During the next two weeks, she had only the most passing of encounters. Twice she was obliged to stop in a village to replenish her supplies and have Flegel tended. Once she met a single-toothed peddler, his wagon creaking and clattering, his mule sporting a blue belt cap. From him, she purchased a new sewing kit and a floppy leather cap.
Later, when they stopped to rest, she cut strips of leather and fashioned them into a mask, sewing them into her coif.
A few days later, after the worst of the swelling and bruising had subsided, she stowed her helmet and wore only the masked coif. The new leather strips rested snug against her forehead, nose, and cheeks; concealing her features well enough.
While they traveled, she replayed the fight with the thieves over and over, considering what she had done wrong and what she needed to do in the future to avoid such a close call. And it had been close. Too close.
Gradually, the landscape changed around them. Redthorn was a land of apple orchards and wheat fields, warm winds blowing in off the southwestern coasts. But this kingdom, whatever it was called, greeted her with endless swells of rocky green hills that grew steep enough they might as well have been called mountains. Crags erupted before her in stoic, foreboding monoliths. Always the sky was steel, the air cleaving to a chill.
Winter descended in fits, casting frozen mist one morning and bursting in slicing wind the next.
Flegel, aside from constant beseeching looks, fell into line and seemed to accept that they were neither going back nor heading to another warm, hay-filled stable.
Every morning she woke exhausted. She was running a low-grade fever. It neither rose nor broke for a week. She couldn’t even call it a fever exactly, only a sense of being warmer than normal. Considering the frigid mistrals that swept across this forsaken land, she found it odd that she should feel warm at all, let alone warmer than before.
Some five weeks from the time she left home, an ice storm pelted down from the iron belly of the sky. By a stroke of luck, she stumbled into a small village carved between craggy cliffs and a wide, churning river.
Ice formed a second skin on the steep, narrow road. Her boots crunched through into the mud below, making what was slippery downright deadly, and preventing her from moving as quickly as she wanted toward the welcoming glow of lantern-light ebbing from ice-curtained window panes.
She entered without preamble.
The public house was filled, it seemed, with every man, woman, and child in the town. They didn’t stop talking when she came in, coated in ice and unable to shiver as the cold had sunk deep into her core, but their boisterous laughter subsided to polite chuckles and their shouts lowered to mumbled conversation. If the heat of their subtle attention could’ve thawed her, she would’ve been sweating in a second.
The inn-keeper met her at the door. He had a scurrying walk. His head round and balding. His face and hands chapped red and flaking. He was old enough to be her father, but he looked up at her with the unrepentant curiosity of a child. His eyes never stopped blinking. They were shallow, watery blue. She detected no malice in them.
“My horse,” she said and put a gold coin in his hand.
Weeks of solitude and unforgiving weather had rubbed a harsh remoteness into her voice. It possessed the deeper resonance of a man’s without any effort on her part.
He clenched the gold between his browned molars. His eyes widened and barked a few words over his shoulder. His accent was so thick it was nearly incomprehensible. But a whip of a boy squirreled through the musky hoard of patrons and popped out beside the pubkeeper to receive his instructions. Evidently, he comprehended the innkeeper’s guttural dialect, because a moment later, he disappeared out the door. The inn-keeper pointed her to a corner.
The crowd parted for her. A trio of thick-handed men with stormy brows cleared away from a small round table. Before Caoinlin had fully eased into her chair, a plush woman, hair and skin the color of butter, slid a large loaf of black bread, a quarter wheel of hard cheese, large bowl of stew, and a pitcher of ale in front of her.
Evidently, they didn’t see much gold in this town.
It was hard to say how long Caoinlin sat there, too numb to eat or think or move.
The crowd resumed their normal noise level. And then after a time, it dropped off altogether. By then, she was uncomfortably damp. Her leather and wool clothes hung heavy off her, wet and stinking, but she didn’t move to take them off, not even her gloves.
As her body was warmed by the fire and the heat of a packed room, the stiffness revealed how much her joints ached. She wondered then if she would ever not be sore.
Around her, heady human musk, bad breath, sour mash, rabbit stew, pungent cheese, the leather of her mask. Her stomach clenched and then shot up her throat.
She left the table and dared the storm again to the outhouse. The ground was a hard sheet of ice now, the air lanced by sleet. Inside the dark outhouse, she yanked off her mask, doubled over and emptied her stomach of what little it contained.
She tugged the mask on again. The leather resisted, too wet, not to mention her raw skin and bullied her way through the sleet again. At the door, she huddled under an overhang and breathed deeply.
Once back inside, she asked for a room. The butter-colored woman promptly led her up a narrow flight of stairs. Caoinlin asked for bread and hot water. The woman nodded and came back in seeming seconds.
Once she was gone again, Caoinlin shoved the bed against the door and stripped out of her clothes. Her supplies had been brought up for her, including her armor. All prepared before she’d even asked.
Naked beneath a wool blanket, she sat cross-legged before the strange, musky fire and nibbled at the bread.
The noise from below continued unabated. Eventually, she crawled into the bed and slept like she hadn’t slept in over a month.
The light was too mute to tell what time it was when she finally woke.
She stretched through the aches. No one had disturbed her, though she could still hear muffled voices below.
With effort, she managed to pry open the small window.
The densest fog she’d ever encountered prevented her from seeing beyond arm’s reach, but echoing voices bounded up to her ears and a susurration that, after a moment, she realized was the river. The fire had burned low, nothing but pale red pulses of embers, but the room was warm enough. In fact, the air outside was not as cold as she’d expected it to be.
She took a bit of bread leftover from the night before and methodically stretched as Fee had taught her.
A sharp pang stuck her chest when she thought of him. Soon her throat closed and her chest heaved, but no tears came.
Surely, her mother was dead by now.
At best, her father would search for her and attempt to mask his shame through recompense. Most likely he would be forced to cede a sizable portion of the treasury to Aodhan. In the worse case, there would be war. She doubted that would be the case. Aodhan depended heavily upon Redthorn troops to protect against Gaibrial’s petulant forces. But her father would be dishonored and left without an heir. A fact that would spread quickly through the country. And then it occurred to her that he would have to remarry and attempt to father another child to safeguard the kingdom from usurpers.
She sank down to the floor, horrified for never having considered this possibility.
If she’d given him a chance, Fee would’ve made her face it and all the others. He would have sat her down and made her write them out, so that they stared back up at her in bold black ink.
Not that it would have changed her mind.
She loved her father. She loved her kingdom.
But staying would have brought its own consequences.
She would’ve slit Brogan’s throat on their wedding night, or at least cut out his tongue, and that would not have been something her father could’ve negotiated away.
Besides, she had made a promise.
She would travel to Blackstone. If Fee was there—although after her journey she couldn’t imagine that he could’ve traversed so far on his own—but if he had, she’d find him. If not, she’d discover how he’d been cursed and how to break it. And then she’d spend the rest of her life searching him out if she had to.
Her leather coif was stiff and dry. She pulled it on again. The tender spots on her face burned, but she ignored their protests and made her way back downstairs.
It would’ve been better for her to leave, but the fog was too thick, and she knew Flegel could use another day of rest—as could she, for that matter.
She sat at the same table in the corner, though the room was considerably less crowded than it had been the night before.
A few older men loitered near the door and three middle-aged men huddled around a single table, their gazes sunk into their cups.
When the innkeeper approached her, he was grinning. After a full night’s sleep and a whole morning’s (as she soon discovered), she was able to pick up on his accent more readily.
“More food, my lord?”
“Bread and thin broth and water, nothing more,” Caoinlin said.
He nodded and scurried away.
The three men across the room from her were fair, as it seemed all the people were in this village, for the most part, but had the darkness about them of fighting men. Each wore their hair long, in heavy braids ranging from white-gold to bronze-red. All were stout across the chest, but their cheeks, covered by rugged beards of in darker shades than their hair, were gaunt.
They did not speak as she ate and when she returned from the outhouse and resumed her seat, they shifted in their chairs to regard her openly.
“A good night, last,” one with fleshy red lips and small greenish eyes said.
The middle man, shorter and darker than the other two, grunted in agreement.
The green-eyed one went on, “The signal fires are cold today.”
The short one grunted again.
The third, whose hair was near white and whose blue eyes were ghostly pale, had a voice like the churning silver river outside.
“I’ve seen you before,” he said.
Gripping her wooden mug of warm wine, she didn’t speak.
“That mask cannot hide the truth,” he told her.
She didn’t meet their gazes, but she knew where each was, where his hands were. She wouldn’t be caught off guard again—never again.
“You are afraid that you will be revealed,” he said.
Her muscles tingled, their aching washed away by a tide of alert readiness.
“You should be afraid,” he snarled. “This is no country for you. You should go back to where you came from, Southerner.” He spat this last word.
She focused on her breath, maintaining it evenly.
“You think we cannot see what you are behind that mask?” His fist pounded the table. Reddish ale sloshed over the tops of their mugs.
Her fingers twitched.
He snorted. “You hide that smooth face behind leather, but you are no man.” His tone sunk into a dark recess. “This is no place for children."
Her eyes flicked over to them.
The green-eyed one met her gaze.
“You are like the others before you,” he snarled. “Foolish youth from the south, think you can come north and garner glory against the Ulic.” He snorted contemptuously. “But there is no glory to be earned here, ma wee un. Go back to your mother’s soft bosom while you can.”
“My mother is dead,” she told them in that cool dead tone that had been sucking the warmth from her ever since she’d killed the thieves in the forest.
And I would do it again, the voice said in her head, faster, better.
The short one grunted in dark amusement.
“All the better,” the pale one said. “She will not weep when you do not return.”
“You’ve come to fight the Ulic with Blackstone,” the green-eyed one said. “We’ve seen you young knights come and come, and die and die. Have you ever killed a man, ma wee un?”
Caoinlin continued to stare into the green-eyes of the first man.
“Mayhap you have,” the ghostly one said. “But have you ever met this metal?”
A metallic flash sundered the staid tavern air.
She whipped out her own sword to meet it.
The slender curved edge of his blade struck hers.
A jarring clank reverberated up her arm. A haunted tone resonated long after the blades had clashed.
No one flinched, not the old men littered along the wall by the door, not the round inn-keeper and his buttery wife behind the bar.
The ghostly one held his blade firm, but without any intention to strike. She also kept her sword where it was, less than a hand’s breadth from the end of her nose. It pressed to the curved edge of a blade unlike anything she’d ever seen before.
Shorter than her sword, by almost six inches and narrower, the edge made for cutting. It possessed a dull blue sheen, thousands of meandering lines like layers of limestone, but with greater fluidity and movement, embedded in its metallic flesh.
The middle man grunted. At the signal, the ghostly one raised his strange sword, disengaging from hers.
“I do not want to fight you,” she said.
“We do not kill our countrymen in the north,” the green-eyed one told her flatly. “Not even for the worse of crimes. We give them a sword and send them to Blackstone. We let the Ulic kill them.”
“They call it damas or scima,” the ghost-eyed one said, brandishing his sword for her to see. “I have seen it cut through armor.” The empty shades of his eyes fell on her. “You do not want to see what it will do flesh.” He sneered at the blade as though it were the face of his enemy. He slid the scima back into its double-ringed scabbard and returned to his seat as though he’d been defeated.
“Go home, ma wee un,” the green-eyed one said again, all the spite gone now, only grim weariness remaining. “You do not want to die here.”
“How far is the kingdom of Blackstone?” she asked.
“Follow the river, north, two weeks, and you will see the mountains of Blackstone,” the short one said. There was a snide grin his voice. “Tell us your name and we will send word of your death now. By the hour it reaches your homeland, you will be dead.”
“I have no name,” she said, rising. “And no homeland.”
Just then, a distant bell began to clang.
The men froze and then, as one, surged to their feet. The innkeeper's wife clapped her hands over her mouth, smothering a cry.
"What is it?" Caoinlin asked.
“Your chance, ma wee un,” the green-eyed one said as the other two barreled past the pale innkeeper and his silently weeping wife. “Which will it be? Death or glory?”