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.

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Anonymous Carolyn said...

Sigh. Looking ahead -- poor Taerith. The traveling circus is well done; I like the characters. :)

5:35 AM  
Anonymous Marsha said...

Ditto what Caroline said. *sigh* I like it! You have definitely drawn me in to your story!

I can't wait to see how the next chapter unfolds...

7:00 AM  
Anonymous Keelia said...

Make that three sighs. I am loving this story!

5:49 PM  
Anonymous Libby said...

Four sighs and swoon. ;-) I'm really getting into this story! You're such an inspiration to me. :-)I'm equally interested in Lilia and Mirian, and I love their names. Can't wait to read on!

3:00 PM  
Blogger The Romany Epistles said...

I like Lilia...but Marian takes the cake. She's soooooo awesome. I suspect there may be some choices in the future for dear Mr. Taerith to make....

Great job, as usual!

~ Em

3:33 PM  
Anonymous Rachel said...

I love the characters and the way you painted their life, realistic, yet fanciful. :) I am looking forward to the next chapter.

10:28 AM  
Blogger Malachi said...

Good job! I'm Em's brother, Mal. Keep up the good work! :)

6:12 PM  

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