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.

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Anonymous Marsha said...

I could just feel the tension and held my breath while Taerith waited for the other men's response.

I really am on the edge of my seat (literally)!

9:00 AM  
Blogger Kirk said...


10:04 AM  
Blogger Brittany Simmons said...

Borden doesn't have black hair, he has reddish brown hair. Trust me, I know. ;-)

8:08 PM  
Blogger Emily Mae said...

:-D Whew, awesome chapter!! I love the tension as Mirian stays on the run and Taerith works to help her and Kardas is so quiet (I Love Kardas) and Borden so undone. :) It's great. But now we MUST know what happened to Taerith, and who the riders are near Mirian. ARGH!! Hurry up the next chapter, Missie!! :)


12:50 PM  
Blogger Danielle said...

Huzzah for facebook! Thanks to your status, I was reminded to come and check here. And a new chapter!! Wahooo!!!

5:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Neeki Meeki Lookie Hoo! 'xcuse me as I go bite my bed to relieve the tension *runs and bites bed* (Really if you're ever tense just go bite a bed it really helps it almost helps as much as running around flapping your arms and barking like a seal!But don't try to bite a wall, trust me it doesn't work! I know from experience!) Kardas is cool, I think I'll dump Robin Hood and become Kardases apprentice instead... Really! I should have done that before, you know with all his cool fighting the tribes men and all but then again being so quite and all he may not teach me much... oh well back to good ole Robin!

Anonymous =)

8:53 PM  
Blogger Libby Russell said...

:-) I could tell you had recently milked a cow when you wrote this. right?

Poor baby. Poor Mirian! Man, I would hate to feel like she must; alone, helpless, responsible for the life of an infant she can hardly feed, and being pursued by evil dudes all the while. But Taerith showed up just like a hero should, and the confrontation he starts in the tavern is great. I did my usual cheer for his heroic action. But now he has to find her again before Borden!

Man, I'm not liking Borden these days. No, I've pretty much disowned him. Maybe I wouldn't have if you'd given me reason to hope. But alas, he's the villain. Sadness. (does he look like Cirran Hinds in your imagination? I was seeing him like that for a while, but now I see him more like Clive Owen... but that's beside the point.)

Kardas is probably the coolest side character ever. But I kind of wish he had lied to Borden. Too honorable for that, I guess. I noticed Taerith didn't lie to the thugs, either. I like that. I pretty much hate when good characters resort to lying to get out of trouble. Come on. Lying is sinful! (hee hee, but I DID want Kardas to lie, I'm just a hypocrite I suppose.)

Oh, and a few things I forgot to say in my last comment since I was being impatient:

Annar, during Borden's confrontation with him, when Borden's hatred started all that roiling and seething, he was more vivid than in any other place in the book, I thought. His personality was clearer. You seemed to summarize him, and in doing so gave a clearer picture of who he was, how he had antagonized his brother, how he had no honor, and how Borden could be so tempted to end him.

The last thing I don't want to forget mentioning is Mistress Grey. I really like her. The crotchety old woman with a good heart, who you don't plan on liking but then do. :-) I'm glad she's in the story.

12:26 PM  
Blogger Malachi said...

This is so good. I can hardly wait to see what happens to Taerith. (And Miriam.) I liked this chapter even more than the last one. things just keep getting better.

5:01 PM  

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