Friday, September 14, 2007

Chapter 27

Wind had dried the hillside out. The wagon wheels creaked over dry roads. Findal held the reins and brakes with an expert hand, careful not to let the horses go too fast even as he kept the wagon from riding on their heels. Before them, the sun slipped below the horizon.

Taerith and Mirian rode inside, Mirian with Isaak in her arms. He was sleeping soundly despite the bumps and jars, contented by Marta’s milk and Mirian’s arms. Marta and Randal sat at the back of the wagon, hand in hand, with friendship written in their eyes as they watched the others. To both Taerith and Mirian the silent couple gave strength and encouragement by their presence.

They left the hill behind them. The roads now were muddy and full of potholes. It grew darker and darker outside the wagon. All noise but the sounds of the wagon―creaking wheels, jangling tack, horses’ hooves―faded into nothing. No birds called or insects sang.

On the driver’s seat, Findal cleared his throat. “Entering the fens,” he said quietly. They all heard him.

Taerith felt sleep creeping over him, trying to drag at his head and limbs, making his chest heavy. He hadn’t really slept―sheltered and free of worry―for so long. Mirian was wide awake. She watched him with her green eyes like a cat’s in the dark.

What felt like hours suspended in limbo passed.

“It’s time,” Taerith said. Mirian was still awake, still watching him. She nodded.

On an impulse, he held out his hand. She took it. They got to their feet, careful to keep their balance in the swaying wagon. Taerith leaned forward and touched Findal’s arm. A slight signal, but understood. Findal pulled up on the reins just enough to slow the wagon.

Taerith led the way, crouching on the seat next to Findal for an instant before releasing Mirian’s hand and jumping down. His boots hit the ground and he moved off the road into the cover of dormant bushes. The ground sloped away beneath his feet, down to water and shards of ice. Mirian was right behind him. He turned to make sure she was all right, when she shoved Isaak into his arms and whispered, “Wait for me.”

He bit back a curse as she dashed from cover and jumped into one of the other wagons in the caravan. The moonlight was slight, but enough to allow him to see her. He hated to think of who else might be watching. If they were attacked now he couldn’t defend them―not with a baby in his arms. He held Isaak close and sank into a crouch beneath the cover of the bushes.

Clouds drifted over the moon, plunging the fens into darkness. He heard the sound of her feet on the road, barely perceptible beneath the quiet rumbling of the wagons. Dead branches moved and rustled. He started to stand.

Something bleated.

The clouds cleared a little. He saw her eyes first, shining. She had a tiny smile on her face, curiously exultant at her own strength and speed and nerve. The goat in her arms bleated again.

“Mirian...” he whispered.

You can’t feed him,” she answered.

Taerith nodded. “Make her be quiet. Has she got a tether?” Isaak stiffened in his arms. Taerith bounced him a little, willing him to stay asleep.

Mirian nodded. Moonlight was streaking her face with shadows. She set the goat down carefully, searching out the tether in the dark.

“Take Isaak,” Taerith said. “I’ll lead the goat.”

Mirian reached out and gathered the little one into her arms. Taerith watched as Isaak relaxed in her tight embrace. He took the tether in one hand and drew his sword with the other. His eyes met Mirian’s. Not a word passed between them―not a word needed to. They both understood the dangers.

Somewhere in the fens, water was trickling in the dark.

* * *

They had left their horses behind. Warriors could move as fast on foot as a wagon caravan could roll, and horses would make too much noise.

Kardas led the way. Like a dog hunting down his own kind, he loathed every step. Yet he could not free himself from the hunt, and so he let it thrill him in its own way―let it make his blood pump harder and his senses work at their edge.

There was not a chance of Borden’s losing the trail, so it did no good to allow him to lead. This way, perhaps, Kardas might see something Borden wouldn’t―might even block him from seeing.

The path was muddy. The wagon wheels were imprinted clearly and deeply enough to be obvious even in the dark. It was a trail to make a hunter lazy, if he didn’t know that the real quarry was something lighter, faster, more clever than a wagon. Borden knew it as well as Kardas did.

The shadows deepened more and more as they descended lower into the fens. Kardas kept up his pace, jogging lightly, just enough to stay out of sight of the wagons. His eyes scanned the road. For a moment his heart skipped a beat. They were there. New tracks, headed off the road into the wild. Just as he had expected.

A hand on his shoulder stopped him.

“Here,” Borden said.

Kardas’s heart sank. Borden knelt and examined the tracks. When he stood, the frightening fire had returned to his eyes.

* * *

They followed them through the night. Deep into the dark heart of the fens. Silently, Kardas marveled at the stamina that kept Taerith and Mirian going. Men, guided by nothing but skill, would have lost their trail in the night. But Borden was somehow more than a man, and obsession guided him.

The ground lay low, netted over by ancient bent swamp trees that spread their branches beneath a thin moon. Below the branches, the world was dank and black. When they had walked much of the night, the ground sloped even lower than before. The trees cleared for a moment, and the moon showed a basin of sorts. Waist-deep water surrounded an island. Two figures had entered the water and were climbing out now, little more than shadows in the night. One carried a child, the other a goat. Kardas almost smiled at the sight of them.

Beside him, Borden drew his sword. He started forward.

He stopped. Gasped. He began to tremble, and Kardas saw his knuckles go white as he gripped his sword. His eyes stared, not at the water or the island, but at something in the darkness no one else could see.

From his other side, Doublin cursed softly. Kardas kept his eyes on Borden.

What is it? He nearly asked. What do you see?

Before Borden’s eyes, the fens had melted away. A great man stood before him, armed, a naked blade held at the ready. The man stared down at him with great dark eyes, murderous eyes. His hands were covered in blood, and it had dried on the sword hilt so that his hand was stuck fast to it.

Time began to move. It slipped past him like water, carrying pictures with it. He saw himself on the castle parapet; Mirian coming to him in the fading light.

The girl looked up at Borden's words but did not answer. She did not have to. Borden could see her eyes burning in the darkness, with nearly as much force as his own. She was angry with him.

“Come here,” Borden said. She came. “What am I?” he asked.

“A tyrant,” she answered.

“You do not admire me for that.”

“I have never admired you.

Adrenaline pumped through him as he faced the giant in his path. Fear and regret. The sharp edge of vengeance, urging him forward. He looked down to see his feet shrouded in the darkness of the fens, to see only faint traces of moonlight reflecting off the water below. In the dark, a baby was crying.

The great, dark, bloodstained man stood still in his path.

Behind him, he heard the sound of someone rushing. He whirled around. Annar was coming through the night, rushing forward, sword drawn to attack. Borden raised his hand and caught his brother by the forearm, twisting his arm, forcing the sword to fall out of his hand.

The apparition pushed back. He was too strong. Borden’s own wrist would break. His eyes widened in surprise.

“My lord,” a voice whispered. Borden stopped pushing. He found himself standing hand-and-arm with Kardas. The nightmare visions were gone.

Borden had dropped his sword behind him. He didn’t even know when. He turned away from Kardas, breathing hard, and sheathed the sword.

He could still hear a baby crying. That, at least, was not part of the nightmare. He narrowed his eyes and tried to see the refugees on the island, but nothing would reveal itself to his eyes.

Abruptly, he turned away.

“My lord,” Kardas said quietly. “Let us go home.”

Borden stared at him. “Not until my work is finished,” he answered.

He looked back at the island. A great shape seemed to waver before his eyes, blade still naked, hands still bloodstained. Blocking his path.

He whispered the words. “However long it takes.”

* * *

Two weeks of walking east brought them to a place where the ground began to rise in ridges and the land was thickly forested. Game grew more and more plentiful; Mirian’s goat yielded milk enough for the baby and his guardians. Two weeks of walking—and on the fourteenth day, Taerith saw through the trees a ridge he knew as well as contours of his own hands.

They camped in the woods that night and talked by the fire.

“It’s hard to believe it’s so close,” Taerith said. His eyes were on the ridge, outlined by the moon that shone clearly above it. “All this time I’ve been close enough to go home if I wanted to.”

“Why didn’t you?” Mirian asked.

Taerith smiled. He looked down, stirring ashes with his stick. “I didn’t know I could,” he said. He shook his head. “No, I couldn’t have. I had to find a home somewhere else... make one myself.”

“Did you?” Mirian asked.

He looked up. The firelight danced in Mirian’s hair as though it belonged there. Bundled beside her, Isaak slept soundly. The goat moved behind her, pulling against her tether. Behind them, the moon shone down: pure and distant like Lilia, a dream high in a starry night. The stars called up other memories. He saw Kardas on the standing stones, fighting for the loyalty of his people, and Joachim the priest. He remembered the dark eyes of the unicorn and the rumbling wheels of the circus. And above them all, hovering, fathering them, Deus with wings.

“I think I did,” Taerith said.

In the flickering firelight a shadow passed over Mirian’s face. “I’m afraid,” she said, and stopped. Taerith waited for her to continue. Strong, fiery Mirian—the words didn’t belong in her mouth.

“Corran was my prison,” she said, “but it was also my home. I can’t go back—I know that. But I have no where else on earth to call mine.”

“I understand,” Taerith said. He thought of Mirian’s tree with her family buried at its roots—and Lilia. He understood the fear in her eyes. “My brothers and sisters and I—we all left home feeling as you do. Our guardian forbade us ever to come back or see each other again. We thought he had taken our home from us forever.”

“And now you’re going back,” Mirian said.

“Yes,” Taerith said. “I’m not sure what I’m going back to.”

“Is your guardian still there?” Mirian asked.

Taerith gazed up at the ridge again, wishing his eyes could search out the wooded darkness. “If he’s still alive,” he said.

* * *

Doublin had run away a week earlier. Borden, in his lucid moments, was aware that the mercenary had gone, but said nothing of it. Kardas wondered what reports the coward took back to Corran with him. Reports of a mad king—of a ruler who sat and stared at nothing, who tracked a quarry but would not take it, who held something terrible in his eyes.

They had fallen far enough behind Taerith and Mirian to keep their presence entirely secret, but not far enough to lose them.

Kardas hunted and gathered what food he could. They made no fires; cooked no meat. Borden would not allow them to give away their presence.

Once, late at night, they spoke to each other.

“Loyal one,” Borden said. He spoke the words with irony; making a mockery of them.

“My lord?” Kardas asked. He had not slept. He had been staring up at the moon, wishing Taerith far away.

“Can you see it?” Borden said.

Kardas looked into the darkness. There was nothing there—nothing but the night. Yet it seemed to him that something did stand in their way. Something intangible.

“No,” he said.

“It won’t let me go forward,” Borden said. Twisted, he smiled. “My own mind is destroying me.”

Kardas did not speak his answer out loud. Your heart is destroying you, my lord.

Borden stared into the darkness. He could see it: the giant, who he had come to recognize as himself. Standing silently and impassably in the way. He would overcome it. He was determined to.

“Turn around,” Kardas whispered. “Go home.”

Borden clenched his fist. “That is the one thing I cannot do. I have to finish what I started.”

* * *

The sound of rushing water reached them before they came upon the river. The woods were a nursery of budding green in a damp tangle of saplings and old trees, grey and dark brown branches forming an elegant weaving above and around them. Taerith led the way, his feet eagerly finding old paths again. This was familiar ground—familiar woods—a spring he had not known since banishment. Behind him, Mirian stepped carefully through the greenworld with Isaak in her arms and the goat trailing behind her.

They stepped out of the woods and found themselves on the banks of a swollen, raging river. Beyond it, the ground swept up: the ridge, and adorning its sides like a glistening emerald coming into light, Braedoch Forest.

Taerith swallowed a lump in his throat. “Home,” he said.

Mirian’s voice came from far away. He turned. She was still at the edge of the woods, wrestling with the goat as it tried to stay where it could eat the new shoots of the underbrush. Isaak was in his makeshift sling on her back.

She looked at him pointedly and repeated herself. “That river’s going to take some crossing.”

* * *

Taerith spent an hour collecting kindling and firewood while Mirian perched herself on a rock by the river, feeding Isaak from one of the special flasks Marta had given her and talking to him in a low voice. The rush of the river drowned out even that sound—Taerith smiled as he watched her lips moving.

He could feel spray from the river on his face as he paced in search of the best place to build a fire. His mind raced as he worked. They would be camping here for some time unless he could find a way to cross the river.

He arranged sticks in the shape of a tent, wishing as he did that he could find drier wood. Clouds over the ridge spoke of more rain coming. Perhaps they should think about building a shelter as well.

Something nagged at him—some understanding he couldn’t bring to roost. He stopped his work and tried to focus on it.

The image rose up suddenly before him, one in spirit with the river and the greening slope. A boat.

He smiled and jumped to his feet. Mirian looked up at him, questioning. He grinned at her and headed for the woods.

Fifty paces, through a copse of silver-barked trees, over three white boulders. He knew the landscape perfectly. The ground dipped into a bowl-shaped hollow, the ground at the base of it muddy and slick with clay deposits.

A sapling was growing over the hole he had dug in the side of the hollow all those years ago. He pushed it aside, and there it was—the hull of the boat, just visible in the dim light that filtered into the woods.

He propped his back against the sapling, holding it away as he pulled the boat out. It came with little effort. The end he grasped was damp, but the rest of the boat—a long, thin, light craft made for navigating rough water—was dry. The shelter had done its job.

When it was out, laying on the ground like a youthful dream made tangible, he examined it quickly. It needed some repair. The damp end had rotted partially away. The boat had been designed to carry only one or two people—Aiden had taken it out with him to hunt, he remembered, and Ilara had stolen it once—but Isaak hardly counted as a third person.

The rushing sound of the river was clear even in the hollow. Taerith hauled the boat up over his head and trekked back to the riverbank.

Mirian looked up at his approach. It took a minute for the sight to register, and she broke into a wide smile. Isaak was in his sling on her back, awake and alert. She stood and helped Taerith lower the boat to the ground.

“It needs some repairs,” he said, “and we won’t take it till the river calms just a little more. But it will take us home.”

Home. Something in Mirian twinged at the word. For her it was still a hurt, an aching word. She turned away, glad for Taerith and the happiness in his eyes but suddenly lonely again.

Taerith disappeared into the woods, reappearing not long after with several long slim branches. Mirian watched as he stripped them and began to fashion them into arrows, arsenal for the makeshift bow he’d made on the journey. An hour later he was off on a hunt.

* * *

Mirian looked up from milking as a shadow fell over her―a curious shadow, one that felt to her eyes like light, shot through with traces of silver. She broke into a smile.

“What are you doing here?”

Zhenya, his hand as ever on the unicorn’s shining back, smiled. “You left too soon,” he said. “I always meant to go with you.”

Mirian finished squeezing a last shot of milk into her small bucket and stood, wiping her hands on her skirt. The goat bleated and wandered off, seemingly unaware of the unicorn.

“Where is he?” Zhenya asked. He was looking around the camp site, his strange, chidlike eyes searching.

“Taerith went hunting,” Mirian said. She wanted to step forward, to greet Zhenya properly, but the presence of the unicorn awed and quieted her. She waited where she was.

Zhenya looked back and smiled. “I meant Isaak.”

“Oh!” Mirian skirted around the unicorn until she reached the patch of new-sprung clover where Isaak lay in his blankets. The baby’s eyes were open. Mirian smiled at him as she lifted him into her arms. His eyes, dark for so long, were changing colour now. They were grey like Lilia’s.

Zhenya reached for him. “May I take him? Only for a little while,” he asked. There was a curious, wistful look in his eyes. “I want to take him wandering.”

She wasn’t sure how to reply, and so she didn’t bother. She handed Isaak over instead. Zhenya took him as tenderly as any mother, with a delighted smile. The unicorn turned its magnificent head and looked on the babe with eyes as deep as the night sky.

Zhenya cradled Isaak with the baby’s head in the crook of his arm, and, absorbed in him, walked toward the woods. The unicorn went along, a part of Zhenya, a part of his constant delight. Mirian smiled as she watched them go. A wave of exhaustion hit her as they disappeared in the woods. She hadn’t really slept in weeks.

* * *

Taerith bent his bow as he crept toward the sound. Whatever his quarry, it was just beyond a clump of bushes. He saw a flash of brown fur and tried to peer through the branches.

A hand clamped down on his shoulder. He spun around, bowstring taught, ready to let the arrow loose.

It was Aiden.

For a long moment Taerith stood with his arrow still at the ready.

His brother. The eldest Romany, he whose impetuous temper and prodigious strength Taerith had so often balanced in his youth. Aiden, playmate and fellow hunter; Aiden, also-banished.

It couldn’t be.

“You look well, Taerith,” Aiden said.

He lowered the bow. Aiden was looking at him through eyes that were not what they had been―eyes that were hard, harbouring pain and guilt and cynicism. His face was different, too, older and marked with the same bitter scars.

“You look awful,” Taerith replied.

Aiden laughed. It was much the same laugh, if emptier than it had sometimes been. “I should,” he said. “I’m a failure.”

“Why are you here?” Taerith asked.

“Why else?” Aiden asked. “I’m here for revenge. To kill Duard―and I’ve failed.”

* * *

More than once, in the chase, Borden had heard the baby crying. He couldn’t hear it now. The nearby sound of the river drowned everything else out. He could only imagine the sound now, and that made it worse. Imagination made everything worse. He was so close, and if he did nothing, the child would grow up—would come after him—would take everything.

Imagination came to its head. Borden stood and drew his sword. He stared up at the apparition that had held him back so long.

“Let me pass,” he said.

The apparition stared back. There was life in its eyes—vitality, conviction. Borden knew in the instant that he had been wrong. This was no creature of his mind. It came from outside of him.

The giant did not speak, but it stepped forward. As it did, it changed. Great, dark wings spread up from its back and stretched themselves to the sky. The man’s form changed and became that of a bird: a bird in which even the darkness was somehow like light—shining, powerful, blinding.

He knew it for what it was: his last chance.

The darkness, so long a part of him, the obsession that had held him captive for years, broke out of him like a torrent. Borden drew back his sword and threw it into the heart of the creature.

It looked at him once with human eyes and disappeared.

The ground around him came up in ragged pieces and then took wing. A flock of doves, birds of peace. They rose all around him with a clatter and cry.

At his feet, another form appeared in the dust. It twisted and writhed and became, before his eyes, a serpent. It lifted its head from the dust and looked into his eyes.

The day returned to itself. Vision over. Madness gone.

Nothing now stood in his way.

* * *

Mirian sat by the river and watched it rushing and roiling in a white-lashed foam, its tearing force the last obstacle to the end of Taerith’s journey. Where her own would end she didn’t know―could hardly imagine. The cold stone that had settled in her throat when Lilia died was still there. It nearly melted each time she looked at Isaak, but at night it returned―fear, and uncertainty, and the still-fresh sorrow of her truest friend’s death.

She shivered.

Behind her, a stone shifted. Someone was there, not three feet behind her. She stiffened.

Slowly, Mirian turned her head.

It was Borden.

* * *

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

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Anonymous Marsha said...

I think I've run out of comments. Just wanted to say WOW and keep writing! I'm ready to read more!

9:01 AM  
Blogger Emily Mae said...

AIDEN!!! Hello, mister. Missed you lately. ;-)

Welllllll...I think all in all, it's a good chapter. The portrayal of Aiden is okay. I am not 100% sure you got him right, but it's passable for now. I think one thing to clarify with Kristy is: how bitter, how full of anger is Aiden going to be at this point? I know it's hard getting a hold of her, but you need to run it by her. Just because if he's already tried to kill Duard, he may have found his forgiveness, his relief already by this point. I'm not sure on that point. He might, as you portrayed, still be full of anger and bitterness. But just make sure that he hasn't already found some sort of peace yet. (Though it seems logical that he WOULDN'T have found any peace yet, not until Duard is dead.)

Off that note, Mirian is GREAT here! I can't wait for the confrontation between her and Borden. You are going to post it tomorrow, right? I wanna see what happens there! I've been anticipating that for forever. :-) Isaak is great; Zhenya and the unicorn are a nice addition too.

As for Borden's vision or whatever, it seemed a little unclear to me. Was it an appiration? a figment of his imagination? Those sections, I confess, sorta lost my attention and interest. They came across as, I guess. Yeah. That might just be me though. Just thought you might want to know my first impressions of it.

Whew, this is getting long! (Well, you asked for a whopper of a comment, you got it!! *grin*) I hope some of it helps you. I am definitely looking forward to the two next chapters!!!! :-D

10:15 AM  
Blogger Brittany Simmons said...

Hehe, I said I was going to slow down on comments so I'd only give them when I truly had something to say, but right around that time you plunged full-steam to the climax and Taerith is such a good story for analyzing. There are so many themes and questions and unexpected quirks in the characters that there is always something to think about.

So, I came to a conclusion in this chapter. Libby and I were talking about writing on the phone and I told her how Taerith is like some legend being passed on through the reaches of time. When I read it, I almost feel like I'm sitting in a huddle by a cozy fire listening to some elderly version of Taerith tell the tale with the firelight reflected in his eyes. It's so cool how you do that. And it's this distance, this feeling like I'm being told a story that already happened as apposed to being transported into the story and seeing what happens as something that is going to happen and not something that has already taken place, that is what creates a strange phenomenon. I'm going to be statisified with the ending. If Taerith and Mirian end up together I will be satisified. If Taerith and Mirian part ways forever, I will be satisified. If Isaak remains in Braedoch, or dies by the hand of Borden, or returns to his home and becomes a king someday, I will be satisified. If Borden, in his last breath, changes heart somehow, I will be satisified. If he doesn't, I will be satisified, though in that regard I must admit that only my artistic sense will be satisfied. My emotional sense will be spitting mad at you, so in that area I must concede there is an exception, though I'll still be satisified artistically so it's not a complete exception. And the same goes for Lilia--if she'd have lived, I'd have been satisified, but she died, and I'm satisified. It's amazing how you've given yourself the freedom to choose to make so many twists and turns, and still arrange for the reader to be satisified with them! Sheesh, I'm jealous!

Lol, I think I'm competeing with Emily for the longest comment by now, but speaking of Emily--I'm not finished. I agree with her in a way about the vision thing. It was kind of... confusing? And because it was so confusing, it did kind of make me fade out a bit. At the same time, I think it is kind of a cool... metaphor-ish-symbolic-something... and fits into the story. I kind of have the sense you were rushing as you wrote it, though.

As for Aiden himself, I'm guessing since you posted this Charissa already approved it, but I was kind of wondering that Aiden was still so hardened that close to the end. If anything, I think he'd be going kind of emotionally crazy by that time from the battle going on in his heart instead of still remaining hardened and bitter, but that's all up to Charissa.

Okay, I'm finished dissecting Taerith. :-P But that is one of this story's charms, it wants to be dissected, it has so many layers. It should be read in a book group. Hey, I guess we are the book group, hehe.

Love ya.

8:09 PM  
Blogger Brittany Simmons said...

Oh cool, I think I beat Emily! Libby, I DARE you to beat the both of us when you come around to comment. ;-)

8:10 PM  
Blogger Emily Mae said...

You will never beat me. I just allowed you the illusion of victory this time around, Britt.

*cheeky grin*

STARR! Where's chapter 28????

5:36 AM  
Blogger Malachi said...

Second to last chapter! Reading on for the climax!!!!!!!!!

2:10 PM  
Blogger Malachi said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

2:11 PM  

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