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.

“Mirian.”

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


8 Comments:

Blogger Emily Mae said...

GOOOOOOOOO MIRIAN!!!!!! YES!!!!! GO GIRL GO!!!!! *bites fingernails down to the quick in anticipation of next chapter*
STARR, hurry UP. I mean it. This was a great chapter, but honestly! You can't leave me there! How long shall I wait? How long, how long, how long?

Good job on...well, everything. Borden's fall into darkness has been well handled; it seemed very believable. And Mirian's challenge to him in honor of Lilia and everything else was AMAZING. Just..ahhhh. Amazing.

Good job. I really liked this chapter. Everything seemed to make a lot of sense. But now I want to find out what happened to Kardas and Taerith.

Taerith. What will Taerith do when he finds out about Lilia?

Get me chapter 23.
Now.
PLEASE. :-)

11:34 AM  
Blogger Gabi said...

Wow.


I don't know what to say other than that.


Wow.

1:00 PM  
Blogger Brittany Simmons said...

Ohhh, the tension is amazing. You can feel it in the air, cut it with a knife as they say. The emotion! The turmoil! Awesome.

I love how Mirian softened and came to love Lilia with time. I love how she's so vibrant and snapping real. I think she and Borden are the best characters you've written ever! Not just the best you've written, some of the best anybody's written.

I still love Borden. And I grieve for him. He has chosen the wrong path, but I can't help but love him and sympathize with him all the same. He's wrestled with more emotion than any man can and still stay sane without God in their life. Poor Borden. I love you! I want you to be redeemed!! I will be devasted when you're not.

Now I'm truly curious about Taerith's love life. Lilia seemed like she was doomed to die all along (good job setting that up), but I was still confused. I seem to remember this conversation in which you said Taerith was going to end up with a girl in the end, and that it wasn't going to be someone still to be introduced. Yet Mirian and Taerith don't seem to have any sparks between them, and their personalities don't seem to click right. Mirian needs a throne, and Taerith needs to return to Braedoch... maybe Taerith isn't going to end up with anyone after all. Did you word things tricksily to make me think he would end up with someone, you goose? Or perhaps you changed your mind? Ack, I need to know! But you won't tell me. You'll just keep on weaving your web of confusion, and enjoying it all the way. Stinker! But the suspense makes for one heck of a story. :-D

6:32 PM  
Anonymous Kapezia said...

Nice surprises. You certainly didn't buy into the "pretty ending". Some stark plot twists in this chapter that I didn't quite see coming.

1:58 PM  
Blogger Kirk said...

I said "wow" too when I read it.
I think Mirian was done beautifully here. And it is so very exciting!

8:14 AM  
Anonymous Marsha said...

I'm on the edge of my seat-- which is where I like to be.

Next chapter, please. I'm dyin' here!

12:44 PM  
Blogger Libby Russell said...

Well, for once, I'm not sure I'll have tons to say. (But Britt seems to have covered my area of comment expertise for this chapter anyway.) All I can say is that was astoundingly beautiful. Lilia's end was just as I predicted (not without satisfaction, hee hee) and so tragically lovely. Her last words were so perfect...I felt my eyes tingling, and maybe I would have cried but I was reading so fast. And Mirian is turning out to be my favorite kind of heroine. That scene with Borden was poignant and powerful, with her tree, the branches moaning, the mingliong of dirt and tears and snow...and blood. Ah, I just loved it.

<3Libby

*reading on*

11:32 AM  
Blogger Malachi said...

Yeeha!!! Great chapter!!! I just can't put into words how great this book is turning out. I'll be so glad once it becomes a best seller. :D

5:49 PM  

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