The Church rider was thin, green eyes, brown-and-silver hair. He didn’t have any armor on him, only a sword and a pouch. That’s where he’d be carrying one of several copies of the writ that advertised our heresy. Any copies that made it to Bridgeport in time would be read aloud and nailed to the stake above us before we were burned, so the crowds could decide whether to throw shit or rocks.
If he was carrying a writ of heresy for us.
If he was, I’d have to kill him.
“How do we know?” Grannine murmured, at the back of my mind.
He had a hand on his weapon. There was little space to maneuver in this shithole; Eris was closer to him than I, and she looked none too enthusiastic about that fact. She was right to; the quilted doublet she wore would do fuck all against a blade.
I don’t know, lass. Smart thing to do would be to kill him.
I noted from the corner of my eye that the old man had dropped down behind the table.
“Afternoon,” I said, and started to take a half step closer, push myself in, more of a threat.
“Don’t move,” the peaky man said, pointing at me with his left hand. “You.” He pointed at Eris. “Identify yourself, in the name of God.” He had an accent I couldn’t place, something north of the Runing, a bit broader and rougher.
He hadn’t drawn steel yet. That was something. What, I’d no idea, but it was something.
I stared at Eris, not sparing the man so much as a glance, keeping him in the corner of my eye.
Lass, I’ll be needing you to pay him close attention.
“Of course, my Dermot.” Her attention turned to him, a prickle of focus.
Eris glanced at me, swallowed.
“My name’s Dermot Slate,” I told him. The minstrel was quick on her feet, bless her.
“A-and I’m Eris Malarin,” she said, looking to him. She lifted up a hand to gesture past the door. “Out there by the stable is Sir Aidan Valraven of the Third Circle. He’ll vouch for us.”
The messenger’s face relaxed a fraction. He still looked suspicious. I didn’t blame him; after all, he was looking at me.
I don’t see anything, lass. Do you?
“I don’t. Would he know their names if he was carrying their message?”
He might. Might not.
“Sir Valraven, you say.” The messenger stepped back through the flap, peeling it out to one side. He kept his hand on the hilt of his sword. “If you would step out with me for a moment.”
“After you,” I said, to Eris. She glared at me, stepped through the flap. I followed her, and the messenger fell in behind. I half-expected him to just stab me, but something in my eyes must have had the ring of truth. Or maybe he was too cowed by me naming a Templar, rank and circle. Or maybe he was just a decent man trying to do his duty. I doubted that last one.
“What’s your name, lad?” I said, over my shoulder.
“Luca. Luca of Alstead.”
“Alstead,” I mused, as we crossed the Highroad, heading for the stable across the way. It was a broad, low-slung building, with a roof designed to part the falling snow. At the moment it was only parting the last few leaves of the season. They clung to it like wet paper, turning from red and gold to black, the final traces of summer turning to dust. They were lovely, had been lovely, once.
Out of my head, lass. Focus on the man, not the leaves. “Cold up there. Spent the winter in Near Runing three years back.”
“Lovely country,” the messenger said, in the tone of voice of a man being polite to someone he might have to stab. The same tone I was using.
“Sir Valraven,” Eris called, in a remarkably steady tone. “A word, if you would?”
Aidan emerged from the stable, his hair tied back behind his head, wearing the silver star and an expression of distaste. The messenger retreated at the sight of him, removing his hand from the sword.
“Sir Templar,” he said, bowing slightly.
“Sir Valraven, so nice to see you again,” I said, with my shittiest smile. “If you’d be so kind as to vouch for us so that this gentleman can carry on with his task?”
His eyes were grey and about as kind as the clouds, though much less likely to rain. He looked at the messenger, then at us, and then back to the messenger.
“They are traveling with me, yes,” Aidan said, smooth and cold, the picture of nobility. “Is there some problem?”
“Not at all, Sir Templar. Forgive my intrusion.” The messenger bowed again.
“Where are you riding, lad?” I asked him, as soon as he came back up.
“Rutlandshire, sir. A message from East Carrig.”
“Very good,” Aidan stepped to one side, indicating the entrance to the stables. “I’ve just requisitioned three horses. You may have one of them, if you find it more to your liking, as our errand is less pressing.”
“You are too gracious, Sir Templar.” The messenger bowed. “Go with God.”
“Go with God,” Aidan said, without a flicker of hypocrisy. The messenger bowed again, and bobbed his head to me, but not to Eris. I wondered if I would have noticed that a week ago. Hell, I don’t know that I would have noticed that a day ago, before Eris put me in my fucking place at the campsite.
He walked past Aidan, into the stable.
The three of us exchanged glances with one another. I managed not to jump out of my skin when the fourth appeared, when Grannine stepped out from behind Aidan’s shoulder despite being a fair sight taller. She had red eyes, but not like blood, more like fire. Like cherry steel.
She looked at Aidan curiously.
AIdan turned. My heart nearly jumped out of my mouth—I thought for a moment he was looking at Her, but then he kept turning, looking through the lass, past Her, over his shoulder.
“I’ve spoken to the stableboy,” he said, lost in thought. “No other messengers have come through. We should reach Bridgeport ahead of the news.”
I let out a breath. On the one hand, our plan might actually work. Lovely. On the other, that meant actually having to go through with it, which meant me, in a Templar prison cell, on my own.
“Our good luck is holding.” Eris tried to smile.
“Put more heart in it, minstrel. You’re a better liar than that.”
“I should kill him,” Aidan said, changing the subject. He sounded a bit down about it, which was decent of him. “He might have been lying.”
“I thought we were going to, for a moment,” Eris glanced at me. I shrugged again. “Why didn’t you?”
“Couldn’t be fucked,” I said. She stared at me.
“You just…didn’t feel like it?”
“It’s hard work, minstrel. You ever killed a man? I’ve killed quite a few–”
“–eight, since I’ve known him,” the lass added, assisting no one, since no one could hear Her. Without moving, She was standing in the corner of my vision, opposite Aidan, at my right shoulder.
“–and it takes a fair bit out of you. I haven’t even had my breakfast, and it’s already noon.”
“Half one,” the lass corrected. It felt better, seeing Her close, when Her voice was already closer.
“After noon, even.” I crossed my arms, glared at Eris with as little malice as I could muster. “You’re welcome to fuck off and kill him if you like.”
She wouldn’t. I knew she wouldn’t. Aidan might, the cold bastard, but she wouldn’t.
“I won’t risk my sister’s life for mercy’s sake,” Aidan said, right the fuck on cue.
“Now,” I said, to Eris, in a loud whisper. “Here’s the part where you tell him his angel sister would never want him to get his hands dirty.”
“No,” Eris said, and she didn’t meet my eyes. “It’s what Mariead would do, too.”
“Fuck me. A whole family of them.”
“Or maybe not,” Eris sounded like she had an idea, so I looked back at her. “Aidan. You’re a Templar. Can’t you just ask him to show you his messages?”
“He’d think it unusual.”
“Tell him…” Eris thought for a moment. Her eyes flicked back and forth, like she was looking for inspiration in the rotting leaves.
The lass stepped out from behind her shoulder, looking up at Eris with the same wild curiosity, hands clasped behind her back. “…Tell him a man’s been robbing messengers up and down the Highroad.”
“Eris,” I said. “See, why the fuck would someone rob a messenger?”
“Steal their livery, requisition a horse, you could get anywhere in Frydain before the Church could catch up to you.” Eris shrugged. “I don’t know. People do mad shit. He’ll believe a Templar.” She lowered her voice. “And then I won’t have to think of him dying each time I look at her.”
Aidan let out a faint, impatient sigh. He glanced at me for support, again. Dense of him.
“Fuck it,” I said. “You can always kill him if it doesn’t work.”
He thought about that. Nodded. Turned and walked into the stable.
I let out a long breath.
“All right, lass,” I said. Grannine winked at me from behind the minstrel’s shoulder before slipping back to hover by mine. “Let’s get our food for the road.”
“How far are we?” Eris looked south, toward Barre-On-The-Rushes. “I’ve never taken the horses this way before.”
“I knew that,” Eris said, looking north. She smiled. We crossed the Highroad again, back toward the tavern. I wondered if the barman had come out from his hidey-hole yet, or if we’d need to search for him.
“I’ve never taken the horses, either. We’re in Angelshire already, crossed the border this morning. Could be another day, maybe two.”
“At your current pace, without stopping to rest, you will reach Bridgeport by dawn tomorrow,” the lass whispered in my left ear, on the opposite side from Eris.
“Thanks, Slate, very helpful,” Eris said, at the same time, and I almost tripped and fell down the steps as I tried to focus on the both of them at once. She caught my arm and hauled me up the last stair. “Bastard,” she added, without meaning it.
I thought about calling her something back. I didn’t. But I thought about it. But I didn’t.
“Tomorrow,” I said, instead. “We’ll be there tomorrow. Nearly done.”
Eris looked at me with a curious expression as she held back the flap.
“Thanks,” she said, cautiously.