After a day of walking, Morghram reconsidered; traveling would not be the easiest part.
Eona didn’t complain, but by midday, she winced and whimpered and limped along behind him. He expected sore feet, though not so early in their trip, and her pace only slowed further as her energy ran out. By dusk it was clear she could go no farther and he decided to halt near a copse. There weren’t many trees in the rolling plains, but clusters marked lines between fields belonging to different farmers.
“Shouldn’t we see if we can sleep at one of the houses up ahead?” It was the first time Eona questioned any of his choices, though he didn’t doubt it would be the first of many.
Morghram squinted at the dim lights of farmhouse windows a mile up the road and grunted, shaking his head. “I don’t think you want to walk that far, and I don’t think I can carry you that far, either.” It was half jest, but the frown she wore made him uncertain if she realized it. “We’ll rest here for tonight and fill our water skins at their well come morning. Don’t want to take too much hospitality from strangers when we can camp all right here.”
“Very well.” She wasn’t pleased, but she still sank to the ground and sighed in relief when she took off her shoes. They were little more than silk slippers, something she’d kept from her finery. With the soles as thin as they were, he wondered how she tolerated walking at all. “How much farther is it to the mountains?”
“A good ten days, I’d say.” Longer, if her feet blistered. He kept that thought to himself and put down his canvas bag of tools and the bundle of blankets he’d brought to use as bedrolls. Then he trudged between the trees, inspecting the fallen branches beneath them. He’d brought oilcloth to make a tent, but the sky was clear and he didn’t want to bother cutting saplings if it didn’t look like rain. Not that there were any saplings worth cutting here. He returned to Eona and sat beside her, reaching for the basket of food.
Pushing it toward him, she said nothing.
He drew his belt knife, cutting pieces from a loaf of bread. “It’s a long trip, but even if he’s hired a wagon, your Dolbin won’t make it there any faster.”
“Don’t call him that,” she snapped.
Morghram glanced up as he passed her bread and a sliver of cheese. “He’s still your husband, isn’t he?”
Her shoulders slumped. “I wish he wasn’t. I wish I hadn’t met him at all.”
He put away the rest of the food, cleaning his knife. As an afterthought, he unfastened a strap of his lamellar and relaxed when it loosened. He wasn’t fat, exactly, but he was softer around the middle than he’d once been, and it was rather snug. “If you don’t mind me asking,” he started cautiously, laying his bit of cheese between two pieces of bread, “how did the two of you end up married?”
“Ah,” Eona smiled, turning away. “He was a good pretender. Convinced my family he was someone important, convinced me that he loved me. My parents hoped I would marry well and he seemed to suit what they were looking for. I was all they had, my two elder brothers lost at sea.”
“So it was arranged by your parents?”
“No. I pushed for it, truth be told. My family was hesitant at first, since we were never able to meet any of his relations, but they became more agreeable after they fell ill. The first of Dolbin’s crimes.” Her tone turned bitter and she scowled at the earth.
“I’m sorry,” Morghram said between bites, “but I don’t understand what that has to do with him.”
“Poison,” she replied simply.
Startled, he lowered his food.
“I knew it was odd. My father had never been ill a day in his life. But I didn’t suspect Dolbin until it was too late, and I didn’t find the arsenic until after we’d married and my parents had passed.” Shrugging, she made herself eat. “It was part of why I went to speak to my aunt to begin with. I never expected to come home to find everything gone.”
That made sense; it was no wonder she’d left her husband behind, fearing for her own safety. But the thought of it rankled, leaving a foul taste in his mouth. “I am sure you will find justice after we track him down.” He didn’t know what else to say, but she seemed pleased with that.
“I’m sure,” she agreed. “But that’s enough of my story. Tell me of yourself, Morghram. It’s unusual to see a man your age who lives alone. You never married?”
He licked crumbs from his fingers as he finished his sandwich, shaking his head. “I stayed in the army longer than most, until I fell from horseback and broke my leg. Didn’t want to risk leaving a widow while I was a soldier. Then it took a long time to heal. Didn’t want to burden a woman with a cripple for a husband, either. So I learned my craft while I mended, woke up one morning and realized I was too old. Women my age are spinsters who do fine on their own, no reason for them to wed. I’ve little to offer women younger, no wealth to my name.” Something that could change once they reached their destination, though he dared not entertain the thought for more than a moment. There was better chance they wouldn’t even make it that far.
Eona tilted her head, reaching for her water skin. “What about love?”
That yielded a hearty laugh. “Because that worked so well for you, did it?” he teased, though he sobered when she flushed. “Well, still not much hope for an ugly old carpenter. Though I suppose that’s hard for a young one like you to understand.”
“I’m not so young as you might think,” she murmured. “I’m likely not much younger than you.”
Morghram raised a brow. “You don’t look like a mage to me.”
“No, but there’s a bit of the old magic in my family. Enough that we stay young for longer than most, though not enough to make us Gifted.”
He grunted, saying nothing of it. With the troubles always stirring between the college in Lore and the rest of the triad, there was little love for magic-users outside the college halls. It would have been foolish to lump her in with them—he didn’t know how mages were viewed in Raeldan—but he didn’t see it as something in her favor, regardless. If she wasn’t young, she was naïve, and that was rarely better. Taking a gulp of water, he made sure the stopper on his water skin was tight before putting it down. “Well, go ahead and roll out your blankets and get comfortable. We’ll head out around sunrise. I saw a mulberry bush or two behind us, we can add those to breakfast for a treat.”
Blinking in surprise, she looked up The last rosy pinks of the sunset had faded, leaving the darkening sky sprinkled with stars. “With nothing to sleep under?”
“Nothing but the stars. Be grateful for it, at least the sky is clear.” He unrolled his own blanket, wrapping himself in it and laying down with his head pillowed on his arm. His armor wasn’t the most comfortable to sleep in, but at least the grass beneath the trees offered a thick cushion. He could barely feel the lumpy ground beneath. “After all, you never know when another gale might blow in.”
As it happened, a gale arrived early the next morning, not long after they’d begun travel for the day. The sky had stayed clear for the first several miles of their journey, letting them cover just enough distance to leave the cluster of farms behind and find themselves on a narrow road surrounded by empty fields.
Like with her raw feet, Eona didn’t complain, but she did look miserable. The rain was cold and the northward wind driving, though there was no thunder—a blessing, given the lack of places to take shelter. Walking in a thunderstorm while clad in armor wasn’t something Morghram would have done no matter what his reward might be.
They carried on despite the weather and the rain ceased eventually, though it left them both soaked to skin and squirming in discomfort when the sun peeked out from behind the clouds. The choking humidity was miserable enough without wet clothes to make the swimming sensation worse.
When they stopped for a midday meal, there was still nothing to be seen in any direction, save the narrow road and a few scattered clusters of trees. Morghram took off his armor and laid it in the grass as Eona cut bread and cheese for both of them.
“It’s a good thing you thought to bring that oilcloth,” she said as she offered him half the mulberries left from breakfast. “The bread is dry, even if we aren’t.”
“We’ll be dry soon enough, the way the heat’s climbing.” He took his portion with a murmured thanks.
As soon as her hands were empty, she stood and began unlacing the bodice of her dress. He blinked in confusion, then turned away.
“It’s all right, I’ll still be covered. You’re not the only one wearing two layers, and I think you’re right in the idea we’ll dry out better in one.” She spread her wool dress atop the tall grass and sat down beside him.
He saw the sleeve of her plain linen underdress from the corner of his eye, but he didn’t look to see the rest. Instead he turned his head, staring down the way they’d come while he ate.
“You have good manners for a commoner,” Eona remarked.
“A man learns manners when in service to the king. Doesn’t often use them, but learns them just the same.” Besides, he knew his place. She was a lady, blue-blooded and regal, even when dressed in regular dyed wool. He was little more than a hired ruffian. If he wanted to be a paid hired ruffian, he’d have to mind his step. More clouds spilled over the horizon; he studied them a while before deciding they wouldn’t bring rain. Shadows moving underneath them warned they would bring something else.
Leaning forward, Eona peered at his face and then followed his gaze. “What are you looking at?”
“Not sure yet. People. Or a man and a packhorse, maybe.”
“Why are you frowning?”
Morghram gave her a sideways glance. “Don’t know. Jod says I’m always frowning.”
She giggled. “Well you’ve smiled at me enough to prove him wrong. Though you do look a bit grumpy when you’re thinking.”
Unsure how to reply, he didn’t. Instead he ate, enjoyed the sunshine and watched the figures that trudged along in the cloud shade. Two men, he decided. Men who had been moving at a brisk pace before they’d come close enough to see the two of them sitting. He glanced to his armor, idly checking to see if it was still wet. His tunic and trousers were still damp, but he slid his gauntlets on anyway.
“Are there many travelers on this road?” Eona asked, nodding toward the men. She didn’t hurry, but she did retrieve her dress from the grass and pull it on overhead.
He pulled his greaves on and adjusted his boots. “Farmers, from time to time, but otherwise just men headed to the mountains. The capital is a good ways west of here. East is nothing but the border of the triad’s territories. How much bread is left?”
“There’s still a whole loaf, plus the heel of this one. I don’t suppose we’ll be able to find a baker along the way?” She straightened her sleeves, turning her back to him. “Would you mind doing my buttons? It’s harder to twist my arms behind me in a wet dress.”
Surprised, he stared at the row of tiny buttons up her back for a moment before he obliged. His thick fingers felt clumsy trying to work the buttons through their loops, but he tried. “No baker, but I’ll see if I can’t scrounge up some game for a meal tonight. Some quail, or a rabbit, maybe.”
Eona pulled her ashen hair forward over her shoulder, untangling it with her fingers. “I can’t say I’ve ever tasted either one.”
“They’re not bad.” Morghram glanced over his shoulder. The two men were close now, walking slowly and talking between themselves. They were young, wearing scant and mismatched leather armor. They carried bags, but not enough to indicate long travel.
Whatever they talked about, one shrugged and picked up his pace, moving ahead and making his way down the narrow road alone. The other slowed, studying them.
Morghram paused, his eyes narrowing. “Move along.”
Something ugly glinted in the young man’s eyes at the command. He squared his shoulders and shifted forward, reminding Morghram of a bulldog trying to intimidate an opponent. But Morghram wasn’t a dog; if anything, he was a wolf, and he responded as a wolf might, gritting his teeth and curling his lip in a snarl. He turned away from Eona, shifting the sword at his hip to show the mark and colors on the hilt.
The glint disappeared and the man hurried to catch up with his companion, looking back at them twice.
When Morghram turned to look at Eona, she was pale. She avoided his eye, dropping her gaze to the grass instead.
He went back to her buttons. “Scoundrels always tuck tail at sight of the king’s steel.”
“Did he mean to rob us?” she asked, voice small.
“Not much reason to rob someone who doesn’t look to be carrying much. But an old man might be easy pickings, always worth a glance in their eyes. But they’re looking for the easy way out, or they wouldn’t be thieves. Sometimes you don’t even have to draw a sword to scare them off with it.” He patted her shoulder as he finished, then turned to pick up his lamellar.
She nodded, smoothing her hair and bending to take the basket of food. “Let’s hope Dolbin is the same sort of thief.”
Morghram grunted. With the sort of fortune the man had at his fingertips, he doubted it would be so easy.
They didn’t cross paths with anyone else that afternoon, stopping near trees to rest for the evening. Morghram cut saplings to use as a frame for a tent. It was welcome shelter in the drizzly weather that started at dusk, though it was nothing more than draped oilcloth. It kept the water off them at least, and their clothing was dry when they woke in the morning.
By midday they could see smoke rising from the horizon; by nightfall, a well-lit stone tower rose against the sky. The guard tower was a welcome sight for both of them and they hurried toward it in the growing dark without needing to speak of it. A flag bearing the colors of the triad—bright stripes of blue, green, and gold—snapped in the wind; the light of the tower made it look as if it were dancing. There was music too, if little more than bawdy tavern songs, though the singing stopped as soon as the two of them arrived.
Morghram didn’t know any of the half-dozen men at the tower, but he’d served with some of their fathers, and they welcomed him with hearty shoulder-thumps and laughter. They had plenty of food, and ale. They weren’t supposed to have alcohol at guard stations, but some things never changed.
They exchanged news over the evening meal, and when the watchmen told them they’d seen a man that matched Eona’s description of her husband headed north, they both sighed relief for finally knowing they were headed the right direction.
There was only one room for the men to share as sleeping quarters, but it was spacious and there was straw to throw down beneath bedrolls, making it the most comfortable night they’d had since leaving the small house on the coast.
Eona drifted off almost as soon as she lay down. Morghram sat up for a time, mulling over a mug of ale with one of the watchmen.
“I think you’re in for more than you bargained for,” the soldier said, peering into his own drink. He kept his voice low so he wouldn’t wake the lady, but his tone and face were grim.
Morghram sighed. “I think you’re right. There were two men on the road ahead of us, looked as if they wanted a fight. That related to what you’re saying?”
The soldier nodded. “The triad spends more time fighting itself than fighting everyone around us. With all our resources split between the borders and settling things in the east, there’s been no time to mind the problems up north. The mountains are rough. Lots of scum to be swept out of those nooks and crannies. If that’s really the way your man was headed, I’d bet my teeth he’s signed with them.”
Frowning more as the man went on, Morghram took a swig of ale to wash the dread out of his stomach. “We’ll just have to hope for the best.”
“Still going after him?”
“I’m a man of my word.”
The soldier shrugged. “Suit yourself. We’ll do what we can. We’ve supplies. And horses we seized from thieves a handful of days ago. No way of telling who they belonged to, but it won’t be any skin off our backs if you want to take them.”
“Can’t offer much for horses,” Morghram said.
“Don’t need to offer anything. We’re limited on stable space and supplies, they’d just be sold anyway.”
“Well, if you’re certain, they’d be much appreciated. Might even catch up with the rat, if we’re on horseback.” Morghram emptied his mug and passed it to the soldier, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. “I appreciate your help.”
The man chuckled, pushing himself up. “Just let us know if you find them. Any nest of them we can clean out is a scab we can stop picking.” He left without saying any more.
Outside, someone was singing again.
Morghram settled, staring at the ceiling. Once again, sleep didn’t come easy. But morning came whether or not he was ready, and by the time they’d eaten, the watchmen had the horses saddled and their saddlebags stuffed with supplies for the rest of their trip.
Eona had never ridden before. Morghram was sure her inexperience in the saddle would spell trouble, but the horses were mild as milk. It was good fortune; anything friskier might have turned her embarrassment at having her dress hitched up around her knees into outright shame when she ended up on the ground with her skirts over her head instead.
They walked the animals the first half of the day, spending the second half alternating between a walk and an easy trot. By sunset, the foothills stood as blue shadows against the northern horizon. Morghram set up the oilcloth tent when they stopped. There would be no need to carry the cut saplings come morning, the foothills and mountains heavily forested, so he drove them deep into the earth with a stone as a hammer, then used them as posts to tie the horses.
“Do you think we’ll catch up with him tomorrow?” Eona asked as she cut food for both of them. After only rabbits and quail to go with their bread and whatever else Morghram could forage, she seemed delighted to have something else. The men at the watchtower had given them half a roast chicken for their evening meal and salt beef enough for the next few nights. It seemed generosity, but if they managed to make the return trip, any information they could offer would be worth more than a bit of meat.
He shook his head, settling beside her. “We’re still three days from the mountain trails, even with horses. It’ll be slower going through the hills. If we’re lucky, we’ll catch up with him there. Their wagon will slow them down even more.”
“And when we do find him?”
“Shake him down, I suppose. And tie him up to drag him back to the coast.” It was all they could really plan for; it was impossible to say what they’d be up against, but they would know soon enough.