“Hold on,” Morghram murmured, reining his horse to a halt. Eona stopped behind him, clutching the pommel of her saddle. Four days of riding had made her more comfortable on horseback, but she still looked nervous any time her horse moved without direction, and her gelding pranced in place.
They’d reached the first rocky cliffs of the mountains the night before, but the heavy rainfall that preceded them made the footing unsure, so they had agreed to wait for sunrise before starting up the winding trails.
“What is it?” Her voice was high, her face pinched.
He slid from his mount, handing her the reins. She wouldn’t be able to hold the beast if it spooked, but at least she could keep it from wandering off. He didn’t reply right away, instead following the traces left in the mud for a little way before grumbling in displeasure. “We’ve been following ruts left by the wagon’s wheels for a few days. Followed them right onto this trail. No wheel tracks any more. Only footprints.”
Blinking, she leaned forward to look at the muddy trail. “You can tell all that? All I see are our hoof prints.”
“They teach all soldiers a little tracking. Was never good at it, myself, but I got by.” Rubbing the stubble on his chin, he walked back the way they’d come. “There weren’t any side roads. Nowhere to hide a wagon, either.”
“So where would they have gone?”
Morghram pursed his lips. His eyes drifted to the ledge to the left of the trail. It wasn’t a terrible drop, perhaps twenty feet, but that was plenty to shatter a wagon and let the underbrush hide its remains. “They must’ve pushed it off. Probably means they couldn’t take it up the road ahead, but didn’t want to leave anything obvious behind.”
Eona fidgeted, peering at the ledge as well. “Wouldn’t you have seen tracks from it being pushed off the cliff?”
“Maybe.” He shrugged. “Maybe not. I haven’t been watching that closely, since there’s no other way they could have gone.”
“Should we go back and find it?”
“No need.” He returned, taking his horse and dragging himself into the saddle again. His leg protested; he thought it fair in its objection, considering his history with horses, though it would have complained just as much had they walked the last four days themselves. “As I said, there were no other trails branching from here. Wherever they’ve gone, it can’t be far.”
The trail narrowed as they went on. Eona stayed at his back, though the path was still wide enough for them to ride side-by-side. They went slowly, Morghram leaning forward over his horse’s shoulder to watch the traces left behind.
There were many footprints left where the earth wasn’t so hard-packed, though the direction varied. But he couldn’t tell if they were left by a few men running back and forth to unload supplies from their lost wagon or many. Everything they’d seen alongside the wheel ruts indicated only two or three men, but if they had some sort of hideout in the mountain range, who knew how many might be waiting for them?
Abruptly the footprints veered toward the stone wall to their right, vanishing into a narrow path hidden by brush. Morghram raised a hand and slowed, turning his horse around.
Again Eona gripped the saddle, looking nervous. “What is it?”
He gestured toward the pathway before dismounting. “In here. Path’s too narrow for a horse.”
“What should we do with them?” She shifted to get down but he stopped her, passing her the reins to his horse once again.
“We’ll decide after we see where the path leads. I’ll scout ahead, you mind the horses. It might just be a shortcut up to the next path.” He figured that most likely, with the way the trails switchbacked up the mountainside. “I’ll only be a minute, but scream if you have a problem.”
She opened her mouth as if to protest, but closed it again without speaking. He raised a brow but didn’t wait, pushing back the low branches of the scraggly pine and slipping past.
The stone walls were close, barely wider than the span of his shoulders, and the soft carpet of dead leaves and pine needles beneath took no footprints. Were it not for a the grasses that were bent and broken, he wouldn’t have known anyone had walked that path before him. Judging by the plants, they weren’t far behind whoever had been leading the wagon. He’d thought it drawn by horses before, not realizing until now that he’d never seen any hoof prints. A hand-drawn wagon, then; likely something small, just big enough to transport goods and not big enough for a man to ride. Which meant one of the men on foot had to be Dolbin; another point in their favor.
The path was steep, widening before it met the wider mountain road. As he’d expected, it was a shortcut. What he hadn’t expected was turning his head to see a pair of men sitting beside an old mine entrance not thirty feet away.
They hadn’t seen him, the two of them hunched over a barrel and shaking a dice cup, but Morghram ducked behind the brush at the mouth of the shortcut just the same. Neither one fit the description Eona had given him, which meant their fortune had come to an end. Either Dolbin was inside—and under guard—or he wasn’t with these men at all. There was no doubt they were brigands; there was no reason to be sitting outside a run-down mineshaft otherwise. The old mines were places to store stolen and smuggled goods these days. If there were men sitting watch outside, it meant there was business going on inside. Frowning to himself, Morghram turned back down the trail.
Eona and the horses were in the exact place he’d left them, though she gripped the reins of both horses so tightly that her knuckles were white. She straightened when she saw him, though she looked relieved. “Did you find something?”
“Just a shortcut, like I said.” He dusted pine needles from his armor, sighing. “And men by the mine ahead on the trail. If Dolbin is with them, he’s in the mine now. Under guard, likely doing business with a smuggler of some sort.”
“That would be just like him, wouldn’t it?” she muttered. “So we confront them?”
“We’ll go up,” he said, taking his horse and walking it a few paces ahead to give him room to mount. “But we ride around the long way and start a conversation without startling them. Don’t want them to think we’re trying to sneak up on them. Surprises can make a man unpredictable.” And it gave them a chance to run if things went sour, besides. He made himself comfortable before nudging his horse forward, glancing over his shoulder to make sure Eona followed without trouble.
The long way around took only ten minutes more than the narrow trail carved into the cliff. Both good and bad if they needed to flee; the first turn would be close, but if the men in the mine shaft had arrows, racing down the mountainside beneath them would put them at a sore disadvantage.
The men at the mine’s entrance came into view within minutes. Both sat upright when they noticed the sound of the horses, turning to watch them with suspicion. Morghram motioned for Eona to slow her mount, putting himself farther ahead at the same time.
“What you want, old man?” one of the men barked. He was a big fellow, broad through the shoulders and wearing scant armor.
Morghram kept his expression neutral, though the way the man addressed him made him bristle. “Looking for someone. Maybe you’ve seen them pass?”
The man scoffed. “Nobody’s passed here.”
“A man,” Morghram continued, “with a pretty face. Flaxen hair, eyes like ash.”
The second man snorted a laugh, slapping his larger comrade’s shoulder. “They’re looking for the dandy! You missed him, old man. Passed him on your way up.”
Morghram’s eyes narrowed. “Beg pardon?”
“He’s dead,” the small fellow blurted. Stupid, Morghram decided, a label that seemed to fit when the man went on. “Didn’t have a shovel, so we dumped him off the side of the cliff.”
“You killed him?” Eona choked.
Both men looked offended. “Of course not,” Big said. “We just took care of it after his business went south. Now get on, old man. We’re in the middle of a game.”
Sliding to the ground, Morghram adjusted his armor. “Your game can wait. I’m not done yet. The man was in possession of something that rightfully belongs to the lady. You emptied his pockets before throwing him off the cliff, I’m sure.”
“They were already empty when they dragged him out here,” Stupid said. His companion shoved him, glaring.
Morghram turned toward the mine shaft’s entrance.
“No one’s allowed inside,” Big said.
“You going to stop me?” Morghram raised a brow.
The two men exchanged looks. Stupid shrugged. “They ain’t paying us to stop people. Just to stand watch.”
“Lousy watchmen,” Morghram muttered. “Eona, you head downhill. I’ll be along.”
“No.” She struggled down from her horse. “I’m coming with you.”
Big sighed. “Better head inside and tell the boss.”
“I’m not going in. I’m not getting sucked into fighting.” Maybe Stupid wasn’t so stupid after all. He shook his head, scooping up the dice and putting them into the cup.
His companion sneered. “He’s just an old man!”
“An old man whose armor matches,” Stupid replied. “You go on, but I’m done. I got my gold.” He gave Morghram and Eona a sidewise glance, shaking his head before trudging toward the hidden path they’d discovered earlier.
Big hesitated, shifting on his feet.
Morghram rested a hand on the hilt of his sword, bracing himself as he slid an inch of steel from its sheath.
The big man eyed it uneasily. Then he snorted, shaking his head. “Ain’t worth the trouble,” he murmured to himself, starting after his friend. “Not for that pay.”
Morghram watched the two men disappear into the brush, frowning. Ruffians, nothing more, hired hands that weren’t good at anything but dice. Still, two of them could have been more than he could handle. For the second time in their travels, he found himself breathing a quiet sigh of relief and being grateful for the king’s steel at his hip. The sound of the men pushing through the undergrowth faded before he turned to face Eona.
Her silvery eyes were sad, the corners of her mouth downturned, though she wasn’t frowning. It was a wonder she didn’t; in a single turn, she’d been widowed and her fortune taken out of hands the law could retrieve it from.
He cleared his throat, laying a hand on her shoulder. “I’m sorry,”
She tried to laugh. “What, for Dolbin? Don’t be. He gets what he deserves.”
“But he was your husband, nonetheless.”
Sadness shone in her eyes. She looked away. “Yes, he was.”
Looking back to the shadowed entrance to the mine, Morghram smoothed his hair. “Shall we go on?”
“What choice do we have?”
He didn’t want to agree, but what choice was there? They’d come all the way from the coast and were still empty-handed. But there was still a chance to change it. He gazed into the dark, squinting at the glimmer of torchlight far into the sloping tunnel. The wind still blew north. Just as it had when he plucked Eona from the sea, and when their journey began. Still beckoning them onward, urging them farther.
“It’s worth a try,” he said at last, adjusting the scabbard at his side. He tied the horses to a scraggly pine, looking to the sky before beckoning for Eona to follow. “Keep some distance between us. If we run into trouble, I’ll need room to swing my sword.”
“Is there room for that in a mine?” She peered down the tunnel, clutching her skirt.
“Don’t know. Never been in one.” He took his time ambling down the slope. The dirt was hard-packed underfoot, but there were loose pebbles and patches of damp earth to hinder them. Eona walked behind him with a hand on the wall. The rocky walls were sooty where torches and lamps had burned against them, but otherwise clean. He’d expected most of the mountain mines to be for digging coal seams, but coal dust would have left everything black. What this mine had been for, he didn’t know.
The tunnel curved to the right just after the burning torch. Morghram paused, nodding at the flames. “See that?”
“What?” Eona slid in gravel, catching herself on the wall.
He put a hand out to steady her. “The way it flickers and dances. There’s an air current down here. Must be more openings to the mine.”
“And more chances for whoever has my inheritance to escape,” she murmured.
Morghram lifted a finger, hushing her.
She tilted her head, listening. “What is it?”
“Voices,” he said, creeping ahead.
Lanterns cast dim light on the path before him, sprawling strange shadows out behind him. Morghram gripped his sword, moving slowly. There had been no reason to hide their presence outside, needing information and having room to run. Trapped within the confines of the mine, not knowing how many thieves may be there, things were different.
A shadow sliding across the path ahead was the first indication that someone was coming, emerging from an adjacent hallway just a step ahead.
The figure turned the other direction, never saw them coming. Morghram tensed, shifting back. He could charge the man, catch him from behind, but he couldn’t kill him or get any answers before the man called for help. Instead he waited for the brute to put distance between them, letting the man all but disappear into the darkness ahead. Then he moved forward, following quietly. It was strange; he’d always thought mines and caves would echo. Instead the air was weighty, dense, deadening sounds.
Eona had been right to question the size of the mine shaft. The corridor grew narrower as they walked, though the lanterns were still evenly spaced and burning low. The path wasn’t straight, either, curving ever so slightly before it joined another hallway. The man ahead of them turned. They followed.
A brighter light glowed at the end of the short hall ahead of them, crude furnishings visible inside a rough-hewn room. What it was originally for mattered little, but a pair of bunks stood in the corner, the light coming from the other end.
“We’re getting ready to ride,” the man they’d followed said. “You sure you don’t need us to stay for the next deal after that fight the dandy put up?”
“There won’t be a fight this time,” someone replied. “The client’s not a dandy.”
Morghram lifted a hand to tell Eona to stay back. She nodded, pressing herself to the wall beside her while he inched forward.
His hope to sneak a peek was dashed before he reached the doorway, the man they’d tailed appearing in front of it.
Morghram had his sword out before the man could do more than shout, lunging in a thrust for lack of room to swing.
The man fell back and sidestepped, jerking a too-large two-handed sword from a barrel by the wall. Across the room another man leaped up from a table, knocking over his chair.
The room was crowded, but big enough to move in. And with Eona in the hall, Morghram had an advantage; no need to worry about harming an ally.
He ducked beneath a lumbering swing, jabbing his sword into a gap in the brute’s mismatched armor. Roaring in pain, the man fell, hands cupping his side. The thief at the table surged over his writhing companion with blade unsheathed, striking hard and fast.
His weapon still in his hands, Morghram blocked but fell off balance, stumbling back on his bad leg.
Darting at the opening, the thief swiped at Morghram’s leg. The sword caught on a lamellar plate and bounced before raking down Morghram’s thigh, lighting a fire in his leg that rivaled what had ruined it years before. He howled, staggering against the wall.
Eona shrieked and the thief turned toward the hallway in alarm.
Morghram shoved himself from the rough wall before the man could move, plowing a shoulder into the thief’s side and driving him to the ground.
The man clawed at him, jerking his sword around to strike with the hilt, but Morghram caught it beside his temple and wrenched the blade from his hand.
“Tammin!” the man shouted, writhing beneath Morghram’s weight, looking to the other man on the floor. The fellow didn’t move.
“Shut up!” Morghram bellowed, striking the man’s jaw with the back of his gauntlet. The man groaned, his head lolling. Wrestling him upright, Morghram pinned him to the wall by the collar.
“Dolbin’s money,” Morghram snarled, giving the man a shake. “Where is it?”
The thief’s head bobbled, but for some reason, he grinned. “That’s what you’re here for?” He clutched at Morghram’s wrist, trying unsuccessfully to loosen his grip. “Everything left is in that tankard on the table.”
Morghram shoved him against the rock and let go. The man slumped to the floor but Morghram never took his eyes from him, shuffling backwards until he bumped into the table and could reach the tankard. He lifted it and dumped it over his hand.
Eight small copper coins fell into his palm.
Across the room, the thief laughed. “The money’s gone, been gone for days. Your friend spent most of it on his own. We took what was left when we killed him, split it between the group. No telling where they are now. You wasted your time, old man.”
Grinding his teeth, Morghram threw the tankard to the ground, curling his fingers around the coins.
“Morghram,” Eona started.
He shook his head, limping toward her, laying a gentle hand on her shoulder and turning her back into the hallway. “Let’s go.”
Behind them, the thief still laughed.
They didn’t travel far from the old mine before Morghram asked to stop beside the small brook they’d filled their water skins at that morning. He was more grateful for the horses than ever, though even on his own two feet he’d managed not to limp any more than usual. His trousers were plastered to his thigh with sticky, itchy drying blood and he hated to think of the wound beneath.
“You should have let me bandage that right away,” Eona chided, tying their horses while he settled beside the stream.
He drew his belt knife, cutting away the fabric to inspect the injury. It wasn’t as bad as he thought; not even a fingernail deep. Had it not been for the blade catching on his lamellar, his bad leg might have become his missing leg. “A little bleeding’s good for it. Cleans it out.”
“Well it’s going to have to be cleaned properly. You’re just fortunate my grandmother taught me a bit about tending wounds.” She gave a lofty sniff, scouting around a few trees before she stopped to pick something from the bark.
He eyed the green fluff in her hand with a dubious frown. “Lichen?”
“An antiseptic,” she explained, kneeling beside him. She scooped water from the brook with her hands, pouring it over his leg, rinsing the scrap of fabric he’d cut away and using it to scrub his skin clean.
He grunted and grimaced but she ignored it, making sure the wound was clean before she pressed the lichen to it.
“Feuds between islands of the Chains were common, even after being united. They broke out often enough for most young men to earn a few scars before they married, in any case.” She took his belt knife, sitting back and cutting strips of linen from the bottom of her underdress.
“I suppose that’s the same anywhere you go,” he said.
“I suppose. And I suppose the experience is good for them, as long as they survive. I don’t think I’ll ever understand the ways of battle.” She paused, meeting his eyes. “But I thank you for knowing it. You risked your life for me, bringing me on this adventure, knowing we might walk away empty-handed.”
Morghram held his gaze with hers for a long time, studying the dewy silver-blue of her eyes. She was still pretty, still ladylike, but it seemed she’d matured in their travels. Or maybe his opinion had changed, seeing her stubborn determination as they traveled. She wasn’t a waif plucked from the sea; she was a strong woman who’d made a mistake, something of which nobody was innocent. At least she’d tried to set it right.
Realizing he was staring, he tore his eyes away and bowed his head with shame.
She grew still. “Why do you look away?”
He sighed. “I forgot my manners. Forgive me. I’ve no right to study you when I’m as old and ugly as I am.”
Eona scoffed. “I’ve known ugly people. Hideous people, in fact. I’d rather have you look at me. The worst part about ugly people is that they hide it all behind a mask of prettiness. You never even realize they’re ugly until you’re close enough to see what’s beneath it. And by then, it’s too late.” She leaned forward, gently cupping his cheek in her hand.
He lifted his eyes to hers again, finding comfort in her smile.
“There’s nothing ugly about you, Morghram,” she murmured. “Nothing at all.”
“We didn’t come so close to the capital before,” Eona murmured as they rode toward the market south of the city.
“No,” Morghram agreed, “but we’ll need to stop and sell one of the horses. I can’t afford to feed both through the winter. We’ll share a mount on the way back to the coast.”
Both of them were weary from days in the saddle, but the morning was still young, lending them at least a little strength. The market buzzed with life, just as festive as he remembered, filled with colorful striped tents and bright banners waving overhead. He nodded to the few merchants he knew, making his way to a wide stall at the far end of the market. There he dismounted, leading his horse toward the grizzled blacksmith and his smooth-cheeked apprentice. “Looking to spend some coin today?” Morghram called.
The blacksmith waved a red-hot horseshoe in his tongs before dunking it in oil. “Depends on what you’re selling, you old goat. Where’d you come by a horse?”
“It’s an odd story. I’ll tell you over an ale next time I’m in for an evening. But I’m selling more than the horse.” Morghram tapped the sword at his belt.
The blacksmith’s eyebrows rose.
“Oh, you can’t sell that!” Eona cried.
Morghram barked a laugh. “I can and I will. I think I’ve enough adventures for one lifetime.”
“Well, I won’t refuse.” The blacksmith put his tools aside, dusting his hands against his soot-stained trousers. “Slap a new hilt on it and I won’t have to do a lick else to have it sold. Let’s talk.”
They inched farther from the road, haggling back and forth with a few hearty laughs before shaking hands. The smith counted coins from the purse at his belt and then slapped Morghram’s shoulder. “Next time we’re at the Worn Prayer, then. Safe travels.”
“And fair trade to you,” Morghram replied, striding back to where Eona waited with the horse they’d kept.
She dismounted, watching the blacksmith’s apprentice lead the other horse away.
“It’s not much,” he said, offering the handful of silver and few gold coins. “But it should be enough to get you back home to the Chains.”
Eona stared at the offering for a long time before reaching for it. But instead of taking the money from his hand, she curled his fingers closed around it. “Thank you. But I don’t need it any longer.”
He stared at her hands against his rough fingers, his brow furrowing. “But I thought-”
“I’ve learned a lot during my travels, Morghram,” she said. “I can never say how much I appreciate all you’ve done. Don’t think of our time together as a waste. We may not have found what we were looking for, but I believe I’ve found a greater treasure than what I lost.”
His eyes darted to her face.
Lightning flickered on the horizon, licking the waves of the choppy sea below the dark clouds. A northward breeze carried the tang of salt and the cool scent of rain. Morghram lingered on the cliff, watching as the thunderheads piled themselves higher into the evening sky.
“Morghram,” Eona called from the doorway, drying her hands on her apron. “Come inside already! Supper’s getting cold.”
“Coming,” he replied over his shoulder, offering her a smile before he looked back out at the sea, one last time.
He’d always hated storms, feared the way a strong one could take or ruin a man’s life. Now he thought that foolish and couldn’t think of anything in nature he loved more.
After all, a gale had brought her.