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.

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Blogger Emily Mae said...

THAT'S IT???? You'd BETTER have another chapter up by the end of the week or ELSE! OY, you can't just leave us hanging. *rolls eyes* Seriously, Starr.

I like it. It seemed a little rough in areas (not sure of exact examples, though, sorry). I think that will be cured merely by editing on draft 2. Nothing was seriously wrong. I still like Kardas a lot. You must write more with him. :-D He's Sa-weeeeet!

love lots,

10:03 AM  
Blogger Emily Mae said...

ps - I loved the line about Taerith's heart being scattered all over. That was so sweet! ;)

10:06 AM  
Blogger Kirk said...

I am very worried now! What will happen to all those different people? I don't know how long I can wait to see what happens next!

5:59 PM  
Blogger Libby Russell said...

I saw you posted and I couldn't wait--I had to read RIGHT THEN. Very nice. Very, very nice. Britt was sitting next to me waiting for her turn to read and laughing at my "sound affects," as she calls them. Lot's of "oh, no!"s and "Eeep!"s. I like how frustrated your story makes me. It's a good story when one is frustrated by it--that's what I say.

Anyway. Lilia and Mirian's scene was beautiful. I love the continuing development of their bond. Lilia seems to influence Mirian without trying; something about her wounds Mirian. I can see they are meant to be friends.

And lastly, the atmosphere: how perfectly dreary. You know how to set the mood.

Excellent work! Please post more SOON!


10:33 AM  
Blogger Brittany Simmons said...

I love Taerith. Taerith the man and Taerith the story. This chapter was incredible! I love the way you painted each scene of it. And Mirian. . . I love her. She's taken me awhile to warm up to, perhaps because at heart I am much more like Lilia. But in that last scene of her, with her remembering her mother's death with tears in her eyes, I knew I loved that so strong yet still weak and lovable girl and that she has won my permanant affection.

I love Taerith's poetic answers to everything too, like his referrence to his siblings and his answers in his conversation with Joachim. Taerith is so awesome. I love that man. Now why do I have deja vu over that sentence?

And I knew Lilia was pregnant. Although that was meant to obvious, I think.

Everybody's been posting more often of late. We should have spring breaks more often. ;-)

10:56 AM  
Anonymous kappa said...

I like this sentence:

<< His voice was deep, solemn like a funeral bell. >>

Your writing is sooo metaphoric and descriptive. It's beautiful.

11:03 PM  
Blogger Rachel Rossano said...

Oooh! The stage is set, the plot afoot, only time will show the outcome. :) And you talk of it being slow. I don't think so. :) On to the next chapter. :)

2:05 PM  
Blogger Malachi said...

Yaya! I also like the atmosphere. Libby said it was dreary, and it was. But now, it's more exciting! Everything is perfect for a kind of story that I like! Yay! All of the characters are great, and I'm glad to see Miriam and Lilia be friends. It was irritating for me to see them fight so much.

Really awesome chapter!!!!!

11:52 AM  

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