Not a very imaginative name. On top of a hill, among a stand of pine trees, off a bend in the Highroad. The road twisted east here, turned north again as it got closer to the Runing, and this bluff was the first of the low hills on this side of the river, the perfect place for a town. At least, that’s what some unimaginative fuck had doubtless thought, when establishing the place.
We rode into Highcopse three abreast, with me in the middle. The path into town took us up the south face of the hill. We climbed high over the Forest, leaving the trees behind, bare limbs twisted in the gloom.
Twisting to look over my shoulder, I could see clearly into the south to the edge of the Plain of Halaret. To the west, the Forest stretched out to the edge of sight, but over the last few hours the Forest east of us had withered down to grim hills and dead grasses, a long stretch of blasted land waiting for the snow to choke it. It was cold above the trees; the wind cut over the forest and hit the bare path up to Highcopse, numbed my fingers, and stabbed at my ears.
Pines. Highroad. Highcopse. Poetry. At least they were still green; the grey forest along the way had been starting to get depressing.
It was an overnight town like Gideon’s Hollow, not just a message post; there was a proper inn for travelers, and a full stable for Church messengers making the Highroad run. There were multiple houses here, some with barren gardens. There were children running in the street.
That was odd. Children out and about, this close to the Forest, this close to dusk. I put a hand on my hatchet, more for my own comfort than for any real protection.
Two dozen homes were scattered around the path, with the most of them grouped together around a central square. Just like Gideon’s Hollow, the overnight inn was the centerpiece of the town, and formed an entire face of the square, set high above the other buildings. The roof of the inn was a sharp, high point, easy to lose against the pines, and it was built off the ground on a raised foundation.
It was almost civilized, right up until we made it around the edge of an outbuilding, riding into the cramped town square. Until I figured out why there were children playing.
A witchwagon sat in the town square, with two Church soldiers standing guard.
Eris hissed under her breath. I nudged my horse a bit closer to hers.
“Shut up, Dermot.” Her knuckles were white on the reins.
“It’s not her.” Aidan’s voice was so low I had to strain to hear him. “The Archbishop’s wagon is not here, and the Inquisitor would be standing guard with the others.”
“How can you be sure?” Eris looked past me, to Aidan. Her horse tossed its head. Picking up on her mood, maybe. Might have been it was just eager for a rest.
“I know him.” There was a snap to the Templar’s tone. “I’m sure.”
The soldiers by the witchwagon had already noticed we were watching. They glared at us exactly as long as it took them to figure out that Aidan was wearing the Church’s star. I enjoyed the expressions when they realized they’d been glaring at a Templar.
I swung out of the saddle right there, thirty feet from the inn, wincing as I hit the ground at the wrong angle, not at all graceful. My knees were stiff. Under the oilcloth, where nothing should have been able to reach, I felt hands on my shoulders.
“You’re frozen through, my Dermot,” the lass in my head admonished. I held tight to my horse with one hand and kept the other beneath my coat. “Why won’t you let me warm you?”
You frighten me, lass. That’s fucking why.
As I turned my head, I saw her on the roof of a nearby house, knees pulled up to Her chin, skirt trailing halfway to the ground, offering me a teasing little pout. She was gone when I blinked.
You’re getting better at that.
“Practice makes perfect.” Her ripple of laughter echoed in my ears.
“Fucking unsettling,” I said, which earned me a quizzical look from one of the Church soldiers. Eris glared at me. Double fuck. I coughed.
Aidan held out his hand. I stared at him over my fist.
“I’m taking them to the stable,” he said, like I was an idiot. “I’ll have them saddle fresh horses, and we can ride on.”
“Fuck me.” I handed over the reins. “Go on, then. But I’m going to have a sit down before we fuck off down the Highroad for another six hours.”
“Good evening, Sir Templar,” the one of the Church soldiers said nervously. New recruit, maybe.
“Go with God,” Aidan said, with a grace I was always surprised to hear. He lead the horses away to the left, across the square to the long building with a single large horseshoe hanging over the door.
I glanced at Eris. Her eyes were narrow, dangerous.
“Easy,” I said, again, stepping up, putting a hand on her shoulder. I tried to keep my voice down enough that the soldiers wouldn’t hear, but not so much that Eris couldn’t. “Easy, damn it, minstrel, Aidan says it’s not her.”
“We don’t know that.” Eris took a step forward, shoving me back. Her voice was like ice piled at the banks of the Runing; sharp, wild, cold, threatening to turn to water at the slightest opportunity. “Aidan doesn’t know that. If he did, he wouldn’t tell me.”
“They’re going to get suspicious if you keep fucking glaring, Eris.”
“I know that, Slate. I’m not a child.” The muscles at the base of her jaw twitched. Her hands closed into fists. A tear showed in the corner of her eye. I didn’t say a damn thing, didn’t touch her again. Thought if I did, she might knock my head off.
She turned away, toward the inn. I walked just behind her, between her and the wagon. She had the kind of mad look to her that made me worry I’d have to hold her back at any moment, and I wasn’t sure I could manage that if I didn’t stop her right away.
The tension went out of her shoulders, step by step. Not all, but most.
“It shouldn’t have been me.” The misery in her voice was a breath on the embers. “It should have been her, Slate. Mariead’s the strong one. Why’s it have to be me?”
“Don’t have an answer there.” Fuck, my legs hurt. “It wasn’t Mariead who came up with the plan.”
“She would have,” Eris said, in a dull tone. She took the stairs up to the inn with a heavy tread, toward the covered landing at the top. “Or something better.”
If I hadn’t had an answer for the last, I definitely didn’t have an answer for that, much as I might have liked to. Not for the first time, I wished I was a more eloquent man. And handsomer, while I was wishing. Maybe a bit less sore in the ass.
Motion caught my eye. The flickering impression of a woman in white stood at the top of the stairs. Embers crawled in her hair. I stopped, let Eris climb ahead alone; she looked more likely to cry than to charge at this point.
What is it, lass?
Grannine lifted a hand in a slow, deliberate gesture, pointing over my shoulder at the witchwagon.
“Dermot,” She said, enunciating each word. “I hate that.”
“Not you, too,” I said, under my breath. “You’re the only person around here with any fucking sense.”
The lass had a set, determined expression on Her face, one I’d seen on Eris, right before she’d told Aidan she’d fucked his sister. Grannine’s eyes were smoldering, irises like naked flame. I turned back to look, folding my arms. “And what exactly the fuck do you expect me to do about it, lass?”
Short, squat, and brutal, the witchwagon was an iron strongbox on wheels, built to accommodate up to eight heretics in wretched discomfort. An iron-barred window looked up to the sky so that God could hear their prayers, so the elements could torment them. There were no other openings, only a seat at the front for the guards to ride, and a step at the back to stand on while you threw poor bastards inside.
There was mud and shit splattered around the upper bars. Probably thrown by the children I’d seen earlier. The Church encouraged that particular tradition. Something about purifying the sinners through humility.
I turned away. Eris faltered on the threshold, looking back at me. I limped up to the next step. The lass stood in my path, unmoving, and when I reached the top of the porch I bumped into Her, quite solid and stern.
“Dermot,” She said again, into my ear, as I leaned on Her shoulder for a moment and tried not to think about what this might look like to Eris. “I hate it.”
“Sorry, Slate,” Eris said, almost as soon as the lass had finished speaking. “I just….can’t…” She hesitated, just like she had before, in Caer Liath.
“I don’t love it either,” I said, to neither of them in particular. looking down at the wagon. “But I want a drink, and it’s been a long day, so shift it and let me in?”
Eris snorted, looked away, and entered the tavern.
Grannine’s eyes flicked to me, and Her expression softened. She stepped aside, and I pushed through the door into the tavern after Eris.
The air was warm, full of smoke and the smell of road-weary bodies. A few Church soldiers, a merchant or two, some private sellswords—no one I knew—and a handful of others that weren’t so easily placed.
There was a rough bar to the right, hand-hewn. Time and tankards had worn the hatchet marks down and filled them with a permanent layer of grime. Eris had already managed to put herself right at the end of the bar, leaning over rakishly as if she hadn’t just spent the last day on horseback. I stumbled over, rapped two fingers next to Eris, held up a hand. The woman behind the bar understood this to mean that I wanted a beer, and obliged.
“You two together?” she asked Eris. Her hair was the color of old iron. The beer here was finer stuff with the mark of Angelshire on the barrel. I rifled through my purse, slid her three iron clips, and she took it without a smile.
Only two clips lift. The rest of my gold was buried under the floorboards of a tavern in Barre-On-The-Reeds.
“Traveling companions only,” Eris said, and glanced at me. There was an easy smile of concealment on her face without much heart behind it, a pleasant lie that would only have fooled family. She bumped my shoulder with false friendliness. “My brother-in-law.” I snorted.
There was motion in the corner of my eye, and the smell of smoke.
“Dermot. You have your drink. Come.”
I nodded my head toward the door, leaning further on the bar. Nice to take some of the weight off my legs. I deliberately avoided thinking the name of the lass in my head, which took some mental gymnastics. The lass made a sound of sharp frustration right behind my neck, and it was hard not to jump.
“Who’s the poor fuck in the witchwagon?” I said to the innkeeper, keeping my voice as smooth as it ever could be.
“Scroller,” she said, sharp, matter-of-fact, dropping my tankard on the bar with a clunk. “Heading for Bridgeport in the morning.”
“A druid?” Eris clanked her empty flask on the bar. “Don’t see many of those around.”
“Aye, well, I did. Saw him when they brought him in. Ugly looking man. Wild.”
I took the bottle thoughtfully.
“Fuck him,” I said, and tapped it on the bartop.
“Fuck him indeed,” she said, collecting my clips. “Drink up. What’ll it be, love?”
“Brandy,” Eris said. “Or whatever’s brown.” She held out her flask. “You can call me Eris, love.”
“Ada.” The barwoman looked Eris up and down, took the flask.
I coughed into my fist, turned away.
“Shut up, Slate,” Eris said.
I laughed going out the door, a big, nasty cackle that was more for my own entertainment than any actual sense of amusement.
I sat down. From the steps of the inn, I looked west and ignored the wagon in the square. Grannine sat beside me, back perfectly straight, hands in Her lap, chin raised as She glared down at the wagon. I ignored Her, too, though She gave off heat like a dying fire.
“What a dreadful cage. Is that what the nun Mariead is in?” I nodded, took a swig. The beer was warm, but rich and dark. Mud you could drink. Just what I wanted. The lass let out a breath that filled the air around us with brimstone. “Can’t we do something, my Dermot?”
“What exactly do you want me to do, lass? Kill two Church soldiers and fight the rest of the bastards inside, to save one druid I don’t even know?”
“You want to save him as much as I do.”
“I doubt that very much.” I could nearly see through the bars on the roof from this angle; the top of a witchwagon was made like a basket, flat iron bands so thin they could hold an edge. Rumor held that some guards would sharpen them, to bleed the prisoners who tried to reach out. “It’s not that simple, lass.”
“What happened to wanting to change things? To see a different ending?”
“For Eris and the nun, I do.” Aidan came into sight down the way, drawing the attention of the two soldiers. “But I can’t save everyone, lass. I’m only one man. Sooner or later you save one too many, and it comes back to bite you.”
“How many have you saved, then, Dermot?” She glanced at me, challenging. “How many risks have you taken? You say you hate the Church, but what have you done to show it?”
I shook my head, took another drink.
“You stole that line from Eris,” I said, into the tankard.
“I did.” She lifted Her chin proudly. I snorted, shook my head again.
“Fantastic. She’s fucking learning.”
“I am,” Grannine chuckled softly in my ear. “You should try it.” She moved without moving, arms wrapping around my shoulders, that damn pointed chin resting on my left. “Please, my Dermot. Won’t you do something? For me?”
“That’s a bit rich. I don’t recall inviting you to come along.”
“You were the one who called me, my Dermot. You spoke my name first, and taught me yours.”
“And I regret it every fucking day.” I grumbled into my beer. She let out a pleased, self-satisfied little huff.
“We’ll do it?”
“You picked a hell of a fucking time to start having opinions, lass,” I said, watching Aidan exchange words with the Church guards by the wagon. “Fine. I will try. But only if it can help our…”
I stopped. Narrowed my eyes.
The lass giggled in my ear.
“I know that look,” She said, fondly, taking my chin in one hand from behind. “Inspiration strikes.”
I let a long breath out, picking at mud on my sleeve while I thought.
“All right, lass.” I finished off the beer in one draught, slapped the tankard into my hand. “I’ll see what I can do.”
The demon at my back made a soft, wordless sound of affection. I shook my head.
“Where do we start, my Dermot?” Grannine asked, suddenly all charm and softness. I snorted.
Below, Aidan left the Witchwagon behind and started towards us.
I raised the empty tankard in salute.
“We start with him.”