One morning, she woke to blood between her legs.
It was time to go. Here, in Gorggrey, she was Conlan, Mhasc Caoin, the masked wolf. A tested warrior. A proven hero.
Here, she did not bleed but from the sword.
Though she ached and her arm was not yet healed, she bid the good people of Gorggrey farewell. The innkeeper’s wife bundled salted pork, bread, and hard cheese in oilcloth and twine for her journey. Her husband bowed and bowed and bowed again before she made it out the door. And the people lined up to watch on the muddy, fog-laced lane.
She left the swords, the dagger, the spear, taking only the axe.
Laden as the brat was by armor and provisions, Flegel didn’t balk when she mounted him. From upon his back, she took one more look at the townsfolk, swaddled in their heaviest wools and furs against the winter bite, rosy-cheeked and bright-eyed and smiling at her.
“Good speed to Blackstone,” the green-eyed warrior said up to her. “That swine-heart marauder-king Artor will soon know the Wolf of Gorggrey. You’ll stop him upriver and we’ll never again know the curse of him, mark me.” He shook the calloused club of his fist in the air. “Death to Artor!”
“Death to Artor!” the people cried, at once fierce and fearful.
“Caoin gu brath!” he bellowed.
“Caoin gu brath!” they cheered. She spurred Flegel into motion, carried forward by the desperate hope of the chant, which they kept up until she could hear them no more.
Caoin gu brath.
Long live the wolf.
Three days of travel north, through bitter brume and frost puddled roads.
Three days of burnt towns. The charred, sooty skeletons of cottages and stables, tainting the air with and stink and staining the river and roads black.
Three days of blood. It leaked from her, slow and steady.
On the fourth day though, she woke to a groaning pain in her lower back and blood seeping through her pants. Sheltered in a canvas tent provided by the townspeople, she stripped out of her clothes.
Two months and a week since her last menstruation, a week before Begley . . .
But now it came. Heavy and clotted. She lay beneath the frozen canvas, listening to Flegel paw and bluster, to the river restlessly churning, to the wind snapping at the ropes and through the branches.
Blood gushed over her thighs and into the blanket. A cold stone formed in her chest, a lump in her throat. But she did not take off the mask. And so, no tears came.
In time the pain in her back lessened and the blood slowed.
Early the next morning, she rose.
Carrying her blankets and clothes, she descended the frosted bank to the swollen gray river.
The frigid water drank her blood, sucking it from her clothes.
She stripped again, careless of her sex or the cold and washed her skin. As she did, she remembered the nights Fee had made her sleep out on the balcony, in the coldest sleet, in the worst storms. Those breath-iced days when he’d instructed her to go to the pond and break through the ice and swim and swim until her shivering turned to sweating.
Where was he?
She stood thigh-deep at the edge of the frothing water, naked except for her leather mask, and silenced her thoughts, closing her eyes, listening.
The water grumbling.
A hawk calling.
Her heart thumping.
But no rill of frogs.
Not a whisper.
She was alone.
But he was out there. She felt it as sure as she felt the water laving the last of the warmth from between her legs.
There would be blood again. There would be blood from this river to the bow of Artor’s own ship. Until the day she found Fee again, there would be blood until there was not an Ulic left to bleed.
When she came back to the camp, dripping and shivering and naked, she halted at the sight of someone petting Flegel’s forehead.