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



6 Comments:

Anonymous Kapezia said...

I like I like!!!

The story's really picking up pace nicely Rachel...

9:10 PM  
Blogger Brittany Simmons said...

For heaven's sake, Starr! You can write!

12:47 PM  
Blogger Kirk said...

Oh please! What happens next?

3:56 PM  
Blogger Emily Mae said...

Staaaaaaaaarr.

This is a great chapter. I think it really picked up a lot after the very first section. Something about the first one struck me as being choppy. I know I've told you that before about previous sections, but I just can't think of another way to describe it. Perhaps if you just could smooth out some of the abrupt sentences and explanations, it would sound a little better. It's definitely not bad; just a little choppy.

Other than that, I Loved it! Mirian with a baby is awesome. Very cool. And then Taerith is helping her...well, the pace has picked up a lot. I love it! Good job!

2:37 PM  
Blogger Libby Russell said...

I know I've set this precedent of long comments, but I'm sorry, you've drawn me too far in to stop for a long comment. I love it, and I just don't know where you're going from here! Yay...I get to read more....

Well, I did think of one more quick thing to say, and that is, that Taerith's motives and responses are suiting. I just love that guy. The way he loved Lilia, and is still committed to his promise to her in how he is protecting the child, and Mirian. But it's more than the promise, I think. It's Mirian herself.

Well...reading on!

11:56 AM  
Blogger Malachi said...

You can really get a tale perfectly! It is really good.

Moving onto the next chapter...

4:50 PM  

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