The witchwagon sat in the center of Highcopse, in the middle of the town square. Past the wagon, across from the inn, was the stable. It was a fancy thing, elaborate—they’d built a palisade to section it off from the townsfolk, and the smell of smoke suggested that there was a separate blacksmith for the horses.
I crouched on the inside of the palisade, in a training arena that hadn’t been scraped out nearly as well as it ought have been. An armful of farrier’s tools bit into my duster, and there was horseshit on one of my boots. In the dark, I couldn’t tell which.
“All right, lass,” I said, under my breath, less than a whisper—not that it mattered. “This is the spot?”
“It is,” Grannine was there when I looked up, crouching beside me in the dirt, white dress pooling around Her. She winked one eye that had the color and fire of a ruby, and when I winked back, She was gone. “Call her here.”
I whistled softly. Started to stuff tools into my pockets, stick them through my belt, anything to free my hands.
A rope flew over the top of the palisade, its end knotted, and nearly hit me in the head on the way. Without waiting for an invitation, I took a hold and tugged once.
The rope held me like it was tied to an oak.
It wasn’t a high wall, nor smooth. This close to Bridgeport, bandits were less of a concern; anyone who robbed from a Church supply depot within five hours’ ride of the Templar stronghold would be lucky to survive long enough to be executed publicly. Which meant that I was up and over in moments, landing on the ground next to Eris. She’d already coiled half the rope around her arm by the time I stood up.
“Hurt yourself?” she said, grinning.
“You were making a face.”
“It’s only my knees.”
“Is it, now?” Eris didn’t, quite, smirk. “Is it the damp? Gets to your joints?”
“I’ll get to your fucking joints if you don’t hustle, minstrel.”
Eris had a dry, enunciated laugh, almost as if she was saying ha ha ha under her breath.
“What do you have for me?” She held out a hand. I fumbled at my belt, handed her the compass saw, a thin, triangular tool with sharp teeth. “Here. And I’ve got a rasp, as well.”
“Fuck do I want that for?”
I pulled the long file out, offered it to her. She stared at it. “Slate, I wanted a saw. I have a saw. Why do I need this. ”
“I don’t fucking know, minstrel.”
Eris rolled her eyes. She hefted the saw in one hand, braced the spine with her other, and slowly drew a long furrow with it down the side of the palisade. She looked at me, back to the palisade, and altered the angle, switching the saw from aligning with her ring to her first finger.
“A bit wider,” I said. She glared at me. “Ever seen their claws? Wider.”
She widened the angle. I laughed.
Eris stopped gouging the palisade, looked my way. She looked down at the ground, and then back up, and for the first time in a few hours, there was sorrow back in her eyes.
“It’s good to help someone get out of one of those fucking things,” she said, and went back to work. “If it can’t be her yet.”
Didn’t know what else to say to that. I slapped her on the shoulder.
“I’ll need to do this a bit longer.” Eris said, drawing another gash. “How long can you give me?”
I leaned my head slightly to the left, looking back over my shoulder for Her. Pale skin and paler fabric fluttered in the corner of my eye.
“How may I help you, my Dermot?” She flounced a little further into my field of vision, hands clasped, back slightly arched like a dancer.
How long to cross the square and get into shouting distance of Aidan?
“Would you be running?” Her voice sounded in both ears at once, as She set her hands on my shoulders.
I imagine so.
“How soon would you call to him?” She rested Her chin on my shoulder, which felt like being knighted by a red-hot sword.
“I’ll shout for him from, maybe thirty paces,” I said, rubbed my chin. The beard scuffed audibly.
“Sure,” Eris said. “Shout as far as you want.”
“That considered, I’d give you the count of ninety before you call for him. One hundred and seven, if you walk until the men at the wagon can see you, and then run thereafter.”
“Count of one hundred,” I said. “Then get out.” I nodded west, along the palisade. “That way.”
Eris started to cut another notch, while I turned away. The prybar in my belt clanked against the hatchet, so I took it out and held it in my hand as I walked east along the edge of the palisade, toward the corner. The slope at the edge of Highcopse fell away to my left, looking down into the Forest, and I did not look too closely at the trees. I did take a moment to admire the Wandering Star.
The lass walked along beside me on the air off the edge of the slope, hands held behind Her back, dress fluttering in the wind. Heat shimmered off of Her.
“The lad came around easier than I thought,” I said. I heard Her little sound of assent, saw the movement of her hair when she nodded. “Think we’re a bad influence on him?” Her laugh was a musical sound, like the ripple of ale filling up a tankard. Wished we’d have time for another beer before we had to flee the town. “You’re quiet, lass.”
“Taking a while, isn’t it?”
Her eyes glowed like embers. Her expression was pensive, frustrated, Her perfect brow furrowed.
“Thinking on why I...hate it. The wagon.”
“Well, see and when you sort it out, be sure to let me know.”
“It’s a cage.” She looked over at me, placing one foot delicately after the next on empty air. “That’s all I can think. It’s a cage, and I hate it. What does that mean?”
“Everyone hates cages. It’s natural.”
“Why do you hate cages?”
“I hate everything.” The northernmost corner of the palisade was getting closer. I adjusted the hatchet in my belt. The threat in my tone might have persuaded a mortal woman to fuck off and never speak to me again. Especially one raised under the Church’s virtues.
Unfortunately, the thing in my head, whatever it was, was not a virtuous woman.
“That’s not an answer,” She said, reprovingly. “See, I’ve no reason for hating the cage. But I do. Is it the same for you with the Church?”
My face twitched. Like a wolf’s snarl, spasmodic and unintentional.
“Why not?” I heard my own voice bitter in my ears. “They hated me first. Druidborn. Dark-skinned. I’ve taken men and women to bed outside the bonds of wedlock, killed for gold and vengeance, practiced sorcery, lain with witches, and spoken to demons.” I looked over, found Her looking back at me, eyes burning against the night sky like embers. “Anything good in this kingdom, in my life, they’ve cursed, blasted, and burned.”
We’d already reached the corner of the palisade. I’d hardly noticed. Took a deep breath, looking out past Her, over the forest. She vanished on the breeze, between one blink and the next.
I broke into a dead run, striding to sprinting, let myself huff all the air out, a full run, scrambling and slipping in the mud. A deep breath in, cold air that burned in my lungs, as the clatter and slosh of my footsteps caught the attention of the guards, one heartbeat after another pounding in my head.
To get to the square, we had to run along the north wall of the stable, past a line of wee cottages and huts where the workers lived.
How long, lass?
“Count of fifteen.”
I sped up the pace. Reached the end of the palisade, passing out into the open square. The two men at the witchwagon turned to face me, hands on their weapons. I looked past them, up the stairs to the tavern, where Aidan was descending with a bag full of rations. Our new horses were roped to the base of the stairs.
I stumbled and let myself fall into the mud, catching myself on my arms near the back of the wagon. The soldiers came to investigate. I used the moment to take a long breath, sucking in air that still somehow smelled like horseshit.
“Time is up, my Dermot.”
I smiled into the dirt. Not a nice smile. Lifted my head with a lungful of air.
“WOLF!” I screamed, startling our horses. The veteran guard half-drew steel at the sound; the novice jumped. They might not have believed me straight away. Didn’t much matter.
Then came the howl.
It wasn’t quite a human sound, a werewolf. Their throats weren’t quite right for it, so you couldn’t call it a scream. The right word was howl, something animal.
I mentally reevaluated my appraisal of Eris. Whatever else was true about her, she’d heard a werewolf before. The thing survivors didn’t talk about, the thing they didn’t mention, she’d captured. The rage.
“Soldiers,” Aidan said, sharply, coming down the stairs with his sheathed sword in his hand. He paused to reassure one of the horses, patting its neck, and left our rations on the step. “We can’t let it get into the stables.”
The younger guard hesitated. Fear, more than duty. The older grabbed his arm and dragged him along behind Aidan. “You two, go south. Call out if you see it, stay on it, but don’t try to stop it. I’ll go north and meet you at the back of the wall.”
The guards nodded, and hustled south, around the longer side of the palisade. Aidan strode past me, giving me a look. I climbed to my knees and grinned at him.
“You’re doing well, Templar,” I said. “Like you were born for this.”
I laughed, looked over my shoulder. Eris appeared around the northern edge of the palisade, out of sight, while the soldiers ran to reach the opposite wall. She waved to Aidan, who quickened his pace.
The moment the guards were out of sight, I climbed to my feet, while Aidan and Eris crossed paths. Eris broke into a run, while I climbed up onto the back step of the witchwagon, pulled the hatchet, and set the hook end of the prybar against the top of the lock. A quick glance over my shoulder to be sure no one was looking. No one was. Townsfolk this far out into the Forest, they’d have heard that sound before, and even if Eris hadn’t managed a perfect mimicry, no one would be coming out to check, not until they’d armored up.
The witchwagons, like many other inventions of the Church, came from the twisted mind of Darren Teague, God’s own genius. He’d designed their iron-shod wheels, armored sides, and hellish open grating. He’d even designed a new lock for the rear door—square, like a box, with a crescent shackle that hooked into the mechanism and held firm. It lacked the weaknesses of a spring lock, and there were no hinges to attack.
But if you put a good steel prybar to it, and hit it with the back face of a hatchet, the teeth on the shackle would break off like moldy cheese.
“This one’s for you, lass,” I said, seating the prybar’s hooked end on the top of the box, between the ends of the shackle. She let out a breath that warmed the air, a low, eager sound.
“Shatter it.” Her voice was hungry.
I hit the lock once. The metal let out a deafening, high-pitched sound like a bell, so piercing that I saw scarlet flash behind my eyes. I reset the hook, hauled off, and hit it again.
“Harder,” Grannine hissed. “Again.”
“You want to do it?” I reset the hook a third time, drew back my hand. The handle of the hatchet was cold and rough. I let it fall, full force, arm and shoulder.
The lock snapped free and hit the ground. I fumbled with the shackle, pulling it from the latch.
I heard another quick, sharp breath, triumphant, from the back of my mind, as I pulled the door open, and the smell of shit spilled out into the night.
“Keep your knickers on.” I squinted into the wagon, crouching to look through the door. The sky was in there, reflected in a pool of water on the floor. There was a bundle of shadows on the far side of the patch of starlight, or it might have been a trick of the light. “Grey wanderer. Well met on the common path.”
Movement in the dark, slow, disbelieving.
“Well met,” the druid said. His voice was just a whisper.
“Shift it, lad,” I said, looking back over my shoulder. “We don’t have long.”
He hesitated, scrambled for the door like an animal, splashing through the puddle of piss, and I backed away to let him out.
The druid came into the light. He was thin, like every Church prisoner; didn’t need to be fed much to burn. His skin was pale, and there were cuts up his arms and over his face. One of his eyes had swollen shut. His hair was the color of mud, mostly because of the mud.
Movement, behind me. Footsteps on the ground. I looked over. Eris crossed the square, made a gesture to me that indicated hurry up without having to say it, as she hustled past the witchwagon and started to load the horses.
I handed my hatchet to the druid. Had to press it into his fingers to get him to take it. Slapped his face lightly to get his attention.
“Due north,” I said, pointing up the square, directly away from where the two soldiers had gone. “Get to the Forest and you’re free. What’s your hold?”
“Starfurrow.” He grabbed at my arm. “Thank you, stranger.”
“Slate. Dermot Slate. Raven Lake.” I grabbed his arm, shoved him north. “Thank me by living. Fuck off.”
He hesitated, another moment longer, and nodded, holding the hatchet close.
“Moxnin?” he asked. I nodded. Gestured again for him to fuck off. “I am Talvec of Starfurrow. We will remember you, Dermot Slate, of Raven’s hold.”
“And we’ll remember you, now fucking go. Lass, how long have they been gone?”
“Count of ninety-one.”
“How long do we have?”
“Even if they run, you have time to reach the horses and ride on.” I could feel Her eyes on the wagon, and I glanced back over my shoulder.
Aidan was crossing the square at a jog.
“Slate!” Eris called, in the quietest shout I’d ever heard. “What the fuck? Hurry up!”
I ran over, swung up into the saddle of a horse I’d just met, and it shied back.
“Easy, lad,” I said to the horse, patting its neck. “I don’t much like it either, but we’ve got to put up with each other for now.” I looked over my shoulder, as Eris settled onto her mount. Aidan reached us, took his saddle with the most graceful fucking motion I’d ever seen. Bastard.
“I am.” She sounded smug, content, and the sound of Her voice was like putting my hands to a flame.
I urged the horse forward.
Five hours to Bridgeport. If that.