Angelshire was the heart of Frydain, the central shire of the kingdom. It bordered old Queenshire to the north, where Blackforge and the Queen’s throne had sat for far, far longer than the Church’s reign, and it was the only one of the six shires to cover both banks of the river. Riding the Highroad northeast, slowly approaching the banks of the Runing, the land turned flat, with marshlands cropping up here and there among the hills.
It was a quiet ride. Neither Aidan nor Eris seemed in much of a mood to talk, and mercifully, neither did the lass at the back of my mind. I half-fancied that I’d actually managed to sleep in the saddle, waking up again three times with a start, hand locked on the reins.
Each time, I thought I’d heard music. Each time, I woke staring into the night.
Hard to see, in the dark, with the fog rolling in off the river, but the ground was changing. To either side of the perfect stone underfoot, marshes and ponds glinted, visible as pools of starlight. Cattails bristled from them like arrows in a corpse. The old Forest of west Frydain was behind us, and now we were well and truly within reach of Bridgeport. If not for the night, and the fog, and the trees and hills, we might even have been able to see the bridge itself.
It was bitter cold. We rode through the darkest, bleakest hours of the night, until even the stars were blotted out by the mist. I drifted in and out of consciousness, thinking of nothing in particular for the last hour, or two, or ninety—it felt like an eternity since we’d last stopped to water our horses.
I thought of the druid. Wondered, idly, if he’d made it away clean, or if the Church thought he’d done enough to merit hunting him.
“Hold,” Aidan’s voice was hollow in the fog, startling me awake a fourth time.
The Highroad was curving north, another sharp turn, uncanny to see in the white rock that carved up Frydain. The second most drastic curve in its length, in the whole kingdom; from here, it ran only a few degrees east of due north, straight across the bridge into Blackforge and away from there, out through the mountains north of Queenshire, where the lands were haunted and the Veil fenced us in.
A chill went down my spine.
“Wake up, my Dermot.” The lass wrapped hands around me, chasing away the cold, and I grunted, sitting up straighter as Eris and I caught up to the young Templar on his horse.
“The cold helps,” I said. The lass giggled in my ear, and Her hands withdrew. The cold came back, and with it a dull ache in my knees and toes. And back. And shoulders. Fuck.
“Does it?” Aidan’s voice was noncommittal.
I reined in my horse alongside him. He was looking off the curve.
“Why are we stopping?”
“We should make camp here. We’re not far from Bridgeport at a hard ride, and no caravan will pass here without our knowing.”
“Really?” I looked around. Fog obscured much. The dark obscured the rest. What I could make out were a few scraggling pines and tufts of grass, low hills among holes and furrows that I would have bet my whole salary held mud and water.
“The fog will burn off by morning.”
“You’re willing to wager on that?”
“I’ve made camp up there.” Aidan pointed east, off the curve, a bit to the south of the Highroad. He pointed up, as well, which I thought was interesting, given that I could see exactly fuck all in that direction. “There is a hill, with a clearing. When the druids are marching, we station scouts there to mind the road. Now it will serve us.”
“And if the druids end up marching?” I looked at Aidan with a sleepy version of a glare. “Relying an awful lot on luck, aren’t we?”
“The druids are quiet in the winter. They do not test our strength. They will not march.” Aidan looked back at me, expressionless. I considered hitting him with a large object, wondered if he would show me an emotion then. Perhaps an oar.
“Clever,” Eris said. Aidan shot her a startled look. “What? It is.”
“If we’re lucky.” I coughed, leaned over to spit on the ground.
“Not luck,” Aidan said, quietly. “Providence.”
I was too gobsmacked by that to laugh. Eris cut in before I could speak.
“Can we see the river from there?”
“No. There are hills to the north that are taller.”
“Ah,” Eris nudged her horse a bit forward, to the edge of the road. “Safe enough to ride?”
“Safer to lead them.” Aidan leaned to one side and dropped from his saddle with the agility of a boy who hadn’t yet wrung out his youth. “We cannot afford to lose one now.”
I grunted, braced myself, and heaved my weight out of the saddle, hitting the ground with considerably less grace. My poor brown horse, who had certainly not signed up for the task of carrying six feet of bastard through the winter, tossed its head.
“Aye, me too,” I patted its neck. “Right lad, lead the way.”
Aidan looked north. Up the Highroad. Fog and the dark hid us from view, but it also hid the bridge. He shook his head and stepped off the trail, and his boot sank immediately through the grass into mud, almost up to his ankle. I could hear the squelch all the way from the back of the line.
I laughed. Aidan straightened, took another breath, and carried on, squshing through the mud.
“See, we’ve been here before,” the lass murmured. “The first time we came by the river.”
Eris forged a trail right behind Aidan, sticking close. We wove with more or less accuracy between the marshes for a few hundred feet before the ground began to rise, and the lad guided us to the head of a trail hidden among the pines. It wrapped around the back of the hill in a chokehold, damp and treacherous but passible enough for the horses, and we reached the back of the hill almost perfectly opposite the Highroad, climbing over the edge into a small clearing among the pines.
They’d hollowed out the grove at the top of the tree, but left some of the branches, turning the top of the hill into a hidden pavillion. I grabbed at one branch that wove between two trunks; it had been bound in place with wire, and the needles came off in my hands, coated in some slick, dark substance. They felt more like toothpicks than pine needles.
“They’ve painted the trees,” I said, and laughed again. “Well, fuck me.”
“We spare no expense,” Aidan said. His voice was colder than the fog, and in the dark and the mist I could see him as a blacker silhouette. It might have been a trick of my eyes, but I almost fancied that dawn was starting to break, somewhere above the clouds, grey light spilling over the sky. “Here.” He held out a hand. “Reins.”
I handed over mine, but stepped closer to look. There was a fucking hitching post nailed across three trees, enough space there for the horses to stand.
“We’ll have to take them out to feed,” Aidan said. “Who will take first watch?”
“I will.” Eris had a funny tone to her voice. I bet I knew who she’d been thinking about on the ride. “I couldn’t sleep. Not this close.”
“I’ll take them out to feed. Wake me at dawn, if I do not rise earlier.” He sounded like he was going to say something else. Instead, he seemed to settle on saying, “Watch the road.”
Eris didn’t answer. I shook my head again and stepped into the clearing, feeling with my hands.
“I can’t see a fucking thing.”
“I can light a fire,” Eris sounded close behind.
“No fire.” Aidan said, sharply. “The light will give us away.”
“Grand, thanks lad. I’ll just fuck off then.”
In the gloom, I caught the glimmer of pale skin. Not Eris. Sure as fuck not mine.
“Perhaps I can help.”
The world shivered, and my vision turned red. The forest, the trees around me were dark like dried blood, almost black—but not quite, and I turned around to make a comment to Eris.
A woman’s shape strode toward me, outlined in fire, face burning like an ember. Over her shoulder, a twisted, many-limbed silhouette writhed brighter still, with many scarlet eyes, exhaling puffs of scarlet.
My heart jumped to my throat.
I dropped a hand to my belt, where the hatchet…wasn’t. Fuck.
“You alright, Slate?” the red silhouette in front of me said, with Eris’ voice. “I can hardly see you out here.”
“Fucking riverfolk,” I said, by force of habit. Didn’t like how my voice shook, so I dropped it a bit lower. “They say yous can see in the dark like fucking otters. What a load of shit that legend is.”
“Can you see any better?” Eris put her hands on her hips.
Her skin was dull red, the cherry of hot steel, and in the light she gave off, I could see pine needles scattered across the ground like straw. Behind her, I started to make out the different shapes of the horses, their color a bit brighter, eyes and ears burning like stars. They shed eerie light on the ground, and into the air around them. Off to one side was Aidan, his chainmail black as pitch, his skin slightly brighter than Eris. I watched him exhale a puff of smoke.
The clearing was still dark. But I could see, dim like twilight in the glow coming off them.
Lass, I thought the words very carefully. What in the fuck?
“Do you like it?” She sounded pleased with Herself. “I’ve only just discovered I can do this.”
How in the name of god have you discovered that?
“Just a wee query. Let’s see where you’re resting.”
I shook my head, closing my eyes for a moment. It did not help—the world was only a bit less clear, the red outlines of Eris, Aidan, and the horses piercing through my lids. I turned away.
The part of the clearing not occupied by horse—as best I could tell in the light shed by my hands—was about thirty paces across, more than enough space for us to sleep quite comfortably. Footholds had been dug into the trees along the northern edge, and while I had to squint to make it out, even with the unholy fire in my eyes, I thought there might have been a lookout post up there, nailed among the upper branches.
“Fantastic,” I said. I stripped off my oilcloth and threw it on the ground. “Aidan, how safe would you say this place is?”
“Safe enough. For now.” I heard the faint jingle of armor as he approached, which meant he wasn’t taking pains to be too quiet. “I don’t know how long we can stay, but if all goes well, we won’t need to wait more than a night.”
“Grand.” I dropped to one knee, and hit the center of the oilcloth with my shoulder. The pine needles weren’t half bad as a mattress. “Anyone wakes me before dawn, I’m likely to cut you. Don’t say you weren’t warned.”
Aidan said something, which I ignored. I’m the one being hired here. I deserve the rest.
I closed my eyes. Nothing changed.
She chuckled in my ear, and I felt sleep coming on.
“Rest well, my Dermot,” the demon whispered.
The world went black.