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: http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/82687


10 Comments:

Blogger Gabi said...

AHA! I love this! I posted my comment on chapter 17, only to hit enter and find chapter 18 posted! Its like magic! or something... Hmm... maybe I should tell people to 'get writing' more often.

Anywoot- on to read it!

9:01 AM  
Blogger Gabi said...

Alrighty, now that I've read it. I loved everything that you wrote with Lilia and Mirian- it was so beautiful and heart wrenching. The effect of the lull before the storm was perfectly accomplished through it. The set up for what is going to occur was stunning, almost like we're taking one final hurried breath before plunging headfirst into the climax.

Great Chapter- really wonderful.

Although somebody ought to smack Borden over the head with a very big stick.

9:10 AM  
Blogger Brittany Simmons said...

So much for having trouble writing, girl. Every time I read a new chapter, every time, it seems to me better in some way than the last. I have all these little fragmented feelings and reactions dancing around in my brain, but it's too hard to squeeze them into words.

I'm looking forward to the more frequent Taerith updates. :-)

2:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

FANtabulous!

Anonymous =)

7:25 PM  
Blogger Libby Russell said...

I knew Kardas couldn't go through with it... though I wondered how you'd do it since he seemed fully capable and willing. Joachim suggests that Kardas, like Mirian, has some claim to the throne, am I right?

Borden's depth seems to be less ... deep. I guess you're st not going into his inner-workings as much, and it's partially disappointing me, but partially making the pain of his evil easier to bear. I'm liking him less, therefor I care less if he goes bad. But still, that glimmer of something that was in him must be in there somewhere.

Lilia and Mirian give me warm fuzzies. I find it interesting that they are both in kinds of bondage, and with each other they each find a freedom unique to thier needs. But I'm seeing potential for hurt since it's obvious they both care deeply for Taerith.

I'm so glad you're writing more often. I hope you can wrap this up by summer's end so I can finish reading it before school starts again.

Well, it was lovelyful and I'm excited for more. I'm glad you have wireless in your room. This is fun.

<3Libby

12:48 PM  
Anonymous Michelle said...

Lovely. This chapter, and the last one, really flowed. As a writer, I love when you sit down with the story in your head, and the words just come from your mind onto the page. It felt like that was what was happening, especially the last chapter. I can't even comment on the characters as individuals, they are all so wonderful in these chapters. Huzzah!

11:02 AM  
Blogger Danielle said...

Wow.

I am not one to be lavish in my praise, but this is a really amazing story. I printed it out and read it this weekend and now... I want more!!!!!!

5:24 AM  
Anonymous Kapezia said...

<< I'm looking forward to the more frequent Taerith updates. :-) >>

Awwww Brittany, you can't rush genius. LOL.. Taerith updates are the absolute highlight of my RSS feed moments. Another deeply satisfying chapter.

6:21 PM  
Blogger Emily Mae said...

WOW! Nice one, Starr. I especially loved the part with Lilia/Mirian and Kardas/Joachim. Very VERY nicely written. Kardas is going to marry Mirian--I predict it. PLEEEEEEEEEASE tell me I'm right.
*huge, wide, innocent eyes*
'kay, I know you won't tell me. :) On to chapter 19!!

9:55 AM  
Blogger Malachi said...

Yay again! Another battle! Cool!

2:59 PM  

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