Clouds with undersides like gray silk cloaked the sky, the cool ocean breeze carrying the scent of rain. Rainstorms were nothing to be concerned about, but there were more clouds farther behind, riding low on the wind and piling on top of themselves until they turned black.
It was storms like those Morghram hated.
Lightning crawled along the bellies of the thunderheads, though they were yet too far off for thunder to be heard. The winds were still easy, but the pre-storm stillness would come soon enough, and who knew what sort of gale would follow? He couldn’t see any rotation in the clouds from where he stood atop the cliff, but he’d heard tales from sailors about hurricanes with an eye as wide as the harbor. But a grown man didn’t fear something so simple as the weather; he disliked it, instead.
Shaking his head, he turned back to his window and lifted another plank of pine. He’d lived on the cliff-top above the beach since retiring from the Royal Army, and if he didn’t like storms, he’d at least grown used to them. The front of his house faced the sea and he’d added bars beside the windows long ago. Sliding boards behind them wedged the planks between the bars and the shutters, deterring damage. The windows were not fine glass, the panes filled with ripples and bubbles, but they were glass; a commodity he was fortunate to have. So he barricaded both windows with care, dusting his hands together before looking back to the storm.
Foam capped the waves in the distance and small fishing boats hastened back to the long piers that lined the shore. But there was something else amid the waves, something small and pale. At first he thought it a pelican or some other sea bird, but it wasn’t graceful; it floundered in the water, slipping beneath the surface and then clawing its way back up, slower and weaker each time. A person, he realized. And all the fishing vessels had already moored.
Morghram was not young any longer, a few years past his prime and looking more weathered than that, but he was spry, and the carved stairs that led from the cliff-top village to the sandy shore beneath were not far from his home. He took them by twos, watching the bobbing figure in the sea all the while, his breath catching every time it sank beneath the waves.
He had only a small boat—one he’d built with his neighbor that they shared between them—but it was better than none. He cast off forcefully, leaping into the boat and sparing only a grimace for the stabbing pain of landing on his bad leg.
Thunder growled in the skies overhead, the air growing still though the waves before him raged. Grinding his teeth, he tried to ignore the building storm and focus on each sweep of the oars.
One to carry him up a swell, another to descend.
One to make up the distance he’d lost, one to climb again.
Heat burned in his back and his shoulders, the sound of the waves and his own breath drowning out the crackling lightning overhead. The waves pushed against him and rowing through them took every ounce of power he had, though as he grew closer to the figure stranded in the water, his determination grew.
It was a woman, fair-haired and clad in pale blue silk, clinging to a piece of wreckage. Hope and desperation lit her eyes when she saw him, but it was all she could do to hold on; the waves threatened to tear her raft from beneath her, the weight of her gown trying to drag her to the bottom.
He drew the small boat as close as he could manage. Diving in to lift her was out of the question, the angry sea eager to sweep him away from his vessel. Instead he clung to the edge and reached across, straining toward her until he was sure he would fall.
She caught him by the fingertips and let go of the splintered wood. He hauled her closer, wrapping both hands around her wrist and gritting his teeth, pulling until he could loop an arm around her and heave her into the boat. She landed with a slosh, her heavy gown bringing up what seemed half the sea with her.
“Hold tight,” Morghram roared above the growing sound of the storm, taking the oars again. He ached with fatigue but the waves were with him this time, letting them glide to shore. With the woman still in it, he pulled the boat as near the cliff as he could manage before offering his arm.
Her lips were pale and they quivered with the chattering of her teeth, but she took his arm and staggered to her feet. Wrapping an arm around her waist, he helped her walk, the two of them climbing the stairway together as the first stinging droplets of rain fell.
They reached the porch of his house just as the clouds opened, lightning drawing patterns of lace across the sky, nothing but their glow visible through the curtain of rain.
“Come inside,” he murmured, half carrying her to the door. “We’ll get a fire going. You’ll be all right.”
She followed without a word, standing as still as a statue when he let her go and turned to close the door against the storm. Holding her arms against chill, she looked around as if confused about where he’d brought her. Given what luxury her dress must have been before a dip in the sea, he supposed she couldn’t relate to the space he called home.
The house was not large, but it was comfortable, made finer by his trade as woodworker. A table and two chairs sat beneath the windows and a chest sat at the foot of the wide bed, but otherwise the single-room dwelling was filled with half-finished furniture pieces and tools. Most pieces were beautifully worked, with detailed carving and lacquers that complemented the natural color of the wood, making his own furnishings appear plain by comparison.
Clearing his throat, he strode to the chest at the end of the bed. “You’ll want to be out of that dress before you catch cold. Give me a moment and I’ll find something else for you to wear. Then we’ll get the fire stoked and get you warmed up.” He opened the chest and paused. “You do speak the trade tongue?”
“Yes,” she replied, watching as he shook wrinkles out of a plain tunic and breeches.
“Good, good. Though I suppose most people do, these days. Just wasn’t certain where you might have been sailing from.” He drew a belt from the chest and then carried what he’d gathered the table. His clothing would make her look like a child, but it was better that than nothing. “There, those are dry. Do you need help with your buttons?”
She shook her head, sniffing as she crept to the table. She fingered the rough wool clothing before turning her attention to the half-finished toys beneath it, solstice-gifts he’d started for his neighbors.
Morghram frowned, but made himself turn away. “Very well.” He slipped past her to kneel against the edge of the stone hearth, prodding the fire back to life, scraping ashes into a pail before adding another log to the fireplace. In cooler weather the soup pot stayed above the fire, but it was still summer, so he hung the empty pot and filled it from the wooden bucket beside the hearth. At least the rains would refill the barrel beside his door, sparing him a trip to the well. A basket on the floor held vegetables and he selected a few, slicing them into the pot with his belt knife.
“You may look now,” the woman said.
He turned his head to look at her as she smoothed the dark tunic with both hands. Her dripping clothing hung over the back of a chair and he was surprised to see how many layers she’d worn. How had she stayed afloat at all, wearing all of that? Grunting, he cleaned his knife and tucked it away, wiping his hands on his already dirty breeches as he stood. “Bring your things, we’ll hang them to dry.” He took a pole from where it leaned against the mantel, mounting it on ledges in the corner. “I’m afraid you’ll have to see a laundress to get the sea out of your silk, though.”
She sighed. “With fortune, I’ll replace it.” But she did bring her things, passing them to him one at a time to be hung over the pole she couldn’t reach. “Thank you, sir. For seeing to me. And for pulling me from the water.”
“Well, I couldn’t leave you there. I mean no ill, but you don’t look as if you can swim.” He glanced at her, but tried not to gaze for longer than a moment. She was a lady, after all, and in the house of a strange man; he didn’t want to make her uncomfortable. A lovely thing, she was narrow-framed and delicate, with ashen hair and silver-blue eyes that reminded him of the pale sky after rain.
“I can, a little. Just not when wearing that.” She looked at the dress almost wistfully, then tore her eyes away. He tried not to look at her, but she studied him intently, as if memorizing every line in his scarred and weathered face. “Still, I shall see that you are rewarded when the storm abates. My name is Eona. May I ask your name? And where I am?”
“Morghram,” he replied. “And you’ve landed on the coast of Roberian. Where were you sailing to? Or from, I suppose.”
Eona hesitated. “I’ve not heard of Roberian. We were sailing to a country called Lore, from my home in the Chains of Raeldan.”
“The Chains,” he repeated, surprised. The islands of Raeldan were on the other side of the world, hardly the sort of sea voyage he expected an obvious noblewoman to make. “Well, you’re not far from Lore. It’s just west of here. I assume the storm sent you off course?”
“And sank my ship,” Eona said with a sigh.
“Well, that’s the way of the sea. Never was fond of it, or its weather.” The door rattled in the wind as if to punctuate his sentence and he turned to make sure it was latched properly. “So you’ve family in Lore, I take it?”
“I hope so.” She inched to the table, studying the unfinished toys again. “That sounds strange, I know. I’m looking for someone who left without saying where they were going. I set out for Lore because I’d heard it held the largest harbor in the north. If nothing else, it seemed it was my best chance for finding news.”
She was right; it did sound strange. Morghram pulled out one of the chairs, motioning for her to seat herself before he settled in the other, taking a toy and a carving knife from the tabletop. “Must be someone important for you to follow them all the way from Raeldan on nothing more than a guess.”
Eona sat gingerly, resting her hands against her knees. “My husband.”
He raised a brow.
“We’ve not been wed long,” she continued. “Just a few weeks. Just long enough for him to sink his claws into my family’s fortune and run off. He waited until I went to visit my aunt. When I came home, everything had been sold—even the manor itself—and he’d fled with every coin. I was able to track him to the harbor and get the name of the ship he’d boarded, but whether that ship sailed north or south, no one knew. Or else he’d paid them off. Still, I must be only a few days behind him.”
“Well.” He cleared his throat, unsure what to say. It was an unusual plight, to say the least. “I’m afraid I can’t aid you much. You’re right in that Lore is likely the best place to look. Nearly all ships coming into the north come through Lore’s harbor. I can set you on your way once the storm passes, but it’ll take you at least a few days to get there.”
Her face fell. “I don’t know if I have days to spare. Are there any dignitaries closer who might be able to help? Perhaps someone who would have records of ships that have passed through the harbor recently?”
Morghram shrugged. “The count might. Roberian and Lore are ruled by the same king, you see. The countries in the triad share records, since Vicamros doesn’t like for the regions to hide information from one another.”
“And where can I find the count?”
“In the capital city. A day’s ride, in good weather.”
Her face fell.
“It’s nearer than the week it would take to reach the harbor in Lore, though,” he added. “I’ve a handful of things to deliver to the capital once the storm passes, as matter of fact. You’re welcome to ride along if you wish. If you don’t mind waiting for the storm to pass.”
Eona laughed, a sweet sound despite her rueful expression. “As if I have any choices there. All right, I’ll wait. My dress might even be dry by then.”
He chuckled, turning the half-carved horse in his hand to inspect both sides. “Perhaps. But for now, just rest and make yourself comfortable. The storm might keep us here a while.”