“He won’t help me.” Eona sounded heartbroken, defeated. She didn’t even lift her head to look at him.
Morghram hesitated, unsure what to do. He felt he should comfort her, but before he could say a word she hugged herself and leaned away, staring at the floor. He shouldn’t have let her speak to the count alone. He hadn’t wanted to, for that matter, but the capital city was twenty-two miles from the coast; they’d done well to make the trip in a single day, and he’d had to deliver the furniture loaded into the back of the wagon before it grew too late. In truth, she’d been fortunate that she had a chance to speak to the count at all. Morghram had expected she wouldn’t be seen until the next morning. He cleared his throat, putting his tankard down without drinking. “What did he say?”
She hadn’t been impressed by his suggestion that they meet in the Worn Prayer, but the shabby inn was all he could afford. Though she’d sold her silk gown to a seamstress who could salvage it, the coin she received had barely covered the cost of the simple blue woolen dress she wore now, leaving her with nothing to contribute. Glancing at his ale, she sniffed disdainfully before speaking. “You were right about their record keeping. He was able to tell me that the ship docked in Lore, but he wouldn’t say who disembarked. I told him what happened, but he said Roberian has no reason to be involved, since I am not a citizen of the triad and Dolbin didn’t commit his crime here. He said I am free to pursue him on my own and take him back to Raeldan, and he suggested I hire mercenaries to help, but how am I to afford them? I’ve nothing left.”
Frowning, Morghram turned his eyes to his plate. There was little he could do. The work he’d sold had brought a fair price, but even that wouldn’t buy a sellsword. Even if it could, he had to think of feeding himself before he could offer coin to someone who was all but a stranger. It was generous enough that he’d taken her into his home for two days of rain, then carted her to the city in a neighbor’s wagon.
“I’m sorry,” he said at last, picking up his fork and motioning for her to do the same. “I suppose we might have expected that.”
Eona took her fork, but didn’t seem interested in the slices of ham she pushed around on her plate.
“Will you stay in the city?” he asked. It was a meager effort to keep conversation going, but the silence was uncomfortable.
“I don’t know. There’s nothing for me here, but little more in Raeldan. Though I suppose I could return to my aunt.” She shrugged, sighing. “I will think on it, though I’m loath to leave without retrieving what’s mine from my good-for-nothing husband first.”
Morghram nodded, finishing his meal before he spoke again. “Think on it, then. I’ll leave once I find someone with goods to send to the coast. No sense in transporting an empty wagon, always an extra coin to be made ferrying cargo. I’ll be in the room next to yours if you need me.”
“Good night,” Eona murmured without looking at him again. She hadn’t eaten a bite.
Though he was grateful to have a decent bed after a long trip, Morghram didn’t rest easy. He didn’t want to leave her alone in the city, especially when she had no other traveling companions. But that brought to mind the storm and the wild waves he’d pulled her from, and he didn’t want to think of what became of the rest of the ship’s passengers.
Why had only she made it so near to shore? What manner of fortune led to him standing atop the cliff at just the right moment to see her before she could drown? And why him, instead of any number of younger, more capable men in the village? The thoughts robbed him of sleep.
Instead he turned his mind to what she’d said of her meeting with the count. Permission to hunt down a criminal was a good start, but if she couldn’t afford to hire mercenaries to provide the muscle for the job, how was she to do it? She’d promised him a reward for his assistance; without the means to regain her fortune, it wouldn’t come. But that thought stirred unpleasant feelings too. Was it wrong to want what had been promised? He would have helped her regardless of her ability to pay—he hadn’t known she was a noble when he rowed out to save her from the waves—but he wouldn’t refuse a handful of gold, either. Though he managed well, there was no denying he was past his prime, his hair more gray than black and thinning at the temples besides. Had he the means, he could buy a horse and wagon of his own, maybe even a team of horses, and not have to borrow from old Jod anymore. And independence as he aged was a good thing.
Nodding to himself as if the decision were made, he rolled over to sleep as much as he could before morning came.
When Morghram opened his door in the morning, Eona was just stepping into the hall. She offered a smile, though her eyes were lowered.
“I thought I might see you at breakfast, but this is just as good.” She smoothed her skirts with both hands, hesitating. “I appreciate all you’ve done for me. But I have to see this through.”
So she still meant to chase her husband. Good. “I understand.” He’d gone over what he would say a dozen times while he’d washed and dressed. That she was planning to continue on her own just saved him the trouble of trying to convince her. “And that’s why I’d ask you to return to the coast with me, my lady.”
Eona blinked in surprise.
“I can’t afford to pay for another night in the inn,” Morghram explained. “Nor can I afford to hire sellswords for you. But I’ve a sword and armor in the chest back home, and I was a fair hand with a blade when I was in service to the king. If you’ll ride with me, then we’ll gather provisions and set out after this thief of yours.”
“Oh.” She lifted a hand, wiping her eyes as a warmer smile wreathed itself upon her lips. “Yes. Yes, I think that’s just what we ought to do.”
There was little to see in the rolling fields of southern Roberian, save a few farms and small villages that dotted the way. But the weather was fair and the road clear, and they rolled into the coastal town Morghram called home in early evening.
He let Eona off at his house before delivering the wagon and his cargo to Jod, sharing directions for where the boxes were to be sent in the morning. They’d split the payment for the goods later; they always did. Then he walked back to his house, working over a list of supplies in his head. Late summer was a good time for such a trip. They wouldn’t need to carry much food with the fields and forests ripe with good foraging. As long as the weather stayed favorable, the travel would be the easiest part.
Eona was already filling a linen-lined basket with bread, cheese and vegetables from the bins beside the cold hearth. She smiled at him as he opened the door wide and braced it with a piece of wood, letting in the cool evening breeze. Were they not leaving again, he would have opened the windows. But there was no sense in removing their cover for one night, so he left the windows boarded and lit a lantern on the mantel to drive out the dark.
“No sense in walking in the middle of the night,” he said as he put his flint away. “We’ll pack and rest tonight and set out in the morning.”
“Do you have any idea where we should start?” she asked.
Morghram shrugged. “If we start at the docks, we might find something. A lot of ships pass between here and Lore because it’s the fastest way for average folk to travel.”
Her mouth twitched. “Average folk?”
“Folk like us.” He carried the lantern with him to the chest at the foot of his bed. “Those with magic have their own ways.”
“Oh.” She folded the linen over the top of the food, dusting her hands together. “Mages aren’t common in Raeldan.”
“They aren’t common here, either. There’s the college in Lore, but their numbers dwindle a bit more each year. It’s still an institution, though, so they come and go as they will.” Setting the lantern on the floor, he opened the chest and moved aside the extra blankets and clothing. His armor and sword were hidden in the bottom, wrapped in stained linen. He still oiled it every year to keep it from rusting, usually on cold winter nights when lantern light was too weak to let him work. The sword gleamed bright when he unwrapped it and inspected its edge.
It was good steel, if simple; the king didn’t give his men anything extravagant, just sturdy and useful, though the hilt was stamped with the king’s mark and enameled in the colors of the triad. He laid it aside, sitting on his heels and unwrapping his armor next. His gauntlets and greaves were just as he remembered, if the leather looked a little worn. His helm was bright, if dented. Despite the regular oiling, his lamellar bore hints of rust around the edges of many of the scale-like plates. Nothing severe enough to hinder its performance, he didn’t think. The real question was whether or not it would still fit. Instead of trying it on, he put it all aside. That was a worry for the morning.
Eona watched him, not quite frowning, but the corners of her mouth were turned down. “Do most men here keep armor?”
“Not many. It’s expensive, beyond what most can afford. But I was allowed to keep mine after I retired.” He closed the chest, stacking his armor atop it and propping his sword against the wall. The edge was still good, but he still rose to look for his whetstone amid the tools on the table. If all went well, the edge would stay that way. He just had too much experience soldiering to expect it would go well.
“I see,” she murmured. “I’ve never heard of a man who stayed a soldier long enough to retire. Things here are very different from Raeldan.”
“I would imagine. But with fortune, we’ll have you on a ship headed home within a fortnight.” He tried to sound reassuring, turning his whetstone over in hand once he found it. As an afterthought, he picked up a few carving knives and a small handsaw. They’d do little good as weapons, but one never knew when tools would come in handy. “Hand me that bag from the peg by the fireplace, would you?”
She retrieved the canvas sack, running her fingers over its worn seams as she carried it to him. “Thank you, by the way. For sacrificing your time to do this.”
Morghram grunted, filling the sack with tools and trinkets, odds and ends he thought might be useful for the journey. “Don’t thank me yet. Not until we see if I’m muscle enough to set this man of yours straight.”
“Oh, you will be,” she said. “Dolbin is a coward. You look mean enough, I’m sure you shaking a sword at him will be plenty.”
He raised one thick brow. His face was scarred and craggy, but he’d never thought himself as looking mean. “If you say so.”
Eona only smiled. She said nothing else of the matter, helping him pack what they’d need and cleaning the small house from top to bottom to prevent pests from moving in while he was gone. Between the two of them, the work went quickly, and so did the night.
“We’re headed north,” Morghram announced as he climbed the hill from the docks, rejoining Eona in the shade of an old ash tree overlooking the coast. His bad leg protested the climb, but he made it anyway; it was faster than taking the winding path of stairs that bustled with sailors and merchants, and he’d need to get used to walking anyway. “Your ship did dock in Lore. The same ship was hired to transport grain from here to the south end of the world. From what I gather, Dolbin rode with them to save himself time, since everyone in Lore told him he’d have to pass through Roberian anyway. Seems the deck hands weren’t fond of your gentleman, they chatted with the porters quite a bit.”
Eona rose from the grass and dusted off her skirts. She still wrinkled her nose when she touched the coarse wool, but he was glad for the change, even if she winkled her nose. Traveling with her wearing a corset and layers would have been miserable for both of them. “He’s no gentleman. I’m surprised you were able to find anyone who was willing to talk, though. Aren’t men usually more quiet about their business?”
“They are, but I’ve lived on the coast a long time. I’ve made friends. And carved the figureheads for almost every ship in the harbor, besides.” He scooped the canvas bag of supplies from the foot of the tree, slinging it over his shoulder. She had insisted on carrying the basket of food and he wasn’t going to object. It gave her something to do, but also made her look like she was headed to market instead of making a long voyage. Robbers were less likely to bother those who looked like they were carrying nothing of value. “From what I gather, he wanted to escape the triad. Probably figured someone would be looking for him. Most of the border is guarded where it would be easy to get through. Nobody took him for a fellow who would risk traveling the wilds, which makes his best option taking the mountain pass. Lots of narrow roads there from the ways to the old mines, lots of places they don’t bother keeping guard stations. He was last seen in the inn, asking for passage through Roberian’s mountains.”
She gave him a doubtful look, trailing along behind him as he cut a path toward the road. “And you don’t suspect anyone will betray us to him, now that you’ve been asking?”
He shook his head. “No reason to. I don’t know much about where you’re from, my lady, but here, seamen aren’t too likely to go running inland after someone who might toss them an extra coin. Most are honest, besides. If they weren’t, they’d have turned pirate or been thrown overboard a long time ago.”
“Eona,” she said.
Morghram paused. “What?”
She ran a few steps to catch up with him, swinging the food basket. “I appreciate your manners, but you are doing me a great favor and you have been nothing but kind. You may call me Eona.”
He blinked, taken aback. He couldn’t help but think it improper to call her by name, if only because she was of noble blood. Had she been a neighbor, he wouldn’t have given it a second thought. But he didn’t want to offend her, especially not so early in their travels. Instead he cleared his throat, turning northward and adopting a comfortable pace. “Very well,” was all he said.
For some reason, she giggled.
As if marking the road ahead, the wind blew north.