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?"

"No."

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.

Enjoying the story? Download the whole thing as an e-book from Smashwords: http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/82687


10 Comments:

Anonymous Marsha said...

Okay, you have definitely drawn me in!

So what do you need me to send you to get that next chapter posted? Coffee, chocolate, just name it! :-)

Seriously, I love your writing style and the story that is unfolding is quite interesting so far.

Marsha

6:36 AM  
Anonymous Rachel Rossano said...

Wonderfully done, you have caught me like you always do in the web of your words. I am left hanging, suspended and waiting, hoping for more.

7:40 AM  
Blogger The Romany Epistles said...

Oooh, good job, Starr. You write like pro. ;-) I love how your characters come alive on the page, each with their own uniqueness (if uniqueness is a word). This is going to be great watching your story unfold. :-)

~Britt

1:23 PM  
Blogger The Romany Epistles said...

It's great, it's wonderful, it's amazing, it's inspiring, it's jealousy-inspiring, it's way too good! How am I going to live up to that???? ;)

LOL, just kidding. I LOVED every word. I'm soooo looking forward to more.

5:22 PM  
Blogger The Romany Epistles said...

Oops, that last post was me, Em. I forgot that a bunch of us share the same name. ;)

5:23 PM  
Blogger The Romany Epistles said...

That was a wonderful beginning! I love vividness of the characters!

Rachel/Daelia

6:55 PM  
Anonymous Libby said...

WOW! Rachel, you're an amazing writer. I wish I had the chance to read this sooner. But at least this way I can go on to read chapter 2 right away. ;-)

2:27 PM  
Blogger Laynie said...

This is very good: intriguing and engaging. I like the characters already. The ones you meant for me to like, anyway.

7:53 AM  
Blogger Narelle said...

Can you believe it Starr? I havent started yet and my heart is going boom, boom in antisipation......here i go.....grin!
narelle

3:43 PM  
Blogger Narelle said...

GREAT!.......yeah.....thanks!
Now I'm hooked!
Starr, now i am just going to have to read on and start hounding you for more and more all the time!
Hey.....its your fault for writing so goodly!
*winks

4:04 PM  

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