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:


Blogger Kirk said...

Interesting, definitely interesting. Tension is building beautifully!

7:32 PM  
Blogger Libby Russell said...

Oh, man. I love this story. The "Presence" and Joachim showing up. It was just so...fitting. And the complexities you're setting up are, as Kirk said, really doing the job of building tension. I can see in small ways how you're preparing for the climax--that mysterious, who knows what will happen? climax.

It's always one character; just one character in each of your chapters who is so vivid, I can see and hear them. Kardas was the one in the last two, Mirian was the one this time. First the set up with Mirian, her fiery hair and bare feet, meeting the soldiers, and Borden's perspective as he sees and greets her. Then the great dialog between them that followed in the hall--the passion in him barely repressed and her spirited but cautious replies. (Am I sensing a little Bois-Guilbert in Borden? Oh, dear. Only he wants to make her his queen, right? Poor, misguided, pride-driven Borden.) Anyway, Mirian was striking in this chapter.

Now I'm wondering what you're going to do with poor Lilia. She's getting so weak. She's not going to make it, is she? How tragical.

Well, I loved it, as usual. I hope you keep up with writing and posting during your trip.

8:38 PM  
Blogger Emily Mae said...

I totally agree with Libby: Mirian was striking in this chapter! I pictured her very vividly. She reminded me a little bit of Eowyn, when she is standing at the Golden Hall when Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli ride in with Gandalf. Hair blowing in the breeze, standing tall and strong. Very cool.

Looking forward to more!! :-)

5:24 AM  
Blogger Brittany Simmons said...

That whole chapter was absolutely wonderful.

And I love Borden. I will weep and wail for him.

10:23 AM  
Anonymous Kapezia said...

WOW, each character has such an individual potent energy of their own. Borden really surprised me in this chapter - things are certainly mobilizing. An interesting way to change gears Rachel.

3:47 PM  
Anonymous Marsha said...

Okay, you need to hurry and write the next chapter RIGHT NOW. I'm dying to know how it is all going to unfold!

No pressure though...

8:19 PM  
Blogger Malachi said...

Onto the next chapter! I love how this book is turning out. Congrats!

5:40 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home