Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Chapter 19

They rode in screaming like wild men themselves, Borden’s sword brandished high. Taerith leaned forward in the saddle, head low, bracing himself for impact as he charged into the scattering tribesmen. Clash. Surging forward, breaking over the men like a battering wave. They flung themselves at him and he beat them back, clubbing, slashing, riding them down. Borden, beside and then ahead of him, killed.

The attack gave Emmet the moment he needed. He led the others forward with a shout. The weariness in their eyes and limbs dissolved in renewed hope. Battle rejoined, they drove outward from their huddle and pushed the wild men back.

It was over sooner than Taerith expected. He dismounted in a muddy street awash with blood and melted snow. Jonas, one of Borden’s soldiers, laid a bruised hand on Taerith’s shoulder as their leader dismounted and looked around him, his face dark.

“Why are they so far south?” Borden asked.

“They are everywhere,” Emmet said. “When you left they came out of hiding. They struck everywhere at once; we could not fight them all.”

Borden looked at him, understanding lighting his eyes like a dark moon. “What have we lost?” he asked.

“Three villages,” Emmet said. “A few others were attacked, but not destroyed.”

Borden breathed out. “We have only been gone a few days.”

“There are hundreds of them,” Emmet said. “But they fight as they always have—in scattered groups, without a single purpose. They see no shame in retreat or glory in complete victory. They are bloody thieves.”

“Thieves who are plundering the little we have left,” Borden replied.

Emmet nodded. “We have done our best to protect the villages, but...”

“We will continue to do our best,” Borden said. “We will do better than our best. We will push them north again.”

“To do that we’d have to face them in a real battle,” Jonas said. “We can push them nowhere as long as they are content to dodge us like sparrows pecking at a crow.”

Borden nodded. His fist tightened around the reins of the horse that stamped its black legs behind him in the mud.

“When we found you, you were huddled in the center of the village,” Borden said. “Never again. From now on we drive them inward. We are herders, my friends, and we must bring the sheep to slaughter. We will surround and destroy them.”

“Hundreds of them?” Emmet asked.

“One small group at a time,” Borden answered. “Until the others realize the threat and retreat, as they will. As they always do.”

He looked at Taerith as he strode past. “There is no place for mercy any longer,” he said. “Next time they do not come out of the ravines. Next time we go in. We cannot defend the kingdom unless we become aggressors ourselves.”

No one contradicted him. The men were silent, breathing hard in the aftermath of the fight, stinking of blood, sweat, and mud. Each let the implications of Borden’s words sink in. They had come to act as border guards. Instead, they were starting a war.

And yet, there was nothing else they could do.

Borden led his black horse through the street and back up the hill. The others followed. If any of the villagers had survived the attack of the wild men, they were still in hiding. There was nothing to be done in the town, so Borden and his men made camp atop the hill, where they could see the outlying country and watch for signs of life in the streets below.

Hours later, a lone figure rode into the camp: Kardas. He dismounted and began to care for his horse, removing saddle and bridle and brushing the creature down. Borden looked up at him from his place near a fire.

“Did you find him?” he asked.

Kardas turned from his work, his dark face as implacable as ever. “I found him,” he said.

Borden nodded and looked down. He said nothing more.

Taerith approached Kardas and held out a dry piece of bread. “Are you hungry?” he asked.

Kardas took the bread and tore a piece off with his teeth. He went back to work on his horse without another glance at Taerith or Borden or any other man in the camp. A moment later he drew his sword and whirled around. Someone was coming through the underbrush.

A young man stepped out of the bush, thin hands held out beseechingly. He nearly fell to his knees in the snow.

“My lord Borden,” he said.

Borden touched the young man’s shoulder. “Rise,” he said.

The newcomer looked up. There were tears in his eyes, haunted tears, of hunger or of loss Taerith could not tell. “That was my village,” he said, pointing down the hill. “There is nothing left. Let me join you.”

Borden looked over the emaciated form and shaking hands. He nodded gruffly and beckoned to Emmet.

“Feed him,” he said. “However you can. And find him a sword.”

* * *

Annar unrolled the message carefully, reading it for the third time. He clenched his fist suddenly, making the parchment warp and crumple in his hand. He raised his eyes to Master Grey, who stood waiting in the corner.

“My brother calls for food,” Annar said.

Master Grey licked his lips. “My lord, we have a little...”

“No,” Annar said. “We have nothing to give him. Let the men hunt their own food.”

“In the north?” Master Grey asked. “What is there left to hunt?”

“We have nothing to give him,” Annar repeated. He brought a cup of ale to his lips, leaning his forehead on his other hand. “I am hungry in my own house and my brother dares ask me to aid him in his little war. He has not been back in a month. If he will leave, then he will suffer the consequences for leaving.”

Master Grey left the throne room in a silent paroxysm of anger. He had seen the wild men before—had lived long enough to remember the days before Hosten kept the northern borders. Annar could complain of his empty stomach all he liked, but if not for Borden, the king would likely be past caring whether his stomach was full or empty.

Mirian stood in the hall. She had listened at the door, a growing habit with her. She met Master Gray’s eyes. He shook his head slightly.

A cold wind found its way into the castle corridors. Mirian pulled her shawl closer as she followed Master Gray’s stooped form to the kitchen. A pot of oats, thin and grey, was boiling. She spooned some into a bowl, cupping it in her hands to soak up the warmth, and made the long climb to Lilia’s room.

The queen lay in her bed, as she usually did now. She opened her eyes and smiled a little at Mirian’s approach. Her hand rested on her swollen womb, but she moved it and started to push herself up.

“How do you feel?” Mirian asked.

“Weak,” Lilia answered. “But well. Very well.”

* * *

Winter let its force loose as the ranks grew. Villagers, farmers, and vagabonds joined themselves to Borden’s men. What little game was left in Corran disappeared in white. Even the wolves were cowed by the bitter cold as Borden and his men pushed the wild men north.

Two months had passed. Jonas and a handful of men entered the camp in the early morning light, under the cover of a soft snowfall. Neither the cold nor the snow could mask the smell.

“Where did you get it?” Emmet asked Jonas, his voice rough even as he set to work dismembering the pig.

“Someone left it in the road,” Jonas answered.

Taerith had been on watch. He rose and joined the men, pulling his hunting knife from his belt. His stomach churned as he worked. Butchering meant food, and the very idea of it was already torturing him.

Borden joined the group and laid a hand on Jonas’s shoulder. “Distribute it fairly,” he said. “No one eats more than anyone else. See to it that the newcomers aren’t overlooked.”

A pair of hungry eyes belonging to former villagers fixed on Borden’s face, thanks etched painfully in their features. Taerith stood with a piece of meat and handed it to them. “Go,” he said. “Start the fires. There is no reason to waste time.”

He turned back to the butchering, but something stopped him. He raised his eyes to see Kardas leaning against a tree, watching with his arms folded across his chest. The dark man had grown leaner and more taciturn in the last month. Something in the north called to him: he seemed feral here, almost more than human. It was well that every man among Borden’s soldiers knew Kardas, or they might have mistaken him for a tribesman in battle.

Taerith handed his hunting knife to someone else and approached Kardas. “What is it?” he asked.

Kardas looked down on the slaughter. “You know they stole it,” he said.

“I don’t want to know,” Taerith said. A sharp note heightened his voice.

“We won’t beat the enemy by becoming them,” Kardas said.

“We won’t beat them by starving to death either,” Taerith said. “Borden is nearly content. We need only drive the wild men past our northern border, and then things will change. We can send out more hunting parties—find ways to pay the people for food. We will do it, Kardas. I will see to it myself if Borden will let me.”

Kardas did not answer. He had lifted his eyes and was looking north, into the increasing snowfall. The look on his face was not comforting.

* * *

The oatmeal had weakened till it was little more than gruel. Mirian cupped the bowl in her hands even so, holding it like a sacred thing, and carried it up the long stairs.

“I don’t want to eat,” Lilia said.

“You don’t have a choice,” Mirian answered. She set the bowl down and let it steam away beside Lilia’s bed. The queen’s small form was tucked up in white sheets, her knees pulled up, her abdomen large. Her book lay on the bed beside her. She picked it up.

“I am not hungry,” she insisted.

“That hardly seems possible,” Mirian said. “Everyone is hungry. How can you read when you’ve not eaten?”

“There’s a food in books,” Lilia said. “I lived on it as a child. Food for the heart.”

Mirian smiled. “I wish I understood you,” she said.

Lilia looked up as though she was seeing Mirian for the first time. “Why shouldn’t you?” she asked. “Of course you should understand me. Sit.”

Mirian did, awkward but curious. Lilia pulled a bit of the sheet up beside her and began to trace letters in its folds. “Do you know what these mean?” Lilia asked.

“They mean you are being stubborn,” Mirian said. “Your gruel is calling.”

“Hush. Look. Try and read this.”

“I can’t.”

“You can if you’ll try. Listen to me.”

Outside the window, the wind howled its hardest as the pair bent over the sheets. Mirian struggled while Lilia explained each letter and its sound.

“M is for Mirian,” she said. “For mortal and for miracle.”

“What do you know about miracles?” Mirian asked. For the first time she noticed how the wind shrieked at them, as though it wished to bring the tower down and them with it. Its vocal emptiness exacerbated the ache in her stomach.

“Much,” Lilia said. “As a child I always wanted to see a miracle, but I think I missed the miracles already before me.”

Mirian stood. “Are there miracles before you now?” she asked.

“Yes,” Lilia said. She smoothed away the letters in the sheets and reached for the bowl of gruel. It was cold; no steam warmed her face as she sniffed it. She wrinkled her nose but dipped her spoon into it anyway.

“I am alive and I think that is a miracle,” she said. “This child is a miracle. And you—you are a miracle.”

“Why?” Mirian asked.

“Because, despite everything, you have loved me in this place,” Lilia said. Her clear grey eyes seemed stronger than they ever had; her voice was sure in its audacity. Mirian’s eyes filled with tears. The wind howled and beat against the stones.

“I am not the only one,” she said. She looked at the curtains drawn tightly across the window, willing herself to see through the cloth and the storm to those who fought somewhere beyond it. She looked back at Lilia. Earnest eyes looked back, child-like eyes. The bowl of gruel lay unnoticed in her hands, an inconsequential thing for the moment.

“Eat,” Mirian whispered.

* * *

Tridian brought word to the camp early in the day. The men were mounted in moments, their recent acquisition of several days’ worth of beef making them strong.

“They are attacking Engnor,” he said. “On the border.”

“Drive them north,” Borden said. “Show no quarter.”

“My lord,” Tridian said, stopping Borden as he strode toward his horse. “There are many.”

“Then many will fall,” Borden said. “This is our chance.”

Engnor sat in a shallow valley. As the men crested the rocky ridge above it, Emmet let out an involuntary exclamation.

“Deus help us.”

There had to be two hundred of them. The largest group of tribesmen Taerith had ever seen in one place. This was no single band. They had done what wild men never did: they had joined together.

Borden rode to the front of his men and prepared to signal the charge. Taerith leaned forward in anticipation, but Kardas’s low voice next to him made him pause.

“This is no time to herd sheep,” he said. “We have to scatter them. Divide their loyalties.”

“How?” Taerith asked.

In answer, Kardas reached to his own shoulder and pulled the edge of his shirt away. A blue tattoo, the outline of a serpent, was coiled there.

“Look for the tattooed men and attack them,” he said. “Be careful. Don’t kill them... try to draw them away from the others. Their bands will follow.”

Kardas touched his heels to his horse’s side and rode up to Borden, where he spoke in the same low, urgent tones.

Taerith drew his sword.

Behind him, Kardas screamed a battle cry into the still air. The wild men in the valley turned, saw them, answered the cry.

They rode into the valley like falling thunder. Plunge into destruction. Every muscle strained, every nerve steeled, every chance taken, Taerith fought through the crowd in search of the tattooed men. The confused mass of battle raged like darkness on every side. He saw him: a big man, young, with his chest bared and a blue serpent stretched across his collarbone.

He started toward him, but the wild men seemed determined that he should never reach the man. With every step there was another to meet him. They slowed his advance till he seemed to fight through a swamp of human effort that sucked him down and pushed him back.

Still he kept his eyes on the prize and fought on.

Two men engaged him at once. He fought now for his life; sharp and quick he was, and well-trained in swordplay, but these men had the advantage of long years of experience. One fell as Kardas appeared at his side. Their eyes met. Kardas looked toward the tattooed man and then crossed swords with the second of Taerith’s assailants.

Taerith lunged forward. The man was so close he could nearly touch him. The tattooed man spun around a second before Taerith reached him. His sword came up. Steel met steel with a force that sent shock traveling into Taerith’s shoulder. Taerith grabbed his hilt with both hands and dealt the tattooed man another blow. It glanced off the wild man’s sword.

Behind him, Kardas screamed out his war cry again. There was triumph in his voice. He fought with the abandon and passion of the tribesmen, yet with greater force, greater skill. He saw what Taerith did not: that in pressing the battle to the tattooed man, they had driven a band of the wild men away from the others, and that small groups of Borden’s soldiers had done the same, and together they were splintering the coalition of tribesmen and turning them into bands again—bands lacking cohesion, small groups who would act in their own interests only.

Taerith jumped away from the swing of the tattooed man’s sword, seeing as he did so that others were closing in around him. Kardas’s cry split the air, but he too was hard pressed.

Around them still, the darkness raged.

* * *

Annar stared at the boy before him. Rail thin, the boy yet possessed anger enough to swell with it. There were tears in his eyes.

“Please,” he said. “If there is anything in your cellars, share it! Your men took the last of what we had. I will lose my mother if this goes another day.”

Annar stared at him, feeling his fist clench involuntarily. He felt his mouth open; heard his own voice speak. “There is nothing.”

“But—” the boy said.

“Nothing!” Annar repeated. He stood. “Be gone, boy. Tell those who conspire with you to plague me that there is nothing.”

The boy’s tears, water of anger and hunger and grief, fell down his cheeks without shame. “You are our king,” he said. “Can you not find a way to feed us?”

* * *

Smoke drifted through the valley. The dead lay where they had fallen. Too many to count. Wild men and Borden’s vagabonds lay together in peace now, while the remaining of Borden’s captains gathered around him.

He stood with his sword drawn and dripping still. His voice was eerily calm.

“We have done it,” he said. “They will not recover from this. Not this winter.”

His eyes focused and he began to look around him, sword still unsheathed. “Emmet,” he said. “My soldiers. Where is Taerith? Kardas?”

Emmet and Jonas exchanged a look.

“Where?” Borden demanded.

In answer, smoke drifted through the valley.

* * *

The dining hall stood vast and empty, full of well-fed ghosts. At the king’s board, Annar sat alone.

Master Grey entered the room. He cleared his throat, his eyes troubled. He did not look directly at the king.

“I have sent word as you ordered, my lord,” he said. “To Hosten of Moralia.”

* * *

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:

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Chapter 18

Joachim made a point of returning his sword to Mistress Grey. He knelt and lifted it on the ends of his fingers, like a warrior paying homage to his lady.

“I thank you,” he said, “for allowing me a part in this.”

Bereft of his sword or any other weapon, he took up a staff, tied a small pouch with a few coins and a bit of dried meat—all the reward he would accept from Master Grey, and far more than Annar had offered—to his belt, and set off on the road going east.

Borden, astride his horse outside the castle walls, watched him go. Kardas stood beside him, armed and dressed for the ride north. The rest of the soldiers had already gone ahead. Borden reached down and touched Kardas’s shoulder lightly.

“Follow him,” Borden said, his eyes still on Joachim’s hooded form.

“My lord?” Kardas asked.

Borden looked down and met Kardas’s eyes without flinching. “Kill him,” he said. “Do it quickly and come back to us. We will need you in the north.”

Kardas looked up and regarded Borden, his dark face questioning but silent. Borden gave him no answer.

Kardas turned his eyes on the priest and began to follow him.

* * *

Taerith carefully unwrapped the bandages from his shoulder, opening the ravaged flesh to the sting of cold air. He twisted his head to see and ran his fingers lightly over the tooth marks. The skin around the wounds was bruised purple and green, but there was no sign of infection and he was glad of it.

Borden watched him from across the small fire as Taerith dipped the tips of his fingers into an ointment made of dry herbs and water and spread it across the wounds. The stuff stank, but neither man reacted to it.

“You have some wisdom in healing,” Borden said.

“My youngest brother taught me,” Taerith said. He paused for a moment, then finished spreading the ointment across his shoulder. He wiped his fingers clean on his trousers and started to rewrap his shoulder.

“And some power in killing,” Borden continued. “I would not have believed a wounded man could have killed Meronane.”

Again, Taerith paused. He thought, but did not say, My oldest brother taught me that.

“Where did you come from?” Borden asked. The anger that had laced his voice since leaving the castle had ebbed.

“A long way from here,” Taerith replied. “A place called Braedoch Forest.”

“You left it because—”

“I couldn’t stay,” Taerith said. He stood and walked to the horse he’d taken from the castle, replacing the herbs and bandages in the saddle bag.

“I know a thing or two about healing myself,” Borden said. “Learned on the battlefield. I could not make you stay with my brother, but I will not take you back into battle yet. There is a village not far from here. Alanse. You will stay there a few more days, until your shoulder has closed up properly.”

Taerith turned and frowned. “I would rather go with you,” he said.

“Nevertheless,” Borden answered. “I want you to heal before you try your sword hand again. Let Meronane’s death be victory enough for now.”

Taerith began to protest, but stopped himself. Meronane’s death was death enough. His hands still shook when he thought of it. He wasn’t eager to kill again.

Behind him, Borden mounted his horse. A wind was blowing down from the north. The two men set their heels to the horses’ sides and rode into it.

* * *

Lilia sat by her window, her hand resting, as it so often did, on her womb. She could feel the slight swelling through the folds of her clothing, and she smiled a little without realizing it. Her eyes were lifted to the skies, tracing pictures in the clouds. Birds soaring. Sailing ships festooned with ribbon. A tower: stretching higher than her own tower had ever reached, carrying its occupants into the very stars—away into a universe she could not see except at night when the clouds cleared away and all the wonder of the worlds beyond was opened to her soul.

Wonder. The skies, the clouds and their stories, they told her of wonder. Of miracles. The child Lilia had loved to think of miracles, of stories that took place somewhere in the stars. As a woman she had forgotten how, or at least had forgotten how to delight in them. But now... now with a child growing in her womb and the very recent memory of love coming to her rescue in Taerith, in Mirian, now she was beginning to remember.

She smiled, and the tears running down her face caught in the corners of her mouth. There had always been something very like hurt in wonder. She felt in more keenly now.

She stood and turned away from the window. Without Mirian the room was very empty, empty and grey and cold. She wrapped her shawl around her shoulders and descended the twisting tower steps, aware with every step she took of life—of living—or how much that meant.

Death was waiting for her in the kitchen. One of the servant boys was carrying out an old dog. Its ribs showed through its skin in sharp relief. The boy was crying.

Tears sprang to her eyes anew at the sight. She reached out her hand and touched the creature’s head. It was still warm.

“It starved to death.” The voice was Mistress Grey’s. There was little emotion in it. “We hadn’t enough to feed the old creature.”

“I’m sorry,” Lilia said. The kitchen smelled like food: her husband’s dinner, and her own, stewing over the fire. Master Grey stood at the sound of her voice. He had been sitting near the cooking fire, his old head bent, hair whiter than ever.

“Why are you here, my lady?” he asked.

Lilia looked down. “I wondered how Mirian was doing,” she said. She cast her grey eyes on the mistress. “You know?”

“She’s fine,” Mistress Grey said. “There’s enough strength in that girl to heal a dozen wounds.”

Lilia nodded. “Good.”

“Can I do anything for you?” Master Grey asked. “Something to eat... to drink?” His voice was mildly reproachful. “You shouldn’t be in the kitchen.”

Lilia smiled. “Why not?” she asked. “It’s my kitchen. The tower is lonely.”

Master and Mistress Grey exchanged a glance. Master Grey cleared his throat. “We could send...”

“No,” Lilia said, smiling at him. “Don’t worry yourself about it.”

She turned, her long skirt brushing along the stone floor. “Where is Mirian?”

Halfway up to her own tower room, Lilia stopped on the landing and pushed open the wooden door to the servants’ room. A bedroll lay across the floor on the far side of the small room. Mirian was stretched out on it, sleeping with her injured arm held close. A bowl of water and herbs sat on a small table near her head.

Lilia crossed the floor quietly and looked down on the sleeping slave. She lowered herself to the floor, dipping her hand in the bowl first and wringing out a small cloth. Gently she washed Mirian’s brow. Her face was bruised, her head turned so that the crusted line along her neck and collarbone were clearly visible. Lilia washed them too, and touched the slave collar with something like abhorrence.

“Taerith?” Mirian murmured.

“I sent him away,” Lilia whispered. She dabbed at Mirian’s brow, then leaned over and kissed her forehead. “Thank you.”

Mirian opened her eyes. A sound escaped her that was much like a sigh.

“Why did you make Meronane angry?” Mirian asked. Her voice sounded as though it came out of sleep. “He could have killed you.”

“I thought it might help you,” Lilia said, dropping the cloth back into the bowl. She lay her damp hand in her lap and stretched her legs out on the cold stone, leaning on one hand and looking down at Mirian.

Mirian shook her head. “He might have killed you,” she said again. “And the baby.”

Lilia lowered her head a little so her voice could be heard though she dropped it, smiling like a child with a secret. “It would have been an honour to die helping you fight,” she said.

Something came into Mirian’s eyes that Lilia had never seen there before. She reached out and took Lilia’s hand.

“You’re sitting on the floor like a slave,” Mirian said.

Lilia shook her head. A lock of dark hair fell over her shoulder. “Both of us,” she said. “Like free women.”

* * *

Evening was beginning to fold in over the woods. Joachim had made himself a fire. Its light flickered through the branches and announced his presence, along with the faint sound of iron striking flint. He sat cross-legged beside the fire, sharpening a hunting knife with a rhythmic stroke.

Kardas crept forward and looked through the branches at the bearded priest. Joachim was humming to himself. Kardas almost smiled.

He drew his sword and stepped out of the trees.

Joachim hardly seemed surprised to see him. He looked up with a wry expression in his eyes. “Do you always melt out of the darkness like that?” he said.

Kardas said nothing. Joachim laid down his knife and flint and set his hands on his knees.

“Loyalty is a strange thing, isn’t it?” he asked. “It means so much, and yet people can so easily use it against you. I know,” he said, smiling a little now at the barely-visible expression on Kardas’s face. “I’ve guessed why you follow Borden. I lived with the northern tribes for a little while. They taught me how to sharpen a knife.”

“Do you know why I’m here?” Kardas asked.

“If I had to guess,” Joachim said, “I’d say that I frightened Borden by knowing his heart too well. I won’t betray him, though he thinks I will. The heart that is preparing to betray cannot imagine that anyone else would not.” Joachim stood, stretching as he did. “He should have paid more attention to you all these years.”

Kardas still held his sword in his hand. The fire behind Joachim was small and had already begun to die. The priest spread his arms out.

“Well?” he asked. “What are you waiting for? I cannot defend myself.”

Kardas threw his sword down. The movement surprised even him. “What do you know of my future?” he asked. “Deus has shown you a great deal.”

Joachim smiled. “I have seen you,” he said. “In some of my better dreams.”

“Your killer?” Kardas asked.

“The loyal one,” Joachim replied. “It takes a very loyal heart to sit a throne without claiming it.”

Kardas cocked his head. “I don’t understand you.”

“You will,” Joachim answered.

The last tongue of fire sank into the kindling and burned itself out. A few glowing embers were all that still lit the gloom of the fading day. The men seemed to wane in the shadows even as they faced one another.

“I don’t know what to do now,” Kardas said. “I do not wish to carry out my orders.”

“Perhaps,” Joachim said, smiling again, “I should spare you the agony of decision.”

He lifted his hands. In an instant the beat of wings like a thunderclap filled the twilight, and a shadow fell before Kardas’s eyes, blinding him. It lifted a moment later.

Joachim was gone. All that remained to mark his passage were the scattered ashes of the fire.

* * *

The smell of charring wood was their first warning, the noise of battle their second.

Alanse was over the next hill. The fields that surrounded it looked more bare than ever winter field ought; the harvesters had not merely cleared them, but laid them waste. It was illusion, Taerith knew, but it spoke of the hunger that had gripped Annar’s kingdom, and worse, it spoke of the marauding force that swept over it since Hosten’s abandonment.

Taerith and Borden looked at one another for a second before Borden shouted and galloped ahead. His sword was already in his hand. Taerith urged his horse forward, flying to Borden’s side. He reached for his own sword as he did, his fingers gripping the hilt but leaving the steel sheathed.

They crested the hill. The village was in flames. The wild men were everywhere. Back to back in the center of the village, facing out at the barbarians who outnumbered them, were Emmet and the rest of Borden’s men.

Taerith drew his sword and charged down the hill.

* * *

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:

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Chapter 17

“Grip my hand.”

Kardas’s voice was steady as he rested his palm over Mirian’s. For all that he pressed her hand lightly, she could feel the strength waiting in his arm. She didn’t answer him; didn’t respond except to set her teeth.

She couldn’t look in his direction without seeing her arm again. Last time she’d thought she glimpsed bone and nearly fainted again. What amazed her was how much it didn’t hurt. She didn’t have time to feel pain: breathing took all her attention. One breath after another.

She drew a sharp one when the needle went in. Now it hurt. Her arm tried to jerk away even as her fingers clenched Kardas’s hand. He held her down.

Her eyes blurred with tears and she looked—at the arm laid open from her elbow halfway to her wrist, at the dark soldier with his vice grip, at Taerith as he carefully stitched the wound closed. The mingled smells of blood and herbs were stringent in the air.

Oh, but it hurt. She closed her eyes and let the blur seep out and wet her face.

Every muscle in her body was tense. Eyes still closed, she focused herself to find the rhythm again. Concentrate. One breath, then another.

Taerith glanced up at her. Strands of red hair stood out like curling tongues of fire across her white face. Pain glanced over her features, quickly mastered by greater determination. The same determination, Taerith thought with an admiration that was quickly growing to affection, that had held its own against the serpent Meronane.

The last stitch in place, he took a rag and dipped it in a shallow bowl of water and herbs. He cleaned the blood away from the stitching carefully. Her eyes remained closed; her breathing steady and laboured with pain. For a few moments, on the floor of the tower room, she had not breathed. She seemed determined not to make that mistake again.

They sat at a low table in the servants’ quarters, an empty room, surrounded by cold stone. Mirian had insisted on sitting. A tall window across from them let in one strong beam of moonlight, while around them torches crackled and made the grey of the room seem blue.

Taerith heard movement across the room, so light it was hardly perceptible—heard it with more than his ears. He looked up and saw the pale shadow dressed in grey, who stood silently in the door. Kardas turned and saw her too, and he started to rise before realizing that Mirian still held tightly to his hand.

Lilia entered the room, hesitantly, like a bird about to take flight. She kept her eyes down, but not with fear. She slid into a chair beside Kardas and pried Mirian’s fingers loose, replacing the soldier’s hand with her own small one.

Mirian’s eyes opened, and she smiled slightly. Lilia smiled back.

“I’m glad you’re alive,” Lilia said.

“It isn’t easy,” Mirian answered.

“Don’t do that again,” Lilia returned. She covered Mirian’s fingers with her other hand and looked away for a moment. “I thought you were dead.”

Taerith dropped the cloth back into the cool water. He motioned for Lilia to let go while he wrapped Mirian’s arm in bandages. Kardas had retreated to the door and stood watching them all.

As he finished his work, Taerith felt her eyes on him. He looked up, forcing himself to meet the queen’s gaze.

“Thank you,” she said.

He nodded. He wanted to say it—to vent all the wild relief he’d felt when Meronane fell and he realized that he had come in time—“I thought you were dead.” Yes. And how much fear, how much near failure was in those words.

Instead he kept his mouth closed, smiled a little and gathered the remaining bandages. He piled them neatly near the bowl of water, stained red like rust.


Her voice forced him to look at her again. To let emotion threaten him again.

“You can’t stay,” she said.

He nodded. He knew that. Now more than ever.

Mirian had laid her head on the table, but she turned a little and looked up at him. She couldn’t say it—pain and pride kept her equally silent—but he saw the gratitude in her green eyes also, as deep and raw as the thanks in Lilia’s hurtful words.

Compulsively Taerith reached out and brushed a strand of hair from Mirian’s eyes. He smiled down on her, and there were tears in his blue eyes. The moonlight shone in, steady upon the three, as each thanked the other for the saving of lives most precious to them.

Kardas spoke. “Someone’s coming.”

Mirian closed her eyes again, resting, as Lilia released her hand and Taerith moved to greet the newcomers. There was talk; things being moved; voices in the moonlight. She could still feel their touch, both of them—Lilia’s strong grip on her hand; Taerith’s gentle motion across her face. She smiled to herself.

Was her mother there?

She opened her eyes. No, of course not.

Darkness was there, though, rising like a cool mist before her eyes. She let it come but first made sure she was still breathing.

One breath, then another.

* * *

Annar greeted Borden from the chair in his quarters, without smile or courtesy. Borden, who had hardly bothered to wash the blood from his beard and hands, answered in kind.

“It is too much to ask, I know,” he said. “Gratitude.”

“To you?” Annar asked. “I am pleased to be alive, but a priest from my dungeon and a handful of servants fought while you arrived just when it suited you.” He looked away and muttered, “A marvelous coincidence.”

“Your meaning,” Borden demanded.

“I think your timing must have been off,” Annar said, leaning back in his chair. “You miscalculated when Meronane would attack? Or perhaps you thought no one would defend me, and so you would of course arrive too late.”

“I had no foreknowledge of Meronane’s attack,” Borden said.

“You knew there was a threat,” Annar said. “Why else would you come back?”

“I’ve asked myself that question,” Borden said through gritted teeth. “Several times.”

“You’re sorry they didn’t kill me,” Annar said.

“No, I’m not,” Borden said. “If they’d killed you while I was in the north, they might as well have handed the kingdom to Hosten.”

Annar smiled. “How does it go in the north, brother?”

“There are many of them, and they’ve pushed a long way south—they’re hungry. It is a bad winter for all. The wolves also fight us. They nearly killed a good man.”

“Shall I tell Hosten that the wolves are trying you?” Annar asked. “All these years he kept the border, and you can hardly even stay there.”

Borden’s eyes flashed. His voice was low. “I am going back. Keep your kingdom while you can. It will not belong to you much longer.”

He turned on his heel and left the room in a quiet fury. Beyond it, a huddle of armed servants waited. Some were wounded and still bloody. At their head, the bearded priest Joachim stood, a sword still in his hand. He met Borden’s eyes.

“You have done well,” Borden said. “You’ve proved yourselves more than servants. You’re soldiers, all of you.” He grimaced, and straightened his back slightly. “When I took my men away I thought I left the castle without a garrison to guard it. I was wrong. You have all done well.”

The men flushed and looked at one another. Borden smiled inwardly. He knew Annar had not thanked them—had hardly even recognized the courage with which his untrained servants had fought.

“As for you,” Borden said, reaching a hand to Joachim. “Your loyalties are as unpredicatable as your tongue. Why guard the king you publicly cursed?”

“I only spoke the judgment of Deus on him,” Joachim said. “My words remain true. This time next year Annar will no longer have a throne. But Meronane was not the one who will bring judgment.”

Joachim’s eyes seemed to look into Borden’s soul. Priest and prince still held to each other’s hand with a vice grip. Unreasonable apprehension washed over Borden, and he kept his eyes fixed on the priest. “How much of the future do you see?” he asked.

Joachim nearly smiled. He relaxed his grip and drew his hand away slowly. “No more than you do,” he said.

“Will you stay with us?” Borden asked. “I will see to it that no one throws you in the dungeon again.”

The priest shook his sandy head. “No. I have done—and spoken—all that I came for.”

Borden nodded. He acknowledged the other servants once more with a nod, and stalked back toward the courtyard. Joachim’s words whirled through his head, mingling with the acid aftertaste of his conversation with Annar. The north was calling to him: calling him to come back, to wipe out the threat that had so long kept them bound to Hosten, and then to return and take the throne.

The throne that was rightfully his, and always had been.

Lilia was in the courtyard, walking toward Annar’s chambers followed by two servants. Neither was Mirian. Borden nearly spat at the sight of the queen. Her pregnancy was beginning to show. Bitterly he realized that Meronane had nearly destroyed both queen and heir.

But Taerith had saved her. With sharp clarity, he remembered the look on Taerith’s face when he had reported back, covered in blood.

“Meronane is dead,” he said. “He was in the queen’s chambers.”

“And the queen?” Borden demanded.

“Safe,” Taerith had answered, his voice nearly breaking. “She is safe.”

Borden smiled. He had seen a great deal in Taerith’s eyes. Perhaps, after all, the king would lose his queen because of this night.

* * *

They were laughing, because children always laugh. Beautiful little girls. He sat and watched them from the edge of the trees. They made his blue eyes smile. His little sisters.

“You can’t stay.”


He looked across the fire at the man in black. The one who spoke the words. He shook his head in confusion. I thought I was beginning to understand you. Why now?

“You can’t stay.”

He wasn’t sure what woke him, but he looked up to see Borden standing over him with his arms crossed over his chest. He scrambled to his feet.

Borden cleared his throat. “You did well to kill Meronane. I expect his craven pack is scattered without him. Still... some of them have escaped; they may gather others. I want you to stay here when I go north.”

Taerith heard the words tumbling out of his own mouth. “I can’t stay,” he said.

Borden stepped back. “I should think you’d like the chance. Lilia may need you again.”

Taerith looked at Borden steadily. “You hate your brother a great deal,” he said.

Borden looked away and cursed under his breath slightly. A smile reached his face despite him.

“I do,” he said. “You don’t hate him enough, I see. Or else you don’t love enough.”

“That’s the trouble with hate,” Taerith said. “You can’t even see love for what it is.”

“What will you do if I order you to stay here?” Borden asked.

“Respectfully refuse,” Taerith answered.

“If I won’t take you north again?”


Borden looked up at him with the twisted smile again. “Haven’t you done enough leaving?” he asked. “All right, then. Come north. You may be of use this time... now that you’ve finally killed a man.”

Taerith bowed his head and did not answer.

* * *

Mirian opened her eyes and tried to push herself up. Pain stopped her immediately; sharp pain in her arm and head, a dull ache everywhere else.

“Lie down,” Mistress Grey commanded. “Rest.”

Obediently, Mirian relaxed and lowered her head to the pillow. She wanted to turn and look at the woman beside her, but her head and neck seemed at once aflame and stiff as staves.

Master Grey came into view, standing benevolently over her with a look of mingled consternation and pride.

“Your grandfather would have been proud,” he said. In the background, Mistress Grey slapped her work too loudly. Mirian formed her words carefully.

“Don’t tell them,” she said.

Master Grey frowned. “Tell who?”

“The king,” Mirian said. “Or... Borden. Tell them Taerith saved her. Nothing else.”

“Did you think we would tell them anything else?” Mistress Grey snapped. “You presume too much. What does your part matter now?”

Mirian tried to shake her head, but the pain flared and she kept still. The wound on her neck where Meronane’s sword had caught her was irritated by her slave collar, and it made her more aware of its weight than she’d been in years—and yet, somehow, it mattered less than it ever had. She understood Mistress Grey well enough. Of course it didn’t matter. She knew it didn’t. The glory would go to Borden, who had arrived in time.

She almost smiled to herself. The true glory was a secret, drenched in moonlight, belonging to her and held as tightly as the memory of Taerith’s gentle touch. She liked having such a secret. It was a part of her entirely free of bondage.

And Borden, she thought, Borden should never know that so much of the victory had been hers, or how close she had come to dying for Lilia. Lilia, who was also a part of her moonlit secret.

A part of her freedom.

* * *

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

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