Saturday, May 19, 2007

Chapter 16

Mud sucked at Taerith’s legs as he struggled through the swamp. The gloom had deepened with the setting sun until there was no light, not even a glimmer to light his way. He pulled against the mud, arms held out before him to brush away the low-hanging branches that tore at his clothing when he got too close. Reeking swamp; pounding heart; cold... it was so cold. His feet broke thin panes of ice with every step. The shards caught in his clothing. Fear beat where his heart should be: Lilia, the castle, Meronane...

An owl called, and Taerith pushed aside a branch. His fingers slipped. The branch snapped back and caught him in the shoulder, ripping away bandaging. He caught a cry between his teeth. The wound began to bleed.

“Deus!” he shouted. The swamp was too close, too thick even to bear his own voice back to him. “Where are you? Help me! Guide me!” His eyes were full of tears, pain and panic springing up to obscure his vision and sting the scratches on his face.

The last word had barely escaped his mouth when a sound met his ears, scattering around him like a broken echo. Hoofbeats. Voices... did he imagine them? The drum of horse’s hooves sounded not in water or mud but on a hard, packed road.
“Here!” he shouted, stumbling forward. “Here, I’m here!” Another sound came: the swoop of wings, the ghostly call of an owl. The bird swept down from the trees above him. It was white. It seemed to bear moonlight on its wings, to shed light on the evil slough beneath it. Taerith lurched after it, fighting the mud and water and ice.

Before his eyes the ground rose: a hill; atop it, a road. Wooden staves and stones shored it up against the swamp’s encroachment. Taerith laid hold of one of the staves and pulled himself out of the mire. Hands on his knees, he pushed himself up to his full height and looked toward the now-unmistakable sound of hoofbeats.

* * *

Meronane watched as his men shoved the guard to his knees and jerked his head back. The young man’s eyes were wild with fright.

“Please,” he begged, “please, don’t hurt me.”

“How many are there guarding the castle?” Meronane asked.

“Few,” the young man choked. “Six... six and the servants, not enough to stand in your way.”

The men of the Path watched their leader’s face for direction. Crackling torchlight glared in the whites of the prisoner’s eyes.

“Let us bring down the odds even further,” he said. He turned his back. As his wine-coloured robes settled about him, he heard the knife plunge. His breath came a little faster as his fingers closed over the hilt of his sword. A smile pulled at his lips, twitching, convulsing. He stood on the wall, facing the courtyard, and his eyes swept up to the tower where the queen slept.

“There are only four soldiers left,” Meronane said. “Unless he was lying, which is likely. Deal with them; then take the servants’ quarters. Let those join you who will; kill the rest. Secure the king’s chambers and wait for my arrival. Curdoc, come with me.”

The small, dark man who had scouted out the castle appeared at Meronane’s side. The priest had not taken his eyes from the tower.

“We deal first with the devil’s spawn,” Meronane said. He raised his hand and beckoned two more men to his side.

* * *

Master Grey could see them on the wall, moving in the torchlight. He watched as ten of them descended the stone steps in a silent flurry of cloaks and drawn swords. Three of the guards rushed out to meet them, howling, swinging their swords.

He turned from the window. His hands shook, but his voice was steady. He pushed a heavy iron keyring into his wife’s hands. “Take all of the women below,” he commanded. “To the dungeon. Lock yourselves in. There are weapons in a cache; you know where. Avail yourselves of them.”

“They cannot fight,” Mistress Grey said, taking the keys and glancing behind her to the steward’s quarters where the servants had huddled together.

“They may have to,” Master Grey answered.

“The king—” his wife began.

“There some men with him. Send the servant boys. They will have to be enough,” Master Grey said. He looked down the long corridor. “I go to the queen.”

Mistress Grey raised a thin, strong hand to the steward’s hollow cheek.

“My husband,” she said. He took her fingers with his hand, and his own ceased to shake. He removed her hand. His old eyes watered just a little. She saw the glimmer and turned away at once, clutching the iron keyring close to her wiry frame.

Master Grey crossed the hall and pushed a threadbare tapestry away from the hole it concealed. Within was a sword: old, long unused, but sharp. He took it out and looked at it for a moment, then pulled the blade free of its cover, dropped the sheath on the floor, and jogged in the direction of the tower.

* * *

“Taerith!” Kardas reined in abruptly, putting up his sword as his horse turned a circle on the swamp road. His dark eyes took in the filthy, bloody form of his friend.

“You did not reach the castle,” Borden said. “Then they are unwarned.”

“Take me up,” Taerith said. “We have no time to waste. Meronane is already there.” His voice was tight with pain, with conviction.

Kardas held his horse still while Taerith mounted behind him, ignoring the searing pain in his shoulder. Kardas could smell the night’s struggle in his friend. The reek of swamp and blood was sharp.

“Ha!” Borden kicked his horse. Kardas soundlessly followed. They thundered down the road toward the castle.

* * *

“Down, down!” Mistress Grey whispered, her voice dry and barking over the stone dungeon steps. The servant women cringed as they descended into the stinking darkness. They stumbled down the stairs and cried as the shadows folded over them.

Mistress Grey’s hand found a torch. She lit it and hefted it high. The dungeon doors had closed behind her; she did not fear discovery now. A sword hung at her waist; a knife was tucked into her belt. She herded the castle women ahead of her without mercy, denying even to herself the acrid bite of fear that drove her.

“Keep going!” she commanded, as the women bunched together at the bottom of the stairs. “Deeper in, or they’ll find you.” She all but pushed them forward.

A male voice suddenly boomed out from the darkness before them.

“What’s going on?”

One of the servant girls shrieked and nearly fainted. Mistress Grey pinched her arm. “Hold yourself together,” she commanded. She held the torch higher, but its light didn’t reach to the end of the tight corridor.

“Who are you?” she asked.

“Joachim, the priest,” answered the voice. “What’s going on?”

“We are attacked by the Narrow Path,” Mistress Grey said. “Can you fight?”

“Yes,” Joachim said. “Give me a sword.”

Mistress Grey snatched a blade from the swooning servant girl. She marched forward in the darkness, thrusting the torch ahead of her until it illuminated the dripping bars of a cell, and beyond it, the bearded, filthy form of the priest. He sat in a mess of straw against a wall of clay and rock. Etchings marked every inch of the wall around him: words, tally marks, numbers, pictures. He seemed to be at the center of a strange illumination, inked onto the vellum of some old book.

“We can trust you?” Mistress Grey asked.

“To help you? Yes,” said the priest.

Mistress Grey pulled a heavy key from her belt and fit it into the door. With a twist and a clank, it opened. She grasped one of the bars and pulled the heavy door open wide enough to let a man through.

“In here, please,” Joachim said. “My ankle is also chained or I would be at your side by now.”

Mistress Grey heard the gasps and cries of the girls behind her as she marched through the door, into the cold, damp air of the cell. She pushed mouldy straw aside as she searched for the priest’s ankle. In moments she had unshackled him. He stood, one hand against the wall to support him, too slowly for her liking. He stretched and tested his weight with a groan. He looked up at her, and his eyes twinkled. “I will be well enough in a minute,” he said. “Give me that sword.”

* * *

Ten men of the Path swept through the corridors of the castle like a dark-hued wind. The doors of the servant’s quarters were locked against them.

The biggest of the men, a leader and favourite with Meronane, beat the hilt of his sword against the wood. “Cowards,” he said. He lifted his foot to the doors, pushing with all his might. The doors cracked and groaned before his weight.

He stepped back and waved the others forward. Three of them charged at the doors, shoulders first, swords in hand. The locks gave way before them. The doors burst open and the men of the Path stepped into the room, deliberately, unhurried.

The servant men stood against the wall on the other side of the room, huddled together.

“Women,” the big man spat. “Who among you wretches is man enough to join us?”

No one moved. The big man smiled.

“Come now,” he said. “We are only going to kill Annar. What loyalty has the devil earned from any of you?”

A man stumbled forward from the servants’ ranks. His face was flushed. “I’ll join you,” he said. Two others followed. “And I.”

“The rest of you?” the big man asked. He raised his sword. “The rest of you die.”

A knife whistled through the air and lodged itself in the big man’s shoulder. He bellowed with rage and pain and whirled around. A brown-robed figure stood in the doorway, bearded face hot, bare feet spread in battle-stance. He held a naked sword in his hand. He looked past the Path to the servants.

“Where is your courage?” Joachim shouted. “In the name of God, get up and fight like men!”

Two men of the Path closed in on the young priest. He met them with confidence, but he was weak: he met their blows, but staggered beneath them. One of the servants, galvanized by the sight, unsheathed his own sword and ran into the fray with a yell. His fellows followed after him. Three servants fell in minutes, prey to the practiced skill of the Path. The others fought their way through so that they stood between the Path and the doors, blocking their way to the king.

“Deus, lend us aid!” Joachim called.

* * *

Master Grey hurried through the corridor, shuddering as the shouts and clashes of battle reached him. The servants had been found. For a moment he wondered how many would stay loyal, but he pushed the thought aside. What did it matter? His only hope was that some of them would live.

“God help them,” he whispered.

He reached the base of the tower and started up the steps. His heart pounded in his old chest as he rounded one corner. He stopped, his eyes widening. Two men stood in his way. Their swords were sheathed beneath long cloaks; their arms folded across their chests.

“Where are you going, old man?” one of them asked.

Master Grey forced his courage to speak. “I am going to my queen,” he said.

The man shook his head. “On the contrary,” he said, “you are turning around, and going back to your quarters. Lock yourself in. I won’t kill a grey head.”

“My business is up there,” Master Grey said.

“I am sorry,” the man said. “But you’ll have to wait until Meronane has finished with his.”

* * *

Mirian’s hand trembled slightly. Her eyes were fixed on the door. She held the sword with one hand, the blade extended, tip pointed at the door. She tensed with every footstep from beyond its wooden face.

Behind her, Lilia tried to speak. Mirian silenced her with a raise of her hand.

“Stay where you are,” she said. Her voice was low, even in her own ears. The footsteps were louder to her than her own words.

Lilia, on her knees behind the bed in the farthest corner of the room, could only nod. The tears in her eyes were frozen: suspended in pain as her heart twisted within her. Her hand rested over her womb.

A hand tried the door. The lock stopped the intruder from entering.

Mirian forced her hand to stop trembling.

Something heavy came down on the door. The wood shuddered and cracked, but door held. Mirian’s throat tightened as she steeled herself.

The door splintered as the lock gave way beneath the force of a second blow. Sword hilt and hand came through the wood, and the door was kicked open.

Malevolent eyes met Mirian from beneath a wine-coloured hood. Meronane cocked an eyebrow as the dark man beside him all but rubbed his hands together. The priest’s eyes dismissed Mirian in an instant and roved the room.

“You are looking in the wrong place,” Mirian said. “I am here.”

Meronane’s eyes came back to Mirian. “You are not the one I wish to deal with,” he said.

“And what does that matter?” Mirian asked. “It is me you will deal with, whether you wish to or not.”

“I seek only the queen of this place,” Meronane said.

“To that title, I have the prior right,” Mirian answered.

“Yes,” Meronane said. “So you do. Yet here you are, defending the one who has taken your place. Defending the family that slew your fathers. You defend the devil himself.”

“No,” Mirian said quietly. “Only the devil’s wife.”

Meronane’s sword lashed out so quickly Mirian barely had time to respond, but she caught the blow and deflected it. Meronane held his sword at the ready. The dark man, Curdoc, stepped up to his side. Mirian looked between them, tense, waiting for the first strike.

“You cannot win this,” Meronane said. He struck again. The blow was powerful. Pain shot up Mirian’s arm, and she breathed hard as she drew back. “A wise woman would lay down her arms now. God himself has sent me here.”

“Then God himself will kill me,” Mirian said. “I will not let you pass.”

“Hmm,” Meronane said. For a moment he relaxed and lowered his sword. “What if I offered to restore you? Your queen is cowering in the corner while you stand and fight. How much more do you deserve her throne?”

Involuntarily, Mirian’s eyes went to Lilia. She had put one hand against the stone wall and was standing slowly. The flood of emotion in her grey eyes caught Mirian off guard. “Mirian,” Lilia said.

Meronane moved too fast to block. He struck Mirian’s head and neck with the flat of his blade. The strength of the blow knocked her to the ground. The edge of the blade sliced into her clothing and drew blood in a thin line across her neck and collarbone. Pain split her head. Involuntarily, her fingers convulsed and she dropped her sword with a clatter on the flagstones. Black and purple blinded her as she groped for the sword, but someone kicked her hand away. In an instant she was propelled to her feet and shoved against the wall. The tip of Meronane’s blade rested in the hollow of her throat. Her vision returned, streaked with red.

“Bring the creature here,” Meronane snarled. Curdoc grabbed Lilia by the arm. Lilia saw the look in Mirian’s eyes and pulled away. She stumbled back and grabbed the candlestick from the table beside the bed. He had nearly reached her. She threw the candlestick at him, but he knocked it away and reached for her again. She bit him. He backhanded her. Her head snapped to one side and she seemed about to fall. Curdoc moved behind her and grabbed both her arms, pushing her forward.

Meronane turned his head and drank in the sight of her, pale face flushed where Curdoc had slapped her, grey eyes glaring. His sword stayed where it was: perfectly balanced at Mirian’s throat. Meronane motioned with his head, and Curdoc pushed Lilia to the wall beside Mirian. Her back was to the attackers, her cheek against the cool stone, and she turned her head so she faced Mirian.

“I’m sorry,” she said.

“You will not speak,” Meronane thundered. Lilia closed her eyes. Meronane continued. “You stand in the presence of a man of God. You will keep silent.”

Lilia opened her eyes again and glanced at Meronane with disdain. She turned her eyes back to Mirian. “Thank you for everything,” she said. She reached out with trembling fingers and touched Mirian’s arm. Blood had run down from Mirian’s neck, and it stained Lilia’s fingers now.

Meronane’s jaw twitched. Slowly, he lowered his sword. “Curdoc.” The dark man appeared at his side. Meronane handed him his sword. Curdoc took it and held it at ready, watching Mirian.

Meronane stepped forward and closed his fingers over the back of Lilia’s neck. He spoke nearly in her ear. “Are you not afraid?”

The vice grip on her neck nearly stopped her, but Lilia shook her head to the extent that she could. A smile appeared on her face, ghostly and frightening. “Of a worm?” she asked.

Meronane let go of her as if she had burned him. He took her shoulder and spun her around. She pressed herself against the wall, breathing hard as Meronane reached into his cloak and drew out a hideously carved knife. She could barely stop herself from trembling. A wild light danced in her eyes, courage and fear in terrible display.

“Die,” Meronane said.

Mirian saw her moment. Curdoc had looked away, drawn by the confrontation between his master and Lilia. She hurled herself forward, catching Curdoc and shoving him between Meronane and Lilia. The knife plunged deep into Curdoc’s body.

Meronane turned on Mirian. The wrath in his eyes took her aback. She snatched up her sword from the floor where it had fallen, just in time to counter his first blow. He was even stronger than before: seething with rage.

“You!” A blow toward the head; she just managed to stop it. Her sword rang; she wondered that it did not shatter.

“For you I have broken my vow,” Meronane snarled. He swung at her again; she jumped up onto the bed. He pulled at the blankets and wrenched them away. Mirian lost her footing. Meronane’s sword ploughed straight down. She rolled away. His blow sliced into the bed, filling the air with a cloud of feathers. She raised her sword as she scrambled to her feet, taking another blow. Red and black streaked her vision again; her head ached; her feet wanted to give way.

“Lilia!” she cried, her voice breaking as she deflected another blow. This time, the tip of Meronane’s sword caught her in the elbow and ripped part of her arm open. “Lilia, run!”

If Lilia answered, her voice was drowned out by the rushing in Mirian’s ears. Her knees gave way as her sword caught one final blow, and she fell to her hands and knees. She tightened her fingers around the sword hilt and tried desperately to raise the weapon again.

Red and black frayed her vision until she didn't recognize her own hand. Her fingers loosened of their own accord. Head bowed, she waited.

A shout came through the roar. Blades clashing. Not her own.

She raised her head slowly, hand shielding her eyes. Gentle arms were around her suddenly, helping her to raise her head, keeping her from falling. She recognized Lilia’s long black hair and the blood stains on her fingers.

Still someone was fighting. Sight came back in snatches. Meronane’s wine-red robe, his back turned to them. He fought a dark apparition, a filthy, stinking thing, yet a man.

Three blows and it was over. Meronane lay dead at the feet of the man.

Lilia had buried her face in Mirian’s shoulder. Mirian reached up and laid her fingers over Lilia’s hand, comforting her. She struggled to make her eyes work. To recognize the form that stood before her.

Piercing blue eyes. Careworn eyes, compassionate. She knew him.

Taerith. She tried to speak his name, but could only smile.

* * *

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

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Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Chapter 15

Taerith stood at the base of the tower. Its grey stones appeared nearly white, etched across a starless sky black as pitch. He was staring up, to the pinnacle where a single window opened a dark hole in the stone: lonely window, with a tattered bit of purple curtain blowing at the behest of an unfelt wind.

Lightning flashed, and Taerith saw a long, sinuous body, wine red against the stark white of the stones: a serpent, winding up the tower. As he looked up, the snake reached the window. It disturbed a tiny flock of doves. They left their roost in the windowsill with a blinding flash of wings, and suddenly from their feathers snow was falling again, into Taerith’s eyes, white assailants that blinded him. He lurched forward, trying to pull out a sword that would not come, and reached out to lay hold of the red body that he could see like a gash through the snow. But as he touched it, it changed: no longer red scales, no more malevolent life; the red now was that of blood running down from the window, hot over the back of his hand.

Taerith woke with a gasp. His body was warm; far too warm for a winter’s night; he felt as though some great pressure was bearing down on him. He could hardly breathe. He could see neither stars nor moon. Instead it seemed as though a great wing lay over him, feathers overlapping and powerful, life pulsing through them. The wine red colour of the snake flashed before him. His memory conjured an image to match: a cloak, worn by the evil priest Meronane.

In a trice it was gone, and he could see a clear moon in the cold sky overhead.

“Kardas!” He rolled over, searching the gloom for his companion. Both lay with their feet nearly in the ashes of the fire. Kardas was awake almost as soon as his name left Taerith’s mouth, and just as quickly was on his feet, crouched in the last glow of the fire. Taerith also rose, grimacing as pain lanced through his stiff shoulder.

“Return to Borden,” Taerith said. “Tell him Meronane is going to attack the castle. We need men.”

Kardas cocked his head. “How do you know this?” he asked.

“I dreamed it,” Taerith answered. His hand strayed to his bandaged shoulder. His fingers plucked for a moment at the bandages, as though he would tear them away and the wounds with them. He clenched his fingers into a fist and pulled his hand away. “Go quickly; find Borden and bring as many men as you can.”

“And you?”

“I will ride on tonight,” Taerith said. “I don’t know how much time we have.”

Kardas’s eyes went to Taerith’s torn shoulder and narrowed. He was silent. He nodded curtly. “I will rejoin you soon,” he said. “Meronane’s men are not children. Fight wisely.”

“I will,” Taerith answered. “Thank you.”

Kardas rose without another word. Within minutes he had mounted his horse. He urged it to a gallop, and Taerith was left alone with the embers of the fire, staring into the darkness where his friend had disappeared.

His horse whinnied and stepped into the meager light. Taerith turned, gathered up his cloak from the ground, and laid his hand on the horse’s warm neck. For a split second he was filled again with heat; a pressure in the air gathered around his heart and urged him forward. He mounted, drew a deep breath, and plunged into the night.

* * *

The sun had only begun to rise when the rear men called out that someone was coming. The dark shape of horse and rider rose up from the low roads in the south, riding furiously. Borden knew them, both from the hue of the horse and from the rider’s skillful abandon. He didn’t wait for them to approach, taking to the road on foot. His stride turned into a half-run. Some of the soldiers, seeing him go, drew their swords and followed.

The mouth and flanks of Kardas’s horse were flecked with foam as he reined it to a stop only feet away from Borden.

“What is it?” Borden demanded. “Have you been ambushed?”

“No,” Kardas answered. “Taerith has gone on. He sent me to bid you back to the castle; Meronane will attack.”

Borden was speechless for a moment, and his face darkened with anger.

“And how do you pretend to know this?”

“Taerith dreamed it,” Kardas answered.

“You have come to take me away from our real enemies on the strength of a dream?” Borden asked. “You are as superstitious as your people.”

Kardas looked down on him, dark face impassive. “My ancestry does not make me wrong,” he said. “Meronane will attack. I feel it.”

“There are men to defend the castle,” Borden said.

“Not enough,” Kardas said. He swung down from his saddle, landing lightly in the road, and crossed his arms over his chest. “Return,” he said. “The castle needs you.”

Borden turned away. Emmet stood in the road just behind him, a look of discomfort of his bristled face.

“If you go, my lord,” Emmet said in a low voice, “we will press the battle here.”

“You think I should listen to this?” Borden snapped.

“It is Kardas,” Emmet said.

Borden cast a glance over his shoulder. Kardas had not moved. He still stood in the road, his black horse panting beside him, looking as dark and dangerous as a whole tribe of barbarians in the body of one man.

“I am no believer in superstition,” Emmet said. “But you know as well as I that Kardas can smell the future on the wind, and he knows Meronane better than any man alive.”

“And Taerith?” Borden said. “How many prophets am I cursed with?”

Emmet looked down. “I will hold the battle here,” he said, “if you choose to go. Take as many men as you need.”

A cold wind had begun to blow. Borden thought he could hear battle-cries in it. Kardas still waited.

“Curse it all,” Borden said.

* * *

The dim light of the rising sun hardly reached through the thick branches and dead leaves of the swamp. Taerith gritted his teeth as his horse stepped carefully through the thin layer of ice over muck, jarring his shoulder every time the ground sank beneath its hooves. The urgency had not left him: it flocked at his heels, pushing him forward. Movement was too slow through the swamp. Where the road was he did not know; he had lost it in the dark. His shoulder burned and itched; the cold, poisonous air of the swamp filled his lungs with its inhospitality.

Twin thoughts pulled at his mind: foremost, an image of the tower with its serpentine attacker; an image that focused his mind on Lilia. He could see her as he rode, grey eyes fearful on the night he had rescued her from attackers by the side of the road, her face sweet and hopeful through her fears. He had stayed to protect Lilia, to be a friend to her, and against his better judgment left to ride north with Borden. The other image was that of Kardas, looking intently at him in the ember-light, accepting his word without question, and riding into the darkness.

The pain in his shoulder mocked him. If Kardas was not successful, he had little chance of defeating the serpent alone.

Spurred by his thoughts, he urged his horse to move more quickly. The animal obeyed, all but leaped forward. Taerith felt its feet slip; the horse’s cry of pain split the air even as its hooves churned the icy water, and as its wrenched ankle gave way, Taerith was thrown to one side.

The shock of cold water hit him even as pain burned through his neck, shoulder, and side. He scrambled to get out of the stinking mire, water soaking his pants and part of his shirt, mud spattered everywhere, weighing down his cloak. Tears filled his eyes as he used a dead branch to pull himself out. His horse made no sound. It could not rise; he could see that clearly enough. Cursing himself for his carelessness, he waded back into the water and drew his sword. It was the work of a few moments to end the horse’s life.

Blinking away stinging tears of frustration, he clambered back onto solid ground. He set his teeth to keep them from chattering, wrung water from his clothes as best he could, and set out on foot.

* * *

Mirian watched the sun set from atop the castle parapet, a shawl wrapped tightly around her shoulders. Her long hair blew behind her as she squinted in the cold orange light. The guards were playing dice to the left of her; their jests and comments went unheard.

She was uneasy.

Mistress Grey had relieved her of her duties for a few hours, but she could not get Lilia off of her mind. Despite cook’s assurance that it was perfectly normal for a woman with child to be weak and sick, she had hoped to see Lilia gain some strength back by now. Yet, after their one visit to the tree in the field, Mirian had been afraid she would have to carry Lilia up the stairs again... and she’d grown worse in the last few days. Something had happened to sap the girl again. It had something to do with Annar, Mirian was almost certain. He had been in Lilia’s room one day and had not called for her since.

A flock of carrion crows in the field below flew up suddenly, cawing and squabbling over something beneath them. They distracted Mirian for a moment, pulling her out of her worries. It was a waste of energy, worry. Of all the emotions she’d felt in her life, worry was a strange one to her. She disliked it.

Repressing a sigh, she turned away from the parapet and started down the stone steps to the courtyard.

* * *

Meronane signaled for two of his men to approach. They came, one on either side of him. His eyes remained fixed on the castle wall, where the slave girl had left an empty place. A man rose and moved along the ledge, his movement clearly visible from the place where Meronane watched.

The man on his left spoke. “Thirty minutes more, and both guards will abandon their post for a meal,” he said. “They are worse than worthless.”

“But of great worth to us,” Meronane said with a smile. “The other servants, you feel, will be equally as easy.”

“They will join us, some of them,” the man said.

“But not that one,” Meronane said, indicating the empty place on the wall.

“She is no friend to anyone,” the man answered.

“I think we will not kill her, nonetheless,” Meronane said. “The devil was right to keep her in his den. Last scions of old races can sometimes be useful with the people.”

“And if not, they make handsome trophies,” the man answered. The memory of Mirian’s accosting him in the stairwell beneath the tower still rankled him.

“Thirty minutes more.” Meronane raised his voice slightly so that the others, his small army of twelve men, could hear him. “In thirty minutes you will take your places, and then we wait for the full moon. The kingdom has very nearly come.”

* * *

Mistress Grey still held sway over the tower and Lilia, and Mirian waited restlessly at the bottom of the steps for a quarter of an hour before wandering through the castle corridors again. To the kitchen, to the stairs, to the steward’s quarter.

“You are usually glad for your freedom,” Master Grey said with a slight twinkle in his eye. Mirian did not answer him, looking down at her feet instead.

“My wife does know how to care for the queen, probably better than you do,” Master Grey said.

“I like freedom, not idleness,” Mirian said.

Master Grey threw her a tablet with markings all over it.

“Then make yourself useful. Tally that.”

Mirian looked down at it for a moment before laying it on a table and pulling her shawl closer to her. “I can’t read,” she said.

“That’s right,” Master Grey said. “We didn’t teach you that. You’re a slave, Mirian. When they want you idle, be idle, and be content.”

She let out an impatient snort and turned on her heel. She followed her feet until they took her back outside. The moon, full and stark, was beginning its climb in the cold sky. She shivered. There was something in the air deeper than cold; something she hated but could not place.

A scuffling noise met her ears from the corner of the courtyard. She turned, trying to seek out the shadows for its source. She saw nothing—but there, a movement. Someone was there. Before she could call out to know who it was, the chill of the night sank deeper than her skin.

Something was wrong.

“Jerran?” she called out to one of the guards, searching the parapet for him.

There was no answer, nor did any familiar form meet her eyes.

Slowly, eyes searching on the courtyard shadows, she reached behind her till her fingers met the cold stone of the door frame, then backed up until she was safely inside. She turned, took her skirts in hand, and raced toward the tower stairs.

* * *

Lilia’s eyes were closed, but she could still see the candle that burned beside her. Mistress Grey was just gone, finally, leaving exhaustion in the wake of her brusque manners and busy tending. Lilia had found the strength to speak voluntarily to her only once, and she smiled a little to remember it.

“The slave who tends you treats you well enough, I suppose?” Mistress Grey said, voice dripping with sarcasm.

“Like a queen,” Lilia had answered.

Mistress Grey confined her questions to health after that, not daring mention Mirian again.

The door of the tower room burst open. Lilia opened her eyes to see Mirian enter like a contained hurricane. She began to smile in welcome, but the storm in Mirian’s eyes quelled the smile.

“What is it?” Lilia asked, straightening.

“I don’t know,” Mirian said. She went to the window and stuck her head half-out, searching the darkness. They were too high; she could see nothing.

She had just begun to turn away when a sound reached them from below. Lilia’s heart leaped to her throat. Someone had screamed. The sound was followed by shouts, hardly legible at such a distance, but Mirian’s throat tightened as she made out the words, “To the king!”

Slowly, noiseless as a panther, she crossed the floor to the chest where Lilia’s dresses were still draped. Pushing them aside, she reached into the chest and drew out its last treasure.

A sword.

* * *

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

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