‘Fuck!’ She pulled her hand away from the kettle and sucked her finger.
‘Do you have to curse so much?’
She jumped round to look at Helian. It was too early to be up, but she couldn’t sleep. She needed tea.
‘I didn’t know there was anyone to hear me.’ Damn. That sounded as if she was sorry. Her finger was beginning to blister.
He looked surprised. ‘That doesn’t seem to make a difference. When we first saw each other at Dragons Cross Tavern you greeted me with ‘Fuck’.’
‘And if I remember rightly you declined.’ Shit. Why did she say that? He stared at her, the ice-cold glare. It was becoming annoying.
‘It’s a pity you haven’t learned how to do the same!’
She whirled around, furious. ‘Don’t you dare judge me! You have no idea what I have been through since… ‘
‘Likewise,’ he jumped in before she could finish.
‘You are not a woman!’ she stormed. ‘Do you know what I found out really quickly? That I had two things that I could sell to survive. One was my skills with a bow, the other my body. I chose the bow.’ He tried to speak, his face reddening with anger, but she held up her hand. ‘And do you know what I found out next? That I couldn’t just be able to use a bow, I had to be the best there was, so that men respected me enough not to grab a handful of breast, or arse, or, if they were really desperate, the rest too!’
His jaw clenched and unclenched.
‘I had to learn to fit into an alien world, and I had to learn how to have fun in it, or else curl up and die. I had to shove down the pain, because no one wanted to hear it. They had enough of their own. The Kintra you knew died a long time ago Helian. Don’t lord it over this one or she’ll push her arrows up your ARSE!’
She turned and marched off back to her blankets seething. Farron’s eyes were closed, but his hand reached over and pulled the cover back for her to climb inside. She lay next to him trembling with anger.
‘Well said,’ he murmured in her ear. I need tea, she thought.
They rode into Hongford after a hot dusty day on the road and made for the nearest inn. No one was in the best of moods. It must be catching, Kintra decided.
She had kept away from Helian all day. He made her feel guilty and she had done nothing wrong. Farron was oblivious to her feelings, but well aware that he was winning the competition, and so did his best to keep her away from Helian too.
The inn only had two rooms free. Petra volunteered to take Vlarimar with her. Kintra knew she was using up more of her valuable herbs, trying to bring the Prince ‘back to life’, as she put it. Zorbel offered to double up with Helian.
Kintra watched as Helian tried to hide his shock at having to share a room with anyone. To his credit he swallowed his pride and agreed. After a cool drink, she set off with Farron to find a room somewhere else. It was a huge relief. The further they walked the lighter she felt.
They found a room close by and retired there quickly after supper.
‘When did we last have the luxury of a bed together?’ Farron asked falling flat on his back. The bed bounced rather dramatically, and he grinned.
‘It was when we did that job for Milius, and he put us all up in that grand hotel in Paragon on the first night.’
Farron smiled, remembering. ‘What are you doing?’
‘Making sure no one can get in,’ she said, wedging a chair back under the doorknob. She turned around, noting his grin had gone. ‘I felt safer out in the open with everyone else,’ she explained.
She sat on the edge of the bed and pulled off her boots. ‘They probably have a description of me by now. I think tomorrow I will buy a different hair colour.’
‘You dye it?’
She looked round at him. ‘You hadn’t noticed?’
‘There is so much of you to notice.’ He tugged on her arm so that she fell onto the bed. ‘Let’s enjoy tonight. I swear if any sorcerers come along, I’ll hide behind you while you roast them.’
‘Farron that’s not funny.’ He ignored her, unbuttoning her shirt, and frowning at her wrap underneath.
‘I hate this thing,’ he muttered.
She sighed and pushed him out of the way so she could remove it herself.
It was Farron’s turn to ride with Vlarimar. Nobody asked Kintra to do it, for which she was grateful. The man was still in a sorry state, but he was strong enough to stay awake for the whole day now, making their progress faster. She found she hated him less each day but didn’t want him on her horse.
They rode towards a tiny town on the Eranian border where they had been told some work was to be had. Kintra kept her thoughts carefully monitored. This was the way she had come when escaping her home country. Reliving it was not helpful.
Helian hardly spoke to her other than when he had no choice. Since the argument his brooding had grown more and more intense.
‘Can’t you speak with him?’ Petra asked, riding alongside. She nodded at Helian’s back.
‘This… whatever this is.’ She waved her hand in his direction. ‘It’s like carrying an extra weight.’
‘Did you argue?’
‘Yes. He doesn’t like the new Kintra.’
‘Hmm. I think he doesn’t like Farron. If he didn’t like you, he wouldn’t care who you sleep with.’
‘Well, whoever he likes or doesn’t like, I can’t do anything about it.’
‘Or won’t.’ Petra kicked her horse into a trot and caught up with Zorbel riding at the front of the group.
Realising that left her at the rear she hurried to join them. Anxiety sat just beneath the surface the closer they got to towns.
‘Kintra.’ Helian called as she rode past. She pulled Sorrel back to a walk.
‘We need to talk.’ She grimaced and he quickly added, ‘About Wildfire.’
Was he trying to make friends? She couldn’t tell. A simple sorry would have worked.
‘I know a little about Earth Magic. I have been researching it ever since I knew why the Sorcerers held our families.’ He reached into a saddle bag and pulled out a battered old book. ‘Here.’
She took it from him and read the cover. ‘The Art and Craft of Earth Magic.’
‘Read it. It has a description of Wildfire and how to focus it.’
‘Oh, and your hair looks nice, Chestnut coloured.’
She was taken aback and stared at him for a moment. He fiddled with the saddle bag, refastening the buckle.
‘Right. Thanks.’ She shoved the book inside her own bags and kicked Sorrel forwards again. A fresh realisation snook up on her. She felt pity for Helian too.
It was late afternoon, and the heavens suddenly opened. While the rain was refreshing, its ferocity sent the horses dancing sideways, and the parched ground became a mosaic of tiny streams. They bent their heads and ploughed on.
They were looking for a house overlooking the town with a central tower and black wrought iron gates. Kintra knew little about the man they were meeting as Zorbel had found the job back in Hongford. He was an eccentric scholar by all accounts, and he needed the head of a Ballibeast for some research. It wasn’t the type of thing any of them did very often, but it was work and it paid well, mainly because a Ballibeast was not the easiest swamp creature to find, and it also had many unpleasant ways to kill you.
The house emerged on a slight rise to the left of the road. A fat black cloud sat over it, making it hard to see its features, but the tower stood out, all lit up from within. They rode up to tall, intricately wrought gates.
‘I don’t like this,’ Kintra said.
‘Do you sense something?’ Petra peered at her through sheets of water.
‘Nothing in particular, but I’d rather wait with the horses. Everything has the potential to be a trap.’
‘Helian should stay with you too,’ Petra said, ‘If it’s a trap the rest of us have nothing to worry about.’
She was going to protest, but Helian spoke first. ‘Here.’ He handed a small leather pouch to Petra. ‘If the stone in here glows there is magic at work. It might not be a sorcerer but…’ he left the sentence unfinished. Everyone peered at the bag, but Petra stuffed it into her trouser pocket before they could see the stone.
There was a lean to next to an old dilapidated hay barn, where they left the horses. Kintra and Helian huddled under a portion of intact roof. They were soaked to the skin and cold.
‘Where did you get that stone?’ she asked, pressing her back against Sorrels warm body.
‘I have spent my time tracing magical objects that are mentioned in that book I gave you. I haven’t found many, and each has little use on its own, but together they offer some protection.’
‘So, you found the book too?’
‘I stole it. From a sorceress.’
‘Not the best idea,’ she said with a shiver.
‘I killed her after. She’s not a threat.’
‘Oh!’ She watched him. He was shivering too, standing between Po and his own mount. He stared out into the rain, his eyes that beautiful cornflower blue. She had a flash of memory, this profile, without the beard, standing drenched in flowing water in the fountain of fishes. The night was warm, the palace lit with light, voices filling the air, stringed instruments playing. They had sneaked off, alone, bored with the pomp of the official visit of an overseas Queen. They had been friends then. More than friends.
‘I went through a lot too.’ He continued to look away from her. ‘That first winter in the mountains It was the hardest of my life, and I was sure I would die. I thought of you constantly, wondering if you had escaped with your family. Boran hoped that you would find your way to safety, somehow. I spent most of my time in Erania, in hiding, trying to piece together what had happened, and why. Last year, when I found our families, I knew you were still alive and I had to look for you.’
She thought back to the time she had fought off four men behind a tavern in Bentley, and the time when a noble man bought her as a slave. She shivered at how many times she had been injured, twice nearly dying from those injuries. The loneliness and the grief had brought her to the point of suicide. It was Petra who had saved her.
She wished the past five years had been spent in Erania looking for magical artefacts with two strong bodyguards. A part of her wanted to shout at him, is that all? But she didn’t. She said nothing at all. And the one who had watched him laugh in the fountain of fishes reached out a hand to touch his arm, as a friend.
He jumped and looked down at it, small, delicate, brown from the sun. There was a white scar along the back of it, from the wrist bone to the middle finger. She pulled it back quickly. He obviously didn’t want touching. The tense silence that followed lasted until Farron appeared with a plate of sandwiches and a carafe of deep red wine.
‘This old guy is weird!’ His voice sounded loud and far too happy for the mood under the lean to. ‘Anyway, he sent you these out. He’s offered us rooms for the night. Zorbel wants to know what you want to do’
‘Did the stone glow?’ Helian asked sharply.
‘Nope.’ She noted how Farron’s soft brown eyes hardened as he looked at Helian. Those were his killing eyes. She took a sandwich from the plate and handed it to Helian, grabbing one for herself.
‘We should eat,’ she said as he waved it away.
‘I’m fine. Thanks.’
‘Shall I help untack the horses then? It will save us some money staying here.’ Farron looked at her now, ignoring Helian.
‘I trust Zorbel’s judgement on this. If he thinks its safe, then let’s stay.’
Farron gave her a wink and proceeded to deal with the soaking horses. Helian woodenly joined in. The rain was just a light shower as they walked up to the house, saddle bags draped over their shoulders. The black cloud had cleared. It would be a lovely sunset.