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.

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


9 Comments:

Blogger Rachel Brewer said...

Beautiful, as usual...and exciting as usual. Sigh...Your story manages to be deep and flow together at the same time so nicely, even on the rough draft. I'll probably have to do a lot more revision on mine to get it anywhere near as good as yours is.
I still love Kardas...there is something about his character that reminds me of Murtagh in Eragon. Maybe just because I picture him as dark and mysterious.

6:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Neeki Meeki! Are you leaving me there?

Anonymous =)

7:35 PM  
Blogger Brittany Simmons said...

Ach!! You're writing is amazing, Starr! I love it to death and envy it to death--all good naturedly, of course, but I do envy it. ;-) I don't see how each chapter can get better than the last, but somehow they do. There's something I want to say about this story, but I think I won't tell you just yet. Or maybe I can use that as bait--I'll tell you this certain something about Taerith if you reveal Borden's full fate. Now why don't I think that would work? ;-)

8:03 PM  
Anonymous kappa said...

More, more, more!! - too short - I'm hooked on this story and I just get a pittance of a chapter to whet my appetite?! - oh what will I do...

Lovely as usual Rachel. :)

4:25 AM  
Blogger Jo said...

You can't leave us like that!!!! :)
Write another one soon!!!1

1:11 PM  
Blogger Emily Mae said...

WHAT???

THAT'S IT? And you asked me not to kill you...ha. Dream on. How could you DO this to us? You're getting worse and worse each chapter, leaving us hanging all the time. Ha, and at the same time, you're getting better and better each chapter. It's NOT FAIR! How are you so good at this? *sigh*

Cannot wait to see Mirian fighting. A sword. *happy sigh* GET CRACKING AND POST CHAPTER SIXTEEN!

10:52 AM  
Blogger Emily Mae said...

Quick question: how did you get the sidebar with "Taerith: the story thus far" up? I'd like to do that with Zoe to make it easier to follow her story if somebody who hasn't read it all yet happened upon my site. I tried to figure out how to set that up, though, and couldn't figure it out. I'm horribly computer unsavvy. ;-)

Oh, and as for chat tomorrow, I'll probably reappear as ElfmaidenEm. My dad is going to look at AIM soon and see if he can fix it so I can permenantly become LosvaldFirebrand. :-D *hugs* LOVE YOU!!!

6:11 AM  
Blogger Libby Russell said...

YOU LEFT US THERE!!!!! Cruel.

Well done! I can't understand how you can possibly think this isn't up to par... I mean, everything you write, woman!!!! I have no words.

You need inspiration for your next chapter, you say? I doubt I can muse you with this comment, but I'll say that I'm bothered and need to read on...but then you won't post until I've put my mind so far away that it will be difficult to come back just knowing I'll have to wait again. Maybe that's why I end up reading the Romany chapters in large chunks at a time... I hate the waiting part.

Anyway, I liked the continuation of the dream. And Kardas is turning out to be quite a reliable fellow. And I still love Borden. And Mirian is amazing. And my eyeballs are starting to protest... so, nice work. Write, write, write! (and while you're at it, please bottle whatever it is you have and send me some.)

9:45 PM  
Blogger Malachi said...

You know one nice thing about this book being done? You can watch all of the other writers' comments, saying 'IT'S SO CRUEL!' Well, I can read all I want! But very great chapter! I look forward to every bit of it! Yay for you!

11:24 AM  

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