0.2.1 – Storyteller

The man behind the bar had laid out a pitiful bit of food; bread, old cheese, a sausage. Named a price which was more of a heresy than anything Eris had done. I handed him a stack of clips without bothering to count, told him to fuck off, and we went back out onto the front step of the tavern to sit in the fresh air.  

There was enough for one good meal now, and another on the road, if by some misfortune we didn’t manage to make it to the next town in time for supper. We cut into it, sharing pieces between us.  

The sun was starting to come out. It wouldn’t last, but it was nice to see; a bit of sun even struck the step where we were sitting. I closed my eyes and savored it. Might be our last real bit of sun before winter. Never know.  

The sun went back behind a cloud.  

I opened my eyes, glanced over at Eris. She was sitting with one foot on the step, one leg stretched out in front of her, an arm curled up over her knee. And… 

“Minstrel,” I said. “You’ve got quite a sour face on you. What’s on your mind?”  

She chewed. Didn’t speak for a while.  

“It’s cold,” she said.  

“Course it’s fucking cold,” I said sympathetically, and slapped her shoulder. “You’ve got your arms hanging out of your jacket, you great lump.”  

“Bastard,” Eris said, but she did smile a bit. “I wasn’t thinking about myself.”  

“Mariead?”  

‘Can’t stop thinking about her in that witchwagon.” Eris swallowed, looking south. “She probably thinks I’m dead. Maybe Aidan, too.” She shook her head. “And I can’t…do anything about it.” She looked down. “Just…trying to keep a strong head about me.”   

I shifted on the step, looking for a place to sit without filling my ass with splinters. Settled instead for sitting on one of my feet.  

“All right, minstrel. Go on and tell me.”  

Eris looked at me, wary, while she rubbed at her eyes with the back of her hand.  

“What is it I’m telling you?” 

“How it happened. You and her.” I waved my hand. “Go on. Tell–”  

Fragments of white blew in on the breeze like flakes of ash, and coalesced in the edge of my vision into the shape of a lass. She curled up against me on the step, arms wrapped around Her knee, head resting on my shoulder. The weight and warmth arrived only an instant later, as the demon turned Her attention fully to Eris. I managed to focus. “Tell us the story.”  

“Did you think I would miss this?” Grannine whispered, amused. Her voice sounded in my left ear, on precisely the opposite side, and I heard the smile, though I couldn’t see Her face.  

Eris took a deep breath, nodded, and gathered herself up a little.  

“Where to start.” She cleared her throat, leaning her head back, looking up at the sky. A few patches of blue showed like open wounds.  

“You said you met in Dawnfire,” I gave her a bit of a prompt. “That’s quite far from the Runing.”  

“Ha,” Eris ducked her head, a half-nod. “I haven’t been on the Runing in years. Been east, to Carrig–that’s where I heard about you.” She gestured at me with her half-eaten crust of bread.  

“And that’s still not Dawnfire, is it?”  

“It is not.” Eris smiled, took a bite of her bread. “See,” she said, with her mouth full. “I’d been trying to spend a year in every shire. Visit the capitals, see the outlying towns, learn new songs and all. So when I came to Dawnfire, it was nearly winter, out in the mountains; would have been nearly a year ago, now.”  

A shadow crossed her features. She looked down at her hands, nodded. “All the leaves were off the trees. The nights were getting longer. But it was beautiful.” She glanced up like that was the most important thing for me to know. “Lovely up there. Thought I’d spend the winter in Dawnfire. I knew there was an Abbey there, and a few folk had told me the nuns there were loremasters, Order of Saint Isaac.”  

“There’s more than one saint?”   

Hush, lass.  

“Before, I heard a man mention Saint Pharrell.”  

Aye, there’s more than one. We’ve had seven so far, and it’s not likely to stop.  

“How do they–” 

Aidan was approaching, crossing the Highroad. His hands swung at his sides, and he looked as cold and emotionless as ever, the handsome bastard. Eris swallowed.  

“What next?” I said, taking my eyes off Aidan to look at her.  

“Maybe I should–” Eris shifted uncomfortably.  

“What? Wait until he’s not around? When’s that going to happen, then?”  

“When is what going to happen?” Aidan said, drawing closer.  

“The minstrel’s telling us a story,” I leaned back against the building. The wood was sodden and rough, even through my oilcloth. “When she’s done, we’ll be on our way.” 

I saw his nostrils flare slightly, eyes narrow, mouth start to open. “Listen, lad, either you’ve killed the messenger or you haven’t, but there’s no hurry, is there? Aren’t we going to wait for your wee sister to get to Bridgeport before we get started? Might as well wait here as there.”  

He pursed his lips. I didn’t know what that one meant.  

“I was going to ask for something to eat.”  

I blinked. Handed him the bread.  

Thank you,” he said. Fucker.  

Eris cleared her throat.  

“It was…” She toyed with the crust in her hands, snapped it in half. “I wanted to make a good impression. I bought a fresh loaf of bread, took it up to the convent, and that’s where I met her.”  

“What was it like, to see her the first time?” Grannine asked. She glanced at me out of the corner of Her eye, a flash of scarlet for the iris. “Ask her what it was like.”  

I sighed.  

“What was she like?”  

Eris looked at me sidelong. She opened her mouth, closed it again.  

“She was…” she trailed off. “I’d…” she glanced at Aidan, and looking at him seemed to spark something in her. She straightened, squared her shoulders a bit. “I’d sung songs before, about love, you know? About two people who meet, and have that connection.”  

The lass in my head made a soft, amused sound, shifting position—no longer sitting next to me, now She was coiled around my back where there should have been no space for Her at all, chin resting on my shoulder, watching Eris with rapt attention. I grumbled under my breath. “Mariead walked in the room and…I understood all the songs. I don’t remember a thing we talked about.” 

Eris looked at me. Her expression was challenging, and she didn’t quite look at Aidan’s face. Grannine made another quiet noise in the back of my head.   

I nodded, once, and Eris nodded back. Thought about asking her if Aidan’s sister was fit, but the mood felt fragile, and I didn’t want to be the one to break it.  

“I,” Eris swallowed some bread, washed it down with a mouthful from her flask. “Went back to town that night. And the next day I saw her, along with some of the other sisters. The Abbey had,” she raised a hand in the air, indicating a pointed shape. “An old belltower, with shutters on the windows, and one of the shutters had finally fallen off, so they needed someone to put on a replacement. She saw me and asked if I knew anything about carpentry, and of course I did, I grew up on the water…” Eris shrugged, still not looking at the Templar.  

“So you fixed the shutters on the Church,” I said.  

“I did. And then there was this gate on the back wall that was broken, so they asked me to fix that. The whole place was a bit of a mess, to be honest—I fixed doors and roofs and shutters and sheds. I’d already decided to spend the winter there, so I wasn’t losing anything spending my days in the convent.” Eris had a pensive look on her face, but there was something picking up in her voice. She had a way of talking that flowed like the river, dark and slow, and it was getting stronger, pulling me into the tale. “Mariead taught me some stories, while I worked. She’d stay nearby, pass me tools when I needed them, tell tales when I didn’t. Things I hadn’t heard before. I taught her songs, from the River, or from the coast, places she hadn’t been. It was lovely.” She looked down at the flask in her hand, tapped it against her knee. “So when…when spring came around, I…” Eris glanced at Aidan, who was still watching her, with the same stony face. She set her jaw and looked back to me. “I got a bunch of daisies, climbed to her window, and spent the night.”  

“Fuck me,” I said, mostly out of reflex, and laughed. “And?”  

Eris blushed; was hard to see on her ruddy face, but it turned just a bit redder.  

“Best summer of my life.” I could hardly hear her over the wind. “And the fall, in the mountains…was beautiful. I never expected…” Eris paused, a longer silence, arranging her words. “I never expected my life to hold something like that.”  

At my side, the lass let out a tiny sigh. For all that She was an intangible demon lurking in my head, Her chin was bony as fuck when it dug into my shoulder. The heat of her at my back was rising, more like a bonfire than a woman, nearly painful, and I smelled brimstone as she spoke.  

“What a terrible thing,” She murmured. “To be so happy, and to have it turned to pain?”   

That’s nothing new here, lass. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen this story. Some poor pair of lovers, or a rebellion, a healer, or a heretic. Try to build something beautiful in Frydain and the Church will crush you. 

Aidan’s expression was unreadable. When he spoke, his voice was cold.  

“I didn’t kill him,” he said. “The messenger. He was carrying a notice of satisfaction of lien for the Bishop of Eastmarsh. Nothing to do with us.”  

I noted the lass watching him, Her face curious, head cocked to one side.  

Aidan looked down, flexed one gauntlet.  

“I’ll make ready the horses.”  

Without further announcement, he turned away again.  

“Aidan,” Eris said. He stopped, but didn’t turn. She struggled to find something to say; clearly she hadn’t expected him to actually wait. “Thank you. For listening.”  

He walked away.  

Eris licked her lips, looked down. “That went well.”  

“Cheer up, minstrel.” I stood up. My knee was sore, as was most of the rest of me. And another six hours on horseback ahead of us before we reached Highcopse. Lovely. “At least he didn’t kill you.”  

“She looks trapped, the poor creature,” Grannine said. “Be a little kinder.”  

I rolled my eyes, let out a long breath that flapped through my lips. Held out a hand.  

“Get up.” Eris took my hand, nearly yanked me over, but I managed to hold and get her on her feet. “We’ve got to move.”  

She still had that look to her, hesitant, like she was expecting the fucking sky to fall. But there was a hint of a backbone to her now. I grinned at her. “There you go, minstrel. Got a bit of fight in you after all.”  

I let go of her arm, but she held on to mine. Locked eyes with me.  

“Dermot, I’m…” she discarded the thought, started again. “We…I know too many sad songs. I know how this could end. We…” Eris closed her mouth, swallowed, and shivered, setting her jaw. “I can’t let them make a tragedy of us.” 

I hadn’t been ready for her to say that. Hadn’t been ready for it to wake something I hadn’t felt in a while. Something I’d heard from the lass, and seen on Eris’ face.  

How many times have I seen this story? I thought again. Too fucking many. I’m tired of knowing how it ends.  

Fury. That was the right word.  

The anger was old, buried, and it hurt like a sore muscle. But I tensed it, and the pain stoked it. My palms itched, and a thrill went down my spine from skull to tailbone.   

At the back of my head, Grannine stirred. Embers fanned to flames. I smelled brimstone.  

“Come on.” I tightened my hand on Eris’ arm for a moment, let her go. This time, she let go, too. “If we leave now, we can make the next stop before nightfall.”  

I’d already known that this plan would end fighting my way out of a fortress, with only a hunting knife and a demon to help me.  

What I hadn’t known was how much I’d be looking forward to it.  

*

0.1.6 – Shoot The Messenger

0.2.2 – Highcopse

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