I slammed through the back door of the tavern. The knuckles of my hands were scraped and bloody. Night was falling, and so was a fair amount of rain. The air outside was cold, clammy—another miserable evening in Frydain.
“Fuck me,” I said, and nearly fell flat on my face in the mud as I missed the back step.
Eris caught the mantle of my oilcoat with one arm. I lurched. Found my feet.
She didn’t say anything.
Aidan was the last out the door. I knew because I heard the door scrape open again, but no one shouted after us. Not that I was expecting it.
I ran between the inn and the building alongside it, cutting across a patch of greyish plants—turnips, maybe. Ahead, the sparse fields of Caer Tieran were lying dead. Scraps of harvest scattered in the mud, fenced in by rocky walls. Beyond them, the Forest loomed dark and forbidding.
Lights flared in the center of the shitty little town, painting orange lines across the mud. My boots sank deep with each step, sucking as I pulled each foot free.
“There were more soldiers,” She sounded surprised. I didn’t bother with a lengthy reply.
The farmers had collected every stone from the field, built a stone wall to fence their shit crops in. Frydain was a rocky, unforgiving kingdom. The wall stood almost as tall as I did, ran around three sides without an opening, though there was a gap on the south side, only a few paces away. Hoofprints and churned mud suggested that this was the laborers’ entrance.
I gestured behind me to Eris, hoping she would see, and ducked through the opening. I ran bent over to keep my head from showing, running east along the wall. Only at the inside corner did I wheel around to get my bearings.
Eris was twenty paces behind, ducked lower than I, struggling a little with the mud. The woman was wearing a full pack on her back, a bundle of clothing and supplies like she was going off into the outer wilderness. The Templar was right behind her, with no pack and no supplies at all.
Torches were flaring in Caer Tieran.
The wall ran roughly toward a corner, and brave farmers had continued the wall in a full square, blocking off their field from the trails of the Forest. I glanced at the sky. An hour of light at most. Just another detail to be counted.
I planted my hands on the wall, and I scrambled over, trusting in distance and darkness to keep me hidden. Landed on the far side, slipping, plunging one knee into damp leaf litter. I spared a single glance back.
Aidan vaulted the wall like a cat, landing in the mud. It almost looked like his cloak didn’t even get dirty. Behind him, Eris heaved herself up over the wall, bare arms straining, and fell heavily into the mud on the Forest-side. I tried not to laugh.
Aidan dragged her to her feet by one arm.
“Up.” He looked back, over the wall, to the torches beginning to filter in our direction. “Run.”
“But–” Eris balked as she was shoved toward the Forest. I thought for an instant that the Templar would draw a pistol and shoot her. Instead he shoved her again, harder.
“Run,” Aidan’s voice was colder than the mud seeping into my boots. Eris hesitated.
I caught a glimpse of Aidan’s expression—entirely too smart for a Templar.
He nodded once at me, sharply.
“Move, river girl,” I looked past her to the gathering crowd. Off in the gloom, I could see soldiers in Church red threading into the field. Slowly, because none of them particularly wanted to be the one to catch a treasonous Templar, but they were coming nonetheless. “Or these lads will build you a nice fire before we ever get to Bridgeport.”
Her face hardened, and I didn’t stay to see the results.
We ran. Up the low hill and under the eaves of the Forest. Aidan’s voice was low behind us, cutting through the sound of my breathing and the pounding of our feet in the mud.
“Eyes down,” I heard him say, sharp, commanding. “On the ground. Don’t look up.”
What followed was quieter, and might have been a prayer. I didn’t hear it.
“She’s frightened,” the lass said, in my ear. Strange, to hear her voice calm and composed—if a little melancholy—while I was out of breath, while Eris was panting behind me. “Her first time in the Forest.”
“Yours, too, lass,” I panted, trusting in the racket and our footsteps to hide the sound. “You seem all right.”
“I am,” Her voice was sunny, so warm I fancied I could heat my hands on it. “As are you.”
I grimaced, shoving my way through trees and brambles until I found an opening.
“Follow me.” I put my head down, sprinting headlong, not looking to either side. In the Forest after dark, you stood good odds of cracking your head on a branch if you ran without looking—but spending the night unconscious in the dirt was far preferable to catching a glimpse of what walked the path.
Speaking of which.
I tripped on a root, nearly fell flat on my face, and stumbled out into what I thought might have been a clearing.
“Fuck,” I said. “Hold up! Clearing!”
I put my arms out wide to either side, feeling through the deepening dark. Empty air all around.
The Forest was full of little rustlings and stirrings. I heard the ring of steel over my shoulder as the Templar drew his sword.
“Wide enough,” he said. “Clear it.”
“Firewood,” I answered, getting down on my knees. I started to scrape the dirt, clearing wet leaves, baring part of the forest floor. “Malarin, get me some fucking firewood–”
“But don’t lift your eyes,” Aidan repeated, cutting me off. I could practically hear Eris falter. Her breath was coming fast from exertion, near panic.
“First time in the Forest after dark?” I asked her, without looking up. I pulled the hatchet from my belt, set to work finding as many dry branches as I could.
“First night. Crossed it before now and again. Always left before sunset. Bit scary if I’m being honest.”
Eris flashed a white smile that I half-saw from the corner of one eye. With two hands larger than my face she reached out and hauled a small tree out of the undergrowth, breaking it into smaller parts a few feet at a time.
“Told you,” the lass in my head whispered, sounding smug.
“One pile at the trailhead,” the Templar said, his voice more distant over the sounds of the Forest. “One on the other side of the clearing. We’ll need more. Follow what Slate is doing, set wood where he does.”
“Fuck,” I muttered, under my breath. I found a cold, dry branch beneath the litter and struck it loose with the hatchet. “Hiring a river woman who’s never been in the forest. The boy’s fucking mental.”
“I don’t think he hired her,” She mused, while I groped through the dark and the mud to find another scrap of wood. “He talks to her like he hates her. See and hear how cold he is toward her. The poor thing.”
“The poor thing,” I mimicked her higher voice—a higher voice that only I could hear, I realized, at around the same moment I realized that I would have just looked like a madman, gibbering to myself in the woods. I shut up.
The three of us scrambled frantically for firewood as the last light faded. The bits of sky between the branches grew dimmer. The rustles and whispers around us grew louder, and it became harder to keep my eyes on the ground as little flickers and darts of movement filled the trees around us.
A star high in the west. The first star of the night, Corail, the wanderer.
I smelled smoke. No idea how he’d managed to get a fire lit in this damp. Typical.
My little pile of sticks was miserable, but it might do.
“Here,” Eris said, and dropped half a tree on my foot.
“FUCK,” I said, and yanked my boot out from under the bundle of logs.
She left. She’d actually done quite well, considering how little time we’d had; there was nearly enough wood here to burn for an hour or two, more than enough to build up embers—and that was all we needed, the smoke and the ash and the embers, to build a perimeter against the dark.
I pulled flint and steel from my pockets and squatted by the pile of wet sticks on the northernmost edge of the clearing.
“Not enough kindling,” I muttered. I struck the steel once, throwing a single lonely spark down. It winked out almost instantly.
Movement stirring in the Forest. Close to us. Too close.
“Let me,” She purred. I struck the steel again.
A single spark flashed, huge, almost the size of my thumbnail, leaping from the steel, and a fire flared up instantly. It clung like a fat, scarlet spider, crawling its way along the larger branches, slowly spreading into a genuine flame.
“Thanks, lass,” I said, and spun the steel around my index finger, moving to the next fire. I saw Eris glance at me with some surprise.
“You’re…welcome,” she said, uncertainly. I ignored her.
The Templar lit four fires. I lit three. In a rough ring of light, we sat down a few feet apart, our backs to the flame. I saw him inspect the fires I had built, and was seized by a wild fear that he would turn on me right then and there.
But we had fire.
“Well,” I said, laying my coat out on the ground, sitting on top of it to keep the mud off my ass. “We had a nice hot supper, and we didn’t die! I call that a resounding success, what do you say, lads?”
Eris glared at me.
“Fuck off.” I looked to the Templar. “Right, choir boy, enough foreplay. You’ve been teasing about this plan all day. Let’s hear it. How, exactly, are you planning to break someone out of Bridgeport?”