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.

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Anonymous kappa said...

Beautiful chapter Rachel. I like how you're building on friendships through personal sharing and mutual experiences - namely, Miriam and Lilia in the field and Kardas and Taerith in the aftermath of battle - Kardas seems equally observant as Taerith and they do seem to have somewhat similar temperaments - measured and perceptive.

Other than that, the chapter ended sooo soon. I am hooked and totally invested in this tale. Post 4 chapters next time. lol (the kind of demands one makes when one is not the one having to write and piece the whole material together :)

11:08 PM  
Blogger Emily Mae said...

Hey Missy,
Great job! Loved it. The developement between Mirian and Liila was great and well written. I felt that Taerith's sections were a little rougher, but nothing that can't be fixed (obviously...). ;)

One paragraph that confused me was this: " 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."

There are too many "he's" in those sentences and not enough clarification on who the he's are. LOL, did that make sense? Anyway, EXCELLENT job. And thanks for posting so quickly. I appreciate it. :)

6:53 AM  
Anonymous Josh said...

Rachel, In a word, your writing is Horrible. HORRIBLY SHORT! Please use a time machine to go to the future where you can get the completed book and then bring it back so that we may bask in your literally genius.

11:27 AM  
Blogger Kyera said...

It's great to meet you, Rachel. I'll definitely have to check out your book(s) and keep up with your writing. It's nice to meet another writer and sister in Christ :)


12:02 PM  
Blogger Brittany Simmons said...

I am even more deeply in awe of your talent. There are so many undercurrents in Taerith, so many interesting glimpses of things lurking just beneath the surface that make you thirsty for more. This story is so beautiful!

8:55 PM  
Blogger Libby Russell said...

Yay, yay, yay! I have three chapter to read in a row! (Though I doubt I'll have time to get through them before I have to do the various errands I've been assigned for the day.)

This was a very good chapter. I am loving Mirian and Lilia more and more as I get to know them.

Taerith is my hero. I love the battle scene. His frustrations with his identity and the limits of what he will do for honor and duty make him seem so real. Like he is really a Romany brother, not just a character you made up.

The hawk was perfect for atmosphere and metaphore, and I love Taerith's depth in speaking to God through it. I don't know... it was fitting. I've come to expect as much from you. :-)

I loved the line about Kardas... "whatever it was that simmered under the surface of his face"

10:34 AM  
Blogger Rachel Rossano said...

I love it! Well done. I had a moment or two that I was confused, but that was probably because I was doing too much at once. I am glad you didn't kill off Kardas. :)

2:55 PM  
Blogger Malachi said...

Cool! Another great chapter!


1:31 PM  

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