I PICKED up another log to throw on the fire, carefully trying to avoid any potential splinters. Despite my best efforts, I felt a small prick and knew I would have to dig yet another sliver of wood from my skin.
“I’ll bring in more wood tonight.” Kahira clutched her clothes tighter against her body, failing once again in her attempts to hide how much the chill affected her. As an afterthought, and with a bitter tone as her shivering grew worse, Kahira added, “I didn’t expect it to still be this cold.”
The doorframe he leaned against creaked as Istyr guffawed. “Oh come on! Things are startin’ to grow again.”
Kahira was unswayed, even though the weather was considerably warmer than it had been.
“Aleana, how cold is it at your home?”
I smiled at the young girl sitting by Kahira’s feet. “In Eniva, there was only one winter as cold as this. But unlike in the most southern parts of Halvaria, where the mountains fade to small hills, I had at least enough snow to play in when I was your age.”
Lirian’s eyes grew wide, and the fur blanket she wore fell from her boney shoulders. “There’re places with no snow?”
“Why do you think Kahira leaves us each winter?” Istyr left his post by the doorframe and limped closer to the fire, scooping his adopted granddaughter into his arms.
She giggled and fought against the old man’s grasp until he let her go. “Kahira, will you take me with you? I wanna see no snow.”
Kahira arched her brow, drawing attention to the black dots that had been forcibly tattooed into her dark olive skin. “Maybe one day.”
Another shiver passed through Kahira, and it was only the thick wool dress I wore that kept my body from doing the same. Still, while I tolerated the bitter temperatures better than Kahira, I was grateful the winter was finally ending. The heavy snows that fell on the little homestead where Kahira stayed for the summer—she’d escorted me here when we were forced to flee—had made it clear why she traveled to the southern shores of Halvaria each winter.
I had told Lirian the truth, Eniva saw snow every winter, but even though my city was built into the very mountains Istyr and Wyath called home, it was not nearly as cold. After months of living with a chill deep enough within me to feel as if it would be permanent, I questioned why anyone would remain cradled so far into the northern mountains. Each time the thought crossed my mind, I tried not to remember that the trees outside Eniva would have already started to bud and there would be few remnants of winter left.
“You’re not taking that child anywhere.” Wyath turned her attention to Kahira.
Ignoring the old woman, Kahira stood. “Lirian, want to help me today? I’ll need to chop more wood so it’s ready for next winter.”
“Can I go?” Lirian tugged at Wyath’s dress.
“Oh, fine.” The old woman waved the girl off. “Gives you something to do.”
Istyr shook his head at his wife, letting her know that not a single person in the home believed she didn’t enjoy Lirian’s company to some extent.
Kahira and Lirian were soon wrapped in enough layers to maintain some semblance of warmth. As they walked out into the cold, Lirian was comfortably perched on Kahira’s back. I had not seen whether Lirian had done so out of determination or if Kahira had been willing to carry her.
Hoping to finish my work while there was still light pouring in through the small window of the room I shared with Kahira, I stood.
“I have more mending for you.” As she had done over the previous months, Wyath didn’t consider posing her request as anything other than a demand.
Istyr huffed, playing his usual role in the exchanges between Wyath and me. “Show some respect, will ya? She has no business being ordered around by you.”
Wyath’s permanent scowl managed to deepen, but before she could turn her anger toward her husband, I spoke, trying to keep the frustration from my voice. “You know I will do whatever I can to help.”
Wyath grunted what passed for a thanks, and disappeared behind Istyr to retrieve a small pile of clothing with various tears visible—no doubt the result of Lirian’s antics. When she’d dumped the garments into my arms, I quickly slipped away.
Wyath gladly passed off any chore she was uninterested in, and it was often anything involving needlework. Fortunately, it was a skill I learned at a young age. It was the tedious nature of the chore that seemed to bother Wyath, but it allowed me the opportunity to let my thoughts drift. As the months went on and I grew more restless, I found myself in greater need of such moments of escape.
Moving a small chair toward the window, I heard Wyath’s gruff farewell as she ventured toward the barn for the chores she preferred. As I reached into the pile of clothes to decide on the first fix I would attempt, a high-pitched giggle, soon punctuated by the heavy thump of an axe splitting wood could barely be heard from outside. I grinned, imagining what Kahira might have done to elicit such a response.
I had barely finished mending a rather large tear in Lirian’s leggings when I heard her and Kahira inside the home once again. Lirian’s excited chattering was met with deep laughter from Istyr in the other room as a shadow fell across the clothing draped over my lap.
Kahira stood behind my chair and gently tilted my head back to press her lips to my forehead.
I smiled. “You know, if it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t need to mend Lirian’s clothes so often.”
Kahira picked up a shirt from the bed and examined the tear in the sleeve. “She hates being cooped up inside.”
“And you hate the cold.”
Still refusing to admit what had been obvious soon after we left Halvaria behind, she brushed off my remark and pulled me to my feet. “At least I have you to stitch the girl’s clothes back together. If I had to leave that to Wyath, she’d finally throw me out.”
Smiling, I wrapped my hands around her neck, burying my face under her jaw. “If it weren’t for Istyr, I don’t know if we’d be allowed to stay anyway.”
Kahira’s mouth opened briefly to counteract my point, but she soon realized there was nothing she could say—Wyath had certainly not been as thrilled to welcome both of us as Lirian and Istyr had. Granted, no one was sure if Wyath had ever truly been fond of another person. Even Istyr claimed she had simply decided he would do well enough, and so she decided to marry him.
The arms around me tightened before Kahira spoke. “How much longer are we planning to stay?”
I stiffened, confronted with the question that had become an increasing concern of mine since we first arrived at the little farm. I had no desire to remain ignorant of what was happening in Halvaria, but my people believed me to be a traitor. Seeing I was at a loss, Kahira kissed me, knowing there was nothing else she could say. When the kiss deepened, I attempted to let my worries fade. Before I could lose myself in her, the door to the small home was thrown open and quickly slammed shut, rattling the door to the bedroom.
Wyath, returning from tending to her chickens, hinted at the cause of her annoyance. “Those traders are already filtering north!”
Istyr looked at his wife and sighed, accustomed to her disagreeable nature. “What’s this one selling?”
“Didn’t care to find out.” Ignoring everyone in the room, Wyath disappeared into the small kitchen at the back of the home.
As soon as she was gone, we all heard a hesitant knock on the door. Seeing an opportunity to speak to someone new, Lirian jumped up. Kahira quickly grabbed the back of Lirian’s rough tunic, stopping her from tripping Istyr who slowly climbed to his feet. He pulled the door open, revealing a portly man whose cheeks had been kissed by the cold wind, giving him the look of someone caught snooping where he shouldn’t have been.
Istyr was speaking before the trader could even open his mouth. “Son, no one along the pass can afford whatever it is you’re selling. We’ll give you a meal and a chance to warm yourself tonight, but there’s no gold to be made here.”
Obviously not used to being addressed so bluntly, it took the man a moment before he nodded, stepping inside when Istyr motioned for him to do so. With the wind no longer biting into his skin, the man found his voice.
“Thank you, but are you sure I can’t interest you?”
“We’re sure.” Wyath returned, carrying a pot to place on the fire.
Based on the hazelnuts mixed in with the oatmeal that would serve as dinner for the stranger as well as ourselves, Wyath expected the man to join us, despite whatever her wishes were.
Kahira shifted in her chair, absentmindedly holding on to Lirian, who studied the trader. “You’ll have to ignore Wyath.”
Wyath glared at Kahira. She might not have been the friendliest woman, but she had been pleasant—at least her version of it—to me since Kahira and I arrived. However, Kahira was barely tolerated, and from what Istyr told me, their distaste for one another had been established soon after Kahira first showed up at their doorstep several years ago.
Kahira’s comment drew the trader’s attention to her, and in the light of the fire, I knew he was able to see the marks etched into her brow. My breath caught in my throat as the man reached for the knife at his belt. He paused when Istyr spoke.
“She is a friend to us, and if you can’t accept that, well, I’ll gladly let you take that issue up with her yourself.” Istyr, though his tone was harsh, seemed nothing but amused.
The trader responded, “I assume you have good reason for allowing a murderer into your home?”
I reached out and placed my hand on Kahira’s arm, silently urging her not to act rashly against the newcomer.
Lirian, no longer the focus of Kahira’s attention, saw her chance to satisfy her curiosity as to why the man was able to identify Kahira’s tattoo. “Are you from Dakmor too? What’s your name?”
“Yes, originally.” The trader kept his eyes on Kahira but slowly eased his grip on his knife. “Forgive me for not mentioning before, but I am Uldronu.”
Kahira let Lirian slip from her lap. While Uldronu watched Lirian as she moved closer to study him, Kahira turned to me and offered a slight grin to assure me that she was fine. Not fully believing her, I left my hand where it was, thankful her weapons were tucked away in the barn.
“What goods do you bring north?” I drew the man’s attention to me, hoping to keep the encounter civil.
Obviously thinking it an opportunity to sell some of his goods after all, Uldronu’s eyes lit up. “I bring wines from Halvaria. Your nobles, or whatever it is they call themselves up here, are quite fond of it, and I am fond of the gold they give me in return. Of course, I always bring extra to sell along the way.”
At the mention of my kingdom, or at least what used to be mine, my heart raced.
“Have you seen no snow? Aleana said there’s no snow!” Lirian struggled against Istyr’s hold.
Seeing Uldronu’s confused look, I swallowed to remove the lump that had developed in my throat. “I told her there are some parts of Halvaria where it doesn’t snow.”
He laughed slightly. “Yes, I have spent many winters without seeing snow.”
When Uldronu’s gaze landed on Kahira once again, I rushed forth with the question I longed to know the answer to. “Tell me, do you carry any news from Halvaria?”
Kahira turned to me, worry plainly painted on her face.
“None.” Reaching out for the bowl of oatmeal Wyath handed to him, Uldronu took his dinner carefully, obviously more concerned with Kahira’s presence than his lack of knowledge.
Uldronu had been my only potential source of information since my arrival in Itorisa. I had hoped he knew something of what happened in my lands in the months after I escaped. I tried to hide my disappointment, but the hand placed on my knee told me Kahira could see through my attempts.
Occupied with eating their fill, Wyath, Istyr, and Uldronu grew quiet. Even Lirian had stopped her fidgeting, too concerned with chasing down the hazelnuts in her oatmeal. Kahira took small bites of her dinner, keeping an eye on Uldronu as he ate, as if she expected him to suddenly lash out. Istyr soon placed an empty bowl on the floor, but I struggled to calm my thoughts enough to eat, pushing the grayish meal around with my spoon. By the time I managed to sate my small appetite, the sun had almost completely disappeared behind the mountains.
Wyath, seeing the chance to clear the man from her home, quickly broke the silence. “Aleana, go with Kahira to show the man to the barn. He can put up his horse and sleep wherever he sees fit.”
Uldronu looked at me with relief in his eyes, apparently thankful for my presence alongside Kahira. Seeing the gratitude on his face only served to make Kahira’s smirk grow as she stepped closer to escort him outside. She cracked the door open barely wide enough for Uldronu to slip through. Seeing that she refused to turn her back to him, Uldronu shuffled past her, his hand slipping to his knife once again. Trying to hide my grin, I hugged my coat closer as I stepped outside.
“I’m comin’ too!”
Lirian charged out into what little snow remained. To prevent Wyath from protesting, Kahira shut the door. Thankfully, Lirian’s presence diffused the tension further, and Uldronu ceased fidgeting with the blade tucked into his belt.
“Is it actually warm in there?” Uldronu led his horse toward the barn, his cart creaking with each turn of the wheels.
“Yeah!” Lirian rushed forward to try to open the heavy doors. “Kahira fixed it for the a-mi-nals!”
Kahira stepped forward to help the little girl, still managing to keep Uldronu within sight—a skill she had developed long ago and continued now mostly out of habit. As soon as she could, Lirian disappeared into the barn.
“Emera!” My gray mare’s ears twitched as Lirian called to her.
The bulky black horse in the next stall whinnied, unhappy with being ignored. I helped Uldronu free his horse from the heavy cart, allowing Kahira to reassure her horse, Taewin, that he had not been forgotten.
“The straw is fresh, and there is plenty of water, as well as hay.” I was happy that his horse would at least get a decent amount of rest before being asked to work again. “I’m sure you can find a corner in which to curl up.”
Looking around, I noticed Lirian extending a handful of hay to place in Taewin’s feed bucket. Clearly still upset the little girl had ignored him at first, Taewin hesitated before finally dipping his head to accept the treat. Remnants of Lirian’s gift to Emera were still dropping from the horse’s lips. Standing near the mare once again, Lirian giggled as pieces of hay lodged themselves in her hair. I laughed along with her until a noise from over our heads startled us.
Kahira dropped from the ladder leading to the loft, revealing herself as the source of the disturbance. “Finished?”
As soon as she stepped close enough, I saw the knife placed in her belt, and based on the look of fear spread across Uldronu’s face, so did he. However, Kahira had visibly relaxed her demeanor after seeing she had achieved her goal of reminding Uldronu what could happen should he decide to disrespect the hospitality shown toward him.
After audibly swallowing, Uldronu mumbled, “Yes. Relay my thanks once more, and I shall leave first thing in the morning.”
I quickly urged Kahira outside, allowing her one last smirk at Uldronu before she called for Lirian to follow us. Once the barn doors were closed and we were back inside the nominal heat of the house, I wound my arm around Kahira’s waist as she shivered, pulling her to me as a promise of the warmth we would soon share. Lirian, seeing Istyr and Wyath already in their bed, launched herself toward them. As always, she landed perfectly in the space that seemed to permanently exist between the couple, no matter how small their bed was. Leaving them to sleep, Kahira and I went into our room.
Removing her heaviest layers, Kahira turned to me, knowing I was distracted. “There will be more traders coming north. One of them will know something.”
I tugged my bottom lip between my teeth, twisting my body toward Kahira so she could wrap her arms around me. Eventually, I found my voice. “I’ll go to Eniva if I must. Someone there might remain loyal to me.”
Rather than allow myself to dwell on things I could not change for the time being, I ran my hands over Kahira’s arms in an attempt to dispel the last of the chill clinging to her skin. Still discernible through the fabric of her shirt was the scar etched into her arm. Though Uldronu’s mistrust of Kahira was evident from his reaction to her tattoo, I was frightened to think of what he would have done if he’d seen that she was branded as a vanjiv, the worst punishment Dakmor could assign her—a punishment she was not meant to survive.
Kahira had told me once, after some prodding, what crimes had earned vanjivs their brands in the past. She could only tell me a few of the stories she heard when she was little, but the ones she could remember made other vanjivs seem every bit as terrifying as people made Kahira out to be. Murderers—and worse—of children; men and women who slaughtered whole families; and royalty that tried to build empires on the bodies of their people. Kahira was none of those things, and yet, everyone who saw her brand could think of nothing else.
Kahira asked me not to pity her for her past torments, but I cared for her, and I couldn’t keep my sympathy from creeping into my expression. She clenched her teeth in response. As an apology for the added attention after the trader’s reaction to her presence, my lips brushed across her cheek.
Kahira released the tension she held in her muscular body. “I should sleep. If Uldronu intends to leave at first light, I would like to be there to send him off.”
I was eager to climb into bed as well, if only to escape the chill in the air. “Has a trader ever given Wyath and Istyr trouble?”
“No, and I’m sure Uldronu is no different, but I would rather avoid the risk.” Kahira slipped under the heavy blanket on our bed. “I’m only sorry you have to wait to receive your answers.”
“Tallak and Zoriah won’t hesitate to enact their new policies in my absence. Somehow, I will hear of what they are doing to my kingdom.”
My words were meant to reassure myself, but after months of not knowing, my hope was fading.
Kahira wrapped her arm around me. “We’ll find a way. We will.”