Gideon’s Hollow was a stopover town for messengers and coaches making the run from Barre-On-The-Reeds to Bridgeport. The beasts our dead highwaymen had taken would fetch a fine price, and any merchant would be more inclined to buy them and reap the profits than to tell the Church and get nothing.
Wasn’t a bad plan. The poor bastards had no way of knowing a treasonous Templar would come after them. And now they were dead, corpses still steaming. The camp stank terribly, even though I was upwind, saddling up two of the horses. Eris had already chosen hers, a black gelding that looked big enough to carry two people.
“Why is it that you ride these, but not the other ones?” the lass in my head asked. She was standing beside me, hands clasped behind Her back, examining the horse’s face.
“Which?” I tugged on the strap, making sure it was snug, but not tight.
“The ones that work in the fields. With the horns.”
“Yes. Why not those?”
I shrugged. Before I opened my mouth to reply, Aidan’s scarlet tabard moved into the corner of my eye, arms crossed over the star on his chest.
“Choir boy,” I said, without looking up. “Here to help with the horses? Kind of you.”
“You’re a warlock.”
Not words one wanted to hear from a Templar. Even a friendly one. Which he wasn’t.
“Your ma’s a warlock,” I said, which absolved me of all suspicion.
“I never knew my mother. She died when I was born.”
“That’s fucking depressing.”
“You ignited the powder.” Aidan nodded to his right, back toward the camp.
“I didn’t,” I said, moving to the next strap, tightening it down. “It was a coincidence. I’ve always been lucky.”
“I heard you. You spoke an incantation, and the muskets fired.”
I let out a breath, turned to face him.
“Say my name,” Grannine murmured, and I felt Her hands settling on my shoulders from behind, warm and reassuring.
That’s sweet, lass, but I don’t think we’ll need it.
“Worth a try.”
“And?” I said, looking down at him. “You going to kill me about it, wee boy? Decided I’m too heretical for your treason party?”
Aidan looked at me coolly. It made my blood boil.
“I’m surprised you revealed yourself so readily. That was a dangerous gamble.”
I said nothing. “As I said before, Dermot Slate, you have a reputation.” Aidan stroked the horse’s neck. “Now that reputation is clearer. A talented sellsword who never works against the Church, but has never done their bidding.” He inspected his leather gloves, flexed each finger in turn. “Tell me, Dermot, do you know what the Church does with sorcerers?”
“I think it involves burning.”
Aidan smiled, and I hadn’t expected that. It was a tight, cold smile. He patted the horse’s neck again.
“I will confess to you, Slate, I am conflicted.” His speech was very precise, as if he had to organize every word before proceeding to the next. “I have had encounters in my life which dictate that I should now treat you with suspicion, if not kill you outright. But I need your help.” He looked at the horse, not at me. “More than your help, I need your cooperation. I must put my sister’s life into your hands, as I must with Eris. I cannot do this alone.”
A low wind kicked up, blew eerie shapes in the smoke around the camp.
“I wonder,” Aidan said, in a low voice. He looked down at his hands. “Does that make me a hypocrite? If I spend my life hunting sorcerers for no reason, but now turn around and put my faith in you for no reason besides necessity?”
“Fuck me,” I said, holding the bridle. “Are you working on a conscience there, lad? Your sister’s rotting in a witchwagon, you’re keeping company with bards and bastards, and you pick now as the time for moral reflection?”
I held out the reins. He took them silently. “No due respect, boy, but save your fucking moment of enlightenment until we’re under way. I don’t have the time nor the patience to guide you to salvation, and frankly, your sister can’t afford the wait.” Heat was building up in my hands like fire, and it felt like my eyes were going to stare out of my head. “You self-righteous, arrogant little bastard. Get the fuck out of my sight.”
The Templar stared at me, expressionless. It didn’t look as if he was going to fuck off, so I turned and headed for the next horse in line, threw a blanket over its back. He did not follow.
I tightened the buckles down and wished I was tightening a noose around the Templar’s head.
The lass was watching; Her attention prickled on the back of my neck.
“Slate,” Eris said. I heard her big boots in the mud. “Would you trade me that saddlebag? You don’t have as much to carry.”
I snorted, unslung the messenger’s saddlebag, and handed it to her without looking. She kept talking as if she didn’t care that I hadn’t replied. “I heard you shouting. You been fighting with Aidan?”
She still hesitated before she said his name, as if it was some kind of incantation that would prompt him to walk over and burn her to death.
“I wouldn’t say fighting was the word.” I didn’t look at her. “He was being a daft little fuck. I stopped talking to him. Not complicated.”
She didn’t say anything. But she also didn’t fuck off, so I looked over to encourage her. She was holding the saddlebag in both hands, working up the courage to say something which I probably wasn’t in the mood to wait around for. “Spit it out, minstrel.”
“We’ve got to get along a bit longer.” It wasn’t exactly a ringing condemnation. “Could you try to ease up on him?”
“So he can keep on whining about his fucking, moral quandary?” I looked back to the horse, finished buckling the last strap. “Spare me.”
“He’s…he’s not a bad man,” It sounded like even she wasn’t convinced of that fact. “Well. I owe him my life.”
“Owe him your life, that’s well and good, but are you sure that makes him a good man?” I rounded on her. She flinched a little as I turned, which made me madder. “See, can you look me in the face, tell me eye to eye, that if it wasn’t for this being about his sister, he wouldn’t be riding into Bridgeport with both our heads on his saddle?”
“I don’t much care, to be honest,” she said, quietly. “So long as he gets us there.”
I didn’t relent, didn’t particularly bother to keep my voice down.
“Can you honestly tell me you don’t think he looks down on the both of us? I’ve seen the way he talks to you, like you’re shit. And–”
“Oh, you’re worried he talks down to me now?” Her eyes glinted. “Fuck off, Slate, how is it you’re any better?”
“She’s angry,” the lass in my head whispered, not exactly telling me anything new. “And afraid.”
“Get fucked, minstrel,” I said, not bothering to answer Her. “He looks at you like you’re shit on his shoes.”
Behind her, Aidan turned to watch our conversation. I wasn’t sure if he’d heard me. I hoped he had.
“Sure, and he does,” Eris raised her chin. “But it’s not as if you’ve gone out of your way to be kind, is it? Not as though you’ve made an effort to be any different, yeah? So don’t come to me and pretend you’re a saint.” Eris’ voice cracked like breaking ice, a thread of tension underneath, with a combative tone I hadn’t heard from her before. “As far as I can see? You’re as bad as him, and I know he’d have killed me out of hand if I hadn’t come up with this plan in the first place.”
I looked past her to the knight, whose face was impassive. He did not meet my eyes.
“It is true, you haven’t been very kind to her,” the lass in my head said helpfully, while I was still working on my next rebuttal. “I would wager you have looked at her more kindly, but I don’t know how heavily to weigh that. I would say your words to her have been roughly as unkind as his.”
I opened my mouth, and closed it again. Whose side are you on?
“Yours, my Dermot. But I won’t lie to you.”
Fantastic. The demon says I’ve lost the moral high ground.
Instead of letting that sit, I spoke.
“At least I’m getting paid. You’re helping him commit treason for free. I don’t understand either of yous, but I especially don’t understand your fucking loyalty.”
I saw it in her eyes and shoulders; she wanted to swing on me right there. Her eyes blazed.
“I’m not doing this for him.” Eris glared at me.
I stared back at her.
“Go on,” she said, contemptuous. “Figure it out.”
I looked at her again, and then looked back at Aidan. I thought about it for a moment, her loyalty, her intensity, tried to turn it over in my head, look at it from another angle.
“‘It has to be you.’” Grannine murmured, underneath my thoughts. “She said that twice. She said it was her plan. But why would she be the one coming up with the plan, if it’s his sister we are rescuing?”
A riverwoman with a plan, an outsider traveling with a Templar and some mad, possessed bastard. She could go back to the river and disappear into the rushes. Or she could fuck off and vanish into another Shire, leave this behind.
“She’s committed no crime,” the lass mused, “At least, not one that she’s admitted to…”
Because she doesn’t think it’s a crime.
“You’re fucking kidding me on.” I looked her over again.
Her face twitched. She moved back from me just a hair.
“I’m not,” she said. I could hear the force in her voice now, the passion. I’d been wondering how this woman could be a storyteller.
I opened my mouth, closed it again.
“…well, fuck,” I said. “That’s me told, isn’t it?” I glanced at Aidan, over her shoulder, who was watching us with his arms folded, one hand on the hilt of his sword. “So you’re what happened to his–”
It was the most damning thing Eris could have said; her face softened at the name, her eyes nearly glowed. It would have been endearing if it wasn’t so fucking tragic. “Her name is Mariead.”
“Now you know,” Aidan said, coldly. He’d drifted closer, a few feet behind Eris now, ready to draw. She looked uncomfortable having him that close. “Make your jokes and have it done, Slate. I’m sure you’ve thought of plenty.”
“What jokes?” the lass whispered, intruding upon my attention. “He’s angry. Why is he so upset?”
I sighed, though it came out more as a growl, and rubbed my forehead. I was starting to get a headache. Probably from skipping breakfast.
“I doubt it.” Her voice was amused, a murmur behind my ear. “She knows the woman we’re going to rescue?”
A sight more than that, lass. Eris is the reason she needs rescuing.
“Because the two of them together makes a fucking heresy,” I said, aloud, and rubbed my head, massaging the pounding behind my eyes. “Blast and damn me. Nothing’s ever simple, is it?”
Past her, Aidan was watching, braced, his eyes cold.
He thinks I’m on his side here. The thought sank into my stomach like a fist. And I haven’t given him cause to think otherwise.
My face must have showed something. Eris swallowed again, steeling herself, ready for a fight. I eyed her sidelong from under the fingers on my temple, and sighed again.
“Is she worth it?”
Her answer was immediate, just above a whisper.
I leaned back. Grimaced. Thought about it again.
“Fuck,” I said. “Alright, I won’t do it for him. I’ll do it for yous.” I jabbed a finger at her, and she jumped slightly at the motion. Wouldn’t have been ready for a hit after all. Fucking typical.
I offered her a hand. She looked at me as if I was going to haul off and punch her. When she finally took my arm wrist to wrist, her palm was clammy with sweat.
“Your plan, was it, minstrel? Not a bad one. Might even work.” I snorted. “At least now I know you won’t turn coat on us.” I slapped her shoulder. It was like hitting the flank of a bull. Good thing I hadn’t hit her; might have broken my fucking hand.
Aidan looked like I’d just hit him with a brick. Wish I had. He stared at me like a corpse.
“Fuck off, choirboy,” I said. “Get on your fucking horse.”
He didn’t move, watching me.
“You surprise me,” he said.
“Why?” I spat on the ground. “Cause I mind your sister fucking a minstrel less than you do? Sort yourself out.”
I patted the neck of my horse, a thin grey bastard almost as gaunt as I was, sallow like a greyhound. One hand on the neck, one foot in the stirrup, and I heaved myself up into the saddle, looking down to Eris. “Saddle up, minstrel. Let’s go find your lady fair.”
I adjusted the head of the hatchet in my belt. “Fuck me. At least it’s never dull with you two.”