Light was filtering through the top branches, casting a faint light down on Morteus’ face. Morteus turned over, groaning, stretching his arms out in front of him in a wide yawn.
He sat up, dazed. The entire forest was illuminated with an earthly green, and as he moved to stand up, he heard the soft crackling of branches and leaves beneath him. Morteus looked around him, seeing only his bedroll and a smoldering fire with stew that had gone cold. It took him a second to remember what had happened in the previous day, and he gave a start as he realized that Marlin and the pack of supplies were nowhere to be seen.
“Marlin,” Morteus cursed, rubbing his aching legs.
Majesty whinnied softly from a corner, still tied to the tree. Morteus got up to go and stroke his horse, thinking. From what he could see from the sun above, it was somewhere in the late hours of the morning. He pushed aside a web of moss and untied Majesty. Where is Marlin? His heart skipped a beat as he thought of the possibilities. Was this… Was this a trap? Morteus shivered. He didn’t know his way through the forest.
But he left Majesty here, Morteus reasoned, patting Majesty’s coat as for his own reassurance as for the horse’s. If he wanted to capture me, he wouldn’t leave me with an escape route… Would he?
A sudden dread hit him and he balked. What if he went to fetch the king’s authorities? A little tremor ran through him.
Before Morteus could decide what to do next, a faint rustle of leaves came from the right. He spun around, his heart failing him for a second. Unable to speak and firmly rooted to the ground, all he could do was stare in the direction. Then a dark shape emerged from behind the green foliage into the clearing.
“Morteus?” Marlin’s voice rang out, and Morteus regained control of his speech.
“Marlin,” Relief was evident in his voice. “I nearly thought that you had gone and betrayed me.”
“How do you know I haven’t?” Marlin said in a low, ominous tone, his mouth stretching into a crooked smile.
Morteus froze in shock.
“No, I haven’t,” Marlin quickly assured him, chortling with laughter. “You should’ve seen your face, it was priceless!” Morteus couldn’t help but smile and feel more at ease. As he watched Marlin laugh, his attention drew to the long, misshapen scar that marred Marlin’s face.
“Marlin, why do you-” Morteus stopped mid sentence, realizing that Marlin might take offence if he asked about the scar.
“Why wasn’t I here just now when you awoke?” Marlin interpreted his question incorrectly, and Morteus didn’t correct him. He just nodded meekly at his new companion.
“I was out hunting,” Marlin smiled, though it didn’t quite touch his eyes. “We’ll need the energy before I begin training you. I could have bought food from town, I suppose… But the king has issued a search warrant for you, and I thought it would be best not to get to close.”
Search warrant… Hunting? At the word ‘hunting’, Morteus started. “Isn’t hunting… A little unnecessary? I mean, I eat meat, but we can always get ones in town, not kill ones in the wild…”
Marlin was still wearing his brown robes from the day before, and there was a large rabbit slung over his shoulders. He laid it out on a log, along with his pack. His grizzled beard shook a little as he shook his head with stern disapproval. “You’ve been living in the comfort of your castle. You may hunt for entertainment there, but we have to hunt for survival. It’s just a matter of taking what we need, or taking more than needed.”
Morteus nodded, mollified by the explanation.
Marlin drew out a knife with an ivory handle from his pack. He set to the gruesome task of gutting the rabbit, then skewering it on a stick. He taught Morteus how to light the smoldering fire, telling him to gather more firewood.
By the time the rabbit was cooked over the fire, and by the time they’d settled down to eat, the sun was high above their heads.
They ate silently. When they finished, Marlin smacked his lips and wiped his mouth across his sleeve, leaving dark smudges on his light brown robe.
“Alright, Morteus,” he said in a business-like tone, “Let’s get down to work. Rightfully, your father would’ve begun training you in combat since you were seven. I surmise King Periphral hasn’t?”
Morteus turned beetroot red, a little indignant at being compared to a seven-year-old. “I’ve watched people train. I learned sword-fighting from Master since I was ten.”
Marlin rubbed his chin. “Well, not as bad as I thought, but we’ll still have to work on that. Princes were also taught how to ride horses, and shooting,” Marlin mused, looking Morteus up and down. “I hope you’re a fast learner.”
Morteus nodded his head, eager to please. “I obviously know how to ride, and I know how to use a bow. Wait a minute… I’m not here to train as a prince. I thought… this was to prepare me for avenging my father’s death?” Morteus shook his head.
Marlin pursed his lips. “Yes, but I’m teaching you the basics of what you should’ve learnt, had your father been alive,” he said, a glimmer of a tear appearing in his eyes. He blinked it away, then turned abruptly to Morteus.
“Alright, enough of talking. We should start with sword craft. Do you have a sword?” Marlin glanced briefly at him. “No? You can use mine first. Unfortunately, we can’t go back to find you a proper sword…”
Morteus noticed that Marlin wore a sword at his hip. There was a leather sheath that hung from his waist, and Morteus reached out to feel the smooth brown surface of the cowhide. Marlin unsheathed the sword, pulling it swiftly out and tossing it up in the air, pirouetting around as he caught it mid-air.
Morteus scoffed. “Trying to impress me?”
“Somewhat,” Marlin answered, grinning. Morteus stared at the magnificent object in his hand. The hilt was a pure gold, glimmering in the sun. As Morteus’ eyes traced along the sword, he marveled at the smooth silver blade that stretched over a meter, it’s sharp point sparkling in the light. There was a large sapphire in the bronze pommel of the sword.
“Is that your sword?” Morteus exhaled, his eyes as wide as eggs.
“Your father gave it to me,” Marlin stiffened, realizing what he just said. He peered at Morteus, analyzing his reaction.
Morteus stood frozen for a quarter of a second, then gave a loud sigh, sitting himself down on a log. “It just occurred to me yet again, how much I don’t know. Here I am, on this crazy getaway, with you.”
He paused, aware that his emphasis on the word ‘you’ may have offended Marlin. “This isn’t out of spite, but I would much rather not be here with some stranger that I’ve only met for less than a day. And I haven’t got a clue about my dad.”
“My dad,” he repeated to himself.
His eyes flicked to Marlin. “I haven’t got a clue about who you are, actually.”
Marlin sighed. “I’ll tell you in time. You’re not ready yet.”
A rebellious flame flared in Morteus’ lungs. “Not ready yet? What do you mean not ready? I’ve gone through so much, and you say I’m not ready? How can I trust you if you don’t tell me who you are?”
“Does it matter so much?” Marlin retorted sharply. “I helped you, I rescued you, and now I’m teaching you. So respect my need for privacy and if you really want to learn how to survive, let me begin!” He flicked his hand in Morteus’ direction, the sharp tip of his sword coming tantalizingly close to his face.
Morteus glared at him, obstinate. Then his childish features melted away and regret shone from his expression. “I’m sorry, I should be grateful.”
Marlin’s tone softened. “I shouldn’t have lashed out at you like that. But time is scarce. We should start your training without further ado,” he added, tossing the iridescent sword to Morteus.
Morteus caught it deftly in his hand, testing out its weight. “It’s light.”
Marlin nodded. “It is, compared to your bow. King Periphral has only taught you how to hunt. He hasn’t taught you how to fight, like a prince should.”
There was a change in the atmosphere as Marlin prodded Morteus, making him stand up. Marlin squinted at him, sizing him up.
Morteus tensed, feeling awkward at the inspection.
“Hold your sword,” Marlin commanded in a serious tone.
Morteus gripped his sword as well as he could, twisting it around to see which position felt most comfortable. He looked up to see Marlin shaking his head.
Marlin stretched out his rough, tanned hand and corrected Morteus’ grip.
“There we go,” he rubbed his chin, picking at his wispy beard. “Now, think fast.”
Marlin might have seemed like a soft and helpful old man, but sword craft was a whole different matter altogether.
In what seemed like less than a millisecond, Marlin kicked up a sharp branch from the floor, caught it in his hand, and advanced on Morteus.
Morteus barely had time to think, and the hand that was holding the sword flicked up instinctively to block Marlin. Marlin whipped his stick around, catching Morteus’ left arm. Morteus jumped backwards in pain and began backing away from Marlin.
“Come back here,” Marlin barked. “This isn’t time for hide and seek.”
Morteus charged forwards, hoping to take Marlin by surprise. Marlin crouched, ready for him. The silver blade of Morteus’ sword sliced threateningly through the air and Marlin sidestepped it, heaving a sigh.
“You’re not trying to kill me, are you?” He asked in a strangely nonchalant tone. “Keep in mind that you have a sword, and you’re liable to kill if you’re not careful enough.” He swung his blunt stick and hit the flat blade of the sword with tremendous strength.
Morteus dropped his sword.
Marlin’s eyes flickered to the sword on the ground, and began laughing.
Thoroughly flummoxed, Morteus bent down to pick his sword up.
The sound of laughter echoed throughout the forest, and Morteus clutched his stomach, gasping for air in between giggles.
“Right. Again,” Marlin said solemnly, after composing himself. With a small smile, he faced Morteus again, flicking his wooden makeshift weapon towards his chest. Morteus whipped his sword forward, blocking his stick.
“Good, that’s an improvement,” Marlin said with a pleased expression. He began weaving his branch in and out so fast that Morteus couldn’t even see his hand, let alone block the blows.
“How do you do that?” Morteus marveled, stepping back before Marlin could do any more damage. He rubbed his sore arm.
“Eager to learn. Good,” was all that Marlin said. He took Morteus’ sword hand and directed his hand, showing him the various moves.
Four hours went by with the hot sun bearing down on them. By that time, Morteus hand was heavy with overuse and abuse.
“I think you have a lot to learn,” Marlin said critically. Morteus looked down at his toes, turning red.
“But you’re willing to learn, and you learn fast,” Marlin smiled encouragingly. “It wasn’t a bad start. You do demonstrate some knowledge.”
Morteus rubbed his arm, crestfallen. He hadn’t thought that it would be so grueling- his Master had praised him for his swordsmanship. Though he did his best, he knew that Marlin wasn’t entirely pleased.
Marlin sensed the disappointment in him. “Don’t worry,” he patted him. “Most take decades to hone their talent.”
That made Morteus’ heart plummet even further.
“Then how am I supposed to be able to fight with King- King Periphral?” Morteus voice trembled a little, and broke with an angry tone to it.
“He won’t lay a finger on you,” Marlin said with conviction. His jaw was set and a fire danced in his eyes.
“He wanted to kill me. Have you forgotten that?” Morteus shook his head, his voice rising hysterically. “How could you think that he wouldn’t lay a finger on me? He doesn’t care- doesn’t care about the sixteen years I spent as his son.”
“I never said that he’d spare you,” Marlin frowned at Morteus.
“Then how-” Morteus asked, flustered.
Marlin sliced through Morteus’ words in a cold voice.
“I intend to kill King Periphral myself.”