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.

Stay.

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: http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/82687

6 Comments:

Blogger The Romany Epistles said...

Very good, Starr!! I read it out loud to JD and he seemed to enjoy it too and he's not easy to impress! I noticed a few words, repeated ttwice, and an extra 'to', but not many.
The inner conflict of the characters is awesome. So totally believable. I can't wait for more!

9:26 AM  
Anonymous Courtney said...

I love the story.. please write more soon!

12:44 PM  
Blogger The Romany Epistles said...

=) I love your writing Starr. Very masterful indeed. As the above said: Please write more soon!

~Gabi

9:03 PM  
Anonymous Rachel Ro. said...

Well done! I am eagerly moving on to the next chapter. I liked the way that Taerith read Borden's actions. :)

8:22 PM  
Anonymous kappa said...

beautiful, clear writing with a sensitivity to human nature.

1:25 AM  
Blogger Malachi said...

Wow, I'm on a roll! I've managed to read two and a half chapters today! All were great.

But there's just one thing I don't like: Taerith has two choices: to stay in the Castle, remotely close to the one 'he loves,' (but he should love Miriam) or go with the circus. I think he should go with the circus, that way he can still have fun, and just get the two women out of his mind. They are nice, but I don't like either of them very much right now. I probably will later, since you are the writer, but they just don't appeal to me right now. (Voice breaks, ruining my points.) :)

That's all. See you later, you awesome writer.


P.S. I wish I could write like you.

9:56 AM  

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