Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Chapter 26

The circus tents, faded and patched, were pitched on a level bit of ground on a hillside, above a pond still laced over with vestiges of ice. One striped flap was stirring in the cold breeze as they approached. Taerith, with a well-bundled Isaak in his arms and Mirian at his side, smiled at the sight. Fugitives they were, on the run, and yet somehow the tent’s flimsy shelter could not have felt more secure. The wagons lay beyond the tents, and magnificent red Sol was hitched to a spindly tree near the pond.

Mirian walked with her shawl wound tightly around her, staggering a little as she went. Marta and Randal walked just behind her, keeping an anxious arm ready to catch or support her if she failed to keep her feet.

Findal appeared in the door of the tent, rising on his toes to see them approaching. His wispy hair blew in the breeze, around a solemn face shining with a quiet power—the power of help, of welcome. Taerith strode up the hill, holding Isaak to his chest, and stopped in front of the circus master.

“Thank you for your help,” he said.

Findal nodded. “Come in, come in,” he said. He stepped aside and ushered them all into the colourful confines of the tent. They stepped past stacks of crates and cushions, finding a makeshift seat wherever they could. Marta took Mirian’s hand as the slave girl lowered herself onto a bed of woolen blankets and hay. A wiry brown dog jumped to its feet beside her and started licking her leg. Mirian smiled at it and rested her hand on its head.

Taerith started to sit on a crate, but as he did baby Isaak awoke. He rubbed his nose twice against Taerith’s chest, and then began to whimper.

Marta was there instantly. She took Isaak carefully into her own arms, and with a teary-eyed smile at her husband, ducked behind a flap to another part of the tent.

“She’ll feed him,” Randal explained. Taerith looked at him his question in his eyes.

“We lost one,” Randal said. He didn’t meet Taerith’s eyes. “Only a week ago.”

There was silence. Mirian broke it. “I’m sorry,” she said. “But grateful.”

Randal looked at her and smiled. “We serve as we can, my lady.”

Mirian flushed and looked away. Taerith saw a stab of pain in her eyes, mingled with pleasure, and wondered what she was thinking. She had changed so much. The dog whined and pushed at her hand, begging for more active attention.

Taerith picked up a piece of straw and twisted it as he looked around the tent. They were all gathered: Orlin and Randal, Morris Syve twisted in knots in the far corner, Findal on a crate looking like an old gnome king. A goat pushed its way under the edge of the tent and meandered through, hardly drawing any attention.

“Where is Zhenya?” Taerith asked. The crippled boy’s absence struck him for the first time.

An odd light came into Findal’s eyes. “Oh, not far, not far,” Findal said. “He’s a good boy, Zhenya. Draws crowds for us when he wants to. Doesn’t when he doesn’t want to. Or when the unicorn doesn’t want to. They’re the reason, really, that we don’t pitch in town anymore. Lonelier out here on hillsides, but sometimes it’s better we keep our distance.”

He was quiet for a moment, and then snorted. “It’s a strange circus we are these days.”

Randal interjected. “We’re only passing through Corran. If word had reached us of the trouble here, we might not have come.”

“Yes,” Findal said. He furrowed his brow. “So tell us, lad. The child—it’s the heir, isn’t it?”

Taerith nodded. The straw in his hands was full of creases, and he smoothed it out. “He’s in danger.”

“You all are,” Findal said. “Abducting the king’s heir!”

Taerith looked up and met Findal’s eyes. The blue in his own was intense. “We’re only saving his life. Nothing more.”

“We know that,” Randal said. “There’s no guile in you.” He smiled crookedly. “You’re one of us.”

“But a circus is a good place to hide,” Findal said. “Natural that we should be on the road, and people pay so much attention to us that they’ll never actually notice anything. You’ll stay with us.”

Taerith opened his mouth, but Findal carried on. “We are going south. The famine was not quite so bad there; people still have money to pay. We’ve been treading hungry lands all winter and I’ll tell you—it’s enough to give a man a lifelong bellyache. No place so bad as Corran, though.”

“Why did you stay in the north so long?” Taerith asked.

“People needed cheering up,” Findal said. His eyes twinkled despite himself, but he saddened quickly. “It’ll be none too cheery here now, with Borden king.”

“Findal,” Taerith said, “long ago you told me that Borden was a villain through-and-through.”

The little man’s eyes flashed. “I did, that. I know them when I see them. Greedy and inhuman...”

“No,” Taerith interrupted. “You were wrong about him.”

Findal looked up at the young man. His wizened face was puzzled, but he said nothing. Taerith looked down at his hands, stripping off a bit of straw.

“He’s in too deep now,” Taerith said. “But—but he could have been a good king, once. As he was a good captain.” He stood abruptly. “I want some air. I’m going to scout the area. I’ll be back.”

He stopped at the tent flap. “We will go south with you,” he said. “Only for a time. I don’t know about Mirian, but I must go east.”

“What’s in the east, boy?” Findal asked.

“Home,” Taerith answered.

* * *

The footprints were everywhere in the mud. Farther on, as they reached higher ground, they faded—but even there the passage of feet was obvious. The numbers were puzzling: there were more here than just Taerith and Mirian. Yet it was clear from the way Borden tracked them that he was convinced of who he followed. And Kardas, coming behind, was just as certain.

He prayed as he rode, to the great winged God. Prayed that the madman before him would fail. Prayed that there would be speed in Taerith’s steps.

The king of the wild men rode with a mercenary behind him on his horse and wished with all his heart he was somewhere else.

* * *

Taerith breathed deeply of the spring air. The rain had stopped. Everything felt new―despite the cold, despite the ice and snow that stubbornly clung in places, despite the brown earth and dead branches and grasses on every side. Life was here―dormant perhaps, but waking.

He turned and looked down the hill at the tent, nestled by the pond, purple and yellow and red incongrous, Sol worrying the branches of the tree. Mirian and Marta were outside, conferring over a goat. Taerith smiled at the sight of them.

He was aware, suddenly, of a presence behind him.

He turned and looked into the black eyes of a unicorn. The creature stood with its head low, long main and tail blowing shaggily in the breeze, silver horn gleaming in the sunlight that peered through the last rainclouds. Zhenya stood beside the unicorn with his hand on its back. His crutch was gone.

“Welcome back,” Zhenya said.

Taerith held out his hand. “It is good to see you, little brother.”

“Did you take care of her?” Zhenya asked.

It took Taerith a moment to figure out what he meant. Then, “Yes,” he said. “As best as I could. But it wasn’t enough―not in the end.”

“Yes, it was,” Zhenya said.

Silence a moment. “You sound very sure,” Taerith said.

“You did all you could?” Zhenya said.

Taerith nodded.

“Then it was enough.” The boy, older and taller now but still childlike―and deep, so deep Taerith could hardly look him in the eye―looked down at Mirian and Marta.

“I remember her.”

“She fought for your unicorn once.” Taerith half-chuckled. “Or perhaps my words are wrong. How can a creature like that belong to anyone?”

Zhenya looked up at him with his strange, dark eyes. “He does,” he said. “He belongs to me. By choice. By love. That’s the only real kind of belonging.”

Taerith’s throat tightened. He nodded.

* * *

Below them, Mirian finished her concerted goat-milking and looked up at Marta. Her face was serious, her green eyes strangely hungry, still marked as she spoke with the remnant of fear.

“Thank you,” she said. “I was so afraid...”

Marta smiled and touched Mirian’s chin. “I know, child.”

“He was starving, and I couldn’t feed him.”

“He’ll not starve now,” Marta said. “He’s none the worse for wear. You kept him warm and fed him enough.” She smiled again. “You’re both going to be fine.”

Mirian looked down. She was smiling despite herself. She picked up the milk bucket and stood, patting the goat.

“She’s a mighty fine nanny goat,” Marta said. “Gives lots of good milk. She’s been a boon to us.”

Mirian nodded. Marta laid a hand on her arm. “Still,” she said. “We don’t need her.”

Mirian cocked her head. “I think we’re staying with you,” she said.

“So do I!” Marta said. “I’m just saying. Eventualities. You never know what will happen. But yes, stay.”

They turned together to go back to the tent. The view from the hillside swept away down the fens, thawing under the pale spring sun. The town sprawled at the border of them, and beyond that, the castle. Mirian thought she could see her tree.

Her whole world lay before her, visible from halfway up a hill. She had never really thought she’d leave. And for a little while, when Lilia was with her, she hadn’t really wanted to.

Sorrow tugged at her heart as she looked at the castle towers. They were lonely. Achingly lonely. Only a moment passed before she couldn’t bear to look anymore, and she ducked inside the tent without a word.

* * *

They sat at the base of the hill, hidden in a copse of trees, looking up. Kardas and Doublin dismounted after an hour. Doublin started to gather wood for a fire but Kardas put out a hand and stopped him. Borden would not want smoke. No sign of their presence.

Borden stayed mounted. He sat in the trees like a spirit of some darker spring, astride his horse, unmoving as the wind blew in the branches over him and crows cawed their forebodings. In old days Kardas had known his prince to lose himself in thought, but never so deeply―never so darkly.

On the hill, the circus tents sat, painted like the gaudy promise of terror.

Kardas swallowed as he looked up, past Borden to the tents. Terror, yes, but who felt it but him?

Borden’s back was turned. He sat as still as stone. Kardas found his hand on his sword hilt, found himself tightening his fingers, found himself ready to stand, to move as silently as a moth in the night, to pierce the terror at its heart and let it ebb away where it could do no harm.

He loosened his fingers. Closed his eyes. Tears, loyal tears, struggled to slip by his eyelids.

They didn’t.

Evening was coming.

* * *

Findal watched Taerith as he crossed the tent for the twelfth time and opened the flap to peer into the waning light. He chuckled wheezily.

“In the morning, lad,” he said. “We’ll go in the morning. Time enough.”

Taerith said nothing. A sound came from without: a high, confused, rushing sound. Taerith disappeared through the flap. Hardly knowing why, Findal hurried to join him.

Taerith was standing near the edge of the pond. Overhead, a huge flock of birds raced toward the fens. This was no smooth migration: it was a roiling, terrified bid for life and liberty. They looked and sounded like creatures with winged wolves on their heels.

Taerith turned and faced Findal as the circus master approached. His blue eyes were sharp. “Tonight,” he said.

Findal started to protest. He turned in the direction the birds had flown, looking down the hill to a copse of trees.

It seemed to him that something was there. Something not human―a shadow waiting.

He blinked and looked again, but could see nothing.

He nodded. “Tonight.”

* * *

Doublin stared into the pile of branches he had collected and been unallowed to light. Kardas sat across from him, facing the hill. Borden had sunk farther back in the shadows and dismounted, but still he looked up.

There was movement on the hill. Kardas stood in surprise.

They were taking down the tents.

* * *

The long shadows of evening had reached the hillside as they worked. Findal talked, his usually breathless voice aggravated by the work of loading poles into the wagon.

“We’ll go south for a week or so. Good towns down there, especially with spring coming. You can work with us... fix wagons or something. Can that Mirian do anything?”

“I’m sorry, Findal,” Taerith said. He loaded a piece of tenting into the wagon and made sure it was secured by rope. “We’re not going with you.”

Findal blinked at him. “For a little while, though,” he said. “I know you want to go home eventually, but...”

Taerith shook his head. “Did you see into that copse?”

Findal stopped and sighed. “I saw... something.”

“It was Borden,” Taerith said. “He’s found us.”

Findal paled. “We’ll arm ourselves, then?”

Pain flickered across Taerith’s face. “It’s wise. But I don’t plan to be here when he attacks. Findal, are you willing to act as a decoy?”

Findal smiled. “We’re always willing to help a friend.”

Taerith smiled in response, aware as he did that to smile in a situation like this was the ultimate declaration of abandon. “Then we’ll go with you a ways. At some point we’ll leave the caravan―covering our tracks as best we can. It will be dark. If all is well, he won’t know we’ve left. I don’t know how far he’ll follow you before he realizes we’re gone―or attacks.”

“He may not follow us at all,” Findal said. “Perhaps he’ll see you leaving.”

“We’ll simply have to pray he doesn’t,” Taerith said.

Findal reached out and laid his hand on Taerith’s shoulder. “Well then,” he said. “We have a plan. Uphill?”

“No.” Taerith shook his head. “Down into the fens. It’s easier to become lost there.”

“We’ll have to go past the copse. And whoever’s waiting there.”

Taerith looked over his shoulder in the direction of the dark stand of trees. “He’ll be too close on our heels that way. But if we go over the hill, he can look down and see us.”

“Then he’ll see us looping back around the base of the hills, straight for the fens. He’ll have to catch up, and you can lose yourself however you like. Taerith―” Findal slapped his hands together, ridding them of sawdust and dirt. “Take care of yourself and the little one. And Mirian―she doesn’t look like anyone has looked after her for a good while.”

Taerith nodded. “Thank you, my friend. I will.”

* * *

Copyright 2006 by Rachel Starr Thomson. Do not reproduce without written permission of the author.

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Blogger Emily Mae said...

I'm so glad you brought the circus people back. I was eagerly waiting for them most of the book. They have such depth to them. they remind me a lot of the gypsy people in Worlds. :-) Ahh, now those are some fun characters!

All right, I'm really looking forward to Saturday! *bites nails* I'm sorta glad this is almost done, because that means I get to see resolution soon!! YES! :-)

9:51 AM  
Anonymous Marsha said...

The unicorn, the circus, and Borden SO close! I'm glad the baby got a warm meal...

Waiting until Saturday!

7:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I keep waiting but nothing new is coming...I am looking forward to reading the rest.

12:37 PM  
Blogger Malachi said...

Nearing the end... and reading on.

5:01 PM  

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