“We need supplies,” the Knight said, “Buying is better than stealing, and we have coin. Folks tend to remember a thief, and those who have little are prone to hunt for him.”
“Buy?” the Princess asked. How gaunt she was getting. “Where?”
“Cairn Shant,” the Princess turned the unfamiliar syllables over in her mouth, trying to say them like he did. “Where’s that?”
The Knight smiled. “When folks from nowhere get lost, they end up in Cairn Shant,” he said it like an aphorism, “We’ll be there by nightfall.”
“Will there be an inn?”
“An inn? I fair doubt it, lass, unless more has changed than I imagine. But they’ll have a steamhouse, and we’ll take us both a fine bathing, and fresh clothes.”
They spoke without breaking stride, picking their way carefully but steadily through the broken landscape. Being in the highlands had changed the Knight, the Princess thought. He seemed not so much more at home but more himself, as if the years in Keep Malcroix were sloughing away and revealing… what?
Who is this man to whom I owe my life?, the Princess asked herself. And what is he?
She had always seen her father’s army through the eyes of a future head of state, a resource to be cared for and used wisely, but not as people. Not as men. When he had awakened her in the dark and led her down the steps past the cistern and out to the Spies Gate her thought was that her father had made a wise strategic move, removing a piece from the board to keep it from being captured in a losing game.
In the days that followed she had no more feeling or will than a carved wooden game piece. The Knight had moved her past the edges of the board she’d always known, and she followed. Your father is dead, she had told herself, Everyone you know is dead or in fetters. The life you’ve always known is smashed and thrown on the fire. You really should feel something about that.
“Cairn Shant,” she repeated, considering the name like some strange new flavor, “are they loyalists?”
The Knight considered the question. “Loyalists? No, I’d not call them that. The folks of the delves don’t give much weight to the dealings of princes. They keep their own council.”
“Then if I should be recognized?”
“I’d not worry on that, lass. Not likely a single soul from Cairn Shant has ever been received at court. ‘sides, it’s a certainty that no highland man would sell a dog to the Yrrowaine, no matter the danegeld.”
You’re a highland man, the Princess thought, and I accept that you’d not sell me to my father’s murderers. But to whom would you sell me? Or do you intend to keep this prize for yourself?
Not for the first time she wondered if she had seen this man before the night the Keep fell. Had he marched in formation in the courtyard while she stood beside her father, her face frozen in a look of condescending admiration and her mind blank? Had he stood beside the doors of the great hall, entrusted with the task of watching and waiting? In those last dark days had she seen him ride out, leading the men who were ordered to die so that she might live?
No, she decided. This man, this highlander, he had never been at court. The loyal knight was as dead as the king he had served. This man is a stranger to me. The land had changed him, was changing him still.
As it is changing me, the Princess thought. Who am I becoming?