Her wound was not yet fully healed and Nevan had tried to convince her to stay another week, but they had stayed in Orisand for two weeks already. The faces of Orisand were becoming too familiar for Caoinlin’s comfort.
When she woke in the mornings, she always looked for Fee. He wasn’t there, of course, but she began to invoke his voice more and more. The steady cadence of it cooled her lingering desire for Atal and reassure her that she’d made the right choice. He would remind her of her promise to him. He would say that every mistake was an opportunity to learn. He would call her mo ghrà and convince her that he was still alive, that he was waiting for her—somewhere.
She knew of only one place to look for him: in the kingdom of Blackstone.
Though a part of her did not believe that Fee could’ve traveled all the way to Blackstone on his own, and on the eve of winter, no less. She couldn’t convince herself that he was dead, either.
On a bleak, blustery morning, she and Nevan left Orsiand and set out northwest, through the forests once more and beyond to the northern slopes of the Blackstone range.
Caoinlin used the long stretches of silence along the road to rehearse what she would say to King Tireachan.
She’d seen warriors pledge themselves to her father many times, but when she thought back on their vows, the memory of their brave words came back as little more than hollow echoes. After all, what was courageous about vowing allegiance to a kingdom that met conflict once in a decade? Even the soldiers sent to bolster Aodhan’s borders against Gaibrial’s incursions were rarely forced to draw their swords. Gaibrial and Aodhan had been posturing for years. This was why men like Gus left Redthorn—to test themselves in real battle.
Three days out of Orisand, the weather grew colder. The trees thinned and then gave way to scraped, gray swaths that would suddenly drop off into vast valleys, bleak and rocky. Nevan called it the hinterlands. In the distance, mountains carved the horizon but never seemed to grow any closer.
Caoinlin was surprised to learn that only a few days out from the forest they were already in Gaidtach Tuath, Blackstone kingdom.
She was less surprised that they didn’t encounter another living creature. Nevan kept up his assertion that soon they would eventually reach the local lord’s castle, where they would be given shelter and fresh provisions.
Perhaps it was the lack of burnable wood that made her increasingly dubious of his claims, or perhaps it was the fact this promised castle never appeared.
At night, huddled in her blankets, the bitter wind stinging through the wool, through her clothes, even through her leather mask, she could not imagine anyone living off this land.
When she woke in the morning to find herself coated in ice from the freezing mist that had crept up on her in the few hours she was able to steal sleep, she cursed the land. The blankets cracked when she moved and broken bits of ice piling up around her. The more she grumbled, the less Nevan spoke. For a time, it seemed the heat of her whirring mind was all that kept her warm, but after a time, she was too exhausted to even fuel her pestering doubts and unanswerable questions.
Three weeks from Orisand, she felt as though the nightly freezing had finally settled into her bones. Something inside of her had grown cold and hard as the land around them. Her thoughts grew as spare and empty as the foothills they traversed.
At first, she fought it, thinking that the long intervals of quiet inside her mind were a sign of impending madness. But when she closed her eyes, she slept. And when she woke, she was ready to move without complaint. If she was breaching insanity, at least it seemed to be of a practical sort.
As they curved northward, the ground began to soften in places. The fogs lingered longer and the sun, though illuminating for endless hours, provided less heat than ever. The valleys were no longer as deep and the plains shorter. After a few days along the northern road, they began to encounter semi-frozen marshes and ducked out of view of the mountains completely.
They had been traveling along a path along a small stream, both the road and the stream widened and by the third day, they passed a small stony hovel puffing steady plumes of smoke. They did not stop. The river was not frozen and provided them with the food and water they needed and Caoinlin would not ask poor peasants to offer any of their own food to her.
Midday, they stopped to rest the horses. The mist was thin, the sun a shrouded distant orb of white in the sky. Caoinlin removed her gloves and ran her fingers under her mask, over her chapped cheeks, and across her eyelids. The mask had rubbed the skin raw and painful, but after so many frigid days of suffering, she could hardly feel the sores any longer.
She heard the approaching wagon for nearly twenty minutes before it appeared. The creaking of its wheels reached her first, ahead of the two mules clacking against the hard, frozen road.
At the reigns was a black-bearded man with a red-knob of a nose and a thick, sagging body. His eyes were startling blue, just as Duff’s had been. For a moment, she considered that they could possibly be related, but once she took in the four others in the wagon’s load, she realized that it was more likely that the people of Blackstone shared in these traits of stark dark hair and eerie, light eyes.
Four men sat behind the first. Two were too young yet to grow beards and so had their faces wrapped in heavy black woolen scarves. One was of middling age, and the fourth old enough to have white streaks for eyebrows. The wagon slowed to a halt. They greeted Caoinlin with ice-hued stares. Caoinlin stood at the side of the road, her breath mingling with theirs in white clouds above their heads.
The driver, after a long moment of silence, spoke. Caoinlin couldn’t make out a word.
Nevan, standing a few paces behind her, responded.
In their language was the origin of the accent that slurred the tongues of the peoples in Orisand and Gorrgrey. The sound of it had always seemed garbled and difficult. But as Nevan conversed with the driver and the driver in turn with his passengers, she found that the problem wasn’t the accent, but its misuse. When coupled with its proper language, , there was something beautifully musical, a resigned melancholy that was familiar in a way she couldn’t quite pinpoint.
“What are they saying?” she asked when there was a break in the conversation.
“They’ve been summoned to the lord’s estate,” Nevan said.
“In the midst of winter? Why would their lord put them through the hardship?”
“It is not their lord that summons them, but the elected constable,” Nevan explained. “Seems that the lord died last winter and his lady has been governing in his stead.”
One of the younger men pulled his scarf down and revealed a wide, red mouth.
“You are a knight?” Even in her language, his accent was cleaner than the southern peoples, as though he understood the nuances of it better, though it was not his native tongue.
“I am,” she said.
“And the Ulic are your enemy?”
“Then come with us,” he said. “Our lady Liobhan is a traitor and a witch. We go to turn her out.”
Caoinlin crossed her arms and settled back into her heels. “What proof have you to make such egregious claims against your lady?”
The driver spoke, his words more halting than the youth’s. “She harbors an Ulic in her castle and bars the gates.”
“Maolan himself is coming to deal with the witch,” the youth chimed in. “But she is ours, we will have her out and burned before he arrives from Teamair.”
“Burned?” Caoinlin said.
“Yes,” the youth answered heatedly. “A witch must be burned.”
Caoinlin’s fingers touched the bump of the leather necklace that Aislinn had given her so long ago. And then it hit her. Why she knew the pensive mellifluence of their language. These were not merely a ragged group of irate farmers, but the subjects of Blackstone.
They sounded like Fee. As a prince, had Fee looked on these very faces?
Caoinlin dropped her hand and squared her shoulders. “We will ride behind.”