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.

Enjoying the story? Download the whole thing as an e-book from Smashwords: http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/82687


8 Comments:

Blogger Rachel Brewer said...

I an loving this story!!! I really want to know more about Kardas though, he seems cool. Excellent chapter! I just read chapter 10 too, and loved it as well.

4:23 PM  
Blogger Brittany Simmons said...

Since you live for comments and I'd prefer you to keep living. . . ;-)

This was another excellent chapter. I think things are moving along quite well.
It was funny in the beginning, because I keep picturing Emmet as a sweet guy. The reason being, that I connect that name to a darling little boy from a book I read once so my mind thinks all Emmets must be adorable little deaf boys. Apparently this one is not. :-P
I liked the boy they stole the chicken from. A nice, plucky young fellow. I hope you bring him up in the story again sometime.
I'm liking Mirian and Lilia more, too. They are being revealed more in each chapter. And Taerith I love. :-) It's funny, but I was thinking about him a couple days ago and what a sweet, gentle, lovable guy he is. I've never had a crush on a fictional character before in earnest, but this is the closest I've come!! Taerith is just so nice! I want to marry that fellow. Perhaps that is because my inner weaknesses seem to be similar to Lilia's and I wish I had a strong, compassionate man to keep a watch out for me and protect me. I'm going to abandon my dignity and be all gushy over him. He's so lovable! I'd like to read more sections from his perspective.
Can't wait for more!

7:01 PM  
Blogger Emily Mae said...

LOL - Brittany makes me LAUGH!!!!! ;)
Great chap, Starr. I highly enjoyed it. The kid whom Taerith took the food from was a great character and I WANT TO SEE MORE OF HIM! Mirian and Lilia both were great in this chapter...though Lilia is continually so weak it's hard for me to empathize with her. STill, she and Mirian are good foils for each other. I did very much like the section with Lilia recieving the book, too. Very nicely written. Loving it! ;)

8:03 PM  
Anonymous Katie Simmons said...

Yay! Taerith is so cool. I canno wait for more. -Katie

9:43 AM  
Blogger Libby Russell said...

Well, you’ve gone and outdone yourself again. I was reading this rather rushedly a few hours ago, while I was waiting for my ride to the airport. (I am currently 30,000 ft. above sea level on my way to Phoenix and then on to Tucson, writing this to paste as a comment later.) Anyway, here are my thoughts:

Taerith… Taerith! I love that guy. I share Britt’s sentiments on that point. The way he sees everyone around him and cares for them ahead of himself; he’s definitely an older sibling. I’m glad you’ve done more character-development, because it has given me opportunity to make sure I had Taerith’s personality down. He’s the compassionate sort.

Joachim’s role is intriguing. I can’t really read him. If it weren’t for my presuppositions about his role as a believer, I would be less sure he isn’t a villain. Was his aura supposed to be slightly sinister, or was that just me? lol

Lilia showed a bit more assertiveness in this chapter, which surprised me due to her worsened health. I guess Mirian’s domineering presence is getting less intimidating for her.

And Hosten—I hate that guy.

*turbulence* Wow, just about lost my lunch. I’m going to save this now and post it when I can!

Love ya, Starr! Great chapter!

P.S. Posting from Phoenix-- how I love free Wi-Fi!

1:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can't wait to read Taerith! I've read Aquila, Ilara, Aiden, and Arnan, and Zoe so far (or at least half of each! :) and I amexcited to read about another Romany! :)
:D
~a faithful Romany reader

6:24 PM  
Blogger Rachel Rossano said...

Well done yet again. I am sorry that this is so long in coming, but I am trying to catch up now. :) On to the next chapter. :)

1:45 PM  
Blogger Malachi said...

Sorry that I am taking so long on reading your story! School is being kooky. I made that word up. It means demanding, irritating, and time consuming.

This chapter was really good. I like how Miriam and Lilia are sort of teaming up, and I definitely like Joachim. I'm reading Jeremiah right now, and it seems like he is like Jeremiah. I'm glad that his position is finally in concrete: He's a follower of Dues! Yay!

Good chapter, keep up the good work, yadayadayada. :)

5:59 PM  

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