingers, which she fidgeted with.
His vision narrowed. Does she mean to kill me? Paranoia seeped in, wrapping its cold tendrils around his bones, and his vision threatening to gray. Now, while I remain in a weakened state? Was that the reason for meeting Flynn in the middle of the night?
"You wished to inquire something of me?" He guessed, pushing aside the doubts lest she note his hesitation and perceive his innermost thoughts.
"Aye, I did."
Idiot, he berated, she extends her hand in friendship and you see nothing but a cloaked dagger. Skandar sat up and mustered a smile, patting the edge of the bed near his legs. "Sit," he offered, and she complied. "I've been dying for someone to ask me something other than how feel, or what I wish to eat, or treating me as an invalid."
"Well I can assure you,” her mouth tugged into a smug grin, “you will not receive any coddling from me."
Amused, Skandar chuckled, then instantly regretted it as the action sent needles of pain stabbing through him. When the spasm passed, he propped himself up once more and turned an attentive ear to Catrain, who stared at him with concern. Rising, Muriel strode to the pitcher on the bedside table and poured a mug of water which he accepted gladly.
"Thank you,” he smiled at her when he regained his breath. “Go on,” he urged Catrain eagerly after sipping the drink and tasting instant relief. “Make your query; I am well."
"If you are certain," she folded her hands in her lap, fidgeting with her fingers nervously. "Who were the higher families in Tiem? And what of the nobility? Do you remember?"
This concerns Flynn. I knew it. He suppressed the ire roiling in his stomach, wetted his suddenly dry mouth again, and scrunched his face in concentration, mentally compiling a list of names and people he saw regularly at market and counting on his fingers. "Well, Lord Joran presided over the shire, but his Steward, Bernard oversaw his personal lands in his absence. Since Peter and Elaine owned their land instead of slaving over his, we hardly ever dealt with Bernard. Fawkes, the sheriff," an involuntary shudder rippled through him, "we encountered more often. One could easily mistake him for the lord of the manor,” he added under his breath, disdain evident in his bitter tone. “The thanes were," he listed several names, folding down a finger for each of them, in addition to those for Bernard and Fawkes, until only two remained. "Merchants traveled through, but never stayed long. Craftsman we had too, but none I recall off hand."
"Did any of them by chance have a son? A few years older than you at the most...?" She asked hopefully.
"Oliver, obviously."
Frowning, she folded her arms across her chest and glared at him. "Besides Oliver."
"Cat, it was only in jest."
She smirked.
"Well then, Bernard was old, his wife too. Far past the age to bear children.
“So their son, providing they had one, would be Sir Reuben's age or older.”
“Aye,” Skandar concurred, “Most of the thanes who married were too young to have a son the age you say. And Fawkes," he spat the name like acidic poison, "was the last person to have a child let alone love it."
Something that Flynn said in the dungeon struck Catrain as odd in that moment, and she pondered, Flynn described his father as loving, caring for both him and his mother. Yet he never joined them in Tir O Niwl unless...
"What about illegitimate children?"
Skandar scoffed, "If one conceived a child out of wedlock, I do not believe it would be common knowledge. Tiem was a relatively private community; people never questioned what you did not say. If a father acknowledged his bastard within the confines of his home, tongues would not wag unless permitted."
“Sounds lovely,” she mused.
“They were silent out of fear,” he stated, unceremoniously ending her daydream. “The nobles maintained a tight grip on the common folk, even those not directly subject to them. We feared stepping out of line, else we suddenly discover ourselves indebted in some manner to them and forced to repay them more than what we needed to survive.”
"How did I not know this? All this time and I was never aware of the happenings of my own country," she sighed, then voiced a new idea, "Did any of them die? The nobles, I mean."
Skandar scratched an itch beneath his hair, then stilled and answered somberly, "One thane died in the first bought of the Plague, the wave which stole my mother; the second, coming a decade later, killed another thane, a couple knights in the sheriff’s manor, and Sheriff Fawkes himself succumbed eventually."
"I see," she muttered glumly.
"Why the sudden curiosity, Cat?" he asked, although he knew the answer already. Flynn.
Rising from her seat, she smoothed her skirt and shrugged, "No reason. As you said, it was merely curiosity."
"Then why do I sense you concealing something? Come, Cat, do you not trust me?" he prodded.
“Do you not harbor secrets of your own?” one of her eyebrows raised condescendingly. "I suspected so. But if all reveals itself the way I believe it might, we may have one more ally than we thought. For the time being, rest, Skandar," she advised, "You must be hale and fit to continue your quest." Silently, she added, Both of them.
She was nearly out the door when she turned and poked her head into the room. “We planned to meet with Morfael in two hours.”
“And you hoped I would join you for moral support?”
“We hoped you would join us because you are a member of our company. A critical one, at that.”
“If that be the case, I shan’t miss it,” he winked, but felt no mirth inside as his mind roved to find the connection around which Catrain’s questions revolved before she produced it. He yearned to be one step ahead, to maintain at least a semblance of advantage in one miniscule area. To know his enemy entailed knowing Flynn, and already, Catrain ran far ahead of him. But he resolved to catch up. To catch up and to defeat Flynn before they turned against him.
Feigning another coughing spasm, he assured them that he only required rest and promised to see them soon and in better condition than the present. When they departed, he leaned back and retreated into his thoughts when the answer he knew all along struck him. “Ally? Oh Cat, you could not be further from the truth.” He balled the sheets in his fists, his body quivering with rage. Loathing erupted within him, coursing through his veins from a bottomless well.

King Morfael, with Princess Brynna and his wife seated at either hand of the large table in the great hall, leaned against the hard back of his chair and listened, stone-faced, as Oliver explained to him in little detail the nature of their quest. He recounted their flight in the dark hours from the Capitol in Corrthaine, their journey across the country, and their ambush by bounty hunters, but omitted Skandar’s eyes and Catrain’s bloodline. Whether Morfael chose to acknowledge Catrain as a servant as presented earlier or a lady such as Muriel, Oliver left for the king to decide.
            From time to time, the others interjected and commented bits and pieces of forgotten information to Oliver’s account, but for the most part, they stood silent at his sides with the exception of Skandar and Flynn, who, exhausted from the walk from their chambers to the hall, sat at the table, a fair distance from each other.
When Oliver completed their tale at the point of their imprisonment and release, they all held their breaths, waiting.
            The fire crackled in the hearth and the speckled falcon grazed its talons across the platform of its perch, but otherwise, the hall remained utterly silent. Morfael’s scowl deepened with every second that passed, seconds in which no one moved lest some spell break and judgement fall. Brynna cast questioning, curious glances at Aidan as though seeking his confirmation to their story. The queen, ever wraith-like, stared ahead, her gaunt countenance pale and wrought with worry.
            Then Morfael shifted, startling the Corrthainians, and stroked his chin thoughtfully as a dark glimmer ignited in his eyes and spread throughout his expression. The falcon spread its wings, beating them against the still air, opened its curved beak and let loose a screeching cry that resounded throughout the stone chamber. Even with the hood cloaking its beady eyes, Skandar felt threatened by the bird and its master.
            Any moment now guards will be summoned to drag us away to the dungeons, no doubt, Skandar grimaced, certain of their failure and resolving himself to death. If he barely survived prison once, he surely would not see release a second time. Swift execution, he reasoned, would be a mercy. The longer Morfael contemplated, the more antsy Skandar grew. I cannot survive another night among the mold and rats. I cannot. Then all this would be in vain. His legs bounced against the bottom of the table, urging him to summon whatever strength he retained and fly as far as possible before being stuck full or arrows or spears from the guards. His gaze shifted around the expanse of the hall, not daring to settle on any one particular thing, drawn immediately to any sudden movement.
            Instead, no knights with clanking weapons and heavy footfalls appeared in the doorway to haul them away. Thrice, the king tapped a finger on the table, the dull thuds echoing faintly off the stones. “What you say, provided its honesty, unravels much of what I did not comprehend. But by your story, you do not sound as those who are friends of Corrthaine, and seeing as though I am a friend of Corrthaine, I cannot directly aid you without breaking my alliance with King Fendral.”
            “Do you fervently believe in your friendship with Corrthaine? A country with leaders who would just as soon manipulate you and therefore assume control over Tir O Niwl,” questioned Oliver.
            A sly, if sober grin tugged at Morfael’s lips. “Do you think me a child that I do not know when I am tethered by strings growing ever taut? My awareness of the noose around my throat became present the very minute my father died.”
            “Then speak plainly, Morfael, and end your ceaseless riddles. They are tiresome and a waste of precious time,” demanded Flynn.
            Morfael’s smile curled and his fist tightened where it rested on the notched face of the table. “As I said before, I cannot help you directly. What I can do is have the memory of your stay slip my mind if and when questions arise from our mutual friend. After all, you have embarked on an honorable venture, and I feel as though I should atone for delaying you. What a mighty feat the discovery of Bródúil would be. Many passed through Tir O Niwl during my father’s reign. Unfortunately for some of them, they did not request my father’s gracious permission beforehand and were struck down in our market squares. I am not my father, and I am willing to extend protection to you from my soldiers as long as you tread within my borders. What say you to my offer?”
            Before the travelers agreed to a decision amongst themselves, Oliver said, “We accept, but ask what you desire in return. Such an offer cannot go unrepaid and we would be rude guests to not inquire your price and endeavor to pay it to the full extent of our purses,” he patted his sides. “Although we appear to be at a loss of funds in our treasury at the moment, courtesy of our bounty hunter friends. They helped themselves to all our supplies.”
            “I require nothing save that, when you locate Bródúil and return, you elevate my reputation as king among my people. Rumor spreads through my country that I am incapable of leadership equal my father’s.”
            “And are you?” Flynn goaded.
            “That remains to be seen. Merciful and helpful, I wish to be at times, and just and fair at others,” said Morfael. “Now appears a time to exercise the former, to forgive past wrongs in order to accelerate a better cause and a future. Tell me, please. What are your plans once you attain Bródúil?”
“A great ill lies upon Corrthaine,” Skandar said after a moment’s hesitation, “I wish to avenge those fallen in its wake of death and ruin.”
Learning forward with interest, Morfael concluded simply, “You desire to kill King Fendral and Lord Joran. Fear not,” he chuckled upon observing the color drain slightly from Skandar’s ruddy complexion. “this conversation, also, will conveniently slip from memory.” He settled back in his chair again, exuding comfort and calmness. “Understand, though, that should Corrthaine call for aid during your conquest, as an ally, I am duty-bound to honor our treaty and give it. To deny so, I risk pouring Corrthaine’s wrath upon my people.”
“It is not Corrthaine’s wrath you should fear,” mumbled Catrain.
Cocking an eyebrow, his scar puckering, Morfael inclined his head in her direction. “Pray, good lady, if not Corrthaine, then whom should I fear?” He maintained an air of skepticism, although Skandar perceived the king knew more than he let on, in fact, he appeared to test Catrain, to evaluate her bluff.
Staring him unwaveringly in the eye, her gaze cold and dead, Catrain responded, “Our mutual friend, as you so name him.”
As though an arrow skewered him to the high back of his chair, the young king sat bolt upright, the color draining from his tanned cheeks. Smug pride inflated inside Skandar at the shift in the tables, but it quickly evaporated with he noticed how Brynna surveyed her bother with wide and fear-filled eyes, tears brimming in their depths and shining in the flickering firelight. The weight of her concern for her brother touched him; these people, same as himself and his companions, struggled to survive however they could in the moment, seizing every opportunity to gain the advantage. Over them. Over their mutual friend.
No one but Lord Joran instilled that aura of terror. Anger replaced smugness and boiled within Skandar, festering inside him upon the realization that to this exact moment in their quest, Lord Joran had them on strings, pulling and tugging, manipulating them like wooden puppets in a child’s story in the middle of a market square for all to see.
Recovering, Morfael said softly, “Then I suggest you gather your belongings and ready yourselves to depart as soon as your companions,” he indicated Skandar and Flynn with a finger, “are well enough to travel. If our mutual friend is to be feared and the outcome predetermined despite our efforts, time is essential and I swear on my father’s grave I will help you however I can. We all are slaves to this man, whether we realize it or not, and I believe this present situation we now find ourselves addressing may be tailored to benefit us all,” he rose and made for the door, beckoning them to follow. “Whatever you require,” he continued, “I shall bestow it to the best of my abilities. Forget our arrangement. My reputation among my people matters naught in light of this. After all, of what use serves a favorable reputation for a dead man?” He chuckled in spite of the situation and stood, crossing the distance between them in a matter of mere steps. “Compile a list of all the bounty hunters stole from you with as much detail as possible, and I shall endeavor to recover them and return them to you before you are ready to resume your journey.”
“If you care not about your reputation, yet you claim to see mutual opportunities, what then do you name your price from us?”
Morfael paused at the doors, “Freedom out from under the thumb of a tyrant. I did not become king to become subject to another man’s authority, nor subject my people to his rule. Your success on your Quest is all I ask. Succeed, and you free us all.”

“Succeed? One minute he sought to deliver us up to True King knows who or where, and the next, he burdens us to succeed, saying it will deliver him. We have not numbers! We do not even possess our weapons, because our weakness and the traitor among us,” Skandar shot Flynn a wicked glare and wished his sword hung at his hip so he might smite the knight, “caused us to lose them.” His hands trembled and his vision darkened as his grip on his anxiety and rage slipped. “How are we to face Corrthaine and Tir O Niwl’s armies combined—because Fendral or Joran or whoever rules at the time will call upon Morfael for aid and Morfael already declared himself his obligation to supply it—when we could not even fend off a band of thieves?” His breath came in ragged gasps, his chest heaving as he struggled to calm his inhalations. Panic escalated within him and he began to pace frantically across his chambers, ignoring the pain shooting through his shoulder. They needed to leave. And he needed answers.
 Flynn shot to his feet. “Traitor?” he hissed, reaching for a dagger, but he grasped only air and his hand fell back to his side. “I ran to try to spare you, to draw them away! I ran to protect you imbeciles. Your capture is on your own head! Your injury on your head because you failed to listen to my instruction!”
“You call beating me and belittling me training and instruction?” Skandar’s voice rose along with his anger.
“Only because you refused to listen like a petty child!”
“You killed my friend!” roared Skandar, the world flashing black. “You cut him down when he was defenseless, and you expect me not to despise you for that with every fiber of my being? If my only crime is pettiness then so be it! You murdered the innocent. You left children fatherless.” Just like your father.
Before Skandar’s eyes, something inside Flynn broke. The fire died in his ice-blue eyes and his shoulders drooped, his appearance withered and weary. “I am a murderer. That sin I confess to you and to the True King. But I have not betrayed any of you since stepping foot outside the Capitol walls. That I swear to you on my life.”
“You might have to give it before I could ever trust you,” Skandar muttered, the world returning to normal. He became aware of the others’ as they stood warily around the room, poised and ready to drag Flynn and Skandar apart should they resort to blows.
            Uncomfortable silence settled about the chamber, thick with tension as Skandar and Flynn retreated to their respective sides, locking eyes and glowering at each other with unspoken malice.
            Then Catrain cleared her throat. “I realize now that I should have told you about this sooner. Forgive me for the delay.”
            “Told us what?” asked Eoin, his query supported by curious nods from the others.
            “Not a fortnight before we left Corrthaine, a messenger arrived from Tir Thuaidh with a letter for Sir Reuben.”
            “What has that to do with anything?” said Skandar.
            “Patience. The letter was from my father.”
            Skandar’s jaw dropped and his attention snapped from Flynn to her. “I believed Prince Garren was dead.”
            “We all did,” Oliver agreed, “Cat? The Prince is alive?”
            She smiled, and it irked Skandar that she had not seen fit to trust them with this information until now. “It was necessary for certain people to believe he was dead. In truth, he has been amassing a steadily growing force in Tir Thuaidh. For over two decades now refugees on the run from my grandfather have been smuggled out of Corrthaine north into Tir Thuaidh and west into Tir O Niwl. Those in the north are gathering, preparing to march on Corrthaine at summer’s end. Those hiding in Tir O Niwl are waiting to receive the message to begin their exodus.”
            “Why continue on the quest for Bródúil? Why not, when Skandar and Flynn’s strength return, travel instead to wherever your father is? We would join his army. If the prince is alive, Corrthaine is saved!” Aidan rejoiced, his face alight with eagerness and hope. “Who has need of a legend, after all, if the True King is on our side?”
            “Bródúil holds no significance to me aside from presenting an intriguing tale,” admitted Catrain with a sideways glance at Skandar, “but Edmund is still lost, and my father’s letter mentioned nothing of him.”
            “What did the letter contain, Cat?” Oliver shifted his weight, leaning toward her with interest.
            “Instructions. He and other refugees forced to embark on the Quest are scattered about the clans in the north, but are slowly congregating. Others will join him, but my mission is to warn them and urge them to begin to move. We have precious little time to act as it is. If given to the right person, the one my father names the Wolf, word will spread to the other sanctuaries.”
            “Do you know who this Wolf is?”
            She shook her head. “He was from before my time. And if he was charged with the Quest, his name is forbidden to all in the castle save the Keeper, but Reuben told me that to protect the Wolf, he would not speak his name. Walls have ears, as I am certain you all are well aware.”
            Eoin lifted his hand. “Where hide the refugees?”
            “I cannot disclose their exact locations to you. Unfortunately,” she continued, her expression downcast, “I myself know not where they all lie. Which proves a hefty problem if we aspire to achieve success of this mission. Due to the manner of its orchestration, no one person knows where they all hide. Specific people in Tir O Niwl who express sympathy to our cause aided and supplied some locations, but others were lost.”
“Spies? The knight who died…” understanding dawned in Eoin and his mouth opened to query again, but Flynn, who sat beside him, raised his leg and brought his heel down hard upon Eoin’s foot. The younger man yelped, falling into the wall as he massaged the top of his boot and stared at Flynn, his face twisted with befuddlement. “Right, ears everywhere,” he mumbled.
Muted whispers ensued, planning, questioning, examining every contingency possible in the time that followed in vague detail as they all wondered how much Morfael ordered the guards to relate to him during a debriefing council later. Only Skandar feared not the guards stationed outside who undoubtedly eavesdropped with the intent to report back to Morfael. No, he feared the ears inside belonging to Flynn and the information he sent to his master.
For two days they plotted and schemed, devising traveling actions and scouring the castle maps for directions, which Princess Brynna readily provided, along with anything else they requested. She often stopped by their chambers, offering up what information she knew about the terrain and travel time, and delivering extra food upon Aidan and Eoin’s frequent requests.
Skandar recalled the spare hours in his youth spent bending over maps of the Four Kingdoms, however incomplete his supply, and enjoyed adding more information of the plains, forests, and mountain ranges to his memory. So far, their plans consisted of traveling further west into the heart of the forests. Although Catrain refused to show them the framework of Sir Reuben’s plans until they were miles away from the castle, she appeared confident about the general direction and that it contained what they sought.
Skandar slowly regained his strength, although his sensitivity to light lingered on. Muriel and Oliver asked about it each day, and every time he responded, “It has not changed.” With each acknowledgement of his condition, his heart sunk deeper into confusion and discouragement, and he itched to run.
The second night, he crept out of bed and walked the length of the hall, pushing his stamina to the limits. He strolled from window to hall entrance, smiling feebly at the guards who otherwise left him be, stopping to rest only twice during his five laps. Exhausted, he slunk back to bed and promptly fell asleep as soon as he dropped onto the mattress, too tired to dream.
The following afternoon, Princess Brynna arrived at their doors with summons from Morfael. They gathered in the hall eagerly, their spirits rising when they beheld several servants standing silently along the wall with large bundles cradled in their arms.
“My men recovered your weapons and other effects in several outlying villages yesterday evening. It appears they wandered about attempting to sell them. I fear they consumed your rations and spent your money on ale among other articles of leisure,” a bemused look transformed Morfael’s countenance from its usual glower. “Perhaps the latter helped you. They were all too drunk to protest or resist. Tis also fortunate the craftsmanship of your weapons is so magnificent, especially this sword,” he reached into a pack and withdrew Skandar’s sword. His heart leapt at the sight of it; the gold knotted cross weaving itself intricately around the hilt and crossguard glinting in the torchlight, familiar, and bringing back a flood of comforting memories of Sir Reuben and his family, of a better time and a better life.
Holding it aloft, Morfael examined it, caressing the blade with a gloved finger. “Utterly magnificent,” he breathed. “To whom does it belong? You?” he pointed at Oliver.
Skandar stepped forward. “Me. It was a gift from a mentor and friend.”
“You are fortunate to know such a man,” Morfael sheathed the sword and handed it to Skandar. “Never lose his favor. A handful of close friends is worth more than an entire army.”
“My thanks, your Highness,” Skandar bowed, and then fastened the sheath belt around his waist, smiling as the comforting weight rested against his thigh.
“You need not concern yourselves with the rogues again,” added Brynna as the servants relieved their bundles on the floor and Skandar and his companions scurried to dig through them for their belongings. “Bounty hunters we pay. Thieves we imprison.”
Skandar stared at the young woman. For all her softness and grace, she possessed a hidden ferocity and determination that mirrored her brother’s. A grin crept onto his lips, and he followed her line of sight to Aidan, who beamed at her even as he unfolded his axes and tucked them into his belt.
“Seems the princess fancies your brother more than I thought,” remarked Flynn to Eoin as they rummaged through a bundle beside Skandar.
Eoin choked on air as he inhaled sharply and his eyes flicked to Catrain, who was elbow-deep digging around in a bag. “What?”
Flynn smirked and nodded at Brynna. “That princess.”
Eoin threw a glance over his shoulder at the blonde-haired woman lingering behind him, her attention riveted on Aidan with timid curiosity,
“You are mistaken,” Eoin argued, steadfast in his denial.
“It appears losing one’s heart to royalty is common in your family.”
Eoin’s eyes bulged, and Skandar fought the urge to laugh, ducking behind his hand. Chuckling, Flynn rose to his feet and snatched up his ebony sword, strapping it to his side.
For the better part of half an hour, they swooped upon various piles, sorting through the mess and trading others’ property for their own, making quick work of the haphazard assortment.
“I have five daggers unaccounted for,” Flynn declared when the large pile dwindled into smaller, organized stacks of folded clothes.
“How large?”
“Small. The length of my hand.”
Sweeping the room lazily, Skandar said, “I fear they are gone. Something so small would sell for a lower price while a sword would be too expensive to purchase, thus the reason most if not all peasants are defenseless,” he spat the last word, envisioning Peter.
“You think I have not known poverty?” Flynn uttered hoarsely, so low only Skandar, who sat closest to him, heard. And ignored.
“For one with such a weapon himself,” Morfael implied the sword resting beside Skandar’s embroidered cloak at his legs, “how came you by such personal wisdom?”
“I was raised in a farming village. I learned to barter, how to ensure a greater profit, what common people tend to purchase and what they overlook and dismiss as too great a cost for something they would not use in their lifetime. As I said, many peasants spend their lives providing for their families as well as possible. They cannot defend themselves, especially against mercenaries who abuse their power.”
Morfael stroked his chin thoughtfully. “I wonder, what would happen if I trained those interested in learning to fight? Imagine the prospects if an entire country knew how to defend itself as a military unit. You pose an interesting idea; one I hope to pursue with every faculty available to me.” He cleared his throat, “Five daggers, is that all you lack?”
“I believe so,” replied Oliver after receiving a general tacit consensus from his companions.

“Good. Whatever happens from this day onward, please remember the aid I have provided you and the hand I extend to you in alliance. Remember me as I am here, for I cannot promise the same the next time we meet. These only I request of you. Succeed, and remember me.”

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