The lord’s castle was built on a hill above the town of Grunglen situated just north of where the river Caoinlin followed, the Ola, met a smaller one coming from the west, the Dig. The two combined to form a wide greenish flow that the men informed her had been often assaulted by the Ulic in the old days. Now a high stone wall protected much of the town, though some still spilled out along the banks. The men told her that the Ulic rarely made it so far inland anymore and that Tireachan only stationed a small contingent there during the warmer months. She did not ask how it was then that the lady should come to harbor an Ulic if they were not known to travel so far inland any longer.
The farms they passed along the way were poor in appearance and when she asked what they farmed, she was told peat. Nevan had to explain that the peat was harvested from the surrounding land, which was increasingly boggish. The material was then used as fuel for their fires. When she asked exactly what peat was, all they could say was that it was earth and decomposed vegetation. She couldn’t quite imagine what they were talking about or how such material could sustain a fire, but as they passed through the town’s gates, more immediate concerns overtook her contemplation.
The town was so quiet, it seemed deserted. As they wound through narrow stone-cobbled streets toward the castle, a modest structure whose tower barely peaked over the tops of the walls, they began to hear rumblings. On a wide avenue between the castle’s outer wall and the town, they came upon what seemed to be the entire population. At their appearance, the shouts aimed up at the castle fell silent.
Atop the walls, soldiers in dull metal helmets glared down at them with spears in their hands and unreadable expressions on their faces.
The men bounded down from their wagon at the edge of the crowd. The silence of some five hundred people was preternatural and left Caoinlin with an uneasy feeling.
Something of her aristocratic breeding remembered to be discomfited by this mob. These were not people interested in discussion. They were beyond the use of compromise.
A robust man, face half-hidden behind a wild ruddy brown beard, parted the crowd before him without a word. Caoinlin dismounted and the people nearest her stepped back.
“Who be you?” the man asked in a low grumble.
“I am a warrior for the cause of this country,” she answered. “Who are you?”
The man’s bushy eyebrows shadowed the sparkle of his green eyes. “I am Piaras, the constable. You are not Tireachan’s man?”
“I would be, had I opportune to offer myself,” she replied. “This is why I travel thusly.”
Piaras tugged at his beard, inspecting her from the bottoms of his eyes.
“We wait for Maolan,” Piaras told her.
“Wait for him to do what?”
The people were beginning to close in, stifling her with the musk of those who hadn’t bathed for days. Or maybe that was her stench. She could not recall the last time she’d bathed.
“He must seize the castle,” Piaras said without any of the savage hunger that she felt coming from those around her. “And punish those within.”
“Who is within?”
“Lady Liobhan,” Piaras said.
A hiss came from some unseen mouth and incited a deafening uproar. They shouted in the language she couldn’t understand, though she could practically taste the blood they craved. Almost as soon as the shouts started, they subsided again. The mass of people trembled and shuddered as they fell into rigid stillness.
“The people have suffered, the worst at the hands of the Ulic,” Piaras told her. “They will not stomach one to live.”
“And this Ulic has been seen within?”
Piaras nodded his head slowly. “Most of her soldiers quit the place when they learned what she was doing.” Piaras inclined his head toward her, though his voice remained the same low grumble. “He is her lover.”
“How did that come about?”
Piaras rolled one thick shoulder upward. “She is a known sorceress. He might’ve been here for months.”
“How long have the gates been shut?”
“Nine days now,” Piaras said.
“And has there been any communication?”
“What is there to communicate?” Piaras crossed his arms over his barrel-chest. “We demanded she turn him over, she refused. We demanded she turn over the castle, she refused.”
“Is there another way out of the castle?”
“There are four gates, all guarded. Her soldiers know of one secret exit. But that, too, is watched.”
“How do you know she’s even still in there?” Caoinlin asked. “If she’s a witch, couldn’t she . . . magic herself away?”
Piaras hadn’t seemed to blink the entire time he’d been speaking to her. But he did now, a slow pronounced movement. He half-turned and pointed to the two torches set outside the barred portcullis, their flames burned pure blue like she’d never seen before.
“She’s still there,” he said with unwavering certainty. “The fires, they are witch light. They will burn blue as long as she is within.”
In the warmth of the crowd, Caoinlin was beginning to feel her chapped and road-weary body as she had not in weeks. A deep longing for a warm fire and a soft bed pushed up from some forgotten well within her.
“May I?” she asked.
The constable’s expression never altered, he simply stood aside.
The crowd broke away to let her through to the gate. They seemed happy to do it, anxious even. In their minds, the lady’s guilt was so clear, they could not imagine that anyone would doubt it.
She took Flegel with her and Nevan trailed behind with Brummer. She paused a few feet from the portcullis and stared at its metal gridwork.
“What are you going to do?” Nevan asked under his breath.
She handed Flegel’s lead to him. “No idea.” She took a few steps away from the gate, craning her neck back to see one of the soldiers staring back down at her.
“You there!” she shouted. Her voice sounded hoarse and unused. “Tell your mistress that the Mhasc Caoin would parley would she grant him entrance!”
The shadowed face continued to stare down at her for some time and then disappeared from view.
Just then, a rumble of thunder caused everyone to look up to the darkening sky.
A heavy cloudburst erupted above them. An almost warm wind gusted through and pried at Caoinlin’s mask. Fat drops of rain fell slowly for a moment, and then unleashed in a torrent. The wind gusted from the east and then the west, pummeling the crowd.
Nevan hunched beside Brummer, both of their heads bent against the onslaught.
Lightning cracked, jolting the crowd and causing the first few to bolt away. The thunder that followed caused her teeth to rattle in her skull.
Before long, only a few remained: Caoinlin, Flegel, Nevan, Brummer, the constable and a couple of stone-faced soldiers.
The torches outside the gate continued to burn as strongly as before, blown by the wind but not flickering.
Piaras slogged up beside her. Water streamed from his beard and over the crags of his face. “There is an inn down this road.” He waved a meaty hand to the south. He had to raise his voice to heard over the downpour. “The guard will send word if there is a message from the witch!”
“Nevan, go with him!” Caoinlin ordered. “Take the horses.” She planted her feet in the gushing gray stream coursing over the street. “I will meet you there.”
“Insanity,” Nevan barked but brought the horses around.
“Tell me constable—” Caoinlin was halted by a crack of lightning and the roar of thunder that followed. When it subsided she continued, “Can a witch make a storm?”
His deep-set eyes flicked to the unwavering blue flames. Shaking his head, he clapped her on the shoulder, nearly taking her off her feet.
In a few quick, sloshing strides, he caught up with Nevan and the horses.
Two remaining guards stood with their shoulders bunched up to their ears and their faces down to keep the rain from stabbing at their eyes.
Caoinlin let the warm rush of water blind her, soak through her clothes, collect in her boots. It was the closest thing she’d had to a bath in weeks. Unfortunately, it only seemed to deepen the stink of unwashed clothes and less washed body, she didn’t move. She stood before the main gate, watching the flames twist and bend and thought distantly about Fee.
She wondered if Liobhan could be the witch who had changed him into a frog.
If she was a lady, then she would be a member of Tireachan’s court. It seemed strange that the people could know she was a witch, but that fact hadn’t bothered them until she’d taken in an Ulic. Caoinlin stifled the memory of Atal.
She could not say how long she stood there.
The storm lashed and beat at her. More than once the wind forced her to take a wobble, but she only planted her feet again.
Fee’s voice slid into her mind. He told her it was bizarre and pointless to stand in the midst of a gale, waiting for a response that would never come. Most likely the storm was the response. And what did she think she was going to say to this woman anyway? That she sympathized with her feelings for this man, but he was an Ulic. Her loyalty to her people should come before any feelings she had for her enemy lover.
Caoinlin winced inwardly. Even in her mind, Fee’s tone was biting, chastising. He would’ve despised her for Atal, for what they’d done, for the fact that she’d allowed him to live, to escape. She still struggled to imagine Fiachrin, the man, but she knew enough about him to know what he would’ve done if he’d discovered her aiding an Ulic. In this land, devastated by the Ulics’ marauding, there were few crimes that warranted death. Perhaps there were no more executioners. Every man deserving of death would find it swiftly enough at the end of an Ulic’s blue blade. But for hiding an Ulic, for helping one escape, those were crimes unforgivable. What use did these beleaguered people have for a traitor?
Blue fire. Caoinlin’s sight, blurred by the rain, remained fixed on the flames. She wondered if a witch was burned, would the fire be blue and once she was dead, would the flames change color?
As she thought it, a pale orange flare popped inside one of the blue torches. She blinked. Both fires remained blue for a moment and then, within each, a definite orange core emerged and grew.
Caoinlin sloshed in her boots and through the streams of water around her to one of the guards.
He started and blinked at her with miserable drowned blue eyes.
“What does that mean?” She pointed to the torch beside him which was growing ever more orange. He stared at the fire for a moment and then snapped to action. Shouting indecipherably, he waded to his compatriot. The second guard gawked at the fire and then slogged away in great splashes.
Caoinlin went after the first guard. “Where does the secret exit emerge?”
Another jarring roll of thunder muted his response. He stabbed his finger to the west, toward the river. She ran through the cobbled streets, feeling three times as heavy and wishing she had Flegel to speed her sodden pursuit.
She retraced her way back to the town gate and down the muddy roads, through squat ramshackle huts to the river quay. The rain pounded the river, stirring it into a blinding cloud of water. She couldn’t see more than a few feet in either direction. She trudged north, with the river’s current.
The stone platform of the quay gave out to a mud trail that sucked at her boots and slowed her to a crawl. The town’s walls were behind her and the few leaning shacks nearby appeared uninhabited. The docks were rickety and the boats were tipped upside-down along the bank and were not of the quality that she would expect to find a lady and an Ulic making their escape. She stopped, huffing and letting herself feel the aches of her journey more fully than she had in weeks.
Cursing, she kicked at the water puddling around her boots.
Turning to start back to the town, when she froze.
The door of one of the crumbling shacks stood open. Two men in long black cloaks stood on a dock. They gestured to a woman in a purple cowl and another man in black. They hastened to the waiting boat, their heads were bent against the rain.
They did see her for the steely curtain of rain.
Caoinlin drew her sword.
The woman halted mid-step.
The man stopped and turned back to her and said something that Caoinlin could not hear. The woman raised her head and looked directly at Caoinlin. Her eyes shone pale green, her hair a deep red.
She was beautiful. Her face was made up of dramatic peaks and seductive curves. But Caoinlin didn’t get the same feeling from her as she had from Aislinn. If this woman was a witch, it was not the eccentric flower-reader of Aislinn’s ilk.
Then the man sighted her. He was Ulic.
Strangely, she was relieved. Not because he was Ulic, but because he was not Atal. The thought hadn’t been clear in her mind, but when she saw this man, she realized that the possibility that it might be Atal had been trying to disturb her since she’d first heard of him. This man was taller than Atal and darker still. His eyes smaller and his features, better proportioned than Atal’s. He pulled his sword and it swung in a familiar arc.
The two servants, loading a few bundles into a shallow barge, a smaller version of some of the trader's vessels she’d seen, with small living quarters built above board, called out anxiously to the couple.
Lady Liobhan stared at Caoinlin. The rain suddenly came faster and harder. A fierce gust swept at Caoinlin, but she was stone now.
Liobhan and her lover did not move either.
Another gust barreled in from behind and knocked her to her knees. Caoinlin rose to a crouch, her pants plastered with mud. She firmed her grip on her sword.
“Coward,” she growled under her breath.
Another force of wind funneled out of the sky and drove against her, but she bowed her head and withstood the assault. When it ended, she looked up. Liobhan and the Ulic were on the move. She sprang with as much speed as her sopping clothes would allow.
The Ulic let Liobhan ahead of him, though the lady pulled at his arm. But she was forced to let go when Caoinlin pounded onto the dock and faced off with the Ulic. The servants, two older men, cowered back into the boat, pleading to their lady to board the boat.
“No!” Liobhan thrust herself before the Ulic, glaring fiercely at Caoinlin.
“Let us leave!” She ripped a gold cuff from her wrist and held it out to Caoinlin. She pulled the gold dangling earrings from her lobes and held them out in her other hand.
“Take them! Let us leave!”
Caoinlin sneered at the gold jewelry. “Use your magic to stop me!” Caoinlin demanded.
“Call the wind to throw me into the water!”
Liobhan’s hands closed on her jewelry and her arms coiled back. “The storms have done all they will against you,” she said bitterly.
Liobhan threw the jewelry down and reached into her cloak. She pulled out a bulging purse.
“This is more than Tireachan would pay you for a lifetime of service,” she called.
“I am not here for gold,” Caoinlin said. “Stand aside and you might yet live.”
Liobhan shook her head. “We have done nothing—”
“Nothing? How many of my people have you killed, Ulic?”
“And how many of mine, Mhasc Caoin?” the Ulic snapped back.
“One too few,” she snarled.
Liobhan bowed her head, her eyes closed, her lips moving silently.
“You value the lives of your countrymen, then what of her?” the Ulic said. “You know what they will do to her. We will leave, we will not return.”
Caoinlin pursed her lips.
Who was she to deny them, after what had happened with Atal? The pain of his loss stung her as she witnessed Liobhan making the choice that Caoinlin had not been able to. How could she punish Liobhan for a crime that Caoinlin had also committed?
Liobhan’s eyes snapped open. The lady’s stare pierced Caoinlin.
“You wear your thoughts too freely,” Liobhan said. “If they capture me, I will tell them what you are. What you have done. I will tell them about Atal.”
The Ulic’s sword lowered. “Atal?”
Caoinlin didn’t think, she drove her sword into the Liobhan’s stomach. The Ulic grabbed Liobhan’s arm. The lady pressed her hand to the wound and her clear green eyes probed into Caoinlin’s stunned gaze.
“You will lose another child for this,” Liobhan said and then her knees folded and she slumped.
The Ulic reacted in a flash with a roar. And before Caoinlin registered the ringing of swords, the Ulic was dead on the ground. The servants huddled over Liobhan, cradling her, wailing into the storm that was already subsiding. Rain ran down her blade, washing the blood away. By the time Piaras and the soldiers arrived, there wasn’t a trace of red left on the steel and the storm was over.