Thursday, January 04, 2007

Chapter Seven

Taerith watched Findal's wagons disappear into the darkness of the fens with a curious constriction in his throat. A short-lived family, they had been--but a family, nonetheless. Zhenya had found him just before they left.

"I'll not forget you," the boy had said, leaning on his crutch.

"Nor I you," Taerith answered. "We shall meet again, Little Brother."

Zhenya smiled a faint, crooked smile at the name. He reached out an arm and Taerith grasped it, hand to elbow. Zhenya looked up and whispered, "Take care of Lilia."

"I'll do my best," Taerith had whispered back.

The words echoed in his mind now. Behind him, the castle loomed like a malevolent presence. Yet something rose up in him to meet it--something winged; something wild. He turned to face its grey walls. Lilia was somewhere behind those stones, and with her, his future.

The last vestiges of the celebration were still going on as Taerith entered the gates, but they were more distasteful than ever to him--newly alone, he had no desire to strike up an acquaintance with the last few drunks to remain. His eyes sought out some refuge in the courtyard, or better yet, the powerful form of Borden, whose command he now lived under. Instead, his eyes lit on a figure who was familiar for some reason he could not remember: a priest, who sat beneath his cowl looking out at the world from a shadowed corner of the yard. Almost without thinking, Taerith found himself striding toward the man.

The priest looked up at Taerith's approach. "Ah, the stranger. Well met," he said. His voice was mild, as was his face beneath its sandy, close-cropped beard.

"Stranger no longer," Taerith said. "I have joined Borden's guards."

"Well, then, I am glad you have not yet reported for duty," the priest said. "I wanted a word with you. You have the look of man whom Deus has touched. Please, sit... I cannot offer you more than a patch of ground, for I own nothing in this ungodly place, but it is a friendly patch of ground for the moment."

"It is that," Taerith said, seating himself on the earth beside the priest. "Who are you? And where do you come from?"

"My name is Joachim," the priest said. "I am a subject of Hosten, the mightiest lord in the Five Kingdoms, and your nearest neighbour to the east."

"The Five Kingdoms?" Taerith asked.

"Do you know so little about the land where you now serve?" Joachim asked.

"When I had a home," Taerith answered, "it was far from here."

"Ah," Joachim said. He looked down at his brown robe for a moment, then lifted his head and explained, "Corran, the kingdom where you now reside, is the farthest western edge of an alliance made by five kings. They stand together, lest any one of them be swallowed up by larger kingdoms in the south. It is not always an easy alliance, but it has worked. If it was not for his fellow kings, your lord Annar would have been annexed long ago--or overrun by barbarians in the north. My lord Hosten protects him from the latter evil."

"Did you come here to celebrate Annar's wedding feast?" Taerith asked.

"No," Joachim said. "Annar's affairs are not so important to the neighbouring kingdoms that they would send an emissary--even one as poor as I. I came to deliver a message. And you?"

"I hardly know," Taerith said. "My wandering brought me here, and I believe I am to stay here... I confess I understand little of the path that has led to today."

Joachim smiled. "We are both men sent by God," he said. "I knew you had the mark of Deus on you the first time I saw you, standing as the queen's defender."

The memory came back to Taerith in a rush: Joachim had been the priest with Borden when the prince had come with his guard to escort Lilia to the castle.

"I don't know what you saw," Taerith said. "If Deus has touched me--and I believe perhaps he has--it was not so long ago as that."

"That was hardly long ago," Joachim said, chuckling. "But Deus chooses a man long before the man knows he is chosen."

"Chosen for what?" Taerith asked.

"Only you can answer that," Joachim replied.

A shadow fell across the men, and Borden's deep voice cut through the morning air.

"There you are, lad," the crown prince said. "Get up, and come report for duty. You have much to learn, and not much time in which to learn it." Borden raised his voice as he spoke, so that all within the courtyard could hear him--soldier and sot alike. "We have just received word that the lord Hosten will visit us in half a week's time. When he arrives, he should see a show of strength that will not embarrass Corran, or its lords." His voice dropped to a tiger's purr as he spoke the last three words. Taerith rose immediately, conscious of the priest's eyes on him as he left.

Taerith walked a pace behind Borden as they strode across the yard to the guard's barracks: a narrow, long-running series of rooms built into the side of the castle's northern wall. Men jumped to their feet as Borden entered.

"Look sharp," Borden shouted. "All of you, on your feet. Make me proud to be your commander!"

He need hardly have spoken. Despite the harshness in his voice, Taerith saw the pride in Borden's face--and it was well-deserved. The barracks were spotless; the men dressed, fit, and apparently ready for anything. If he had been nervous about joining Borden's guard, Taerith felt his unacknowledged fears go out of him. These were good men following a commander they respected. Anyone could have seen as much.

"Emmet," Borden said, calling one of the men out. "Ride east. Find our lord Hosten and greet him in the road. Find out how many he brings with him, and how long he plans to stay. Jonas, take your men and troll the borders. I don't trust our neighbours. If they are bringing any surprises, I want to know."

The men in question nodded, barked out orders to a few subordinates, and left the barracks. Borden planted himself in the middle of the floor with his arms folded across his chest.

"Kardas, we will need meat. Take your boys and hunt it down." Borden turned to Taerith suddenly. "Can you hunt, lad?"

"That I can, sir," Taerith answered.

"Man or beast?" Borden asked.

"Beast, if you will allow me," Taerith answered.

"Very well," Borden said. "You are under Kardas' orders for the present." He turned his eyes away, dismissing Taerith from his thoughts as he continued. "Tridian, find last night's troublemakers and lock them away. I don't want a repeat under King Hosten's eye."

Something else seemed to occur to him, and he turned his eyes back to Taerith, who had crossed the room to join the slim, dark young man called Kardas. "You two had better come with me," he said. "Master Grey knows better than I the needs of the day."

* * *

Master Grey, chief steward of Annar's household, was bent over a long list of provisions in the kitchen when Borden burst in on him with two men in tow. Grey looked up with a dogged expression on his face. The look on Borden's face warned him to silence.

"Going over the stores?" Borden asked.

"Yes, my lord," Master Grey said, laying the list down with a dignity that said he was annoyed but willing to be longsuffering.

"Good," Borden said. "I have come to offer you the services of our fine young hunters. We have guests on the way."

Grey's weathered face blanched. "Guests?" he asked.

"King Hosten of Moralia," Borden said. "He will be here in three or four days' time. You will make ready for him--a feast."

"My lord," Master Grey said, "we have just celebrated. The stores are low..."

"Which is why I have brought you hunters," Borden interrupted. "Tell them what you need and they will do all they can to get it for you." He lowered his voice and leaned across the counter toward Grey. "I know this is not what you wanted to hear from me today, old man. I did not want to hear it either. But you are no fool--you understand that we must put on a splendid feast for Hosten."

"Does he come with a large party?" Grey asked, swallowing whatever it was that he wanted to say.

"I don't doubt it," Borden answered.

"It is not to be--" Grey stopped in the middle of his sentence. He nodded unhappily. "The servants will revolt," he muttered. "So much work to be done, and they already worked to the bone from the days past."

"Be glad my scouts learned of Hosten's approach when they did," Borden said. "I have no doubt he meant it to be a surprise."

Borden stepped back and ushered Kardas and Taerith forward. Master Grey knew his business, and it was a matter of minutes before he had handed them an extensive list of meats. Kardas took the list without a word, though Taerith thought he saw a comment brewing under the hunter's silence.

"Will that be all?" Kardas asked.

"Yes," Master Grey said, all but wringing his hands. "Yes, it will have to do."

Kardas nodded and, on silent approval from Borden, withdrew. Taerith followed him out into the morning air.

"There is not this much game left in the fens," Kardas said. "Not at this time of year."

He said nothing more, and Taerith abstained from questioning. The other men assigned to the hunt were making preparations. The two men went to join them.

In the kitchen, Borden continued to tower over the steward as he clapped his hands and began to issue orders for preparation. When every servant within earshot had been thrown into a whirl, the harried old man turned back to his prince.

"Was there something else you wanted, my lord?" he asked. His tone was wheedling: displaying abeisance while begging to be left alone.

"You have a slave in this house," Borden said. "She does not act like a slave."

Grey averted his eyes to his list. "Mirian," he said, fussing with something on the table.

"That's the one," Borden said.

"Has she offended you?" Grey asked. "She is wild, my lord, but she works hard, and the altercation last night was after all in the best interests of..."

"I'm not here to attack her, or to attack you for you failing to keep her under," Borden said. "Stop defending yourself; it's embarrassing."

Grey fell silent.

"Well?" Borden asked.

"Well?" Grey echoed, looking genuinely lost.

"Who is she?" Borden asked. "I know her name--but where does she come from?"

"Don't you know?" Grey asked. "She has been here since she was born." His voice quieted, genuinely subdued for the first time since the conversation had begun. "She is the last of the old family, my lord."

Borden looked sharply at the steward. When he spoke again it was slowly, as a man who is threading thoughts even as he speaks. "I understand--from my men--that she has something of a feud with your wife."

"The mistress objects to her spirit, my lord," Grey said.

"Be that as it may," Borden said. "Mirian has been installed as the queen's maid. It was on my orders. I want her there, Grey. She is not to be removed from the position except on my orders. Do you understand?"

"Yes, sir," Grey said.

"She does have spirit," Borden said, half to himself. "You say she was born here? Who raised her? That task would have fallen to you and your wife, would it not?"

"Her own mother raised her, till she was six or so," Grey answered.

"Did she learn her spirit from her mother?"

Grey did not meet the prince's eyes, but his voice took on that strangely subjected quality once more. "Her mother was a broken woman, my lord, as she was meant to be." He cleared his throat. "After she died the child raised herself. My wife did her best by her, but she couldn't handle her--even then."

The steward raised weary eyes to Borden's face. "I don't know what you have planned for the girl, but..."

"Speak what you want to say," Borden said.

"She's a good girl," Grey said finally. "Treat her kindly."

Borden's mouth twitched. He turned to leave, then said over his shoulder, "I have no other plans, Master Grey. I leave you to your kitchen, and wish you success in readying the house. Our visitors will not be forgiving if you fail, steward, and neither will I."

Master Grey nodded as Borden left, his face as close to a picture of martyred misery as it could be without losing dignity.

* * *

Mistress Grey met Mirian on the landing below the queen's room. She cast an eye of disapproval on Mirian's windblown hair and rags, lip curling as she took in the silver tea-tray, laden with the queen's breakfast, which the slave girl held in her hands. She pursed her lips while Mirian waited for her to step aside and let her pass, her eyes challenging the woman even in the silence.

"I do not understand why the prince would choose to cast his pearls before swine," Mistress Grey said at last. Mirian cast her eyes down as the diatribe continued. "You are a disgrace to this house. When I think of how happy your mother would have been to see you so honoured... and you so uncaring!"

"Why should I feel honoured?" Mirian asked. Her voice was low, husky. The shadow of the old tree still hung over her head, holding the promises and hopes of years long past tangled in its roots. Her mother--poor, foolish, defeated woman--seemed less a part of Mirian's blood than the ancestors buried beneath that tree, who had died defending their home with a passion that Mirian remembered in dreams and in nightmares and felt, when she awoke, pounding through her veins. Yes, her mother would have been happy to know that her daughter served as a slave in the place where her fathers had reigned. But it took so little to make her happy.

"She'll be waiting for you," Mistress Grey said, not deigning to answer the question. "Pray that she's still asleep and does not know how late you have been in coming."

Mirian did pray it, in the way of fleeting thought, as she mounted the last few steps to the heavy wood door. There was no sound from the other side, and she pushed the door open and entered.

The deep purple curtains had been opened, letting in the morning sun. It streaked a pale path over the stone floor, passed through the drapery over the bed, and fell on the pale face of the young woman who lay, eyes closed, with her slight hands resting on the coverlet. Dark hair fell over the girl's shoulders, whitening the skin of her neck and shoulders. Mirian stood a moment and looked at her: Annar's wife. How much harm would she do the kingdom before she did them all a mercy and died?

Mirian turned abruptly away, laying the tray and its contents down as quietly as she could. The queen must have awakened earlier, for no one else would have opened the curtains. For an irrational moment she considered drawing them again. She seemed to be in the room with something already dead. Surely the queen would not stir again to welcome the sun, or ever to shut it out. Mirian finished arranging the items on the tray, and turned. The illusion was broken. Lilia's grey eyes were open, and fixed on her.

"Thank you," she said. Her voice was soft and young. Mirian felt something in her hardening against its sweet tones. The thought of this child sitting by Annar's side sickened her... union of weakness and foolishness, it could only mean ill for the people.

Mirian nodded in recognition of the queen's words, and forced herself to speak. "Is there anything else?" she asked.

"Yes," Lilia said, speaking hesitantly. "I rode with you the morning I came here, but I did not learn your name."

"It is Mirian. I am... yours to command, my lady."

Lilia tried to smile but failed at it. She turned her face away, as though she would hide if she could. Mirian was aware that she was intimidating the queen of Corran, her mistress, and she hated the newcomer for it. Didn't she understand that they needed strength?

"I don't..." Lilia began, and then tried again. "I shall have to meet the king, when he calls for me. I don't know what there is to--that is, I don't know what to wear, or how to present myself. You will help me?"

"That is the usual practice," Mirian said. She could not keep the dry edge out of her voice, though she tried her best to speak softly.

"Thank you," Lilia said again. She tried, with a bravery Mirian did not recognize, to meet the slave girl's fiery eyes, but could not withstand the burning in them. She lowered hers again and played with the stitching on her coverlet. She was trembling, from somewhere deep inside, and she fought to keep the tremour out of her voice. "You may go for the moment," she said, quietly. "I will call for you when I need you."

Mirian left the room, and Lilia looked up to the sun that fell toward her in white rays. She closed her eyes and let the rays wash over her, over the thick blankets and the white drapes that hung over her bed; over the thin lace-embroidered gown that lightly graced her shoulders, over her hands. She turned her palms up slowly, as though she might receive something from the morning light. She stood suddenly, and went to the window. Across the field, a group of riders was galloping away. One of them turned and looked back, and even at such a distance she thought she recognized him.

Taerith. Could it be?

In the cold of her tower room, Lilia smiled. She had imagined him, of that she was sure, and yet in the imagination she was not so entirely alone. She was no longer trembling as she turned away from the window.

* * *

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

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Anonymous Carolyn said...

Poor Lilia. All this isn't exactly fair on her. Very good job though. I enjoy the development of characters with each subsequent chapter and I'm very proud of you for getting another one down. :)

5:36 AM  
Anonymous Courtney said...

I'm so Happy you wrote! I'm in love with this story.. can't wait to see what happens next!

9:27 AM  
Blogger The Romany Epistles said...

Lovely, Starr! I delight in the way you thread words together. :-)


2:15 PM  
Blogger The Romany Epistles said...

MIRIAN, MY MIRIAN, JUST HOLD ON!!! It will get better...I hope...someday...for you. *sigh* I did feel twinges of pity for Lilia, but Mirian is right: the queen should be strong to lead the people. Mirian is wishing she could be in control instead of the weak-willed queen--for that is how she seems to percieve Lilia. I believe Lilia has strength, but of a different kind. It will be interesting to see how this all plays out, especially with Lilia's obvious attraction to Taerith with she's married to Annar... Hmm.

Love and hugs,

1:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love this story! Write more soon!

7:18 PM  
Blogger The Romany Epistles said...

Unsatisfyingly short! That is a compliment, mind you. I second Carolyn in saying your character development is very smooth and progressing enough to make each character intriguing even as they are more and more revealed. I love the tragicality of Mirian and Lilia's lives, each in their own way. I love their contrast and I'm looking forward to how their relationship pans out. Borden is obviously interested in Mirian. I'm interested in Borden! I love Taerith most of all of course, but Borden is fascinating and I can't help but like him. Please don't make him kill somebody or do some other such wicked thing! He can't be the villain!

I noticed you used "wheedle," lol!

Great chapter! I'm anxious for more!


4:27 PM  
Blogger Nathan M. said...

Hey this is really cool you are doing this.

How old are you if you dont mind me asking?

P.S. I am the one you sent a message to on xanga (bobsagget1990)

6:46 PM  
Anonymous Marsha said...

Yet another intriguing chapter. I hope you write more REALLY soon!!!

11:08 PM  
Blogger Gabi said...

Beautiful, beautiful chapter. I dearly love the way you are weaving this story and all the characters within it. I might be tempted to make a comment about how you should post another chapter but that might be slightly hypocritical of me ;-)

2:46 PM  
Blogger Rachel Rossano said...

I feel for Lilia. :) I really enjoyed the play of personalities and expectations in this chapter. The interaction between Lilia and Miriam was intreguing and I am looking forward to seeing how thier relationship develops. :) It sounds as though you have much to work with in the meantime. :) I am eager to see what happens.

9:59 AM  
Blogger Malachi said...

Well, you have made me feel sorry for all of the characters. The Circus is gone, and Taerith is sad because they are gone. Sigh.

Now, Miriam is angry, Lilia is scared of Miriam, Borden is trying to find Miriam. They all have their missions, and I don't know where you will go with it! But I'm going to make my guess at the bad guy...

The lord guy that is coming. Everything about him sounds evil:
1. His name.
2. The fact that he comes just to make the servants revolt, knowing that Annar just had a huge feast.
3. He has the possibility of having a large party. To take the castle. The reason why is because Borden said that 'it hasn't been an easy alliance.'

Okay, there's your analization for today!

Good story. I continue to read in joy!

11:23 AM  

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