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.

“Taerith.”

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.”



“Taerith...”



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?”

“Leave.”

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.

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


7 Comments:

Blogger Emily Mae said...

*sighhhhhhhhhh*

I love Mirian more and more. She's amazing! This was a great chapter, Starr. It had that good "after the battle" sort of feeling. I suspect there is much more to be accomplished, however--between Borden and Annar, Taerith and Lilia, Mirian (and Kardas???). Looking forward to more!

9:16 AM  
Anonymous Marsha said...

Hooray! I'm so glad a new chapter is up... I think I'm going to be REALLY sad when the story ends. *sigh*

Marsha

1:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Marvelous as usual my darling! Glad you and Taerith got over your forced leave of absence with out any fighting and biting and playing of hockey!

Anonymous =)

6:58 PM  
Blogger Brittany Simmons said...

This chapter was wonderful, Rachel. (It occurs to me that you're name is actually Rachel. . .wow) I haven't the foggiest notion what you dislike in it. Taerith's story is so beautifully written. I'm constantly in awe of it, and just a wee bit jealous. ;)

*swoony sigh*. I love that Taerith. Unlike Libby, I have no qualms about the fact that he's my fictional sibling, since Sam and I are two different people. Taerith's so gentle and strong at the same time, and wise and wonderful. . . okay, so that's not exactly what you're looking for in a comment, but I had to say so anyway, hehe.

Now, is my imagination running away with me, or do I see Kardas playing a big role in Mirian's future? They'd be a nice pair. . .only, I still love Borden best. Guard your heart, Borden! Don't give way to darkness! Don't do it. DON'T DO IT!!! Sorry, I'm going a little loopy tonight.

You know something? I like you, Starr. ;)

9:20 PM  
Blogger Libby Russell said...

*rubbing hands together, sitting up straight, setting my fingers on the keyboard* ... it's my turn! Muahahahahahahaha! ;-)

Like Britt, I could find no reasons for your disappointment in this chapter, although I got the impression that you struggled with writing this more than you have at writing other chapters and you are unsure where to go from here. It wasn't so much that this chapter disappointed you, though, right? Because there is no reason to be dissatisfied-- it was a beautiful chapter. I read it twice.

The first scene was... painful. I could feel the stitches. Have you had stitches before? Because that felt very real. Just the way Mirian had internal control over her body, her breathing, the way she faced pain. It fit with her character perfectly. I like that Taerith noticed it and it actually helped increased his admiration to affection (though part of me wonders if his affection is more like gratitude for her courage in protecting Lilia, who Taerith loves.) And even though the others have speculated about Kardas and Mirian after he held her hand through the stitching, it's clear that he does not hold Mirian's heart. But Kardas is a mysterious person, and it would not surprise me if he kept myriad feelings and affection hidden from everyone, only to show up when the subject of his affection is in danger. I could see him dying to save Mirian.

I thought you were apt with the way you wrote Lilia's responses. I love the subtlety, and the words going unspoken but being understood anyway. The restraint. Nicely done.

Borden's bitterness is complex. His conversation with Annar was fitting and it felt real, but then Borden's reaction to Lilia's rescue threw me off. I couldn't tell if he was glad or if he really did wish she had died. He obviously sees Taerith's regard for Lilia, but he was wrong in thinking Taerith would be an agent against Annar in regards to the queen. And Taerith was perceptive in answering Borden; he does have enough love, and that's why he protects Lilia and does not take her for himself. I really liked the way you conveyed that in their conversation.

So hatred is blinding Borden. He's going the road of Darth Vader. Tosh!

And Mirian...her armor-clad heart is melting for Taerith. I can't wait to know where you're going with that.

Keep writing!

<3Libby

11:11 AM  
Blogger Gabi said...

Okay- I guess I was all washed up... I have NO idea where I got the impression, but for some bazaar reason I thought Mirian and Kardas were brother and sister.

Don't ask me- I'm not in control of my brain. ;-)

This was a devastatingly beautiful chapter, Rachel. Really well written. The description was extremely tangible, and I am amazed at every chapter how deeply you've caused us to care for these characters.

Now get writing the next one, eh? ;-)

9:00 AM  
Blogger Malachi said...

Good job on another chapter! I loved it all. All of the characters have grown amazingly on me, and I'm glad of that!

Keep up the great writing!

2:51 PM  

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