Eris sat with her back to the door. I suppose when you were six feet tall and built like a dolmen stone, you could do that sort of a thing, but I found it rather foolish just the same. It meant that, when six Church soldiers walked into our little shitscrape pub, she was the last one to know why Aidan and I had gone quiet.
“What is it?” She started to twist around in her seat. Aidan’s hand caught her wrist, holding her back. He touched a finger to his lips.
“Maybe they’re not after us,” I said, lowering my voice. I wasn’t very optimistic about the chances of that, but it felt good to say it out loud.
“Good morning to you, masters,” the bartender said, at almost the same moment. “Get you something to warm your bones?”
I had one of those bad feelings in the silence that followed. The kind of bad feeling I had before getting shot, or stabbed, or chased by a werewolf. A moment of weighing, as the leader of the soldiers swaggered up to the bar, sneering widely enough that I could feel it without even looking directly at the man. I studied the inside of my mug. It was moldy. Fantastic.
“We’re hunting a fugitive,” the Church soldier said. He had stripes on his shoulders, though I struggled to remember what that meant. “You wouldn’t be harboring any suspicious characters?”
“If I’m remembering right, the stripes mean he’s a sergeant.”
Thanks, lass. Very important I know the rank of the man we’re going to kill.
I tried not to look directly at Aidan, but I felt the knight’s eyes boring into me across the table.
“Maybe it’s not us,” I said.
“You haven’t seen a man in the red and silver?” the sergeant pressed, leaning on the bar. “My height, yellow hair? They say he talks right nicely. Other one’s a woman, though you wouldn’t know it to look at her.”
I stood up to avoid looking at Aidan’s expression. Swayed a little, wobbling over to the bar and draping myself over it. Ignored the Church soldiers like a drunk would.
“Barman,” I said, “Give me another?”
The innkeeper and I exchanged a look, in which he said without speaking that he suspected we were the ones the soldiers were after, and in which I conveyed without words that I would beat him and his whole family to death with the tankard if he turned on us now.
The Church sergeant struck me on the shoulder. I almost turned and knocked his chin off.
“And you, big man,” he said, in a false tone that robbed me of my appetite. “You seen anyone unusual round here?”
I felt heat boil up in my stomach, swift and hotter than good brandy.
“I don’t think he means you well, my Dermot,” She said. Her voice was low and caught in the throat and sounded altogether real for something that only I could hear. I managed to avoid rolling my eyes. Instead, I studied the man’s face, while I tried to look drunk, let my head loll a little.
A cruel face. Not a smart one, not a stupid one, but a cruel one. A man who’d reached his peak in life at a low rank, and who was perfectly content to spend the remainder of his days tormenting anyone he could hold that rank over. Which, in a shit-heeled little town like this, was everyone.
“We could erase him,” She whispered. “Say my name.”
I was tempted to smash his head in. Two soldiers flanked him. That would be trouble. But if they were surprised…
“No one here but me,” I said, keeping my voice slower, thicker, striking a midpoint between the innkeeper’s farm clod accent and my own.
The innkeeper laughed a little, nervously, and I looked at him and laughed, too. The sergeant looked back and forth between us, threw his head back and laughed in turn.
Then he tried to box my ears. It was hard not to twitch when his hand reached the corner of my eye.
I put my head down and showed him a little grovel, too, face on the bar, took care to keep my body and barstool between him and the hatchet hanging from my belt.
“Right, you just stay there, big man,” he said, and tapped a few playful jabs on my ribs. I thought about how many of his teeth I could knock out with my tankard. Probably all of them, if I went about it properly, really got after the stragglers in the back.
She whispered to me, the sound clear despite the fact that my right ear was still ringing.
“They haven’t mentioned that Aidan is a Templar.”
I put my head in the crook of my elbow, shaking it, feigning weariness. I don’t imagine they would, lass. I’ve only ever heard of one other knight turning his back on the Church. Not something they’d like to advertise.
The sergeant tossed his cloak over the nearest table, sat down facing the door—with his back to Eris and Aidan, thank fuck. He slapped his hands onto his knees.
“Right, lads, get to looking. We were right on the trail, they can’t have gone far. You, barman,” he pointed at the innkeeper, who looked nervous. “Bring me something to drink. Hunting traitors is thirsty work.”
I rolled my eyes. Still playing at drunken unconsciousness, I looked back over my shoulders.
Aidan met my gaze in passing, eyes flicking around the room, under his hood. That damn silver star glittered on his breast. The barmaid had retreated to their table, and was talking to Eris in a low voice.
He lowered his head, hiding his features, as the Church soldiers milled around uselessly. One of them even looked directly at Aidan for a moment, and I thought we were done.
Maybe they won’t notice, I thought. I wasn’t optimistic about it.
Then Eris, still talking to the barmaid, gestured while she spoke, and struck her cup with her elbow. It fell, and she lunged after it—too late.
The cup fell to the floor, clattering loudly.
“Fuck me,” the sergeant said, turning around in his chair. He leaned down and picked up the cup. “Here you go, lad.”
He wasn’t, quite, in a position to see her face. Or her chest. One was harder to miss, even in a quilted jacket. I held my breath and vowed to steal that stupid belt off her next chance I got.
“Thanks,” Eris said, keeping her face turned away. She took the cup with one huge arm.
I felt like, if I bit down too quickly, I’d bite through my own heart.
“Got to go,” Eris said to the barmaid, in a lower, painfully not-deep-enough voice. She rose to her feet, and I saw Aidan’s stare flick past her, past the bar, to the open doorway where the innkeeper’s wife was cooking.
The good news; it wasn’t the river woman’s figure that gave us away. The bad news; it was our pet fucking Templar, who really should have known better.
Aidan rose to his feet, and the cloak fell aside, revealing the two pistols holstered crosswise across his belt, and the handle of the long sword sheathed on his left hip. Metal chimed faintly as he stood.
One of the Church soldiers stopped to take a second look at him.
I grimaced into my elbow, firmed up my grasp on the empty tankard. I turned around, flopping with my back to the bar.
“Sergeant,” the man said. “That m–”
I pushed myself off the bar, grabbed hold of the man’s shoulder, and hit him in the face with my wooden tankard.
The barmaid screamed. Poor girl. This would probably haunt her dreams for a while. Wasn’t a lot of room in mine.
The man went down screaming and hit his head on the side of a table. Was wearing a helmet, sadly, so the impact failed to kill him. We’d have to do it later.
Eris froze in place while the other Church soldiers hesitated. I wasn’t the man they were after, and they’d had no word to look out for a tall, long-armed bastard traveling with their pair of fugitives. Not to mention, seeing someone stand up and drop one of your lads with a single hook tends to put a bit of doubt in your heart.
I firmed up my grip on the tankard, put a hand on the hatchet. Talk to me. Troublemakers?
I looked at the man to my left, whose eyes were glittering at me across a dirty table. His hand was creeping to the handle of his sword. I hadn’t even registered the motion, but She’d seen it from the corner of my eye. He’s going to pull it, and all hell is going to break loose.
“Say my name,” She whispered. I ignored Her.
The sergeant on my right was frozen, too, all-to-aware that I was standing within half a step of his table, and he had been caught with his palms on the tabletop. All was silent in the little tavern, except for the little noises from the wounded man on the floor.
Well. No sense wasting time.
No talk. I smiled at the man on my left. He was experienced enough to know what the look in my eyes meant.
He went for his sword. I threw the tankard at his head.
As predicted, all hell broke loose.