The Prison of Buried Hopes – C. J. Archer

I ‘m uneasy about this,” Meg whispered as she eyed the wagon. “You worry too much,” I whispered back. “Kitty will be fine. She knows what she’s doing.” “Does she? Anyway, that’s not what I meant. I’m uneasy about it because she’s still married. She shouldn’t be…” She waved her hand at the covered wagon, now rocking in a way that left nothing to the imagination. “Ignore them, and help me chop these vegetables,” I said. I wasn’t prepared to have this discussion with Meg yet again. Ever since faking her death at the river crossing, Kitty’s future had taken a dramatic turn. The duchess of Gladstow no longer had to look forward to a life of luxury and pampering. She had to travel with as little luggage as the rest of us, without her servants and with no official status. So if the world thought she was dead, did that mean she could break the vow of fidelity she’d made to her husband? Kitty clearly thought so, going by the moans coming from the wagon. Meg did not. I was staying neutral on the subject.

Kitty could make up her own mind. She was now free to do as she pleased with no husband to give her orders, no noblewomen to censure her, no societal rules to slavishly follow. If she wanted to think of her marriage as nullified by her fake death, then that was her decision to make. The wagon curtain flipped back and Erik jumped to the ground. He assisted Kitty down the steps, bowed over her hand, and took up his sword from where it had been leaning against the wagon’s wheel. With a nod for Meg and me, and another for Balthazar who did not look up from his map, Erik left the clearing to rejoin Quentin, watching the road to the north. Kitty touched her hair, a satisfied look on her face. “Pass me a carrot, Meg.” “Not until you’ve washed your hands.” Meg pointed to the pail of water, collected from the nearby stream.

Kitty did as directed then crouched alongside us. She accepted the carrot and knife from me and began chopping. Meg and I watched as Kitty held the carrot upright and began slicing towards her body. Her technique wasn’t terrible but she had trouble getting the knife through the vegetable and her grip began to slip. Meg held out her hand. “Give it to me before you slice off your thumb.” “What can I do to help?” Kitty asked, looking around. “Perhaps Balthazar would enjoy your company.” Kitty screwed up her nose and eyed the old man angling the map towards the sky in an attempt to capture the last of the sunlight filtering through the treetops. “He wants to talk about politics and keeps asking me who the duke’s friends are.

I’ve answered as best as I can. I’d rather talk about more pleasant things.” She cast her gaze in the direction Erik had gone. Meg sliced through the carrot with the ease of someone who’d been in the kitchen her entire life and the vigor of someone annoyed with her companion. Each slice dropped into the simmering pot of water with a plunk. I handed Kitty an onion. “Cut this up.” Kitty tossed the onion in the air and caught it. “How does one cut something of this shape?” “Just do your best,” I said, plucking a bunch of herbs from the hessian sack. We’d purchased food and other odds and ends in Tilting before leaving, then replenished our supplies three days later in the village of Passby.

At the end of each day, the men had caught rabbit or fish to add to our vegetable broth, and we’d dined well. Our supplies were running low again, but according to Balthazar, we should arrive in the twin cities of Merrin and Fahl by nightfall the following day. I was looking forward to sleeping in a proper bed, if only for two nights before we continued our journey south to Freedland, where we hoped to find answers. “I wonder how many attended my burial,” Kitty mused. “I do hope the duke put up a gravestone in his family graveyard.” “I thought you hated him, his family and his castle,” I said. “I do, but the graveyard is situated on a hill overlooking the river. The view is quite lovely.” Despite her annoyance with Kitty’s broken marriage vows, Meg laughed softly. “Didn’t you want to discuss more pleasant things?” she asked.

“Or is your death a more pleasing topic to you than politics?” “Not my death, my burial. They’re different things. But you’re right, Meg. Let’s discuss our men instead.” “We don’t have men,” Meg said, pointing her knife at me then herself. “You would if you put in a little effort.” Kitty wrinkled her nose as her eyes welled with tears. “Max is very taken with you.” “He might be married,” Meg said snippily. “But—” “But nothing.

I don’t want him breaking any marriage vows for me, whether he can remember them or not.” “You might think that, but does he?” Kitty sniffed as a tear leaked from her right eye. She dashed it away with the back of her hand. “He doesn’t seem particularly concerned. Don’t deny it, Meg. I saw him kiss you.” Meg snatched up another carrot. “Kissing is one thing. It’s not…” She pointed the carrot at the wagon. “You ought to do it.

It might relieve some tension.” Meg gasped. “I am not tense!” “If you weren’t tense, you wouldn’t look upon me with envy after I’ve been with Erik.” “I do not look upon you with envy. I simply worry about the consequences of your actions.” Kitty lowered the onion she’d been slicing into large chunks. “It is sweet of you to worry, Meg, but you seem to have forgotten. I’m barren. There will be no consequences.” She wiped her tears with the back of her hand again.

“This is ridiculous. Why am I crying? I’m not sad.” “It’s the onion,” I told her. She looked down at the remains of the onion in her hand. “Why is it the onion’s fault?” “Chopping them makes your eyes water.” She sniffed again and tossed the rest of the onion into the pot. “Very amusing, but I’m not falling for it. I may have believed your joke about sausages growing on trees, but I won’t believe that onions make one cry. These must be happy tears, that’s all.” I shared a smile with Meg.

“In that case, chop another.” I handed her a second onion while retrieving a turnip from the sack. “I think what Meg’s trying to say is that we’re worried about you developing feelings for Erik.” “Or Erik developing feelings for you,” Meg added. “Nothing can come of your relationship. You’re already married.” Kitty waved the knife around, dangerously close to my face. “Don’t worry about us. I’m simply having a little fun, and Erik’s not the sort to fall in love with just one woman. Our arrangement is temporary, and that suits us both.

” I had to agree with her logic. Of all the people to have a casual dalliance with, Erik was probably the best choice. He loved all women, no matter their status, appearance, or even their character. He saw the world as a place filled with two types of women—ones he’d slept with and ones he’d yet to sleep with. Sometimes I wondered if he left the Margin and crossed the Hawk River because he’d been with every woman from his homeland and wanted to explore what the rest of the Fist Peninsula’s female population had to offer. “Look, Bal,” said Theodore, approaching along the track. “I caught a rabbit.” He held up his prize and beamed. Behind him, Dane carried two more. “I’m thrilled for you,” Balthazar said, rolling up the map.

He slotted it back into the whale bone tube and stuffed the tube back into his pack. “Can I help with the cooking?” “You can chop up this onion,” Kitty said, holding it out to him along with the knife. “No, thank you. They make my eyes water.” She cocked her head to the side. “Honestly, that joke is already rather old.” Balthazar looked to me and I winked back. “We don’t need help, but you can come and talk to us while we work,” I said. “Kitty can keep going with the onions,” Meg added. “Unless she wants to skin the rabbit?” Kitty pulled a face and sniffed.

“The onions will be fine.” Dane and Theodore gave their catch to Meg, and Theodore sat while Dane headed off again. “Where are you going?” I asked. “To check on the others,” he said. “We felt as though we were being watched, and I want to make sure no one has approached. Has someone been on guard in both directions the entire time?” “We haven’t seen Max since he left to guard the southern approach,” I said. “Nor Quentin. Erik has been with Quentin the entire time except for a brief, er, interlude here.” “Not that brief,” Kitty said with a small smile. Dane nodded his thanks for the report and disappeared along the track that led to the main road.

I watched him go, wishing he’d given me a lingering look before heading off. Ever since leaving Glancia behind, he’d been distant towards me. He was civil but didn’t instigate conversation or seek out my company in the evenings around the campfire. To be fair, there weren’t many opportunities for us to be alone. He took on the responsibility of leading the group, and that meant having a hand in every task from directing us along the right road to hunting and fixing a broken wheel axle. He even climbed a tree to get a better view of our surroundings. I preferred to think of him as simply being too busy to spend time with me rather than willfully avoiding me. It made it easier to believe the former when I caught him looking at me from time to time. He always quickly looked away, however, and acted as though there’d been no longing in his gaze. “I think we should stay longer in Merrin Fahl,” Balthazar said as he settled on a log by the fire.

“Two days isn’t enough time to show our faces in both cities.” Merrin and Fahl were essentially two cities, one on each bank of the Mer River in the middle of Vytill. The city names were usually joined without the “and” between as the population moved freely between them. Merrin, the capital of Vytill, was the economic and political heart of the country where King Phillip and his advisers resided. Fahl was the smaller of the two cities. As home to the supreme priest, it was the spiritual center, not just of Vytill but of all the nations on the Fist Peninsula. “I suspect you’re right,” I said. “We need at least two days just in Merrin.” “We should start in Fahl,” Theodore said. “The Tilting high priest sent word ahead to his superior so we’ll at least be assured of a good meal.

” “And a bath,” Kitty said on a sigh as she sat on the log beside Theodore. “How I long to be clean again.” “There’s a stream through there,” Meg said, nodding at the trees. “There’s nothing stopping you from bathing in it.” “It’s cold.” “Think of it as refreshing.” “There’s nothing to wash with. I wish I’d brought a sponge and essence of rose with me. Do you think we can stay at an inn with a bathroom this time? Josie, perhaps you can suggest it to Dane.” “I doubt you’ll find bathrooms anywhere outside the king’s castle,” I pointed out.

“Perhaps not even there,” Balthazar said. “The castle is ancient, I believe. I doubt it has the modern luxuries of the palace. Your bath may have to be carried up the old fashioned way and filled by servants.” “I don’t care how it’s filled as long as the water is warm and smells sweet,” Kitty said. “Surely there’ll be an inn somewhere in Merrin Fahl that can find me a bath and essence of rose.” “It will cost you,” Meg said, not looking up from the rabbit she was skinning with far more expertise than I could manage. “I have money.” “Very little,” I pointed out. “And it needs to last.

” No one asked how long it needed to last. There was no answer to such a question. We fell into a discussion about which city we should start our search in. With Merrin being the larger of the two, the chances of there being missing persons was higher, but we might be able to secure the assistance of the supreme priest in Fahl. We all hoped that Balthazar’s friend, the high priest of Glancia, had sent ahead his letter as promised and asked that we be helped in whatever manner we needed. Despite a robust discussion, we could not come to a conclusion. “Dane will decide for us,” Kitty declared. As if she’d summoned him, Dane appeared out of the dark woods, his strides long and purposeful, his face serious. “Someone has definitely been following us,” he said, as if we’d just been talking about it. “Should we douse the flames?” Theodore asked, rising.

“Leave the fire. Whoever it is already knows where we are.” Kitty clutched my hand. “What if it’s my husband?” “He doesn’t know you’re alive,” I said. “It’s more likely to be Brant.” The former sergeant of the palace guards thought we had the magic gem. Since he had the remaining two wishes—or claimed to—after killing King Leon, he needed that gem to use them. He didn’t believe us when we said it had been stolen before we even left Mull. “It could be the Deerhorns,” Balthazar said. That put a dampener on our mood.

Brant might be angry and violent but we’d so far been able to manage him. The Deerhorns were cruel, calculating, and powerful. Lady Deerhorn and her son, Lord Xavier, hated me with a vehemence bordering on madness. “Are you sure someone is following us?” Theodore asked hopefully. “Perhaps they’re just travelers, like us.” “They haven’t revealed themselves,” Dane said. “We’re not the ones hiding. They are.” Meg tossed one of the rabbits into the pot. “Shouldn’t we call back Max, Quentin and Erik? It could be dangerous.

” “They’ll return at nightfall.” “Wait a moment,” Kitty said, frowning. “If the other party is hiding, how do you know there’s anyone there at all?” “Leaves rustle when they shouldn’t,” Dane said. “And there are footprints in the soil which aren’t ours.” He headed off to check on the horses, tied up at the edge of the clearing. Kitty watched him go, blinking owlishly, her eyes still red from her onion tears. “What if we’re wrong? What if Gladstow didn’t believe our trick and knows I’m still alive. He and the Deerhorns will stop at nothing to actually kill me so he can marry Violette.” I squeezed her shoulder and Meg sat on Kitty’s other side. “Would you like to learn a new skill?” she asked gently.

Kitty gave her a valiant smile. “Of course.” Meg handed her the knife and picked up a dead rabbit. “I’ll show you how to skin it.” Kitty turned away and made a retching sound. “Some skills are best left unlearned.” As night swallowed up dusk, Max returned, shortly followed by Quentin and Erik who’d been on lookout together. Meg instantly sat up straighter, although she avoided Max’s gaze. Erik went to sit beside Kitty on the log. “You look upset,” he said.

“Are you unwell?” “I’m a little worried,” she told him. “Dane says someone followed us here.” He put his arm around her waist and kissed her temple. “Do not fear. I will protect you.” She gave him a sweet smile and leaned into him. “Thank you, Erik.” “Protect her from out here,” I said. “Not in the wagon.” Quentin chuckled as he peered into the pot.

“I’m starved.” “It’s almost ready,” Meg said. “You’re always hungry,” Max grumbled. “You ate leftovers for breakfast and lunch.” Quentin patted his stomach. “I’m a growing lad.” Dane rejoined us after standing at the edge of the clearing where I suspected he was trying to listen for rustling bushes or snapping twigs. “I want two of us on watch at all times tonight instead of one. Quentin and I will do the first shift, then Erik and Max will take over.” “I can share watch duties,” Theodore said.

“As can we.” I indicated Meg and myself. Dane shook his head. “The four of us will be sufficient.” He smiled. It was forced. Later, when the meal was finished, and the cleaning up done, I went to sit with Dane, not too close but close enough so he knew I wanted to be near him. “You’re worried,” I ventured. “Not at all,” he said, too jovially. “You’re a terrible actor.

” “We can strike that off my list of prior occupations then.” He scanned the forest, his body alert, tense. I ought to leave him alone so he could listen for intruders. But I wasn’t ready to do so. “Who do you think it is?” “It’s probably just bandits,” he said. “Nothing to worry about.” I laughed softly. “To most people, bandits are worth worrying about.” “They haven’t tangled with the Deerhorns.” I swallowed heavily.

His gaze settled on me for the first time since my arrival. “Sorry. It’s not something to make light of.” We fell into silence as he returned to scanning the forest for signs of someone lurking in the gloom. “I’ve hardly seen you of late,” he said quietly. “How are you since leaving Glancia behind?” “I’m fine. Vytill is just the same as Glancia, really. The same sort of trees, the same water, the same soil. Even the company is the same.” I didn’t admit that leaving my village had been more unsettling than leaving behind the kingdom.

I’d lived in Mull my entire life and ventured little further than Half Moon Cove. I felt disoriented and insignificant as I realized how large the Fist Peninsula was. Yet I was hopeful too. Hopeful that Dane would soon learn about his past and that we could be together, somewhere. “Besides,” I added lightly, “whose fault is it that you’ve hardly seen me of late, hmmm?” “I don’t know what you mean.” “You’ve been avoiding me.” “Not avoiding, just…” He heaved a deep sigh. “Very well, I’ve been avoiding you. It’s nothing personal.” “It is,” I shot back.

“Very personal.” “That’s the whole problem,” he muttered, shoulders slumping. I sidled closer and placed a hand on his arm. The muscles tensed. He peered sideways at me, his eyes dark and brooding. “Just so you know, I hate this,” he said. I offered him a grim smile. “I hate it too, but it’s the right thing to do. We must wait and see what we learn about your life.” “We’re getting closer to answers, Josie.

I feel it. I have a strong suspicion Freedland is the key to everything.”

.

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