They set out early the next morning, packs strapped to the horse's saddle. The rains were almost completely gone now that it was nearly summer, and the roads were drier than ever, making their progress swift. Rhian could not help but feel a small sense of hope as she sat before Raul in the saddle, dressed in clean clothes, the sun shining down upon them and the road before them.
It had been strange to wake in Raul's arms that morning, knowing that she was his wife in truth now, and had every right to be there. Neither of them had made any reference to their recent marriage as they packed and saddled the horse, as they set out or stopped to wait out the heat of high noon. Yet it seemed to hang there between them; they were no longer as they had been before. Sometimes, Rhian wondered if Raul felt the difference as she did; after all, she was still not certain he completely understood. Perhaps he did, for he did not lack in wits, but she suspected that she would harbour some doubt for a long time yet – perhaps forever.
In the two days that it took to travel from Dolit to Etris, she had little time to wonder, however. During the day, she was distracted by other travellers, who Raul, having grown somewhat accustomed to other people, could now engage in those brief conversations that gave respite from the transitory uncertainty of the road. Talk of weather, crop, kings, gods and gripe occupied her attention, alternately bringing her to laughter and commiseration. There was an endless store of gossip that concerned no one Rhian knew, and a great deal of hearsay about people whom the face of the earth itself did not know. It made Rhian smile to watch Raul navigate his way through this labyrinth of exaggeration, imagination and truth. Sometimes he was taken in too easily, making the teller puff up with pride at his skill, and other times his brow would furrow as he thought a bit too deeply on what he was being told.
"Why should a cat speak to a mule?" he queried at one point, as a joking peddler turned off onto another road, still cackling to himself. "They have very little occasion to cross one another's paths, and hardly seem to acknowledge one another when they do."
Rhian laughed, looking up at him. "Raul, it is only a joke. It need make no more sense than it needs to bring laughter."
When there was no one else about, Raul himself proved good at providing diversion, however unintentionally, noting the unique shape of a horizon, or pointing to a fledgling bird making its first flight. He noticed everything about them, and finding Rhian's enjoyment of such small delights, took to pointing them out to her. He showed her small springs hidden amidst rocks and roots, pointed out small animals hiding amidst the tall grass that she would never have seen. He taught her how to throw a knife as they waited out the heat of midday, though her aim was sorely lacking, and how to twist rope into rabbit snares. She taught him how to make a flute out of the hollow reeds that grew along streambeds, and the night between Dolit and Etris, she told him the stories of all the constellations as they lay in a field, looking up at the stars. It was, she reflected, a beautiful time.
Turning her head to regard Raul, she smiled, but it turned bittersweet as the nagging feeling deep inside her surfaced with the calm of repose. Did he understand? Did he love her? Could he ever? Would he stand beside her for the rest of their lives, and never regret or resent it?
Will this marriage be like chaining a wild dog? she wondered, and she could not bear the contemplation of such a life.
Raul was still and silent, and from the pattern of his breath, she thought he might be asleep. She sighed and turned back to the stars. There was Elinor, happy beloved of the hero Gwynhert. And there, to the south, Ninnia, the tragic victim of a broken heart, grieving for her lost Rethin. In which one's footsteps would she follow, her and her Raul?
"Mother Zoraida," she prayed softly, "please, help me."
As the sun was setting on the second day, they entered Etris. The sky was just as bright above them, but the shadows the buildings cast on the narrow streets gave the illusion that the whole world had suddenly darkened. Etris was not without law; it was still a Falgrese city, under the rule of Kind Cadeyrn and patrolled by his army guard, but it was the closest city in Falgrice to Algroth, and that made it a port familiar to many of the outlaw island's inhabitants. Every other ship that sailed from Etris was set for Algroth, though the log books would never show that. The taverns all had shadowy corners where men with scars and brands and ill intentions could converse amidst deaf ears and blind eyes. Every guard and port authority had his price or an unmarked grave, and one of every ten women there would eventually have both.
Entering the town was like awakening from a pleasant dream, and Rhian shuddered, suddenly desiring her cloak, which she had rolled up in one the saddlebags. Raul dismounted at the city gate, as the guards commanded him to. They wore the same uniforms as the guards of any settlement held by the crown alone, but the green of their tunics was stained brown in many places and blackened in others. Their faces were sallow, though their cheeks were ruddy, and they reeked of urine and drink. Their eyes regarded Rhian speculatively, and then turned to Raul with a different sort of consideration.
"What is your business here?" one of them demanded.
"I'm here to visit my uncle," Raul replied, as he and Rhian had determined he would along the road. "His son has passed away, and my wife and I come to pay our respects."
"What is your uncle's name?"
"Tilden; he is a carpenter."
"Never heard of him."
Raul shrugged. Rhian kept her eyes on the horse's neck, trying not to shiver in the humid air.
"It's two coppers to bring the girl in, and one for the horse," one of the guards told Raul. Rhian was quite sure there was no such charge as far as the king was concerned, but doubted it would make a difference even if she could tell Raul. She heard a jingle as he handed over the coins, and then the horse was moving once more as he led it forward.
They wandered through the streets in silence but for the clop of the horse's hooves. There were other people about, and some did not seem so very sinister at all, but it was nowhere near the benignly preoccupied crush of Dolit.
"There," Rhian said in a hushed voice, pointing to an inn identified by the crescent moon dangling beneath its namesake sign of a perched raven. Raul led the horse up to the front of the building and tied the reins before lifting Rhian from the saddle. Inside the taproom, smoke from cheap candles stung their eyes and burned their lungs. Raul made his way to the bar, Rhian trailing after him.
"We'll take a room," Raul said without preamble.
The man behind the bar regarded him expressionlessly, lower lip jutted out beneath his much-altered nose. His hands, larger than Rhian's face altogether, never paused in their redundant task of wiping a filthy cloth on the countertop. "For the night?" he asked after a lengthy pause.
"You'll just be passing through, then," the man observed.
The man's jaw worked slowly, and his gaze slid from Raul to Rhian and back again. Etris was far enough out of the way that there was only one way to pass through it, but no doubt he was used to it. "The girl a slave?"
Rhian gasped and drew back sharply, which apparently was answer enough. "Guess not." The innkeeper turned and took a key from the wall behind him. "It's seven coppers for the night." Raul placed the coins on the counter, and the innkeeper handed over the key. "Second door on the right," he told Raul.
The room was small and grimy; those who travelled to Etris were not fussy about their accommodations. Raul set down their packs and looked about, as if sizing up the room.
"Will you be alright here by yourself?" he asked.
"By myself?" Rhian repeated, sitting on the bed.
He nodded. "I must go find us passage to Algroth."
"Oh. Of course." She bit her lip, looking down at the blackened floorboards. "I will wait here, then."
The floorboards creaked, and then Raul was kneeling beside her, one hand placed protectively at her back. "I will not be long," he assured her. "Once I have found a ship that will take us, I will return for you, and we will leave."
"Leave. Yes." Rhian dragged in a shaky breath. She was going to leave the safety of Falgrice behind for an island anarchy.
"Rhian, take this." He pressed something into her hand, and she recognized it as the hide-bound hilt of one of his knives. His own hand closed her fingers around it firmly. "I will return," he promised, and she turned her face towards him.
"If you do not," she whispered, "I will come for you."
For the space of a breath, his face was completely still. Then he smiled, so freely and unexpectedly that Rhian's breath caught in her throat. He leaned forward and kissed her for the first time since they had departed from Dolit. It was brief and chaste, but to Rhian it was beautiful. By the time she opened her eyes, the door was already closing behind Raul.
"I love you," she whispered into the empty room.
The docks of Etris reeked worse than any other part of the city. The muddy banks beneath the slimy wooden walkways were thick with a century's accumulation of filth washed out from the city. Sailors, currently employed and not, wandered from tavern to tavern in various states of drunkenness. Busty women lurked in doorways and the entrances to alleys. Dirt-faced children bounced on their heels, eyes darting back and forth like those of rodents, lying in wait for the unguarded pockets of passed out mariners.
Raul made his way past the inebriated music of the taverns, to the fog clogged planks lain between the great masses of the ships. Though he walked confidently, his gait neither too fast nor too slow, his shoulders were tense and his ears strained as they sorted through the harmless noise of drunken footsteps and scuttling rats, ascertaining that there was nothing more sinister about. He glanced up at the first ship he came to seemed to contribute more than its share to the stink of the docks. A smell like rotting cabbages and human illness tumbled down the gangplank to make Raul's stomach roil. From the deck came the sounds of riotous laughter, breaking wood and cursing. Raul turned his back on the ship.
He found that there were very few ships at the docks. Most were anchored in the water beyond, and could only be reached by means of rowboat. Those ships that were within reach did not seem much better than the first one, aside from the two belonging to the Falgrese navy. Raul stood on the dock, looking out at the shadows of the ships peeking out from the fog. He could not bring Rhian on any ship such as those he had seen here, but how was he to know that those anchored further out were any better? He dared not leave Rhian alone in Etris while he went to Algroth. He doubted she would agree to even if he did.
He frowned at the fog, trying to think of a solution.
The footsteps were the first thing he heard; the creaking boards of the dock made it near impossible to tread quietly, and the man was heavily built. Raul gave no indication that he heard the other's approach, wondering if the other would simply pass him by. His hand flexed, ready to grab a knife.
"Hello, friend," the newcomer greeted him.
Raul turned as if he had not been aware of the other's presence. He nodded, keeping silent.
The newcomer was tall, and his voice made him sound not much older than Raul. The fog and the night obscured much of his appearance, but Raul made out broad shoulders covered by a light cloak.
"And what would you be doing here in the damp, when there's many a welcoming bosom in the taverns?" the stranger asked.
Raul narrowed his eyes, trying to make out the man's face, but the fog was too thick, the night too dark. Keen eyes, unblurred by drink. A strong nose, that was all. Not enough to trust a man, even for passage to Algroth.
"What I do here is my own concern," Raul said, and turned his back on the stranger and the water.
"You wouldn't be lookin' for passage to Algroth, now would you?" the man inquired.
"I could get you aboard a ship," the other continued.
Slowly, Raul turned around. "Truly?"
"What's your price?"
"Five silvers." The man held out his hand. Raul glanced at it, and then up at the man's face. He had no choice. He reached out and took the man's hand.
The next instant, Raul's face was ground into the grime of the dock boards. The air left his lungs in a rush, coming out as an ugly grunt. He bucked and tried to reach for one his knives, but the hand that had reached out to shake the stranger's was firmly pinned behind his back, and his other was captured the next instant.
"Filthy bastard," the man spat, winding a rope around Raul's wrists. "There's a new law in Etris."
Raul twisted and managed to get his hands free before the rope could be tightened. He tried to roll over, but then something large and hard collided with the side of his head, and everything went black.