One by one Adhar and his brothers turned to look at her as she came up the road to the forge, leading Hotshot, saddled and bridled, her pack of provisions tied tightly behind the compact English saddle and herself dressed for a journey in her sturdy jeans, heavy hiking boots, and long riding cloak, her head bare and her hair braided. It was not the best saddle for a long ride; an Aeritan saddle, which was built more like an American stock saddle, would have been better. The English jumping seat would have to do, though she probably could have bought one with the money she got from Mitain for Allegra. He had been generous – no, she told herself firmly. He had been fair. He would make a ton of money selling Allegra’s foals. It had been hard saying good-bye to the mare, who treated her with her usual disdain, laying back her ears. Allegra hated emotion but Kate had hugged her neck tightly anyway, and the mare put up with it, which for her was an expression of love.
Harder was saying good-bye to the family. She had bowed to Lord and Lady Terrick, giving thanks for their hospitality as coldly as she knew how. She thought at first that they would ask her to stay, would apologize to her, would beg to let them make it up to her. Instead, they merely nodded as if she was a stranger they had given mere traveler’s aid to.
To Aevin she held out her hand and he clasped it, as if they were comrades, and flushed earnestly.
“Be good, Aevin,” she told him. “You are a good soldier – I would want you on my side in any battle.”
He tried to scoff – what girl would he ever be in battle with?– but she could tell he was pleased.
Yare she high-fived, which he loved, and then she caught him for a hug. While he howled and struggled, she tickled him, and when she let him go, he was laughing.
“Stay out of trouble, okay, scamp?”
He stuck his tongue out at her, and as if he couldn’t stand it anymore, he darted off. Well, if he went to ride Allegra, that was Mitain’s problem now.
She faced Erinya last. The little girl hung back by her mother, tears welling. Kate went to her knees and held out her arms, and Eri flung herself at her.
“Don’t go, Kett, please don’t go!” she sobbed. Kate hugged her and shushed her.
“Eri, you are learning how to read, right?” Eri nodded, rubbing snot and tears into Kate’s cloak. “When I get settled, I’ll write to you and tell you everything that is happening to me. It’ll be as if you’re right there. I’ll send my letter so that it comes to Erinya Terrick, at Terrick House, Terrick, Aeritan. It won’t even need a ZIP code, it will fly right to you. And you can write to me, because by then I’ll have my own address too.”
Eri sniffled and looked up at her. “But Kett. You don’t have a House.”
Kate smiled. “Not yet, Eri, but I will.”
The five brothers had prepared for their own journey, their horses more expertly packed. She carried little compared to them, but she squared her shoulders. She had plenty of money to pay her way, not that she was going to tell them that. Not if they were crows. And anyway, you idiot, there’s nothing from stopping them from knocking you on the head the first night. Or…doing other things.
But she didn’t think they would, not even Balafray, strange, frightening Balafray. Not Adhar.
The morning was overcast and the air was wet, threatening a late season snow. The road was thick with mud, and it was already well over Hotshot’s fetlocks. She hoped Eldar’s shoeing would hold.
When she was in the war camp, her very first day, she had asserted her right to exist by walking up to the ostlers and demanding her place at their campfire, sharing their food. With the same bravado, she walked up to the brothers. They turned to look at Adhar and then at her, then Adhar again. He looked her and Hotshot over.
“Good. You packed light.” He threw her two sacks tied in the middle. She caught them with an oof–they were heavy, filled with grain for the horses. She draped them over Hotshot’s withers, securing them to the D rings at the front of the saddle.
That was all that was said. Without a word, they all mounted up and headed down the road, its tall elms slightly dusted with green, away from Terrick and the life she had thought was hers.
Winter came early to Trieve and spring came late. The highland House was deep in the grip of the cold, and drowsed under the darkness and the stars. On clear nights the aurora danced, a flaming crown for the grass god, the god of death and rebirth. Crae never tired of watching it. He saw the aurora rarely in his homeland of Wessen, for it was too far south, and never when he was captain in the forest holding of Red Gold Bridge. Damned forest, he remembered now, wrapped in his cloak and heavy furs, staring up at the sky. Everything so close together, so that a man couldn’t see more than a few feet in front of him for the underbrush.
The Trieve sky was big, the way a sky should be. Here, at the top of the hill that rose up over the house like a protective spirit, Crae could see the headlands of the great river that was still iced over. It threaded its way along to the south, and led to Brythern and to the sea.
The wind blew incessantly, sharp and biting despite his wool and fur, and he knew he’d have to go soon. He liked to walk up here when the weather was clear, because the hill gave him the best view of the land. It made it even better when he went back home, back to the warmth of his hearth and to his family.
The cold finally drove him back down the hill, past the cairn of the crow, crusted over with snow and hardly recognizable as anything more than one of the many weathered rocks on the top of the hill. His eyes watered as he made his way down the slick trail, made more difficult by his lame leg. Crae managed with his stick and was sweating by the time he got inside, closing the door to the house behind him with a heave of relief.
Jessamy was sitting at her desk in the great hall, a small fire merrily blazing away, and a pot of vesh steaming at her side. She looked up from her papers as he came in, and he could tell at once something was wrong.
“What is it?” he said sharply, stumping his way over to her.
She threw the papers at him and he caught them one handed against his chest, crumpling them in his haste.
“Favor,” she said sharply. “I’m such a fool, Crae. I should have seen it at once. Terrick is after Favor.”