Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Chapter Ten

“They're coming!”

The call descended from a watchman on the wall. They were ready. Bread, ale, savoury meat; scoured floors and clean bedding; everything was ready. The castle gates burst open and Borden rode in, fast, his best men behind him. He dismounted and handed off the reins.

“Where is my brother?” he roared.

“Patience,” Annar answered. The people of the castle, made more numerous by villagers and farmers conscripted for the occasion, parted as their king came forth. His hair and beard were neatly combed and trimmed; his ermine robe richly brocaded. Borden's lip nearly curled at the sight of him. His young wife was on his arm, pale and trembling, dressed in a rich blue gown. Borden's eyes sought Mirian and found her among the king's attendants, dressed like a lady's maid but uncowed. Her eyes were on him—no, not on him now, but on Taerith. Taerith stood just behind him.

“You ride like a bearer of bad tidings,” Annar told his brother. His tone was mildly reproving; like one who spoke to a temperamental child.

Borden bowed. “Behold,” he said. “King Hosten approaches.”

Even as he spoke, the first of Hosten's retinue entered the gates. They rode in tall, proud lines and turned to form a square, pushing the people of the castle back. In their wake Hosten came. The castle lights set warhorse and tawny master aglow. He came to a halt with his men crowding in behind him. He looked down on Annar and did not dismount.

“Greetings, king of Corran!” the Moralian bellowed. His eyes, made sharp with years of greed, rested on Lilia. “And greetings to the king's wife.”

Lilia kept her head up as Hosten dismounted. He approached them like a lion in his pride: took her hand, bent, and kissed it. Her hand shook but not, she hoped, too badly. Hosten turned from her and extended his arm to Annar.

For a moment nothing happened. Borden cursed under his breath. Annar had not missed Hosten's subtle disrespect. He looked the king over now, regarded the hand of the mightiest of the Five Kings as though it were a fish.

Abruptly, Annar took a step forward. The kings clasped elbows in greeting. Borden watched them, all too aware of the uneasy quiet of the crowd. Hosten's men still sat astride their horses in formation, as though they were keeping back a mob.

Borden raised his hands to the kings, a practiced smile marring his face. His eyes nearly bore a hole in his brother as he spoke. “Let us go to the feasting, my lords.”

* * *

Annar sat behind his board, hanging over his ale cup with shining face. Hosten sat on his right hand amid the wreckage of supper; Lilia at his left. She had hardly touched the fowl laid before her.

“These are good times for my kingdom." Annar bragged. "There has been much feasting here of late.”

“Good times in truth,” Hosten answered, his speech stronger and not so slurred as Annar's. “Tell me, man, how long until you produce an heir to inherit all this wealth?”

The sweep of Hosten's arm took in the hall, the servants and slaves who lingered about the tables, the men who ate little that their guests might eat much. From the far left corner of the hall, Kardas glowered at him. He was seated, with Taerith and the rest of the Borden's guard, at the end of a long table. Annar's answer was too slurred to be heard through the din of the feast, but they saw him to turn to Lilia as he spoke, and the king's whole table burst into laughter.

Taerith watched Lilia intently. He trusted to the crowd and commotion to keep him hidden. He saw and felt her discomfort; her downcast eyes and flushed cheek spoke eloquently... and there was something else. She looked exhausted, almost sick. The king's laughter ended Taerith's tolerance. He stood and looked over the heads of Hosten's soldiers to the shadows where the servants hovered, looking for Mirian. He found her quickly. She was standing in the far corner behind the king's table, arms folded, eyes fixed on the men before her. Disdain was written plainly on her face: she would shrivel them with her disrespect if the power was in her to do so. Taerith pushed through the crowd, making his way beyond the torchlight to the wall where Lilia would not likely see him. Hosten's men paid him little mind. He turned briefly and saw that both Borden and Kardas were watching him go, but he did not bother to stop and explain himself.

Mirian looked away from the objects of her disgust just long enough to catch sight of Taerith striding toward her. She turned herself a little, almost as though she would ignore him. He saw her discomfort but pressed in anyway.

“Can you get her out of here?” he asked, his voice low.

“What, the queen?” Mirian asked.

“She's ill,” Taerith said. “Look at her.”

She didn't meet his eyes. “The king will not be pleased if she leaves now.”

He was silent, willing her to look up. She finally did. “Don't you think they've laughed at her long enough?” he asked.

“I—” Mirian looked away again. The table was back in uproar; drunk, laughing, disgusting. Taerith caught the way she looked at them.

“She’s going to be sick if you leave her there,” he said.

Mirian nodded. “Go back to your men,” she said. “I’ll do something.”

Taerith managed a grim smile. “Thank you.”

“Go,” Mirian repeated. “Why are you still standing here?”

Taerith answered her with a nod and began his way back to the board where Borden’s men feasted. His feet moved unwillingly. It galled him to send Mirian to do what he wanted to do—what the king or his brother ought to be doing.

“What are you about?” Borden demanded when he reached the board. His voice was low but urgent enough. It caught Taerith off guard.

“The queen is ill,” Taerith said. “I asked her maid to take her away.”

He looked through the crowd and saw that Mirian was at Lilia’s elbow, bent over so she could speak into her ear. Lilia still seemed half-distracted, but he saw her nod even as Annar roared a question at the slave girl. Mirian shot an answer back with only a little bristling; Taerith smiled in spite of himself. Annar was too drunk and too slow of mind to notice his own slave stiffened when she spoke to him.

“What her slave does is none of your concern,” Borden said. “Nor is the queen.”

Taerith looked back at his leader. “Your pardon, sir,” he said. “She is my queen, and a woman at the mercy of merciless men. I thought she was all of our concern.”

For a moment he thought he saw Borden go red beneath his beard, whether with anger or shame he couldn’t tell and didn’t guess. But the crown prince regained himself quickly. “You’re right, of course,” he said. “She should be removed from this farce before my brother makes a greater fool of himself.”

Taerith inclined his head in assent. “I believe Mirian has already taken care of things.”

Borden looked up. The queen’s chair was vacant. In the shadows behind the dais, Mirian was escorting her from the room.

* * *

It was late at night before Taerith saw Mirian again. The moon had risen high above the castle tower, and Taerith sat warming his hands by a small guard fire in the courtyard. He was alone. Emmet, one of the older of Borden’s guards, was on watch with him but had chosen to take his place near the quarters where Hosten’s men were garrisoned. He did not expect trouble from them tonight, but if it arose the old soldier was confident of his ability to handle it.

Mirian stepped from the wall into the moonlight, unaware of Taerith’s eyes on her. She hurried across the courtyard toward the stable. He rose as she came, heading her off without a word.

She gasped when she saw him. “Do you always skulk in the shadows like that?” she asked.

“The stables may not be to your liking tonight,” Taerith said quietly. “Hosten brought many men with him; some sleep in there.”

He saw her shoulders slump a little: she was disappointed. She started to turn away, but something occurred to her and she whirled back to face him. He was unprepared for the fire in her expression.

“I did what you wanted tonight, in the hall,” she said. “Don’t expect me to do it again.”

“You did what you should have done,” Taerith said.

“Don’t patronize me,” she said. “I may be a slave but I’m no lower than you are.”

He blinked in the darkness. Words came slowly. “Do you think that’s why I approached you?” he said. “It doesn’t matter to me that people call you a slave.”

She bit her lip. The moon was bright enough for him to see it. Something was tearing at her, and it went deeper than the resentment he’d seen in her before. It flashed upon him suddenly that the emotion she wrestled with was guilt.

“Tell me what you’re thinking,” he said.

She looked away.

“Tell me,” he pressed.

“She is the queen,” Mirian said. “She ought to be strong; we need so much from her. It’s not right that I should bully her.”

“Then don’t,” Taerith said. “Lilia is weak, Mirian, in very many ways. And you are strong.”

“You sound like Borden,” Mirian muttered. He chose to ignore the comment.

“I’ve watched you with her. You resent her; you use your strength like a stick to beat an erring child.”

“What else am I supposed to do?” Mirian snapped. “I don’t want her as my responsibility.”

“Nor is that what she needs,” Taerith answered.

“Then what?”

There was silence for a moment as a cloud passed over the moon. The air was cold; Mirian shivered and pulled her shawl around her shoulders.

“Be her friend,” Taerith said. “Lend her your strength, don’t beat her with it.”

Mirian turned away. Her head was bowed. Her voice reached him, muffled. “I can’t.”

“Then you’re not as strong as I thought,” Taerith said.

Mirian straightened her shoulders, pushing down the lump in her throat as she looked up at the moon. Something snapped in her and she turned suddenly, but Taerith was gone. He had returned to his fire.

* * *

They stayed.

Days and nights they stayed, past a weary week. Hosten settled in upon the castle like a great boar wallowing in Annar's scant mud.

Taerith attended the feast every night. Kardas was always there, watching Hosten and his men—waiting for something with sharp dark eyes. Borden stopped sitting with his men and took his place at the head table, where he watched jealously over Annar’s every word. Lilia appeared at her husband’s board every night, to be shortly spirited away by Borden or Mirian. Once she was gone, Taerith retreated to the kitchen.

It was hot there, despite encroaching winter, crowded and frantic. Master Grey himself oversaw the work. Steam and flour made the air thick and mingled with sweat and salt to create an odour that lay under everything, even the scents of meat and bread and dried fruit.

Fifteen days had passed, and Taerith drew Grey aside in the corner of the kitchen.

“Tell me what harries you so,” he said. “You are worried; I can see it.”

“Hosten will ruin us,” Grey said, just loudly enough that the nearest cooks could hear him. His voice was ragged. His usual discretion was half-lost to the harsh demands of desperation. “Our stories will not last two more days.”

Taerith saw the faces that turned up at Grey’s words; the hands that kept kneeding and stirring with the grim determination of a man who hangs himself. “Perhaps the winter stores—” he began.

“These are the winter stores,” Grey snapped. “What Hosten and his marauders eat was to have fed our mouths through the winter.”

Taerith’s stomach sank. The servants kept working. He saw a woman blink away tears that mixed themselves with the bread dough beneath her hands. “Were the provisions so few?” he asked.

Grey lowered his voice a little now. “Annar’s wedding feast was ill-timed,” he said. “The year’s yield was poorly; much of our harvest has already gone to Hosten in tribute, for he keeps our northern border.” The steward’s thin hands tore at the borders of his apron as he spoke. “He should not have married, not now. Lord Borden foresaw thisand told...” he trailed off and bit his lip. His fingers still worked almost convulsively, but defeat had replaced his anger. He shook his aged head. “We shall feed the boar two more days,” he said, “and then we shall all starve together.”

Taerith stood alone as Grey moved away, still shaking his head. Someone opened the outside door, and a blast of cold air reached him. He started. Urgency gripped him; Grey’s words shot energy through him. For a moment he thought he saw his sisters among the women who worked in the kitchen: his family, facing starvation. From somewhere deep in his memory he heard the rushing river and stirring trees of Braedoch Forest: home to fish, home to game. He could already feel the hunting spear in his hand. He made for the door, pausing to lay his hand on the shoulder of the woman whose tears no longer fell into her baking.

“Don’t be afraid,” he said, and passed into the night.

The Great Hall was still lit: light poured from the high windows into the courtyard. Laughter burst from it, but the sound brought no cheer. Into the corridor, up the stairs Taerith rushed. He re-entered the hall and searched for Borden. He was seated at the king’s table. Taerith did not pause. He made his way through the rows of soldiers. He had nearly reached Borden when the voice of King Hosten halted him.

“We will take the men out tomorrow for a fine hunt,” the king boomed. “My soldiers are spoiling for a kill.”

Borden was uncharacteristically hesitant in his reply. “There is little game left, my lord.”

Annar cut in. “There is plenty,” he said. “Well, plenty enough. Most have moved south, it is true; but there are enough left to sport with. It is a fine idea. I have not been a hunt myself in some time.”

Taerith bent down to Borden’s ear and said, “My lord, we need that game for ourselves.”

Borden ignored him, not bothering even to look in his direction. “Very well,” Borden said. “My own hunters will lead you out.”

“My lord...” Taerith said, more urgently this time. Borden stood, turning his broad back to him. His voice echoed in the hall.

“Kardas, stand up!”

From the far end of the hall, Kardas warily stood. “You will lead these fine men,” Borden said. “If anyone can find the last of the game, you can.”

Hosten’s voice cut in, sealing the certainty that weighed down Taerith’s stomach. “Will a half-breed northerner lead us?” he said. “You have a fine sense of humour, Borden. It is good, it is good!”

The hall dissolved again into the chaos of conversation and half-drunken laughter. Borden stalked away from the head table. Taerith followed him out into the corridor.

Borden turned on him. “You are bold to approach me at the board,” he said.

“I forgot myself,” Taerith said. “We are badly in need of food, my lord... for the castle.”

“We will have it,” Borden said. “There is food enough in the villages.”

Taerith began to speak, but Borden silenced him with a raised hand. “You will go with my men to collect it,” he said. “If Grey’s whining is correct, you should start tomorrow.”

* * *

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


Blogger Emily Mae said...

YESSSSSSSs!!! A new chapter! Awesome job, Starr. I love it. Taerith's story/plight is becoming much more interesting with the extreme food shortage and Lilia's fragile position.

I LOVED the part where Mirian and Taerith were talking and he told her to be Lilia's friend. It was good. Of course, telling her that she wasn't strong enough to do become her friend was probably in the end what got Mirian to stubbornly decide to become her friend--if only to spite Taerith. *grin* It reminded me so much of Zoe...hehehe. Stubborn characters are always so much fun.

Looking forward to more. A hunt! Cool. Also, what happened to the New Path or whoever those evil priest dudes were? I'm quite curious about them....

:) Love ya.

4:05 AM  
Anonymous Michelle said...

hmm. What do I think? I think this chapter was a good transition, but you can't have too many transitions before losing your readers' interest. One thing is: you might want to put more detail into your chapters. This one seemed a little short. Some more description would be a nice touch.
The kitchen scene was well done.
I'm not trying to sound negative: Taerith is one of my favorites. Keep up the good work and keep me guessing for the conclusions.

9:37 AM  
Blogger Rachel Rossano said...

*clicks tongue* Borden should know better. :(

Excellent job! :) I liked the exchange between Miriam and Taerith. It was nicely done. :) I am eager to see what will happen with Kardas and the men on the hunt. Is he to die? Or is Hosten?

3:00 PM  
Blogger Libby Russell said...

Well done!

Borden... Borden. That horrible meany-head! I love him still, even though you have done your best to make him seem like a total jerk. I think I could hold out hope for him, though; he could be one of those characters who seems throughout the story to be driven by bad motives and evilness, but in the end a new light is shed on him and he's not wholly bad.

I've got to catch up and read ch. 11!


P.S. It was nice to see my drawing up. :-)

10:31 AM  
Blogger Gabi said...

It appears that I am woefully behind on my commenting. While, I mean, I knew I was behind - just not this far behind.

Moving on...

I love the rich tapestry of tension that you've woven between the various characters of the castle- and I especially love the way Taerith appears like a soft breath of pastel color in it all. If that makes any sense. I've always felt that way- this chapter is simply extremely pronounced in its tensions and reliefs. (Great job on the exchanges between Mirian and Lilia, and Mirian and Mistress Grey, by the way)...

12:54 PM  
Blogger Gabi said...

oops... I was reading chapter nine and commenting on chapter ten. Must be lacking in that whole hand-eye coordination thing. No wonder I wasn't understanding everyone elses' comments...

1:00 PM  
Blogger Malachi said...

Oh boy oh boy! I knew that Hosten was evil!

Unfortunately, I think that Kardas is going to die. Hosten will kill him. He will die. Me and my prediction of DOOM! BWAHAHA!

Boy, I really liked how determined Taerith is. He is awesome, and you couldn't make him, Marian or any of the other characters better. Keep up the good work as I continue to try to catch up with your story!


4:44 PM  

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