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.

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Blogger The Romany Epistles said...

I am so loving your story right now...I can't figure out who is going to end up with who, and I love that in a story!

Rachel B

8:05 AM  
Blogger The Romany Epistles said...

RACHEL! How come you're so good at writing? Gosh! I want to squeeze you and make you keep going! I love the way you so effortlessly manage multiple characters. And the way Borden and Mirian are flawed but likeable...yes, Borden! I at first thought him a villain, but I am now liking him far more than his brother, hard as he may be. I'm just so enjoying this. The river scene was swoony. I loved every word. And I think I know who will end up with who, but I'll reserve my assumptions for further on. (recall my guesses about Kryzanyskji or whatever it was, and then you'll see why I'm cautious of making guesses ;-) )


12:42 PM  
Anonymous Marsha said... maybe I am mistaken as to whom ends up with whom...

I can't wait to read the next chapter!!! :-)

11:10 AM  
Blogger The Romany Epistles said...

Wonderful, Starr. Really, really, good. :-D


2:02 PM  
Blogger The Romany Epistles said...

TAERITH MUST END UP WITH MIRIAN!!!! IT'S NOT DEBATABLE! Oh, right, I'm not writing this story, am I. Oops. Still, Lilia is cool and all that, but Mirian is WAY, SO much better. :) :) :)

Can't wait for more!!!!!!! Serious, this one has me really, really intrigued. Starr, your writing has improved TONS and TONS from what I've read of your previous material and stuff. GREAT JOB!!!!

Emily ;)

12:10 PM  
Anonymous Caroly said...

Heh, you have everyone on edge, don't you? Wonderful chapter and the comments crack me up!

6:17 PM  
Blogger The Romany Epistles said...

Comment on Emily's comment--- yup, Mirian is pretty cool alright, but she belongs with the prince's brother. They just go together, and Taerith and Lilia belong together. Although if you worked it the other way I'm sure it will still be good, but at the moment that's what feels right. I can't wait for more!


6:43 PM  
Blogger The Romany Epistles said...

Whoops, I meant the King's brother, but you know who I mean

6:44 PM  
Blogger Laynie said...

This is awesome! Wow! Borden is turning out not to be quite the hated villain that I first thought him to be. And Taerith is just great.

By the way, where I come from, Borden is a popular brand of milk. I toured the Borden milk processing center when I was in grade school. Just thought you might get a laugh out of that. Heh.

8:19 AM  
Blogger Erin said...

Hi Rachel,

You commented on my Xanga (I'm joy_unspeakable there) yesterday so here I am!

Looks like you've got an interesting story developing. Mirian, so far, is my favorite character. :-)

You're brave to post your story online; I have a few of my stories posted at a writing website, but haven't worked up the courage to actually show them off in a blog. ;-)

8:35 PM  
Blogger Malachi said...

Yay! Emmy is right. Miriam and Taerith belong to each other. Sure, she's my sister, and I always side with her, but that is my opinion. Taerith needs someone to liven up his life. Miriam's the one! :)


6:33 PM  

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