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.

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


Blogger The Romany Epistles said...


Wow, awesome section, Starr! I loved the parts with Mirian, know you're suprised. And that part with the huge bird/Deus was AMAZING! You really brought in the spiritual side of things really well - as you always do. ;) Taerith certainly IS choosing the hard road here...he's definitely attracted to Lilia, but he's staying to protect her. Dangerous....but bound to be an interesting tale. :)

Can't wait for usual. ;)

7:40 AM  
Anonymous Gabi said...

I loved the tree, and I especially loved what you did with the dove. It was very real and touching.

So Chapter 7? ;-)

2:46 PM  
Anonymous Libby said...

I kept getting reminded of the great Charles Dickens as I read chapters five and six. Obviously this is a good thing. :-)

I love your way with words. I sit at my laptop writing and think, would F.L. edit this or leave it as it is? ;-) You're my guiding Starr. (shameful punnery, that)

Your characters are so deep! I'm really enjoying getting to know them. I reiterate from a past comment that Borden is fascinating; I want to know much more about him.

You said on Wayside that you included themes in your summary-- I think I'm seeing some of them. That seems like a good idea, really. I'll have to think about that.

Thanks for the excellent chapter, you keep me longing for more and wondering what on earth is going to happen!


8:35 PM  
Anonymous Rachel Ro. said...

Beautiful! I do like the tree and you hinted rather clearly at what its significance might be. I enjoyed the buird experience and loved the interaction between the characters. As always, I am looking forward to more. :)

8:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

please write more soon! i'm excited to know what happens next!

7:38 AM  
Anonymous Marsha said...

I can't wait for the next chapter!!! GREAT job!

8:40 AM  
Blogger The Romany Epistles said...

Sigh, I like Taerith...If only there were more like him in the world. I love your story so far, it's believable and your characters are so real.

Write more soon!
Rachel B

6:12 PM  
Anonymous kappa said...

the characters you paint are beyond 'likeable'. they're real.

1:32 AM  
Blogger Malachi said...

Congratulations on another great chapter! I was wondering if Taerith believed in Dues because you never mentioned it before, but this confirms that he does know him! Great chapter!

4:42 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home