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


7 Comments:

Blogger Emily Mae said...

STAAAAAAAAAARR! You can't just LEAVE us there! That's horrid.
I liked everything that happened in this chapter, but overall it seemed perhaps a little...choppy? I'm not sure. I think the point of view just shifted a LOT so it felt more choppy than usual.
Mirian's gonna learn to read! :) I liked that.
How far along is Lilia in her pregnancy, by the way?
Good Job!! :-)

10:05 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Child! When will you ever learn not to leave me hanging like that! Really after all we've been through *cries*!!! What I shall do till the next page cometh is.... click refresh =)!!!

Anonymous =)

4:36 PM  
Blogger Danielle said...

Chants:

WE WANT MORE!
WE WANT MORE!!

You can't just leave us not knowing WHAT happened to our beloved heroes!!

2:43 AM  
Blogger Libby Russell said...

It's rather funny, but now that I've been around you and your twin, I can see the influence you have in writing Lilia and Mirian's relationship. As they get more familiar/comfortable with each other, I can start to see you and Cyn in them. The small things, the gestures, and just the feel of their conversations. It makes them seem real. Now which of you is Lilia and which is Mirian, I'm not sure. ;-)

I liked your description of Kardas in this chapter, it solidified him in my mind's eye. And your way of slowly revealing more about him in each chapter is intriguing. You give us one little tid-bit and then leave us wanting more. His encounter with Joachim and then his return to Borden, his ferocity through starvation, his advice to Taerith in the battle. He's surpassing Borden in my esteem merely in his aloof aura of... I'm not sure what.

The battle scene was well-set. The basic description of the valley was enough of a format to put in my head, so when you went directly from the description of the valley to the warriors charging, I could see it all playing out. One of those reads-like-watching-a-movie moments.

10:01 AM  
Blogger Libby Russell said...

P.S. I also liked your last section. Annar dining with well-fed ghosts. Your word smith skills are enviable.

10:05 AM  
Blogger Malachi said...

Wow. I loved that chapter! I'm not really good at giving advice, so I'll just give encouragement. GOOD JOB!!! Yay for you, and keep up the good work!

3:35 PM  
Blogger Malachi said...

Since I'm not good at giving advice, I'll just give encouragement: Good job, and keep up the good work! I loved every word of this chapter.

3:36 PM  

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