Kellan looked up as I slowly pushed open the door to his room. He was sitting up against the headboard of his bed, taking tentative sips from a cup of hot broth. His face was still half-covered in linen bandages, leaving only his right eye visible, and his left shoulder and chest were bound up as well.
His one visible eye met mine, and he shot me a lopsided smile. “About time you showed up, Colum. Was starting to think they were all lying to me about you being fine.” His voice sounded rough, like he’d inhaled a lungful of pipe smoke.
I shook my head. “My ears rang for about a week after the battle, but I’m fine otherwise.” I sat down on the chair next to his bed. “Spirits, Kel, I’m glad you’re awake. You had us worried for a while there. Had me worried.”
“Oh, I’ve been in and out for… maybe the past week or so? Tough to tell exactly.”
I raised an eyebrow, surprised. “Really? Guess it’s just bad luck that I haven’t seen you awake before now, then. I’ve been by every day, to see you and talk to you about what’s been happening.”
“Ah, that explains it, then,” Kellan said jokingly. “I could never stay awake through your stories.”
I laughed. Kelllan grinned and stuck his tongue out at me, but then winced, making a gagging, swallowing sound with his throat. He gave me a sad smile, and gingerly cupped his throat with his free hand. “Still pretty rough around the edges. Apparently, lightning’s not a thing to be trifled with.”
“Well, you’d know, I suppose.” I paused, and then leaned in toward Kellan. “Have you heard the news? About the ship that came in yesterday?”
Kellan blew across the surface of his broth to cool it, and nodded. “And about why it’s here. Ran ev Stony told me when he came to visit last night, and Skelley told me when he came by this morning to have the physician look at his ankle, and then Oskar told me again a few minutes ago.” He took another sip of the broth and swallowed with another small wince. “Apparently there’s a whole bunch of folks who needed to make sure I knew they were leaving me here.”
I frowned. “Not much of a choice in the matter. Sir Hagan made that pretty clear.”
“Don’t worry about it, Col.” He waved a hand dismissively. “Just another joke, it’s all right.”
I sighed. “Might be you could still come with us,” I said. “Now that you’re awake you seem to be improving quickly. We could carry you down to the ship and put you in a hammock, you could rest on board and be right as rain by the time we reach Euphentis.”
Kellan smiled a wistful smile, and shook his head. “If they’re not going to take Skelley, they’re certainly not going to take me. I may look as handsome as ever, but I’m still tender under the bandages and my leg’s still in a bit of a state. Half numb most of the time, and the parts that aren’t numb ache something fierce when the willow tea starts to wear off. No, I’m going to have to stay put for a while here. Besides,” he said, leaning in close to me, “I think the herbalist’s taken a bit of a shine to me.”
From out in the hallway, I heard the muffled sound of a woman’s voice calling, practiced and long-suffering. “You’re a rake and a scoundrel, Kellan ev Cantlay, and I’ll have naught to do with you that isn’t strictly medical.”
Kellan waggled his uncovered eyebrow at me. “See what I mean?”
I rolled my eyes at him, and smiled in spite of myself. “Merey will be crushed. This is going to be Andra the wheelwright’s niece all over again, You do realize that, don’t you?”
He grinned, and leaned back against his headboard. “What can I say? I have a type.” We were quiet for a moment, then he turned his head toward me, looking me square in the eyes. “In all seriousness, Colum: when that ship leaves, you’re going to be on it, and I’m not.” He held up a finger as I opened my mouth. “No harebrained schemes about staying behind to help me recuperate, no sudden recoveries or miracle cures, no ‘accidental’ broken legs or any fool thing like that. You’re leaving, and that’s all right.” He set down his cup and turned his head away from me, toward the high window that let in the warm midsummer sun. “Aren’t you the one who always said he needed one big adventure in his life?” Kellan glanced back over at me. “Well, you’ve got a pretty spirits-damned big one ahead of you now, yeah?”
I kept smiling, though my eyes had started to water and sting. “Your father always did warn us about wishing for fool things lest the spirits figure out a way to give them to us, didn’t she?”
Kellan gave me a single, quick nod. “And Master Vardon always said that a job unfinished wasn’t worth the time you spent doing it.” He lifted his right arm, and gave me a weak punch on the shoulder. “So finish the job, yeah? I expect you to have driven the fox-faces out of Atlin and crowned yourself king of the place before Cat’s Night.”
I laughed again, pressing a sleeve to my eyes to catch the tears that were welling up. “Of course. And of course, as soon as you’re up and about you can sail across the channel and meet me, having swum the Narrows to Grardhom and wrestled the Grardish High Chieftan for control of the Five Clans.”
He clasped my arm and shook it, weakly but with conviction. “It’s a deal.” He let go, and leaned back against his headboard. “Oh,” he said, leaning back forward and twisting away from me, toward the table beside his bed. “I almost forgot to give you this.” He pressed something into my hands, a little wooden box the size of two of my fingers, with a little brass latch holding a pair of doors closed on top and a loop of braided leather cord connected to a brass fitting on one end. “He brought me one of them, and I asked him to buy a couple more with my earnings to give to you and him and Oskar.” He nodded at the box. “Go on, open it up.”
I thumbed open the latch, tiny under my thick fingers, and folded open the little doors. The inside of the box was intricately carved and painted, geometric patterns framing portraits of men I didn’t recognize. At the center of the box, held in place by carved brackets, was a thin hollow tube of green glass half-filled with powdery light gray ash.
I looked back up at Kellan, and he reached over and tapped the tube with a finger. “Ran bought it from one of the apprentice cantors at the Kintinvale barrow. The cantor told him it contains a mixture of the ashes of the founders of Kintinvale, the original settlers of Tilaird and the ancestors of us all. Powerful protection, or so the cantor claimed.”
He pushed one of the doors on the box closed, and put his hand over it, over my hands. “If I’m not going to be there to watch out for you bastards they’ll have to do it for me, but just in case they’re not enough I need you to help, too.” He looked me in the eyes again. “I need you and Oskar and Ran to all keep each other safe, yeah? I need you to help Oskar, and I need you to let Oskar help you.” He closed his hand over the box, gripping the back of my hand with his fingers. “If you’re all leaving me here, I need you all to come back.”
I swallowed, remembering the words I’d spoken in the clearing in the forest, the bargain I asked for at the beginning of the spring, what seemed like a lifetime ago. “Yeah, Kel. I’ll make sure we all get back. I’ll keep everyone safe. I promise.”
Kellan gave me a solemn nod, and then let go of my hand, leaning back again and sinking down onto the mattress. “And now, if you’ll excuse me, I believe it’s time for me to get a nap in, and for you to get to packing. Make sure you don’t forget those fancy new boots of yours.” He winked at me, and rolled over before I could respond.
A day later, with Kellan’s talisman hanging from my neck by its leather braid, I watched from the rear deck of the Euphentine trading vessel Nostrus Turus as the docks and high walls of Kintinvale disappeared around the bend in the river. Most of the men in our unit, even the seasoned soldiers of the King’s retinue, stood along the rails of the ship, crowding to see. Ran was crouched down beside me, looking through the holes in the railing, and Oskar stood behind him. The sailors barked orders or curses or jokes at each other in Euphenti, but for the moment we were silent, all of us just looking back at the home we were leaving behind.
It was the last time I would ever see Kintinvale, and years would pass before I’d set foot on Tillish soil again.