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.

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


10 Comments:

Blogger Jo said...

Lovely!!!

7:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Humdinger my foot! Excuse me while I pass away in fear and anxiety!

Anonymous =)

9:09 PM  
Blogger Rachel Brewer said...

I LOVE KARDAS!!! And Taerith of course :) This was a great chapter!

3:47 PM  
Blogger Libby Russell said...

My goodness...that was just.... riveting. Oh, so much I could say...but can't. Well, I'll try.

Taerith trudging through the mire, calling out to Deus; that scene was impressive. The descriptions were rich and I felt not only cold and tingly reading it, but also the hopelessness of it. And when he called out to God, finally, it was like.... "duh!" But not "duh" like he should have said that sooner, but "duh" as in, don't we do that? Trudge through the mire on our own strength until we can hardly move and only then ask God to come take over?

The use of birds as a motif is so very to my liking. The owl with moonlight on his wings was beautiful, and fittingly arrived after Taerith's prayer. (representing the Spirit?)

Mistress Grey is turning out to have some good behind her cranky exterior. She seems to love her husband and care about her fellow servants and her good sense to release Joachim made me forget I had ever disliked her. I like it when characters surprise me, and she truly did.

One thing that was very well done if it was done on purpose, and if not was still great, was when Mirian was on her knees watching Meronane's defeat through blurred vision, not knowing who her hero was. You had me thinking it was Joachim! Very nice ending. Very, very nice.

And you know, I half expected you to kill someone else in this chapter besides the bad guy. I was getting ready to write a very incensed comment protesting Mirian and/or Lilia's death. ;-)

Well, I hope you get some time to keep you loyal fans happy with new posts. :-)

8:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yay Taerith! By the way, is Master Grey, Joachim and the others ok?

Anonymous II =]

9:09 PM  
Blogger Emily Mae said...

Whoa.....whoa...whoa.

How do you do it? This chapter is AMAZING! Rough draft my foot, it's better than the most edited things I've ever written. *huge eyes* WOW! GREAT JOB! LOVED the climax. Mirian's sword fight was incredible, Lilia's surprising strength was awesome, Taerith saving them both was lovely, Joachim reappeared (yay!), Mistress and Master Grey both were strong in ways I didn't expect, and WHERE IN TARNATION IS KARDAS??????? I missed him in this chapter, he only appeared for a sec! Ah well. I must wait for chapter 17 then. I can be patient.

*evil chuckle* Oh, yes, I can be patient for a time....

;)

5:21 PM  
Blogger Brittany Simmons said...

Hmmm, it doesn't appear that I can comment anything better than what's already been commented. All I know is that the fast switching of scenes wasn't choppy, it was exciting and made one read faster and get into the action. As for the action itself. . . EEKS!! It was incredible!! I loved it all. Awesome, awesome, awesome.

On one little boring note, although I don't usually bother to correct little gramatical things and misspellings and such, there was this one thing that I noticed but would probably completely overlook reading it again, so I thought I'd mention it. You said "Crackling torchlight glared in the whites of the prisoner’s eyes". The torchLIGHT isn't crackling, is it? It's the torch itself. Maybe you should say "the light of crackling torches glared" etc. But wait, now I'm confused. Maybe the first way was right afterall. I don't know.

Anywhichway, this chapter was incredible, Starr.

2:06 PM  
Blogger Joshua said...

Hmmmm......So I predict.
Lilia will get captured by Borden. who turns out to really be a monk. Kardas will turn out to be a villian. Marian will become a nun then run away with Taerith. Joechim becomes king. The Unicorn returns and brings a majic carpet. Oh Rachel...your stories are SOOOOO formula!

Josh

7:59 PM  
Anonymous Elizabeth M. said...

Wow. I am at a complete loss for words but it's all been said already. That was AMAZING!!!

6:06 PM  
Blogger Malachi said...

Yay for another great Chapter! Yay for Taerith! It was a great chapter. I loved every letter. :)

11:40 AM  

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