AT LAST. Sorry this one took so long to write, but it's done now... Lemme know what you think!
Mark woke with a start.
His entire body throbbed with pain. His head pounded dully, and it felt like someone inside his head was smacking the inside of his skull with a mallet, trying to get out. Squeezing his eyes shut against the pain, he shifted, and his bare back rubbed against the ground.
Wait… why was he lying on the ground? He opened his eyes again, and realized he was in the forest, lying flat on his back in a makeshift lean-to, the roof of which was made of branches stacked neatly against the trunk of a huge oak. Through gaps in the branches he could see trees swaying in the wind above him.
He started to push himself up on one elbow, then groaned aloud as pain shot through his ribs. He vaguely recalled the events of the previous night, but despite his certainty that it had been real, he held on to the foolish wish that it had all been a dream. Gingerly, he sat up, cradling his ribs. He felt pressure there, and glanced down at his chest to see the bloodstained bandage wrapped around his torso. He remembered the feeling of his bones snapping as Anduin’s tail hit his body, and grimaced.
“Mark? Are you all right?”
He twisted to see Mara poking her head inside the lean-to. The sight of his sister, dirty and disheveled though she was, gave him a sense of relative security. If Mara was there, they could get through this. If Mara were with him, he would be fine.
“I’ve been better,” he told her honestly. “Can- can you help me up?” He felt a bit awkward, asking his sister for help. But there was no way he was getting to his feet by himself.
Nodding, she stooped and slid an arm around his shoulders. He bit his lip and his breath hissed out between his teeth as he slowly stood. He had to stoop slightly in the low-ceilinged lean-to, and when he hit his head on one of the branches, he cursed quietly. Mara gave him a reproachful look and handed him a shirt.
Ignoring the expression she gave him, Mark glanced at the lean-to. “Who built this?” he inquired.
“Adam did it,” she replied. “He wouldn’t let me help.”
“I tried to let you help,” Adam’s voice said from nearby. He was sitting against a tree, watching them.
Mark twisted to look at his cousin and raised an eyebrow. “Which is it?” he asked.
Adam shrugged. “I dunno. You know women. They take everything the wrong way.”
Mara rolled her eyes. She turned to duck inside the lean-to, and stubbed her toe on a tree root. “Oh, dash it all!” she hissed.
“This from the one who scolded me for cursing?” Mark sked dryly.
“He’s right,” Adam put in unhelpfully.
Mara rolled her eyes. She turned to Mark once more, but he wasn’t paying attention. He glanced around the small clearing and frowned. “Where’s Aunt Marianna?”
Mara’s smile faded slowly and she looked at the ground. “She’s gone.”
“Gone? What do you mean, gone?” Mark demanded. “Where did she go?”
Adam stood abruptly. “Captured,” he replied. “Swiftviper has her. Or she’s dead. We’re not sure.”
“Oh, Father, no,” Mark breathed, closing his eyes. “How did it happen?”
“We thought she could take care of it,” Adam said, his eyes on the ground. “Mum said she could handle the girl, after all, she was almost defeated. She told us to run… said she could handle it.”
He wasn’t making any sense. Mark glared at him. “What did you do?” he asked, his voice low and dangerous.
“I… we left her,” Adam whispered. “She told us to run and we did.”
“You left her?” Mark demanded, his voice rising in pitch.
Mara and Adam were silent.
“Why the hell would you leave her? She’s no warrior. Sure, she handled that staff all right, but she was facing two wizards!”
“I- William was down!” Mara said helplessly. “We thought he was unconscious, and the girl was weak already- we thought-”
“Obviously you didn’t, though!” Mark replied angrily. “If you had really thought about it, you wouldn’t have left! She could be dead, for all we know, because you abandoned her! Do you even know what Mum, Dad, and Uncle Caleb are facing right now in K’Raya?” His voice broke and he swallowed past the lump in his throat as he looked around at his sister and cousin.
Adam took a deep breath. “Yeah, Mark, we know.”
Mark turned on him. “No. No, you don’t.” He could barely speak the next words. “They’re being tortured. They’re used to pain by now; they’ve been in that hell of a fortress for THREE YEARS! Do you think Aunt Marianna is used to that kind of pain? Because she’ll be next. For all we know, she could already be dead. What if she knows the secret the Dark Wizards are trying to discover? Do you think she would be able to resist the kind of interrogation Swiftviper will subject her to?”
Mara was crying, but Mark was too furious to care. “She was our only hope of finding Liphaeum. Not only that, she’s been there for us our whole lives, and when it really counted, you abandoned her.”
Mara let out a hoarse sob and Adam’s face turned red as he took a step towards his cousin. “Now, you listen. We did as she told us-”
“Exactly! When has Marianna ever put her own needs first? Of course she told you to go on without her; we were all in danger.”
He held their ashamed gazes for a long moment, then sighed bitterly, turning away. “Get your things. We need to get moving,” he spat over his shoulder at the two of them, before ducking back into the lean-to.
Marianna was in total darkness.
Upon arriving at K’Raya in the claws of a dragon who had been summoned by William, she had been wrestled through the doors of the fortress. Keeping his hold on Marianna’s arms, William made a small signal and they were instantly surrounded by four fully armed guards. “The dungeon,” he said briefly.
Marianna didn’t struggle as she was forced down several flights of stairs, down several hallways, and through several doors.
William strode along a row of cells. “Here, I think,” her captor murmured. “A little… family reunion.”
He thrust her forward through the door, and it slammed shut behind her with a clang. She landed awkwardly against the wall, then slowly sat down. Now that the light of the guards’ torches was gone, she was in complete darkness.
“Is- is anyone there?” she called softly.
“Marianna?” asked a man’s voice. She knew that voice; she had last heard it three years ago, the day its owner had been taken from her.
Sure enough, seconds later she found herself wrapped in the arms of Caleb Farlander. His grip was surprisingly weak, she realized when he kissed her. “What’s happened to you, love?” she asked. “Where are the others?”
She could hear the note of resignation in his voice. “They were taken hours ago to be questioned.” She could tell from his tone that ‘questioned’ really meant ‘tortured.’
Caleb stiffened suddenly. “What of the children?’
“They escaped,” she breathed. “I sent a message to Matthias. He will help them.”
He sighed. “Then they should be fine.”
“Swiftviper did say he might send murlemas after them,” she continued after a moment. “But Mark and Adam have faced those before, haven’t they?”
Caleb nodded. Murlemas occasionally strayed into the forestlands at the edge of the mountains, and once he, along with Emil and the thirteen-year-old boys, had joined the villagers to kill the beast. “They should be fine…” he trailed off, sounding unconvinced. “But I hope they reach Liphaeum soon.”
She looked into her husband’s eyes and kissed him again. Yes, she was scared of what might happen to her, but in this moment, they were both okay. No matter what happened, the two of them had been reunited, even if it would be for the last time. They fell sleep like that, cradled in each other’s arms.
A kick to the shin woke Caleb Farlander.
“Up, both of you. Now.”
His eyes flew open and he saw his wife sitting up dazedly, looking confused as she took in the sight of four guards standing outside the cell. Then comprehension dawned on her face and fear filled her green eyes. Caleb at first felt only the same resigned dread of what was about to happen, but of course Marianna didn’t know about this particular routine.
“Please… leave her out of this,” Caleb pleaded, standing. “She won’t be able to tell you anything-” He was cut off abruptly as a fist slammed into his jaw, knocking him backward. Marianna let out a soft squeak of surprise and reached towards him, only to be yanked to her feet as well.
“Lord Swiftviper summoned both of you, and both of you will come,” replied one guard briefly. “Now come along.”
The two of them were wrestled out of the cell and down a long hallway. Caleb knew where they were headed- he had been this way before, too many times.
Finally they reached a door. Upon being led inside, Marianna gaped as she saw two faces she hadn’t seen in years. “…Naia?” she breathed. “Emil?”
*hyperventilates* I'M SO EXCITED. Is it weird for me to fangirl over my own story? This one is intense!
What will happen to Marianna? Will Mark and the others get along again- ever? When will we ever catch a glimpse of the mysterious Andrew Swiftviper? And what in the world are 'Murlemas'?
Until next time,