Thursday, April 26, 2007

Chapter 14


Snow.

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.

Familiar.

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.

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


10 Comments:

Blogger Emily Mae said...

and....IS THAT IT??? Rachel Starr Thomson, you CANNOT just leave us there. I want chapter 15, now! Seriously, how can you ethically allow yourself to halt the story there indefinitely? This is a great chapter! I thought (as I often do) how very much like a movie your stories seem. The way you describe things and how the characters speak is very cool and seems like something I can imagine easily as being on screen. Very cool.

Love you Starr!

5:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

We readers have been asked to leave comments, so... anther well written chapter. I must say though that I agree with emily mae's comment about leaveing us. :) I am not so sure that I like this priest, he seems awfully evil to me. :shivers in slight fear: But I do hope you post soon.

6:15 PM  
Anonymous Katie Simmons said...

Taerith is so cool. Well done, Rachel. But I have to agree with Emily that that was no place to leave the chapter.
Okay, the other thing is that I'm wondering if the priest guy is good or bad. I just honestly can't tell.

7:56 PM  
Blogger Brittany Simmons said...

That was delightful! I know why you like writing at night. It's nighttime now, and it feels so cozy to sit down and read your story and savor every word. The only way it could be any cozier is if I was holding it in my hand and it was bound in rich leather with engravings on it and had thick, ragged-edged old pages and I was curled up with it by candlelight sipping on hot chocolate. . .

Actually, I imagined Lilia reading her book by warm candelight, until you said the curtains were half open, and then I still imagined it was night and she was reading by warm candlelight. ;-)
And I love all your characters! Except for that suspicious priest fellow and King Annar and Hosten.
I realize this is a flighty comment and my heads still up somewhere in dreamland and I don't have anything truly intellegent to say, but I love your story.

9:36 PM  
Blogger Joshua said...

You are cruel. And I think you know what I'm referring to. Stop making him so jolly Human. :P You silly talented author you!

6:02 PM  
Blogger Joshua said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

6:02 PM  
Anonymous Elizabeth M. said...

Ooooh! Excellent chapter. It had me on the edge of my seat. (literally!) Your descriptions are amazing; I can picture every scene. You are developing the story so well and interweaving the characters. I love the way you use dialouge, like flavoring it's just enough. The fanatic priest is an especially well-formed character. I can hardly wait to see what is going to happen. Thanks for posting!

12:04 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well then since I have been called upon to comment instead of staying silent... comment I shall! Very nice indeed! Though I'm hoping that there shall be more soon so I don't have to run about barking like a seal in anticipation.

Anonymous
(This is one of those most mysterious notes you read about in novels *smirks*)

10:40 AM  
Blogger Libby Russell said...

It took me all day, but I finally was able to finish this chapter! (If I had been home today this comment would have been posted shortly after my last one.)

Starr, I hate that I love Borden. Uuuurrggh, it's frustrating. I'm making noises of frustration! Every time you have a section specifically about Borden it makes me more intrigued by him and I just... I just love him. The line about picking up his father... "He had taken him up in his own arms, pulled him close, trying to feel warmth—breath—something." Beautiful. I can feel Borden's pain and bitterness. Josh is right, you're cruel. CRUEL.

I think I get the priest thing now. There was a distinction between the good priest and the bad priest that was a tad vague for me at first, but now it's clear. Meronane is the bad one, and the good one is in the dungeon. Meronane is CREEPY... how he thinks he's got God on his side...yikes.

Well done! Now if my eyeballs don't protest by falling out, I'm going to read your next chapter.

9:11 PM  
Blogger Malachi said...

Yay! Another great chapter! I'm looking forward to the next one. I wonder what the priest will do next? (Escape, of course,) but then what?!?! This is a great book. Keep it up!!!

11:11 AM  

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