Chapter Fifty-One

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It had been slow going through the bog. The wet landscape was treacherous. Every step, if not carefully calculated, might have ended in a sinking, cold death. The horses tugged against the reins with each move. The dawn was crisp, and Dùn Ad was an ever-approaching gleam in the distance. The spirits of the dead that haunted this place still hovered in the air with the dissipating morning mists, their presence less malignant in the golden morning light.

A few hours passed, and the fortress grew more substantial and clear. It stood proudly atop the tall green hill that made its base. Thick walls of stone rose over the lower slopes, so mighty they would have obscured the rest of the fort had it not been built on the very crest of the mount. If Camalann was Rome, Dùn Ad was its Celtic antithesis. The bulwark seemed to send out a hum over the landscape with the voices of the unconquered north. Riona felt her heart beat faster at the sight.

"Artorious is not the only king of this isle," said Orfeo slyly, "behold the seat of Áedán mac Gabráin, Lord of Dál Riata."

"I don't want to meet another king," objected Riona.

Ibrahim gave a rumbling laugh. "Had your fill?"

"There are too many to keep track of," Riona mumbled.

"Truer words were never spoken," said Ava with a grin, "I don't think we will be dropping in on this one."

"We will not enter the city at all; the river is where we will find a ship to take us. Not the top of that hill," said Orfeo with a smirk.

"How long will it take to reach Hy-Brasil?" asked Riona sheepishly.

Orfeo and Ibrahim shared a glance.

"It is...hard to say," said Ibrahim, "the isle is hidden by magic, and its position is," they hesitated, "unreliable."

"Lovely," Riona groaned.

"Had enough of kings and our company?" asked Ava, licking their lips.

"I have," countered Orfeo, Ava shot them a glare.

They arrived at the base of the fort and the River Add. The docks were teeming with activity. Farmers, merchants, and herdsmen all clumped the roadway leading up the winding way to the city. A small contingency of soldiers stood at the base of the hill. They wore no armor but a sash of Gabráin's colors, promising that the king was present and watching from the moment you glimpsed his fort. Gabráin's citizens seemed at ease, conversing jovially between themselves as they passed into the shadow of civilization.

Ibrahim began asking around the docks for a ship for purchase as Orfeo gathered supplies. They were pointed toward the furthest dock and a scruffy looking man with unscrupulous eyebrows. His ship was named the Win'arraw, and she was sturdy-looking if a bit small for Riona's tastes.

"I've been trying to sell her for an age." The captain's voice was rough with salt air. "Nobody would buy her. Has a reputation for misfortune, she does. Won her in a game of knucklebones and would prefer the coin."

Ibrahim tossed a glance at Ava. The druid tipped their head back with a groan and then dug into their saddlebags, withdrawing a hefty sack of pieces that they tossed at the brackish sailor.

The man snatched the satchel from the air with a grin. "Thank ye," and with a tip of his head, he practically skipped toward the fort, likely looking for another gamble.

Riona was captivated by sailing from the moment she set foot on the Win'arraw. The sounds of the seabirds and the wash of waves against the hull set her blood afire. The wood of the ship groaned as it spliced through the water of the River Add, her fingers wrapped about the rail that ran along the starboard bow. Ava came into their element, showing remarkable knowledge and skill maneuvering the small ship through the waters. Riona lost track of time as the ship passed by fishing villages, wedged into the edge of the land like barnacles. Children waved and shouted to them as the ship rolled by, then as if by magic, the landscape opened up, and the river widened as the vessel neared the fjord that would take them out onto the open sea. Ava called out a command to Orfeo, and the ship banked suddenly as the mouth of stone opened up and released them from its shattered maw. Ibrahim gave a celebratory shout as the salt air filled Riona's lungs. She turned and watched as the mountains became distant monuments against a grey sky. Orfeo tied down the sail and stood triumphantly with their hands on their hips.

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