I had to crane my neck to look over the embankment, sitting with my back to a tree, legs stretched out on the leaf litter. Eris waited at the base of the hill, squatting in the mud by her pack.
The ground favored us. The low hill was an arc, curving east and west, embracing most of the hollow. Its northern face was mud—if we made them come to us, we’d have the high ground, the advantage of firmer footing, and plenty of cover behind the crest.
Down below, a ring of ten fires marked the camp, with a few more scattered within. They’d been left to smoulder now that the sun was up, and white smoke drifted up from most of them, blowing east with the wind.
We waited. It was cold. None of us spoke. Even the lass in my head was quiet, as if listening.
The oilcloth kept most of the damp out, but it did nothing for the chill. At the bottom of the hill, Eris fidgeted, more anxious by the minute. Aidan was still as a stone. I sat with my eyes fixed on the air, thinking over my plan. Second-guessing.
We heard them long before we saw them.
Eight men filed back into the clearing just after noon, talking and laughing among themselves.
They were grubby, scarred, mudstained and bloodstained. Matted hair and unkempt beards. Some missing fingers.
Two of them carried a deer slung from a sapling. Three others carried Church muskets. All were armed with knives, clubs, axes. One of them had an old arming sword with a guard so rusted that it looked more like a twig than a piece of steel.
I looked down the hill and flashed Eris a smile. She looked more nervous, not less. I motioned for her to hold still. She stood up.
To my right, Aidan was praying. I rolled my eyes and shifted in place, managed to pull the hatchet without cutting my fingers off. I tested the edge on my thumb. Good enough. I’d probably be throwing it at someone, and it wouldn’t need to be shaving-sharp for that.
“Right, lass,” I murmured, hopefully inaudible. “You ready?”
“I am.” Her voice was close by my left, like she was trying to hide from the Templar. “You’ll need to be close. Are you sure of this plan? He might see.”
“I’m not sure at all.” I turned away from the lad, looking down into the hollow. The bandits were starting on the long, messy process of cleaning their kill, and a spirited debate was breaking out on the western side of the camp. The man with the sword was sitting by the camp’s central fire, while one of his mates squatted beside him. “But if I have to pick between dying and not, I’ll–”
“Are you praying, Slate?” Eris said, halfway up the hill, startling the soul right out of me.
“Fucking hell. Stay there.” I waved at her to hold her ground. “This isn’t your fight.”
“Like hell it isn’t,” she folded her arms, but she didn’t look very willing to continue the argument. That was fine. Didn’t need her getting in the way; she’d only get herself hurt.
“Eleven to two,” I said, looking to Aidan. “Do you have a pl–”
He was gone.
A shot rang out from down the hill.
Aidan was at the edge of the camp, at the end of three long streaks of mud that ran most of the way down the hill. A puff of smoke hung in the air midway down the hill, as if he’d drawn a pistol, slid down on two feet and a hand, and fired.
The sentry on the north side of the clearing hit the ground as I looked up. A perfect shot, cold, from almost forty paces.
Ten bandits in the clearing. Four to the west, bent over the deer, hands bloody while they argued about how to clean her. Two on the southern edge, still waking. Two off to the east with muskets, fumbling for powder. I didn’t bother to look at their faces—tall, short, fat, thin.
Aidan threw his right arm out, tossing the cloak over his shoulder, exposing the scarlet tabard underneath.
“Fucking Templar.” I choked up on the hatchet. “Stay here.”
“I’m coming,” Eris said, behind me.
Aidan reached the nearest man at the south edge of the camp. Grizzled, older, battle-scarred, with a cudgel in his hand. Aidan was unarmed.
I shook my head and took off down the hill without a word.
Aidan struck his man in the face with one leather gauntlet, pursued him on his step back, took his head, and broke his neck. The body fell.
Aidan stepped over him. A few strides carried the Templar into the midst of the camp.
The two by the fire rose to meet him. The man with the sword pulled it free, and a bit of the guard broke off as he did. One of the bloody men by the deer scrambled for his musket, smearing blood over the fine Church metalwork.
I was fumbling for my footing, nearly at the base of the hill, and I didn’t realize Aidan had drawn steel until his arm reached full extension.
His sword was a carving knife, the short edge sloping up to meet the spine. The guard was wide, the hilt wrapped in red. A long, ugly spur protruded from the back of the blade, a handspan above the guard. It seemed to catch more than its fair share of grey sunlight.
The man with the arming sword managed to gasp before he and his arm fell into the fire separately. Aidan cut down his mate with a quick, two-handed chop and turned his back contemptuously while the pair across the way were still trying to tip powder into their muskets.
Two of the men by the deer rushed Aidan, one barehanded, one holding only a carving knife.
He slipped away from them like smoke. They crumpled and fell without a sound.
I’d barely reached the edge of the campsite, maybe eight feet of distance, and he’d killed five of them.
The other sleeper finally made it to his feet, a club in hand, wavering between me and Aidan, and decided too late. I struck him in the head with the back of the hatchet and ended his wavering.
The last pair on the western edge saw me. One pivoted, cursing. He closed the flash pan, ready to fire. I threw the hatchet at him, winged him in the arm as I closed the distance, bought myself a breath more, maybe two. Fifteen feet. Ten.
“Are we fucking close enough?” I shouted at the man, who looked confused.
The lass whispered a response, her voice soft and sourceless.
“Say my name.”
I didn’t think. Didn’t hesitate. There was a Templar near, and who knew what the price might be for earning his attention, but all I could see was the black inside that musket barrel.
My vision went black. The word stamped itself onto my eyes with the force and sensation of a red-hot poker, and all I could see were the letters drawn in scarlet. Molten lead ran down my spine. I burned on a heretic’s pyre, locked in place. The air went cold as ice.
My heart slammed once inside my chest like a punch to the ribs.
I took a breath, and the air froze inside me.
I opened my eyes and saw a naked flame. It sparked a very dangerous feeling in me, almost-looking at Her.
She was many things, all of them familiar. Six feet of scarlet fire. The heat of a crucible on bare skin.
She was mercurial, light or dark, black as pitch or pale as driven snow. Her head was hairless, crowned with gold, mantled with flame. Her face was delicate, strong, both, neither. I caught a glimpse of a sly, dawning smile on Her features.
It was hard to look directly at any part of Her, as if my eyes shied away. She was dreamlike—hard to remember, anonymous. She wore a dress, maybe, and it might have been white, but it was scarred and torn by fire. Or maybe it was Her that was marked, broken, cracks running through her.
Beauty like the hilt of a sword. Meant to be taken. I wondered if that was because of what She was, or because of who I was.
I spoke her name.
The smile became clearer.
Two sparks flashed in the pans of the muskets, huge, bigger than my thumbnail, blasting the covers off and igniting the powder inside. The report was nearly simultaneous, deafening, a one-two crack from either side, and I felt the heat of the closer muzzle scorch my shoulder.
Across the camp, Aidan fired his second pistol.
I hit the man with the wounded arm, knocking both of us into the nearest bonfire, and I put my hand straight into the coals to break my fall. Without thinking, I clenched up a fistful, threw them into his face, and we scrabbled in the smoke together, blind.
“Take up the stone,” Grannine whispered. Her voice cut through the pounding in my ears. “Left hand.”
I fumbled in the smoke, closed my fingers around the rock, felt about with my right until I found the man’s face, introduced face and rock to each other a few times, and then a few more for good measure. When I finished, my hand ached, my eyes stung, and there was blood on my face.
I could smell the man burning as I stood up off him, stepped back out of the campfire. The rock was hot in my hand, and its sharp edges bit into my palm. I let it fall.
“Are you hurt, my Dermot?” She said, more concerned over me than anyone had been in a long time. I looked down at my hands. The hand that had held the rock was bleeding in a few places. The hand I’d put in the fire was black from soot, but unharmed.
Eris was just making her way down the slope, into the camp. She’d left her pack behind, and she looked more and more like she wished she’d stayed with it.
I looked around the camp. The smoke burned my lungs.
Aidan sheathed his sword, and only now did I see the clever design of his scabbard, with a notched, triangular cover for the spur on the spine of his sword.
I let out a shaky breath.
“Didn’t get them all, did you, choir boy?” I said to Aidan. He replaced his first pistol in the bandolier and began to reload the second.
“I did,” he said. “Are you injured?”
I shook my head again.
“You’re sure?” Eris looked at me like I might go for her next. “You’ve looked better.”
The lass stepped out from behind Eris, though there was nowhere for Her to have been hiding. I nearly jumped out of my fucking skin as She flashed me a little smile, a dreamlike impression of a lass all in white.
Grannine made a small sound of amusement as I briefly tried to think in circles around Her name. Fuck.
“Don’t listen to her, my Dermot,” She said lightly. Her eyes were like rubies. Her hair was the color of a freshly-minted mark. “You’ve never looked better.”
“Thanks, lass,” I said, in a dry tone. I closed my hand on a fistful of blood.
“Horses?” Eris said. Aidan was already moving toward the northern edge of camp, where they were staked. “I’ll get my pack.”
“You do that.” I glanced at the camp full of dead men, and shook my head. Fucking Templar. I grumbled under my breath. That’s all I needed. More distractions.
At least we had horses, now. The better to get to Bridgeport with. The quicker to realize the Templar’s plan.
“Come on, lass,” I said, absently. Her silhouette fluttered at the edge of sight. Her voice was close by, sprightly and…reassuring, for all that it might be a sign of my damnation.
“I’m already here, my Dermot. You have only to ask.”