Thursday, August 30, 2007

Chapter 24

Taerith watched the men as they entered the tavern. Two of them, well-armed but roughly dressed. They pushed their way through the crowded dining room, skirting tables where men had huddled to drink or smoke their pipes. Taerith glanced behind him at Mirian, hidden in the shadows with Lilia’s child in her arms. His stomach tightened.

Oh, Lilia.

Hand near his sword hilt, eyes still on the men, Taerith moved back into the shadows.

“Go through the kitchen,” he said in a low voice. “Take the door into the street. Head for shelter and try not to be seen. I’ll find you later.”

Mirian nodded. She laid her hand on Taerith’s arm, and he looked back at her. The bright strength in her green eyes nearly glowed in the darkness. She took her hand away and turned toward the kitchen.

The mercenaries had nearly reached the shadowy back of the room and were picking up their pace. Taerith folded his arms and stepped forward. The first of the men, a tall half-shaven brute, checked himself so as not to trip over him.

“Welcome,” Taerith said. He wore a half-smile on his face and stood relaxed, as though the tavern was his and all the time in the world along with it.

The tall man declined to answer, trying instead to go past. Taerith moved into his way and smiled again.

“Is there something I can help you with?” he asked. The confrontation was beginning to draw the attention of the inn’s regular patrons. A few men turned and watched from their close-drawn huddles.

The tall man grunted. He looked past Taerith once more and suddenly relaxed. “Girl come through here?” he asked.

“This is the way to the kitchen,” Taerith answered. “Our guests don’t make a habit of passing through.” He stepped forward, and both men fell back a few feet. Taerith released his arms, resting the heel of one hand on his sword hilt.

“You look as though you’ve traveled far,” he said. “Ale on the house?”

Inwardly, he tensed and waited for the tavernkeeper or someone else to protest. No one did. The tall man looked torn. His shorter companion burst into the conversation.

“We followed a girl in here,” he said. “We want to know where she went. Out of our way, would you?”

A dangerous glint in Taerith’s blue eyes warned the men that trouble had found them. “I think not,” he said. He motioned toward a half-empty table. “Please... a drink?”

He swallowed as he waited for them to respond. He couldn’t take his eyes away from them—couldn’t let his challenge waver even for a moment. But without gauging the reactions of the other men in the tavern, he had no certainty that this would work.

The smaller man was obviously close to losing his temper. “You know where she went,” he said. “Tell us, or we’ll whip you through the streets, boy.”

Taerith smiled again, sincerely this time. They had crossed the line and he knew it. He drew himself up a little straighter.

“Tell me, man,” he said, raising his voice. “Where you come from, do men often give up women to hounds who hunt them?”

The smaller man flushed. “You know nothing about it,” he said.

“True,” Taerith said. “And by that token, if you’re honest men, you’ll have a drink with me and tell me your business. And if you’re not, you’ll not get past us.”

He waited for the response. It came. More than one of the men in the tavern was on his feet, voicing assent. Some of the tension that had held Taerith in place released, and he folded his arms again. He could all but see Mirian hurrying down the rainy street—getting away. He kept his voice level but loud.

“She had a baby with her.” He knew he was giving away too much—spreading information that Borden could use. Yet the victory here couldn’t be his alone. He needed the help of the others. “Do you expect us to give up our children as well? You’re mercenaries. Who’s paid you to hunt us?”

The answering fury in the shorter man’s eyes told Taerith all he needed to know. He moved first, stepping aside even as the mercenary lunged. With a quick motion, he tripped the man and shoved him. He sprawled into the forming crowd, hitting his head on the back of a wooden chair. The tall man stepped forward as though he would do something, but three of the tavern men moved menacingly into his way.

The mercenary on the floor glared up at the men around him. Through gritted teeth he spat out, “Get out of my way. We’ll be going.”

A big, grizzled man, one who had been in the tavern drinking slowly most of the day, shook his bearded head. “Not yet,” he said. “The lad asked you some good questions. I’ve a mind you should answer them.”

Taerith stepped back and let the men of the tavern move in front of him. They were blocking the paths of both mercenaries now, prodded both by the beer in their blood and the challenge to their honour incumbent in Taerith’s words. As heated words began to rise on both sides, he slipped through the kitchen and out the back door.

* * *

Taerith jogged into the street, looking north and south as he did. The night’s sporadic drizzle had turned into a steady rain, falling straight and steady, with wide swaths of sunlight where the clouds opened up. The sun’s rays made the wet dirt of the street golden and warm, full of living promise despite the deep puddles riddled with raindrops in every pothole and rut.

The men in the tavern would likely throw the mercenaries out on their ears any moment. Taerith spied a laneway between two buildings and ducked into it. He paused for a moment, looking at the deceptively calm face of the tavern. Sadness called a smile to his face. The men of the town might have been tricked into it, but now at last they defended Lilia.

He turned away. “All right, Mirian,” he muttered. “Where are you?”

A shadow fell behind him, blocking the light of the sun and making the laneway suddenly colder. He turned to see the silhouette of a tall man with a longknife in his hand.

“Well met,” the man said, and threw the knife.

* * *

The baby wouldn’t stop crying. For the first time Mirian was glad that his cry was so weak. She muffled it as best she could without smothering the little one in her shawl. She jostled him as she half-walked, half-ran in search of shelter. She had no time or inclination to watch the mud puddles, and by the time she was on the outskirts of the town her skirts were soaked with cold brown water.

The baby’s whole body heaved with his cries. She clutched him closer as she scrambled over a ditch toward a low dairy barn. A window on one side was open and she climbed through, dropping to the low dirt floor. Stone walls kept the place cold. The barn was nearly empty. Empty stalls spoke of better years, when livestock and their produce were plentiful, and of the receding winter that had destroyed so much. One cow remained. It turned to regard her with doleful brown eyes. The baby’s cries seemed louder.

Mirian approached the cow and circled it gingerly. The swollen udder told her all she needed to know. A quick glance around the barn revealed a heap of hay in one corner. She took her shawl off, shivering in the damp cold, and wrapped the crying baby well. She laid him down, shushing him as she did so. He kept on crying with all the strength in his lungs.

With the baby down, she shook out her skirts, looking with little hope for some usable bit of cloth. What wasn’t torn and ragged was filthy. For a moment she considered giving up, but the baby’s cries grew louder and more frantic. The sound was nearly enough to send her nerves screaming, but she kept control. She knew well enough how hunger felt.

“I’m coming!” she said. The cries didn’t abate.

Ropes, sacks, and other equipment hung from hooks on one wall. Mirian ran her hands over them in the gloom. Her fingers fell on tightly woven cloth behind a sack. She grabbed it and pulled it out. It would have to do. Quickly, she rubbed a small section on the stone wall, fraying the cloth and wearing it as thin as she could in such a concerted attack. She gathered the edges around the thin part and tied them together with threads torn from her sleeve, cutting it off from the rest of the cloth. Then she shook it out, bunched the ends to make a bag, and approached the cow.

“Just hold still,” she said, putting out a hand against the cow’s hot side. It shifted slightly, but stayed close enough. She crouched down, manuevering her bag awkwardly so she could milk into it. She propped it open on one arm and reached for the udder with her free hand. It was full. She squeezed and smiled with relief as a stream of milk shot into the bag.

The baby was still crying. She ignored the pain as her hand started to cramp and kept working until she had a fair amount of milk in the bottom of the bag. It might start to leak at any minute. She stood, gave the cow one good pat, and half-ran to the hay bales where Lilia’s son proclaimed his hunger.

“Here, here,” she said. She picked the baby up and rested him in the crook of her arm. With the other hand she tore away the threads binding the worn part of the cloth and squeezed her fingers around it to form a place for the baby to suck. As quickly as she could, she moved the bag till the end was in the little one’s mouth. He sucked at it, stifling his own cries.

The bag felt damp under her arm. Her hand was still cramping. She cursed the thought of how much milk was soaking into the cloth. As the baby quieted, so did her heart. She’d hardly realized how hard it was beating.

The baby turned his head and milk smeared his cheek. “Here now,” she said. She guided his face back, trying to make him latch on and keep feeding. He did for another moment and then turned away again.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I wish I could feed you like a mother would. I don’t know how long you can keep this up.”

Outside the barn, hoofbeats sounded. Mirian nearly dropped the bag as she tightened her grip on the baby. The hoofbeats passed, and she let out her breath.

“Taerith will come soon,” she whispered. The baby looked up at her with glassy eyes. Doubt struck her and she forced it down again.

Taerith would make things right.

He had to.

* * *

Borden’s men stood in ranks along the length of the hall. The stone walls and floor were cold and immovable as Borden paced up and down the line. Inspecting. Waiting. The men could see that his mind wasn’t with them, but was roaming, searching, out somewhere they couldn’t go. It was in his eyes.

He spoke as he paced. Matters of business. The men answered in low tones. They reported on patrols, on the game that was beginning to return, on the state of the farms. Borden nodded. Suddenly he stopped.

Borden looked at Kardas as though he was seeing him for the first time. He cocked his head as he regarded the dark man. Kardas looked back, his face a mask.

“You came back alone,” Borden said. “Taerith was lost in the north?”

Kardas turned his eyes down. “No, my lord. He lives.”

Borden roared his answer, every muscle in his face straining. “Then why didn’t he come back to me?”

Borden’s voice echoed in the room. He covered his eyes with his hand and groaned. When he lowered his hand, it was wearily. His voice was back to normal. He looked sidelong at Kardas as he spoke.

“He was my soldier. Why didn’t he come back to me?”

Kardas made no answer. Borden waited. His dark eyes roiled with pain and anger together.

“Stay silent, then,” he said. “You, at least, came back where I can look your disloyalty in the face.”

He paced forward and turned so that he stood directly in front of Kardas. “Harsh word? What else is this silence if it isn’t disloyalty? But don’t fear—I won’t force the matter. We will pretend this conversation didn’t happen. I am glad, Kardas—glad that he lives.”

At the other end of the hall, a new arrival drew Borden’s attention. He turned from Kardas and waited, arms folded.

The man who entered was cloaked and small. He walked almost nervously, eyeing the soldiers who lined the hall, yet without balking. He stopped a few feet away from Borden and bowed shortly.

“We found her,” he said.

Borden looked up at his men. “Out, all of you. Not you, Kardas.”

The soldiers turned and filed out of the hall, some casting curious glances behind them. The newcomer waited until the door had closed behind the last of them.

“She has the child. All this time you’ve been sending us out, she’s been right under your nose. In the nearest village.”

Borden’s jaw twitched. “Where is she?” he growled.

“We lost her,” the man said. He didn’t even flinch at the look on Borden’s face. “The others followed her into a tavern, where they were delayed. A man stopped them. Started a fight and then disappeared. I started to follow him but was... discouraged. I think he went after her.”

“And you didn’t?” Borden said. He looked as though he would cuff the man.

“No,” the man answered. “Sometimes I am slow on my feet. But she cannot have gone far.”

Borden looked down, his tangled black hair shading his face. “You say a man stopped them. A young man?”

“Yes,” the mercenary answered. “About the height of this man.” He pointed to Kardas. “Dark hair. Quiet, but smart.”

Borden looked at Kardas. His eyes nearly burned a hole through him. “So now we know,” he said. “Why he didn’t come back. Kardas, saddle your horse and mine. We are going to finish this ourselves.”

* * *

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:

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Chapter 23

Steady, grey rain drizzled down as Taerith and Kardas made their way home. It melted off the snow and turned the roads to mud. The fens, still brown and dead and cold, swelled even as winter winds blew their last laments over them.

They journeyed on foot. Their horses had not survived capture by the wild men, and so they trudged over mud and swamp road, an exiled brother and a barbarian king going back to the place each had called “home” for his own reasons. They spoke little.

Through the trickle of rain and melting snow, the birds and beasts began to come back. Kardas made himself a spear and a bow so they could feed themselves. More than once they stopped by flowing waters where Taerith rigged up fishing lines. In its own way, the journey called up an old part of him: the Romany brother, the philosophical fisherman who watched the seasons change in the forest and helped feed his family as best he could. It was home to Corran he went, and yet he knew that the journey would not end there―that this road must take him all the way to Braedoch again.

But not now. There were promises to play out first, spoken and unspoken. Lilia to protect and love as he could. Kardas to stand by, Borden to report back to. And Mirian.

He smiled as he thought of Mirian. The day he had stitched the gash in her arm was vivid in his memory, and mingling with it was the scent of a night full of torchsmoke and horses when he had rebuked her for bullying Lilia, when he told the slave to lend her strength to a queen. She had done it... done more. She had nearly given her life for Lilia, and in that, Taerith knew, he was somehow bound to her, too.

The days did not run together. Taerith counted each one, counted every step back.

Kardas was first to hear the cries in the village ahead. Taerith heard them a moment later and reached for his sword, but Kardas put out a hand to stop him.

“There is no danger,” he said. “It’s the town crier.”

They walked into the village side by side, sodden but steady, with a strength shining in their faces that spoke more loudly than the filth of the road ever could.

Both heard the words at once. They looked at one another.

“The king is dead!”

The crier stood in the village square, ringing a bell as he repeated his call. Kardas and Taerith came up behind him, one on either side, and Taerith laid a hand on his shoulder. The little man hadn’t seen them coming. He jumped.

“Peace,” Taerith said. “What happened?”

“The king is dead,” the crier told them.

“We know that,” Kardas said. “But how?”

The little man tried to stand straighter. He looked for a moment like a child defensive over some pleasure, and yet beneath that expression fear lurked. Taerith felt his heart sink.

“They say...” the crier said. “They say the prince killed him. But he’s king now! Borden is king, and long may he reign!”

Taerith did not look at Kardas. He feared what he might see in the other’s face. Besides, another fear had gripped him. He took hold of the little man with both hands and asked, “But what of the queen and her child?”

The town crier shook his head. “Borden is king,” he said. “That’s all I know.”

* * *

Lookouts on the castle wall saw them coming up the long brown road. Kardas raised his hand in greeting. Even from so far below Taerith knew they’d been recognized. The gates were opened to them. Kardas at once disappeared into the shadows of the castle wall, and Taerith hurried through the thick morning mist to find shelter within―shelter, and the faces of those he had come back for.

It was Master Grey’s face he saw, bent over a table in the kitchen. The steward looked up at him with firelight angling off his aged cheek.

“I want to see Lilia,” Taerith said.

Master Grey turned his face back to the numbers he’d been adding on the table. He closed his eyes a moment and then straightened himself, standing tall as if the effort hurt. He sighed. “Oh, lad,” he said.

* * *

They stood at the base of Mirian’s tree. A wind had begun to blow, carrying cold drops of rain with it even as it dispersed the mist. The smells of roots and still newly-turned earth imprinted themselves on Taerith’s heart.

“Mirian buried the girl herself,” Master Grey said. He cleared his throat. “Here with her family. God knows what Borden would have done if he’d known.”

Taerith swallowed. Overhanging branches―sod and rain―these couldn’t be all that was left of Lilia.

And they weren’t. He knelt by the unmarked grave and saw, darkened by the water and mud, three dove feathers that had been tied together with a bit of twine. He reached out and touched them, and something harder met his fingers. He dug for it a little, and pulled the dull, tarnished edge of a slave collar from the ground.

He looked up at Master Grey, blue eyes keen with questions. “Where is the child?” he asked.

“Dead,” Master Grey answered. He lowered his voice. “Didn’t survive childbirth, or so they say.”

Taerith stood slowly, letting his fingers linger a moment on the slave collar first. “What do you mean?”

“Borden wants no opposition,” Master Grey said. “He says the child died shortly after he was born. But then―he claims Hosten’s men killed Annar.”

“No one believes him,” Taerith said. He knew the rumours that were in the villages, that inspired fear and uncertainty even as they proclaimed a new dawn and some sort of freedom.

“Yes, well,” Master Grey answered. “My wife says the babe was healthy. All I know is that Annar had a son, and now he’s gone... and so is Mirian.”

Light sprang into Taerith’s eyes. “And what does Borden say happened to her?”

“Why should he say anything?” Master Grey asked. “She’s a slave; for all he’s concerned she never existed.” There was something in his eyes, in his face―pride perhaps. He lowered his voice still more. “He’s hunting for her. He’s found men―hired men, not his own soldiers―and sent them out everywhere with orders to find her.”

“But he hasn’t,” Taerith said. “Not yet.”

The old steward met Taerith’s eyes and smiled. “Not yet,” he agreed.

Taerith looked down at the grave and the rain that ran over it, and then lifted his eyes to the spreading branches. Birds were circling in the air above, caught between the clouds and the water that fell lightly from the sky. Tears formed in his eyes and ran down with the rain. The world seemed all a river, and he one with it―a river that rushed through a dark night, so long ago, when a beautiful girl told him about dreams with real things in it, about longing for freedom from tower heights and hearing songs in the water that made the moon cry.

He swallowed again. When he looked back at Master Grey his eyes were impossibly bright. Loss was written across his face, and yet it ennobled him somehow, made an angel of him. Master Grey had thought himself finished with crying, but tears sprang to his old eyes at the sight of the young man who faced him so earnestly.

“I’ll find them,” Taerith said.

But it wasn’t to Master Grey he spoke, not really. It was not a new promise but the continuation of an old one. If the spirit of the girl to whom it had been made lingered still over the wet earth, both men were sure that she was glad to hear it.

* * *

Mirian’s hand shook as she ran the fingers of one hand over the letters on the page, in a little hand-bound book propped up on her knee. The writing was large and black, the lines a little blurred where Lilia had used too much ink. The pages were smudged with dirt and fingerprints, ink and memories.

Letters drawn in the sheets on the bed, paper begged off a peddlar without Annar’s knowledge, lessons in the tower while the wind outside tried to blow them down.

M is for Miracle.

For Mirian.

For Mortal.

Under the dark browl shawl that covered her from head to waist, Mirian held the baby tightly to her. He was sleeping, but fitfully. A flask of goat’s milk, gift of mercy from a tavernkeeper’s wife, contained just enough for one or two more feedings. When it was gone she would have to beg again.

Stiff, she shifted position against the barn wall. Straw and dust shifted with her in the faint light that came through cracks in the wall. The barn was old and ill-kept. She sat in one of the only dry patches. Just beyond her feet, raindrops still dripped from a hole in the roof.

The little book nearly fell as she moved, but she caught it. In the hours she’d spent hiding and holding the little one, the book had been her only recourse from reality. Not that it said much―Lilia had written the alphabet in it, and a few verses of old poetry. She had sketched a pair of conifers and a dove in the windowsill on the last two pages.

The fingerprints that marked the pages from the past few days left coppery stains. On her first flight through the fens, Mirian had managed to catch her cheek on a branch and rip open one of the gashes Borden had dealt her. Stopping the bloodflow had meant the use of her hands and her skirts, and since then there had not been a moment to stop and clean herself―not till this barn and its dripping roof. The cold raindrops stung and streaked her with dirt, but she wet her fingers with them and cleaned off some of the blood, all the while clutching the baby close to her with her other arm.

Something moved in the barnyard. Mirian froze. Her breath caught. Almost at the same time, she relaxed. The sound was too slight; it had only been the diseased old goat she’d seen in the yard when she climbed over a fence and let herself in through a hole in the barn wall the night before.

It was hard to catch her breath. In times like these, even the meanderings of a diseased goat were enough to make her heart pound.

The baby moved. Carefully, Mirian drew back her shawl, revealing the tiny face. She’d wrapped the baby up tightly in a grey blanket, tucking in his arms and bundling him securely as Mistress Grey had taught her to do, quickly and by candelight minutes before she fled.

A wry smile reached her face at the memory. Mistress Grey had no children and had always refused to take Mirian as her own―or else Mirian had refused to be taken, who could tell after so many years?―but in the end she’d told Mirian everything she knew about mothering and sent her out into the night.

And Mirian, terrifyingly aware that she knew nothing about caring for a child and was taking her life into her hands by abducting the king’s heir, was grateful for it.

Mirian ran one finger along the baby’s velvet cheek. She was tired―dreadfully tired, soul and body, and aching―and yet the sight of the little one revived her somehow. It seemed absurd that such a small one, to whom even sleep was new and tomorrow was free of burdens, should be the center of such a storm.

A clatter in the barnyard sent Mirian to her feet. She swept the shawl around the baby and pressed herself into the shadows where the water dripped slowly and pooled in dark spots on the floor. Heart in her throat, she pressed the baby to her until she feared she held him too tight. He stayed quiet. Miracle baby, truly.

In the barnyard, the splash of hoofs in puddles and the shouts of men proclaimed the presence of trouble. Panic rushed in her ears so loudly that she could not make out what the men were saying.

A boy’s voice shouted bravely in answer, and Mirian managed to sort out what he said.

“Not here,” the boy said. “There’s no one here but but my old mother and I.”

Mirian sank deeper into the shadows, moving toward an old cow stall as quietly as she could. The mud and old manure within was ankle-deep, but a piece of the wall on the other side was completely gone, and she would flee through it if she had to. Dim light shone through the jagged hole.

One of the men had shouted an answer. The boy answered, his voice holding amazingly steady.

“Come in and see for yourselves, then. There’s no one here.”

Mirian set her jaw as she stepped into the muck, moving as quietly as she could and hoping the mud wouldn’t audibly suck at her feet. The baby made a sound. She jostled him a little. “Shhhh.”

The man’s voice came through the rotting walls. “We’ll have a look in there as well.”

The boy’s voice cracked a little, but from age, not nerves. “As you please. I warn you, it’s a sinkhole. Mud and dung is all.”

The men laughed. One of them threw out something about there being no man in the house to keep the barn up. Mirian reached out to steady herself against the wet boards of the wall. The mud was dragging at her skirts. Dim light lay over the mud just beyond her feet. She was nearly there.

“My father died,” the boy said. His voice cracked again; he was angry. But the men didn’t hear it. They laughed and made another comment.

A moment later, they pushed open the front doors of the barn. The doors groaned on their hinges, scraping across the muddy floor. One of the men dismounted and thrust his way in, torch blazing through the gloom.

The barn was empty.

Outside, Mirian raced behind a line of bare trees, eyes toward the shadows of the village. She didn’t dare look back. The boy, man of his house, followed her with his eyes. Voices came from the barn, swearing loudly at the mud, and the boy smiled.

“Run, Mirian,” he murmered. “God go with you.”

* * *

Adrenaline carried her as far as the village and abruptly failed to hold her up. Mirian stumbled and nearly fell in the doorway of an inn. The streets were busy and no one paid her much mind, but she could hear hoofbeats―riders coming―Borden’s men tracking her down. She pulled her shawl over her head, low so that she sat almost cowled as her eyes searched the street for danger.

They were there. Riders, three of them. Whether they were mercenaries or no she couldn’t tell, but she forced her eyes down until their shadows fell across her. They stopped.

Mirian held her breath. Her lungs cried out for air after her flight; every ounce of her needed air, needed food, needed something to give her strength. Her heart beat so hard she thought the men must be able to hear it. She needed sustenance; she had only fear.

The leader of the men kicked his horse and they moved on. She let her breath out. It came out shaking. She was shaking. The baby cried out.

“Hush.” She looked down, moved the shawl aside so she could see the tiny face. Fine eyebrows, pink face. It struck her suddenly that he looked like Lilia.

The little one screwed up his face and started to cry in earnest. Mirian leaned against the doorpost as she stood, needing its support. She jiggled the baby as she did so, looking around as though someone might offer her help at any moment. The flask of goat’s milk was gone; torn from her waist by a tree branch as she ran.

She looked up the street and saw that the men had stopped and were turning around.

She ducked through the inn door, into a smoky room full of men. The baby was still crying, more loudly now, and a table of patrons looked up at her with obvious annoyance and distaste. Well they might; she was a filthy, bloody beggar woman carrying a baby into a man’s world. She made for the kitchen at the back of the inn, tripping over her own feet. Despite lamps and torches, the inn only grew darker as she went. The darkness wasn’t in the room now; it was in her. Her grasp on the child was loosening. She tried to step forward and somehow missed the floor. Darkness rushed at her.

And then there were arms around her from behind. She made one feeble attempt to free herself. But these were good arms, gentle arms. They held her up and kept the baby close to her. Half-standing, half-leaning against whoever was behind her, she turned her head so she could see him.

“Easy, Mirian,” Taerith said. “Can you stand?”

She nodded. She could now. She forced her knees to straighten and stood on her own. Taerith’s arms were still there. He guided her toward the kitchen.

“Keep going,” he said, his voice low. “Don’t look back. They’re right behind you.”

* * *

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, August 15, 2007

Chapter 22

Confusion chased Mirian up the steps to the tower. When she reached the top she was flushed and her head was spinning, and it wasn’t only hunger and effort that did it. She took a deep breath and pushed her way into Lilia’s chambers.

Lilia had pushed herself up against the pillows. She was pale as ever. There was a look in her eyes that would have alarmed Mirian had she seen it—but she didn’t look Lilia in the face.

“Borden is home,” Mirian said. “They’ve won; they brought food.”

“Where is Taerith?” Lilia asked.

Mirian glanced up, but not long enough to communicate with the look in Lilia’s eyes. “Gone,” she said. “Lost in battle.”

They were silent. Neither would speak of her sorrow. Grief and regret welled up in Lilia, but that which inspired the look in her eyes kept it at bay.

“I need something from you,” Lilia said.

“What is it?” Mirian asked. She set the bowl of food next to the bed and waited.

“Before Taerith left, he came to me with a request,” Lilia said. “There is a boy in the village who lives with his widowed mother. Taerith made me promise that if food came to us, I would feed him. I wanted to go myself.”

“Very well then,” Mirian said. The thought of getting outside the castle was like a promise of clear air in the midst of her manifold confusion, and she seized it. “You shall go. It will do you good to get out again.”

“No,” Lilia said.

“The air is not so cold as it has been,” Mirian charged on. “We’ll take a coach, and I’ll help you walk where you must.”

“No, Mirian.”

Mirian looked Lilia in the eyes at last, but the look was masked now, carefully veiled. Mirian saw only the affection of her friend and a slight smile.

“I am tired today,” Lilia said. “I want to rest. I can tell you where to go—Taerith’s directions were clear. Go without me. Stay awhile if you like.”

“Why would I like to do that?” Mirian asked. Memories of her encounter with Borden burst back into her consciousness and she felt a sudden strong desire to tell Lilia all about it, but Lilia held up a finger to motion her to silence. The young queen shook her head slightly.

“Don’t argue with me,” Lilia said. “You’ve been a caged thing all winter. Go.” Something in her eyes flickered; for a bare moment a shadow passed over her face and sorrow was there in the room. Her voice was even softer than before. “I’ll be here when you come back.”

* * *

Borden left his meeting with Mirian in a state of frustration. He felt both affirmed and denied. She hadn’t promised to help him—hadn’t really told him that she would support him, and yet she would, she must. Like the men in the road who had owned him king, she must know that his was the true kingship, no matter how he denied that he wanted a throne. She hated Annar as he did. The king had enslaved her, and Mirian’s greatest desire was to be free.

And she had, after all, warned him. Whatever Annar was trying to do, whatever unwisdom afflicted the kingdom this time, Mirian knew of it and had warned him.

He strode through the corridors of the castle until he reached Annar’s throne room. He did not bother to announce himself, pushing past the nervous guards, who barely stammered out a word against him, and thrusting open the doors.

Annar looked up. There were two men with him. They wore the livery of Hosten’s men.

Borden frowned. Hosten’s servants turned to face him, and one of them blanched at the sight of the warrior prince newly returned from battle.

“Get out,” Borden said.

The men looked at Annar. The king, obviously displeased, waved his fingers. “Go,” he said. “Return in an hour.”

The men turned and left in haste, the iron in Borden’s eyes accosting them as they went.

Borden’s eyes narrowed as he faced his brother in the newly emptied room. “What were they doing here?” he asked.

Annar had not risen from his throne. Insolence in his eyes met the iron in Borden’s. Perverse triumph shone in them. Something in the corners of Annar’s mouth crowed over his brother, like it had the day Annar was crowned.

Borden crossed the room in three strides and grabbed his brother by the collar, hauling him half-off the throne.

“What were they doing here?” he shouted. Any control he had over his voice was quickly slipping away.

Annar looked away, but he sneered as he did so. “You protect the kingdom your way,” he said. “I’ll protect it mine.”

Borden dropped him. A cloud was growing inside him, a black, turbulent cloud, roiling with hatred and fear. The image of Hosten’s servants was stark before him. He could almost hear the words Annar had spoken. Red rushed before his eyes.

A thousand scenes... a thousand slights, a thousand betrayals. Annar as a child, sulking and mean. Annar as a man, always drunk, always a fool. Annar on the battlefield, looking down at brother and dead father without remorse, with only excuses.

This is not my fault.

Borden could feel his father’s weight in his arms. The red in his eyes was changing to black. Through it he saw Lilia’s arrival. Annar’s stubborn determination to produce an heir who would replace his brother.

Annar’s voice reached him through the black scenes, at once far away and horridly close, as close as a demon’s whisper in the ear.

“We were starving,” Annar said. “You took too long. Playing your games in the north. Making a hero out of yourself. I know what you were trying to do. Hosten can feed us.”

There was a taste like blood in Borden’s mouth. He spit the words out. “At what price?”

Annar sat back. The old light was in his eyes. The mean child, the drunken fool, the one who did everything only to hurt his brother, was peering out of those eyes like a weasel cornered by a wolf.

“I may lose my rule,” Annar said. “But you won’t have it either.”

And the red, the black, covered Borden’s eyes and swallowed up his soul in a cauldron of seething hatred.

“I’ve signed it away,” Annar said. “It’s Hosten’s now. There is no throne for you anymore.”

* * *

Mirian knew from the moment she stepped back into the courtyard that something was wrong. The sense of it propelled her forward, faster until she was nearly running as she crossed the courtyard and passed through the door.

Two servants stood at the base of the stairs. Their faces told her everything. She started forward but one of the men stepped into her way. “You can’t,” he said. “No one else is to pass. They said to keep you out...”

She charged forward and the men grabbed onto her arms. She pushed against them, frustrated by her own weakness.

“Please, Mirian,” one of the servants said. “Mistress Grey’s orders...”

“Let go of me!” Mirian insisted. She tore herself away from them. She rushed up the stairs, knees nearly buckling, tripping herself. Terror drove her, grew with every breath she took. She nearly collided with one of the serving women, who was carrying an armload of rags from the landing to Lilia’s room. The door stood slightly ajar.

A baby was crying.

The force that had driven her gave way just outside the door. She was trembling now. She pushed the door open as she had done a thousand times, knowing dread as she had never known it. She smelled blood and something else.

Mistress Grey stood near the window with a baby in her arms. She looked up just as Mirian entered. Her eyes quickened; there were, as ever, sharp words on her tongue, but she did not speak them.


Lilia’s voice was quieter than it had ever been, and yet it was the only thing Mirian heard. She ran to the bed and fell on her knees beside it.

Lilia reached out with monumental effort and laid her pale hand on Mirian’s wild head. Her gentle grey eyes hid nothing now. They spoke of pain and sorrow both, but overlying them—almost drowning them as it had never done before—was wonder.

“My miracle,” she whispered. Her voice was ragged with pain, but she tried to smile through it. The baby’s crying sounded far away. Mirian looked up at Mistress Grey and her bundle again, and then back to Lilia.

“Thank you,” Lilia said. “For everything. And tell Taerith...”

Mirian reached over the sheets and grasped Lilia’s hands. Tears sprang to her eyes but no words to her mouth.

Lilia’s voice was hardly a whisper. “I always knew he loved me,” she said. “Like an angel. Deus was good... to give me two of you.”

The child-queen closed her eyes and sank more deeply into her pillows. One convulsive sob gripped Mirian. She lifted Lilia’s hands and kissed them.

Eyes still closed, Lilia smiled.

Time passed. A hand touched Mirian’s shoulder. She didn’t react.

“Mirian,” a voice said. Master Grey stood beyond her, almost pulling at her shoulder.

“Mirian,” he said again. “Mirian, she’s dead. Leave her.”

Mirian turned her head. Tears were pouring down her face. She tried to speak, but words refused her their mastery. Master Grey was still pulling at her, insistent. She dropped Lilia’s hands. Stood, unwilling, shaking her head.

Someone else took her other arm. They led her away, halfway down the stairs, before she pulled away from them and ran, out of the castle, into the cold day and the wind that was howling now, into the pain that swallowed her in sobbing. She reached the base of her tree and threw herself down among the roots and mud where the snow was melting and forming rivulets in the earth. All the ghosts of yesterday wept along with her.

* * *

Borden found her at the base of the tree. Tears and dirt streaked her face; her head ached, her eyes were blurred with weeping. It was a moment before she saw that his hands were covered with blood.

She stared up at him, propped herself up on her hands, and began shaking her head. She dragged her voice up from the pit that was her pain.

“What have you done?” she asked.

He held out his hands almost beseechingly, but there was something in his eyes that terrified her. “He sold us to Hosten,” Borden said. “I stopped him. I kept us free. Mirian...”

She couldn’t look at him. She looked down at her hands, covered in dirt and snow and tears. “No.”

Desperation welled up in him as he looked down at her, sitting among the roots, devastated and yet still proud, and resisting him—resisting him when he needed her so much.

“There was nothing else I could do!” he said.

She looked up at him. The force of her green eyes caught him off balance, and he nearly staggered back. “You killed him.”

Borden licked his lips and tasted blood. “He sold us.”

Slowly, Mirian began to rise. The raw pain in her face struck him.

“What happened?” he asked. “Why are you crying?”

“Lilia...” she said, and her voice choked itself out.

His hands were shaking. His face contorted with emotion he didn’t know how to handle. “It had to be,” he said. “It’s ours now, don’t you see that? There is no one left to challenge us.”

Mirian’s tear-streaked face turned to stone at the words.

“I challenge you,” she said.

He stood as if struck. Mirian’s eyes went from his face to his hands—bloody hands, red and reeking with what he had done.

“Long ago you asked me what I thought of you,” Mirian said. “I told you that I did not admire you. That changed—but not now, not anymore. The throne can’t be yours. Not now.”

Her face looked hollow, spent with grief, even as her voice quavered with fire trying to break loose. “It can’t belong to a murderer.”

And it was there again, red and black before his eyes, desperation raging. He snatched the riding whip from his waist and struck her across the face with it. A dark line of blood rose across her cheekbone, but she did not respond.

“I have made you free!” Borden shouted. There were tears in his own eyes, running into his dark beard. “They kept us enslaved; denied us what we are. Free, Mirian. The blood on my hands makes you free.”

Mirian turned her head and looked at him. She had stopped crying. Blood mingled with dirt and dried tears on her cheek. There was pain in her eyes, and defiance.

“Speak to me!” Borden cried.

Her green eyes flashed a challenge. Slowly, deliberately, Mirian turned her other cheek.

He struck her again. Once more the blood stood out, beginning to trickle down her face as she closed her eyes and shut him out.

Shut him out forever.

The wind was sobbing through the branches of the tree. Suddenly every twig was in motion, waving and wailing like a creature come to life. Mirian’s hair blew with the wind as she stood, ragged clothes blowing, standing against him.

He turned and staggered back to the castle.

* * *

The blood had nearly dried on his hands when he found Hosten’s men, beat them, and sent them away with every contract of Annar’s forever closed.

He could not walk in a straight line, and so he lurched to a small room on the castle wall where he stayed three days. Mourning. Raging. Exulting in the kingdom he had saved and trembling.

And then he remembered the child.

Borden came back into the light of day and sought out Master Grey like a hound flushing out a pheasant. Yes, Lilia had given birth to a child.

A child, Master Grey told him, who had disappeared.

Borden cursed. Mirian.

He had his challenge.

* * *

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, August 08, 2007

Chapter 21

The stars still shone out clearly over the plateau. As the wild men knelt, Taerith felt something growing within him, alive and primal like the earth springing forth in response to the sun. The awareness of a Presence drew his heart and made it beat faster.

Lightning flashed in the dark winter sky. In its split-second aura Taerith saw the image of a great bird, large as the moon, perched atop the standing stones with its wings spread over them. His heart leaped at the sight. Thunder rolled as his heart threatened to burst. The image was gone but the Presence was not; it grew still, grew stronger, and Taerith found himself baptized in awareness keener than any he had experienced in all his life.

Deus with wings.

It was a great bird he had seen, and yet as he tried to hold onto its image it changed, and he was no longer sure that the lightning had not illuminated the form of a man: a man whose shoulders were in the sky, in whose eyes the stars found their source.

With the presence of Deus pounding in his heart and ears and throat, he hardly heard the voice that spoke out over the stillness of the plateau. Yet he saw every barbarian head as it turned—saw the shock in Kardas’s face.

“It is no evil that has come to you this night,” the voice said. “The spirits of winter which you feared are cowering in the presence of a greater. One has come to seek you out and has bound you to that man”—a finger pointed at Kardas—“that you may be found.”

Taerith turned his head also. The voice belonged to Joachim. He stood behind the crowd, his voice clear to all though it was calm. The edges of his cloak seemed to Taerith both feathered and shining. And there was, Taerith realized, another miracle—the wild men understood Joachim. It was evident in their faces; in their murmered responses. What language did the priest speak?

“Mercy has bound you,” Joachim said, his eyes taking in the wild men in their bands. “Do not be afraid.”

He lifted his eyes to Kardas. Taerith turned and looked at his old friend. The sense of Presence was dying down—not that the winged spirit had gone, but that Taerith’s senses dulled with the minutes. Kardas’s dark face was inscrutable, but his eyes were awash with anguish. He seemed unwilling to move. He shook his head slightly as he regarded Joachim, almost as though he was warning him away.

Joachim began to move forward despite the warning. The wild men parted for him until he had reached the base of the rise where the standing stones stood out in the clear light of the moon and stars. Kardas still stood before the altar.

Joachim stopped. Taerith knew, somehow, that his words were no longer intelligible to the wild men all around. “Do not fear me, Lord of the Twelve Bands,” Joachim said. “I will not come so close that your sword can reach me—whatever you have promised to do, you cannot do it while there is distance between us.” He smiled. “I did not truly think our roads would bring us here... but Deus always works beyond imagination.”

“I do not understand,” Kardas answered. His voice was quiet. The anguish had not abated from his eyes. “Why has all this happened?”

Joachim leaned on his staff, and for an instant the young priest with light in the edges of his cloak seemed an ancient patriarch come lately down from the stars. “Your people are thieves and murderers, but Deus has sought them out. Tonight you are the hand of mercy.”

Kardas lifted his eyes to the wild men as he spoke. “What mercy is there in binding men?” he asked.

Joachim ignored the question. “Give me your protection. There is a message in me; let me teach it to your people without fear of being driven away or killed.”

Kardas bowed his head. “It is done,” he said.

Taerith approached the men. He stood beside Joachim and looked up to Kardas—to Kardas who had saved his life, who had shown so much mercy, and paid so much for it. There should be freedom in this: in conquering, in becoming a king. And yet Kardas had not set himself free, for he had not died, and so he was bound just as he had been before. Taerith knew the answer to his question before he asked it.

“And you?”

“I return to Corran” Kardas answered, his voice little more than a rasp.

Taerith nodded. Even though he had expected it, the words still hurt.

Joachim turned and regarded Taerith. “And you, brother?” he asked.

Taerith looked at him with stars in his own eyes. The memory of impending death was too strong: he felt alive now, and knew why he was alive. “I have ties of my own to honour,” he said. “I will go back and honour them.”

Back to Lilia. To Borden. And then... somewhere in the shadows of the future, home lurked.

He would go back to Braedoch Forest.

* * *

Long ago, in another winter, Borden had come home from the north both as victor and bereaved son, still clutching the pain of his father’s death to his bitter heart, riding behind his newly crowned brother. In that return there had been no celebration. Even Annar had choked back the pride of kingship and allowed those in his train to mourn.

But now, as they passed through the villages and fields of Corran, grim, deliberate celebration passed through with them. Borden allowed his men, especially the new recruits who had joined him for the final fight and then the glorious weeks of chasing barbarians further beyond the border, to tell stories and exaggerate them, to make of it all something filled with power and light. They gave out food. In the northern villages they had to pretend it was enough to replace what they had taken to feed the army, but as they went south, pretense fell away and every morsel was received with gladness.

And they adored him. They all adored him. Everywhere he went the people came into the streets and watched him pass with their hats doffed and their heads bowed, women with tears in their eyes, men proud. Even the children watched him ride.

They had once regarded Annar this way, when first he was king.

They rode down the wide street of Esktown. So close to home, now, and the people were gaunt—even worse than they had been in the north, for Annar’s taxes had struck harder here—and they watched the returning warriors with hunger in their eyes.

Five men stood in the road, arms folded. Borden reigned in his horse and regarded them, frowning.

Jonas rode to his side and drew his sword.

“Will you bow before your prince?” he asked.

“No,” said the biggest of the men. Borden reached for his sword without a word. Before his fingers could tighten on the hilt, the man dropped to one knee in the snow-packed earth.

“But I will bow before my king.” The man raised his eyes and his hands together. “Yours, Lord Borden, as far as you will take us.”

Wordlessly, the other four dropped to the earth beside their leader. They waited.

Guilt, a tiny snatch of it, tugged at Borden’s mind as he looked at them. This was treason. It ought to be punished.

Instead, he met the man’s eyes and nodded. Without another word spoken, the five rose and moved back into the crowd. Into the waiting town, among people who had seen and heard it all and knew, now, that those who owned Borden king would go unpunished.

Who knew, now, the heart of their prince.

* * *

Mirian sat with her forehead against one palm, fingers playing with her tangled hair as she frowned down at the page. She held the book open in her other hand, resting it on her knee, and struggled to sound the words out in her head.

“It’s easier if you do it out loud at first,” Lilia said from across the room.

Mirian tightened her fingers, half-pulling her own hair. “I don’t want to,” she said.

Lilia smiled and said nothing. Mirian looked up and saw the expression. “I’ll sound like a fool,” she said.

“Only a little like a child,” Lilia answered. “It is not the same thing.”

“Yes it is,” Mirian muttered. People had said that her mother was like a child in her imbecility, and from the moment she understood what that meant, Mirian had sworn never to be one.

“I wish you would read it out loud,” Lilia said. Her voice was faint, as it always was, strained by hunger. “My eyes don’t want to fix on the page anymore. I can’t read it to myself.”

Mirian snorted, but after a minute she began to try—shaping the sounds in her mouth, letting them out with awkward grace. Lilia closed her eyes and smiled.

Mirian read for a few minutes. After a while Lilia’s breathing showed that she’d fallen asleep. Mirian’s tongue relented to the gnawing in her stomach and she fell silent. She nearly stood to stalk the room, but her head felt light and her stomach queasy. She stayed where she was.

Outside, freezing rain tapped against the stone walls and wet the heavy curtains. Winter was beginning to thaw. A single candle, glowing in a nook beside Mirian, was the only light in the room. The sun had long since gone down.

Mirian closed her eyes and let the atmosphere of the night sink in. It sank a long way: deep into a soul that was calmer than it had been in years. Hungry she was, worried to some degree about the future, and yet there was peace in her.

Freedom in her.

“Taerith!” The name was just perceptible as Lilia cried out, tossing beneath her coverlet. Mirian rose, ignoring the rush in her head and the shakiness of her legs, and crossed the room quickly. She laid a hand on Lilia’s head. She was hot—it was nothing new. Her cheeks were flushed and the rest of her pale.

“Taerith,” she said again.

“Hush,” Mirian murmered. She pulled the blankets closer around Lilia’s shoulders and stroked her head a little.

“I need...” Lilia said. Her breathing was faster than it had been, and she turned over again. “I need you,” she said. “Take the baby.”

Silence. Mirian sat on the side of the bed and watched as Lilia’s breathing grew even again. Deeper sleep was claiming her now. Before she succumbed to it, Lilia whispered, “I need you.”

* * *

Mirian awoke. She wondered a moment why she was so stiff, and then knew... she had fallen asleep sitting beside Lilia, bent almost double so that she could rest her head on her arms. The tapping of icy rain had ceased. Mirian stood and stretched, groaning a little, and crossed to the window. She moved the curtain just enough to see that the sun was rising over the dark blot of the fens.

She was about to turn away when she saw the riders.

She recognized the horse in the lead almost instantly. Borden had returned.

Hope leapt inside. They were home—Taerith, Borden. They drew wagons behind them, and was it? Was there food in the wagons?

She whirled away from the window, pausing only to make sure Lilia was still asleep, and flew down the stairs as fast as her slight dizziness would let her.

She ran into the courtyard and out through the small door in the side of the wall. The rising sun filled her eyes as she slipped over the icy fields toward the riders. On the horizon, her tree stretched its bare branches out toward her. She lifted a hand to it and turned back to face the coming riders.

She was the first thing Borden saw as he approached the castle. A tall figure with her hair streaming in the cold wind, hands and feet bare and impervious to the cold. The sun illuminated her face and the hope in it. Borden smiled at the sight.

He stopped his horse for her. She bowed her head a moment, then began to search the train with her eyes.

“We’ve brought provisions,” Borden said. “A little help until spring comes again.”

She nodded, hardly able to speak. Some of the men were grumbling behind Borden; they had stopped for a slave, and didn’t like it. Borden raised his hand and waved them ahead. He stayed mounted where he was, with Mirian standing below him.

“The wild men?” she asked.

“They are vanquished,” Borden answered.

She closed her eyes. He realized suddenly how weak she looked, even in her strength. She wasn’t steady on her feet. He nearly dismounted to help her, but managed to restrain himself in time.

She opened her eyes again and looked to the horsemen who rode by her on both sides. “Where is Taerith?” she asked.

Borden looked away. She read his face before he answered, and her own face fell. He had not expected the look in her eyes.

“We lost him,” Borden said. “He and Kardas. They played a brave part.”

Mirian nodded. She turned away. Borden urged his horse forward a step and offered his hand.

“Ride behind me,” he said. “Back to the castle; you’re not well.”

Mirian looked up at him. For a moment she stared, a small frown wrinkling her brow. Then she shook her head. “No,” she said. “It wouldn’t be right.” And with that declaration she began to walk back to the castle, slipping on patches of ice in the furrows, stumbling with every step.

Borden watched her for a moment, then put his heels to his horse and galloped the rest of the way to the castle gate.

* * *

It was the work of an hour to unload all of the food into Master Grey’s kitchen. Borden stood by the ovens with his arms folded, watching the servants as they worked.

The door opened. Mirian came in with a cold wind on her heels. Borden sank back into the shadows. He watched her move through the room, speaking with servants here and there, collecting food from various places and piling it all into a wooden bowl. No one stopped her.

She finished and pushed through a back door into a corridor. Borden followed.

Mirian had not gone far down the corridor when she heard his footsteps behind her. She whirled around. “Who’s there?”

Borden stepped out of the shadows. “It’s only me,” he said. “You’ve made a fine collection.”

Mirian looked down at the bowl in her hands. “For Lilia,” she said.

“So you have managed to keep that job in my absence,” Borden said. He was half-smiling. “Good. Are you nearly finished feeding the queen?”

“I don’t know what you mean,” Mirian said.

“You’ll not be a lady’s maid forever,” Borden said. He reached out suddenly as though he would touch her, but she moved out of his range. He stopped.

His voice when he spoke again was low, almost a whisper. His heart was pounding as he spoke. The image of her waiting in the field to greet him seemed imposed on the image of her now, and he wanted, longed for, a glimpse of the fire that was in her and the strength that could increase his own.

“Things are going to change here,” he said. “Truly change. They can. Our victory in the north has opened the way.”

Mirian shook her head and drew back, farther into the shadows. “I don’t know what you mean,” she said.

“Long ago I asked what you thought of my brother,” Borden said.

Mirian looked down and flushed slightly. “I said he was a fool.”

“Fools should not sit thrones forever,” Borden said.

Mirian looked at him a long minute. Then, slowly, “But who will depose them?”

“I will,” Borden whispered. “We will.”

“That’s treason.” The words were out of her mouth before she could stop them.

“Not treason,” he said. He was almost pleading. He wanted her fire, but not against him, not this time. He wanted it behind him. He wanted it to burn for his own plans. “Not treason. I have taken a position of greater influence in this kingdom and I mean to make my brother listen to me. We will rule together, he and I.”

She cocked an eyebrow. “And you don’t want to be king?”

“I want to rule,” Borden answered. “Whether they call me king or not doesn’t matter.”

“It does matter,” Mirian started to say. He cut her off.

“I am being honest with you,” he said. “I’m telling you my heart. I want your help, Mirian.”

She shook her head. He was speaking to her as an equal, and it wasn’t—she wasn’t—something wasn’t right. He saw her confusion and reached out again, catching her hand up and holding it tightly.

“Tell me you’ll help me,” he said.

She looked at him a long moment, cradling Lilia’s bowl to her as though it was something precious. Finally she said, “Look to your brother. We have all been hungry, and he wants to solve it, but he is not—he is not wise.”
Borden let go of her. “What do you mean?”

She shook her head again. “I don’t know... I shouldn’t speak of it. Talk to him. Try to help him do what’s right.”

Borden’s mouth curled in a smile. “I knew you would help me.”

In answer, Mirian looked down at the bowl in her hand. “Excuse me, my lord,” she said. “The queen is hungry.”

She turned and began to hurry down the corridor, putting out a hand to steady herself. He did not follow her, but his mind did: he watched her go to the tower, into slavery, into subjection to a queen so much less than herself. He told himself it would not be much longer.

Things, indeed, were going to change.

* * *

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:

Monday, August 06, 2007

Attention Commenters!

Hello, Taerith readers! I just want to say thanks again for keeping up with this story and letting me know what you think of it.

Some of you know that I'll soon be publishing an older fantasy novel of mine, called Worlds Unseen. It will be available free as an ebook and for purchase as a "real" book (you know, the exciting kind with paper and ink).

I've just been putting together the back matter for Worlds--a lot of "Coming Soon" pages, mostly. One of them will send readers here. I've distilled some of your comments and included them on the page, so I wanted to give you a look here. I'm using your blog names to reflect the nature of this whole book-blogging thing.

Thank you again!

Here are your comments:

"Devastatingly beautiful... I am amazed at every chapter how deeply you've caused us to care for these characters." - Gabi

"Taerith updates are the absolute highlight of my RSS feed moments. Deeply satisfying." - Kapezia

"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!" - Danielle

"It had me on the edge of my seat (literally!). Your descriptions are amazing; I can picture every scene. You are developing the story so well and interweaving the characters. I love the way you use dialogue, like flavoring it's just enough." - Elizabeth M.

"You are an artist, Starr. Every chapter is like a painting. It's beautiful." - Brittany Simmons

"Great rhythm to your writing. The pace never abates and it keeps me engaged. I am hooked and totally invested in this tale." - Kappa

"Vivid and intriguing!" - Marsha