By the time Aoife awoke, they had long since left the city. Unfortunately for the pair of them, Rin hadn’t thought to take much money with him, and had only managed to barter their way to a village a little outside the city boundaries. It had cost him every penny he carried, but it had been worth it. Aoife was safe, for now, and hopefully they would find another city soon. If they were in a city, Rin could get to a bank, and then they would have money again. The world was their oyster, as long as they were careful. They just needed to wait it out long enough for the real culprit to be caught.
The morning sun should have been a comfort to Aoife, but all she could think of was the sight of her dead friends. The blood crusted on her clothes and on her skin did little to set her mind at ease on the matter, and she felt the tears from before threatening to burst forward again. She tried to remind herself that civilised ladies didn’t cry in public, but to hell with being proper. At least her tears might wash some of the blood from her face.
“Where are we?” she asked weakly, voice hoarse from all the screaming and crying the night before.
“Millbrook. It’s a few miles away from Eturia. I’d rather have gotten further, but I ran out of money.”
Unlike his female counterpart, Rin hadn’t gotten any sleep the night before, and in the morning light it was painfully obvious. His skin seemed paler than usual in contrast to the dark circles that had sprung up under his eyes, and his raven hair was more dishevelled than usual, as if he had been running his hands through it all night. Truth be told, he had been. A stress mechanism, he’d read it was called. For once, though, he couldn’t say it had helped much.
“Do you think they’ll have a tailor?” Aoife asked, hands fiddling with each other uncomfortably. “Or somewhere I can wash my clothes? I can’t walk around in this much longer.”
A tailor? Did she think money grew on trees or something? Rin huffed out a quiet sigh, gaze turning towards the windmill they could see in the distance. He’d seen it once or twice before, and he’d always found it out of place amongst the backdrop of the city. He’d heard of steam powered mills, but Millbrook’s namesake was still fuelled by the wind, despite the phantom brook in the town’s moniker. A mill meant people, though, and if his childhood in the Aur Valley was anything to go by, it would mean friendly people. People that were willing to help their fellow man, or in this case woman.
Rin held out an arm for Aoife, still every bit the gentleman. He could hardly let down his facade when she was this shaken, could he? Not that it was a facade this time around. It wasn’t chivalry that drove his actions, but human decency. He’d never had to deal with death, and he couldn’t imagine what Aoife must have seen or what she must be going through, but he understood that she would need time. He knew it must be hard for her, having to flee without answers and without explanation, but he was doing his best to make this as easy on her as possible. Truth be told, he was terrified himself. He was supposed to be on his way to Olmaea, not hiding someone who was, no doubt, soon to be a wanted criminal. The things he did for love, eh?
It turned out the mill was owned, technically, by the resident Lord of Eturia, but the miller and his wife informed the duo that he had long since cared about the running of the place. As long as they turned a profit, he was happy, though he would send someone to inspect on his behalf every few months. In the winter, the mill wasn’t of much use, but their master had seemingly sought to keep his income flowing that year and had imported various other strains of wheat from the East. It was thanks to this venture that anyone was even at the mill, otherwise the duo would have had to wander the town til they found someone. It seemed strange to Rin that the miller didn’t live at the mill, but the stout man informed the young apprentice that their master liked to remind his servants just who was in charge by making them live separately to their source of income. Needless to say, Rin kept quiet that the resident Lord was his dear, distant cousin, suddenly all too thankful for their differing surnames.
It was while Rin kept the miller occupied that Aoife finally had her bloodied clothes tended to. The two of them had stayed true to their cover that she had been taken surprise by her monthly bleed while they were on the road, and it fell upon the miller’s wife and daughters to tend to her. While the wife saw to washing Aoife’s dress, the daughters saw to cleaning the blood from her skin. The girls were of a similar age to the young orphan, and their hair was the same colour as the wheat their father depended on. They wore their hair in braids quite unlike anything Aoife had ever seen, and the two—Asta and Ilsa—informed her they had learnt to braid from their mother, who hailed from the North. Were she not still so shaken from the events at the Cathedral, this new information would have filled Aoife with a greater sense of excitement for the journey that lay ahead of her.
The elder of the girls, Asta, drew a bath for Aoife, while Ilsa brushed through her hair, easing out the matted mess where blood had dried on it. Aoife wasn’t sure if that was her own or not. Her head ached from where she’d hit it on the Cathedral floor, but she didn’t remember it bleeding, but then again, the whole night was a blur in her mind. One detail that persisted was Rin’s arrival. Lord Tralbridge had been adamant that Rin had left for Olmaea already. So why had he been at the Cathedral all those hours later? How had he known exactly where to find her? All of it was starting to add up in her head, and she wasn’t sure she liked the way it was heading. He wouldn’t. Would he…?
“Is he your husband?” Ilsa had asked as she and her sister had been helping Aoife in the bath. She’d insisted she could take care of herself, but the girls seemed to think she was some kind of upper class lady. Either that, or they simply wanted an extra opportunity to spy on the girl. She could practically see the cogs in their heads beginning to turn when she had told them that no, Rin was not her husband.
Soon enough, the orphan was clad in one of Asta’s dresses, and she and Rin had both been invited to stay with the miller and his wife for the night. Both parties would sooner rather be on their way, but Aoife was too polite to decline such a request, so it was decided that she would share with Asta and Ilsa, while Rin would stay in the barn. It hadn’t housed any animals in a long while, but the place was still stocked with hay and should serve as suitable enough accommodation for one night’s stay. And yet despite the arrangement, and despite her suspicions, Aoife found herself wanting Rin’s company. She was certain Asta and Ilsa were only pretending to be asleep, but she snuck out into the barn regardless, the creaking of the heavy wooden doors waking Rin from his light slumber.
“I didn’t mean to disturb you,” she said, sitting herself down on a bundle of hay near her half asleep friend. “I just couldn’t put up with those two any more.”
“They seem friendly enough,” Rin said, propping himself up on his elbows and rubbing the sleep from his eyes.
“They keep talking about marriage, and asking if you’re an eligible bachelor. I think they’re devils in disguise,” Aoife joked, but her smile didn’t quite reach her eyes. “Rin, there’s something I need to talk to you about.”
Rin sat up properly then. He’d known something like this was coming, but he hadn’t expected it to be so soon. He wasn’t entirely sure what it was even going to be about, either. Had she finished grieving? No, of course not. It would be stupid to assume she’d be over something like that so quickly. Had she seen something else? Did she know who it was?
“Rin, I spoke to Lord Tralbridge before… before it…” She stopped, tears threatening to bubble forward again, and she had to take a deep breath to steady herself. “He told me you’d left for Olmaea. That was in the morning, and by all accounts you should have been all the way to Northfair by the time I got back to the Cathedral.”
“Aoife, whatever you’re thinking—”
“Why were you there, Rin?”
The question was pointed, and though she couldn’t quite look Rin in the eye, the accusation was ripe. It didn’t need saying out loud, they both knew the conclusion she’d reached. Frankly, it was insulting. That she could assume he’d murder all those people? That she could assume he’d murder anyone? But Rin knew he needed to be patient. He had a lot of explaining to do, after all. He just had to hope she was willing to hear him out.
“I can explain everything, Aoife, I promise.”
“Why were you there?” she repeated, managing to look him in the eye that time.
“I was looking for you. Please, let me talk,” he said, seeing Aoife’s mouth open to interject him. “I asked my grandfather about that book, about the possibility of there being a missing page, and he said it was possible and that he thought he knew where it might be.”
“What does this have to do with the Cathedral, Rin? What does this have to do with anything?” she asked, exasperated.
“He told me that he thought he’d seen something like it at Lord Tralbridge’s estate last time he visited. He said he was very cagey about it, and wouldn’t let him see it, but he thought he saw the same wolf that was on the cover.” He could see the interest in Aoife’s eyes mixed in with impatience. “I thought maybe I could sneak in there and try to find it, but I needed an alibi. So Grandad and I made a big fuss about me leaving for Olmaea, and I snuck in.”
“You expect me to believe you just ‘snuck in’ to a Lord’s estate?” Aoife asked, brows raised.
“They know me there, sort of. I do repairs on his wife’s needlework sometimes—don’t ask—so I pretended I was there to take a look at something, and I raided his study, and—” He hadn’t wanted to unveil it in the middle of the night in a stuffy old barn, but if push came to shove he supposed it would have to do. He reached for his waistcoat, which he’d discarded somewhat carelessly, and pulled a folded sheet of paper from the pocket. He hadn’t wanted to fold it, considering how old it was, but he’d needed to make a quick and inconspicuous exit and hiding it in his waistcoat had been the only option.
Aoife was silent as he handed the page to her. “You promise what happened at the Cathedral was nothing to do with you?” she asked, earning a nod in response. “Have you read this?”
Rin shook his head. “I wanted you to see it first.”
Aoife laughed quietly in disbelief. She couldn’t believe that he’d found it. She couldn’t believe it even existed, whatever it was. And knowing that he’d waited all this time to show it to her, when he’d wanted to see it more than anyone else? It made her feel bad for doubting him, and for accusing him. She rose from where she was seated, settling herself a little closer to Rin, holding the page delicately in her hand, fingers shaking ever so slightly, though whether it was with nerves or excitement she wasn’t sure.
With a sharp intake of breath, the girl unfolded the page, seeing the wolf etched behind the script almost identical to the drawing they had seen on the cover. They only had the light of the moon to read by—the miller had permitted Rin to keep a lantern lit for the night, but Rin had decided an open flame near so much combustible material seemed too much like tempting fate—but they made do, the words before they spinning a tale of Wolf and Man. Rin didn’t recognise it, given that he hadn’t studied scripture, but the orphan would recognise it anywhere. Details had been changed, such as the inclusion of an animal in place of a woman, and the war claimed to be between the two instead of the common people and the wildsmen, but for the most part it was the first story of the Holy Book. The story of how the world came to be, and what part the Maker played in it all.
The Maker in this version of events scared her, quite honestly. She knew she had her doubts that He truly cared, and whether He was really watching over them, but she had never pictured Him capable of such malice. Rin, on the other hand, was simply trying to understand how a human could copulate with a wolf. He had read books on mating patterns and the laws of nature and, aside from bestiality being cause for execution by the church, he didn’t see how it could physically be possible. Man and the apes he had read about in the East, perhaps that would be plausible, but something as different as a wolf? It had to be a farce, surely.
The two spent the rest of the night in silence after that, both lost in their thoughts until exhaustion caught up with the both of them again.