Friday, August 03, 2007

Chapter 20

Borden had been right. Two weeks more proved it. Their victory against the wild men had been enough. The border, once left in the hands of Emmet and a few small troops, would stay secure for the winter.

Moreover, they were eating again.

Tridian returned from a raiding party with corn stores wrested from a barbarian band he had chased over the moors. His men bore it in sacks on their backs and in wagons. Borden divided out enough for his men and sent the rest to the stock he was building. Enough to take home. Enough to tide the people over—to give the kingdom some hope, as only he could do.

Tridian gave his report as usual. “We killed most of them,” he said. “They’d stored up what you see—not much.”

“But enough,” Borden said. He looked up from his place by the fire. Tridian’s young face was weary. His clothes stank of blood and horses. Behind him, the pale winter sky was streaked with purple clouds.

“Was there any sign?” Borden asked.

Tridian shook his head. “Nothing, my lord.”

“They cannot be dead,” Borden said, half to himself. “I would know.” He stood. “There is another band encamped to the west. Ride on them tomorrow night. Keep looking for Kardas and Taerith. They are still out there somewhere.”

“Forgive me, my lord,” Tridian said, “but—supposing we do not find them—how much longer will it be before we end these raids and return home? We have as much food as we can possibly take back with us.”

“Not quite,” Borden said. “We can take a little more. Deus knows it will be needed.”

His eyes looked past Tridian and scanned the hilly ground of the borderlands. Searching in vain.

They had to be out there somewhere.


* * *


You are our king. Can you not feed us?

Annar felt the emptiness in his own stomach constrict. His body felt weak; almost indifferent; yet deep inside somewhere he was ravenous, and the words kept playing themselves through his mind.

Can you not feed us?

As ravenous as appetite, such words. They demanded an answer.

The king of Corran stood and crossed the throne room. He paused before the window. In the yard, two of Grey’s lackeys led the new arrivals’ horses to the stables. Mistress Grey spoke with Hosten’s men and led them away to their rooms. They would prepare themselves and come into Annar’s presence soon, and perhaps for the last time he would be a king in their eyes. They came with the air of conquerors, but he was not ready to release his pride quite yet.

He thought of Borden on the border. Borden would never, never allow this: not if the people had to starve to prevent it. Annar’s lip curled. Ever the hero, his warrior brother; ever the ambitious son. But Annar’s was the hunger and thus the compassion. Borden was not human enough to give in to his own lusts. He sneered at Annar—he always had—for allowing himself to live as he wanted to live.

He thought of his wife. Small, once-beautiful Lilia, waning now in the throes of need, carrying his child.

Can you not? Can you not feed us?

Footsteps in the hall. Annar turned away from the window and returned to his throne. He placed a hand on the arm and stood waiting, stern as he could be. Master Grey ushered in the visitors.

“How much is Hosten willing to give us?” Annar demanded.

“He has stored up much for the winter,” the chief messenger answered. “He can feed your people bread enough for the winter—and there is wine and meat for you.”

Annar smiled to himself.

For wine and meat in the midst of hunger—was a kingdom truly such a price to pay?


* * *


He was stiff and and he was sore. These, along with the cold, were Taerith’s chief complaints. He kept them at bay, buried in his mind so they couldn’t come out his mouth and tint the days darker. Kardas had not complained; had hardly opened his mouth since they were taken captive. Instead he watched and listened. His uncomplaining attitude suited Taerith even if his silence did not entirely. It was good not to be alone.

His arms were bound behind him most of the time, tightly pinioned with several thin cords. Each evening the barbarians cut loose the cords and watched him with a curiosity that was almost friendly, five or six standing guard at a time, while he swung his arms and rubbed them and set his teeth against the pain, allowing circulation to come back, making sure his arms stayed strong. He dropped to the ground and pushed himself up a few times, even as his bare hands slipped and ached in the cold snow and the colder mud. Aiden’s lessons, on survival and fighting the wilderness when it refused to be any longer the companion Taerith loved, thundered in the newly released blood flow through his arms and fingers. It hurt, but it was good. There were white and blue patches on his hands and feet where frostbite was setting in, and his face stung, but he was alive and still grateful for it.

Kardas was also cut loose every night, but the guards stood away from him, averting their eyes, as though he deserved some respect that Taerith did not. He also kept himself strong, in his own ways, and in his silence watched the wild men who had taken them captive with eyes that saw everything.

Their fifteenth night with the wild men was lit by a full white moon, beaming ghostly down so unlike sunshine, cold and beautiful and utterly without warmth. Kardas waited until their guards had moved away a little and said, “Tomorrow is the first day of the waning moon. It’s an ill omen for them. They may kill you.”

Taerith mulled the words over a moment. There was a sad uselessness in them; the emotional echo of the words that had banished him from Braedoch. “Why?” he asked. “When?”

“There is always a gathering of tribes in the waning moon. They band together to beseech their spirit enemies for mercy. Borden has bested them and they are afraid; they think the north itself has turned against them. In fear they sometimes kill outsiders because they think the spirits will be appeased.”

Taerith bowed his head, resting his forehead on his knees. “And you?”

Something in Kardas’s eyes glimmered darkly. “Let them try me. My mother was one of them. They will give me the chance to fight my way free.”

“Your mother?” Taerith asked. His eyes drifted to the tattoo just visible above Kardas’s shirt. The dark man dropped his own eyes.

“I was also one of them for a time.”

“Why did you leave?” Taerith asked.

“Borden,” Kardas answered.

The moonlight over them made the moorish shadows shift. Kardas was silent again, looking away over the hillocks under patches of snow. The wild men lay around them like dead men; sleeping as they always did, deeply and yet alert, as though it was their last night under a haunted sky.

“The wild men know little of honour, so Borden has always told me,” Kardas said. “In some ways he is right. They do not know that a full victory is to be sought, or that retreat is cowardice. They do not know that they ought to make a way of life for themselves without thievery. They are little better than crows. Yet there are codes among them... things that bind us. Blood debt is the strongest. The one saved owes his loyalty as long as both men live.”

“Borden saved your life, then,” Taerith said.

“Long ago,” Kardas answered.

“You have acquitted your debt well,” Taerith said.

Something flickered in Kardas’s face. It suddenly occured to Taerith to wonder how old he was: surely not much older than Taerith himself. Aiden’s age—young, really. And yet somehow possessed of a spirit old as the hills and the wolves and winter itself. A spirit that manifested itself in faithfulness.

A faithfulness that bound him. Kardas’s words still hung in the air: “The chance to fight my way free.” Comprehension settled in. Kardas planned to take up a sword and fight until he had released himself from the longest bondage of his life.

Kardas’s head was bent. With the moonlight in his dark hair and illuminating the blue tattoo, he looked like the prince of barbarians—less like a man than a wolf, a thing of the night. Taerith wondered, and stopped himself from asking, what Kardas had been meant to be—what he was before Borden claimed his loyalty. A memory stirred: attacking the tattooed men in the battle, and somehow splitting the entire army of barbarians by doing so because the small bands followed their tattooed leaders above all else.

Things that bind us, Kardas had said. Blood debt—and something else.

“And who will you fight?” Taerith asked. “If they give you this chance?”

Kardas’s eyes glinted in the night like an animal’s. “Whoever I can,” he said.

An idea was weaving itself into the memory of battle, taking shape like the snake tattooed across Kardas’s collarbone. Taerith bit it back; refused to let the words form on his tongue. Yet his mind still raced, and he argued with it: I have no right. I cannot ask him to live if he wants to die. To be a barbarian again—to go home when he does not wish to... go home...

The sting of his face worsened as bile rose in his throat. He swallowed hard. Words escaped him, rasping out. “I want to go home again,” he said. He looked up and met Kardas’s eyes hard. “I was banished, sent away for reasons I don’t understand, but I know now—I want to go home again. Someday. If I die here that will never happen.”

Kardas regarded him a long time. “You believe I can help you?” he asked.

“Yes,” Taerith said. His racing mind was calling up pictures before him, and they all tangled together: the battle, his sisters, birds in flight. Lilia and the castle and defeating Meronane. Mirian whose arm he had mended. And Kardas—Kardas in battle, Kardas who fought like a wolf in winter.

“Tell me how,” Kardas said.

“Fight the tattooed men,” Taerith said. The words came out of the past, from the battle where Kardas had first said them. What else had he said?

“To kill one is to win the enmity of the whole band,” Kardas said. “Their loyalties belong to the leaders.”

“I said fight them,” Taerith said. “Don’t kill them.”

“That would only—” Kardas began. He bit the words off. “I see.”

From the look on his face, Taerith knew that he did.


* * *


Emmet said it first.

“You can take no more back with you.” His voice was low. “We have searched everywhere, my lord. We have killed every barbarian within riding distance. They are beyond our reach.”

Borden did not answer. He stared into the sunrise, his jaw set.

“The people of Corran are hungry,” Emmet said. “If you wait much longer they will begin to die, and then they will resent you when you return because you did not return sooner.” His voice dropped even lower. “That, my lord, would not serve your purposes well.”

Borden turned his head and regarded Emmet without a change of expression. “What do you know of my purposes?” he asked.

Emmet looked down. “Enough,” he said. “I will hold the border for you, but you alone can do what must be done in Corran.”

Borden’s fingers had been tightly coiled around his sword hilt. He let go. “You are right,” he said. “Tell the men. We will leave now.”

He cast a last glance over the moors. “I’m sorry,” he said into the air. “You’re on your own now.”


* * *


They walked long and hard the next day under a clear sky. A bitter wind blew in their faces, whistling over the open moor. There was something tense in the march; the sense of something building. In the middle of the day they cut Taerith loose as they always did, and watched as he stretched fingers and wrists and elbows, rolled his shoulders and tried to push his own weight off the ground.

Evening came early, and the sky, instead of closing in as it did on cloudy days, seemed instead to grow, making the world immeasurably larger above them. The stars came out with a sharp clarity Taerith had never seen before. He had read somewhere, long ago in another life, that stars were clearest in the north. The dark sky and its stars, more of them appearing every minute, dancing above them in vast circles, found an answer in Kardas’s eyes and in Taerith’s soul. In the wild men around them, it only inspired fear.

The unmarked road took them up a ridge of small hills. When they crested it, a vast circular plateau lay before them, patches of snow alternating with black ground and gleaming in the starlight with a silver fire they did not possess under the light of the moon only.

At the center of the plateau were six great stones, standing upright. Gathered around them was a host of wild men that nearly matched those Borden had fought at Engnor. A dozen small bands, each led by a tattooed leader—some old, some young. Their own band passed through the crowd and approached nearly to the stones, where a grizzled giant as old as the standing stones stood waiting.

The band spread out a little. Each man seemed to know his place in the crowd, though not a word was said. Four arranged themselves around Taerith and Kardas. Fear seemed to pulse through the crowd, a stifling fear that stopped the breath in their very lungs. Taerith lifted his eyes to the stars and felt himself swept up into the sky’s peace and wild beauty. The constricting bands of fear fell away from him.

In the center of the standing stones, a fire pit lay beneath four pillars of stone crested with crossing bars of iron. The old giant of a man lifted a torch and began to intone something in words Taerith did not understand. He kept his eyes fixed on the stars as the wild men around him picked up the chant. Their voices were low and rumbling, the sound like that of an animal when it is cornered. For a moment Taerith let himself slip back into the atmosphere of fear, and he felt it: the strong sense of something surrounding them, nipping at their heels, threating them with bared teeth and lowered head. He raised his eyes again and the sky set him free.

He blinked. Something moved across the sky, dimming the stars for a moment—something like the motion of a great wing across the star-circles.

The old giant threw his torch into the fire pit, and it blazed to life, flames licking up around the iron bars and blackening the stone—not for the first time, nor for the last, under the waning moon. The light of the ancient altar drew Taerith’s eyes away from the sky, and suddenly he found himself cut loose. He stretched his arms and fingers in wonderment as the crowd around him began to pick up a new strain in their chant—a high, keening song, frightening and frightened.

He knew—he felt—that he was about to die. It was a death song they sang. He had no weapon, nothing with which to face it, and so he turned to meet death wherever it would come.

But something else came instead.

A wind swept over the plateau, cutting through the crowd and throwing those who stood nearest to Taerith back. At the same time, the ear-splitting cry of an eagle rang through the starry air. It pierced the death-song and shattered it. The wild men fell to their knees, some crying in terror, others struggling to hold their own against the wind.

As quickly as it had come, it left. But as the barbarians fell, Kardas did not. He grabbed a sword from a man near him, and in a few short steps he had mounted the rise to the standing stones, and with a leap he stood atop the ancient altar, the flames cowed by the strange wind beneath his feet. He lifted the sword and cried out a challenge in the guttural speech of his people. His eyes searched the crowd until they rested on a tattooed man. He pointed the tip of his sword at the man and once again called out his challenge.

The man had fallen beneath the wind, but now he staggered to his feet and drew his sword. He was an older man, greying in his long hair and beard, but still strong. He wore a necklace of wolves’ teeth about his neck. He stood, sword drawn, facing Kardas, and then charged up the hill with a bloodcurdling scream.

Kardas met him and their swords rang out in the clear air, flashing through the drifting smoke of the fire. Around the altar they danced, the wild man driving Kardas before him but unable to catch him, unable to finish the hunt. Then suddenly the tables turned: Kardas drove his adversary with blow after blow until the man lost his footing on the slope and fell back. Kardas’s sword was at his throat, nicked it, drew blood.

But he did not kill him. He pulled the tip of his sword away and kicked the man down the hill. In the same motion he turned and leaped once again onto the altar: again he pointed his sword at a tattooed man, again he called the challenge.

This man was young and inexperienced, and Kardas dealt with him in minutes. He drove him up against the pillar stones of the altar, and the young man faltered and dropped his sword. It fell into the fire pit, blackened in an instant by the heat of the flames.

Kardas held his sword against the young man’s heart. His eyes narrowed, and he pulled the sword away. He shoved the young man away.

And again, atop the altar. And again, the challenge called.

Taerith watched with his heart beating in strange rhythm with Kardas’s battle-dance. He had never seen before—never understood how truly gifted Kardas was, how easily he defeated his enemies. One after the other, he defeated the tattooed leaders of the wild men.

When he had beaten the last, there was silence. Kardas stood below the altar, his chest heaving with exertion. Silent. His eyes swept the crowd, waiting for any to challenge him. No one did.

The grizzled giant approached him. He spoke a few guttural words. Kardas did not look at him, but the words lit a strange fire in his face.

He lifted his sword once again and cried out. His words swept over the crowd like a wind in themselves. His voice died away and then he repeated himself, more quietly, in the language that Taerith knew.

“I have defeated you and have not killed you,” he said. “The Blood Debt is mine. I claim your loyalty.”

One by one, the men Kardas had defeated came forward and bowed at his feet. He laid his hand upon each head, black-haired and grey, and said three words. One by one, they withdrew back into their bands, and then as one the crowd knelt. The fire behind Kardas flared up. The stars still danced.

Kardas threw back his head and howled like a wolf in the light of the waning moon.


* * *

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


9 Comments:

Blogger Marsha said...

Oh wow, I was not expecting this!

And Annar, it sounds like he has some heart at last?

Anxiously awaiting your next chapter... :-)

Marsha

9:39 AM  
Blogger Emily Mae said...

Whoa.

Um...I'm in awe. Great chapter.

I have nothing else to say.

*walks away with slightly dazed expression on face* ;-)

5:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

...wow...amazing...

9:43 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Marvelous, marvelous, do another one!

Anonymous=)

1:43 PM  
Blogger Kirk said...

Oh, excellent! What shall happen next?

6:13 PM  
Anonymous kapezia said...

Ahhhhh, the mystery of Kardas. Which fair damsel shall break through his layers. Every other chapter he does something to keep us on our toes. :)

8:43 PM  
Blogger Jo said...

It was lovely!!
I can't wait for the next one!!!

10:13 AM  
Blogger Libby Russell said...

This chapter was beautiful. I was taking mental notes about "showing" rather than "telling" when I was reading the first sections with Taerith and Kardas as captives.

And that description of Taerith's feelings at the words of banishment and the words of his likely death... "sad uselessness." Goodness. You've got it perfectly.

Ok, so I don't know how you did it, but you have have somehow invented these pagan wild men so believably that I'm trying to figure out where you were inspired. Druids? Native Americans? A mix of the two? Something else?

I really like where you took this with Kardas fighting the leaders of his people and winning their loyalty. I'm so excited to read the next chapter and see where it goes. And once again you've bumped it up a notch with Kardas. How you can coin these descriptions so well. Like his old spirit, "as old as the hills and the wolves and winter itself. A spirit that manifested itself in faithfulness." If you keep this up, Kardas may become my new favorite.

The wings! I cheered a little when I came to that part. I just love how you make clear these spiritual undercurrents through motifs and atmosphere. The wings, the moon, the stars, the snow. This chapter was really beautiful with all of that. But part of me feels like it's too short! Your chapters should be twice as long. ;-)

And lastly, Annar. He's obviously interested in getting food, but I don't think it's a matter of caring for his people so much as caring for his pride. But Joachim did make that prophecy, and I'm still looking forward to how you tie that in.

10:27 AM  
Blogger Malachi said...

Whoa. awesome. :O

5:29 PM  

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