Updated: May 24, 2020
After another week, she was able to walk without pain. Nevan was forced to accede that her wounds were well-enough healed that they could move on.
Early, dawn no more than a pale suggestion along the eastern horizon, they set out.
Airy snowflakes fluttered out of the sky in languid spirals, melting as soon as they touched the ground. Every so often, one would land on her lips and leave a cool kiss. But they could touch little else as wore the copper mask now over the leather she’d fashioned in Gorggrey. What had once chafed and irritated now felt snug and comfortable against her cheeks. She couldn’t imagine taking it off.
The brat kept speeding up and she had to slow him down each quarter of a mile or so.
They were in no hurry to reach Orisand and Caoinlin wasn’t sure how she felt about being summoned by the captain of the outpost. Yes, she’d come to fight. But falling in with regular troops would bring new challenges.
As the snowfall came to an end, deep blue fault lines cracked the clouds apart. The road curved up the hill toward the high cliff upon which Orisand lorded. When they broke above the tree line, she halted Flegel. She stared, unsure of what she was looking at.
Great black shadows filled the horizon beyond the forest of evergreen trees and beneath the suddenly humble clouds, as though the sky were a sheet of paper that had been torn away, exposing the empty space beyond. The tear was stark and jagged and she felt as though she were looking upon some impossible act of violence. The black scar of a wound inflicted by a god too terrible and powerful to imagine, one that could rip the sky away from the land.
Nevan caught up with her.
“Blackstone Mountains,” he murmured.
She didn’t ask how he knew that she’d stopped to gape.
She’d seen illustrations of mountains in paintings and books, but how short representation fell from reality. Once she understood what she was seeing, the vision became less mystical, but no less majestic.
“They are the boundary of the northern-most kingdoms,” Nevan informed her, his breath steaming from his lips. “Now, everything within view of them, and much beyond that, falls under Tireachan’s right and honorable rule.”
With a cluck and a tap of his heels, he urged Brummer on.
She lingered a moment, allowing the black peaks to impress upon her mind, like black wax upon a page—a covenant between her and the land.
I will come, she promised the mountains, and the kingdom there, and all the people who had long suffered Arthor’s bloody incursions.
The road up to Orisand was hard-packed and steep. The horses, especially Flegel who was not accustomed to such terrain, took their time. And now, in the cool unhurried hours, she understood how she’d been able to escape the Ulic. Their descent down the trail had seemed frantic in her battle-frenzy, but it must have taken much longer than she’d been able to comprehend at the time.
The outpost’s squat round tower was the first structure to come into view. The pale limestone was streaked by veins of glittering black. At its pinnacle, a green-coppe canopy under which she could make out the shapes of men bringing wood to rebuild the warning signal fire.
A young boy, on thin, scampering legs like a fawn, appeared on the road above them. He bounced and his arms flailed and waved as they approached. He disappeared for a moment and then reappeared, running full tilt at them. Behind him came a loose group of children, all ages and sexes. They raced toward her, calling in a ringing chorus,
“Mhasc Caoin! Mhasc Caoin!”
The adults emerged more slowly.
Exhaustion and fear remained imprinted in the heavy lines on their faces, etched deeper by soot and sweat. They blinked as she approached, as though waking from a dream. All the while the children leaped at her legs, causing Flegel to lift his head and flick his tail proudly, obviously assuming the fanfare to be his.
When they finally passed through the town’s gate, she wondered darkly how the marauders had gotten through the stone fortification. It was ten feet high and posted at intervals by wooden guard towers. Only later would she get a view of the northern gate, which lead down to the river and had been utterly destroyed, splintered to charred fragments. Most of the buildings along this northern edge were also left black rubble.
The crowd pressed close to Flegel, reaching out to touch her. The hands dragged across her legs and fingers caught in Flegel’s tack until they were no longer able to move. Caoinlin was dumbstruck by the way they reached for her, as though she was handing out food to a starving mass.
“Move off you lot!” A throng of soldiers dressed in black elbowed their way through the crowd. “Get back!”
A slender young soldier perhaps only a few years older than Caoinlin bared his straight white teeth at one of the townspeople in a threatening snarl. He raised his smooth chin to Caoinlin. His eyebrows were so pale that they were barely noticeable. The frosted blue hue of his eyes matched the undertone of his skin and seemed to carry deeper into his demeanor. The line of his jaw formed a rigid shelf like ice along a riverbank. He regarded her with all the warmth of a blizzard.
“Follow me,” he grunted without introduction or greeting.
The other soldiers were more openly curious as they cleared a way for her through the crowd. Through the fort’s gate, the walls fifteen feet high and build thicker than the town’s. The icy youth eyed Nevan critically.
“Is this old man traveling with you, Mhasc Caoin?” He spoke her nom de guerre as if he were biting into a coin to test its purity.
Caoinlin dismounted. She was shorter than him by almost four inches, but she didn’t look up at him.
“What is your name?” she asked.
His chest swelled and his back straightened as a good soldier's should at roll call. “Lieutenant Carrigan.”
Her gaze strayed away from as if disinterested. “Carrigan.” She allowed the name to dissolve on her tongue, it tasted like cold copper. “Perhaps your men located my axe. I believe I left it down by the river.”
Carrigan’s cheeks sucked in, his brow peaked. At last, a flicker of curiosity appeared in his icy eyes.
“This axe?” a gruff, weary voice asked.
Carrigan stepped aside and Caoinlin felt as though night had fallen without any warning.
A thickly muscled man carried her axe in both hands, walking as though he had many greater burdens than the weighty axe. His hair was as black as his uniform, blacker except for the threads of silver woven sparsely throughout. This made the blue-gray of his eyes all the more startling. The last person she’d seen with such dark hair was an Ulic. But unlike the southern people, his skin was not warm olive or honey gold, but an even colder shade of white than Carrigan’s. He looked like he’d been formed from the Blackstone mountains. His hair the stone, his skin the snow, his eyes the sky.
His presence overshadowed them all. He inspected her without the obvious judgments of his lieutenant.
He held out the axe. “Does this belong to you?”
“I borrowed it,” she said. “But since the lender is dead, I suppose it is.”
She took it with her left hand, unthinking.
“You’re left-handed?” His eyes inspected her sword, worn on her left side.
“This is my axe hand,” she replied, letting a smile into her voice.
He snorted, and the tense shoulders of his men eased—except Carrigan’s which seemed to screw tighter.
“I am Captain Duff.”
“That is Nevan,” she said. “My man-at-arms.”
Duff didn’t blink at this, merely nodded. Soldiers closed in, taking the horse’s reins.
Nevan went with the soldiers to the stables.
“Come with me,” Duff said to her, cocking his head.
She fell into step beside him. His smooth, confident gait reminded her of walking with her father and the worry that had followed her up the to outpost fell away, even with Carrigan at heels. They passed into a long rectangular building huddled against the south side of the wall.
Inside, they descended a short set of stairs. The walls were chiseled stone, glistening with condensation that collected in puddles along the narrow corridor. The air was close and humid and stank of urine. If Caoinlin didn’t have her axe in hand, she might suspect that they were about to lock her in the dungeon.
The Captain removed a heavy black key from inside his coat and unlocked an imposing wooden door that came an inch short of touching the floor.
He pushed open the door and ducked in. Caoinlin went in after, Carrigan hurrying in behind.
The room opened in a wide semi-circle. At the center was an iron fire ring boiled the turgid air to oppressiveness. Square cut holes along the curved arch of the room were met by gutters, which allowed the stinking fluids and waste of the prisoners to drained out.
Five men in all lined the walls, iron shackles around their necks and hands and feet.
“We killed the rest.” Duff reported in a dull matter-of-fact tone. “These will be transported to Blackstone and made example of.”
Despite the prisoners being Ulic, Caoinlin was not eager to know what the captain meant exactly. She planted herself inside the door and took her first clear and unclouded look at her enemy.
They wore leather pants, brown or black. Their shirts and coats were dyed rich shades of red and blue and glimmered in with metallic embroidery in ornate floral designs. All but one, who wore a simple black shirt under an open-fronted, purple tunic and another plain black coat over that.
Her breath snagged.
He was ringingly familiar. The same who’d seen her on the ship, just before she’d jumped.
The back of his head rested against the wall as he stared right into her eyes. The firelight glowed in their black depths.
She was shocked to see how young he was. As if summoned, she drifted over until she came to stand directly before him.
Duff trailed her, Carrigan remained by the open door.
“He is their leader,” Duff said. “I believe you’ve met before.”
“What is his name?” she asked, not breaking the Ulic’s gaze.
He could see right through her, she was sure. He could pull her into the black pools of his eyes and drowned her if he wanted.
Sweat soaked into her mask and rolled down her back.
Duff cleared his throat and spoke in the Ulic’s language, though in a rough, breaking way that made her realize that he was missing the rhythmic ebb and flow to the language.
The Ulic didn’t look at Duff, he never once took his eyes off Caoinlin. The fullness of his lower lip was split and scabbed down the middle in a clotted black line. The angle of his jaw was outlined with a thin beard, but she could still see the muscles flex. His eyes narrowed, his sloping brow pulled down even further, so that his cavernous eyes were lost in deeper shadow.
Duff kicked the Ulic’s thigh and repeated the question in a firmer voice.
The Ulic said something, but it wasn’t his name. She wasn’t sure how she knew, but she did. His voice was raw and parched.
Duff responded in angry tones.
The Ulic’s gaze returned to Caoinlin, his lips drew together.
“What did he say?” Caoinlin asked.
The Ulic’s head turned, just slightly, as though he were trying to catch her voice with his
Duff sighed. “He said he will tell you, but that Carrigan and I have to leave.”
Caoinlin swung the axe up. The woosh of it as it cut through the air drew everyone’s attention. She caught the shaft in her right hand and held the axe across her body.
“I’ve killed eleven who weren’t in chains,” she said, “I’ll be fine.”
Duff sighed again, turned and motioned Carrigan out. They closed the door behind them.
“Well?” she said.
The corner of the Ulic’s mouth curled. His eyes glittered.
“I am Atal,” he said.
His accent was heavy. His mouth barely moved, his tongue lulled in the back of his throat.
Her shoulders dropped and the axe lowered. “You speak our language?”
His nod was slow and hindered by the metal cuff around his neck.
“Does the captain know that?”
Atal didn’t respond. He hooked his forefingers together between his bent knees and tilted his head a bit.
“Why the mask?” he asked, as though he were thinking aloud.
She let her eyes stray from him and realized that the others were suddenly very attentive to her, but none of them had the same penetrating gaze as Atal. She raised the axe again. He almost smiled. He closed his eyes and inhaled deeply, his nostrils flared.
“Do any of the others speak our language?” she asked.
His eyes cracked open. The fringe of his eyelashes was thick and long.
“Bring me water, and I will tell you.”
She held her ground.
“Tell me and I might bring you water,” she said after a time.
His tongue touched his lips. “No. A word or two, no more.”
“How did you learn?”
“He speaks our language?”
“He speaks many languages.” His eyes dropped to the axe. “You carried that, in the river?”
Her hands tightened.
He looked back up at her. “The iron will rust.”
She let the axe swing down at her side. A bucket of water sat by the door. They tracked her as she walked to it. She leaned the axe by the door and took the rope of the wooden pail. She lugged it back to Atal, standing where she had before, and took the ladle out.
He didn’t follow her movements but stayed fixed on her eyes. She dropped the ladle to the floor, lifted the bucket with both hands, took a step forward and dumped the water over him.
She lowered the bucket, he met her gaze for a second.
Water dripped from the short black curls plastered to his forehead around his eyes, off his nose, over his mouth.
His legs straightened and kicked the bucket out of her hands.
Before it hit the ground, Atal had tucked his legs back and kicked out again.
This time he struck her left shin and caused her to topple forward into him.
Her hand went to the dagger inside her jerkin, his knee moved up and pinned her forearm against her body.
He caught her neck in his hand and yanked her face to his.
He thrust his mouth to hers, the wound on his lip opened and she tasted the bright
warmth of his blood.
She tried to pull back, but his hand clamped down around her throat. Her mouth froze under his which worked quick and persistent against her.
A fevered hum burned through her. In the inexplicable instant when she kissed him back, his fingers loosened. She tore free and clambered back. She licked his blood from her lips.
A red smear ran down his chin. The right corner of his mouth twisted up. “You taste of royalty.”
She got control of her breath, tamping down the bizarre burn that he’d seared deep into her.
“Are you?” he asked.
She needed to decide what she was going to do and soon. She let her eyes flick from one man to the next, to gauge their reactions. They were all stone-faced, but alert. He wiped the blood from his chin with the back of his hand, watching her.
“We would be humiliated,” he said, “If it was known . . .” He looked around the cell. “They are now more afraid of you than before. Our names are all we are. To be made prisoner because of a . . .” He half-smiled again. “They would sooner you kill them now than let it be known to their families.”
She pulled her sword.
“They would kill you?” He jerked his chin toward the door. “If they knew?”
She moved to guard.
“They would be fools,” he said, “To kill you. You are better than they are.”
She held position.
“And I wouldn’t want them to kill you,” he said. “If anyone is going to kill you, it will be me.”
“Hard to kill me when you’re in chains,” she growled.
His mouth twined up in a smile again. “I will be free. Then I will find you. If you do not force me to kill you, and I hope you do not, I will put you in chains. Then we will see how noble your blood tastes.”
“What makes you think you’ll be free?”
“My father will come for me.”
“Who is your father?”
He smiled and she knew, the name escaped her mouth as if he’d planted it there to sprout.
She raised her sword and pressed the tip to the soft flesh under his chin.
“You will not kill me,” he said.
He seemed to consider this, staring into her eyes all the while. Glimmers of stars populated the dark recesses, they were distant yet bright, quietly absorbing every secret wish she’d never spoken. They knew her. How she could not say, but they did.
His words could not have struck closer if she’d spoken them herself. If he had said anything else, anything, she would have killed him, right there and then.