Whisper of the Wilding Woods: Chapter 12
Almost out of the woods. The bothy. An unwelcome visitor.
Though they’d been resting before the fire for a quarter of an hour, Aline could not feel her feet. So much snow had made its way inside her boots that she couldn’t remember when she’d last been able to wriggle her toes. Now they were lifeless bumps on the edge of feet so monstrous she couldn’t quite accept that they were her own. The boots had rubbed her feet raw in several places that glistened wetly in the firelight from the fluids that oozed from what remained of her skin. The brown and black shades of her toenails reminded her of mushrooms in soil. Three of the smallest had fallen off completely, leaving bloody sores in their place. The rest of her body had been spared the numbness in her feet, but it would not let her forget how she had abused it. They’d stumbled off the mountain sometime in the late afternoon, and she’d been devastated to discover that the meadows were devoid of berries. Though Kaeleth had informed her it was rare for a snowstorm of such intensity to have struck while flowers still bloomed in the alpine meadows, the scruffy little bushes were entirely devoid of berries. Aline had found a paltry few wrinkled remnants, overlooked by whichever birds or animals had feasted on the bushes, but they were so bitter they made her jaw seize painfully in place before she was able to massage it loose.
Then there was the matter of her hand. The damned cut on her palm burned and ached no matter what she did. It throbbed when her hand hung by her side and it itched ferociously when she tried to hold it above her waist. Now and again she’d forget about the cut for a few moments, her mind too weary to even register it, then she’d attempt to close her hand too tightly around a piece of firewood or the little metal cup she’d scavenged from the dead assassin, sending a fresh wave of pain through her entire arm.
But she was alive. A snow-covered mountain range stood between her and whatever pursuers might have followed the dead soldiers they’d left behind, and the snow had almost certainly eradicated any signs of their passage through the meadows and up the far slope. Kaeleth had assured her the storm had certainly rendered the pass uncrossable. Better, he didn't believe anyone would credit them with the ability to make the crossing in the first place. If men still searched for her, they’d hopefully be looking in all the wrong places.
Sitting by the fire while Kaeleth was somewhere nearby trying to find something for them to eat, she finally felt safe. She no longer jumped at every odd shadow or sound in the trees, understanding now that the fire would prevent wild animals from approaching. And the knife at her hip gave her some comfort. She’d stabbed a man once out of sheer panic, and though she knew she stood little chance against a man armed with a sword or spear, she wouldn’t hesitate to use her weapon on the next ill-intentioned man who made the mistake of getting too close to her.
There by the fire feeling secure in the knowledge that no soldiers would spring from the brush to ambush her yet again, Aline was grateful for her little comforts. She’d had quite enough of the sort of adventure that had driven her over the mountains in the first place, but she’d begun to see a glimmer of appeal in Kaeleth’s way of life. Or rather, the way of life he’d left behind. Every itching ache of her palm reminded of her of the oath she’d sworn to him on the side of that mountain. She silently chided herself for making such a rash decision. It had seemed so right in the moment, but she should never have teased the boy so. Should never have sworn with her own blood. She didn't know what power such agreements held in the Twin Kingdoms, but in her homeland, they were considered more sacred than any obligation save intervention by the Goddess herself. Made to choose between his wife and his blood-sworn duty, a man would forsake his marriage. So inviolable were these oaths that men had chosen death over duty to their king in order not to betray a blood oath. Kaeleth had bound himself to her without knowing who she was. Without knowing who her father or her betrothed were. This thought made her smile. Aline had never known anyone who wasn’t painfully aware of her status. She’d had no close friend that hadn’t been ordered to serve as a lady-in-waiting. Known no other men so closely beyond her own brothers. Even then, her elder brothers had never had cause to save her life. Kaeleth had now done so more times than she could count. He was kind and honest. Irresponsible as it had been, she could not bring herself to be too upset over the oath that now bound their fates together. Still, she worried about taking him away from this. What would happen when it came time for him to follow her to Inverburie where Prince Dainéal waited? Even if she managed to convince him that he had fulfilled his oath, what did he have left to return to now that his father was dead and he’d burned his home to ash to save her?
“No fish,” Kaeleth said, stepping into the firelight. “But I did surprise this rabbit with a large rock.”
“You startled me! How is it that you move as a ghost?”
“A lifetime of practice.” He sat on the opposite side of the fire and held his hands out to warm them by the flames. “The mountain chill doesn’t want to leave, does it?”
“I fear I may never feel my feet again,” Aline admitted. She’d kicked off her boots and was warming her feet by the fire to no great success.
Kaeleth laughed, but there was no humor in it. “Oh, you’ll feel them soon enough. Your skin would be black if you’d suffered ice-bite. The feeling will come back soon and when it does, you’ll be ready to hack your toes off to be rid of it. Maybe I should take away your knife to remove the temptation.”
“I’ll not fight you should you try. I’m too weary to do anything but sit here and wait for you to feed me.”
“Then I apologize for what I have to do next.” Kaeleth drew his knife. “I wouldn’t normally dress game so near to camp, but we’ll be gone at first light and I’m too cold to be away from the fire any longer.”
Aline didn't look away when Kaeleth pierced the rabbit’s furry hide, then set the knife aside and slipped two fingers from either hand into the hole. He pulled sharply and the skin tore open. Within minutes, he’d ripped the skin free of the rabbit’s body, a gruesome yet shockingly bloodless act. At least until he began the disembowelment. Fascinated by the efficiency with which Kaeleth worked, Aline watched on while he scooped out the innards. Much of the guts went into the fire, but some small dark bits that were almost black in the firelight, he set on a flat rock at the edge of the fire. Before she knew it, the rabbit had been spitted and propped on two forked sticks Kaeleth had jammed into the ground.
“The rabbit will take a while to cook,” he said while spearing the dark bits of offal with a smaller stick. “The heart, kidneys, and liver are good for vitality. They’ll strengthen the blood and help rid you of the last of the vapors you inhaled up on the pass.”
It didn't take long for Kaeleth to deem the organs cooked after being roasted over hot coals at the edge of the fire, and though Aline felt she ought push Kaeleth to eat some for his own good health, she gladly took the proffered stick, burning her lips and tongue when she ate without waiting for it to cool. The meat was soft and tasted of steel and blood. Aline had never eaten these parts of an animal outside of a stew, pie, or sausage, but she felt the vitality in them. It was as though the life of the rabbit now flowed through her.
“We’ll have to ration ourselves tonight,” Kaeleth said when she was done. “Too much meat after so little food will make us ill. I’ll fetch you some water.”
“Kaeleth, please,” she said before he could rise. “Sit and rest. You’ve traveled as far as I have, and you’ve done more than your share to ensure my survival. I feel as if my body died on that mountain and I’m now a spirit hobbling around in a shell I’m too fond of to leave behind. I can’t imagine how tired you must be.”
“It’s not so bad,” Kaeleth said as he gave the rabbit a quarter turn on the spit. “My father always told me it’s better to say moving until the work is done, else I be tempted to put off until tomorrow what must be done today.”
“Your father was a wise man.”
“The wisest I know.” Darkness passed over Kaeleth’s face. “Knew, I suppose. I keep thinking he’s waiting for me at home—that once this ordeal is over, I’ll return to Daurendale where he’ll chide me for things like dressing game so close to camp.”
“He’d be proud of you and all that you have done. I didn't have to know him to see his influence in you. Though I’ll forever rue the circumstances, I am glad it was you the Goddess sent to help me.”
Kaeleth smiled, then dropped his gaze to the stick he’d been poking in the fire. “It’s what any good man would do.”
It was not, Aline knew, what most good men would do. Though she’d cared nothing for it, she’d seen enough of court politics to know that men and women acted ever in their best interest. She’d seen loyal household staff shoved through the fish-market gate without a penny to their name after refusing the whims of a lascivious lord. Seen poor men take the blame for rich men’s folly, and witnessed others remain silent when one such man was executed for a crime he hadn’t committed. Her knowledge of life outside the walls of her father’s keep was limited, but she’d seen enough in her recent journey across Aerdun to know that men with twice Kaeleth’s years and supposed maturity did not stick their neck out where they thought it might find an ax. His father must have been truly stout of heart to come to her aid when clearly outnumbered, and Kaeleth had shown his own bravery every time a new danger reared its head.
But she didn't know how to say such things to the boy sitting across the campfire. Besides, this wasn’t a time for rousing speeches. People had died to ensure that they might live. Kaeleth himself had been forced to take lives. The words from her books and stories of speeches given by great men to inspire their followers to greater deeds seemed hollow here in the face of reality. They were simply two people who had lost greatly, and who likely had more fighting to come before the last page of their story was written.
They spoke little after that. Kaeleth had gone to fetch water in the end, and he used it to brew a tea that warmed her from the inside and took the edge off her pain. Pain that burned her feet with unrelenting force. The sensation returned to her feet as Kaeleth had promised, and as she lay on her side, crying and clutching her knees to her chest, she was happy only that the rabbit had not finished cooking, because had she eaten more than the small organs, she would surely have hurled it from her guts.
Eventually, the fire in her feet subsided. They ate and slept—though without furs and on opposite ends of the fire. They broke their fast on cold rabbit, took a moment to see to their personal needs, then began the first long day of walking. The air in the forest had changed since the snowstorm. It was crisp and cool, carrying the promise of autumn. Aline daydreamed of harvest festival feasts and dancing and sweet-squash pie. She asked Kaeleth what the harvest festival was like in Daurendale, and though the Goddess played no role and she didn't know or quite understand the rules of the games they played, the rest didn't seem so different. Aline thought she might like to attend such a festival. As a normal person instead of the daughter of a king who was always watched and scolded should she behave in a manner considered unladylike. Ill-fitting as they were, she’d grown to enjoy the freedom of trousers and a tunic over corsets and skirts and all manner of ornamentation that took hours to don.
They ate fish that evening and again before setting off. By the second day of walking, Aline felt much of her strength return. Food and water were plentiful in the forest, and without the constant threat of pursuit, they had no fear of lighting fires to warm them through the evening. She asked Kaeleth many questions about hunting and wood lore, but steered clear of anything that might remind him too much of the home he’d left behind. They spoke around his father like he was a ghost hovering just outside the firelight.
It was evening on this second day when they discovered the stone hut. Kaeleth saw it first, gesturing for Aline to halt and crouch beside him. They watched the hut in silence for a long while, and Aline saw no signs of habitation. The hut sat in a small glade, and there was no garden or animal pen to indicate it was someone’s home. Night came while they watched, yet no smoke drifted from the chimney. No light flared within.
“I think it’s safe,” Kaeleth said just as Aline was sure she couldn’t remain crouched in the dirt any longer. “I’ll go first and check it out. Wait here.”
Aline held her protest. Though she resented being sidelined, she understood the necessity of it. It didn't make sense for both to approach at once if there was even the slightest risk of danger. Between the two of them, Kaeleth was better accustomed to sneaking and fighting. Still, some part of her longed to be more than just a silly princess who couldn’t be trusted to take care of herself. She’d learned much these last days. Suffered much and become stronger for it.
After a quick circuit of the hut, Kaeleth reappeared and waved her forward.
“What is this place?” she asked. “Where are the people who live here?”
“It’s a bothy,” Kaeleth told her as though that explained everything. When it was clear she hadn’t caught his meaning, he elaborated. “A shared hut for travelers and hunters. It’s the responsibility of those who use it to see to its upkeep. There's ash in the hearth, though it’s cold. I saw no other signs of recent use. We should be safe here tonight.”
Aline followed him inside. It took a moment for her eyes to adjust to the darkness, but once Kaeleth opened the shutters to let in some moonlight, she nearly wept at the sight of a bed. It was lumpy and ragged, pieces of brittle straw-like needles where they poked through rough burlap, but there were furs aplenty and, perhaps most importantly of all, it was not on the ground.
There was dry wood stacked by the hearth, so Aline bent to the task of building a fire. Kaeleth found a bucket and went to fetch water from the stream they’d passed on their way to the hut. They had no meat, and it had grown too late to hunt or fish, but they had berries, mushrooms, and greens they had foraged while they walked. Aline poked through the items that had been left in the bothy, clapping her hands together and thanking the Goddess when she discovered a sack of oats inside a chest that had been secured with a heavy rock. The corner of the sack looked to have been chewed open at one point, and few oats remained, but it would be enough for a simple porridge.
Aline brought the oats to the hearth, took one look at the pot sitting beside the fire, and realized she hadn’t the first notion of how to turn the hard dry bits into something edible. She knew it involved water and heat, but little else. She almost attempt it anyway, but with so little to eat, it didn’t seem prudent to risk burning it for the sake of protecting her pride. Until now, much of what had been required for work was a man’s domain, but this was supposed to be something a woman could do. Aline had spent countless hours in the kitchens as a young girl, but she had never paid attention to exactly how anything was made. Her attention had always been on pilfering sweets or listening to old Walram’s stories.
“Two cups of water for every cup of oats,” Kaeleth said from where he sat trimming the dirty ends from his foraged mushrooms. “You can add more water as you need it. Hang it from the low hook there, then move it up once it begins to boil. You’ll want to stir it regularly so it doesn’t stick to the bottom.”
“I knew that,” Aline said, unsure of why she felt compelled to lie. “I was only trying to remember where I had left my cup.”
Kaeleth grinned. “You mean the cup hanging from your belt?”
Heat flushed through her, right to the tips of her ears. She bit back a retort, instead setting herself to preparing the oats. The pot was heavy and difficult to set in place, but the rest was straightforward enough. When the water reached a boil, she reached for the pot handle, crying out in pain from the searing hot iron.
“In the bucket,” Kaeleth said, hurrying to her side. “Quickly. The cold water will help.”
She submerged her hand to the wrist. The stream water was cold enough to numb her fingers, but the stinging heat of the burn persisted. When she inspected it, there was an angry red line across the middle pads of all four of her fingers.
“Next time use the leather,” Kaeleth said as he folded a piece of dirty leather in two and used it to protect his hands as he shifted the pot to a hook that was farther from the coals. He dropped the leather beside the hearth and went to rummage through some clay pots on a shelf. “I thought I saw some ointment here earlier. Bothies usually have some basic salves. Hunters like to drink to pass the time in the evenings, and a drunk hunter is bound to injure himself sooner or later. Usually sooner.”
Focused as she was on the bucket, Aline didn't see the door open until Kaeleth swung around in alarm. An imposing man stood blocking the doorway, a wicked-looking ax in his hand.
“Well ain’t this a surprise,” he said, his gaze roving over Aline. “Two children playing house. Far away from home, no doubt. Star-crossed lovers is it?”
“We’re travelers,” Kaeleth said. His eyes flicked to the knife he’d left on the table. “We were robbed some days ago and are making our way to Ardvig. We have nothing of value save the clothes on our back.”
The big man slid the ax into a holster at his side, then came in and closed the door behind him. He walked to the hearth where he peered inside the pot, then unslung a sack from his shoulders and let it fall to the ground beside Aline. When he bent to open the sack, his face was close enough that the rankness of his breath nearly choked her. He produced a wineskin and took a long drink before stoppering it and settling to his haunches to one side of the fire. Ignoring the burn on her hand, Aline removed her hand from the water bucket and went to stir the porridge. It had begun to stick a little, so she scraped the bottom of the pot while doing her best to inconspicuously make eye contact with Kaeleth.
“I found the salve,” he said. “Come and let me tend to your hand.”
Aline left the oats gently bubbling and went to sit beside Kaeleth at the table. The big man didn’t look away from the fire, but Aline couldn’t shake the worry he was paying close attention to their movements.
“What little we have is yours to share,” she offered the man while Kaeleth dabbed greasy salve on her hand. It was the same hand that had been cut for the swearing of their oath, and she hoped the fingers would not have to be bound as well.
The man grunted. “Any meat?”
“We walked all day and didn't stop to hunt,” Kaeleth said. “Tomorrow we’ll depart again at first light.”
“Useless little shits,” the man muttered to himself. He reached into his sack and withdrew a hunk of dried meat. He tore a bit off with his teeth, and spittle flew when he spoke again. “I didn’t expect to find anyone here. This shelter is far from the road, and the men who hunt these lands are off in search of cobbrets this time of year.”
“It is only by chance we came to be here,” Aline offered. “As I said, we were robbed and have been walking for days.”
“Aye, you did say as much.” The man spat a bit of gristle into the fire. “Funny you should have wandered so far from the road, though. Highly unlikely a pair of travelers should have come this way. Some tricky terrain to navigate around here.”
Kaeleth tensed beside Aline. His eyes darted to his knife again, but it was out of reach and it would have been awkward for him to reach for it. “We thought it the best way to avoid brigands.”
“Right. Brigands.” The stranger took another long pull from his wineskin and then turned to grin at them. “What you might not know, clearly not being from around these parts, is that this shelter was built by my grandfather. Its upkeep fell to my father, then to me. The hunters have permission to use it, and they know to leave meat, ale, and coin as a kindness to my family. Seeing as you already availed yourself of my oats and my salve, and that you claim you have no possessions, I’m wondering how you’re going to pay what is owed.”
“We have berries and mushrooms,” Kaeleth said. “And a spare cloak of fine quality. We wish to trouble you no further. Please take them, and we’ll be on our way now to avoid further insult.”
Kaeleth moved to stand, but the man was on his feet with ax in hand before Kaeleth could rise.
“Sit down boy!” the man bellowed. “I don’t want your damn berries or mushrooms. What I see is a fine bow and a lovely young lady to warm my bed tonight. You can sleep out back or I can cut your throat and leave you for the wolves.”
Aline tugged her cloak tighter around herself in a futile effort to gesture to prevent the man from leering at her like she was his next meal. Afraid of what might happen should Kaeleth try to fight this man, she laid a hand on his leg beneath the table to prevent him from standing. His muscles were taught beneath her fingers and he looked ready to leap from the bench and attempt to tear the man’s throat out with his bare hands. But he stayed seated.
“I am a stranger in these lands,” Aline said, hoping the quaver in her voice was not as loud as it sounded in her own head, “which might explain why I fail to comprehend the humor in your jest. Perhaps it is common to joke about bedding another man’s wife here, but I’ll ask you to please not do so again in my presence.”
The man’s brow crinkled into a knot of confusion as he looked dumbly from Aline to Kaeleth and back again. “You mean to tell me you two are married? Naw, I don’t buy it.”
Kaeleth stood abruptly, hands clenched by his side. He glanced nervously at Aline before saying, “I don’t care if you believe us or not. I won’t let you touch her.”
The big man roared with laughter. He let his ax fall to his side, as if to show them how little a threat he saw Kaeleth. Casually, he strolled to the far side of the table and picked up Kaeleth’s knife from where he’d left it lying next to the mushrooms he’d been trimming.
“A decent blade,” the man said. He slammed it into the table where it stuck upright. “I’m sure you’d hoped to stick me with it, but I think I’ll keep your knife too. Maybe use it to cut your woman’s clothing from her if she puts up a fight.”
This proved too much for Kaeleth. He moved swiftly, climbing atop his chair and leaping onto the stranger before the man could bring his axe hand up. Slowed by drink, the stranger reacted too late, leaving Kaeleth the opening to wrap his arm around the man’s fat neck.
Aline jumped up from her own seat, stepping back out of the way of the man’s ax while he flailed desperately at Kaeleth. The stranger’s face went red, then purple as the life was choked from him. Aline tried to think of a way to help, but she couldn’t see a way to get close to the man without being caught by the ax. And even if she did manage it, what could she possibly do that wouldn’t risk injuring Kaeleth?
With a mighty roar, the man dropped his ax, took hold of Kaeleth’s arms, then ran backwards at full speed. By tilting himself nearly to the point of tipping onto his back, he managed to slam Kaeleth into the sturdy stone wall hard enough that the boy yelped in pain and fell to the ground. Dazed, Kaeleth scrambled to get away, but didn't make it far before the big man kicked him in the stomach.
Back to Aline, the man stood over Kaeleth and spat on him. “You stupid twat. I’m going to take your balls and let you bleed to death.”
Knowing she wouldn’t get a better opportunity, Aline slid the assassin’s knife from the sheath on her belt, then tiptoed toward the man just as he was bending down to grab Kaeleth’s hair. He was either drunk or distracted enough that he didn't hear her until it was too late. As she’d been taught, she rammed the tip of the knife into the big man’s groin, angling away from his manhood and into his leg. The immaculately honed knife slid free easily, and as the man spun to swing a backhand blow at her, she dodged his arm and shoved the blade up into his blubbery chin. Eyes wide with surprise, the man wobbled a little, blood foaming on his lips and running hot over Aline’s hand, before falling dead to the ground.
Still clenched in Aline’s hand, the knife slid free as the man fell away. Rooted in place, blood soaking into the bandages on her hand, Aline stood staring at the lifeless body laying before her. Lifeless because of her. She’d stabbed him not once, but twice. Each time with the absolute conviction to kill. She jerked away at the touch of a hand on her arm. Saw Kaeleth standing beside her, fresh blood trickling from a split lip. She couldn’t seem to let go of the knife, resisting when Kaeleth peeled her fingers away one by one. Once he’d taken the blade from her, he guided her to a seat by the fire, then fetched her a cup of water.
“Drink,” he said firmly. Then he went to stir the porridge. “It’s a little burnt on the bottom, but I no longer feel inclined to care about scrubbing the pot clean before we go.”
“Are you hurt?” Aline finally found the voice to ask.
“Nothing serious. Bit of a headache is all.”
Aline’s eyes fell on the wineskin laying next to the stool beside her. She plucked it up, wiped the spout with her cloak, then drank deeply. The wine was sour, but it was strong. She felt its numbing effect almost immediately.
“Careful with that,” Kaeleth said. “You have little enough in your belly to soak it up.”
“I find myself unable to care how wine-sick I am tomorrow,” she said after another long pull. “I’d like to feel a little less of everything right now.”
Kaeleth looked at her a long moment, then nodded and went to open the bothy door. Aline didn't look behind her, but she understood well enough what the grunting and sounds of something heavy being dragged across the floor meant.
“Thank you,” she told Kaeleth when he returned, shutting the door on the night chill that had bled into the bothy. “Another mercy for which I am indebted to you.”
“I’m not keeping score.” Kaeleth had found a wide shallow bowl somewhere, and he filled it with water and then sat beside her with the bowl in his lap. He took Aline’s hand, pushing up the sleeve of her shirt so he could remove the soiled bandage and wash her hand.
His touch was so tender, Aline felt tears well in her eyes. How could one man be so cruel and another so kind? It was not fair that men like the one she’d just murdered could bring so much fear and harm into the world. Aline had always envied the soldiers in her father’s employ, believing their lives to be full of adventure and carousing. She now understood why they weren’t allowed to drink inside the castle walls. Why men like Walram grew silent and distant after too much ale. Killing stained a person’s soul. Aline felt the weight of what she’d done hang from her. The stranger had been cruel and mean, and he’d had every intention of stripping Aline of her last innocence, yet the worst thing he had done was make her a killer. He’d as good as grabbed her wrist and plunged the dagger into himself.
“There you are,” Kaeleth said, giving her hand a gentle pat. “The cut on your palm is healing nicely, and the burn isn’t so bad as it first appeared. Put more salve on it before bed, and again in the morning. Open and close your fingers periodically so the skin doesn’t tighten.”
The rest of the night passed in a haze. She emptied the wineskin and didn't taste the porridge Kaeleth coaxed her into eating. At some point, the fire burned low and Kaeleth led her to bed where he covered her with furs. She wanted to ask him to lie beside her, to hold her as he had in the mountain pass, but she couldn’t find the words. She cried until she slept. And when she slept, she dreamed of a knife and of blood and of men who needed killing.
Thus concludes the wilderness sequence of Whisper of the Wilding Woods! The next chapter sees Aline and Kaeleth entering Ardvig where Kaeleth’s wilderness survival skills seem to be of little use and he’s forced to rely on Aline as they struggle to escape new threats that emerge from Ardvig’s seedy underbelly.
If you’d like to read more of Aline and Kaeleth’s adventures, let me know by hitting the like button, leaving a comment, and sharing the prologue and introduction with your friends!