Whisper of the Wilding Woods: Chapter 10
Morning in the cave. Moving on. A surprise in the meadows.
It was warm beneath the furs, but the air in the cave was laced with a damp chill when Aline poked her nose out from the covers the next morning. Feeling obligated to make at least some gesture to propriety after having huddled so close to Kaeleth in the night, she made to scoot to the edge of their makeshift bed only to discover that she was entirely alone. Every muscle in her body resisted her effort to sit up and looked around the cave. Bright light streamed in from the opening, but Kaeleth was nowhere to be seen. The urge to pass water proved greater than her desire to lay down and go back to sleep, so she threw back the furs and groaned in a decidedly unladylike manner as her legs behaved more like unyielding planks of wood than functioning limbs. As she stumbled from the cave toward the nearest bush, she felt like one of the marionettes she had so loved watching as a child.
“Goddess,” she said, her voice rough and weak, “if you have not wholly abandoned me—and I believe that this shelter is proof that you have not—please pull my strings toward home.”
After relieving herself in the first available clump of bushes, she fastened her trousers and inspected the sky. A few wispy clouds on a field of blue were all that remained of the storm. It had blown itself out as quickly as it had arrived, and though the leaves yet glistened with raindrops, the sunlight on her face carried the promise of warmth and dry ground ere the day was done.
Unsure of where her companion had gone and unwilling to wander off in search of him, she decided to make herself useful. The cloaks she’d worn to protect herself against the driving were sodden, so she fetched them from the cave and found a sunny rock on which to dry them. To these, she added the larger pair of trousers. Her tunic and the pair she’d worn beneath were damp, but tolerable for the time being. They would dry as she worked. After checking the dagger which had somehow stayed dry in its fine leather sheath, she inspected the contents of the soldier’s pouch. She’d expected to find sparksteel and tinder, but instead found smaller pouches of dried herbs, delicate crystal phials smaller than her little finger, and a coiled length of catgut with polished wooden toggles at either end. Unsure of what to make of these items, she left them on the table inside the cave and went out to forage until Kaeleth returned with five fish as long as his forearm hanging from a length of wood.
“I thought it best to let you sleep,” was all he said by way of apology for not telling her where he’d gone.
Aline was annoyed, but at the same time grateful he hadn’t woken her earlier. Her body still begged for rest she could not give it. Not while the sun shone and there was work to be done. The previous day’s events had been a terrifying lesson in how quickly their peace could be ripped from them.
Ever-present fear of soldiers leaping from the woods aside, Aline and Kaeleth passed what could almost be called a pleasant day. They spoke little except when Kaeleth took time to explain some detail of wilderness lore to her. Dividing the day’s tasks, they settled into a comfortable rhythm of gathering firewood and fresh boughs to place beneath their deerskin bed, fetching water for drinking, chopping foraged herbs and vegetables for fish soup, and resting as much as they possibly could. It was late afternoon when Kaeleth noticed the items Aline had left on the bloodstained table he’d since explained was used by hunters for skinning and butchering game.
“I found those things in the soldier’s pouch,” she explained. “Do you know what they are?”
“The tinctures in the phials, no,” he said, turning one over in the light of the cookfire. “But this dried herb is stagsbane, which is deadly poisonous. The line there is a garrote.”
“For strangling?” she asked. “I read about it in a book once, but I believed it a fictitious invention.”
“All too real. The man you took this from was a killer. Not like the other soldiers. A sneak. A shadow skulker. No wonder he fled after seeing his friends die; a man like that would never take a face-to-face fight if the odds were not overwhelmingly in his favor.”
“An assassin,” Aline said almost reverently. She held no particular admiration for the man she’d stripped of belongings, but his profession held boundless curiosity. Her books had only ever described the workings of the assassin’s black art as shrouded in impenetrable mystery. They killed indiscriminately if the money was right. Both men and women. Even children if the coin was rich enough.
And someone had hired him to find her.
“Is that the dagger you took from him?” Kaeleth asked.
Aline nodded, then drew it and handed it over.
“This is the finest blade I’ve ever seen.” Kaeleth balanced it on one finger. “The balance is incredible. It’s Cardhun steel, I’ll wager. Stronger than stone, yet holds an edge like nothing else. It’s almost weightless in the hand.” He flipped it deftly, catching it by the blade before handing it back to her.
Aline slid the knife back into its sheath, this time more carefully for fear of cutting herself.
What little remained of the afternoon was spent preparing supplies for their journey between taking turns eating soup with the broad spoon Kaeleth had carved. When the evening light grew wan and eventually faded completely, they let the fire die too. There was no sense in wasting energy gathering wood, nor staying awake when they were both so weary and had so far yet to travel. Sleep came easily, though she did not huddle quite so close to Kaeleth this time. In the liminal state between waking and dreaming, she was acutely aware of his body so close to hers. She’d passed many a night in the company of her sisters or a lady-in-waiting, yet never had she slept so close to a man. She’d imagined it, of course. Wondered what it might be like. It was rather pleasant, she thought, even if Kaeleth was only a boy with whom her lot had been temporarily thrown.
In fact, when he shook her gently awake the next morning, she woke with a smile on her face. Not for Kaeleth himself, but for the security of having had someone beside her throughout the night. The boy was handsome enough, but he was younger than her by at least a year. Not to mention her betrothal to Prince Dainéal. Kaeleth was her protector and guide, and slowly, she thought, becoming something of a friend. But that was where her feelings ended. Mainly, she was happy to not be alone. Without Kaeleth she might have been able to survive on foraged roots and berries, but she would ever be one wrong mushroom away from death, and entirely without any idea of how to get herself out of the wilderness and back to the safety of her father or betrothed.
Their day progressed simply. After a breakfast of berries and tea, they bundled up the deerskin and furs, then strapped them to their bags with strips torn from ragged fragments of cloth they found in the bottom of the cave chest. After a last check to ensure they’d taken anything useful they could carry—including the poisons and garrote that were once again nestled in the pouch at Aline’s hip—and began their trek toward the mountains. The walking was not so bad at first, but as the trees thinned, the sun’s warmth became oppressive. By midmorning, Aline was sweating beneath her burden. The makeshift straps cut into her shoulders, and what energy the previous day’s fish soup had given her was long since spent. They paused only a few minutes to harvest a sparse patch of scapes, the thin green stalks doing little to satiate a hunger that knew no limits.
At midday, they stopped at a stream to drink and remove their cloaks, Kaeleth bundling the extra in with his furs. They fished and foraged, eating until their bellies were full near to bursting. Kaeleth showed her how to wrap the sparse remains of their fish in leaves, explaining that it would not keep long, but serve well enough as a light evening meal.
The trees became shorter and farther apart as Aline and Kaeleth trudged ever uphill, then all at once they emerged into a vast meadow carpeted with the most brilliant array of wildflowers she'd ever seen. They were scattered across the landscape with no rhyme or reason to their arrangement, unlike the carefully landscaped flowerbeds of her father’s estate. Clusters of purple blossoms like bells hung from curved stalks amidst fields of yellow flowers that shone brightly in the afternoon sun. A patch of orange and blue caught her eye higher up in the meadows. Without thinking, she plucked a particularly interesting red flower and wove its stem into what was left of the plait of hair above her ear.
“Cindra’s Kiss,” Kaeleth said, smiling. “So named for the goddess of healing who it was said could cure any ailment with a single kiss.”
“May Cindra heal my aching legs then,” Aline said with a laugh. She found it fascinating that the people of the Twin Kingdoms believed in so many false gods instead of what she knew to be the one true Goddess. It was quaintly superstitious, but very much in line with what she had so far seen of these lands.
The way through the meadows was less difficult than the steep path out of the forest, and walking gave Aline time to ponder a future as the wife of the crown prince of Baerdun. No city or town she had yet passed through came even close to the splendor of Hürstbrig, her father’s seat of power in Vhent. Even the most rustic of buildings were plastered white and kept in good condition back home, yet here they often seemed little better than wooden shacks on the verge of falling down. Where her father’s castle was gaily decorated with tapestries and walls painted with murals, the larger estates and fortifications she’d seen were austere and cold. She hadn’t seen the inside of any of the small castles they’d traveled past, preferring to retain her anonymity rather than calling on nobles for a meal and a night’s accommodation, but from what she’d seen of the supposed finer inns in larger cities, the Aerdish preferred to decorate their halls with animal horns and weapons.
She had little reason to believe the Baerdish would be any different, and she wondered for the thousandth time if Prince Dainéal’s palace would be the same. She’d been cautioned to expect something considerably smaller than her father’s sprawling castle, yet the man who’d been hired to tell her of life in Baerdun had focused mainly on matters of language, politics, and how Baerdish courtly etiquette differed from Vhentish. He had not considered architecture or decorative preferences worthy of mention, and Aline had not thought to ask. It would not matter one way or another, though she did not enjoy the idea of spending the rest of her life in a castle with bare stone walls and floors.
Her only consolation was that she would no longer be a princess in the care of an overprotective father, but rather a woman in charge of a royal household. She’d have the freedom to ride a horse and travel her husband’s lands as she saw fit. Or, if she did not have the right, she’d demand it be given. Aline had spent too much of her life locked away behind castle walls. If she ever managed to survive and find her way to Prince Dainéal, she swore to herself that she would never play the role of subservient wife. That had never been her intention to begin with, and after everything she had endured these last few days, she was convinced asserting herself before her husband would be a pale challenge in comparison.
The sun still hung high on the horizon when Kaeleth called for a halt. At first, Aline thought they had only stopped for a short break in which to rest their feet and sip from a stream that was little more than a trickle meandering through a rocky cut in the lush meadow grass.
“We’ll make camp here tonight and hope there’s no rain,” Kaeleth said. “The pass over the mountains isn’t far, and tomorrow will be a long and difficult day. We will rest now and set out before first light.”
Aline was confused by the choice of campsite. The sky was clear and blue, but there was no shelter should another storm roll in. The rocky slopes above them looked inhospitable, but there were boulders the size of houses that would surely protect them from the wind and rain should the weather shift. Either way, there was no wood for a fire. There were a smattering of low shrubs on which they were able to pluck small and tart berries, but little else of note. At least not until they had laid out their skin and furs, and Kaeleth motioned for Aline to follow him.
After a short walk from the spring, Aline caught the faint whiff of something in the air that reminded her of boiled eggs. The unpleasant odor grew stronger as they approached what appeared to be a series of three small pools at the edge of the meadows where the grass gave way to rock and dirt.
“What’s wrong with this water?” she asked.
“It smells terrible, I know, but these are curative waters.” Kaeleth crouched at the edge of one of the pools and quickly dipped his hand in the water before lifting it out and shaking away the droplets that clung to his hand. “Come, feel for yourself.”
Aline crouched beside him, wrinkling her nose in disgust. The pools appeared deeper in the middle than she’d anticipated. “Am I to drink it?”
Kaeleth laughed. “No. It wouldn’t hurt you, but neither would it be pleasant. Put your hand in and you’ll understand.”
Aline touched the surface with a fingertip, then pulled it back in surprise. “It’s hot!”
“This is the source. It’s not suitable for bathing, but the lower pools are tolerable. I recommend you begin with the third pool and move to the second once your body has had time to adjust to the warmth.”
Aline thrilled at the thought of having a hot soak, though her excitement was forestalled by the realization that there was no privacy to be had in any of the pools. If Kaeleth expected her to disrobe while he watched, the boy had another thing coming.
“I’ll sit facing away from you while you bathe in the first pool,” he said with a grin that suggested he’d realized exactly what she’d been thinking. “When you’re wholly submerged in the second pool, I’ll ask you do me the courtesy of turning away so I can enter the third. I’d leave you to your privacy, but the waters can overheat the blood and make even a grown man faint-headed.”
Aline bit her lip and looked at the three pools. For all that they reeked, the emerald waters were crystal clear and tantalizingly inviting. “Very well then,” she said. “I will inform you when it is safe to look.”
Even with the sun still a handspan above the horizon, the air was chilly now that Aline was no longer hiking. Her sweaty hair and clothing made her shiver as she hurriedly stripped naked, and she hugged her arms to her chest as she tiptoed into the coolest of the three pools. Even this was hot enough she worried she might burn herself. Wishing nothing more than to submerse herself beneath the water lest Kaeleth try to sneak a peek at her, she waded carefully across the rocky bottom, sinking lower and lower until at long last she was covered to her chin.
Relieved to be at least partially screened from view unless Kaeleth were to come close and look down into the clear water, she found a flattish rock on which to sit, then leaned back to let her hair drape into the water. It took some work to unfasten her plaits, but when it was done, she held her breath and dunked her entire head under, scrubbing the sweat and dirt from her scalp. Her hair would take ages to dry, but it was worth it. Aline felt her tension melt away, her over-taxed muscles softening and relaxing in the blissfully warm water.
“I’m changing pools now,” she said loudly. “Promise you won’t look until I’m submerged again!”
“I promise on all I hold sacred,” Kaeleth said with evident mirth. “May the gods strike me down should I betray your trust.”
He might well have sworn on his arse for all that meant to Aline, but the water in the low pool now felt tepid, and she was eager to try the hotter one. Water sluicing from her body in runnels, she picked her way to the edge of the pool, then ran the dozen yards to the next. Steam rose from her arms now that the sun had fallen low enough to kiss the horizon, taking the temperature down with it. Shivering in the brisk air, she tiptoed through the rocky shallows of the hotter pool, gasping when it became deep enough for her to crouch and slide into the water until her shoulders were covered.
“You may turn around now,” she said, placing her hands over her breasts just in case.
Kaeleth got to his feet and grinned at her. “Nice, isn’t it?”
“Quite truthfully the most splendid bath I will likely ever take in my life.”
Kaeleth tugged his tunic up over his head, then motioned for Aline to look away. She spun away, listening to the rustle of fabric and then the crunch of rocks as Kaeleth entered the pool. He called out to say that he was himself submersed, and Aline hesitantly turned to face him. Even separated as they were, she felt a flush that was not entirely due to the heat of the barely tolerable water. In Vhentish custom, the body was believed sacred. No one had seen Aline fully unclothed since she’d been a little girl, and even then it was only her nursemaids wrestling her into a dress or nightgown. Though she could see nothing of Kaeleth’s body and he could see nothing of hers, she could not help but call to mind what she’d glimpsed between the assassin’s legs, her mind extrapolating to what the same might look like on Kaeleth. Her own body, cloaked in nothing more than water as clear as the morning sky, felt vulnerable and exposed. She adjusted her hair to fall over her shoulders, not willing to show even this much of herself above the water’s surface though she’d worn many a dress that displayed her shoulders and the top of her bosom.
Since she couldn’t relax while looking at the boy in the neighboring pool, her eyes drifted upwards to where the jagged peaks were bathed in hazy pink evening light. “What awaits us in the mountains tomorrow?”
“There’s a pass,” Kaeleth said, rising partially out of the water to sit on a submerged rock. He pointed. “You can see it just there. Between the knife-edge peak and the flatter one there.”
“Will it be cold?”
“Cold enough. But if we’re lucky, it’ll still be free of snow. Yesterday’s storm deposited a fresh coat in the upper reaches, but there doesn’t appear to be any on the pass. In another month, it’ll be heavily blanketed. A month after that, impassable.”
Aline stared fixedly at the narrow dip between the two peaks Kaeleth had pointed out. It seemed so small and impossibly far away for a single day’s trek. And reaching it was only half the journey. They’d still have to descend the far side. Having finished the last of their fish and all of the meager supply of berries they’d picked, there would be no food but for a small bundle of mushrooms. Kaeleth had promised a mountain stream or two, but even water would be little and far between sources. After all she’d endured, how far she had yet come from the place where everyone she’d known in this unfamiliar country was slaughtered, Aline was concerned about the mountain pass. It was almost too daunting to consider. Only her faith in Kaeleth kept her from turning around and heading back to the forest where food, shelter, and water were in abundant supply to one with the skill to find them. After all, they didn’t know for sure there were still soldiers following her. Could they be certain there were men in Kaeleth’s village or any other town beyond who would know her face?
A gentle slosh of water as Kaeleth shifted positions in his pool distracted Aline from her thoughts. She watched him splash water on his face, then stretch his arms out and make as if to rise from the water. He seemed only then to remember her, hesitating until she turned away from him. Enjoying her last moments of calm relaxation, Aline closed her eyes and imagined she was in her copper tub at home, attendants waiting with a soft linen nightgown and a cup of spiced cider. It would be cool in Hürstbrig now. Enough that they would have changed her bedding to the heavier coverlet. She could practically taste the cinnamon on her tongue. Feel the warmth of the cider in her belly while her lady-in-waiting brushed and bound her hair for sleep.
But there were no feather-filled coverlets for Aline. No linen nightgowns. Only the cold air and the sweaty garments that were clammy on her skin as she rushed to dress, steam wafting off her body in the light of a slender crescent moon. There was, however, a companionable silence as she and Kaeleth returned to their camp. The nearness of his body reminded her she was not alone; the sound of his breathing soporific in its new familiarity. Aline was not happy, exactly. She was too tired and sore to be called anything resembling happy. Content, perhaps? Content with the soft ground below her, the flowers blooming around her, and the moon and stars shining bright above. Content too with the boy laying so near. She didn’t think Berthold, brave as he was, would be so kind or resourceful had he been her savior instead of Kaeleth. Or worse, Lady Gerda. It pained Aline to even think of it, but they would both have died days ago if it had been Lady Gerda on whom she’d had to rely for survival. She owed Kaeleth her life, and she didn’t have the first notion of how she could ever repay it.
As she drifted off to sleep, she resolved to reward him with his weight in gold and silver. With a horse. Land even. Whatever he required. As much as she had lost, he had lost his only family. Though nothing she could give him would replace his father, she could at least ensure he was never left wanting for anything so long as he lived.