She spent three weeks at Nevan's hut. Once her blankets were dry, though stained by pale brown marks that could not be mistaken for anything but blood, she rolled them out on the floor and slept dreamlessly.
Her battle wound scabbed. The bone twinged and ached, especially as the days of mist gave way to sleet and then snow. She continued to strengthen her left arm, sometimes with her sword, but primarily with the Ulic’s axe. It was clearly meant to be a two-handed weapon, but by the third week, she had learned its weight and momentum and could split cords of wood one-handed with ease. Her body had hardened, as though forming a callous, and the more it did, the further from her mind were thoughts of home and what she might have lost in leaving.
Snow fell in the second week, a heavy wet accumulation that built upon the branches before growing too heavy and falling to the forest floor in clumps like swaddled bundles.
Flegel and the bay, Brummer, became quick friends and took to chasing each other through the woods.
Every week Nevan somehow knew when to go down to the road, to meet the trade ships as they passed along the water. He traded the furs of his rabbits for vegetables and grain from the warm south and his smoke weed. Caoinlin often followed him and watched from the cover of the trees. The traders punted along in flat, broad barges that moved slowly along the flat, broad river. They greeted Nevan with warmth and him fairly without excessive haggling. But they were no people she knew, their accents thick and gnarled as the branches of the wood, their skin gold and bronze despite the lack of sun, their eyes dark as smoke. From the blood-stained miasma of her memories, she recalled countenances such as theirs before. In the Ulic. And yet their boats were homey for their sun-faded yet colorful cloths strung as canopies over their decks and the numerous children and elderly peeking from behind curtains and stretching their legs along the shore while Nevan bartered.
At the end of the third week, the night still and clear and cold, Nevan sat on his bed, smoking as he usually did after dinner.
Caoinlin cross-legged on the floor, cleaning her sword.
“From where do your traders hail?” she asked.
He blew a ring of smoke into the air. “Make you uneasy, do they?”
She pursed her lips, devoting her attention to running her cleaning wool along the length of the steel.
Pipestem clicking between his teeth, he leaned back in his chair. “You’ll need more than strength of body for the battles ahead. Because a man’s eyes are the same hue as your enemy, do you count him your foe?”
“Of course not,” she growled.
His thinned chest puffed and puffed, and she could almost imagine him, through that wood-scented cloud, the man he had once been. The warrior. Broad-chested, confident, watchful. Though he could not see, she could feel his attention on her, heavy as a hand on her shoulder.
After a good many inhales and smoky exhales, he took the pipe from his mouth and thrust at her so sharply she startled at the jabbing motion.
“Don’t lie.” His admonishment was a fist, chuffing her like she’d seen done to the boys in the yard so many times in her youth. “Those traders fled from the southern empires, same as the Ulic. But they are not the same peoples. Though they might look it. The more you fight, the more your instincts will try to tell you that they are all the same—dangerous. That’s the animal in you. The wolf. The wolf only has to meet the steel of man to fear all men. You may be the wolf, but you must also be the master. When the wolf growls, you must take it in hand. I’ve seen it too many times. Too many good men have lost themselves to their wild instincts. See it for it is, correct it now. You must, or you will might as well trot your prancing palfrey back to your comfortable bed now and save yourself while you still can. Death upon the blade is not the worse thing that can happen to you in war.”
She took his chastising, as she’d taken it from Fee. Then, resuming her blade polishing, she said, “Tell me about them. The traders.”
“I will,” he said, “when we leave.”
She raised her eyebrow to him. She knew he couldn’t see it, and at the same time, she suspected he saw much more for lack of seeing.
“Don’t argue,” he said. “You need a squire.”
“Aren’t you a bit old to be a squire?”
He grunted and there was no more discussion about it.
The next morning, they packed and set off. He tried to get her to take Brummer, who was a massive warhorse, but she refused. She knew it would hurt Flegel’s pride if she rode Brummer. But mostly she preferred his smooth gait and lighter build. Besides, Brummer served better to carry more weight and if Nevan was to act as her man-at-arms as she preferred over squire, then it was better that he travel with the gear.
They had not been on the road quite three days when a trading barge emerged from the early day fog, moving against the current south. They did not stop rowing, but stood on deck and shouted,
“Turn back! The outpost is under attack!”
Nevan called, “How fares the post?”
“They’ve ceded the fortifications!”
“The enemy’s numbers?”
“A dozen! More!”
“They suffered illness! Many are crippled by it!”
The barge moved on, out of sight. Caoinlin and Nevan remained stalled on the slushy road.
“How far is the outpost?” Caoinlin asked.
“A day,” he replied.
“How many men are stationed there?”
“Three dozen,” he said. “Though there is the town, Oirsand. There are perhaps, fifty more able-bodied men, a hundred or so more women, children.”
“Will Tireachan respond?”
“How long for reinforcements?”
Nevan thought. “Tonight or by morning. The warning signal will have been lit.”
The brat stirred restlessly. Ever the coward, he tugged back toward the safety of the wood. But she held him firm on the road. “On the outside?”
“Tomorrow night, but they will be gone before the day. They’re after Oirsand’s stores, as much as her wealth. It is late in the season for them to be raiding. They’ve established settlements on the islands off the coast, they’ll be looking to stuff their lauders before the winter cuts them off from the mainland.”
“How many boats?”
“It’s a small party, a dozen men, mean only one or two.”
“How far is it from here to the outpost?”
“A couple of miles.”
“Will this fog hold?” It might’ve have seemed lunatic to pose such a question to a blind man, but in their short time together, Conlan had learned that Nevan knew much that could not be seen.
He inhaled deeply. “Yes.”
“Do they post guard at their ships?”
“Why should they? People run from the sight of them.”
“But they’ll be loading their spoils?”
“A man or two, depending. The townspeople will have sheltered in the tower. The Ulic will be in no hurry.” Nevan clenched his reigns and Brummer nickered. “I don’t like what you’re thinking. Have you ever even seen a ship?”
“Yes.” Redthorn had a great nautical tradition. The coast was dotted by drowsy fishing villages and she’d seen their skiffs a number of times. Once they had visited Duke Ogan, who governed the western strand. There was a terrible storm. Many ships had been dashed against the rocks and smashed to nothing but jagged boards. The rocks are like sharp blades, Ogan had told them. Like axes.
“Can you swim?” Evidently, Neven did know what she was thinking. “The currents in this river are strong, especially as they near the ocean. And your arm is not fully healed.”
“Find a place to set up camp, start a fire, boil water,” she said.
“They’re not made like any ship born in this country.”
She reached over and hefted the mighty Ulic axe from where it hung off her saddle. “Then I’d best not use a weapon from this country.”
“You shouldn’t go without your armor,” he said in a stiff, resigned tone.
“It will only weigh me down,” she said. “If you do not hear of me by tomorrow’s dawn, return home.”
Nevan snorted and muttered something that sounded like, “Madness.”
She spurred Flegel and he, reluctantly, sped into a gallop.