Saturday, November 25, 2006

Chapter Six

Mirian rose before dawn and slipped down the stairs, the stones cold on her bare feet. The muscles in her feet and legs were stiff; her fingers half numb. The elbow of her wounded arm seemed frozen in position; she moved it as much as she could, ignoring the resulting ache. She pushed the outer door open and darted across the silent courtyard, stepping carefully past a drunk who lay, dead or unconscious, near the stables where Mirian had been wont to sleep in past days. Inside, she dug out a shawl and threw it over her shoulders, bending down to wind strips of cloth around her feet. She blew a lock of long hair out of her face as she finished tying the ends of the ragged strips, wincing as she moved the fingers of her sore arm.

Back outside she went, just as the first light of the sun began to touch the castle stones. The towers rose, high and stern, above the rift in the stone wall where Mirian made her passage to the fields. The furrowed ground was colder than the air, but welcoming as the dirt sank beneath her toes. She walked with her face lifted, eager for the first true glimpse of sunrise. Her thick braid had begun to come out as she slept, and she loosened the last of it now, letting her red-brown mane blow free, ends waving with the fringe of the brown shawl.

A lone tree grew in the middle of the field, bent, twisted, and gnarled. It was there that Mirian hurried. She had nearly reached it when she stopped short. Someone was there. The rising sun outlined his figure: his back was turned to her. He was a young man, by the thickness of his dark hair and the strength in his shoulders and arms, but there was something in the way he stood that made him seem old... almost ancient, like the tree beside him. Mirian tried to make a noise and alert him to her presence, but something caught in her throat when she tried. Her mind was tense as a greyhound: too many times as a child she had imagined that the tree might resurrect the ghosts that dwelt at its roots. The presence of a stranger in the faery light of dawn unnerved her, and for a moment her feet wanted to flee.

He turned, a little slowly, still unaware of her presence, and his blue eyes opened a little in the surprise of finding her there. It took a moment for Mirian to make out his face with the sun in her eyes, but when she did, she recognized him immediately. It was the young man who had come to her aid in the fight with the unicorn. From the rumpled state of his grey clothing and the melted frost that damped his boots, Mirian guessed that he had spent the night in the field. From the corner of her eye she noticed that his sword was in its scabbard, leaning against the tree trunk. She resisted the urge to cock an eyebrow: it was foolish of him to put his weapon where he could not reach it.

"Good morning," he said. His voice was low and a little curious. She inclined her head awkwardly, avoiding his eyes, and said nothing.

"Have you nothing to say in return?" he pushed.

"I am a slave," she answered.

"You had plenty to say last night," he said.

"I was angry last night." She looked away and mumbled, "I always talk when I'm angry."

He had moved closer, and was probing her face in a way that demanded she look at him. Self-consciously, she did. It was frustrating, being in this position. What was he doing camped beneath her tree, anyway?

"You're not angry with me, then?" he asked.

There was something in the friendly tone of his voice that loosened the tension she felt, and something sparked in her green eyes. "I could be," she said.

He folded his arms across his grey tunic and smiled. "I thought I had done something. You are containing your annoyance well, but I know when a woman is not pleased with me."

He was a handsome fellow--Mirian grunted in what was nearly a sarcastic laugh. Of course he did.

"I have sisters," he said.

"Oh." She moved toward the tree, taking her eyes away again, avoiding him. She didn't want to talk. She wanted to be silent, and let the old ghosts speak in the silence. The tree was her place to think, to be still, to brood--to be entirely alone. She reached out and laid her hand on the familiar grooves of the tree bark, then turned and leaned against its trunk, letting its low hanging branches shield her against some of the wind. Her clothbound feet slipped naturally into the crooks of the gnarled roots beneath her. The young man's sword was leaning against the trunk just beside her. She blurted out suddenly, "You should keep your sword close to hand, when you're outside the walls."

The young man looked at the sword and frowned a little. "I don't like to sleep with it," he said. He stood regarding her for a moment: a woman cradled in the arms of a tree, almost as strong as the tree itself. The newborn sunlight glinted on her grey collar, its fire dull: not like the fire he could see in her soul, even if it was dampened beneath a cloak of awkward abeisance.

He noticed suddenly that she was holding one arm bent, and memories of last night's altercation sprang suddenly to mind. He took a step toward her. "Are you hurt?" he asked. "Your arm..."

She covered her elbow immediately with her other hand and said, "It's fine."

"I know a little about healing. If you would look me look at it..."

Fire suddenly flashed in her eyes. "Keep away," she said.

He stopped. "All right," he said. He ran a hand through his dark hair in a gesture of helplessness, and pointed at his sword. "Will you hand me that?" he said. "I should put it on, I suppose."

She looked at him suspiciously for a moment, and then reached down slowly with her good arm and took hold of the sword's hilt. It was heavy in her hand, but well-balanced, and she resisted the urge to test its way through the air before she handed it to him. His fingers touched hers as she did, and she withdrew quickly. As he buckled his sword on, curiosity got the better of her.

"Who are you?" she asked.

"My name is Taerith Romany," he said. "I am a stranger in these parts."

"That's clear enough," she said. "Why did you sleep by my... in the field all night?"

"I needed to think," he said. "Castle walls are too confining." He smiled suddenly. "Is this your tree? I think that's what you were about to say?"

Mirian bit her lip for a moment, and then said, in a guarded tone, "Yes."

"I think you are a very different sort of slave," he said. "Though I haven't met many."

"I was not meant to be a lady's maid," she blurted. From the expression on her face he knew she hadn't meant to say that.

"And that is why you could be angry with me?" he said. "I'm sorry. I was trying to protect you, and it was the only thing I could think of."

"I..." she stopped a moment, and then started again. "I suppose I should thank you."

"I suppose you're welcome," Taerith replied. After a moment he asked, "Do you have a name? Don't worry, I... won't tell anyone in the castle that you're a landowner, or that you were talking to me."

She smiled in spite of herself, and said, "My name is Mirian."

He smiled back, and suddenly she jerked away from the tree trunk and started to half-walk, half-run back to the castle. "It's getting late," she called over her shoulder.

He raised his hand in farewell. He watched her go, seeming to disappear into the side of the castle wall. He fingered the hilt of his sword thoughtfully; his touch was weighted down, slow with sadness. He turned to view the castle wall again. Twice now he had watched the slave girl go at the command of others, against her own will, against her desire. He sat down at the roots of the tree, feeling a little guilty. He had ruined her morning plans, whatever they had been.

His eyes scanned the brightening sky as he thought. Her whole life is a banishment, he thought. How can anyone ever be at home where they are under the control of forces they cannot be in harmony with? He clenched his fist suddenly, and touched his brow with his knuckles. Badly he wanted to know freedom--choice--the power of knowledge and control. They had never known it, the children of Isaak Romany. Only when they left home and wandered in Braedoch Forest had they held the illusion of being their own. They had only to come home to remember that other forces shadowed their lives; that another power controlled them. Maeron Duard, their guardian, had watched them with a strange malice even as he raised them.

And then the banishment... and instead of becoming free, Taerith felt more bound than ever. He had not chosen to be here. He did not know what he wanted now. Something else was pushing his life, and he did not know where.

He rose and wandered in the field, letting his booted feet sink in the furrows. He strode back and forth and in circles, and it occured to him that all his pacing was nothing more than a bitter metaphor for his own life. Suddenly angry, he stopped and dropped to his knees on the soft earth. He looked up to the sky and shook his head. Empty skies... there were no answers there.

Suddenly a movement caught his eye. Something was flying in the air above, just beyond a wisp of cloud that the sun was slowly burning away. At first he thought it was a gull, but as he slowly began to rise, hope stirred in him that it was one of Wren's falcons. His sister's first letter had reached him some four months ago: a feeble pushing against the power that bound them.

The bird came a little lower, and as it did, the white wisps of cloud seemed to gather around its wings, curling and dancing about its feathers with a ghostly clinging. Taerith froze as the cloud began to grow, outlining the bird and then seeming to become part of it: suddenly the bird was growing. Its white cloud-wings shone, not with the sunlight, but with a strange otherwordly glow that seemed to come from within the creature's wings. In moments the wings had grown till they blocked out the sun, and all Taerith could see was a great expanse of feathers across the sky, and the shining form of the bird at their center. His eyes grew wide and his legs seemed to lose all strength as he sank back to the earth: and then, with a beat of its wings that reverberated in his ears, the bird swept down and folded its wings on either side of Taerith.

The great feathers blocked out everything: the fields, the castle, the sun itself. Taerith found himself enveloped in warm darkness, and a voice spoke: stronger and clearer than the echoes of the wing-beat:

"Peace," it said.

Something that had been binding Taerith's chest seemed to break, and weeping freedom filled him. He crumpled to the ground, face pressed against his arms. Something soft and light and warm brushed his cheek--a feather.

It was gone. The warmth disappeared, replaced by the crisp chill of early morning. The rich darkness was snuffed out in an instant: morning sun in a blue sky replaced it.

Taerith scrambled to his feet and looked to the sky again: yes, there was something there... flying... fluttering. It came down and lighted in the tree, and he looked at it in disbelief. It was nothing but a dove... a small white and grey creature with nothing abnormal in its appearance or its manner.

He looked up to the sky again: the dove itself was nothing. Something had perhaps used it to get his attention, but that Something had a life of its own, and did not need to remain within the bands of any earthly creature.

"Deus," Taerith said. At the sound of the name his whole being was flooded with yearning. His heart leapt with freedom. He shook his head, trying to comprehend. "Who are you?" he asked.

There was no answer. Taerith discovered that he was smiling. He had read, in the old manuscript his father had given him as a child, that Deus, the Great God, would sometimes touch a man. Taerith's mind raced back through the crumbling old pages. Only-Wise, the Romanys had called Deus. Could He, then, give wisdom in a touch? It must be--for Taerith felt that he knew something now, though he could not put it into words. The world that had been a hauntingly confused tangle for so long would straighten itself. The beginnings of the straightening were there in his mind.

And peace. The word spoken had become a tangible thing inside him. He turned and regarded the castle, and knew what he would do. He strode toward the castle.

He needed to find Findal.

* * *

Findal was hard at work packing up the tent and other supplies. He turned at Taerith's approach and huffed, "Taerith! Good, good. Lend Randal a hand; good lad. We be pulling out."

"I'll gladly lend a hand," Taerith said, taking hold of a cord and helping Findal tie the flaps of the tent down as he spoke. "But I'm afraid I won't be going with you."

Findal halted without looking at Taerith; his fingers faltering with the cords. He sighed, and turned his grey wispy head. "Sad to hear it, I am," he said. "I had hoped you were becoming one of us."

Taerith swallowed a bit of a lump in his throat. "I'm sorry to disappoint you," he said. "You've been family to me. It's been some time since I had one."

"Still keeping your secrets to yourself?" Findal asked. "Yes, of course. What's a past between friends anyway?" The old man's eyes were glimmering, but as something occured to him his gaze sharpened. "But I do have a mind to speak to you about the future. I don't want to judge, lad, but tell me: what keeps you here?"

Taerith looked up at the sky, his fingers still tying knots in the cords. "Borden asked me to stay and join the guard..." he said. He wasn't finished, but Findal cut him off.

"You're not staying for the sake of the prince. You like him no better than I do."

Taerith smiled and looked at Findal with a hint of reproof. "I haven't made up my mind about him," he said.

"It's about the queen, isn't it?" Findal asked.

"Yes," Taerith told him.

"Lad," Findal said, "I'll not see you stay and get yourself into trouble. It was one thing when she was just a pretty stranger to rescue, but now..."

Taerith interrupted him gently. "She'll never know I'm here," he said. "I am a man of honour, Findal. I'll honour the king as I do his wife."

"Then what...?"

"She didn't choose to come here any more than I did," Taerith said. "But now we're here and I see a way that I can be of use to her. She needs someone to... to love her, Findal. Not to possess her and not to fall in love with her, but to make it his business to see that she's cared for I mean to be the one. From a distance."

Findal shook his head. "I think you're not choosing an easy way for yourself," he said.

"I have not chosen my way at all," Taerith said. "But I begin to believe the forces behind the choosing may not be evil after all."

"Well, my boy," Findal said, "if ever you need a home on the road again, just you come asking after Findal. You'll always be welcome with us."

Taerith nodded. The others had begun to notice that something was happening, and they gathered behind Findal now: Randal with his arm around Marta's shoulders, strange Morris and bulky Orlin. Only Zhenya was missing... still with his unicorn somewhere, weakness delighting in strength.

Findal stretched out his hand, and Taerith grasped the extended arm. "Thank you," he said. He raised his eyes. "Thank you all, for everything."

* * *

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

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Thursday, November 16, 2006

Chapter Five

Taerith walked beside Zhenya and the unicorn for a few minutes, then turned back to the scene of the fight. It occured to him suddenly that someone might follow the slave girl into the house and make trouble for her--if their hearts were pounding as strongly with adrenaline as his was, they might not easily give up. Some of the young fools still lingered, but none made a move toward the door. For a moment he considered going through it himself: he had seen the girl favouring her arm; she was hurt. Yet he knew, from the way she had carried herself, that she would not welcome his intrusion. Borden's voice came suddenly from behind him. He too had returned to the scene.

"What possessed you to make a lady's maid of that one?" the crown prince inquired. "Sooner a Fury's housewoman."

"I thought only to help her," Taerith said. "I did not think you would make my words reality."

"The revel will not end for several more days," Borden answered. "To act as the queen's property will keep her safe until the ruffians depart. You think quickly."

The torn, scuffed earth and bloodstains on the ground alone testified to the struggle of minutes before. Taerith blew out a breath of air as he regarded the door again. He wondered what sort of gift he had sent Lilia. He lifted his gaze to the castle towers, and concern quickened within him. How did she fare, the beautiful, lonely bride of the morning? Shouts and laughter interrupted. He turned on his heel abruptly, and plunged into the crowd.

* * *

Mirian shook as she walked; the blood pounding through her veins threatened to overwhelm her with every step. The servant's corridor through which she walked was largely deserted; all were occupied elsewhere, as she ought to have been. She stopped suddenly and pounded the wall with one arm, and then sank down against its cold stone. She drew her other arm in, cradling it. It ached, dully at first, but with a pain that built with each passing moment. The pain joined the cacophony of her thoughts, half-drowned by emotion. She wished the young man had let her alone--she might have defeated them all--she might have killed them. Or perhaps, as was more likely, their numbers would have overcome her and they would have beaten her within an inch of her life.

Even in that, there might have been some release... some freedom.

Tears, angry and unwanted, blurred her vision and slipped down her face. She brushed them off with her sleeve and buried her face in the crook of her elbow, resting on her knee while the other arm throbbed.

Faces and shouts seemed to whirl around her: the bloody horn of the unicorn, the enmity of their faces. For a moment she had done something significant. For a moment she had challenged the sort of idiot power she hated so much, and it had turned back to fight her, and nothing had stood between them. Her tears grew hot and threatened to spill forth in sobbing earnest. The moment of freedom was gone. The exhiliration of justice was snatched away. She sat in the narrow slave hall, still in bonds, still under orders--a lady's maid. The thought was repulsive to her.

Blood and emotion pounded in her ears and she did not notice the approach of soft feet. In a moment fingers touched her shoulder, and she reacted swiftly, jerking her head up and pulling away with a sharp defensive instinct.

She recognized the man who stood before her: the priest. His bearded, gentle face showed only a little surprise at the violence of her reaction.

"I apologize for startling you," he said.

"No," she said, hastily wiping her face with her sleeve. "You've a right to be here as much as I." She turned her face away from him, and made no other move.

"Is there anything I can do?" he asked. He seemed hesitant to ask, but unable not to. She grimaced.

"Nothing," she said. "You are absolved of your priestly duties."

"Forgive me," he said, seating himself on the floor beside her. "I did not ask because it was my duty."

She waited a minute, and when he made no move to go, she turned her face back to him. She had gained control of herself now; there were no more tears. The throbbing in her arm still distracted her, but the adrenaline rush was gone, and anger took a back seat to the annoyance of dealing with his presence.

"Is there something you want?" she asked.

He chuckled a little, eyes on the stone floor. It struck her as incongruous that he should laugh when surely, her maidenly plight seemed dire indeed. He had come upon her crying like a frustrated child, and had apparently been nonplussed by the fact. "I know what you did outside," he said. "It was a courageous and just thing. I have come to sit in the company of a heroine and wait until she needs something."

"Don't worry," Mirian said. "I have been well rewarded."

He didn't seem to hear the bitterness in her tone. "Yes," he said, "you have. You will serve the queen herself."

Mirian stood abruptly. "I was not made for housework," she said. "She will very soon replace me, if she knows anything. Excuse me. I have to report to the steward."

She swayed a little on her feet for a moment, and then stalked off down the corridor. The priest stayed behind and watched her go.

The stone passage took her to an inner room where the Chief Steward of Annar's house, a tall, stoop-shouldered man called Grey, presided over the workings of the household. He was there, with his sharp-tongued, sharp-eyed wife, as Mirian had expected him to be. She bowed her head in deference as she entered his presence, and ignored his wife with all her might.

"Master Grey," she said. "I am sent by Lord Borden."

"Be quick with your business," Mistress Grey said. "We haven't got all night."

Mirian did not look in the woman's direction, but kept her eyes on the weary husband. He regarded her with a question in his eyes. "And what message do you bring?" he asked.

"That--" Mirian bit the word off, and tried again. "That I am to make ready to serve the queen, as her personal maid."

Mistress Grey forced herself into Mirian's line of vision: a thin woman of average height, silver-haired, face tightly drawn across high cheekbones and a narrow forehead. "That is my business," Mistress Grey said. "You will deal with me. Queen's maid? How did you ever manage to gain such a position?"

The pain in Mirian's arm was getting worse, but she set her jaw against it even as she kept her eyes from flashing too much in the mistress's direction. "Believe me," she said, "I do not want it."

Mistress Grey reached out and grabbed Mirian's injured arm suddenly, pushing her toward the door. Pain shot up from the elbow, and Mirian bit back a gasp. She clenched her teeth and allowed the woman to propel her toward another servant's passage and a long set of stairs. Mistress Grey shoved past Mirian into the lead as they ascended the stairs, up to a high tower. At last they reached the top, and Mistress Grey nodded to a room. "That is the queen's room," she said. "It is vacant at the moment. Start your duties by making it ready for her. Your quarters are below, on the landing we just passed. You will share the room with two others, who have already been serving the queen well. Clean yourself up before the queen sees you, and in all matters, girl, hold your tongue."

Mirian shot Mistress Grey a look, and said through clenched teeth, "I am holding it."

The woman drew herself up, and regarded Mirian with a look of utter contempt. She reached into a pocket and pulled out a key. "To the queen's room," she said. Mirian stretched out her open palm and Mistress Grey dropped the cold bit of iron into it. "Your duties begin now," Mistress Grey said, and took herself away down the stairs with a disdainful swish of her long skirts.

Mirian shivered as she looked down at the key--the tower was cold. She wondered why the queen had been assigned to such a place. Slowly she unlocked the door and pushed her way into the small room where the king's bride would lodge. It was sparsely but tastefully furnished, framed by dark purple curtains over a window that let in a draft, cold and shadowed. There was wood in the fireplace, but the hearth was clean of ashes. There was no sign that other servants had been here before her--serving the queen well, as Mistress Grey had claimed. As best she could with her arm still throbbing, Mirian started a small fire and did what she could to make the room a bit homier. Warmth would help more than anything. She watched the flames lick at the wood for a few minutes, approving of its propensity to grow quickly. She came to herself a moment later: the queen might return at any moment, and she should not find her here.

The passageway outside the door was likewise cold and dark, and Mirian found herself leaning against the wall as she descended to the servant's room below. The door was locked against her, but after she knocked an old woman opened it--greeted her coldly, and pointed to an empty corner of the room where Mirian could make do with a blanket and a cushion to rest her head. The other women were servants, not slaves, and both decades older. Mirian knew her place. She lay down in the corner without complaining.

She tucked her arm in as close to her body as she could. It felt cold, and she needed it to warm up. She closed her eyes, and images jumped up unbidden: the unicorn, the fight, her moment of glory. A tear fell on the stone floor beneath her, though she did not want it to, and hardly acknowledged that it had.

* * *

The bright of colours of Findal's tent glowed richly under the torchlight in the far corner of the courtyard. Taerith made his way through the drunken huddles to the flap of the tent, and ducked inside.

Randal and Marta stood, side by side, leaning over the side of the stall they had erected for Sol. Sol himself was staked in the opposite corner, ignoring his oats with a curiously humbled, nervous air. Marta turned at the sound of Taerith's entrance and motioned for him to join them.

On the far side of the stall the unicorn lay, its flanks still heaving. Its head was tucked in to nuzzle the boy who had curled up against its side and whose hand slowly stroked it. Taerith smiled as he took in the expression on Zhenya's face--wonder lost in the deeper emotions of love and care. Equally did the beast seem absorbed in the boy. Taerith's heart went out suddenly to the scene. He opened the gate, and ignoring Marta's warning hand, went in and knelt at Zhenya's side.

The unicorn looked up, but it made no move. Taerith felt the tension in his own body as he knelt: the deadly, unpredictable power of the creature was palpable in the air. But Zhenya welcomed him with a smile as he continued to stroke the unicorn's side.

"You said," Taerith said in a low voice, steadying himself with a hand on the strawed ground, "that power does not love weakness. There. Nature has made you a liar."

"It has done so kindly," Zhenya answered.

Taerith nodded. Tentatively he reached out and touched the creature's flank, turning his hand and running the backs of his fingers down the hot white fur.

"Magnificently," he agreed. "I will always remember you, Zhenya, as one chosen by strength."

Concern flickered across Zhenya's face. "You're not leaving, are you?" he asked.

Taerith sighed, stroking the unicorn once more before rising to his feet. "I don't know," he whispered. "Say nothing."

Zhenya nodded, his dark eyes following Taerith as he brushed himself clean of dust and straw and rejoined Randal and Marta outside the stall. Marta was glowing. She had loved Zhenya before, in her own way, but somehow the unicorn had made of the cripple someone who inspired greater affection than he had before.

Randal turned away from the scene and raised his eyebrows for Taerith's attention. "A drink?" he asked. "It's free tonight."

Taerith acquiesced, and together the two stepped out of the tent, Randal bending low under the folds of the cloth. The courtyard before them was alight, heaving with laughter, glowing with ale. Randal secured them each a mug full, and the two men walked together, swords buckled at their sides, disdaining to join in the other men's games and conversations.

"It is a merry celebration," Randal said, nodding to the crowd. "Still, I shall not be sorry to leave it."

"And when will that be?" Taerith asked.

"In a day or two, when the peasants have run out of coppers and the king of hospitality. Perhaps sooner--that unicorn may mix things up a little."

Taerith only grunted in response.

"You're very quiet," Randal said.

Taerith smiled. "You show how little you know me. I am seldom anything but quiet."

"Ah," Randal answered, lowering his ale, "but you are trying to convince me that there is nothing on your mind, and I do not believe you."

Taerith raised his mug and took a drink. They stood silently for a minute, and Randal's expression changed in the silence--taking on the solemnity of his next words. He hesitated over them as he gave voice again.

"I think I should tell you that I don't believe Lilia is safe here."

Taerith looked up sharply. "Why do you say that?" he asked.

"The bandits talked amongst themselves; I listened," the sword-swallower answered. "Annar is not a popular man. It seems his chief virtue is his childlessness. The bandits weren't after money. They wanted to prevent Lilia from ever giving her groom an heir."

Taerith let the words sink in. They were cold, unyielding words.

"The men who attacked the carriage are in prison, but they are not alone in their animosity, or even in their strategies."

There was silence again, in which the crowd's merriment filled the space between the men without welcome.

"I thought you should know," Randal said finally.

Taerith nodded. "Yes--thank you." His mind swam as he stepped away from Randal.

Stay. Borden's offer blew like a northern wind in the inner storm that built up in him. Stay. To what end? For a moment he had told himself that Lilia might be his, that the kinship he felt in talking to her might make a new home for him. But that hope was gone; he dared not entertain it. She could not be his. And yet... and yet, in a very different sense, he might still be hers. His fingers tightened around his sword hilt as he walked away, hardly even remembering that Randal was there.

The crowd around him seemed suddenly rife with enmity. He had not heard the mutinous whispers before; now he heard them on every side. Yes, even the peasants mocked when they spoke of Annar. And some mocked with a darker tone of enmity; some threatened as they drank the king's wine. He heard Lilia's name on the night breeze and he thought his fingers might snap the hilt.

Who would protect her if he did not stay? Annar seemed perched on a throne of straw. Taerith had taken his character in the moment he saw him: there was no courage in the man, no wisdom, no self-sacrifice. Would Borden watch over his brother's wife? Perhaps... and yet, Borden had held back when the ruffians had threatened the slave girl, and if a man's heart did not move him to help one woman, why should it move him to help another?

There is a very great difference between helping a slave and guarding a queen, Taerith told himself. He kept walking. His heart argued back that there was no real difference at all.


Taerith stopped suddenly. He had passed out of the castle gates. He stood in the deserted road, under the moonlight. The towers of the castle rose high above him. The wind played an eerie tune in the stony heights. He turned and looked back, through the open gate to the warm colours of the circus tent, billowing slightly in the breeze. He thought of the crippled boy who rested in the strength of the unicorn. For what seemed like the hundredth time since he had come, he raised his eyes to the topmost tower, and thought he saw Lilia through the stones: looking out over the fields and fens like a crippled bird whose dearest and most fearful desire to was to fly.

He bowed his head. The pain in his chest tightened. How could he stay?

How could he go?

* * *

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

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