Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Chapter Nine

Mirian entered Lilia's room the next morning without knocking. The young queen turned from the window with startled eyes, but she did not question the intrusion. She wore only a simple shift. Her grey overdress, little more regal than a peasant's garb but made of good enough cloth, was draped over the end of the bed. Apparently she intended wearing it again. Mirian ignored it, striding across the small room to a chest of stained oak, its corners overlaid with gold. She threw it open, filling the room with the spicy scent of perfume and wood. Rich colours greeted her: queen's clothing, specially chosen and fitted for Lilia before her arrival, dresses in deep red and forest green, mulberry and a gorgeous blue so dark it was nearly black. Mirian fingered the blue dress, almost reverant of its softness. Lilia had been looking over her shoulder this whole time, but now she turned and took a step closer.

"Are those mine?" she asked.

Mirian looked at her almost with disbelief. "Have you not even opened this yet?"

Lilia shook her head. "I thought... well, it was closed."

"You are at liberty to explore your own room," Mirian said. "You're not a slave."

"I--" Lilia began, but the sight of Mirian's slave collar cut her short. "Oh," she said.

Mirian pulled the dress from the chest and let its long folds fall to the floor. "From now on," she said, "you get dressed every morning. That's the first thing. If the lords of the castle call for you, you're not to come down looking like a villager."

"I'm sorry," Lilia said. "I didn't know I had any choice."

Mirian stared at Lilia for a moment, then nodded. Without a word, she started to help her on with the dress. Lilia let herself be handled, as compliant as a nonplussed child. Several times she seemed about to say something, but Mirian ignored her. She started fiercely on the laces, only gentling a little when she saw Lilia wince as she pulled one too tight.

There was a brush on the table, and Mirian reached for it. Lilia held up a hand and stopped her with a soft, "I can do that."

Mirian turned from the table and yanked the bedding up on Lilia's bed. She was smoothing it out when Lilia said, "Thank you."

Mirian nodded without looking up.

"You haven't always been a lady's maid, have you?" Lilia asked.

Mirian looked up and sighed in irritation. Lilia stood in the sunlight, the blue in her dress deep and rich in its rays. Her hair was darker still, and likewise made gorgeous by the sun. Her skin was paler than ever, and her grey eyes were almost pleading--for something Mirian didn't want to recognize. She pursed her lips and answered, "I am a slave. The queen should not talk with me."

Lilia turned away abruptly. She took the reprimand as Mirian had expected she would: silently, without protest. She was like a doll: responding to everything that pushed her without fighting back.

Mirian tucked the last stray bit of bedding in and went to the door. She turned and looked at Lilia's back, bowed head and slumping shoulders, frail white hand resting on the stone by the window.

"Call for me if you need me," Mirian said, and left the room. She let the door close behind her, slowing it with her hand so that it wouldn't jar. She frowned. Something was making her unhappy--guilt pricked at her. She didn't care. She started down the stone steps, telling herself she only needed a glimpse of the sun and some air.

Mistress Grey met her halfway up. Mirian felt her spine go stiff as iron and her emotions straightened in the same fashion, unhappiness fleeing behind the instantly erected wall. Mistress Grey looked at her like a snake at a trapped rat: hateful, but just wary enough to keep its distance.

"Your queen was down here yesterday wandering like a kitchen maid," she said. The snake struck.

"I'll do my best to control her next time," Mirian answered.

"Don't talk back to me, girl," Mistress Grey said. "You do your work, and do it well. If the queen shames us in front of Hosten, Lord Borden will have your head."

Mirian almost smiled: the rat had teeth of its own. For the first time in her life she felt a measure of power over Mistress Grey. "Lord Borden may not see things your way," she said.

Mistress Grey narrowed her eyes. Her voice dropped to a hiss. "Don't think I don't see his eyes following you," she said. "But don't you get any ideas. I know the world better than you do, girl. Don't you start thinking his attentions a good thing."

Mirian tried to answer, but her tongue strangled every word before it could leave her mouth. Her face was hot; she was blushing, and she hated it. She hated Mistress Grey for it.

For a barely perceptible moment something new came into the mistress's eyes: bitterness, but a new kind of bitterness. "I don't know why I bother trying to warn you," she said. "I should let him eat you alive, for all the good you've ever done this place."

Mirian's eyes glimmered through her sulk. "Shall I tell him you said that?" she asked.

Mistress Grey stabbed once again, but this time all the venom was in her eyes. She turned away and stalked up the stairs.

Mirian looked after her for a moment. When she started her descent again, her legs were weak beneath her. She stumbled as she walked, and found herself half-leaning on the wall for support. Angry tears were welling up in her--why was she crying? Why? She had never cried as a child. She didn't want to cry now. She staggered into the sunlight like a drunk, throwing her hand up to shade her eyes.

Her shaded gaze was met by the return of the hunters. Kardas was leading them with the antlers of a great stag tied to his horse's flank. The new one, Taerith, rode almost beside him. All of the men were weary and filthy, but they had meat with them. Meat enough to lessen the threat of Hosten: meat enough to make a show of wealth and hospitality. She watched them unload their horses until she realized that Taerith had seen her and was coming toward her.

He smiled as he approached, even as she looked for something else to fix her attention on. She shifted uneasily, but resisted the urge to bolt.

"How is your tree?" he asked, bowing his head slightly as he came within speaking distance.

The confounded tears started to rise again. She cleared her throat. "I don't know," she said. "Lady's maids don't get outside much."

He seemed slightly troubled. She noticed that much, as she forced herself to look at him. Why did she feel guilty in his presence?

"I hope your lady is well," he said.

"I'll tell her you inquired," Mirian said, half expecting the words to scare him off. There was something beneath the surface of his words that she recognized as dangerous: an obstacle in the flow of water. He frowned slightly at her words, but his tone did not change.

"Please don't," he said. "I would rather you didn't mention me." He peered at her, as though he was waiting for her to speak on her own. She didn't.

"She is well?" he pressed.

"Well enough," Mirian said. "She is the queen."

He smiled again. "And I am a hunter," he said. "You are a slave. What does that mean? It makes us neither well nor poorly."

The other hunters were finishing their work, and Taerith began to turn back toward them. "I should help," he said.

Mirian nodded. Was he waiting for her to agree? He unnerved her--talked to her as if they had some understanding. She felt chided. Suddenly her own words sounded empty and childish in her ears. She looked up. The tower stretched above her. Lilia was probably still by the window.

A deep voice boomed across the courtyard: Borden, greeting his hunters. She watched as he emerged and greeted first Kardas, then the others; gripping them by the arm and talking earnestly with them. If he looked her way he would see her.

She slipped inside before he had the chance.

* * *

The horn of Hosten sounded over the fields and roads as the king of Moralia approached. It vibrated in the castle walls and made the shadows of evening tremble. The wolf was coming.

Borden stood on the castle wall and looked out on the road that stretched before him. The sun had half-set, draping the road in dusk. The lights of Hosten's caravan announced that he had a large entourage with him: dozens, perhaps scores, of men: more than Annar had to man his entire castle. It was a deliberate show of force, intended to cast Annar's weakness in his face. Borden was determined that the attempt should not succeed.

He left the parapet, calling for his horse as he descended. "To me!" he bellowed, and his guards took up the call. He stroked his beard impatiently as he waited, while around him his men gathered, leading horses, lining up in formation. Kardas and Taerith held the reins of their horses side by side. They made a strong pair: one all darkness and power, the other intelligence and diplomacy. Borden beckoned to them.

"You will ride at my back," he said."You others, ride three abreast behind them wherever the road allows."

He turned to Master Grey, who stood waiting with two of the household servants. "All is ready, steward?"

"Indeed, my lord," Grey replied.

"Honour Hosten as you have never honoured my brother," Borden said. "Much depends on it."

"I understand," Grey said. Borden trusted that he did.

They rode out into the dusk, torches dark. Borden would signal when it was time to light them. He hoped to catch Hosten off guard, though there was little chance of doing so completely.

It was a dry, cold night. The wind in their faces as they rode smelled of snow coming.

Taerith smelled it. Weeks ago it would have concerned him for himself--he had been on the road then, nothing but a vagabond with little hope or shelter. Now it worried him, but not for himself. Horse hooves on the road kept a steady beat in the otherwise still night. The last hints of sunlight had disappeared. Taerith held tighter to the reins. In the darkness beside him he thought he could hear Kardas's horse breathing and shaking its head.

It had been Kardas's refusal to allow his men food at the tavern that first told Taerith something was wrong. Since then, the signs had been everywhere. The already-lean faces of the commoners who came to the castle. The barely-concealed fear in the steward and his wife as they bid the servants prepare a feast for their visitor. They did not fear Hosten--they feared the feast itself. Winter did not bode well for these people in the best of times, but this year, Annar had taxed their stores beyond discretion for his wedding feast. Now Borden taxed them again to feed the visiting king.

The smell of snow in the air was the smell of starvation and suffering.

The sound of hooves and voices, jangling tack and wagon wheels reached through the darkness, first seeming to swell from their own ranks and then clearly signalling the presence of others. A moment later the glimmer of torches became visible as Hosten's party rounded a bend in the road. Borden lifted his hand--Taerith could barely make out the motion in the scant moonlight--and commanded, "Lights!"

Taerith reached for the torch bound to the side of his saddle. Beside him, the noise of striking flint was accompanied by sparks, and Kardas's torch flared to life. They lowered their torches so the heads touched, and Taerith's blazed up in return. He dismounted and ran to light the man behind him. Flame birthed flame, and soon the column pocked the darkness with orange light and the drifting outlines of smoke.

Borden still held his hand high. The riders came to a halt behind them, reining in their restless animals.

"We wait," Borden said. His voice carried to Taerith and Kardas but not beyond them. "When he is twenty paces off, ride to my side. We will greet him together."

They made no answer. Borden knew they had heard, and would obey.

Hosten had seen them. They heard shouts from the other party, relayed back through its ranks long and loud enough to indicate at leasty forty riders, with horses and wagons. Borden's fifteen did not flinch at the sound, anymore than their leader flinched. The newcomers slowed in their approach, ascertaining who it was that waited for them in the road. They came into sight: forty men at least, all alike in the torchlight. Borden raised his hand and beckoned with his fingers, urging his horse forward at the same moment. Taerith and Kardas moved as one, riding to either side of their leader.

Five horses broke from the approaching column. In the center a huge man rode astride a grey warhorse. Before him, even Borden looked small. The man wore rich furs, yet there was nothing either soft or luxuriant about him. His long golden beard was streaked with grey: piercing eyes were hawkish in their power, even in the darkness. In height and girth he was a bull, and like a bull, it was all muscle and power and unstoppable force. He rode up with two warriors on either side of him. Borden spoke first.

"Welcome, my lord Hosten."

Hosten raised a hand in greeting. "Well met, Lord Borden. Where is your brother the king?"

"He prepares for your arrival," Borden answered.

"You are as grim as ever, I see," Hosten said. "Short answers and hidden meanings, eh?"

Taerith shifted uneasily. Hosten was considerably older than Borden, as he drew closer that became clear. Yet the condescending note in his voice sounded more like a challenge than anything else.

Hosten's eyes left Borden to quickly assess his men. He gave a half-snort at the sight of Kardas and beckoned to someone behind him. "We took the long route here, and brought you a gift from the north," he said. A man rode up behind him and handed him a sack, tied shut with twine.
Hosten laughed as he hoisted the bag up.

"Heads of the northern devils we protect you from," he said, and threw the sack into the road.

Taerith's stomach lurched and he looked away, dreading lest the bag should come open. His eyes went to Kardas, who watched the progress of the sack with stony interest.

"They're troubling the border early this year," Hosten said. "They'd be snarling at your heels already if my men hadn't cut them down like the dogs they are."

The sack still lay in the road. Borden, distaste written on every feature, turned to command Taerith to pick it up. Kardas anticipated him. Before a word could be said, he dismounted and picked up the sack. He bowed to Hosten, who watched him with an expression that was both amused and hostile. Without a word, Kardas turned again and mounted, tying the sack to his saddle.

"We will escort you the rest of the way to the castle," Borden said. He had hardly acknowledged the sack, and he did not look at Kardas now. "Feasting awaits you."

"As it should," Hosten replied. He smiled and waved his hand. "Feasting shall always accompany a wedding, eh, Borden? A joyous time for all of you. For all of us."

Borden nodded curtly. "Indeed," he answered.

He turned his horse, and galloped ahead. His men parted the way for him and then fell in around the newcomers, riding in pairs. Taerith reined toward Kardas, but the young man dug his heels into his horse and galloped ahead.

* * *

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

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Thursday, February 15, 2007

Chapter Eight

The earth beneath Taerith's feet sank as he crept over it, the boggy reek of the mud rising to meet the close darkness of branches that hung down from old, spindle-rooted, thick-trunked trees; dripping long strands of black leaves. He had gone with Kardas and the others north from the castle, plunging into thick forest over ground that sank lower and lower until it became an alien world of water and wood, haunt of creatures that rooted and wallowed and showed themselves but rarely; the haunt, too, of stranger, more dangerous things: of unicorns, and nightmares.

Kardas, it seemed, had the blood of a water-hound in his veins. He led them deep into the swamp on the trail of an ancient stag that had not migrated with its tribe, staying on it long after dogs would have lost the scent and become bewildered in the mud and water. They were close now, and Kardas had directed them to fan out and come at the creature from every side. They would circle the stag rather than cornering it; lessen the chances of someone being injured. Taerith's heart grew heavy as they closed in. Between him and Kardas was a silent understanding: there would not really be a fight. The stag was retreating into the heart of the swamp to die. Whatever its life had been, it was over now.

Taerith clenched his jaw even as he rubbed the ashen spear in his hand with his thumb. He had always disliked hunting.

He stepped ankle-deep into a pool of water and slime, but he kept his eyes focused on the gloom ahead. He could hear the stag's heavy breathing now... it had sprinted only minutes before, but must have smelt the others coming from every direction.

Just ahead, the trees widened into a small clearing, and in it Taerith caught a glimpse of movement. For an instant he saw it, standing tall, the stark bone of magnificent antlers rising from the grizzled old head. Its red fur was slick with mud and matted on its legs and flanks; its head and the long hair of its neck were greying and ragged. The stag's sides heaved; it was tired and fearful, yet there was no panic in the creature's eyes.

Lordly one, Taerith thought toward the stag, you have lived long to end like this.

From the trees beyond the stag a man suddenly appeared: one of the hunting party. And then others could be seen shifting in the undergrowth, and Taerith caught sight of Kardas emerging from the shadows, spear lifted. The stag leaped away from the man nearest him with a tremendous splash, hooves churning the water to a foaming white, and the first spear flew. It came neither from the hand of Kardas or of Taerith, and it pierced the stag's hide just above its right front leg. Taerith moved as he watched, spear raised, body tensed to finish the kill or spring to the defense of one of his fellow hunters. But a second spear flew, and still the ashwood remained in Taerith's grip.

The stag raised its head suddenly and bellowed. The sound filled the clearing and made the water tremble all around.

It was over quickly. More spears, and the men moved in; there was a quick flash of a sword, and the stag lay dead in the muck. The men gathered round and began to make it ready to take back to the castle. Taerith raised his eyes from the bloody scene. Kardas stood directly across from him.

Both men still held their spears in their hands.

They fell in beside each other on the trek home. Both carried meat on their shoulders, from the stag and a few birds they had taken down catching the deer's trail. "I hope," Kardas said under his breath, "that Hosten is happy with his supper."

They walked in silence after that, both exhausted from the day's hunt and aware that it was miles back to the castle. Taerith watched Kardas curiously as he walked: something in his lithe, terse movements made Taerith feel as though the young man beside him was not entirely human. Part beast he may have been, sired by some mythical creature. In the perpetual twilight of the swamp, such a story did not seem implausible. But if he was a predator, he was not one to give way to bloodlust. Kardas had not wanted to bring the stag down any more than Taerith had.

On the edge of the swamp they passed through a village. Taerith could smell fresh water and ale in the air; he became aware, suddenly, of how dry his mouth was. One of the hunters approached Kardas.

"We are thirsty," he said. "Let us stop here and rest a while. Have a drink and a bite to eat." There was a public house in the village square, from which the sounds and smells of life emanated. The scent of smoked meat suddenly reached Taerith's nostrils, and his stomach knotted at the smell. They had been working long and hard.

Kardas looked at the man for a moment, almost as though he had not heard him. The burden he carried appeared too much for his limbs; he was as tired and filthy as any of the rest of them. But he shook his head.

"Only if you are able to pay for it," Kardas said.

"We are the king's men," the hunter protested. "We are entitled..."

"If these people are not hungry now, they soon will be," Kardas said. "Let them not say we took anything from them that we did not have to."

He looked at Taerith, his expression still half-distracted. "I think it will be a lean winter," he said.

To Taerith's surprise, the hunter did not push the issue further. He nodded, sniffed, and tightened his belt with a look at Kardas, but he went back to his load without another word and shouldered it.

With no protest beyond grim mouths and grunts, the other men followed suit. Kardas took the first step toward the castle, and Taerith fell in just behind him.

"Here, my lords!" A voice from the tavern stopped them in their tracks. They turned together
and beheld a brawny man standing in the door, an apron tied about his waist. "Lord Borden's hunters, are ye not?"

"We are," Kardas answered, taking a step toward the man. For all his size, the tavernkeeper moved back as though uneasy at Kardas's approach. Taerith thought he saw a glint of fear in the man's eyes, even as his heart tongue made the presence of fear seem not only implausible, but ridiculous.

"You are all hungry," the man said. "Come in. Dine, drink, the lot of you."

The hunters' faces remained straight, but Taerith caught their subtle eagerness as they looked toward Kardas and waited. His eyes were narrow with thought. He slowly shook his head.

"No," he said. "We have no money."

The innkeeper seemed more uneasy than before; Taerith could it hear it in his voice now. "It is my gift," he said. "For the prince's men."

The hunters were muttering now, casting unhappy glances at the dark features of their young leader--features which were settling into a stubborn cast Taerith recognized. He had see it before in his brother Aiden. It was the look of one who knew he was right, and it was always followed by a clash--for others inevitably took convincing. He took a step nearer Kardas and said in a low voice, "Perhaps we might accept a drink only."

Kardas looked at him, and though he did not smile, Taerith saw that Kardas had understood his suggestion for what it was: mercy to the men; peace to the band. He nodded and turned back to the innkeeper. "We accept your offer of a drink," he said. "No more than that."

The innkeeper stepped aside, satisfied, while Kardas's hunters converged on the inn door. Their had changed in an instant, from unhappy cooperation to cheer.

Taerith was last through the door, with Kardas only a few paces behind him, but just before the tavern's noisy dim closed in over him, he saw a hand clap down on Kardas's shoulder and heard a voice intone, "Greetings, my lord Half-Blood."

Taerith drew his hunting knife and was back on the street in an instant. Three men stood around Kardas. They held no weapons that Taerith could see, yet their expressions were unmistakably threatening. The chief of them, a tall, stocky man with a half-shaven head and a dull wine-coloured cloak, drew his hand back from Kardas's shoulder. He glowered at Taerith with such displeasure that he almost expected him to hiss.

"Who is he?" he asked.

"I am a loyal servant of the prince," Taerith answered. He saw approval in Kardas's eye, yet the hunter stayed tense and silent. He seemed ready to spring, and Taerith found himself trying at once to watch the three men and to decipher some sort of instructions in his companion's dark eyes. That they were in danger he did not doubt. The air was charged with it. The men were between him and Kardas, a geography he did not like. He took a step closer.

"Put that knife away, boy," the leader said. In the same instant, one of the three pulled a knife from somewhere and lunged at Kardas. The young hunter threw his arms up just in time, grabbing the man's wrist with both hands and wrenching it aside with incredible strength. The assassin's forward motion bore them both to the ground, where Kardas struggled to draw his own weapon while fending off his attacker.

Taerith moved to his aid without a lost heartbeat, but the third of the strangers met his advance with a sword drawn from beneath his cloak. Years of training in Braedoch--sparring both with his brothers and with the unpredictable dangers of the wild--served Taerith well. His reaction was automatic; he needed only a second to prepare himself for attack. By the time his assailant was on him he was more than prepared. He sent the man's sword spinning into the street. Face dark with anger and flushed with action, he raised his knife, fixed his eyes on his assailant, and hissed, "Get out of here. Go!" The man turned and ran.

It was over. Kardas was picking himself out of the dirt; the wine-cloaked leader and his crony had vanished. Breathing hard, Taerith offered Kardas his hand and pulled him to his feet. The young leader brushed himself off and looked after the runaway with a narrowed eyes. Some of the hunters emerged frome tavern, asking questions that neither Taerith nor Kardas bothered to answer.

"Who was he?" Taerith asked, quietly so that the other men did not hear.

""Meronane," Kardas answered, all but spitting the name. "The foul priest of Engnor."

"What did he want with you?" Taerith asked.

"To slit my throat and send my gutted carcass back to the lords of Carron," Kardas answered, wiping dust from his mouth. It was flecked with blood from the fight. He turned and looked at Taerith, dark eyes glinting like slick black rock. "You have not heard of the Narrow Path before, have you?"

Taerith shook his head, sheathing his hunting knife as he did so. He folded his arms and waited for Kardas to continue.

"Meronane is a rogue priest," Kardas said. "He brings killers with him where he goes, for he has sworn to break his holy vows of peace only to take the lives of Annar and his family. Deus has told him that the Heavenly Kingdom must be established here in Corran, and Meronane himself will hold the throne until a more heavenly comes to take it."

"It would seem that Annar holds that right, as Corran is his throne," Taerith said.

"It would," Kardas agreed, "if Annar were not the devil incarnate. Deus told the priest that, also. And Borden is his chief demon. Meronane and his followers call themselves the Narrow Path, for Deus has said that no one will enter the kingdom except through them."

"Your pardon, my friend," Taerith said in a low voice, "but Deus has said nothing of the kind."
Kardas inclined his head in a gesture, not of agreement, but of admittance to a possible point.

"What is being done about this threat?" Taerith inquired.

"Too little," Kardas answered. "Meronane is a master fox. He hides himself well. His following is small; Annar does not see much threat in it."

"And Borden?" Taerith pressed.

"Has bigger threats to worry about," Kardas said. "The Path may be a lot of bloody badgers, but Hosten is a wolf."

Kardas looked Taerith over with an appraising eye. "It is a cruel and ruthless country you have come to," he said. "If you had not already joined us, I would have advised you to keep going."

"What about you?" Taerith asked.

Kardas smiled. "This world will kill me someday," he said. "I stay where I may sink my teeth into it first."

"In Borden's service," Taerith said.

"I am not free with my loyalties," Kardas said. "The world has treated Lord Borden much as it has treated me. He has earned my loyalties, and I am content to serve him."

Without another word, Kardas bent down and picked up his load again. He whistled loudly, and the hunters emerged from their rest and began to follow their leader back to the castle.
Neither Kardas nor Taerith had taken a drink, but if they were thirsty they hardly felt it.

* * *

Lilia watched the sun set from her high window. Her stomach was knotted with hunger, but she hardly noticed it.

Annar had not called for her. Not once.

Birds were circling the top of the tower: around and around, dipping and soaring, cackling to each other in the evening light. Far below, in the courtyard, people mingled and called like the birds. She wondered what they were doing--what kept them so busy even at this time of night.
Perhaps they were preparing a feast for her husband.

She turned away from the window abruptly. What would it be like, she wondered, to be remembered?

Her fingers brushed the remains of the breakfast tray Mirian had brought her while the day was still more than another disappointment to fade into the grey of the past. Mirian. She could call for Mirian... it would break the silence.

She half-smiled to herself even as the thought passed through her mind. When had silence ever bothered her? There was no comfort in Mirian's presence; the tall servant girl frightened her.

The birds outside grew louder; squawking; fighting; flapping. No, she would not call Mirian. Besides, what use was company that came to you because it had to? She missed her old companions: books. Vellum and ink; words and their worlds; gorgeous illumination. Her father had told her once--oh, yes, sometimes he had spoken to her--that not many people had books. He told her that she was the most fortunate of women because she could read. And it was true. More true with every passing day; with every passing hour. Her father owned three books, and they had become her doorway to the world and its ideas and ideals; the place where she met the thoughts of others and delighted in recognizing herself. They were the only abetting of loneliness in a life that had hardly dared hope for a day that was not lonely.

And now life had changed, and she lived with people, not paper. Her husband was a king. Why, she asked herself as she moved away from the window, had she stayed all day in her room? She was the queen.

They do not want me, she told herself. I have felt it.

And yet, she was the queen. There was a world beyond the tower. She could smell it. Now and again its sounds came up through the floor, with the smells of bread and manure and life haunting the echoes.

Her hands were at the latch of the door--it was not locked, this door, not like every other door she had known--and then she let herself out, and her feet were on the stairs. She moved lightly, quietly. Her steps were uncertain but her heart grew with every step. Hope lit her way. She was out, free, and searching for something outside of captivity. Perhaps she might find something to take back with her. Her heart was pounding and she hushed it. The door was unlocked, she told herself. You are free to walk in this place.

Shadows lay throughout the castle, but torches blazed in the halls and larger rooms. The servants were hard at work: scouring, preparing. They watched Lilia with veiled eyes as she passed, and looked down when she tried to meet their glances. Some eyes were not so veiled, but there was no friendliness in them. Lilia's steps faltered, and suddenly she wished she was back in the tower. At least the birds did not meet her approach with so much frozen diffidence.

"My lady." The deep voice came from behind her, sending her heart into her throat. She whirled around. Borden stood behind her, the expression on his face one of displeasure. She was dwarfed by his stature, and she flushed as she lowered her eyes from his. "What are you doing here?" he asked.

"I... I only..." She tried to speak, but words would not come.

"Where is your attendant?" Borden asked, searching the shadows behind her with his dark eyes.

"I am alone," she said. With great effort, she lifted her head again. She was in a lower hall, and there were people all around. They were staring. Listening. The flush came back into her face.
He lowered his voice a little, but it still seemed to echo off the stone walls. She flinched as he spoke. "You should not be wandering alone," he said. "It is not seemly... or safe. Don't you know that you have enemies in this kingdom?"

"This is my husband's castle," Lilia said quietly. "I thought..."

"You thought wrong," Borden said. "Tonight, it may be safe. But more strangers are coming. What would you do if you ran into an enemy?"

She cast her eyes down and said nothing. He lowered his voice further, raking her with his eyes.

"You're not even properly dressed," he said. "I gave you a servant. Use her."

He turned on his heel and walked away from her. The servants pulled themselves out of their momentary pause and returned to work, and when Lilia lifted her eyes again she found that no one was even acknowledging her presence.

"My lord," Lilia called after him. Where the courage to call had come from she wasn't sure, but there it was. She could not go back to the tower with nothing but shame to take back with her.
Borden turned, eyes flaring. The anger in them startled her, but she swallowed fear and said, "I wanted... is there a book in the castle?"

The question caught Borden off guard, and for a moment he simply stared at her. Then he opened his mouth and said, "No. We are men of the sword and of the aleskin here. If you want books, find a monastery."

And he was gone. She sighed--what else could she do?--knotted her fists, and started the long walk back through the castle's strange corridors, back to the stairway and her place of exile.
The foreign priest Joachim, sitting in the corner of the hall, watched her go. In pale grey she looked like a ghost walking the halls. "Or a dove of peace," he said aloud. "But no one will hear the message, will they?" He looked down, eyes moistened with sympathy, and stood suddenly.

He had time.

He had just enough time.

* * *

Borden found Mirian in a corridor from whence she had watched the whole encounter. He could not decipher the expression on her face.

"Why weren't you with her?" he asked.

"She did not call for me," Mirian answered.

"You are her maid," Borden said back.

"But not her keeper. She has not called for me since this morning. I followed her to be at hand when she does call; is that not enough?"

"No, it isn't," Borden said. "She won't call for you; she is ignorant, and she is afraid." Half to himself, he muttered, "She cowers when I speak to her."

Whatever Mirian wanted to say in return, she kept it behind closed lips. Borden charged on.

"Annar needed a woman strong enough to make up for his weaknesses," he said. "He made the wrong choice. I am as disgusted with them both as you are. Any other day of the year, the queen may walk herself right onto a gallows if that's what she desires. But not now. Surely you have heard the news--Hosten of Moralia rides upon us even now, and he must not find us weak. Not in any way."

Mirian looked away, still holding her tongue.

"Look at me," Borden commanded. She did.

"Keep the queen in hand," Borden said. "When she must appear, see that she carries herself decently. As much as you can, keep her hidden away."

"She is the queen," Mirian said, finally looking directly at Borden. "She is not under my control."

He was silent for a moment, and then a slight smile played at the corner of his mouth. "Why not?" he asked. "The strong always control the weak, and you and I both know which of you is stronger."

He began to turn away, and added, "In any case, you are under my orders. Your hand is mine in this. I want her controlled as a rider controls his horse."

"If I overstep my authority, I must answer to the king," Mirian said. "Not to you. He could have my head if he wants it."

"You will not even need my protection," Borden answered. His eyes went back to the hall where Lilia had stood. "Do you think she would complain? I am not asking you to break a horse, Mirian. I am asking you to control one that is already broken. Do not give her time or space to gain her own head; do not give her freedom." He spoke slowly, pronouncing every word with deliberation. "Our allegiance with Hosten is a very complicated dance. One misstep, and we will all pay for it."

He turned away, leaving Mirian looking after him.

* * *

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

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