Merik followed, slowing his pace just enough to ensure Safiya, Iseult, and Evrane also followed. They did.
“Water?” Yoris asked.
“Please.” Merik’s lips were like paper, his tongue like glue. It was as if the dryness of the world sucked the moisture from his very pores.
But he was careful not to drink too much. Who knew how much purified water Yoris had these days?
“This new place of yours,” Merik began, returning the flask, “is clearly nowhere near the Nihar estate. Is it worth traveling so far?”
“Hye,” Yoris said with a sideways grin. “But I won’t tell you any more than that. I want you to see Noden’s Gift for yourself. The first time my old eyes beheld it, I cried like a babe.”
“Cried?” Merik echoed skeptically. He could no more imagine tears on the huntsman’s face than he could imagine leaves on these oaks and pines.
Yoris’s three-fingered hand shot up. “I swear on Noden’s Coral Throne, that I cried and cried, Your Highness. Just you wait and see if you don’t do the same.” Yoris’s smile fell as quickly as it had come. “How’s the king’s health? We don’t get much news around these parts, but I heard a few weeks ago that he was getting worse.”
“He’s stable” was all Merik said in return. He’s stable and ignoring Hermin’s calls and possibly rewarding Vivia for piracy.
In a burst of movement, Merik shrugged off his coat and swiped sweat from his eyes. He was boiling. Suffocating. He wished he’d left the cursed jacket on the Jana. It was just a cruel joke. Each reflected beam off its gold-plated buttons—buttons he’d kept so meticulously polished and that denoted his rank as leader of the Royal Navy—was like a flash of Vivia’s grin.
Yoris and Merik rounded a bend in the path, and the dead forest gave way to a barren hillside. Merik’s thighs burned within the first ten steps, and his boots slipped too easily on the scree. He paused halfway up to blink sweat from his eyes and check on the women behind.
Safiya met Merik’s eyes. Her lips parted, and she lifted one hand, fingers trilling with a wave.
Merik pretended not to see, and his gaze shifted to Iseult, whose jaw was set and attention fastened on the ground. Sweat poured down her face, and with her black Threadwitch gown, she looked dangerously overheated.
Merik’s attention skipped at last to Evrane. Like Merik, she’d removed her cloak and held it bunched in one arm. He was pretty sure that was against the Monastery’s protocol, but he hardly blamed her.
Just as Merik’s mouth opened to call for a short break, Evrane’s footsteps slowed. She said something inaudible and pointed east. Safiya and Iseult paused too, following Evrane’s finger. Then their faces eased into smiles.
Merik snapped his gaze left—only to catch his own lips relaxing. He’d been so focused on moving forward, he hadn’t bothered to look east, to see the distant black peak silhouetted against the orange morning. With two ridges on either side, it looked like a fox head.
It was the Water Well of the Witchlands—the Origin Well of Nubrevna. Centuries ago, it had been the pride of this nation, and the most powerful Waterwitches had hailed from Nubrevna. But people had moved, and the Well had died. Now, if any full Waterwitches were left on the Continent, they certainly weren’t in Nubrevna.
“Hurry up, Highness!” Yoris called, splitting Merik’s thoughts and urging him forward. His heels slid on stones, his knees cracked … Then he was there—at the top—with his jaw sagging and his legs turning to mud. He had to grab Yoris by the shoulder to stay upright.
Green, green, and more green.
The forest was alive—a great strand of it still breathed and burgeoned at the bottom of the hill, winding through a world of white and gray. Hugging a river until …
Merik’s eyes hit pastures with grazing sheep.
A laugh burbled in his throat. He blinked and blinked again. This was the land of his childhood. The jungle and the life and the movement. This was home.
“The river ain’t tainted.” Yoris pointed to the snaking stream in the forest, where birds—actual birds—swooped and dove. “It goes right past our settlement there. Can you see it? It’s that gap in the trees.”
Merik squinted until he spotted the opening in the woods, just south of the grazing cattle. In the clearing were flat roofs and … a boat.
An upside-down boat.
Merik fumbled out his spyglass and pushed it to his eye. Sure enough, the curved, fat hull of some sun-bleached transport ship sat upside down at the center of the settlement. “Where did the ship come from?” he asked, incredulous.
Before Yoris could answer, footsteps gritted out behind Merik—heavy breaths too. Then Safiya was beside him, gulping in air and shouting for Iseult to wait—that she’d be right back for her.
Merik’s fingers curled around the spyglass. The domna was disrupting everything, as she always did. He angled toward her, ready to demand peace.
Except Safiya was smiling. “It’s your home,” she said softly. Urgently. “Your god listened to you.”
Merik’s mouth went dry. The breeze, the rattle of branches, the crunch of Evrane’s and Iseult’s feet—it all became a dull, distant roar.
Safiya swung her face away, and her voice dropped to a whisper, almost as if she spoke to herself rather than to Merik. “I can’t believe it, but there it is. Your god actually listened.”