“Time, really?” Anger and disbelief emanated from Morteus. “Time for what? Or just time in general?”
Marlin shook his head, his features a little awed. “Something that could freeze time.”
Morteus stood for a second, gaping at him. Then he gave a cross between a bemused laugh and an angry scowl. “Do you really think I’m so obtuse? I may be a child, but I’m not that dim-witted. Your far-fetched tales about King Alistair being my father were crazy enough to believe- and freezing time?” He shook his head. “This is it. I’m out of here.” He pushed himself out of his chair and turned towards the door.
Marlin grabbed his hand in a firm grasp, and Morteus was unable to tug his hand away. He stumbled backwards as Marlin let go, toppling over the chair behind.
“Listen to me. This is of great significance,” Marlin said in a low voice, his eyes regarding Morteus in interest.
Morteus stayed sprawled on the floor, stunned. Then he picked himself up, nodding. He set the chair upright and sat down in it, turning his cautious eyes back on Marlin’s gaze. “You’re not mentally disturbed, are you?”
That broke the tense atmosphere. Marlin laughed, his hoarse voice echoing off the walls. “No, I’m not. But Periphral was after something that your father found in Von Wreal’s treasure trove.”
“Surprise me. Time?” Heavy skepticism coloured Morteus’ tone. “How can you find time?”
“You can’t find time,” Marlin was woefully serious. “No pun intended. You find the gem.”
“The gem?” Morteus asked, his face flashing with different emotions until he settled on incredulous.
“A gem that can make its owner do anything he or she liked, without having anyone realize,” Marlin kept a straight face, and betrayed no emotion.
There was a brief silence.
“That’s- that’s not possible,” Morteus rolled his eyes, then stopped abruptly at Marlin’s expression. His mouth dropped open. “You’re kidding, right?”
“You think I’d lie?” Marlin asked wryly. “It’s hardly something to joke about.”
“It’s implausible,” Morteus answered him, laughing. “Anyways, King Periphral never mentioned it, ever,” he was starting to wonder if anything Marlin said was true. “Are you questioning my sanity?”
Marlin breathed heavily, suppressing his flaring anger. “If King Periphral wanted to kill you, I doubt he would mention it.”
“Still, you have no proof,” Morteus frowned, obstinate. “You don’t really think I’d believe this, do you?”
“Well, it’s up to you whether you believe me or not. But back then, everyone was fighting for control over this… Gem. But the thing is, while the holder of the gem has it, he can freeze time and take as long as he liked to search out his enemies. So you had to be impulsive, and steal it from him…” Marlin said, a sad reminiscent gleam in his eyes.
“King Periphral attacked your father because of his daughter, because of land, and because of this gem that can bring you unlimited time,” Marlin turned the full force of his hard gaze on Morteus.
“Does that… Does that mean King Periphral can’t be killed?” Morteus’ eyes widened and he clutched his chest, grasping the implications of this. “That means he’ll be ruling this country… Forever? I mean, if he could freeze time… He’ll still die when he reaches a certain age… But he could just freeze time before he died and live for the rest of eternity.”
Marlin nodded approvingly, a small smile tugging at his beard. “Not bad, not bad…” Then he flashed a smile, a considerably lighter mood coming over him. “But I doubt he’d do that. This gem is for fools. While you’re frozen in time, you’re alone. Everyone else is just that, frozen, fixed there until the spell is lifted. No one would want to be utterly alone forever.”
Morteus snorted. “There’s no proof it exists,” he motioned with his hands. “You wouldn’t know if he’s already used the gem countless times, or not. No one would no but him.”
“Exactly,” Marlin said, but a small crease in his eyes told Morteus that he had other concerns. “But the thing is, no one knows, so they give it the benefit of the doubt. It is intriguing…”
Morteus shook his head, anger rising from the pit of his belly. Even if the gem was real, Periphral had killed his dad. Why would Marlin lie about this to him? He looked into Marlin’s kind eyes and believed him.
“I can’t believe such a thing exists,” he said to himself.
“It doesn’t,’ Marlin said, smiling.
“What?” Morteus’ breath whooshed out of him. “It doesn’t exist? What are you playing at?” He stood up threateningly, angry tears beginning to form.
“It doesn’t now,” Marlin said softly. “It used to. It was a motive for King Periphral to attack your father. It melted in a fire after King Periphral conquered your kingdom.”
“Oh,” Morteus looked down at his sandals, his cheeks turning red. “Sorry.”
“It’s alright,” Marlin nodded understandingly.
Morteus waited a few seconds, then looked up at Marlin consultatively. “What does this come down to? What can I do?”
“What do you want to do now?” Marlin asked gently. “You can’t go back, and you’ve nowhere to go, nothing to do.”
Indecision and uncertainty wrecked Morteus’ mind. His fury flared again as he thought of King Periphral. He couldn’t think- the flames burning viciously in him were too strong. There was nothing but rage and despair.
“I want to kill King Periphral.”
Morteus blurted it out without thinking twice. Surprised by his own impulsiveness, his despair dissipated. “That’s right,” he said to himself, “that’s what I want to do.”
Marlin was shocked by Morteus’ outburst. He quickly rearranged his features to a more neutral expression. “Revenge?” He began shaking his head, but then he stopped and assessed Morteus. “A worthwhile task,” he said, eyeing him. “One I never considered, much. When King Alistair was overthrown, I was furious, of course. But by the time I recovered, King Periphral had proven to be a good king. I had no more reason to kill him than I had to kill anyone else.”
“You won’t stop me, will you?” Morteus asked, halfheartedly. He somehow hoped that Marlin would be against killing the king, and hoped that he would convince him not to embark on this insane adventure. On the other hand… Revenge. A wild burning hunger lit in Morteus’ soul.
Marlin shook his head, a smile touching his lips. Morteus noticed that it didn’t touch his eyes. “No, I won’t stop you,” Marlin said reassuringly. “The problem is, how are you going to kill the king?”
Morteus’ heart stopped, his wild fantasy going down the drain. “I didn’t think of that,” he said, feeling a little humiliated. “No one would support me, against the king- no one has any qualms about living peacefully under Periphral.”
Marlin nodded, his old face surveying him, thinking. He seemed to settle on a decision, and he spoke. “You mustn’t let your hopes be diminished by this. For one, we’ve both lived in the castle, so we know how to penetrate its walls.”
Morteus lips lifted a little, but then he frowned as he contemplated his words. “We’ve both lived in the castle? You’ve lived in the castle?”
“Did I say that?” Marlin said hastily. “I meant you’ve lived in the castle, not me,” he looked away, not meeting Morteus’ eyes. “Anyways. How are you going to kill the king?”
A thought struck Morteus and his expression became animated as he put his hand on the table. “There may be a way around this.”
Marlin raised his eyebrows. “How?”
“You see, I overheard Periphral in a conversation about attacking Cardiza.” Morteus seemed to wrestle with his emotions between delight and horrification. “If somehow, this leaked out, it would cause everyone to doubt King Periphral.”
Marlin raised his eyebrows. “Interesting. But do you have proof? And even if you do, do you know what this will cause? This would have grave repercussions on the nation.”
Morteus smile faded a little and he frowned slightly. “I don’t really have proof. And wouldn’t any scandal cause disorder? Then I could kill the king in the midst of the confusion.”
“You seek to disarm King Periphral so you can take revenge on him easily,” Marlin twisted his fingers together. “But you cannot disarm the nation. If news leaked out that King Periphral was not to be trusted, it will surely cause him big distress, but would also plunge our nation into chaos. Which I assure you, is not what you want.”
Morteus nodded. “I see your point. I guess I’ll have to find something else to accuse the king of.”
“No!” Marlin’s expression was harsh and disapproving. “Do not seek revenge in underhanded ways! There is no glory or honor in that. The only way is to fight Periphral face-to-face, as a man.”
“That would probably mean my death,” Morteus said glumly. “I could never defeat King Periphral.”
Marlin shook his head again, grinning. “Not unless I teach you how to fight.”
A bright smile lit up Morteus’ face. “Really?” Them doubt overwhelm him. “Are you sure?”
Marlin nodded, standing up. He wandered around the room, picking up a large bag and throwing in what seemed like a random jumble of items. He grabbed a few other bags and looked at Morteus.
“Follow me,” he said, walking out to the door. He pushed the flat wooden plank open, letting in the dim light of the setting sun. Morteus looked up questioningly. “We’re going to start training today,” Marlin said firmly, a light blazing in his eyes. “I feel a change coming on, and I don’t think it was any coincidence that you ended up at my doorstep today.”
Not understanding, Morteus shrugged and followed Marlin out the door on to the cobbled streets. Marlin closed the door and barred it, turning to the horse that stood impatiently in front of his shop. “Is this horse yours?”
Morteus smiled. “Yes, she is.” Majesty neighed and snorted upon seeing its owner.
“Oh, Majesty,” Morteus reached up to pat her black, silky mane. Majesty whinnied softly. Morteus turned and looked doubtfully at Marlin, and Marlin smiled in encouragement.
“We’re not going far, but having a horse would get us there faster,” Marlin nodded. “Would you mind if I rode her as well? It’s a nice horse.”
Morteus trusted Marlin now. Marlin had offered him help, regardless of the reasons hidden behind. “No problem. King Periph- Well, he gave her to me for my birthday,” he said softly, caressing Majesty.
Marlin fell silent.
“Well, we don’t have all day,” he snapped abruptly. “Get on her!” He attached his bags to her saddle, motioning for him to get on.
Morteus swung himself onto Majesty’s back, then offered a hand to Marlin. Marlin ignored the hand and leapt up onto the horse with ease.
“That way,” he pointed down the alley. “Turn right onto the main street.”
Morteus tapped his heels gently into Majesty’s ribs, and she trotted forward. They rode in silence until they reached the main road. There were a few people milling about, but no one cast so much as a glance at them. Small shops lined the street, and a sandy breeze blew dust into Morteus’ eyes, blurring his vision.
Ahead of them, the main road continued to a small, forest-covered hill. Behind them, the road led to the castle. Apprehensively, Morteus tilted his head slightly to look at Marlin.
“No, not to the castle. Forward towards the hill there. Hurry up, will you? I want to get there before dark.” Marlin said, a little impatiently.
Morteus nodded in acknowledgement and leaned forward, flicking on the reins. Majesty lurched forward and broke into a fast gallop, nearly throwing Marlin off.
The wind rushed past them as they charged up the windy road. There was only this road, and a few little alleys leading off elsewhere. It was a relatively small settlement- about a thousand people lived in this small town beside the castle.
Within a few minutes, they had come to the main plaza where all the townsmen met. It was a squared, cobbled area, surrounded by brownish buildings made of clay and wood on all four sides. There were small roads that branched out, and the main road cut through between the buildings on the south side.
Majesty slowed down, her ears twitching. The buzz of the people in the square irritated her sensitive ears. The place was crowded- there was no way Majesty could charge through them.
Marlin stiffened as he saw a small patrol of soldiers at the far corner of the square. “Keep your head down,” he whispered to Morteus. Morteus obeyed without a sound. Marlin nudged Majesty forward, and they maneuvered through the crowd of men and women clad in leather boots and brown cloaks. Morteus chuckled to himself. They all looked so alike in brown.
After what seemed like an age, they reached the other side of the plaza, and Marlin dug his heels into Majesty’s back. Majesty neighed, then galloped forward. The sun was lowering over the trees now, and Morteus could see that the road only led up to about two kilometers in front of them. Behind that, it was just rows and rows of dense forest on the hill.
Snow-capped mountains rose up from behind the hill, and no other town was in view as far as Morteus could see. They were completely surrounded by mountains, except for a little valley that could be guarded easily. It was a strategic location for a castle, Morteus thought to himself, a little grudgingly.
It wasn’t long before they reached the forest periphery, and Morteus held Majesty back on her reins. He turned to look at Marlin expectantly.
Marlin arched his eyebrows. “Well, keep going! As I said, we don’t have all day!” He motioned for him to go forward into the dense forest. Vibrant green trees sprung up from the ground, and there were crackling leaves on the forest floor. Vines twisted between the trees and Morteus looked a little uneasy in approaching the pathless forest.
“But- There’s no… road.”
“Don’t be a coward, boy,” Marlin snapped. “Hurry!”
With an anxious look, Morteus flicked Majesty’s reins and pursed his lips shut as they plunged into the forest. It was getting dark already, and it was even darker under the leaves of the trees. Only small flecks on sunlight dappled the forest ground, and the soft squelching thuds of Majesty’s hooves sinking into the muddy combination of decayed leaves and upturned soil didn’t do much to comfort Morteus.
“Marlin?” Morteus couldn’t bear it any longer.
“Yes?’ Marlin answered as if they’d known each other for the longest time.
“Where were you planning to go? It’s getting dark, and I don’t think we’ll get back before dusk,” Morteus shifted on Majesty’s back.
“We’re not going back,” Marlin replied dully. Before Morteus could collect his thoughts and exclaim his surprise and protest, Marlin explained. “If King Periphral wanted to kill you, he could easily find you in that small town. We have to hide someplace secluded, and I don’t think we could find a place for you to train in that cramped shop of mine.”
Morteus opened his mouth to resist, but could find no reasonable argument. He closed his mouth and opened it again, then clamped it shut.
“Do you trust me, Morteus?” Marlin asked, interrupting the pitter-patter of Majesty’s hooves.
“As much as I could trust anyone else,” was Morteus’ blunt answer. “At least you could’ve told me where we were going.”
They rode through the forest for about a quarter of an hour, and Morteus noticed that the trees seemed to be thinning. They had arrived at a small clearing about twenty or thirty meters wide. Majesty whinnied, throwing back her mane.
Marlin dismounted the horse and patted the damp soil. “This will do,” he said.
Morteus stared at him from on top of the horse.
“What are you waiting for?” Marlin shook his head. “Get down from your horse and tie her to one of the trees here. We’re settling down here for tonight.”
Morteus remained on the horse, rigid with disbelief. “You can’t mean here? It’s damp and in the middle of nowhere!”
“Don’t exaggerate,” Marlin rolled his eyes. “Obviously you’ve been pampered by that king of yours. Just come down. You’ve got no other choice. And I find the damp floor quite inviting, actually. It’s preferable to sleeping on hard rock.”
He pulled out the pack of items he had brought along, and Morteus realized with a start that Marlin had packed in items that they needed to survive outdoors. Besides from a collection of weapons, Marlin had brought a small cauldron, water skins, some food, and little bits of things that were handy for outdoors.
Morteus jumped off Majesty with a small sigh, tying her to a sturdy tree. Then he selected a fallen log, taking great care to choose one with the least insects. He was satisfied with his inspection, and sat down on the log, staring at Marlin.
“Don’t just sit there!” Marlin barked at him, and Morteus gave a start at the harsh approach Marlin had taken on him. “Since you’re now under my wing, you have to earn your keep,” he said, and Morteus looked at him in disbelief.
“I didn’t know this… Snapping and barking was part of the deal,” Morteus grumbled, still a little startled.
“Joking, Morteus,” Marlin’s mouth twisted into a lopsided grin. “But would you find some firewood? It gets cold at night.”
While Morteus wandered about collecting twigs and branches that were relatively dry, Marlin cleared a small piece of ground in the middle of the clearing and managed to set up a small fire.
Morteus returned with more branches and sat on the edge of his fallen log, staring at the crackling flames. Marlin busied himself with boiling water in the small cauldron, throwing in bits and pieces of meat and vegetables.
The smell of meat stew wafted through the air and awakened Morteus’ senses. Rubbing at his growling stomach, he realized he hadn’t eaten since the morning.
They sat there in silence, waiting for the water to boil. Morteus picked at a flaky piece of brown wood, getting gritty bits of wood in his fingernails. He shifted uneasily under Marlin’s gaze.
Marlin sat with his hands clasped together, his dark eyes sparkling in the dim light.
Morteus looked down at his soiled feet, digging into the mud with his sandals.
“The stew’s ready,” Marlin reached over for the cauldron, his voice gruff. He passed a wooden bowl over the Morteus, and Morteus took the bowl from him, his hands grateful for the warmth.
He scarfed it down, too hungry for words. He couldn’t care less about how hot it was, and just devoured the entire bowl within a few seconds.
“Than-ke-yoo,” Morteus said with his mouth bulging, a little late. Marlin smiled despite himself.
“Hungry, aren’t you?” Marlin stretched a hand out for his bowl. “Seconds?”
Morteus started nodding, then shook his head as he saw that Marlin hadn’t eaten yet. “No, thank you,” he shook his head. “You eat first.”
Marlin took the gesture with a smile and ladled some stew into the one bowl, wolfing it down. He wiped his mouth across the back of his hand, got up, and walked towards Majesty.
“We’ll be needing this,” he untied another one of the bags from Majesty, taking off the leather cover. “It gets frightfully cold out here at night.” Morteus craned his neck and saw that it was a bedroll.
Marlin cleared another patch of leaves close to the fire, and spread out the bedroll and blanket. “I’m afraid I only have one of these. You can have the bedroll, I’ll just lie on the blanket.”
Morteus looked up in thanks, but he was unsure. “Are you sure?” He asked, hoping he wasn’t being impolite in accepting the offer. Life in the castle was lush and luxurious. The entire castle was spotless and immaculate. Even with a bedroll, Morteus wouldn’t be able to get used to it, much less with only a thin blanket…
“Yes,” Marlin said firmly, putting an end to the topic. Thankful that he didn’t have to argue out of politeness, Morteus sank into the bedroll, woefully aware of the insects and dirt around him.
Marlin removed the cauldron from the fire, pouring the remainder of the stew into the flask. “Tomorrow’s breakfast- Marlin’s famous stew,” he said, laughing. He wrapped everything up into the bag, and spread his blanket on the murky brown forest floor. He lay down, wincing as he felt the hard ground beneath him, multitudes of clay and soil protruded from the ground.
“Sorry,” Morteus said, a little ashamed of himself. The bedroll wasn’t all that comfortable, but it was better than the thin blanket.
“It’s okay,” Marlin said. “Besides, I get that tomorrow.” He turned over, chuckling to himself. Marlin turned his back to him, trying to get to sleep.
Morteus sighed to himself and wiggled closer to the heat of the fire. He stared up at the glimmering stars, relaxing his strained muscles. What’s going to happen next? Unable to shove off the rolling turmoil battering from the insides of his mind, he turned over and over again.
He didn’t sleep a wink that night.