Thursday, April 26, 2007

Chapter 14


Snow swirled down into his dreams.

A tower, tall and grey in a greyer sky. Doves flying all around it. And something else—dark red and sinuous, vining up the tower. No, not a vine—its scaled body moved. Taerith stood at the base and looked up, but the snow swirled down and marred his vision. Doves’ wings, snowflakes, blinding him; he strained to see... the red thing moved. He drew his sword. The hilt was cold and covered with dried blood. Black in the world of white and grey. His fingers cleaved to it.

“Wake up.”

The voice was Kardas’s, low and spoken near his ear. Taerith was awake in an instant, blinking away the snowflakes. The snowfall was gentle: big flakes, falling softly. They made a shining halo around the moon and mixed with the smoke of the campfire.

“What is it?” Taerith asked, reaching beneath his cloak for his sword. His arm was stiff. His whole shoulder and neck ached when he moved. He ignored the pain.

“Something is wrong,” Kardas said. He had been only half-roused, propped up on his hands, when he called Taerith awake. Now he rose slowly, eyes sweeping the camp. Taerith turned his head and searched the night likewise. Nothing. There was nothing. No smell, no sound. Only one of the soldiers, standing sentry near the fire, silently watching the snow fall.

A flicker of movement beyond the dying firelight. Both men saw it at once. Taerith scrambled to his feet. Something leaped out of the darkness: a flash of grey, and the sentry went down with a scream of pain and fear. Kardas was already running, Taerith on his heels. The thing snarled, snapped; the sentry cried out again. The soldiers awakened, swearing and reaching for their swords.

Another movement, another flash of grey—to the left this time, only feet away from Taerith. Another cry. This time the creature was met with a sword, and it jumped back. Into the firelight, where they could see it.

Wolf. The snow fell across its grey pelt and gleaming black eyes; the snow made it something unreal. It was huge, as big as a pony. Huge and hungry. The snow couldn’t obscure the way the creature’s ribs protruded.

Taerith stood half-crouched, circling, wary. The wolf watched him. It could smell the blood still in the men’s clothes and on their weapons. The smell drove it, crazed it.

The wolf lunged. Taerith leaped aside, narrowly missing the animal’s teeth as they snapped at his arm. It turned, growling deep within its throat. The fire behind it flared as the scuffle with the other wolf knocked kindling onto the flames. Taerith looked up for a split second. In the next the wolf was on him.

He could feel its teeth in his shoulder as its weight bore him to the ground. Pain stabbed through his arm. Teeth clenched, he jammed his hand beneath the wolf’s jaw and pushed with all his strength, trying to keep it away from his throat. The wolf tightened its grip on his shoulder and he cried out. For a moment there was nothing in the world but shadows: moving, rushing all around him, through the snow and the flaring firelight.

The wolf let go and howled, jerking its head away. Blood ran into Taerith’s face and spilled over his hand, warm and thick. The wolf twisted itself, trying to fight its new assailant. It was no good. A seizure of pain took it and it flipped its hindquarters away, howling again.

Taerith fought the black spots that obscured his vision. He gritted his teeth against the pain, placing a bloody hand over his shoulder. He could feel something in his hand. His fingers hurt. His whole first ached. He looked down and the shape of the sword took form in his eyes. He was still clutching its hilt.

A hand clapped down on his good shoulder, and Kardas was before him, kneeling. “Are you all right?” he asked. He was spattered with blood. The snowflakes stuck to it before they began to melt. Taerith nodded, and groaned as pain flooded through his shoulder and arm again.

Beyond Kardas, a new form took shape in the darkness. A great mound of fur and bone—the wolf lay dead. Over it stood a man with his hand still on his sword hilt, its blade thrust fast through the creature’s heart.

The man raised his head and looked at Taerith. Snow swirled around the dark hair and beard. It was Borden.

* * *

Lilia ran her finger along the gilt edges of the book before letting it fall open in her hand. The pages rustled down, revealing carefully-drawn sketches of a pine forest and its fauna, two owls and a fox. Each creature was carefully labeled with delicate, sweeping strokes. Lilia smiled as she read the lines in the central columns. Already the words were familiar to her; like a scent that brought pleasant memories. She had read them every night before falling asleep. The author’s matter-of-fact assertions had a poetry of their own; his descriptions of the woodlands were stirringly familiar. Lilia had only ever known the world through the pages of books, and so the only world she was comfortable in was one tinged ever so faintly with the smell of ink.

Her stomach lurched as she reached for a cup of water beside the bed. She gave up and laid back against her pillows, closing her eyes. Her hand sought out her belly and rested there, her fingers cold but gentle against the roiling discomfort within.

Her door opened and she looked up to speak to Mirian, but it was not Mirian.

Her husband stood in the door.

Lilia drew herself up, pulling the sheets closer with one hand and smoothing them down with the other. “Welcome,” she said softly.

He looked around him as though he was in some foreign place, testing the air. The look on his face indicated that he didn’t like what met his senses. He came closer, more awkward in his approach than Mirian had ever been, because he wanted to look like the master of his new surroundings and succeeded only in looking like a stranger in them.

Lilia relaxed a little when he came close enough to smell. There were only traces of ale in his scent; he wasn’t drunk.

He looked down at her and cleared his throat, lifting his eyes again before saying anything. He looked up, around, at the bare stone walls and the window with its partially drawn purple curtains; the white bed and the wooden chest with dresses draped over it.

“It’s not much of a room,” he said.

“It suits me,” Lilia answered.

He cleared his throat again and waved his hand at her. He didn’t meet her eyes as he spoke. “You bearing up well?”

“Well enough,” she answered. “Thank you.” She looked away from him—he wasn’t looking back anyway—at the empty seat beside her bed. “Will you sit down?” she asked.

He looked at the chair for a moment and then shook his head. “No,” he muttered. “No. I came to see...” He cut himself off. “I won’t be needing you for a while,” he said. “Take care of yourself. That child is all I have.”

He turned and left the room, slamming the door behind him.

Lilia looked back at the book in her hands. The sketches blurred. She blinked and they came back: fine lines, beautiful dark branches. She stared at them for a few minutes without comprehending and then closed the book, slowly.

She brought both her hands to her midsection and smiled down at them. “You see, little one? Papa loves you,” she whispered. “You’re all either of us has.”

* * *

Borden watched, arms folded across his chest, as Emmet went to work on Taerith’s shoulder with needle and thread. Taerith was ashen-faced. His cheek, shoulders, and torso were spattered with blood—the wolf’s and his own. He held a stick in both hands and tightened his grip on it as Emmet worked.

“You’re very strong,” Borden commented.

Taerith looked up at him, his dark hair in sweaty curls across his face. His jaw was clenched, his eyes slightly glazed, but he focused on Borden. The crown prince looked on him with approval and sympathy. “I have seen worse,” Borden said. “It will heal quickly. But that’s not where your strength lies—in tolerating pain. It lies in tolerating fear.”

Taerith opened his mouth with calculated effort. “I have no fear,” he said.

“Why not?” Borden asked. “Every man is afraid of something.”

Taerith shook his head and said nothing. He breathed in sharply through his nose, and Emmet grunted. “A few more minutes, lad,” he said.

“To stare into a wolf’s mouth and not be undone is an impressive feat,” Borden said. He unfolded his arms and began to turn away. “I am glad to have you with us.”

Taerith found Borden forty minutes later, sitting by the fire.

“To kill a wolf and save a man’s life is also impressive,” Taerith said. “I am in your debt.”

Borden looked up and half-snorted. “Don’t be indebted to me, boy,” he said. “The wolf was a threat to all of us.”

Taerith smiled. “But I am the only one who was in its teeth when you killed it.”

“True enough,” Borden said, standing. He regarded the shirt Taerith had donned. It wasn’t much protection against the wind, but he imagined the weight of a cloak would tear uncomfortably at the newly-sewn wounds. “Even so,” he said. “You owe me nothing. You do not want to owe me.”

He turned away. The land lay stretched out before him, a light snow over it. The sun had risen on a cold day. The clouds were low and ominous like veins of ice in a still-water sky. It looked familiar—all of it. So familiar. He wondered how long it would be till they faced the wild men again. Somehow they needed to find them in greater numbers, great enough that to defeat them would send all the barbarians a message instead of just punishing a few renegades. If only they would gather together and fight like an army of men instead of roaming like carrion crows.


It had been so many years since the day Corran had first lost control of its northern border, yet as Borden looked out over the frozen plain it seemed that he could still see them—the small army his father had amassed to repel the barbarians, the contingent Hosten had sent to help them. He could see the slaughtered bodies lying in the frost the morning after their last fight. The sounds of the camp behind him became the echo of hoofbeats, the jingle of tack and the shouts of men—his own shouts—as they came upon their companions.

The wind was cold in Borden’s face, but he did not turn away. Memory gripped him. There—a dark patch on the earth. Dark with the stain of blood. His father had lain there. He had taken him up in his own arms, pulled him close, trying to feel warmth—breath—something.

The wind had been even colder that day. It had whipped at his hair and stung his face and his eyes as he raised them to his brother, astride his horse, as Annar rode up and looked down on them.

Whatever he had shouted that day, the wind had carried it away. He couldn’t remember the words. All he could remember was the raw pain in his throat as he ripped the words from his throat and flung them at Annar; as pain and grief rose up and choked him.

He could remember Annar’s words, shouted down through the wind.

This is not my fault.”

“My lord?” Taerith’s voice cut into his memories, cutting them off. Borden jerked his gaze from the empty field and riveted his eyes on Taerith.

“Pardon me,” Taerith asked. “But... are you injured in some way?”

Borden made no answer.

“You’re shaking,” Taerith said, his voice apologetic.

He was. Borden looked down at his own hands and saw the way he shook. He folded his arms, tucking his hands close to his body. It did not help. The shaking came from within. From the memories.

“It’s nothing,” Borden said. “It’s the cold. Go... find Kardas. Prepare to go home.”

Taerith bent his head, as though the wind had blocked his hearing and he did not trust the words that had come from Borden’s mouth. “Sir?” he asked.

“You’re not fit to fight until you’ve healed up,” Borden said. “You can’t do it riding with us. Kardas will see you home before he rejoins us.”

His eyes wandered back to the field even as he spoke. Emotion was heaving within him; rising up to harshen his words and make his voice gruff. He stiffened himself, willing the shaking to cease. It was still there: the past, laying before him in the field where no other could see it.

It had been Annar’s fault—the bloody result of Annar’s strategic blunder. And that very night Borden and a coterie of priests had crowned him king. Nothing in life was so vile as the atmosphere in the battle tent the night they set the crown on Annar’s head... the atmosphere that still poisoned the air three days later when the new king signed his kingdom into the bondage of tribute to Hosten, so that the neighbouring boar would protect Corran while Annar went home in his father’s stead to drink and feast upon the throne, pretending that the threat in the north had been dealt with.

Borden turned and looked at the little camp his men had erected. A few tents, sleeping rolls spread on the ground, horses staked around the perimeter. The wind blew the dull green pennants of the camp wildly. The ground was blood-stained near the black remains of the night’s fire. A wolf howled somewhere far off, and the wind carried the sound into the camp.

“Such an inheritance you left me, brother,” Borden said. He bowed his head in his bitterness. It hurt to send Taerith away. There were so few men without him.

And the wild men would not stay hidden in the ravines forever.

* * *

His wine-coloured cloak billowed around him as the priest walked down the mid-street of the village. Early morning light cast a pallor on the dust of the road. Children and dogs scattered away from his coming, both eyeing him with distrust. He noted their retreat with approval. They were thin. Dogs and children both. Thin and haggard and begrimed with want.

He walked out of the town, up the sloping road toward the forest. A muscle in his face twitched as he passed beneath the evergreen branches. A wind blew in them, moving the branches behind him as though something walked on his heels. A sudden disturbance above jerked his eyes upward. A crow took to flight, a thin branch bobbing behind it, its sweeping black wings leaving the pine needles aquiver.

A half-hidden path led off the road and down a steep slope, toward the stink of standing water, leaves still rotting in its half-frozen depths. A shallow bog lay before him, but he skirted it and ducked into the opening of a cave.

He stepped into the darkness, ignoring the few torches that leaned against the cave wall just inside the entrance. The opening led sharply down, plunging into stillness and an utter lack of light. He walked down, not even steadying himself against the wall. The darkness soothed him. The wind did not disturb him here. Nothing dared follow Meronane into his den.

Without warning the floor leveled out and the close walls disappeared. The ground beneath his feet was hard-packed dirt. The cavern smelled: a wet, musty, rotting smell, not unmixed with the old drying smell of blood. Meronane followed a familiar rut to the center of the cavern. He did not have to bump into the chair to know it was there, though the darkness was too deep for any eye’s adjustment, and he turned and sank into it, resting his elbows on its wooden arms while he folded his hands before him and waited.

Half an hour passed.

Above, a light was struck. A torch flared to life. Its sound reached the cavern. Meronane looked up.

Footsteps in the tunnel. Two men. They entered the cavern, their faces masked, a single torch between them. It flickered on the cavern ceiling and danced shadows on the walls, catching the red stripes that marked the surface with jagged lines. The men took their places against the wall without a word.

Again, they waited. Again, the sound of striking flint made its way into the depths of the cave. A light appeared, bobbing through the darkness. One, two, three men this time. Again, they took their places. Silence.

It went on for an hour. Meronane waited, his fingers laced, his eyes lifted to the tunnel exit. He did move or speak a word till every man had arrived. Eighteen in all.

At last Meronane stood. He was a tall man, powerfully built and broad. His cloak fell across his shoulders as he stood, encasing him. He lifted his hands. A long knife, encased in a wine-red leather sheath, was in them. He pulled the sheath away slowly, revealing its sharp edge and curving beauty. Twelve torches flickered in the hands of their carriers, reflecting in the blade.

“It is time,” Meronane said.

The spy who had lately spent much time in the castle and brought word to Meronane that Borden had taken himself and his men away cleared his throat. He was a small dark man, nothing much to look at, but possessed of unusual favour with the priest.

“You have said that we should wait,” he said. “The people hunger now, but soon they will hunger more. Will they willingly hail you as king while they still have corn in their cribs?”

“Yes,” Meronane said. His eyes were fixed on the blade, held still before his face. “Deus has sent me dreams. We must move now, for the demon Borden will soon return.”

“So quickly?” one of the men asked. “He has only just left.”

Meronane turned slowly and regarded the man. “And what god has given you wisdom?” he asked. The man bowed his head and did not answer. Meronane turned back to face forward. He straightened the knife so that it pointed up, and he followed its point with his eyes and raised them to the stony ceiling.

“The devil is delivered into our hands,” he said.

* * *

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

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Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Chapter 13

Annar paced. The servants kept out of his way. He fretted—Borden galled him every day, but he was necessary. He had always been necessary. Once or twice in the week since Borden had gone, Annar’s wife tried to comfort him. He sent her away and ceased calling for her. Rarely was he allowed so much luxury to be sullen, and he wished to take it.

“What is this swill you give me?” he asked, looking up from his plate to the face of his steward. Master Grey’s face was a carefully arranged mask.

“There is nothing better, my king,” he said. “The servants eat—”

“How dare you tell me what my servants eat?” Annar shouted. “I am the king! You will do better than this.”

Master Grey nodded. He summoned a lesser servant with a flick of his fingers, and the man came and took Annar’s plate away. “As you say, my lord,” Grey answered.

Mirian was in the kitchen when Grey and the flustered servant entered it.

The cook nearly exploded at the sight of the returned dish. “It’s not good enough,” Grey said.

“And what am I do to about that?” the cook asked. “You show me a better bird, and I’ll cook it—he should be grateful he’s eating fowl; the rest of us—”

“I know what the rest of you are eating,” Master Grey said. “Salt it. Dress it up a little differently. Just so he doesn’t recognize it when we take it back.”

Master Grey caught sight of Mirian, preparing a tray.

“How is the queen?” he asked.

“Holding little down,” Mirian answered.

“No surprise,” the cook said.

“At least she’s trying to eat,” Mirian said. Her voice was low. Grey regarded her for a moment, aware that her eyes were on her work so she did not see him. Something had changed in her—it was barely perceptible, but the change was there. The image of Mirian carrying her royal charge through the servant’s quarters and up the stairs came back to him, and the steward found that a smile tugged at his weary mouth.

Mirian picked up her tray and left the kitchen, her skirts swishing her around her. She walked with such a purposeful stride—such an air of command, as though she intended to get the breakfast down Lilia and keep it there. Not for the first time, Grey wondered how the slave girl had become what she was. The henpecking of his wife had not crippled her—the near-imbecility of the girl’s mother had not been passed on. The old family is in her still, Grey thought. He blinked and looked away, to the platter the cook was thrusting under his nose. The same anemic chicken, dressed in a thick sauce made of stewed prunes.

“It will do,” he said.

Mirian pushed her way into Lilia’s chamber, laying the tray down beside the wakened queen and crossing to the window to dash the curtains open. It was a clear day: blue and sun-filled, and Lilia smiled in the rays that suddenly poured over her.

“I can’t eat,” she told Mirian. “Just let me drink in the sun.”

Mirian almost picked up the spoon she’d brought with Lilia’s porridge, but she thought better of it and tapped her fingers on the tray instead. She’d seated herself beside Lilia now, and she looked toward the open window and squinted in the sun.

“It’s stronger outside,” she said. “I went out early this morning—it’s a good light the sun gives today.”

“It would be lovely not to be confined,” Lilia said.

Mirian turned and looked at her queen. She frowned. “Why are you?” she asked.

“What?” Lilia asked.

“Can you walk?” Mirian asked.

Lilia hesitated a moment. “If my stomach will stay still, yes,” she said.

“Then let us go out,” Mirian said.

Lilia smiled and looked away. “You tease me,” she said. “Annar hasn’t called.” Her smile faded a moment. “I don’t know whether to wish he would.”

“I wasn’t talking about Annar,” Mirian said. “Walking from this room to his chambers is not ‘out.’”

“What do you mean then?” Lilia asked.

“Out!” Mirian exclaimed. She pointed to the window. “Out there, out with the sun.”

Lilia looked at her, a half-puzzled frown on her face. “I don’t—” she said, “I don’t go out.”

Mirian cleared her throat. “In all your life—” she began.

“I’ve always lived in a tower,” Lilia said.

Mirian stopped. The words sank in slowly. “When you were a child?” she asked.

“My father wouldn’t let me out,” Lilia said. “Perhaps he was afraid I would run away.”

“Would you?” Mirian asked.

Lilia shook her head, smiling as she often did now, with her sweet, slow smile. “No,” she said. “I would have been afraid to.”

“Well,” Mirian said, clearing her throat again, “you may not go out. But I do. Will you go with me?”

“If you’ll show me the way,” Lilia answered.

* * *

An hour later the two slipped out the gates. Mirian knew the servants on the wall better than they did; she knew exactly when their eyes would be turned away from any activity, so they left the castle without suspicion. Both women wore heavy cloaks; Lilia’s hands were gloved and her feet well covered. Mirian wore the usual rags tied around her feet; her fingers were free and cold. Still, the air felt good—exhilarating—free. The fields greeted them, snow striping the old brown furrows under a brilliant blue sky. A few hardy ravens still picked at the cold ground, looking not for worms but for the last remaining chaff. Beyond the fields, the woods rose up dark and distant. The wind blew from them, carrying the scent of cedar and snow with it.

Lilia walked slowly forward. She turned and smiled at Mirian, a smile that touched her grey eyes and made a child of her. “It’s beautiful,” she said.

“It is no castle,” Mirian agreed. “That is why I like it. In the spring and summer it is green and alive, and you can watch the hunters returning from the forest. In the fall there is harvest to be brought in. These fields are better to us than stone and towers could be.”

They walked side by side a little while, into the fields. The air was cold enough to make their faces tingle, but the wind when it blew was not harsh, and the sky overhead was blue enough to make them forget the cold.

“I am surprised you have never run away,” Lilia said, suddenly.

Mirian lowered her eyes. “You forget that slaves do not have rights no matter how far they run,” she said. “They would hunt me down and make me regret it.”

“Do you fear that?” Lilia asked. “I am surprised.”

Mirian looked at her companion. “No,” she said. “I don’t fear it. I stay here because—this is home.”

“But you have no family,” Lilia said. “No ties to keep you here.”

Mirian looked away. They stood in silence until Lilia began to grow worried; then Mirian turned back to her and said, “Come this way. I want to show you something.”

* * *

The gnarled branches of the tree striped the ground with shadows. Lilia stepped gingerly over its roots, steadying herself with one hand on its great trunk. Mirian had already found her place; she leaned back into the tree’s embrace and closed her eyes. The wind blew up again; spicing the air evergreen; chilling the shadows. Lilia waited.

When Mirian opened her eyes again, they were clear and calm. “This is the tie that keeps me here,” Mirian said. “My family is buried—here.” She pointed to a spot under the branches of the tree, then to another. “And here—there—my father is there, and my brothers are here.”

She stepped away from the ridges that had protected her, moving to a place some five feet from the tree. There was nothing to mark the ground; no stone or wooden stave, but Mirian was precisely sure of it. She looked down at the ground beneath her feet.

“My mother is here,” she said. Something caught in her voice as she spoke. She cleared her throat, shaking her head, but did not raise her eyes.

“I’m sorry,” Lilia said.

Mirian looked up. Her eyes had clouded over. She smiled and brushed a tear away with the back of her hand. “They are not good ties, perhaps,” she said. “They are all dead. But I have no one living, not anywhere. So this tree is the best I can do.”

Lilia moved forward, carefully navigating the tangle of roots, and laid her hand on Mirian’s arm. They regarded each other a long time, eyes speaking understanding.

“I am glad you did not run away,” Lilia said.

Mirian nodded: an awkward, hasty nod. Abruptly she raised her hand to cover Lilia’s.

“I have not been glad,” Mirian whispered. “I have never been glad of anything.”

Lilia smiled. “I understand,” she said.

* * *

There was blood on the wind. Taerith could smell it. It made the horses snort and shake their heads.

Kardas’s eyes were narrowed. “The tribesmen are close,” he said.

Taerith regarded his companion silently. He had wondered about Kardas—about the half-mistrust with which the others sometimes regarded him; about whatever it was that simmered under the surface of his face. He had wondered, until he had seen one of the raiders. They had caught the man at night while he raided a sheep cote, but his two companions got away.

He could have been Kardas’s brother.

“Loyalty lies where there is true debt, not only where blood is shared,” Kardas had answered to Taerith’s question. Taerith asked no more.

The road wound its way through scrub and open fields. The thick forest lay behind them. In the rise and fall of the rocky terrain there were many places for men to hide and many places for a horse to twist its leg and fall. The land made Taerith uneasy. He rode with a frown, listening. Nothing met his ears but the clop of hooves, yet the smell—sharp and cloying—was unmistakable.

He dismounted suddenly. He left the road, stepping slowly and lightly over the frostbitten ground. A line of boulders rose up to meet him. The first had a natural ledge in its side; he stepped up and peered over. His heart beat faster. What had looked from the road like shadows from the boulders was in fact a ravine, plunging some seven feet down. Directly below him he could make out the shape of an animal carcass—the source of the smell.

He turned his head west, eyes following the ravine as it paralleled the road. It only took him a minute to see them. At least six men, long dark hair bound in braids, huddled in a knot of bare skin and animal furs where the ravine widened. Borden had just reached the point in the row directly opposite them.

As Taerith watched, one of the men crawled above the others. The knife clenched between the man’s teeth told Taerith all he needed to know. He ran forward, across the tops of the boulders, and shouted, “In the ravine!”

Borden’s horse neighed as he jerked back on the reins, stopping the line. His sword was already in his hand as he pointed toward Taerith and shouted “There!” His men turned their heads, forgetting their confusion in shouts as the first of the tribesmen emerged from the ravine. Tridian notched an arrow and let it fly. It missed the barbarian but got another in the shoulder as he climbed out behind the first.

Taerith was nearly above the huddle of wild men when something hit him from behind. The force of it pushed him forward, and his heart beat wildly as he fought to keep his balance. He turned his head and looked back down the ravine: straight down through the gloom to the shaft of an arrow pointed directly at him. He threw himself away, hitting the ground as the arrow whizzed over his head. He scrambled up and ran toward Kardas and the other men, who were even now engaging the barbarians hand-to-hand. He had seen enough. There were others in the ravine, coming from behind, enough to even out the odds.

His arm came up, sword in hand, blocking a spear-thrust as one of the wild men turned to meet him in the field before he reached the road. The man roared and pulled out his sword. He swung it; Taerith ducked. The man was unbalanced by his swing. Taerith buffeted him on the side with the flat of his sword, and his adversary fell, gasping for breath. Taerith left him on the ground and sprinted to the road.

Kardas had finished off two men and was facing another. Taerith sheathed his sword as he ran and leaped onto the man’s back, one arm over the barbarian’s eyes and the other around his neck. Kardas dealt him a blow to the knees, and while he staggered, Taerith jumped off his back and shoved him off the road. He rolled down the rocky incline.

Borden’s war cry broke over the sounds of the scuffle, and his soldiers joined him: whooping, calling, yelling, grunting, they drove the barbarians off the road and back toward the ravine. Taerith ran up through the ranks, fighting to reach Borden.

“There are others!” he yelled, pointing back in the direction where had seen them. Borden caught Taerith’s eye from his perch atop his horse, and nodded. He spurred his horse forward, driving the barbarians backwards until they tripped over the boulders and toppled back into the ravine. With his horse’s forelegs standing atop the boulders, Borden blew his battle horn and pointed energetically toward the hidden barbarians. His men caught his meaning. Arrows, rocks, knives rained down. The hidden tribesmen had waited too long to emerge. They were beaten before they could react.

Borden and his men returned to the road, laughing and wiping away dirt and blood. Borden spit from atop his horse and looked down at Taerith.

“Good man,” he said. “You gave us the advantage.”

He rode off. Taerith stayed in the road, watching his leader ride away. The others remounted and followed him. Taerith still stood, as the bodies of horses and men jogged away on either side of him.

Kardas approached, the reins of two horses in his hand. He looked at Taerith a long moment.

“How many men did you kill?” he asked.

Taerith looked away. His shoulder was bleeding. A minor cut; he hadn’t noticed it before. He touched it and brought his fingertips away black and red with dirt and blood.

“How many?” Kardas asked.

“I don’t know,” Taerith answered.

“You can’t fight a bloodless war,” Kardas told him. He handed Taerith his reins. “Look at yourself. You kill or they’ll kill you.”

Taerith mounted. The others had drawn ahead of them. They’d have to catch up. The field was eerily quiet. The wet-rust smell of blood was stronger than ever. The ravine became visible as they rode farther on, the boulders clearing away and making the gash in the ground plain.

“Why didn’t they come out?” Taerith asked suddenly. “They could have evened it out. Given their fellows a better chance at victory.”

“The other tribesmen?” Kardas asked.


“They don’t think like that,” Kardas said. “It’s every man for himself. They weren’t ready to emerge, so they didn’t.”

Overhead, a hawk keened. Taerith watched it as it circled above the field, drawn by the smell. He wondered what it could see, down in the ravine.

He fingered his sword hilt. It was slick with sweat and blood. Whose, he didn’t know. The answer to Kardas’s question was plain enough to him: he had not, with own hands, killed a single man.

Shades of Braedoch tugged at his heart. Taerith the fisherman, tending his river nets in the green glade. Taerith the thinker, never one to act rashly. The hawk called out again.

Taerith raised his eyes and whispered, “Deus with wings, let me see what You see.”

* * *

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:

Monday, April 16, 2007

Chapter 12

Mirian waited with her back to the cold stone wall outside Lilia’s room. She started each time someone came in or out, servants bearing jugs of steaming water, rags, and strong-smelling broth. At last they all trooped out again, single-file through the narrow passage to the stairs. Mistress Grey came last of all, iron keyring in hand.

“To think of you,” she snapped. “Tending her every hour and never even noticing. I don’t know whether to call you blind or stupid.”

“Call me both, then, and be done with it,” Mirian answered. She held out her hand, and Mistress Grey placed the key to Lilia’s room in it.

“Mind my instructions,” she said. “And for God’s sake ask for help if you need it.”

Mirian closed her fingers over the key. “Yes, ma’am.”

Mistress Grey gave her a sharp look. Mirian did not react to it, and Mistress Grey turned to go. When the last footstep had died away on the stairs, Mirian gingerly pushed open the door.

Lilia looked up from the bed. Mirian moved automatically to the window, then thought better of it and left the curtains alone. She turned abruptly to Lilia.

“When will the baby come?” she asked.

“Late in the summer, Mistress Grey tells me,” said Lilia.

Mirian nodded. She reached into her skirt pocket and drew out the book Joachim had given Lilia in the hall before the feast. She held it out as though she expected Lilia to come take it, then stepped across the room and laid it on the table next to the bed.

“I was afraid that the king would destroy it, so I... I went and found it first,” Mirian said.

A slow, solemn smile turned up the corners of Lilia’s mouth. “Thank you,” she said. “And for carrying me here... thank you.”

Mirian turned deep red. “Who told you about that?” she asked.

“Mistress Grey.”

Mirian turned away. “It was my job.

Lilia laughed—a clear, bell-like laugh that rippled in the pool of Mirian’s embarrassment. “Not just any lady’s maid could have carried me up all those stairs,” she said.

Mirian wheeled around and snapped, “Oh yes, they could. You weight about as much as a gnat.”

The words struck them both as so ludicrous that each saw the other swallow a laugh. Lilia’s expression grew solemn again.

“I heard Mistress Grey chastise you in the hall.”

Embarrassment again. Mirian flopped into the chair next to Lilia’s bed and folded her arms, eyes cast down and brow stormy.

“She shouldn’t have,” Lilia continued. “I told her not to.”

The thought of Lilia giving orders to Mistress Grey hardly registered with Mirian. Her guilt suddenly welled over.

“I deserved it,” she said. “To watch you growing weak and ill and not recognize that you were with child... I’m a fool.”

“I didn’t recognize it myself,” Lilia said.

Mirian looked up at her, startled. “What did you think you were, dying?” she asked.

“Yes,” Lilia answered. She chuckled a little and rested her hand on her still-slender belly. “And all the time there was life growing in me.”

Mirian hardly heard the last comment. She turned and faced Lilia, leaning forward, her voice low and intense.

“You thought you were dying?” she repeated.

Suddenly there were tears in Lilia’s eyes, but she smiled through them. “Yes,” she said.

Mirian’s voice was thick as she spoke, as though she needed to choke something down but couldn’t. “People only die of broken hearts when they give up,” Mirian said. “You’re not that weak.”

“How do you know my heart is broken?” Lilia asked.

Mirian’s own eyes were instantly awash with tears, but they stayed there, shining in her eyes, refusing to fall. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I should have helped you.”

“Even though slaves don’t talk with queens?” Lilia asked. She reached out suddenly, and took Mirian’s hands and pulled them toward her, sitting up and leaning forward as she did. “I know I’m only a queen,” she said. “But if you’ll speak with me... and touch me sometimes like this... smile... I’d be so grateful.”

Mirian’s fingers tightened around Lilia’s small white hands until she thought she’d crush them, and she forced herself to loosen her grip. She stood abruptly. Lilia still held her hands, like a pleading child. She turned her grey eyes up.

“Grateful,” she repeated, “and Deus himself will bless you for it.”
Mirian nodded, and somehow through her tears she smiled. “You should sleep,” Mirian said.

“You’ve been too weak. Rest now.”

Lilia released her hands and laid back, closing her eyes with a hint of a smile on her face. Mirian stood watching her until the young queen fell asleep.

She turned away at last and moved to the window. Brown fields stretched out to the borders of the forest. North. Vaguely she knew that trouble would come from the north. Hosten had promised it.

The tears through which she saw it all condensed suddenly and traced damp trails down her face. She could still feel Lilia’s weight in her arms; the small hands clinging to hers. An image had burned itself in her mind and it rose before her now: she saw herself, carrying the queen away from the hall. But the image blurred, even as her chest began to heave with emotions she resolutely shoved down; she saw others, carrying another woman, a dead woman, away... her mother.

For an instant she was a little girl watching again. A tiny sob burst from her. She clamped her mouth shut, clenched her fists, turned from the window as if she expected to face an enemy. No one was there but Lilia, still sleeping. She turned back, leaning on the stone of the window.

Someone was riding across the fields toward the castle. Two men, riding like the devil was on their tail. From the height of the castle she couldn’t see the way their horses frothed, but in her mind’s eye she could.

* * *

The watchmen knew them at once and ordered the gates opened. They didn’t slow up until they were nearly there; then they pulled their horses to a high-stepping, nervous walk, and rode into the courtyard. Borden had already been called. He strode up to the first rider and said,

“What news?”

The man was covered in dirt and grime. He wiped his forehead and answered, “There’s been a raid at Esktown. Crops are gone; a lot of people... gone.”

“It’s too soon,” Borden said. “Hosten only called his men off yesterday. Esktown is too far south.”

“We caught two of them still in the town. We brought their weapons back; you can see for yourself. It’s northerners.”

Borden cursed. “The swine. He must have called his men away from the border weeks ago. He knew Annar would give him a reason to do it.”

He turned his back on the messengers and ran the figures in his mind. How many miles of borderland... what number of barbarians beyond it... how far they would likely come for plunder. He cursed again.

He turned back to the messengers. Others of his men had gathered in the courtyard. They stood watching him, silent and grim, arms folded. Above them the sky was grey and clouded; snow was coming in earnest.

“Gather what you need,” he said.

“Sir?” Emmet asked.

“We’re going north. All of us. When they attack again we’ll be there to meet them. Hosten thinks we aren’t strong enough to defend ourselves. Prove him wrong, and I’ll stand with you.”

The men nodded. They turned away, all except a few who waited. Emmet approached Borden and clapped a hand on his shoulder. Borden nodded, and Emmet stepped back and headed for the stables.

Kardas remained, looking up at his leader through smoky eyes.

“I believe in your loyalty,” Borden said.

Kardas nodded. There was no trace of light in his face, nothing but deeply-meant conviction.
“You have no cause to fear it,” he said.

“Taerith?” Borden called, looking toward the last remaining man in the courtyard. Taerith approached quietly, waiting until Kardas had disappeared into the soldiers’ quarters before he spoke. “Is it wise to take all the men away?” he asked.

“We need every one,” Borden said. “The greater show of force we can give the marauders, the better. Once we’ve beaten them soundly once or twice we can send some of the men home. The northerners are deadly, but they’re primitive, and they don’t act as a group.”

“There are home threats,” Taerith said.

“There’s nothing else to do,” Borden said. He had nearly raised his voice, and immediately he looked apologetic. “I’m sorry, Taerith.” He fixed his dark eyes on the young man. “Can you kill a man?” he asked.

“If I must,” Taerith said.

Borden nodded. “I believe you. I want you to fight beside Kardas.”

Taerith raised an eyebrow. “To spy on him?” he asked.

“No, to fight with him,” Borden repeated. “I told him I trusted his loyalty, and I meant it. The others may not. Best he fights beside a man he can trust.”

“Yes, sir,” Taerith said. He bent his head. Borden couldn’t account for the sorrow in Taerith’s face, or the conflict he saw there.

“Work it out, whatever it is,” he said. “We need you with us entirely, not with half your heart left here.”

Taerith smiled an odd, crooked smile. “That is a hard request,” he said. “I am not even all here. Pieces of my heart are strewn in more places than you know.”

Borden’s voice was softened as he issued his final order. “Pack up, poet. We leave tonight.”
“My lord?” Taerith asked as Borden began to walk away.

“Yes?” the prince asked, turning.

“What has happened to the priest?”

“The poison-tongued prophet?” Borden asked. Taerith nodded.

“He is the safest possible place,” Borden answered. “Look down.”

* * *

There was a dungeon beneath the castle. It was both dank and chill, though not cold enough to keep out the vermin. Taerith could hear them skittering away in the darkness as he descended the staircase: a long, steep descent that seemed to have been carved from stone and yellow mud. Guards sat at the bottom of the stairs, playing dice beneath the glare of torches. They looked up, startled, at Taerith’s approach.

“I want to see the priest,” he said.

One of the guards pointed down a rectangular corridor with his knife. “Down there,” he said.
The corridor was black as pitch, and Taerith ducked his head as he entered it. He reached out and touched one of the walls; sticky cobwebs met his fingers. The corridor—more of a tunnel really—stank. Of what, he wasn’t sure.

Toward its end, the corridor suddenly widened and led off into two different directions. Faint light glimmered from the left, and the rustle of straw indicated that someone had moved.

“Joachim?” Taerith called.

“I’m here,” the priest’s voice came back.

Taerith took the left path four steps, and a cell began to take shape in the gloom. Iron bars separated it from the corridor. Joachim was sitting within, leaning against the wall on the opposite side. Taerith could just make out the form of him, robed and hooded. The cell was squarish and roughly formed, with clay and rock walls that swept far higher than the dungeon level. High above, nearly at the ceiling, brick-sized apertures let in a little light and air.
Taerith reached into his shirt and pulled out something long and thin and wrapped in a rag, which he tossed through the bars. It landed near Joachim’s feet. The priest leaned over and picked it up. “Thank you,” he said.

“It’s not much,” Taerith said.

Joachim untied the thin cloth that covered it, and pulled out a piece of iron that had been shaped to a point. He looked up, and in the measly light Taerith thought he saw a twinkle in the priest’s eye.

“Thank you,” he said. “There’s so much clay in these walls, this will serve me very nicely.”

“I thought you might keep the dates with it,” Taerith said. “Or write hymns in the wall.”

“Or prophecies,” Joachim said, his voice at once deep and laughing—at himself, Taerith thought.

“Why did you do it?” Taerith asked. “You knew it would send you here—and bring us trouble.”

“Has it brought you trouble?” Joachim asked. “I’m sorry for that.”

“You didn’t answer my question,” Taerith said.

“I did it because Deus sent me,” Joachim said.

“So you said.”

“And you, boy? Deus touched you, too. I saw that in you.”

“I thought Deus had sent me here,” Taerith said. “To help protect... Lilia. But I’m leaving now. Borden calls us to the borders, and I pledged to serve under him. I’m not sure what to do.”

Joachim shifted in the darkness, shuffling the damp straw beneath him. He held up the iron pen, studying it in the dank light. “What do you know about Deus, Taerith?”

Taerith was quiet a long moment. “That he has wings,” he said.

“Then,” Joachim said, “like the eagle, He sees more than you do. Trust that He will not stop watching over you and over Lilia. Go, fulfill your pledges, and don’t fear. That is my advice. There is little purpose in fear.”

From above, the sound of horses neighing drifted into the cell. Taerith looked up. “We leave tonight,” he said. “Be well, friend.”

“And you,” Joachim responded. “I will pray for you.”

Taerith was quiet again. He began to turn away, then stopped and said, “Pray for us all.”

* * *

Taerith joined the soldiers in the courtyard. The snow was beginning to fall, swirling down on a light wind that promised to freeze the night and make their ride an arduous one. He had wrapped his feet in cloth before booting them, and his cloak was wrapped around his shoulders and fastened with a thin iron clasp. The wind blew in his hair, chilling his ears. He twined the reins of his horse around his fingers as he watched the others mount.

Borden shouted an order, and Taerith mounted. The horse surged forward with its fellows; with a rush and pounding of hooves, they were away.

From the shadows, a man watched them go.

He smiled to himself. When the courtyard had been empty five minutes he walked into the center of it, then turned and looked up at the high, narrow windows of Annar’s feasting hall. “The time has come,” the man said. He cast his eyes up further, to the tower where the queen—the queen, with Annar’s heir forming in her—slept. His smile was frozen, and it eroded like ice under the night wind.

Wrapping his cloak around himself, he left the courtyard and the castle behind him. The few servants who patrolled the walls, slack and unpracticed compared to Borden’s now-absent guards, did not even see him go. Down the road he wandered, till he reached an inn in the nearest village.

The man entered the dining hall, moving through the smoke and dim lighting toward a corner where sat a man in a wine-coloured cloak.

“Greetings, Father Meronane,” he said.

Meronane looked up at him, his eyes flickering in greeting. He said nothing.

The man’s voice dropped nearly to a whisper as he took the seat opposite the priest. “Borden has removed his men,” he said. “They go north to combat the barbarians, who have already attacked at Esktown. And there is more—the queen is with child.”

Meronane nodded. “The devil has spawned,” he said. His voice was deep, solemn like a funeral bell. He stood, his tall form blocking out the lights that smouldered on the wall behind him. “We will give the people time,” he said. “The barbarians will slaughter Borden’s men even as the villagers starve. Hunger will teach them to regard their deliverers.”

In another corner of the room someone was singing—a girl, a server in the tavern, who carried only scant fare to her customers and mockingly spilled out her words in explanation. Meronane smiled at the sound. The words were indistinct through the dull tavern clamour, but he had heard them sung often enough in the town.

Curse the king, curse the queen, let the harvest run away.

Annar had given them the people’s backing. Hosten had given them opportunity. The priest’s band would show themselves strong when the time came to attack the castle. But it was Meronane himself who would put an end to the king’s line—forever.

* * *

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:

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Chapter 11

Emmet led the men. For a moment Taerith had feared Borden would place him in command. Bile rose in his throat at the very idea. The village air was cold, stingingly acrid with smoke. The smell burned in his nostrils as he dismounted quickly and took the little stone-lined path to the cottage door. The wood of the door was old and cracked. He rapped on it. First to the door—the others waited behind him, on foot, grim and already weary. The morning had been hard on them all.

But they didn’t hate this—not like Taerith hated it. That was why he went to the door first. To tell the villagers, somehow. To take their anger on himself; do penance. To show mercy if he possibly could. Emmet had been first at the last door, and his rough lack of compassion made it all worse.

The door stayed closed. Taerith rapped again, and as he did a boy stepped around the corner of the house. He was fifteen, maybe sixteen. Gangly but tough. He had a mallet in his hand.

“Go away,” the boy said. “There’s nothing here.”

“We all have to pay taxes, lad,” Emmet shouted from the gate.

“It can’t be helped,” Taerith said.

“We’ve paid,” the boy insisted. He took a step closer, and Taerith began looking for the best way to wrest the mallet from the boy without injuring him. “We paid at the end of the harvest!”

“It wasn’t enough,” Taerith said. He kept his voice calm, tightly under control.

“It’s never enough!” the boy cried, raising the mallet half-unintentionally. Two of Emmet’s men sprang forward, but Taerith had his hand on the tool’s handle before they could reach the door.

“Where’s your father?” he asked. “Let me speak to him.”

“Go ahead,” the boy said, casting a glance over his shoulder. “He’s in the graveyard.”

Taerith closed his eyes for a moment, his fingers still tightly wrapped around the mallet handle. The boy did not pull away from him. He was studying him; watching Taerith’s reaction to his words.

“I don’t want to rob you,” Taerith said. “Let us take what we came for, it will be better for you.”

The boy shook his head, longish brown hair falling into his eyes. “We’ll starve. How’s that better?”

“You won’t,” Taerith said. His voice was too low for Emmet or the others to hear him. “If I have to bring you my own rations all winter, you won’t starve.”

The boy’s body relaxed a little. He looked suspiciously at Taerith, then at the men.

“My mother,” he said. “She’s got to eat, too."

“Just let us take what we need,” Taerith said. His throat was tight. Already he was mentally calculating how far he could make his own rations go—how long he could survive while feeding two others. “Don’t make the men impatient with you.”

He let go of the mallet. The boy lowered it. He stepped back, then turned toward a small outbuilding six feet away. “Here,” he said, half-sullenly but loudly enough for Emmet to hear. “You can see what we have.”

They entered into the dim dust of the building. Stores of winter corn were laid up in patched baskets. Straw was laid over cabbages and potatoes in a recess in one corner of the floor, and from the ceiling dried strips of meat dangled—goat, Taerith thought from the smell. A squawk and clatter arose from the far corner of the barn as the men began to untie meat from the ceiling and heft baskets of corn onto their shoulders. Emmet cast his eye on the few hens and a rooster that were penned in there. He nodded toward the corner.

“Take one,” he told Taerith.

Taerith’s stomach sank even as he followed Emmet’s instructions. Too many autumns spent laying up food for the winter with Aiden and Arnan rushed back to him. There was so little here—such a long winter in the waiting.

The boy stood in the door and watched them with his arms folded. Taerith thought he trembled a little as the men began to exit. With the scrawniest of the chickens held firmly in hand, he passed close by the boy.

“You did right,” Taerith said. “You warded off worse suffering than this.”

The boy looked up at him. There were tears in his eyes, and shame behind them. But hope kindled there, too. Man of the house, Taerith thought. Dare hope that you’ve done well.

Taerith tied the clucking chicken to a board in the wagon they pulled behind them, and it settled in among barrels and burlap bags with a few other rattled hens. Their raid on the village had produced precious little, yet as Taerith mounted his horse and looked back at the house with its cracked door and dirty, smoking chimney, all he could think was how much they had taken. He burned the house into his memory. He’d be back that winter—back with anything he could provide.

But the next house... and the next... you couldn’t feed a village on one soldier’s rations.

They started down the road, the wagon creaking behind them. Homes grew thicker as they approached the center of the village, and children ran alongside them. Singing. Chanting something. Taerith’s heart grew heavier as he caught the words.

“Curse the king, curse the queen, let the harvest run away.”

Emmet glared at the children but said nothing. The others hardly seemed to notice. Taerith missed Kardas—not that the taciturn young man would have said anything, but somehow he knew there would be something in the dark hunter’s eyes worth reading.

The day was only half-over.

* * *

Lilia watched Mirian as she bustled around the room, stoking the fire and beating at the dark purple curtains as though she would drive the dust from them by force and intimidation. The queasiness in Lilia’s stomach rose and she swallowed convulsively, trying to keep it down. From the height of the sun it was nearly noon, and she had not left her bed. Annar and Hosten had left on the hunt early that morning, so she had not been wanted.

She was glad of it. She tried as hard as she could to be a credit to her husband, but Hosten unnerved her and left her feeling exposed and shamed every time she raised her eyes or opened her mouth. Every day spent in the foreign king’s presence made her feel weaker.

Mirian turned and looked in Lilia’s direction, hunting for something else to do. The slave girl had said fewer words this morning even than usual, and Lilia was almost amused by the look on her face. Normally she would have been cowed by Mirian’s evident disdain, but today she was too tired to be intimidated.

Too tired... watching Mirian work was making her tired.

Mirian noticed Lilia’s eyes on her. She folded her arms, cocked her a head a little and said, “Is there anything you want me to do?” she asked.

“Yes,” Lilia said. The word came out low and muttered, though she hadn’t meant it to. She swallowed again. “Sit down. You’re exhausting me.”

“Sit—?” Mirian began.

“On the bed,” Lilia said, waving her hand at the coverlet. “Just sit.”

Mirian looked around her, and then moved to obey. She sat down awkwardly, as though she was afraid of breaking the bed, and folded her hands in her lap. It was a posture entirely unlike Mirian, and it made Lilia laugh.

“Why are you laughing at me?” Mirian asked, eyebrow askew.

“You weren’t made to sit still, were you?” Lilia asked. “You look like you don’t know how.”

Mirian started to answer and bit her tongue. An instant later she sprang to her feet and turned her back on the bed and its occupant entirely.

“You haven’t eaten breakfast yet,” she said.

“I don’t want it,” Lilia said.

Mirian turned halfway back. “You should eat,” she said.

“I don’t think I could keep it down,” Lilia said.

“Are you sick?” Mirian asked.

Lilia shook her head. Loose strands of black hair fell across her pale cheek, and she brushed them back. She moved her hand as though it weighed too much, and dropped it back to the sheets. “I’m tired,” she said. “Feasting makes me tired.”

“Sitting at the feast makes you tired,” Mirian said. It was suddenly dawning on her that she had not seen Lilia eat in days. “You cannot be said to feast yourself. What have you eaten since Hosten’s arrival?”

Lilia’s eyes were closing. She was falling asleep. “A little,” she said, and then fell silent.

Mirian stood in the light of the window, staring down at the bed and the sleeping girl in it. For the first time she was just that—a girl—not a queen or an enemy, but a girl who needed looking after. Taerith’s words echoed in her ears: Lend her your strength. Something smote at Mirian’s heart, and whether it was guilt or concern she couldn’t be sure.

She stood another five minutes, just watching the queen as she slept. Convinced at last that Lilia would not awake for some time, she picked up the empty coal bucket next to the fireplace. As she straightened up with it, pain shot through her arm at the elbow. She flinched a little as she passed through the door. The arm had nearly stopped bothering her, but the pain was back now—whether irritated by the growing cold or something else, she wasn’t sure. There were bandages in Master Grey's keeping; she would seek him out and see about wrapping her arm.

She was rounding the last bit of staircase when she nearly tripped over the man: an unfamiliar man of average height and build, skulking at the bottom of the steps. He took in her collar with a glance, and anger darkened his face. "Watch your step, slave," he snapped.

She nearly snapped back. Instead, she took him in with a cold glance and demanded, "What are you doing here? These are private quarters."

He took a menacing step closer to her. "Why do you think I would answer the likes of you?"

Her eyes blazed in response, and she drew herself up with such presence that the man took a step back again. "I am the queen's personal attendant," she said. "You will answer me, or answer to her."

"I'm a guest at the feast," the man said. His voice was still surly, still threatening, but Mirian heard the loss of confidence beneath it. "The night was cold; I found shelter where I could take it."

"You cannot take it here," Mirian said. "Get out."

The man's lip curled, and he spat on the floor at her feet. Without another word, he stalked off.

She watched him go, frowning. The pain in her arm was nearly forgotten, but her hand wandered to the elbow and she found herself rubbing it without thought. Suddenly, warm fingers closed over her arm. She whirled around, ready for anything.

Borden stood behind her. A smile lurked on his lips. His folded his arms as he took in her stance: not a deer ready to flee, but a panther intent on a fight.

“Well done,” he said.

It took her a moment to find her voice, but she found it. “He was lying,” she said. “I've been up and down these stairs twice this morning; he did not sleep here.”

“Do you know who he was?” Borden asked.

“No,” Mirian answered.

“So for all you know he might have been some new king, and all our alliances destroyed by your tongue.”

“He was no king,” Mirian said.

“You know commonness when you see it?” Borden said. “You should, as you are hardly common yourself, are you?” He lowered his voice, and it sounded in the darkness like the voice of some devil. “You are ten times the queen Lilia will ever be.”

She stared, unable to find words to answer him.

“Do something about your arm.” He brushed past her in the closeness of the corridor. “My brother will return soon, and I think you will have duties then.”

* * *

The hunting horn announced the return of the men from the hunt. The priest sat in the courtyard shadows and watched them. Kardas, Borden’s dark hunter, rode behind Hosten’s riotous men. Joachim could feel the young man’s animosity from where he sat. It was natural, he thought, that men should sense the tide that had turned against Hosten. It was natural that they should despise him, for soon there would be nothing left of him worth honouring.

The thought was not a pleasant one. Joachim clutched his bundle closer, fingers running over the smooth cloth wrapped tightly around it. He watched the men dismount. His eyes fixed on Hosten. He stiffened when Hosten looked his way, but no recognition showed in the king’s eyes.

The courtyard smelled of sweat and blood. Servants helped the hunters unload their trophies—only a few deer, thin and old, and many birds—and took the horses away to be brushed down and given water. The men laughed, joked, celebrated their prowess in stealing the country’s last few resources. Joachim lifted his eyes to the far side of the courtyard, where the young stranger called Taerith left the soldiers’ quarters to speak with Kardas.

The sun set. The courtyard emptied of men. The lights of the feasting hall were lit; voices began to call from it into the cold night. Still Joachim sat, stroking his bundle, waiting.

Finally he judged it time. He rose and slipped through a servant’s door, into a corridor that led behind the feasting hall. A slight smile tugged at his lips as he heard footsteps coming the other way. He had hoped to intercept her. He stationed himself by the door to the hall and waited.

Lilia appeared, dressed in a gown the colour of purple-red wine. The slave girl, Mirian, walked just behind her. Her head was bowed; an uncommon posture for her, so she did not see the priest at first.

“My lady,” Joachim said as he stepped out of the shadows. Lilia’s startled eyes greeted him, but she seemed unable to find any words. He smiled. He stepped forward and pressed the small bundle into her hands. “A gift,” he said. “I hope it may keep you company.”

A puzzled frown on her face, Lilia slowly pulled at the twine that held the cloth close to its treasure. The material fell away, and she gasped.

In her hands was a small book, no thicker than her palm, bound in dark blue leather. She looked up at him, and there were tears in her beautiful grey eyes.

“Thank you,” she said. “Where did you—”

“It doesn’t matter where it came from,” Joachim said. “A priest has access to such things. It is yours now. Care well for it.”

Lilia pressed the book to her heart and nodded, trying to smile. “I am grateful. I wish I could show you how much.”

Joachim smiled at her again, and bowed slightly. “My lady’s tears are thanks enough,” he said.

Mirian’s voice sounded low from behind Lilia. “The king will grow impatient,” she said.

Lilia half-turned toward her slave. She nodded, and brushed away her tears with the back of her hand. “Yes,” she said. “I am sorry. We’ll go in now.”

Joachim stepped away from the door, bowing as the pair passed through it into the light and noise of the feasting hall. The door closed behind them and he stared at it for a few minutes. “Not yet,” he said to himself, quietly. Then he turned and walked away, toward another corridor, another end of the hall.

* * *

Borden looked up as the queen entered. Her hands were low; clutching a book against the fabric of her long, deep red skirt. He frowned. Why she had brought such a thing to the feast was beyond his powers of deduction. He lifted his eyes past her, to Mirian who walked with an unusually subdued air. As Lilia lowered herself into the wooden chair at Annar’s side, seating herself with her usual attitude of near-flight, Mirian retired into the shadows behind the table.

Hosten was drinking already, tearing pieces of venison from the hunters’ catch. His booming voice overpowered the table. The braggart was detailing his battles in the north. Annar hardly responded. He was put out about something. Lilia’s knuckles were turning white as she wrapped her fingers around the book in her lap and kept her eyes turned down.

Borden listened to Hosten and watched Annar with some worry. Hosten liked an audience; he might turn angry if Annar didn’t pay him more attention.

“Your meat grows worse by the day,” Hosten said, jokingly waving a haunch in the air.

“You have eaten all the best,” Annar said. The words sounded pulled from a sulk.

“Come, my lord,” Hosten said. “You are not so impoverished.”

Annar picked at his plate. “My people will feed us. Still, you have decimated the hunting.”

“With your permission, of course,” Hosten said. He forced some humour back into his voice. “Surely you are not afraid for your stomach, Annar? When has the time of reckoning ever come upon you?”

“It comes upon you now, my lords.”

The voice echoed from the back of the hall. A man stood there, cowl thrown back from a sandy, bearded head; a priest with unusual fire in his eyes. He walked forward, unheeding of those who tried to stop him. He approached the board, stopping only feet away from it, and pointed his finger at Annar.

“This time next year your throne will sit empty,” he said. “Lord Deus has sent me to tell you. You have robbed your people and brought great injustice on this land. Therefore God will bring judgment upon you. All of your plans shall come to naught, for you will not live to see them carried out.”

He turned to Hosten, and the fire in his eyes flared higher. “As for you, mighty king,” he said, “in future the dogs will tear at what remains of you, for Deus has seen the craft with which you would plunder others, and He will plunder you.”

Hosten’s face twisted with rage. Annar still sat dumb, but dark: a smoldering cloud seemed to have come into his face.

“Fool of a priest!” Hosten growled. “I warned you, man, not to come into my sight!”

The priest lowered his pointing finger, but he did not flinch at the threat incumbent in Hosten’s face. “I heed not the warnings of those who do not heed God,” he said.

Hosten turned on his host suddenly and roared, “Give me a sword! I will have the blackguard’s head!”

Borden stood before he knew what he was doing. “Be calm, my lord,” he said. He glared at Joachim. “A loose tongue may not justify murder. Take him as prisoner instead, to face justice in your own country.”

“Who are you to tell me what to do?” Hosten exploded.

“He is my brother.” Annar stood. He was only inches from Hosten, and the look on his face sent Borden’s stomach plunging. No. Not now. He could not be such a fool.

“My brother,” Annar repeated. “And you are our guest. A pretty guest! You come and you drink all my wine and you eat all my meat; you brag and you boast, and you bring scum like that into my kingdom!” He pointed at Joachim as he spoke. Heat rose in his face as he pushed the words out past the liquor that thickened his tongue. “I am sick of you, mighty king. Get out of my house.”

His finger was still pointing at Joachim. He turned his head and followed its line, exploding when his eyes fell on Joachim again. “Borden! Remove the man. Put him away.”

Borden did not move, but two of his men came from the back of the hall and seized Joachim. The priest made no move to ward them off, and with a nod from their leader the men shoved him out of the room. Borden’s eyes stayed on his brother and the king of Moralia. His stomach churned.

“You insult me,” Hosten said.

“Somebody should,” Annar slurred.

Hosten’s hand tightened around the wine goblet in his hand until Borden though he would snap the wood. “I go,” the king said. He stood. “Your tribute, King Annar—I have increased it.”

“Increase it all you like,” Annar returned. “What’s that to me? Find your tribute somewhere else. I won’t pay an ox like you another farthing.”

Hosten’s eyes glimmered. Whatever tempest was brewing within him, he held it inside. Borden wasn’t fooled. There was pleasure in the king of Moralia. His plan had worked.

“Then know for certain,” Hosten said, stepping away from the table, “that everything you own will soon be mine.”

Annar merely looked up at the king. “Why are you still here?” he said. “I told you to get out.”

Hosten held up his hand. Two of his servants rushed to his side, handing him his cloak and sword. He buckled the weapon on and swung the cloak around his shoulders. Slowly, he took one last look around the feasting hall. He nodded in satisfaction. Reaching into a pouch at his waist, he pulled out a silver coin and tossed it to Lilia.

“To the queen,” he said. “The only thing of value in this God-forsaken kingdom.”

His eyes swept from Lilia to Borden. “I leave you the northern borders!” he said.

In a moment he was gone. His soldiers followed him, some silent, some jeering. The king, his brother and wife, and a handful of servants and soldiers were all that remained in the hall.

Lilia’s hand left her book. She stretched her fingers across the table and picked up the silver coin, examining it with a puzzled air as though she could not focus her eyes on its surface. Borden nearly exploded. He reached out and knocked the coin from her hand.

“Don’t you know when you’ve been insulted?” he said. “Would that he had taken you with him!”

Lilia looked up at him. For a moment her eyes focused on his face, but he could not decipher the expression in their grey depths. Annar reached out and touched her shoulder, and she shuddered slightly at the touch. As Borden watched, her eyes rolled back and she slipped from her chair to the floor.

Annar looked down at his motionless queen. He was too drunk to know what to do. If he had been sober, Borden had been sorely tempted to thrash him. The ramifications of Annar’s temper had only begun to insinuate themselves in his brother’s mind.

Mirian pushed forward suddenly, moving chairs out of the way and nearly elbowing the king aside. She crouched down beside Lilia and gently lifted the queen in her arms. She stood, strong and tall, and her eyes rested first on the king and then on Borden. Without a word, she turned and left the room, Lilia’s head resting on her shoulder, slender arms hanging down.

When they were gone, Borden turned to face Annar and the wreckage of all he had worked to preserve.

* * *

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

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Thursday, April 05, 2007

"Lilia," by Libby Russell.

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A new chapter of Taerith is nearly finished. In the meantime, I thought I'd share this sketch by my very talented friend.