The morning was an ugly blur of mist and bare trees.
We walked in silence for more than an hour, sore, half-frozen, and wordless. I didn’t know how long we travelled, only that it must have been more than an hour, and just a bit less than two, since it was only two hours from Caer Tieran to Gideon’s Hollow, even along the Highroad, and we were taking the faster route. Safer, too, now that the sun was up and the paths were clear.
The air was thick with cold, the clammy kind that cut through cloth and skin. My boots sank into mud under the leaf litter, and I blew on my hands, beating off the chill.
Eris walked ten paces ahead of me, stomping her feet into the ground like she bore it a personal grudge. Steam huffed from her with every breath, and she made noise I could have heard a mile off.
Fifty paces ahead of her, Aidan walked the trail with a surprising amount of care. Somewhere in his indoctrination, someone had taught him quite a lot about woodcraft; though he wasn’t that far off, though he wore chainmail, there was hardly a whisper or a snapped twig as he passed through the trees.
The only thing visible in nearly all directions was Forest, and the one direction where Forest wasn’t visible was up. It was, all told, a gloomy, miserable fucking morning with no comfort in sight.
“It’s beautiful,” She said, breaking a long silence. “I like the colors.”
Grey light suffused the air, slowly waxing. The undergrowth was dying, colors flaring, though the ferns were still alive, at least until the first frost. Moss stood out in splashes of green, soon to be buried by the snow.
“So much is still so alive.” Her attention rippled through my line of sight, lingering on the moss. “Is winter really that bad?”
I put my foot right into a puddle I hadn’t seen, hidden by leaves floating on the surface, and water splashed into my boot. Typical.
It’s a brutal season, bitter cold. Winter’s the thing that’s come closest to killing me, the most often.
“Not any more, my Dermot,” Her non-voice was confident, and more affectionate than I was used to hearing from women who sounded like they had beautiful throats. “I can keep you warm.”
Might not need to worry about that, lass. Might not live that long.
Ahead, Aidan crested a low hill, raised a hand to hold us back. Eris stopped in her tracks. I shoved past her on the trail, crept up the slope.
“What is it, lad?”
“Gideon’s Hollow.” He’d pressed himself against a tree, and his worn old cloak blended surprisingly well with the bark. “Something’s wrong.”
“Really?” I got down on a knee and scraped my way forward until I could just peek over the slope. The earth was cold, but at least it wasn’t as sodden as the mud between hills.
The Highroad ploughed through the town, slick and white, out of place amid the mud and the hunched buildings. A few fields and stone walls were all that separated village from Forest.
“Something’s wrong,” I said, before I figured out what it was.
“I just said that.”
I shot him a look. He didn’t look like he was smiling.
Eris’ voice was too loud, from the base of the hill.
I resisted the urge to roll my eyes.
“Something,” Aidan said, in a dry tone that was almost certainly for his benefit more than hers. I lifted my eyes, watched the treelines in every direction. Glanced over the fields. The Templar looked back down the hill, raising his voice a little. “There’s no one outside.”
“Choirboy.” I pointed. “The west fields. Look.”
“What about them?”
“East fields and south are barren. North are fallow. West looks like it’s not been harvested yet.”
“First frost was two days ago. Anything left in that field is rotting. Why leave a whole field for the frost?”
“Something interrupted the harvest?” Eris was catching up, finally. “But what happened?”
“See, and if something bad comes up, they lock themselves in the big house,” I pointed to the central building of Gideon’s Hollow, a sprawling, three-story structure that occupied the heart of the town. “The village elder’s house, and the tavern, and the stable, all in one. If there’s bandits or wolves or something like that, they’ll be hiding inside with the doors all barred.”
Aidan glanced at me.
“You know this town.”
“Been here before. It was wolves, then.” Not a good memory.
“Do you think it’s wolves now?”
“One way to find out.”
I stood up, brushed some of the mud off my trousers, and started down the hill into town.
“What are you doing?”
“One of the f–one of the three of us isn’t being directly hunted by the Church,” I said, over my shoulder, as I picked a path down the slope. I adjusted the hatchet in my belt.
I spoke to Her out loud once I’d put enough distance between me and the lads.
“You ready, lass?”
“‘–Say my name, Dermot,’” I mimicked Her voice. “Aye, I know.”
Coming out the trees, I knelt down by one of the walls at the edge of the western field, squatting in the mud, peering over the top of the wall. I glanced back the way I had come.
The top of Eris’ head was poking over the hill. The Templar was gone.
“Actually,” Her tone was playful, flitting about my head. “I was about to tell you, ‘just say the word,’ but, if you insist on saying my name, I wouldn’t object.”
“Perfect,” I muttered, and swung myself over the wall. “I swear you’re getting smarter.”
“Not smarter. Just better at fooling you.”
I grimaced, and heard a musical giggle in response.
“Lass,” I said, and climbed to my feet. “That’s almost worse.”
“Is it? So grim all the time, my Dermot. It wouldn’t hurt you to smile a little more.”
“God help me,” I said, and started across the barren field. “This is worse than being married.”
“There’s a subject you haven’t mentioned before.” An ominous undercurrent of laughter. “Do you want to marry me, then? You have a funny way of asking.”
I almost tripped again, catching myself by plunging one hand wrist-deep into the mud. I was rewarded with another ripple of laughter.
“I almost preferred you last month when you didn’t know what snowflakes were.” I scanned the village ahead, but all was silent and still. Smoke billowed from the chimney of the big house in the center of town. “Come to think of it, when did you get so damn smart? First time you spoke you could barely say three words in a row.”
“You should see your face,” She said, fondly. Not an answer to my question, I couldn’t help but note.
“Great,” I knelt down behind the wall on the western side of the field. “All the demons in the world, and I had to get myself possessed by the one with a sense of humor.”
“One of us has to have one.”
I didn’t bother to reply. Instead, I shook my head, climbed over the wall, slipped sideways to hide behind the nearest farmhouse on the edge of the village.
No one shot me, attempted to stab me, screamed any warnings. I stepped out from behind the farmhouse, adjusted my oilcloth, ran a hand through my hair. Not like it would make me look like any less of a wild madman.
There wasn’t even a village green, just the Highroad, pale stone beneath the dust. I tried to walk like Aidan, square, stodgy, and upright as I climbed five steps to the door of the big house.
The door was heavy. I hammered on it with my fist, loud enough to get the attention of anyone inside, and retreated back down to the dirt, in sight of the shuttered windows.
All was still. I felt Her attention flickering through my eyes, searching out details.
At last, a shutter on the third floor was thrown open, and a head crowned by either a kettle or a very ugly helmet poked through.
“Who goes there?” shouted the head, in a sufficiently dumbfuck farmer’s accent for me to be sure they were no servant of the Church.
I squinted up at them, head at an angle, hands on my hips.
“Name’s Dermot Slate,” I said, and immediately decided the rest of my statement would be a lie. “I’m a servant of the Templar. What in the name of…God…is going on here?” I gestured to the empty, abandoned little village around us.
The dumbfuck farmer withdrew, and I caught the murmur of a brief conference. The head returned, and with the appearance of a brief ray of sunlight from behind the clouds, I was able to discern that it was indeed crowned with a kettle, not an actual helmet.
“Sir Templar,” the burnt-necked farmer shouted, tempering his accent slightly. “We are ready to open our doors for you, but we’re fearful of the bandits!”
I thought about that.
I turned around, and looked at the empty village, and the deserted fields beyond. I turned back to the window, spread my arms open.
The man in the window thought about this for a bit.
“Sir Templar,” the farmer repeated. “They have been watching us from the woods! Whenever we unblock the door, they rush the entrance!”
I put my face in my hand.
“Right,” I said, looking back up. “Are there any horses in this…town? I’m on urgent Church business.”
“No horses, Sir Templar!” the idiot at the window reported. “They were among the first taken when the bandits came!”
I shook my head.
“All right,” I said, in my best pompous Church accent. “We’ll see to your wee bandit problem. Remain indoors tonight.”
I turned on my heel, not waiting for a reply.
The further into the square I got, the more clearly I could see Aidan and Eris, leaning up against the side of the farmhouse. The Templar was glaring at me. Couldn’t wait to find out why.
“What,” I said, opening the conversation as soon as I was reasonably out of earshot.
“Have you a plan in mind?” Aidan’s face was cold.
“Aye, we go find the bandits and kill them, and then take their horses.” I spread my hands.
“I won’t say I’m not skeptical,” he said. “Nor that I’m not surprised.”
“What about that surprises you, exactly? It’s the obvious practical answer. See and correct me if I’m wrong, but if these ruffians were caught by Church soldiers, they’d be killed as well, yeah?”
Aidan nodded. Grimaced a little. Glanced down.
“See and he’s conflicted, my Dermot.” Grannine murmured in my ear. “He feels selfish killing these men only to steal from them.”
The visceral anger I felt at that suggestion surprised even myself.
“Oh, I see,” I said, my voice bitter, lashing. “Do you feel uncomfortable using this situation for your own personal gain? I thought you were doing this for your wee sister? Are you maybe not as devoted to her as you claim?”
The Templar’s eyes glittered.
I thought he was about to strike me, but he held himself back. I sneered at him.
“I am a Knight of God,” Aidan said, coldly. “I am not a highwayman.”
“Wrong and wrong, lad,” I delighted in being able to say this to him. “You’re a traitor, and a hypocrite. We’re off to kill some men and take what’s theirs, so you can get what you want. That’s it. Get comfortable with the idea.”
“How are we supposed to find them?” Eris said. She was, I noted, carefully avoiding looking at Aidan, or addressing the conversation he and I were having.
“Bet we’ll find footprints on the Forest edge,” I said. “West field’s barren, likely they came from the west. If it were me, I’d be watching that big house from the trees, waiting to see when the farmers came out again. Horses aren’t bad, but with winter coming on, I guarantee they’ll be looking to steal women next.”
Eris made a low sound in her throat, cracked her giant knuckles. I stepped a bit further away from her.
“Why?” the lass whispered.
Winter comes on cruel in the Forest. Without someone to keep the fire burning and mend their shoes and clothes, they’ll be losing toes. Not to mention the other reasons they might want a captive woman in the camp.
I didn’t elaborate. She, strikingly, didn’t ask. I wondered if She’d read far back enough into my memories to know what I meant.
“That’s awful,” She said, softly.
They’re bandits, lass. Not the best of humanity. Not that I am exactly a sparkling example, myself.
Aidan glanced at me. His face was set.
“Are you a tracker as well, Slate?”
“Not a good one.”
“Would you permit me to take the vanguard?”
He didn’t wait for an answer.
“‘Take the vanguard,’” I said, under my breath, as I moved to follow. “And me travelling with a fucking holy knight. ‘Take the vanguard.’ Fuck’s sake.”