Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Chapter 28

Thunder rolled over the ridge. Mirian stood slowly, her eyes not leaving Borden’s face. She was frightened―afraid because she had declared herself this man’s enemy, afraid because she was alone―but her fear gave place, as she looked into his eyes, to horror―not of him but for him.

He had come to her last with blood on his hands, and there had been fear and guilt and pain in his eyes. After the loss of so much, she’d thought his eyes would be empty―but they were so full.

She took a step toward him. She hadn’t meant to, but his eyes held her.

So full―of something tormented, inhuman.

She expected him to speak. He said nothing. Thunder rolled again, and a wind began to blow, and then she was afraid in earnest.

The Borden who had been was gone.

The man who had―had what? Had wanted her, needed her somehow―was not the same man who stood before her now. That man might have killed her. This man surely would.

“Come back,” she whispered as a cold rain began to patter against her face and the stones on the riverbank.

He moved too fast. He grabbed her by the throat.

“Where is he?”

“Where is who?” she answered back. She took his arm with her hands, trying to push him away. His grip tightened.

“Where is the child?”

Somehow she managed to pry his fingers loose enough to allow herself to breathe.

“Let me go,” she said.

He shook her. “Where is he?” he roared.

She broke loose and roared back, as much as she could between involuntary gasps for breath. “Gone! Why are you hunting us?”

She backed away from him, toward the water, desperately scanning the beach behind him for some place to run. The sky was darkening on every side, the water behind her white and wild, and Borden stood black like an iron wall in her way.

“My brother...” Borden began. Lightning tore the sky behind him.

“He’s dead!” Mirian screamed over the rising wind. Borden drew his sword and dealt her a blow to the shoulder with the flat of it that sent her sprawling on the wet stones.

“Where is the child?” Borden demanded.

Body resounding with the pain of the blow, Mirian rolled onto her back and started to push herself up.

The tip of Borden’s sword, held against her heart, stopped her.

Fear, if it was still present in her, receded where it could hardly touch her. Other emotion took its place. She still couldn’t tear away from his eyes. She could weep for the hatred in them.

It was raining harder. Another bolt of lightning forked over the forest behind Borden.

Of everything in this wilderness, it was Borden who had always been a part of her. Borden who was her home.

A girl’s home should not hold her at the point of a sword―should not have murder in his eyes.

But then, neither should a girl rebel against her home.

He asked again, pushing the sword down so she could feel the sharp point through her clothing. “Where is he?”

You should have been his home, she thought. She swallowed and wished away the tears in her eyes. The pressure on the sword lessened. Something in him was faltering.

“Answer me. Don’t you want to live?” he asked. For a moment he sounded like his old self.

She shook her head. Slowly, she reached up and touched the sword. He didn’t move. She pushed the blade aside, her eyes still on his face.

“Not at such a price,” she said.

He looked back at her. The raging hatred in his eyes flickered a moment, gave way to remorse. She got to her feet slowly, wishing that somehow she could touch the part of him that felt regret―could make him come back.

“You should have been mine,” he said.

She stood tall. Still. There was spray in her hair, nipping at her, freezing her heels and the backs of her hands. The rock beneath her feet was slick with water. The river rising, trying to take her...

His eyes changed, and she saw it. He lunged. She turned on one heel and grabbed his sleeve, throwing off balance. And even as she did, as his foot slipped on the wet rock and he fell, even then she tried to undo it. She reached for him, tore at his sleeve, tried to catch him and keep him back.

But the river had him now, and the river was truly wild. On her knees on the slick black rock, rain pelting at her, she watched him go under and screamed.


* * *

Aiden’s words were too much to process all at once. His sudden appearance was itself enough to knock Taerith off balance, but it did present a problem of its own―or the answer to one.

“You went home?” Taerith asked.

“If you can call it that,” Aiden answered.

“Then what are you doing on this side of the river?”

Aiden looked at him in surprise, then threw back his head and laughed. “Trust you to ask a question like that at a time like this!”

Thunder rolled alone then, mingling its deep voice with that of the river. Taerith half-smiled at himself, but the image of Mirian and Isaak at the riverbank―cold and soon to be wet, coupled with a sharp memory of a fire under the wooden circular roof of home―demanded an answer to the question. He asked it again.

“I’m hunting,” Aiden answered. He recognized the quiet frustration in Taerith’s face and nodded upriver. “There’s a bridge up that way. Where the river narrows.”

Taerith frowned. He could picture the river in that direction where it narrowed and cut through rock so sheer it was almost a chasm, but no bridge.

“There never used to be,” Taerith said.

“Well, there is now!” Aiden burst out.

Taerith reached down and picked up his arrows. He had dropped them at the sight of Aiden. He tucked them into his belt now. “I need to get across.”

“Well, come then,” Aiden said. He started in the direction of the bridge. Taerith didn’t follow.

“Not alone,” he said.

Aiden stopped and regarded him. “So you brought someone too, did you?” he asked. “Good God, what is wrong with us? Didn’t you learn the danger of attaching yourself to people when Duard sent us away?”

Corran was the only answer to that question―Corran, where he had stayed because of caring and not regretted it. But there was no way to put all of Corran into words. “I learned how dangerous it can be not to care. The price is too great.”

Aiden looked a long time at Taerith. But for their faces and the unspoken experiences that somehow deepened their voices, they might have been boys still.

Aiden smiled. The old, cocky, ironic smile. “This is a strange way to talk,” he said, “for long-lost brothers now found. Hello, Taerith. It’s good to see you.”

Taerith smiled. His eyes clouded, and he and Aiden stepped into a warrior’s embrace.

Aiden slapped Taerith on the shoulder as they separated. “Tell me,” Aiden said. “What brings you back home to Braedoch? And please tell me you didn’t bring those other three with you―you have more sense than to attach yourself to that.”

Taerith was about to answer that he had when he realized Aiden had said “three.” His fist tightened involuntarily, so hard that had he still been holding an arrow he would have snapped it. “Who?” he asked.

“Dark men,” Aiden said. “Warriors; they smell like trouble.”

He hadn’t finished speaking before Taerith was on his way, running, back to the riverbank.

* * *

Straining to see through the trees, Taerith saw Mirian first: standing at the riverbank, long red hair streaming with the wind and rain, and Borden close enough to touch her. He willed more speed into his legs and drew his sword as he ran.

His advance was stopped cold as he burst through the tree line. Kardas stood in his way. Taerith had not seen so much anguish in his friend’s face since the night he had gone to fight the wild men and return himself to bondage.

Taerith eyed Kardas a moment and turned back to the drama at the water’s edge. He rushed forward―and found himself locked, steel to steel, with Kardas.

“Kardas, let me go,” Taerith said. Warning mixed with sorrow made his eyes intense.

“Orders,” Kardas said. “A few things bind the wild men. This is one of them.”

Taerith pulled his sword away; started forward again. Again the clash: the way blocked. Anguish in Kardas’s eyes.

A battle yell split the air. Surprise pulled Taerith and Kardas apart, and between them a living whirlwind sprang up: Aiden. The speed of it forced Taerith to the side, as before him a conflict faster and more powerful than anything he had ever seen arose. Everywhere Kardas turned, Aiden was. Everywhere Aiden could attack, Kardas repelled him. One thing became clear in the minutes―the seconds―he watched: Kardas, defeater and king of the wild men, just might not be good enough to defeat Aiden Romany.

“Aiden!” Taerith cried, seeking out some way to get between them. “Aiden, don’t kill him!”

Something pulled his eyes away from the fight to the edge of the trees just beyond them. A living, muscle-bound streak of lightning burst from the trees and drove forward, hooves pounding the ground, horn pointed at Kardas' chest. The unicorn split the fight with a grace more than any earthly thing should possess: the grace of power and beauty united. Kardas held his hands up in surrender, his dark eyes full of the lovely death that breathed hard before him. “Don’t kill him!” Taerith shouted again.

His eyes were drawn back to the forest edge. Zhenya was there, the baby in his arms, standing on tiptoe in the pelting rain. He was looking to the river. To Mirian.

Taerith whirled around just in time to see Borden lunge at her―and then something happened, and Borden disappeared from view. Mirian fell to her knees behind him, narrowly avoiding a plunge into the water herself. They all heard her scream out Borden’s name.

Taerith stripped off his sword as he ran. Somehow he managed to loosen his boots without slowing. He reached Mirian and took her shoulders for a moment. He scanned the water. There―already swept far downstream, the dark form of the man he had once followed. Taerith ran along the edge of the bank and dove into the river.

The surging current pulled him forward and dashed his shoulder against a rock. He fought to get control of himself as the water pulled him down. The water was a mass of white bubbles and swirling debris. He struggled to see through it and keep himself from being driven against the rocks along the bank.

Thunder crashed as he surfaced for a breath. He whipped his hair out of his eyes and searched for Borden. There, again―dark clothes, the vague outline of a form in the water. He wasn’t far. Taerith dove under again and swam with all his strength.

He reached him. He hooked his arms underneath Borden’s and tried to drag him up to the surface, but the current kept sucking at them both, hurtling them forward. Taerith nearly cried out as another rock smashed against his back, losing precious air. Borden was too heavy. Taerith tugged; Borden wasn’t moving.

Through the underwater spray Taerith saw the branch―Borden’s cloak, heavy with water, was caught. He groped for the clasp at Borden’s chest and undid it. He needed air desperately, but he was so close... still holding on to Borden, fighting against the ceaseless push of the current, he found Borden’s belt and undid it. A knife and ax fell away.

Something was still holding them down; still keeping them under. His lungs were straining to the breaking point. He felt his hands growing weaker; losing their grip. He needed air; he knew, with what was left of his consciousness, that he needed it now.

But not without Borden,; he couldn’t let go; couldn’t leave him to drown; couldn’t...

The current was carrying them both with it. He could see the surface above him, no calmer than the water beneath, could see the darkness above that was sky and clouds and thunder.

Hands reached down and caught him.

He came up struggling, coughing, trying to free himself. “Taerith!” The voice broke through a crash of thunder. Mirian. He was fighting Mirian.

He stopped struggling and found something hard and rough beneath his feet. Hands were still hauling at him from above: Mirian, her skirts soaked, half in the water, and Kardas holding both of them.

He turned before he’d even left the water completely. Aiden was dragging Borden out. Taerith joined him, taking one of Borden’s arms and pulling him up over the rocks. Wind and rain lashed at them as they laid the one-time crown prince down.

Mirian knelt by Borden’s head and brushed his long black hair from his face. She drew her fingers away covered in blood. It ran thickly down one side of his face, flowing from a wound she could not see. She rocked on her heels and began to cry.

Taerith knelt on his other side. Rain turned the world around him grey. His helplessness was a physical pain, an ache that grew with every second Borden did not open his eyes. He felt a hand on his shoulder and looked up. Kardas stood beside him.

“You did all you could,” he said.

“Help me bury him,” Taerith said. “After the rain.”

Kardas nodded.

* * *

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

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Anonymous Marsha said...


6:33 AM  
Blogger Emily Mae said...

Whoa. That emotionally full chapter! Whew.

I promise I'll leave a longer comment on the last chapter. I just need to process stuff first.

Good job!

10:45 AM  
Blogger Malachi said...

Like Em, I sort of need time to digest the chapters I've been reading through, which is why I am leaving such short comments.

2:26 PM  

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