Saturday, September 01, 2007

Chapter 25

Before you read this chapter, I have a couple of announcements. First, I'm making a concerted effort to finish
Taerith within the week. It won't be posted at that rate, but I will be posting twice a week. Check back every Saturday and Wednesday for new chapters.

Second, check out the post beneath this one for news about my fantasy novel Worlds Unseen, which you can now access free from my Web site.

* * *

The knife whistled past Taerith’s head. He let out a sharp breath as the blade thunked in a piece of wood. He turned. The knife had embedded itself in a hitching post in the street, fastening a piece of a small man’s cloak along with it. The man in question looked up and quickly back down again, tugging at his cloak.

“He meant to follow you,” the tall man in the alley said. “I apologize if I startled you.”

Taerith smiled in wonderment as he turned. “Randal,” he said.

The tall sword-swallower bowed. “At your service. That fellow will work his way free in a moment. Shall we remove?”

Taerith broke into a grin and grabbed Randal’s hand and elbow with fierce joy even as he moved toward the back of the alley. “Let’s.”

They ducked behind the row of buildings and made for a low ditch screened by winter-dead bushes. “It’s good to see you,” Taerith said. “So good to see you. Where are the others?”

“Not far,” Randal said. He stopped and looked at Taerith with concern in his eyes. “Tell me. How go things for you?”

Taerith shook his head. “Not as well as I could have hoped. But I have work to do—that at least I have.”

“Are you still in the queen’s service?” Randal asked.

With a pang Taerith remembered that it had been Randal who first warned him that there was danger to Lilia in Corran—who had first urged him to stay and protect her. Randal had been there the night they rescued her from marauders on the road. Memories rushed at him and he pushed them back. He called up his first line of defense: Mirian’s face, and the babe in her arms. He had work to do.

“She’s dead,” he said. They had reached the ditch. He pushed dead branches aside and dropped into it. Randal followed close behind. The bottom was water-logged, but their boots kept their feet dry as they slogged along.

“I’m sorry,” Randal answered.

“Do you remember the slave girl?” Taerith asked. “The one who defended the unicorn?”

Randal smiled. “She’s not easy to forget.”

“I have to find her,” Taerith said. “She’s hiding here in the village somewhere with... with a child. Not her own child—an orphan she’s caring for. Trouble is after her. I sent her away and told her I’d find her.”

“You want our help,” Randal said.

Taerith stopped. A cold breeze blew with the scent of wet, dead leaves and stagnant water. “If you’ll give it.”

“There is no if,” Randal said. “How old is this child?”

“Less than three weeks,” Taerith said.

Pain passed over Randal’s face like a light. “So young,” he said. “Too young to be motherless.”

Taerith saw the hurt in Randal’s eyes, but the image he’d called up of Mirian and the baby was pressing on him now. He had no time to ask questions. “Mirian will have headed for the edges of town, but not likely left it completely,” Taerith said. “I need to find her quickly.”

“Then search,” Randal said. He was already turning away. “I am going for more help. We’ll find her.”

* * *

The baby fussed and squirmed until Mirian’s nerves were raw. The milk bag grew damper. The fourth time she tried to milk into it, she watched every drop soak through and streak the flagstones with white. The baby’s wails were growing frantic.

With a frustrated half-cry of her own, Mirian snatched the bag up, stood, and threw the sopping cloth on the floor. A wave of nausea hit her as she stood, and black spots appeared before her eyes. She leaned against the cow and glared across the room at the baby, hot tears in her eyes threatening to spill over.

The dizziness passed. She closed her eyes and sighed.

The baby kept crying.

She pushed herself off the side of the cow and wearily crossed the room. She picked the baby up off his heap of straw, held him in front of her, turned, and sank to the floor with her back to the hay. She jiggled him a little and his cries quieted slightly.

“Listen to me,” she said. “I know you’re hungry. I know it’s cold in here. But this isn’t going to last forever. You and I will be leaving soon, and I will keep you warm, and find you food, and you will grow and... and live.” She swallowed. “I need you to stop crying. Someone might hear you and then I don’t know what I’ll do. Your mother never complained enough. Can you take after her? Just for now?”

For a moment he stopped crying and met her eyes, his dark eyes peering back at her with seeming understanding. Then he screwed up his face and began to wail again.

“Oh, hush!” Mirian burst out. She drew the baby close, nestling him into her breast, and leaned against the hay. Tears were still coming to her eyes, stinging and making the barn walls blur. She stroked the back of the child’s hair and started to hum, awkwardly, softly.

She was never sure which of them fell asleep first.

* * *

The small mercenary led Borden and Kardas through the street to the tavern. He walked with his back slightly hunched. The edge of his cloak was ragged where Randal’s knife had pegged it.

He stopped before the tavern door and motioned inside.

“In there,” he said.

Borden dismounted and walked into the smoky dining room. Furniture was still strewn around the floor, tables and chairs overturned, some pieces smashed. In the middle of it all his mercenaries sat, back to back. The tall one was asleep. The shorter one was singing. There were a few other men still in the room. They stood against the back wall, arms folded, taciturnly watching the drunks.

Borden walked slowly across the room, eyes on the men who lined the back wall. He reached the drunks and stopped inches from the singer. He looked down at them and raised an eyebrow.

The man kept singing. Behind him, his tall companion snored once.

Borden drew his foot back and kicked the singer in the leg. The man yelped and jumped up. He pointed a shaky finger.

“You shouldn’t...” he started.

“Enough!” Borden roared. The man cowered at the strength of Borden’s voice. Beneath the drunken sheen of his face, he paled.

“My lord Borden,” he said.

The men in the back of the room stirred and muttered to themselves. Borden looked up at them.

“No fear,” he said. “Help me get these wretches off your floor.”

The smaller of the men was turning colours. “We tried, my lord,” he said. “We chased her in here, but―”

He couldn’t finish. Borden drew his sword and killed him where he stood.

The silence in the tavern resounded. The men on the back wall shifted uneasily as Borden stood over the bleeding body. He looked up at them. The dark fire in his eyes was the singular force in the room. He nodded at the taller mercenary. The man was awake now, his eyes wide.

“Come with me,” Borden said. “The rest of you―go on with your day. And clean up in here.”

He turned and left the tavern. Kardas, lurking in the shadows near the door, followed him. The tall mercenary came last of all, tripping over his own feet.

In the street, Borden wheeled on the man.

“Not a word in front of anyone,” he said. “These people aren’t to know.”

The mercenary nodded. Borden grabbed him by the throat.

“Where did he go? The man who stopped you in the tavern?”

“I don’t―don’t know,” the mercenary stammered.

Borden dropped him. He scrambled to stay on his feet.

“Ride behind Kardas,” Borden said. He put his foot in the stirrup and looked down the street with his eyes narrowed. His words were faint. He was only half-listening to himself. “We may need you.”

* * *

What drew him to the barn he wasn’t sure, but as Taerith searched the lanes at the edge of the village, it commanded his attention. It was a low, stone building, a dairy barn built out of the ground. A flock of crows was perched atop it, looking sagely down at him. He looked back up at them. The sky overhead was clearing of rain, and through the clouds above the crows the sun was paling down.

The barn doors were barred. He circled the whitewashed stone walls until he found a window closed by a piece of wood. He pushed it and it nearly fell in. Carefully, he lifted it out of the way and climbed in.

The interior was gloomy, but the open window behind him let in a beam of light that illuminated a haystack and Mirian. She was asleep. The baby was in her arms, with his little head nestled at the base of her throat.

Taerith’s own throat constricted as he looked at them. It had been dark in the tavern, and hurried; he hadn’t had a good look at Mirian. She was filthy, ragged, and obviously exhausted. Gashes along both her cheekbones had scabbed over, but one had recently ripped open. Her face was streaked with dirt and traces of blood. Rough red callouses around her neck showed the place where the slave collar had rested most of her life. He wondered how young she’d been when she wore it for the first time.

Movement behind him startled him. He whirled around. Randal was letting himself in through the window.

That was quick, Taerith thought. How did you find me so fast? But he couldn’t make words come out his mouth.

Randal looked soberly at Mirian and the baby. Then he turned and reached outside the window. A hand took his, and he helped Marta climb in. Little musclebound Orlin came in after her.

It was Marta who broke the silence.

“Oh, the poor dear child,” she said. In an instant she crossed to the haymound and gathered Mirian in her arms. Mirian stirred and opened her eyes, laying her tangled red-brown head on Marta’s shoulder. She looked up.

“Who are you?” she asked.

“Help,” Marta answered.

Taerith stepped forward. Mirian saw him and relaxed still more deeply into Marta’s embrace.

“You found me,” she said.

Marta was looking over Mirian’s shoulder at the baby. He was still asleep, laying close to Mirian’s heart with his tiny mouth puckered up.

“What is his name?” Marta asked.

Taerith found suddenly that all eyes were on him. He looked down at Mirian. She smiled a little.

“We didn’t name him,” she said.

Marta clicked her tongue. “That won’t do,” she said.

Mirian was still looking at Taerith. She cocked her head. Through the exhaustion that lined her face, her green eyes were more vivid than ever.

“You tell us,” she said.

Taerith stepped forward and knelt down beside Mirian and the baby. He reached out and touched the soft head, running his fingers down the little one’s cheek. Little, fatherless, motherless. An outcast. Lilia’s child.

“Isaak,” he said. His voice was husky. “His name is Isaak.”

“A good name,” Randal said. His voice sounded far away. Taerith was absorbed in the baby. He reached out, and Mirian gently laid the baby in his arms. Carefully, Taerith drew his Isaak close. He stood, his eyes only on the child.

“It was my father’s name,” he said.

* * *

Kardas rode watchfully. The town stretched before them like a dark maze full of doors, full of secrets. The tall mercenary behind him, Doublin by name, held on with his knees and said not a word. Borden led them in fits and starts, a living storm, banging at doors, searching homes and outbuildings.

The people of the village watched him with fear in their eyes and made no move to prevent him. Once a man looked as though he would protest the invasion. Kardas and Doublin drew their swords and warned him away with their eyes. He listened.

They rode down the main street, doubled back, and took a side road. The clouds overhead had cleared away by the time they came upon the whitewashed barn. It shone in the sun. But the storm that rode with them darkened it with a shadow as they approached.

A flock of crows picked around the barnyard. They squawked and flew up, alighting on the barn roof as Borden approached. He dismounted and drew his sword.

Kardas stayed mounted. Every muscle in his body was tense. He could see the footprints in the muddy ground, the signs of activity around open window with a board laying in the bushes near it. Someone had been here.

Borden moved forward quietly. With a single motion he swung down through the window. Kardas waited. His horse stamped its foot.

A moment passed. Another.

Borden appeared in the window. He held a damp piece of cloth, full of holes, on the end of his sword. He threw it on the ground.

“They were here,” he said.

* * *

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 Emily Mae said...

I KNEW HE WAS GOING TO NAME THE BABY ISAAK!! I knew it. I was just thinking about how the baby didn't have a name yet, and I was positive Taerith would name him Isaak. Am I good, or am I good. *grin*

Good job! Tension is finely built, and I'm really looking forward to the confrontation between Borden and Mirian. Funny, but I never think of it as a confrontation between Borden and Taerith, or even Borden and Kardas. I think of Borden and Mirian. They opened this story in chapter one, and I hope they get a chance to finish it. Sorta. Obviously Taerith will finish it in the end-end, but in the beginning-end, Mirian needs to. Does that make sense? I'm just rambling now. :) Oh, and is the unicorn going to make an appearance soon? I've been hoping for that fifteen or something. I wanted the beautiful unicorn back in the story!! :)

Love you, and as always--great job.

4:41 AM  
Blogger Libby Russell said...

Ok, I'm caught-up, and now I'm annoyed that the next chapter is not posted. :-/

Don't have too much to say though, and I'm crunched for time, I realize, because I've been reading this all afternoon and not getting ready for the opening service at my school this evening. Bother. I was engrossed!

Anyway, I'm loving it, I'm tense with Kardas about the choices he will have to make, I'm tense with Mirian about the fate of Isaak and her pending confrontation with Borden, I'm tense with Borden and his ultimate downfall or redemption, and I'm tense with Taerith about his role in it all.

You've woven a fantastic story, Starr.

12:57 PM  
Anonymous Marsha said...

Hooray! I'm so excited about more chapters... but will be very sad to see the story end.

I don't even know what to say about this last chapter. I was so engrossed in it, the time just flew by!

Eagerly waiting for Wednesday...


9:49 PM  
Blogger Malachi said...

I had a feeling that Borden would be part bad guy near the end once he killed Annar. Poor guy. I sort of liked him as a good guy. :(

But since that can't change, I have something to tell you: I knew that the circus would come and help everyone!! Yay! I'm a genius. :)

Moving on...

5:12 PM  

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