“See, you’ll forgive me if I seem a wee bit skeptical, Sir Valraven,” I shifted my weight, felt the mud squelching on the other side of my ragged oilcloth. “But seeing as Bridgeport is the oldest fucking prison ever constructed, and crawling with Templar as well, I’d be inclined to say at first glance that whoever it is you’re looking to rescue will be a heap of damp ashes before you even make it inside.”
Aidan looked tired. He even looked handsome when he was tired. Bastard.
Eris sat as far from either of us as it was possible to sit, without actually putting her ass into the ring of fire around our little clearing. She toyed with a twig in her massive fingers, round and around and around, peeling it further and further apart. Judging by the look on her face as I finished speaking, you might have thought I’d just hit her with a chair.
“She’s not there yet,” Eris said. She might have said more, but the Templar shot her a glare that would have curdled milk. She glanced at him, looked back down at the twig in her hands.
“I have a plan,” he said, looking back at me. His eyes were grey and roughly as warm as mountain granite.
I laughed in his face.
“Do you now? And what, exactly, is your plan? For fuck’s sake, choir boy, you’ve handed me two hundred crowns, and promised me one of your magic swords—tell me you have some idea of how to deliver on that promise.”
“Or what?” Aidan’s voice was level, emotionless. I longed to set his hair on fire. “You’ll get up and walk into the Forest?”
Raindrops pattered sparsely between the branches. The storm had nearly passed. Some luck for us; if the rain had put out our fires and quenched our embers, we would have had problems older and colder than the fight between Church and heretic.
“I’ve been in the Forest after dark before,” I raised my chin proudly. I did not want to repeat that experience, not for any sum of gold. But it would be a better death, quick and mad and unholy. Better than death at the hands of the Church.
“Why didn’t you ask him this before?” the lass in my head asked, keeping Her voice hushed, as if Aidan could have heard her. “It’s been almost a day since you buried his gold.”
“Not as if I could have said no to you back in Barre-on-the-Reeds,” I said, more for Her benefit than for Aidan’s. “Anything done for a Templar is done from fear.”
His lip twitched. That, I found infuriating. “Oh, sorry lad, did I hurt your wee feelings? Spill out the fucking plan, or I’ll jump that fire, and you can find some other poor fuck to die rescuing this bird.”
“Please,” Eris said, breaking the silence again. Both Aidan and I glared at her, this time. If his first look was frightening, I couldn’t imagine how she must have felt this time around—she looked down immediately, but kept talking, like someone was holding a pistol to her head. “It has to be you.”
The fires crackled. They were hissing and sizzling, and the smoke made my eyes water, but the light and heat would be enough to ward off what walked the Forest paths.
“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me on,” I said. “It has to be me—for fuck’s sake, is it too much to ask for a straight answer from one of you?”
Aidan’s hand twitched toward his sword, but he held back. He let out a long, slow breath, and when he spoke, there was no sign of anger in his voice.
“I’ve given you two hundred golden crowns. You’ll have another two hundred when we succeed. And in the process, if we are not discovered and given a heretic’s death, you will have the chance to select a weapon from the armory of the Templar.”
“He said that before. What does it mean?” the lass was thinking around me, curling over and through my head, smoke on the wind.
Templar are knights of the Church. They say their traditions stretch back to the time of the Queen. But that’s only half the story. Weapons from the vault of the Templar are what make them legends. The kind of weapons they sing songs about. The vault where the sword of Queen Frydda is kept.
Aidan sat perfectly straight, perfectly still, kneeling on the leaf litter of a god-forsaken clearing as if it were the polished marble floor of a church. Firelight made the seven-pointed star on his chest look gold. I gestured impatiently for him to continue.
“If we ride fast,” he said, “We can be in Bridgeport before news of my actions travels from Dawnfire. Before the prisoner arrives.”
“And how the fuck do you know that?”
Aidan managed to communicate, with only his eyes, that he would shoot me if I interrupted again. I smiled at him as sweetly as I could.
“We saw her wagon,” Eris said. Aidan cast a warning look at her, not quite a glare. She glared back. “He asked, Valraven.”
“Aidan,” he said, coldly. “I won’t warn you again.”
“Aidan,” she repeated. “Fine.” Her eyes were very light brown. I’d only just noticed. They turned on me with a distinct expression of dislike, which, was fair. “We saw her witchwagon in Barre-on-the-Reeds yesterday. She’s nowhere near Bridgeport yet.”
“Well, fuck me,” I said.
“Why don’t we just rob them on the road, then?”
“Inquisitor,” Aidan said.
“What’s an Inquisitor?”
“Right,” I gnawed on my knuckle. Not now, lass. Later. Just know it’s bad.
“I’ll take you to the dungeon at Bridgeport,” he said, softly. “As my prisoner. As a Templar of the Third Circle, it is my right and duty to see you personally into the prison without trial and without record, to be prepared for execution.”
“And then you fuck off, and I’m left to rot until the Church sees fit to pour hot lead up my ass. So far, not loving your plan, choir boy.”
He didn’t shoot me. Instead, he held up a hand, with a slightly-strained expression. I wanted to punch that look off his face.
“When I leave you in the prison, I will leave you with a knife and the key to your cell. At the stroke of six in the morning, before the guards come to collect you for execution, I will cause a diversion in the courtyard, forcing every Templar to take their positions, defending the entrances and exits.” Aidan paused. “You will escape…and take our prisoner with you.”
“Go on.” I folded my arms. I could feel the lass in my head not-quite asking questions.
“Bridgeport is a fortress,” the Templar said, softly. “Fighting our way out would be impossible. But,” His eyes flicked over the forest behind me, as if scanning for listening ears. Foolish. No living mortal could listen to our conversation here. We might as well have been on the moon. “There is a way out. The dungeon is on the same level as the armory, and with it, the smithy where our regalia is forged. In the smithy, there is a trapdoor where the artisans draw water from the Runing.”
“So you want me to fight my way to a forge full of soldiers, then jump two hundred feet into water as cold as death’s asshole.” I challenged him, mostly to watch that gleam in his eye again, to see the way his chin set when he smiled. “What’s your plan there, witchbane?”
“At that hour, there should be only a handful of guards in the armory.” he shrugged. “How many men should you need to protect the heart of a fortress? You will have to contend with five, or six, at most, with surprise on your side.”
Five or six at most. Spoken like a Templar. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d killed more than six men on my own in a fair fight. Possibly because the idea was fucking mental.
“Surprise, and Mariead,” Eris said. “That’s not nothing.”
I almost didn’t catch the flash of emotion on Aidan’s face. I wasn’t quick enough to figure out what it was, only that it had happened.
“Eris,” he said, sharply. “Enough.”
“No,” She pointed in my general direction, glaring at Aidan. “This is why I picked him. A man who can survive your lunatic plan.” She turned to face me, face flushed, finally crushing the twig in her hand. “Her name is Mariead. She’s a nun from the convent at Dawnfire. Once you’ve barred yourself in the armory, you’ll have time to pick a weapon. Any one you want. Aidan will hide a rope in the armory for you, and you can let yourself down through the trapdoor. I’ll be waiting on the Runing. We’ll cross the river, land on the northern shore, and you’ll be free to go once we meet back up with Aidan, no one the wiser.” She folded her arms, shot a look at her companion. “Did I get everything?”
“Free to go,” I picked a bit of breakfast from my teeth. “So long as I can stay ahead of the Church.”
“You managed in Eastmarshshire.”
“That was one bishop, hardly the whole Church. You,” I said, to Aidan. “Surely you aren’t going to wait for the Church to come find you. You must have a plan.”
“I have a plan.”
“And you’re as sure of that plan as you are of the rest? Sounds to me like you’re banking on dying in this diversion and sticking me with two great lumps of deadweight.” I glanced at Eris, who glared at me. “And a nun, to boot. Maybe you’re thinking I’ll carry them along out of my good graces, but I’ll tell you right now, choir boy, I’ll shake them off my boots like mud and be safely away.”
He smiled that faint, cold smile.
“I’d expect nothing less,” he said. “But dying is not part of the plan.”
“And who’s Mariead?” I leaned to one side, watching him. “Who’s she to you that you’d turn traitor for her?”
Anger in his eyes, a flash of it, that high and holy rage that Templars could muster on command.
“My sister,” he said, flat.
I thought about it. Rubbed my beard some more. Fire crackled and popped around us.
“You’re wanting to set out for Gideon’s Hollow at dawn, then. If we cut through the Forest, we can make Gideon’s Hollow before those soldiers get back to Barre-On-The-Reeds. Once we have horses, we can make Bridgeport before any messengers do.” I narrowed my eyes. “How do you know they won’t just take your wee sister and toss her on the pyre?”
Aidan’s face twitched.
“The Inquisitor will accuse her of heresy and witchcraft,” Eris said. “It’s why he’s escorting her.”
“In such cases,” Aidan’s tone was bleak, impartial. “It is customary to give the offender a night of prayer, to prepare for redemption, if they are repentant, and to wallow in their fear, if they are not.” the Templar’s voice was almost inaudible over the crackle of the fires. “The dark night of the soul. She will be taken from her cell at the stroke of seven, to be prepared for the pyre.” He paused, when he said that, just for a moment, enough to think it over. “There is an Inquisitor travelling with her. Once she is in her cell, his duty will be discharged, and he will leave Bridgeport.”
“Why not just fight your way out with me then and there?”
“I can’t predict how many knights we might face if we tried to fight our way out. I judged it more prudent to wait a night, though it might be less comfortable for you, and more dangerous for me. Each passing hour makes it more likely that word of my recent treachery will reach the ears of the Church.” He gestured to Eris, who looked like she thought he was about to reach out and smite her. “We have ridden day and night to gain this much of a lead.”
I leaned back.
“What are you thinking? Will you help him? I say we help him. I like his spirit.”
His plan is insane. To break free from the prison of Bridgeport? Steal a Templar sword?
“What a story it would be, if we succeed.”
How slowly and painfully we’d die, if we fail.
“You know I would help you, if you needed. You only have to ask.”
The naked honesty in Her voice made me more uncomfortable than the cold.
I met Aidan’s eyes. Then looked to Eris. She looked away.
“And her,” I said. “You. River woman. Eris. How do I know you won’t fuck us? Turn the choir boy and his sister over to the Church and watch us all three burn?”
I’d seen her look scared of me, and of Aidan, at the drop of a hat. I wasn’t ready for the fury in her eyes.
“I’d rather die,” Eris snapped. “And if you suggest that shit again, you long-armed fuck, I’ll break you over my fucking knee, Eastmarsh or no.”
Even she looked scared of what she was saying. But I believed it.
“Right, good enough for me,” I said, and rose to my feet. “I’ll take first watch. I’ve got to do some thinking.”
“You’ll do it,” Eris said. She didn’t sound like she believed me.
“Gideon’s Hollow tomorrow,” I said, not answering her question. “Before noon.”