It was, technically, possible to run your horse all the way to Bridgeport without stopping. If we’d been carrying news of rebellion, or the coronation of a new Queen, we might have done. But there had been no new Queen crowned since the Fall, and our last rebellion had been crushed ten years before. Not to mention the lad Aidan had some qualms about riding horses to death, which I didn’t happen to disagree with. No reason the poor animals had to suffer for the Church’s sake. We’d all suffered enough.
Water ran close to the surface in Frydain, the limestone cut through by caverns and underground streams. It meant that you had to watch your footing in the brooks and ponds–there was always the chance of getting dragged into a lightless pit and devoured by some elemental older than Blackforge itself–but on the bright side, there were pools and springs aplenty, at regular intervals along the road, marked by wooden posts bearing the Church’s star. Our horses didn’t lack for water.
We left the Forest behind after the first hour of riding. The trees grew thinner, and the last scattered thickets fell back into the west, except for the occasional grove springing up around the watering posts. We were well into Angelshire now, and the lands here were flatter, with gentle hills. Terrain that was a bit kinder to those poor bastards who fancied life as a farmer.
This particular Churchpost was set at the western edge of the Highroad, where it curved away further to the east, one of the sharpest curves in its entire length, if legend was to believed. Evidently something ancient had been worth altering course for—though the architects of the Highroad had been more than capable of crossing the Runing, so I myself wasn’t exactly clear on what it was that had been worth going so far out of their way.
I swung down out of the saddle with a grunt, wincing as I hit the ground. I missed the swing of the hatchet at my hip—for all that I had a demon in my head and a Templar riding behind, there was a security to carrying a weapon that could split bone.
This spring bubbled up out of a standing pile of rocks, old and weathered, covered in moss. The water stood out against the ground and it trickled off the faces of the stones, throwing back starlight.
It felt like a druid place. Old. Quiet. Peaceful. I had the urge to walk back to the Churchpost and kick it over. I resisted that urge. Barely.
My horse was drinking its fill, alternating between the water and the grass still clinging to the edge of the pool. I sat on one of the stones on the northern edge of the pool, staring up at the stars like a wee boy. Aidan was somewhere about, likely watching the Highroad like an obsessive maniac, and Eris was off in the trees again.
“The stars are lovely.”
“Cloudy night.” I craned my neck, stretching it out. A stitch of pain shot up my neck, out of my shoulder, as all my muscles protested the motion. Too fucking bad. “We’d see better if not for this mist.”
Scraps of fog rolled across the sky, obscuring the southwest, breaking up into tatters. The Lass stirred, coiling out of nowhere to sit beside me, looking up at the long, narrow haft of the Glaive, running along the seam of the sky. At the tip of its blade was Amae, the North Star, twinkling like fool’s gold.
Grannine turned Her head, taking in the other stars. I looked east from the Glaive, along the cold arc of Frida, and shifted in place, looking back over my shoulder to give Her a view of the Galleon, where it rolled in the heavens far out to sea.
“Slate,” Aidan said, startling the fuck out of me. Lucky thing I hadn’t been talking to Grannine right that moment, else I’d have been caught out in the open.
I pulled the oilcloth closer around myself. There was mud caked onto the sleeves, and I brushed some of it off, only to discover that it was actually horseshit. Lovely.
“Choir boy,” I said, wiping my hand off on my trousers. “Any word?”
“No one following. It would seem we got away clean.” He strode out of the dark of a passing cloud, set one boot upon a stone by the edge of the water, put his hands on the hilt of his sword. He had a way of standing still and brooding that made my teeth hurt.
I eyed him. The lass rested Her head on my shoulder, a constant, steady presence, keeping Her eyes on him as well.
“He holds his sword as if it were precious,” She observed, in a hushed voice.
“Tell me about your sword,” I said, at the same moment. She giggled. We’ve spent too much fucking time together.
“Too much? Or not enough. Still so serious about it.” Her hands rubbed my shoulders. I wondered how it was that they could ease the muscles when the hands were as real as a gelding’s bollocks.
Aidan looked down at his hands. He laced his fingers together over the pommel, with a thoughtful, prayerful expression. I wanted to push him into the spring, but it would have scared the horses.
I’m not sure he’ll answer me, lass. Templar take their swords very seriously. Part of what makes them all holy and mystical knights of God.
“Its name is Tensil.” He drummed his thumb on the hilt. “I chose it when I became a Templar. Or it chose me.”
I snorted. See? Mystical and holy. I twisted back, looking south, hoping for a glimpse of The Bridge, but it was nearly obscured, a faint scattering of stars that led straight into the fog bank. Sorry, lass. That’s all the stars you get to see tonight.
“Is that what I’ll have to do, then?” I squinted back at him. He stood close enough to reach me in a single strike. Being so near to a Templar in the flesh still made my skin crawl if I thought about it too deeply. “Go into the vault and feel about with my hands?”
“You won’t have to feel about.” The way he said it didn’t exactly hold back from implying I was a bit dense. Maybe he was right. Didn’t mean he had to imply it. “You will know. The sword will call you, as Tensil called me.”
“Right, and I’m sure I’ll hear the voice of God, as well.” I made a creeping gesture with my fingers in his direction, which he did not appear to appreciate. He glanced back at me, laconic.
“Would that be the only voice you hear?”
I didn’t answer that. Thank fuck Eris came by at that moment—not near enough to interrupt, but near enough that I could call to her.
“All right, minstrel?”
“Dermot.” She put her hands on her hips, twisted around to one side, then the other, stretching out. “Fuck me, I’m stiff.”
I coughed. Eris took her hands off her hips and started in my direction.
“I didn’t say a fucking thing!” I held my hands up in protest, and she slapped my forearm, almost knocking me off into the water.
“Bastard,” Eris said, and knelt down, taking two hands full of water and splashing it over her face. She let out a blast of breath, shook her head. “That’s better. Oh, that’s cold.”
Aidan looked at me from the corner of his eye like a cat, expressionless.
“It is nearly winter.” His dry tone took me off guard. I laughed.
“Lad,” I leaned back, tucking a foot up onto the stone. “See, when you became a Templar. How old were you?”
“I wouldn’t have thought to ask that. A fine question.”
Aye, you wouldn’t have thought to ask because you’re not a person, lass. You don’t have an age.
The knight frowned. Maybe it hurts his pretty wee head to think too hard.
“Twenty-one,” he said, finally. “I was twenty-one.”
“And how was it?” I lifted my head, rubbing my chin. The beard was starting to smell.
Lass, see and do you think they’d let me shave in Bridgeport? As a sort of preparation for getting fucking executed? “You think that’s a proper age for a wee boy to become a holy knight of God?”
It was quiet out here. The last crickets of the summer had gone, probably killed by the frost we’d had some weeks back. The leaves had gone from most of the bushes, silencing the wind.
As a result, it was dead silent for almost a minute afterwards, while Eris splashed more water on her face, rubbed the back of her neck.
“No.” I almost didn’t catch his answer. “It was too young. I was too young.” He slapped a hand on the pommel of his sword, looking up at the North Star. “I was twelve when I left home to become a squire, in the service of the Fourth Circle.”
“Is that young?”
I snorted, turned away from him, staring into the rippling water. My stomach growled. I could murder a fucking bushel of potatoes, I’ll tell you. Fucking famished.
“Fucking hell,” Eris said, glancing at Aidan over her shoulder. “I was twelve when I lost my parents.” She reached out backhanded, slapped the back of his leg. “Worst year of my life.”
I might have been imagining. Might have been a trick of the dark. But it looked to me like his expression was almost human, when he looked back at Eris. He lowered his head.
“I was ten when they took Mariead away to the convent.” His voice was cold, a blade being drawn in the dark, hissing out of the sheath. “Our father had many enemies, and they pressed him to wed her off. He offered her the choice; select a suitor, or take the vows of a nun.” He smiled, humorless, toothless. “My sister did not waste much time in choosing.”
Eris’ horse whickered softly, lifting its head to stare at us from across the spring. “I did not much care what happened, after that. There was no light in our home.”
The leather in his gloves creaked. His fingers twisted on the hilt of his sword. “I wanted to save her.”
Aidan turned to look at Eris, fully, and she twisted to meet his gaze, hair slick and shining in the moonlight, standing on end. “I would have risen through the ranks, and when time came to select a bride, I would have been allowed to choose her. Templar and Church officials may pick their wives even from among the ranks of the holy, and we weren’t brother and sister by blood; I was the ward of her father. She could have returned to Valraven Manor and been happy. We could have been happy.”
It was the most I’d heard him speak all day. Which was fucking shocking, considering he’d conspired with us to free a druid from a rolling prison cell. But now his eyes were burning in the dark, grey like the stars in the hilt of Aurvandil. There might have been a tear.
Eris shook the water off her hands, wiped them on her jerkin, and pushed to her feet, looking down at Aidan.
“She’d have liked that.” She offered a hand, still wet.
He took it silently, forearm to forearm. Skin to gauntlet. Then he let go, after only a moment, as if he would burn, touching Eris for too long.
“We should go,” Aidan said, and the frost was back in his voice. “I don’t want a rider passing us. We’re too close to fail now.”
“Let’s go.” Eris braced her spine with her hands, stretched. “Ugh. My fucking back.”
I held out a hand to her, and she hauled me to my feet like I was made of feathers. “On your feet, old man. We’re nearly there.”
“Then shift it, minstrel,” I pushed her from behind, on the shoulders, and she stumbled forward, cursing me. “If we’re there by dawn, maybe I can get some fucking sleep.”