“I understand you must be confused,” she said, earning duplicate nods in response. “You must forgive me that. The work of an Oracle is not as… direct as people assume. Visions are confusing, and our voices are not our own.”
Aoife’s mouth fell open to question what she meant by that, but the Oracle did not give her a chance to speak.
“There is one thing we know, though. We are taught it from birth, and you cannot understand what it means to have witnessed it for myself,” she said, a grin spreading across her lips. “If I am right—if what I saw is right, I mean—you are three of the destined four, and your golden man will start the prophecy.”
“Prophecy?” Aoife questioned, thinking back to the book she and Rin had been reading. “The one about the wildsmen overthrowing the king?”
The Oracle shook her head. “No, nothing like that. A long time ago, one of the grand matrons of our order—”
“There’s an order of Oracles?” Shay said, incredulous, but the Oracle ignored him.
“—Told of a great catastrophe that she had seen in a vision. She said it would eliminate the entire species if it was not stopped, but there was hope. She had seen four brave heroes trying to stop it, and she believed that these four would save the world.”
“What does that have to do with us?” Rin piped up.
“As far as I am able to see, which is not very far courtesy of your friend,” the Oracle said, glancing at Shay. “You all have purpose in the North. There is nothing in the North.”
Rin had to bite back a comment about there actually being plenty in the North. There was Mount Ormen, and the stronghold at its base, Ormens. There was Osova, the unofficial capital of the North, and her sister city Aniatova, where the monarchy owned another palace, though one far less used than their seat in Olmaea. And perhaps most importantly, there was the dense, sprawling Varilya Forest. Varilya, he had read, was the largest producer of timber for the entire world, and the forest still showed no sign of wear, or that it had ever been encroached upon in the first place. When he was younger, he had thought Varilya must be a place full of magic and mythical beings, but as he had grown he had realised how silly that sounded. The forest likely just grew fast. He’d never read much into the growing times of pine trees.
“I think you’ve misunderstood, we’re only going North to look for an old legend,” Aoife said, trying to put things straight.
She knew she wanted to see more of the world, and going East to find this golden man didn’t bother her, but not at the cost of having to save the world. She couldn’t even save Niamh, let alone the rest of mankind. Maker preserve her, she’d killed her mother just coming into this world, or at least that was what the mother superior had told her. She’d never had the courage to ask what became of her father, but given her place in the orphanage, she could only assume he had met a similar end. If she could ever go back to the Cathedral, she thought perhaps she might like to try and find out who her parents had been, but somehow she thought it highly unlikely she would ever be able to return.
“Yes, the volgkannen,” the Oracle said with a nod of her head. Realisation flooded her features suddenly, actions suddenly more animated than before. “Yes, yes, you must find the volgkannen. You, and Rinian, and Shay, and the golden man. All of you must look for them, do you understand?”
Her urgency had them all worried. Her utterance of strange words had them equally as concerned. Volgkannen? What on Earth was that? Rin and Aoife could only assume she meant the Wolf-Children, but they had never heard such a strange term for them. That being said, prior to a few days ago they had not been privy to the Wolf-Children at all, but such thoughts do not cross one’s head when faced with the unknown.
Yet despite his reservations and his skepticism, it was Shay that muttered a quiet promise that they would indeed do as the Oracle asked. He knew Rin would assume the worst, and think that his interest was solely in the gold he could procure from the golden city the Oracle kept mentioning, but the Olmaean had other motives. He would happily venture as far North as the Oracle wished if it meant getting further away from Olmaea. They would have to drift painfully close to the city to reach whatever it was they were searching for, but he had had his fair share of risky ventures before. This time the stakes would be higher, though.
When the Oracle made no point of asking for payment, the trio thanked her nonetheless and began to make their leave, but the mysterious young woman spoke once more, in a better display of her prophetic abilities.
“There is a storm coming. You should stay here for the night, else you might freeze,” she warned.
“We can’t all fit in here,” Aoife protested. She would rather have gone straight on their way than waste time avoiding a few drops of rain in Karasti. That warning of blood and sand still preyed heavy upon her mind.
The Oracle nodded in agreement. She reached across, never rising from her spot at the table, and pulled a small polished wooden box towards herself. Aoife couldn’t place what wood it was made of, only that it was dark and looked expertly crafted, with ornate carvings decorating its lid. The Oracle opened the box, pulling a few silver coins from it and directing them towards Rin, who took them without question but with questions clearly written on his face. He had expected to be charged for her services, not be given money in exchange. Perhaps it was a Southern thing. For all the years he had spent living in the South, he wasn’t sure he would ever truly understand the place, and things like this only served to further that opinion.
“This should be enough to convince Matthias to let you stay at his inn,” the Oracle said, gesturing at the coins she had given Rin.
“Let us stay? They hate us,” Aoife said pointedly, but the Oracle paid her no heed.
“It is more than he would make in a month, he will not turn it down.”
Were it not such a rude question, Aoife would have liked to ask what exactly a man from Karasti had to spend a handful of silver coins on. She couldn’t help being suspicious when the Oracle suggested Shay stay with her, either, but Rin was already out the door and Aoife knew better than to leave him alone—or to be alone, for that matter—in a place as violent as Karasti, and so she followed him reluctantly.
The inn wasn’t exactly what either of them would call an inn. In their incredibly limited experience, inns were lively places, always filled with people coming and going, and the only permanent fixtures were the men and women seated at the bar down below. Karasti’s inn, however, was little more than a larger than normal cottage. If it weren’t for the small, painted sign above the door, they weren’t sure they would ever have found it.
The inside of the place was about as well decorated as the outside. All the furnishings were plain and basic, and didn’t look like they’d ever really been used. The rooms, it turned out, were little more than spare bedrooms the cottage happened to have. Matthias, the owner, had simply used his own common sense to try and turn a profit out of what must have been an expensive house to buy, compared to the rest of the village.
Matthias himself was equally as plain, and Rin recognised him as one of the many faces that had come to inspect their arrival, though thankfully he hadn’t been one of the few brandishing weapons. He spoke with the same drawn out accent as the rest of Karasti, and the more Rin was subjected to it, the more grating it seemed to become. He would only have to endure it for one more night, though, and then they would be rid of the place, thank the Maker. He purposely kept a few of the silver coins the Oracle had given him, not that Aoife noticed. He was starting to think Shay and Aoife had both forgotten that they were completely penniless, at least until Rin could reach a bank, and in keeping a few of those coins, he had ensured they could at least feed themselves for another day.
The room they were to share for the night, much to Aoife’s disapproval, was fitted with a queen size bed, and would either require them to share or for one party to sleep on the floor, and Aoife certainly wasn’t sleeping on the floor. And while they might have shared a sleeping space in the barn at Millbrook, that had been different. They hadn’t been in such close quarters there, but sharing a bed with a man she wasn’t married to? It was far too scandalous for her. Rin, as courteous as ever, offered to sleep on the floor, but he was starting to grow weary of his chivalrous routine. Perhaps it was because he was a man, or perhaps because he had shared a bed with his mother and sister in equal measure, but the young Westerner had no qualms about snoozing with Aoife. He would respect her wishes as always, though, no matter how uncomfortable the floor looked.
As they readied themselves for bed, as the sky was beginning to grow dark and the hour late, Shay’s words from the night before began to echo in Rin’s head. Was there no escape from the damned brute? Even he had to admit he had procured himself the perfect situation in which to tell Aoife of his affections, though. Shay was nowhere to be seen, and could not distract him or Aoife, and the absence of the man would give Rin better opportunity to think and express his desires more eloquently and appropriately. It wasn’t until they were both settled and sharing thoughts and hopes of their journey ahead that he chose to speak up on the matter.
“Aoife, there is something I need to tell you,” he said a little furtively.
“Go ahead,” she said brightly, propping herself up on her elbows in the bed to better look at Rin as he spoke.
I love you, he wanted to say, as dramatic as it sounded. Ever since the first day she’d visited the library, he knew she was special, and he’d wanted to sing it from the rooftops until she heard, but now that he was presented with the opportunity to say it to her face, he couldn’t quite bring himself to. His father had always said he was spineless, and it had never been more true than it was in that moment.
“I’m glad we met, and that we got to do this together.”
Aoife gave him a warm smile, that radiated sunshine in the midst of the storm that was beginning to rage outside. “I’m glad I met you too. Get some sleep, Rinian, we have a long day ahead of us.”