Thursday, September 21, 2006

Chapter Three

Celebrants had been pouring into the castle grounds since morning. Night had fallen hours ago, and still the lights of the castle looked down on the last holdouts of merriment and good-natured revelry. Given an excuse to be happy, the people took it--to the full. Those who had arrived sober were now drunk; some had fallen in the courtyard and lay insensible. Just like their king, Mirian thought with disgust. I wonder if he's noticed that his bride has yet to arrive?

She moved through the thinning crowd in the courtyard, balancing a basket full of bread of her hip. She focused her eyes on the kitchen door, sunken into the ground, and lifted her chin as she ignored the calls of those who had feasted too much already. She had been days in the kitchen helping make bread... months before that grinding wheat into flour. And for what? To prove once again that the land had a fool for a king.

Voices drifted down from the parapet around the castle, and a deep tone caught Mirian's attention. She slowed and looked up. Borden was there, above her, talking with a guard in the torchlight. The sight made her shiver for reasons she couldn't explain. She had half expected retribution after her strange confrontation with the crown prince--she knew how foolish she had been, but she had been angry. But he had done nothing to her. There had been no backlash; no punishment; no threats. Perhaps he was waiting until the celebration was over. The voices above fell silent, and Mirian picked up her pace again. Somehow she knew he had not forgotten.

A man was sitting next to the steps that led down to the kitchen. His hands and face were covered by sleeves and a cowl; he wore the brown robes of a priest. From his posture she thought he might be sleeping, but as Mirian approached he raised his head, startling her.

"Excuse me," he said in a low voice. "Might I trouble you for a crust of bread?"

She was in a rush to get inside, and he must have seen it on her face. "I've only just arrived," he explained, "and have not eaten in some days."

Mirian turned, half-involuntarily, looking over her shoulder for Borden. He wasn't there. "Come in, then," she said. "There's more in the kitchen."

The air in the kitchen was close and hot; the whoosh of cold air let in by the door as Mirian pushed through it cut into the room like a pathway. The room was full, and bustling. Merriment for the townspeople meant work for the servants and slaves who kept Annar's house. The priest followed Mirian in. She hefted the bread basket onto the table and motioned with her head for him to sit at an empty space across from it. She tossed him a small, brown loaf. "Someone'll feed you more if you need it," she said, and left him to attend to the work at another table. Two young girls were hacking at a mountain of cabbage. Mirian grabbed up a knife and joined them, attacking the work with vigour.

Behind her, the kitchen matron struck up a conversation with the priest. Mirian caught bits and snatches of it as she worked... the priest's low voice somehow managed to travel under the sound of knives thwacking wood and vegetables.

"... a joyous occasion," she heard him say.

The matron answered, but her back was turned to Mirian and her voice could not travel through the thick air. Heat flared up as the woman stoked the fire in one of the ovens. A moment later she swung around, and her words carried. Her tone matched that of Mirian's mind: skeptical.

"...poor thing. Little more than a child herself, they say."

"And you say they have never met?" the priest asked.

"Why would they need to? The king only wants a son and heir."

Mirian grimaced. Celebrate though they may, no one had any illusions as to the real purpose of Annar's long-delayed match. An heir. Deus forbid Annar should raise the child himself--should create another as incompetent as himself. It would have been far better for Annar to die and give the kingdom to his brother. Borden was a hard man, but he had a right to be hard. He had been forced to watch his older brother waste responsibilities that Borden himself could have used well.

Mirian swept a pile of chopped leaves from the table into a basket and carried toward the ovens, where a vat of thick stew was bubbling. She did not look at the conversants, but she could hear them clearly now. The priest was speaking.

"Strange that she has not yet arrived."

The matron had barely had time to say "Foreigners" in a disparaging tone of voice when the kitchen door banged open and Borden entered, sword at his side, eyes darkened. Three of Annar's soldiers followed him in.

"I am looking for the priest," Borden said. "I saw him come in here." As he spoke, his eyes fell on Mirian. She did not turn away, but neither did she answer.

"I am here," the priest, rising to his feet. Borden turned from Mirian and accosted the priest. "You are needed," he said. "Come with us." He looked back up, and his eyes arrested Mirian once more. "You too."

The servants followed Mirian with their eyes as she set her work down and went out after the men, back into the cold night air and flickering shadows of the courtyard. Most of the drunks were gone--Mirian suspected that Borden had ordered them away. Horses waited for the men. Borden mounted with a single motion, and nodded at a gelding that waited, unadorned by the livery of Annar's stables. Mirian laid her hand on the saddle and prepared to mount. Behind her, the priest was slower to move.

"If I may ask, sire," he said, "what does this signify?"

"We have heard reports," Borden answered. "Devilry in the road. You may be needed to give last rites."

As Mirian swung herself onto the horse's back and helped the priest on behind her, she could feel the prince's eyes on her again. She forced herself to meet his gaze. It was inscrutable... he seemed to be examining her, judging her worth for some task. Whatever he had in mind, she was determined to be its equal.

Borden turned his heels into the his horse's sides with a "Ha!" The band rode out of the courtyard at a gallop.

* * *

A rivulet ran through the fields near where the carriage had been attacked. Marta had sent Taerith down to it multiple times, and Lilia had insisted on being of help. Together they had carried buckets of water back for the wounded, until at last Marta declared them well saturated. Now they sat by the water, listening to it run over rocks and the roots of a few low trees, while the moon sailed high overhead. Findal's troupe had settled down for the night, and only the occasional groan or snore whispered its way down to the pair who sat by the river.

"I often sat by the river at night as a boy," Taerith said. "I would steal when the others were sleeping."

Lilia moved a little; her skirts rustled in the night. It was too dark to see much of her, but when she looked up at the moon, its light was reflected in her eyes. "I sometimes imagined that I sat by a river," Lilia said. "And listened to the water singing. The song always made the moon cry." She turned her head and looked at Taerith. "Is that silly?"

"No," he answered.

They were silent a moment, and then she said, "I wish I could have really gone out sometimes. This is so lovely... I could only dream things like this. My uncle did not like me to leave our home. But I was glad... I slept in a very high tower, and the wind carried sounds and smells and feelings to me... so I had some real things in my dreams."

Taerith wished he could find something to say in reply. The contrast to his own childhood was so marked. He thought of his sisters and wondered about them... he had not known them well, though they were raised together. They had all had the freedom to roam.

"When I grew older..." he said, and cut himself off. "I stayed out longer. We all did. When I was twelve I stayed away a whole week."

"Weren't you hungry?" Lilia asked.

"Yes," Taerith said. "I tried to catch fish. But my skill then was poorly... yes, I was hungry. But I learned."

"Did you stay by the water all that time?" Lilia asked.

Taerith nodded. He caught himself, and opened his mouth, but she must have seen his movement even in the gloom, because she responded.

"Why?" she asked.

Taerith smiled and looked down at his hands. "The river had so much to say," he said.

Once more they fell silent, and the lapping of the water was all that came to them. It was speaking as they sat, and Taerith strained to hear what it said. Did its gentle tones promise a future, or speak of a fading past? Did they hold some mournful prophecy? Moonlight glowed on the water, and Taerith wondered if the moon told the river what it could see in the faraway places whence the water flowed.

"And you?" Taerith asked abruptly, breaking the silence. "You are not in your tower any longer."

"No," she said. He heard her draw in her breath, and wondered what feelings stirred inside her. "Things do change. I am off to face an adventure."

"You have already had plenty of that," Taerith said.

"I confess, I do not long for more," Lilia answered. "But listen... the river goes on, and it does it so peacefully. I think it tells me to do the same. Bravely. I have never been very brave, but there were no dangers in the tower. Things change... so I will be different now."

Something was left unspoken, and Taerith yearned to know what it was. She rewarded him, in a moment, with a broken word: "Only..."

He leaned forward. She was looking off to the moon again, but she lowered her eyes to look at him. They were glistening... with tears or moondust, he could not tell.

"Only what?" he asked.

"I wish I was not alone," Lilia answered.

Taerith reached out and took her small hand in his. Her fingers closed tightly over his, like a child clinging to the one hand she knows in a crowd. He smiled, willing her to see the smile, and know herself cared for. "Tonight you are not," he said. "Perhaps you will not be again."

She looked down, and then smiled up at him. His chest tightened, and he determined that he would not let go.

They sat together, hand in hand, wordless through the night; they listened to the song of the river.

* * *

Zhenya had not been asleep. He was the first to hear the riders coming, and he woke Findal with a whispered, "Trouble!"

Findal rolled out of his bedding and took up a sword in the same moment, buckling it to his waist. His grey hair was wild from sleep, but his eyes were already bright and alert. "What is it, boy?" he asked.

"Riders are coming," Zhenya said. "Coming fast."

Findal kicked Orlin; Morris and Randal were already awake and gathering their weapons to them. "What is the hour?" Findal asked.

"Four hours till sunrise," Zhenya answered.

The men turned as one to the road, ready to meet whatever was coming. Marta was up, twisting her hair behind her. "Into the wagons, Zhenya," she said. "You'll not fight."

"Taerith is down by the river," Zhenya said. Marta opened her mouth to give direction when the riders galloped up. Their horses were fine and decorated in a king's own livery. Chief among the men was a strongly-built fellow, darkly bearded and well-armed. Findal laid his hand on his hilt but did not draw.

"What has happened here?" the man demanded. "Bandits... where are your prisoners?"

"You read the story wrongly," Findal answered with a slight bow of his head, "my lord Borden. It was my fine men and I who chased the bandits off in this same night."

"The carriage of a great nobleman lies wrecked behind you," Borden said. "Where is the woman it carried?"

Lilia's clear voice rang out. "I am here."

Every head turned to see Lilia and Taerith approaching. The young man's manner was guarded; his hand was on his sword, as though any minute he would spring to the girl's defense. But she laid her hand on his arm and said something quietly to him, and then stepped forward into the light of a torch Zhenya now held high.

Borden dismounted, and bowed his head. He took Lilia's hand and brushed her fingers with his lips. "My lady," he said. "We are grateful that you are unharmed."

"I thank you for your care," she answered. She looked up at Borden as he returned to his full height, and something in her voice faltered slightly. "Do I behold the face of... King Annar, of these lands?" she asked.

Borden's lip curled slightly. "You do not," he said. "I am his brother, come to fetch his bride for him. We heard rumours of bandits in the road, and were afraid for you."

Lilia nodded, and managed something of smile. "As you see, I am unharmed. These good people came to my rescue with not a moment to spare."

"Then, if you will, my lady," Borden said, "we shall take you the rest of the way to your new home."

He offered her his hand, and she took it, and took a step forward. Then she paused, and looked back, seeking out Taerith among those who had helped her. There was a plea in her grey eyes--for understanding, for forgiveness. Back she turned again, to the sight of the retinue who had come for her.

"You see," Borden said, "I do not threaten you with the company of more brutes such as myself. This girl will help you to ride, and watch out for anything you may need."

Lilia took her hand from the king's brother. The young woman who stood holding the bridle of a gelding and looking down at her with veiled expression was neither friendly nor warm. She was tall, strong, and quite beautiful; obviously a slave, from her dress and the dull collar 'round her neck. Yet there was something in her presence that made Lilia feel very small and cowed. A priest stood next to the girl, and Lilia's heart answered to the kindness in his eyes. She almost wished she could travel with him.

Borden's voice shattered her hopes. "Have you wounded? Dying?" he asked Findal.

"It is possible," Findal said, "though we have done our best."

Borden nodded. "I have brought you a priest, to care for the dead. I presume we will see you all at the wedding feast tomorrow."

In answer, Findal only nodded.

The slave girl helped Lilia onto her horse, and the whole party rode away.

* * *

Copyright 2006 by Rachel Starr Thomson. Do not reproduce without written permission of the author.

Enjoying the story? Download the whole thing as an e-book from Smashwords:

Friday, September 15, 2006

Chapter Two

Taerith watched from the wings as Findal's circus unfolded its strange and fascinating show. He had been with them now three days, and sat through twice as many performances. He knew now when to rush out with a bucket of water for the horses, which were transformed before an audience from cart-horses to dancers, with still other dancers upon their backs--Morris, who was as acrobatic on the back of a living thing as he was on the ground or in the air suspended from a rope or a wire, and Marta Grensloe, who had been a great beauty in her younger years and was still strong and good-looking enough to capture a crowd's attention when she stood upon a horse's back. Marta was out there now, her red hair done up intricately, looking too exotic for the good-natured matron Taerith knew her to be. Her little white mare was panting heavily, and Taerith scooped up the bucket of water from beside his feet and went out to meet them as they vacated the performing-ground in favour of Orlin, the small muscle-bound man who made quite a different use of horses--he was strong enough to lift one, and did so three times a week at least.

"You looked well out there," Taerith said as Marta led the mare to the bucket. The woman looked nearly as hot and thirsty as the horse, but she did not have the option of plunging her head into a draught. Breathing heavily, Marta nodded and beamed at Taerith, giving the mare a good pat. Her blue eyes were proud.

"She's a good little one," Marta said. "One of the best. Oh, Zhenya, there you are... thank you."

So saying, she took a cup of water from the boy who offered it. Taerith had hardly noticed Zhenya's approach. The boy could move with uncanny silence, considering that everywhere he went he limped severely on a crutch. He was young; no more than fourteen; and probably tall for his age, though he was so bent over his crutch it was hard to tell. His hair was a dirty brown, and fell into his eyes; his clothes were worn, but Marta kept them patched. There was a peculiarly starved expression in the boy's face, though his thinness seemed more a mark of his age than a proof of physical deprivation. Zhenya had no remarkable ability or weird physiognomy to make him of value to Findal's troupe; but they kept him, pitied him, fed him. Zhenya repaid them by doing every chore he could manage. Since Taerith's arrival the crippled boy had rarely been out of his shadow, though they rarely spoke to one another. Taerith liked him: he shared Zhenya's hunger. Young man and growing boy both understood that life held meaning, and that it was waiting for them to find it; both were quietly searching.

The mare was finished, and Taerith took the bucket away even as a roar went up from the crowd. Orlin had lifted some impossible weight of iron, and continued to add to his load. Findal's voice, endowed with astonishing volume and strength, drew the crowd's attention and bade them marvel at every feat. When his band was performing Findal's voice lost all of its breathlessness; he wheezed the rest of the time, it seemed, because it took him so long to get his breath back after a show.

Marta smoothed down her dress and pulled pins out of her hair as she stepped into the shadows of the tent where the animals waited when they were not in the center of attention. It was a smallish tent, but large enough to act as a stable; torn, patched, striped, and stuffy. It went everywhere with Findal and his people, and the multi-coloured light produced by the sun's shining through it was already familiar to Taerith's eyes.

The red stallion, tied to a stake in one end of the tent, perked its ears up as Marta approached. Normally she would have given it a lump of sugar, but she was too busy pulling her hair down.

"We're doing Findal proudly," she said, "finishing the season well. We will do a fine job before King Annar, though he will likely be too drunk to know it."

"How did you win an audience in the king's court?" Taerith asked.

Marta cast him a glance, her hair down now and cascading over her shoulder in red waves.

"Findal is a master at making friends," she said. "He speaks so convincingly that everyone believes how great he is."

"And how great we are," said another voice, as a tall man entered the tent. He stooped and kissed Marta. "Findal never forgets his lovely rider, or the rest of us. You, now, Taerith--you'll soon be one of his bragging points. You're nearly one of us already."

Taerith smiled. He liked Randal, Marta's tall, sword-swallowing husband. Randal liked him also. After nearly six months of being an outcast, Taerith welcomed Randal's words--"one of us." He had no plans to stay with Findal, of course, and yet he couldn't quite imagine leaving. In three days Marta and Randal, Zhenya, Orlin, and Morris, even the horses, had become the closest thing to family that he had. And Findal, as Randal said, had already taken Taerith as one of his own.

"There is something you can do," Findal had said last night, "besides draw water, of that I am sure. We shall discover your talent and make you a part of us."

"I have sometimes written poetry," Taerith answered with a smile.

Findal had looked at him, frowned, snorted a little. "Something else, lad, something else. One cannot put poetry before a crowd."

Taerith suspected that, were he to stay, he would become another Zhenya. And there were things he could do--he could form wood, and work a blacksmith's forge, and be useful at fixing wheels and axles. He had nowhere else to go, and the idea of remaining grew more and more attractive by the hour.

They planned to move on that night, just after dusk. Findal's troupe did not normally travel after dark, but they had stayed overlong in the villages where they had found a welcome, and if they did not move when they could they would miss the opportunity to perform before Annar. Findal counted on the king's drunkenness and fool's generosity to fatten the collective purse for the winter. Accordingly, when Morris had tied himself in knots and been tossed in the air by Orlin for the last time that night, the horses were hitched to the wagon and the small company moved out.

It was nearly midnight when they heard the sounds of a fight. Randal untied the stallion and rode out into the darkness while Marta waited with her lips tightly closed; he returned not ten minutes later, his dark eyes flashing. He reined up next to the board where Findal sat, on the front of the painted wagon. "Thieves," he said. "They have attacked a group of travelers."

"How goes the battle?" Findal asked.

"Badly," Randal answered. "For they are outnumbered. But I tell you the thieves are reckless... easily overcome."

Findal pursed his lips and looked down the road with deadly gleam. "Let us overcome them, then," he said.

Randal wheeled his horse around, ready to gallop to the battle ahead of the others, but Taerith stopped him by calling his name. "Take me with you," he called. Randal nodded, and Taerith leapt from the wagon onto the horse's back behind the sword-swallower.

The stallion ran hard, and Taerith drew his sword as his blood began to pump. He was not afraid. He had never considered himself a great swordsman, but he compared himself to his brothers and sisters--and not one among the Romanys was a mean hand with weapons. Morever, in a fight Taerith was possessed of a deadly calm that made him hard to defeat, because he was never flustered, never distracted. He knew this about himself, and peered through the darkness to the whooping band of thieves, wishing he was already there to meet them.

His eyes were already adjusted to the darkness, as they had been riding in it for hours. He and Randal bore down upon the scene.

A lone carriage lay half on its side in the middle of the road, one of its front wheels snapped quite away from the axel. A horse was still harnessed to it; it strained at its load with frantic whinnies, but the carriage was caught in the deep ruts of the road and would not budge. It had evidently been the scene of a stand-off; the bodies of men lay strewn around it. Others, living still, were in the process of dragging a young woman out. She was not at all willing to go with them, and was doing her best to wrench herself from their grasp--but she was small, and fine, and they were great brutes.

Randal and Taerith rode up to the carriage without slowing, and hope lit in the girl's face at the sight of them. "Help me!" she screamed. In the same instant Taerith had sprung from the stallion's back, and with one twist of his sword he sent the foremost thief's weapon flying away into the night. Another leapt toward him, weapon at hand, and Taerith beat him an instant. Another came, and Randal was there to meet him. Other thieves were also in the road, but they had no time to come against the invaders. Findal had arrived with Morris and Orlin, and all three shouted as they came like mad spirits of the night let loose.

The girl was left alone, and she sank against the side of the carriage and moaned. Taerith took hold of her arm and ran his hand gently down it, assuring himself that she was all right. "Are you hurt?" he asked. His voice was low and husky from the energy of the fight. She shook her head, her dark eyes avoiding him. The fight behind them drew a little closer, and Taerith all but pushed the girl back into the carriage. He followed her, and locked the door behind him, standing at the window with his sword drawn.

As the thieves did not immediately attempt to break the door down, Taerith turned his head back to his charge. She was a small woman, young, hardly more than a child, and very beautiful. Her hair was black as the night without, and her eyes shone like the stars. There were tears in her eyes, and they glistened as she fought to gain control of herself. She was not looking at him, though everything in her body language said that she knew he was there. If she could have become one with the carriage, she evidently would have.

"Who are you?" she asked. Her voice tremoured, but Taerith heard a feeble attempt at courage in the questioning. His heart went out to her.

"I am not another enemy," he said, answering the question she had not asked. "My name is Taerith Romany."

She looked up at him. Her eyes were large and dark, set in a fine, pale face. "Lilia," she said.

Her voice was little more than a whisper, but it went to Taerith's heart like one of the arrows his sister Ilara used to shoot.

"Taerith!" shouted a voice from without. "Taerith, lad, where are you?"

Taerith leaned against the carriage door and felt for the handle in the shadows beneath the window. He could feel the tension draining out him... tension he hadn't even realized was there. Findal was calling for him. He pushed down on the latch and the door swung open.

"I'm here," Taerith called, bending his head to step down from the tilted carriage. His eyes sought out Findal amist the wreckage in the road. The little man was holding a torch high, looking about at the groaning wounded who lay all around.

Findal turned to answer, but Taerith had already gone halfway back into the carriage. Lilia was still sitting in the corner, looking like a frightened lamb. Taerith held out his hand to her. "Come," he said. "You are among friends now."

Tentatively she reached out and laid her slender fingers across his. He smiled, and led her into the open night. She looked furtively from side to side as she descended the broken step. Findal looked at them and smiled kindly.

"Don't be afraid, child," he said in his usual breathless tone. He nodded at Taerith with a fatherly crinkle about his eyes. "This is a good lad who's protecting you. You can trust him. Lean on him all you need to!"

He hardly needed to speak the words. Since she had taken his hand, Lilia had drawn closer to Taerith by the moment, and now was almost fainting on his arm. He held her up, and looked worriedly at Findal. "She needs to rest, Findal," Taerith said.

"Of course," Findal said. "Seat the child down. Any place is as good as another."

Nodding, Taerith looked over the site. There--Orlin had thrown a heap of debris into a pile, and it made a sort of natural throne. Taerith led Lilia to it and helped her to sit, chafing her hands anxiously. Zhenya appeared at his elbow with a drink of water, which Taerith gratefully took and offered to the girl. Zhenya's eyes met his when he turned to take the cup, and they were deep with concern.

"She'll be all right," Taerith said. "She's had a bad scare."

Behind them, Marta knelt down beside a wounded man and poked at him. A groan answered her, and she stood with her mouth grimly set. "We'll not move on tonight, Findal," she said.
"Most of these men are hurt, and we can't load them all into the wagons."

Findal was making his own rounds through the wounded, with Randal close behind him. Taerith watched them for a moment, and nearly called out to tell Randal that the man he was giving water was one of the bandits--an enemy. He closed his mouth before the words escaped him. The realization suddenly dawned on him that it did not matter one whit to Findal and his strange band of outcasts whose side the men were on. They were all wounded, they were all men. There would be no lines of distinction. And why should it not be so?

Lilia had by this time begun to recover her wits, and as Findal once again approached, she looked up at him with an expression of gratitude so touching that it made the old man falter in his steps.

"Well now, child," he said. "Tell Findal where you're going."

Lilia's eyes flickered down, to her hands, which Taerith still held--kneeling before her, he offered whatever strength he could. "To King Annar's wedding feast," she said.

Findal beamed. "And it is so!" he said. "Deus smiles down on us, for we are going to the same
way. You shall travel with us."

"I--" she began to say, and then stopped herself. She smiled at him. The smile had all the radiance of a midsummer moon, and Findal melted at the sight of it. "I would be glad to," she said. "Thank you."

She looked down at Taerith then, and her smile grew somehow sweeter. "And thank you," she said. She cast her eyes down with a low laugh. "I suppose I can take my own hands back now."

Taerith released her fingers instantly, and stood. Marta, who had paused to witness the scene, raised an eyebrow at him and said an enigmatic, "Uh-huh."

"Come, wife," said Randal, stepping and taking Marta's arm. "There is work to be done tonight."

Findal and his people fanned out into the crowd, and Taerith followed them half-reluctantly. Lilia remained seated, overseeing them like a dream of the night endowed with all the graces of fancy. Taerith knelt down beside a wounded man and tried to draw the man's eyes to his face.

"Can you see me?" Taerith asked.

The man groaned, but he nodded.

"Good," Taerith said. He looked up at Marta's call. "Bring them here," she was saying. "We'll treat them here, by the fire."

Taerith slipped his arms beneath the man's shoulders and legs, and with a grunt, he lifted him up and carried him through the wreckage on the road. A small fire was already blazing, testiment to Zhenya's brilliance for the menial. The crippled boy looked up as Taerith approached.

"Bring him water, Zhenya, and wash his wounds," Taerith said. "You see where he is hurt." He drew back a ragged piece of the man's shirt as he spoke, exposing a deep gash in the shoulder. Zhenya fell immediately to obedience, and moments later Marta was there, soothing the man and administering some medicine of her own design. Taerith assisted the men in bringing the others to the fire, and then stood back, at a loss for what to do next. It was Randal who sent him back to the place his heart was hovering over.

"Marta will handle the wounds," Randal said, his deep voice falling quietly. "The girl should not be alone. She has been frightened. Go."

Taerith looked up at the tall sword-swallower, and wordlessly assented to the command. He turned to the place where Lilia sat, watching the proceedings and hugging her arm.

His heart leapt strangely as he approached her, and grew somehow as she looked up and greeted him with her eyes. He wondered suddenly why he had not gone back to her sooner.

The night lay before them, and he did not intend to leave her again.

* * *

Copyright 2006 by Rachel Starr Thomson. Do not reproduce without written permission of the author.

Enjoying the story? Download the whole thing as an e-book from Smashwords:

Monday, September 11, 2006

Chapter One

It was raining in the fields. Cold rain. Taerith stretched out his arms and raised his head, letting the rain hit his face and run down the bridge of his nose. He opened his mouth and gulped convulsively as the liquid trickled into his throat. It was good of the sky, he thought, to give him water. He had been at work with the other men, harvesting late corn, but the rain had put an end to the work for now. The fields were nearly bare anyway. Water puddled around his boots--held together now with string and patches--and turned the trampled furrows to mud.

There were a few other men left in the field; they drifted away now. They were migrants... men on the road, who hired themselves out to the landlords to work the fields and bring in the last of the harvest. Taerith kept to himself; most of the others kept to themselves; they laboured side by side but did not know one another's names.

The work was finished. Taerith lowered his head and looked impassively at those who were leaving, then turned away and trudged back toward the road. This was not like other days, which had ended only to be born anew in the morning, once more to consist of labour in the fields. Work was really over now; the changing of the seasons was destroying his livelihood. He would go to the small nobleman to whom the land belonged and collect his pay.

When he had begun his travels, six months ago, he had hoped to find a new home, or a band of men to whom he could join himself. It had been a futile dream. Even those who banded together excluded him. Why, Taerith didn't know--he seemed to have something written across his forehead; the word--Banished--branded him.

But now winter was coming. He could not continue on alone much longer.

He paid his visit to the landlord and collected the last of his wages. Behind the haze of rainclouds, the sun was setting as Taerith took again to the road. He walked for miles through the darkening damp, until he found a small shelter, erected on a little hilltop not far from the road. Here he built himself a fire, wrapped himself in his cloak, and fell asleep.

He was awakened early in the morning by the clatter of wheels and the clop of hooves, and the sound of a wheezy voice muttering near his ear. He woke with a start and gained his knees in an instant, reaching for his sword--it was missing. Through the longish hair that fell into his eyes, Taerith looked across the fire into the face of a strange little man who seemed to have sprung up out of the sunrise. Grey, wizened hair floated around the little man's temples; his eyes twinkled, matched by the glittering of a gold earring that flared in the meagre morning light. He sat cross-legged with a grey blanket across his knees.

Taerith's hand searched the ground for his sword, and the little man chuckled--a breathless chuckle. He whisked the grey blanket aside and held up Taerith's sword, still in its scabbard--still attached to his belt, which was no longer around its master's waist.

"Looking for this?" the man asked.

Taerith froze, his muscles tense and his eyes watchful. The little man did not look like a threat, but he certainly held the upper hand... and the nearby sound of voices indicated that he had friends in the road. Unarmed and sleeping was no way to meet with bandits.

"Calm yerself, man," the stranger chuckled. "I'm no thief."

Taerith found his tongue, and spoke slowly. He was always careful to measure out his words. "I don't remember giving you my sword."

The little man hefted the sword. "Catch," he said. "I don't believe you're any more a threat than I am--but I like to be sure, before I give a man his arms back." He tossed it, and Taerith reached out and caught it out of the air.

"Thank you," he said, buckling it back on to his waist. "Would you mind telling me who you are?"

The little man drew a breath and rested his hands on his knees; he seemed to puff up like a swelling cloud. "My name is Findal," he said. "I am a man of the road."

"As am I," said Taerith, "though I would prefer not to be. My name is Taerith Romany." He held out his hand, and they shook across the fire.

"And what is wrong with the road?" Findal asked. "It has always treated me right well."

"It is likely to be cold in the winter," Taerith said, casting a glance on the lightening sky.

"True enough," Findal said. He narrowed his eyes and peered more closely at Taerith. "You have nowhere to go, then?"

"No," Taerith said.

Findal pursed his lips. "Well," he said. "Well. I will ask you no more, as you are evidently a man of few words. Will you break fast with us?"

Taerith stood, stretching his legs. His grey cloak fell around him. He reached down to help the little man up, and when he had done so, he saw that the man barely came up to his chest. "I can see no harm in that," he said.

"Good," the man said. He nodded, his eyes fixed on Taerith with obvious curiosity. True to his word, he asked no more questions. "Good," he said again.

The little man turned away from the fire. Following him, Taerith looked down the hill into the road, where he could now see the little company that had come upon him. There were several wagons in the road, pulled by merry looking little horses, and one magnificent stallion was tied up behind one of them. This particular wagon was larger than the others, and enclosed; there were fantastic characters painted on the side in fading colours, and strange wild faces... and a unicorn. The other wagons were entirely ordinary: two closed, one open and filled with bales of covered hay. They had all stopped in the middle of the road and a small company milled around them.

Taerith was aware that they fell silent as he approached behind Findal, and as he stepped between the wagons into the makeshift camp, the strangers stopped what they were doing and stared. He tried not to stare back, and found that his easiest recourse was to cast his eyes on the dull brown earth. The strangers were not entirely easy to treat with indifference. They were dressed in strange, ill-fitting, weirdly sewn clothes; and the frames on which the clothes fit had a share of weirdness in themselves. Taerith could not help feeling that he had fallen in with something not quite human.

Findal hailed them all loudly, and with good, wheezy cheer. "Look alive, you all!" he said. "I've brought us a breakfast companion. There, Morris... bring us a little more firewood." As he spoke he sat down by the fire, and beckoned for Taerith to do the same.

An extraordinarily thin, wiry man dressed in dingy red stepped away from one of the enclosed wagons with his arms full of firewood. He stepped lightly, as though there were eggshells beneath his feet, with an odd grace that Taerith found unnerving. The fellow threw the wood on the fire and then stepped forward and offered his hand. Taerith took it... it was smooth, and made him think somehow of a snake. "Morris Syve," he said. His voice was as thin as his body. He bowed his head slightly in greeting, and then retired to the fireside. He sat on the ground, threw one leg around his neck until the foot rested on the ground, and leaned on the misplaced limb. He continued to stare. Taerith averted his eyes, and watched as a short man with muscles so great they seemed ready to pop from every inch of his skin seated himself by the fire.

Taerith looked at Findal now, and the little man answered before the question could be asked.

"We are performers," he said. "Showmen. No stranger than many... more honest than most."

"I will eat and drink with honest men, wherever I find them," Taerith answered.

"Good fellow," Findal said. He pointed at Taerith with the blackened end of a stick he'd been using to stir the fire. "You could use a good eating, and a drink, from the looks of you," he said.

"Where are you going, and where have you been? You need not hide anything from Findal... nor yet from his merry band."

The eyes fixed on Taerith from across the fire hardly seemed merry, yet he liked Findal, and felt that he could trust these people. In any case, he had nothing to hide. "I am come from the east," he said. "I have been traveling these six months, working in the fields as a harvester. I fear that work has closed its doors to me. As to where I am going, I hardly know. I follow the road."

"Then I'll tell you where you're going," Findal said. With his stick he dug something tightly wrapped from the embers of the fire, and set it out to cool. "You're going into country where men and women like a good show, but will not pay too handsomely for it. It is not good land, not bad. A day more and you will be under the jurisdiction of Annar, king of these parts. He manages his estates well enough, and his people do not starve. He is in a good mood these days, as he is about to be married. So, we are going to perform for him, in hopes that love will make him generous."

Taerith took the food that Findal offered him--some sort of tuber, cooked nearly to mash--and tossed it from hand to hand. It was still hot. "He is a good man, then?" he asked.

"He's like his land... not good, not bad."

Morris spoke from across the fire. "We are grateful he is not his brother."

"Yes, yes," Findal wheezed. "Borden... now there's a bad piece of work, and no mistaking. Not one to give an honest man so much as a penny, not if he can stand on his head and whistle cheerily at the same time; not if he can teach a bear to dance."

"He lacks imagination?" Taerith asked, smiling a little at Findal's censure.

"He lacks anything that makes a man worthy," Findal answered. "I met him once, in court." He shook his head. "A bad piece of work."

"How far is the king's castle from here?" Taerith asked, as he unwrapped his breakfast and took a bite.

"Not two days," Findal said. "But we shall take three to reach it. We have an engagement in a nearer town. Will you accompany us there?"

Taerith looked up in surprise. He did not answer immediately, but looked around the camp a little more. Some way off from the fire he saw a woman step out of a wagon and call something to a boy who sat near her; the stallion who followed the wagons whinnied. Findal, waiting in expectation with his stick poised half in the air, had eyes neither unkindly nor unwise. All in all, it was a more pleasant prospect than continuing down the road alone. He looked back down at Findal. "I will," he said.

* * *

Four nights had passed since Borden, heir to his brother's lands, had slept. His soul was not easy at the best of times, but now he saw clouds on the horizon of his carefully planned future years. He was determined to stand on the castle parapet and stare them down, until they shrank and shrivelled and dissipated before the force of his gaze.

The sun was sinking low over the fields that surrounded the castle. The falling darkness
suited his mood. He made no move to go inside, down to human society, to the celebrations his brother was already holding. He was an old fool, Annar, drinking and blushing as though he were a young man in love, and not an old king waiting for a girl he had never met, who loved him no more than he loved her.

Borden watched for the convoy. It would come, with a carriage in its midst, bearing her who threatened everything. It would come, beneath the clouds. If he could have shattered it with a look, Borden would have. His eyes were always forceful; now, after days of brooding and nights without sleep, they seemed like the eyes of some old god, capable of turning an enemy to stone.

Yes, they would come soon. The bride and her retinue. And there would be more drinking, more foolish revelry, and then marriage. And a son would come to displace the brother who should have possessed the throne long ago.

The clouds were black indeed.

"My lord Borden." The voice was at his elbow, a thin, wavering voice. Borden turned on it, and his eyes burned into the stooped servant who waited nervously for him.

"What is it?" Borden asked, when the man's nerves had nearly reached a breaking point.

"The king calls for you," the servant said.

"The king," Borden muttered, and turned away. "I do not come at the beck and call of my brother."

The servant cleared his throat. "Please, sir," he said, "he requests..."

Borden wheeled around again. "What care I what he says?" he roared. "What is my brother? Tell me that, slave, and speak truth! What is my brother?"

"He is the king," the servant stuttered.

Borden caught the man's shirt sleeve, and spun him around toward the steps. He resisted the urge to kick the old fellow all the way down, instead releasing him with a shove. The man stumbled down the first few stone steps toward the courtyard, and was caught by the strong arms of a girl who stood, half-veiled in the shadows of the wall. Borden saw it, and bristled with anger.

"He can walk," he said.

The girl, who was considerably taller than the old man, looked up at Borden's words but did not answer. She did not have to. Borden could see her eyes burning in the darkness, with nearly as much force as his own. She was angry with him.

"Come here," Borden said.

The girl hesitated a moment, and then lifted her chin and walked up the steps to the parapet. She faced Borden without wavering. She was tall, well-formed, and obviously strong. Her red-brown hair was tied back in a thick braid and partially covered by a green kerchief. She balanced a basket on her hip, full of laundry stained in Annar's banquets. A grey collar sat dully around her neck: mark of bondage. She had long been a slave in Annar's household, and Borden had noticed her before, in passing. She was remarkable for the way she carried herself: as much unlike a slave as a wild horse is unlike the broken nag that pulls a tinker's cart.

"You tell me," Borden said. "What is my brother? There is a tongue in your head."

She looked at him, and then answered slowly, "I know what you think him."

"Speak it," Borden said.

"You think him a fool," she said.

He smiled, and turned back to the wall. There was a balm in hearing the word from another's mouth. But the girl had not moved, and her presence had a power in it that demanded to be acknowledged. He turned a little and looked at her again.

"And what am I?" he asked.

"A tyrant," she answered, without wasting a moment on misgivings. "Who pushes old men down stairs. A bully who delights to hear his words sung back to him."

"You do not admire me for that."

"I have never admired you," she answered.

His anger at Annar had been for the moment slightly gratified; there was heat enough in his blood to boil up at another. She was a slave. He might demand opinions from her, but the discovery that she had any did not entirely please him.

"You speak out of place," he growled.

"And at your command," she answered.

The setting sun cast a glow over the girl's handsome features. Borden had seen her a hundred times before but never as an individual, and suddenly he wondered what manner of being lived in his house. She had a magnificence that belonged to queens, not to slaves. And she was angry with him... enough to answer him back and insult him, when he could do anything he liked to her and she could not defend herself.

"You obviously command your own opinions," Borden said. "What do you think of my brother?"

She swallowed, and looked away for an instant. Perhaps she was beginning to regain her calm, and with it, wisdom. But her words showed little discretion. "He does not deserve to be a king," she said.

"And neither do I?"


Their eyes met again, and a smile began to dawn on Borden's face, but it was not called there by any of the innocent pleasures that bring joy to others. "You're angry with me for abusing a servant," he said. "And you stand here and abuse me. I could cast you down the stairs just as easily."

She appeared to think it over for a moment, and took in his brawny arms and broad shoulders; the iron cast of the face hidden behind his thick black beard.

"You could," she assented.

"What would you do if my brother tried it?" He half expected the answer, and wanted to hear it.

Her voice was low but she answered. "I would break his arm."

The smile broke free. He laughed. "You will not do well when a queen reigns in this house; you have too much spirit. Women can never abide to be eclipsed by one another."

"No more than brothers," the girl said. But now her voice had grown quiet; most of the fire had gone out of it.

"What is your name?" Borden demanded.

"Mirian," the girl answered.

Borden turned and looked out on the now-shrouded fields. "You may leave," he said. He waited for her to reply, to thank him for dismissing her, but she did not. When next he turned his head, Mirian had left.

The slave girl and all her powers of diversion gone, Borden fell again to thoughts of the future sweeping over the roads toward him. Every trace of a smile left his face as he meditated on the place his brother had now twice stolen from him. The weak should not rule over the strong. Borden was strong. The moon rose higher, and the still-heir of the kingdom sank down on his precarious position and quietly lost himself in obsession.

* * *

Copyright 2006 by Rachel Starr Thomson. Do not reproduce without written permission of the author.

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Tuesday, September 05, 2006


It was evening. The sun was beginning to sink behind the trees of Braedoch Forest, throwing its leafy depths into shadow. It was early spring and the forest was still newborn; winter's chill could yet be felt in the air at night.

On the eastern edge of the forest, the nine children of Isaak Romany were gathering together.

Their home was a small house of stone, composed of three circular chambers. In the central chamber a fire burned slowly, varying light dancing on the face of a tall man in a dark cloak. He waited for the nine to gather. His face seemed set in granite, as always; no hint of emotion, no whisper of affection for the children he had raised. He, Maeron Duard, was their guardian, nothing more. They did not care for him either. Though they had grown up in the house, they often chose to stay apart from it: they wandered the forest, worked in the woodshop, climbed the small mountains that overlooked their home in the north. They were not like others. Their life had been one of isolation. They knew weaponry and woodcraft, but little of humanity. They cared for each other and yet spent much of their time in solitude.

Their guardian was afraid of them. Once the clan of Romany had been strong and numerous. Duard's ancestors, druids and powerful, vengeful men, had cursed the clan nearly a century ago. In the succeeding generations, hardship, famine, and war had plagued them--helped along by the druids. At last only Isaak Romany and his wife were left. They took their children to Braedoch and tried to live with them there. But Isaak was a powerful man of great personal force, and the few remaining druids feared that he would father a new beginning for the clan. They sent Duard to kill him. And he did. He killed Isaak and his wife, but could see nothing to fear in the children... behind his face of stone there was perhaps a heart, for he kept them alive, and raised them.

But he feared them now. Alone, he thought, they could be no threat. But as long as they stayed together, the clan Romany might again arise.

* * *

Taerith Romany entered the yard on foot. He stopped a moment at the well and dipped a bucket of water, bringing it to his face in his strong brown hands. He drank, and with his hands still wet, pushed his dark brown hair back from his face. Taerith's was a solemn face, kind and possessed of a depth too great for his twenty-four years.

He stepped away from the well and looked pensively at the smoke rising from the round stone chamber he called home. His eyes, always thoughtful, had darkened with worry. Duard did not often call his charges together. Taerith looked down at his boots, oddly striped now from days of being alternately splashed with mud and washed clean by river water. He had been in the mountains a fortnight hence, camped out beside a shallow river, watching as multiple fishing poles, carefully selected from the surrounding trees, bent and bobbed over the water. He liked to fish. It was easier than hunting, a good deal less bloody, and afforded him time to think.

But his thoughts had been clouded, and now had come together in a threatening grey sky. He shook his head, as though he could shake them out, and giving his boots one last stamp, entered the house.

A few of the others were already there. They sat in the shadows, as far from Duard as they could get and still be in the room. Their guardian stood in silence by the fire. He surveyed them with his eyes, keeping his thoughts to himself. As he had ever done. Taerith lingered in the shadows for a few moments, and then stepped to the edge of the light. He met his guardian's eyes, but did not speak. Moments later, Aiden, the eldest, joined him. Together they willed Duard's eyes to see only them, and leave the others to their own silences.

Duard waited until the last had arrived before he spoke. Then, slowly, he nodded, as though confirming that what he was about to do was right.

"You wonder why I have sent for you," he said. "I will not keep you waiting. The time has come for you to go."

Taerith blinked. The words were too sudden to sink in quickly.

"Braedoch is no longer home to you, nor are you any longer a family. You will each depart alone. You will have nothing more to do with each other from this day forward. You are not to communicate, and absolutely not to see each other. If you do, terrible consequences will follow--I am warning you now."

There was a shocked silence. Duard surveyed his charges with scorn.

"Make whatever preparations are necessary. You leave in three days."

Taerith spoke slowly, weighing the words on his tongue. "You are banishing us?" he said.

Duard's eyes met his with their familiar dark fire. "Do you question me?"

Some of the younger ones were already shaking their heads. Taerith's answer was almost a whisper. "No."

But he did... how he did. On the morning of the third day, as Taerith lifted his scant pack to his back and took a staff in his hand, he turned and looked back at the house with its slowly rising column of smoke.

"I question you, Master," he said. "And someday you will answer me."

The house did not respond; its lone occupant did not emerge. Taerith settled the pack over his shoulders, and walked away.

* * *

Copyright 2006 by Rachel Starr Thomson. Do not reproduce without written permission of the author.

Enjoying the story? Download the whole thing as an e-book from Smashwords: