We left the bandit camp behind and led our horses on foot until we found the road to Bridgeport. It was another damp, miserable day, and we rode in silence, not a word said among us.
Aidan rode at the vanguard, sitting high and straight on his horse. Eris rode some distance back from him, and I brought up the rear, watching for any signs of an ambush, though I figured that anything a Templar couldn’t catch deserved a fair shot at me.
Grannine rode with me. A warm presence at my shoulder. A voice in the back of my head.
She had questions.
Too many to count. But she had a captive audience, and the ride was a blur of foggy Highroad. The strongest impression that stayed with me was Her voice in my ear, and what might have been the smell of brimstone, as I explained one thing after another:
Aye, it was true, the Church thought was heresy for two women to fuck, and two men, and aye, that didn’t make sense, but also it was true that it was heresy to fuck before a marriage, and aye, it was still heresy if the two women were married, and in fact it was worse, because that would be defiling the vows of matrimony, and no, I didn’t want to marry her, and I wasn’t sure I could, seeing as no priest in Frydain would agree to marry a madman and his devil, and no, I wouldn’t ask, because most priests had been soldiers of the Church’s army before they took the vow, and no, I’d never been a soldier in the Church’s army, seeing as I’d been raised by druids who would have killed a Church soldier on sight, no that wasn’t where I’d learned to use a sword. The usual questions any child would know. But then again, when we’d first met I’d had to explain to her what a leaf was, and now she was asking me about administration and tax collection.
We stopped only once on the ride in to Angelshire, for Eris.
The minstrel reined in her horse beside a copse of pine trees for privacy, and waved for Aidan and I to ride on. He did. I didn’t. She shot me a glare. We ignored her, and I kept my eyes on the Templar’s retreating back while I waited for her to finish.
“Thanks,” she said, once she’d saddled up again.
That was the only word spoken between us all day.
The next stopover village was Caer Liath, five hours’ dead run on horseback from Gideon’s Hollow. It wasn’t meant to be an overnight town, only a place for messengers to change horses, but evidently there were enough messengers to support a small, shit tavern, though not quite as shit as the one in Caer Tieran.
It hardly counted as a village; a tavern on the western side of the road and a handful of rotting houses all around it. The best-kept building in the place was the stable, the heart of the settlement, with the Church’s star on the side.
Aidan dismounted in the Highroad, just ahead of the stable, and I followed suit.
“What’s in your head, choir boy?”
“Give me the reins.” He beckoned. I did. “Eris.”
She dismounted, handed over the reins. “I’ll take the horses into the stable. As a Templar, I am entitled to requisition more. You two can find some food for the road.”
“How nice,” Eris said. I snorted. She turned her back on him and went into the tavern.
The door of the tavern was only a heavy flap of leather, but it kept out the cold.
“What a warm place,” Grannine remarked, as we crossed the threshold. I coughed; the air was heavy with smoke.
The interior of the tavern was cramped, a low ceiling and small windows. More like a cave than a house. There wasn’t so much a bar as a larger table than the other two, where a wizened old man was sitting. I wondered if he’d filled the place with smoke to preserve himself like a fucking salmon.
Eris glanced at me, made a gesture which I struggled to interpret, and turned aside, sinking into a chair at one of the other two tables. I sighed.
“She wants a drink,” the lass in the back of my head whispered.
“Grandfather,” I said, to the old man. “Two.”
He wheezed a response, got to his feet and tottered into the back room, leaving me to look up and try to spot cobwebs through the smoke while I waited.
There weren’t any other doors. Just the back room and the front. Wonder if he’s got a bed for the night.
“You haven’t stayed here?”
I haven’t stayed most places, lass.
“I thought you were a wandering sellsword?”
That means sleeping on the ground more than it means sleeping in taverns. The old man came back before she replied, and he offered two filthy tin flagons full of something dark. I hoped it was beer and handed him six clips.
Eris was watching, arms crossed. I set a beer in front of her, dropped into the seat opposite with a groan; four hours in the saddle was plenty to build up a nice set of aches and pains.
I let my head drop back, groaned again, and brought the beer up to meet me when I was done. It tasted more like water with a few stalks of barley in it, but it was something to drink.
“That’s shit,” I said, and set the half flagon down. Eris nodded, still drinking hers.
“It is.” She wiped her mouth on the back of her hand, and looked at me with a level expression almost until I was ready to ask her what the fuck she was thinking. When she did finally speak, she almost sounded bemused. “Slate, has anyone ever told you you’re a bit negative?”
I rapped the table with my knuckles, rose to my feet. “Wait. Dermot.”
Eris leaned forward, flagon in her hand. She watched me like she could force the thoughts out of my head, trying to pick her words.
“You’re not as much of a bastard as I thought,” she said, finally.
“Thanks very much.”
“She’s trying to start a conversation, my Dermot,” the lass said, reproving. I hadn’t heard Her be reproachful very fucking often. I grimaced.
“Fucking hell,” I offered, as a conversational opener. I scratched at a scab on my arm, thought for a moment. “It’s…not bad, that you told me about you and her. Good, even.”
She raised an eyebrow.
“You didn’t beat me to death,” she said. “Seems fairly good to me.”
I knew that tone. I’d used that tone with Aidan, not a day before. Thrown it back at him when he was crowing over having hired me on, or someth–
“Anything done for a Templar is done from fear,” Grannine said, helpfully.
I know, lass, I figured that one out all on my own.
“Well done,” She murmured, which elicited a whole lot of feelings I didn’t particularly want to dwell on. I cleared my throat and shuffled my feet around before I looked back at Eris.
“I have been a right bastard, haven’t I.” The last of the shit beer went down my throat before I continued. “Glad you told me, though. I’d rather get killed for your romance than for some Templar’s fucking crisis of conscience.”
Eris looked like she might have laughed, but didn’t, which I found more disappointing than I ought have.
“Didn’t figure you for a romantic,” she said. “You’re still with us, then? Even with…”
“I’ve always had a soft spot for outcasts.” I grinned at her. “Anyone the Church hates is doing something right.”
She laughed. I folded my arms. “See, I do have one question for you. Aidan said the plan was his. Why the fuck would he do that if it was yours?”
Eris shook her head.
“That part was his idea.” A bit scornful. Couldn’t fault her there. “He thought you’d be more likely to trust a Templar’s plan. Said we shouldn’t mention me and…”
“And Mariead.” I finished the sentence for her. Her expression softened again at the sound of the name, like fucking clockwork. “Aye, not a bad policy. Lucky for you, I’m a fucking heretic through and through.”
“Lucky for me,” she repeated, and drained her beer. “Where are you off to?”
“Going to ask your grandfather for a pack of rations.” I turned to the old man at the counter. “Barman, see and do you have any food we could take on the Highroad? Here’s the chance to empty your cupboards, we’ll take what you’ve got.”
The old man scuttled out of the room again, bobbing his head.
The chair behind me creaked; Eris climbed to her feet with a grunt. I grinned back over my shoulder. “How you feeling, riverwoman? Got a long ways to go on horseback yet.”
“I’ve had better rides,” Eris said, and shot a sidelong glance at me, watching for the response.
I didn’t say anything. Foolproof trick I’d learned; can’t say the wrong thing if you don’t say fucking anything at all.
The barkeep trundled back in with his arms full of rags, which I assumed held food. He smiled at me with very few teeth.
The flap of the door rustled, and I looked back, hardly thinking of it. Likely Aidan, coming into this little shithole to tell us he’d found three horses and we were ready to ride, and also to call me a heretic and Eris a whore. If that was the right word. She seemed very faithful, and not at all mercenary. Not as if a nun would make a good client; I was fairly sure they were forbidden to keep worldly possessions.
Actually, thinking about it, I wasn’t sure what the insult was for a woman who slept with another woman. It was one of those special unmentionable sins, somehow less important. It bothered me a little that I’d never considered it. Wasn’t as though Eris was the first one I’d ever met…whatever it was I’d call her.
I stopped thinking about it as soon as I realized the man coming through the doorway in Church livery was not in fact our pet monster Sir Aidan Valraven—and was, in fact, a Church messenger in the scarlet, a light sword hanging at his hip.
The druids used to tell stories of other times. Other places, beyond the Veil. I’d forgotten most of the names, but one thing I remembered was that they’d been able to use birds to communicate, which had always seemed absolutely mental. The fastest way to get a message from one end of Frydain to the other was to put a man on a horse and run him up the Highroad in five-hour intervals. That was how we ended up with wee towns like Gideon’s Hollow and Caer Liath, stables with a few houses around them.
“Good master,” he said, in a posh accent that made me want to batter him with a chair. “Your finest ale, if you would, and quickly. I don’t have long.”
He glanced at me, ignored me. Glanced at Eris, ignored her.
Then he looked back at her.
In the way that a man might look at someone if he was carrying a message which concerned her specifically and in detail, and possibly concerned also the Templar she was traveling with. Or maybe he was just trying to figure out if she was a man or a woman.
He looked back at me.
I offered him a smile.