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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Blogger Rachel Rossano said...

Hmmmm.... Interesting... Yes, it is very interesting and well written, as usual. :) I am eager to find out what comes next. :)

I really liked how Mariam was chided just by Taerith's presence and words. :) The Wolf is interesting. I am eager to see more of him in the coming chapters. :)

6:43 AM  
Blogger Brittany Simmons said...

I like the character developement of Lilia and Mirian both in this chapter. I feel like I'm getting to know them more and sympathize with them more. :-) They're neat characters.

This wolf fellow is interesting, too. I'm excited to read on!!

7:43 AM  
Blogger Emily Mae said...

The Wolf-King guy is AWESOME! I like how evilly evil he is. :-D Great character.
Mirian and Lilia's developement was good as well...Mirian is being mean to Lilia. I have a suspicion that will change soonish, though that is just a guess.
Taerith is great (duh) but I have to say that Kardas takes the cake for me! He's Amazing. Seriously. What a super character! Don't you love it when they just pop out of the woodwork and present themselves to be written about?! :)

9:43 AM  
Blogger Rachel Brewer said...

I don't know about anyone else, but I love Kardas so far...I want to know more about him! He's dark and mysterious. I also like the way you brought the Narrow Path group into the picture....could prove to be and interesting personal challenge for Taerith. Great chapters!

1:18 PM  
Blogger Gabi said...

I also very much like Kardus. The development of the various power struggles was wonderful in this chapter, Starr. Great Job!

11:21 AM  
Blogger Malachi said...

Yay for Kardas! He again, was AWESOME. I'm looking forward to the arriving king. He is the evil dude, I'm sure of it. Borden is just irritated with his brother, (I can relate to him in some ways) :p not evil. I bet that the new bad dude is going to join up with the Narrow Path People.

Well, see you later!

3:47 PM  
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