I’d seen early mornings before. Raids on positions where the sun was in mens’ eyes at a particular hour. Dawn that came too quick after a long night without sleep. Eerie mornings in the Forest when the paths turned empty again.
Whatever it was that had made the night restless, Eris had managed to forge through it; she was the only one still sleeping. Aidan was sat in a tree on the western edge of the camp, legs over the bough, shoulder against the trunk. He had his back to me, looking out over the fog, stripped of his chainmail, only a knife in his belt. I was sat on a rock not far from Eris, and not far from the heap of weapons and armor he’d left behind, with his mantle folded over all. He’d his sword laid neatly on top.
I squinted up at him in the tree, knife in hand. I’d been putting the final touches on a makeshift spear—just in case. I’d never been in a situation where I regretted having four feet of fighting distance in my hands.
Aidan’s sword had a wide, straight guard, like a parrying dagger. The hilt was wrapped in red leather, and the sight of it made my palms itch. Looked like a weapon with a hell of a balance, a long pommel on a long blade. Its spur stuck out from the scabbard, keen as an icicle. The scabbard itself was sleek, steel and black wood inlaid with silver.
“Are all Templar weapons like that?” The Lass was present, watching me whittle down the point of my spear, and Her eyes looked through mine. “It’s old. It has a purpose. I think it’s like me.”
Like you in what sense, lass? I glanced up at the Templar in his tree.
“I think I’m old,” She sounded pensive. “I’m not sure. But I think I am. And I have a purpose.”
Do you now? And what’s that?
“I’ll let you know when I get there.”
In the meantime. Very slowly, I set the spear down to one side, slid the knife away into its little sheath in the back of my belt. Shifted my weight forward so I was more squatting than sitting, and without a sound I crept forward across the pine needles, extending a hand to the hilt of the sword. Eight feet separated my fingers from the blade. Then five. Then two.
I wrapped my right hand around Aidan’s sword. A Templar sword.
Pain was immediate, blinding. An entire winter’s worth of frostbite in a single second, scorching its way up my arm. It felt like I’d lost every scrap of flesh, scoured down to the bone by frost, like a leg of beef left out in midwinter–
My hand snapped back, and the rest of me followed. I fell on my ass in the middle of the camp. Curses spilled out before I could hold them back.
“Bastard, fucking, son of a whore.” Pins and needles ran through my fingers, half-numb. I shook my hand out, stared at it. There was a white mark across my palm, fading to red as I watched, but apart from that…not a scratch.
“You may very well be right.” Aidan’s voice was mild, and it carried across the clearing. I glared up to find him looking down at me from his wee perch. There was a faint smile on his face. I wished I’d still had my hatchet so I could cut the pine down, him still in it.
“What are the two of you fucking talking about?”
Eris was groggy. She pushed up off the ground, half-sitting, taking her weight on her arms, and she glared at me in turn. Her hair had pine needles stuck in it.
“Morning, minstrel,” I said, as cheerfully as I could. She muttered a curse. “Fancy a breakfast? We’ve got,” I made a show of looking over at her pack. “Stale bread and a quarter of a sausage.”
“Some tankard caps growing on the north side of the grove,” Aidan had turned back to his watch, offering only that laconic gem as he’d done so.
“Can you even fucking see the Highroad from there, lad?” The lower branches of the pines blocked most of our view out, but even from here I could see the mist rolling above the trees outside.
“I’m listening.” His head tilted a few degrees back, enough to glare from the corner of one eye, merciless as a bullet against his yellow hair. “Or, I was, until you started talking.”
I grunted, climbed to my feet. Eris rummaged through her pack. I bent down to slap her shoulder on the way across the clearing, getting her attention.
“Not without a fire. They’d lay me out for a day and a half.”
“Suit yourself.” I dropped back down by the spear, pulled out my knife, and set back to work. Eris managed to lay her hands on the bread.
“Aidan,” she said, without turning around. “Any water left in that canteen?”
“I filled it on my watch. You should find it among my effects.”
“Aye, but don’t touch his fucking sword.” I cut a perfect strip of bark from the spear. No one was around to appreciate it. “Burns your hands.”
Well. Nearly no one.
“Do you think it hurts his hands as well?” the lass mused. I had the impression of Her on my left, chin cupped in her hand, looking contemplatively at the sword with ember eyes.
“When I said you would know which sword to choose,” Aidan sounded like he might possibly have been smiling, but in true Templar fashion, he was looking away. “That’s what I was referring to.”
“See, does it feel like that for you, lad?” The tip of the spear was thistle-sharp when I tested it on my thumb. Unnecessary. A spear didn’t need to be sharp when it had nearly two hundred pounds of bastard on the blunt end. I kept sharpening regardless. It was something to do. “Are you burning your hands each time you draw steel?”
He looked back over his shoulder, twisted to brace himself on the bough with one arm. Shook his head, negative.
“You say it burns?” Eris climbed to her feet with a huff and a set of heavy footsteps that I could feel through the ground. Still groggy, she staggered a little on her way to Aidan’s pack, stood in profile looking thoughtful. She bent down and reached—past the sword, to dig his canteen out.
“Not going to give it a try?”
“I’m alright, thanks very much.” She took a short drink, capped the canteen, tossed it back onto Aidan’s things. She stretched a bit, shoulders and back, and I stopped whittling until I could return my eyes to the spear.
Eris took a deep breath, rested her hands on her head, and sang.
It had the tune of a country reel, though the words were ones I didn’t know. While they wouldn’t have sounded out of place if she’d been singing at the front of a pub, they took on another meaning altogether here in the morning air.
“My lass is pretty, my lass is fair…” Her voice rang out, low and intimate, but it cut through the fog and the quiet in the copse.
We’re close to the Highroad. I ought to tell her to pipe down. My chest felt tight.
“No.” When I turned my head, She was there on the other side, just to my right, sat upon a fallen branch too narrow to hold Her. She watched Eris, spellbound, with sparks crazing in Her hair like burning grass. “Her heart’s in the song.”
“…she walks in the glen, with flowers in her hair,” Eris lifted her face up to the pines, back half-turned to me. “When she is smiling, the day is bright…and she’ll lie beside me, all through the night.”
She let out a breath that was more like a sigh than a proper singer’s exhalation, and drew herself up a bit further, like she was ready to let loose with a second verse. I heard the lass let out a matching sigh of anticipation.
“Quiet.” Aidan’s voice cut her off. “If there are woodsmen about, you’ll give us away.”
Grannine hissed something under her breath that even I didn’t catch. Eris’ lip twitched, and she dropped her hands to her sides. She stood there like a hollow tree for a long while before she turned to look at me.
“Slate,” she said, casual, like nothing had happened. “You’re a fighter.” She let out a long breath through her nose, even though I hadn’t said anything. Possibly my expression gave me away. “Any odds you can teach me something before we have to start?”
I looked her over. She had more weight than I did, but there was no spring in her stance or in the set of her shoulders. No sign anyone had taken it upon themselves to teach her how to handle herself. Flattest thing about her is her feet. I snorted.
“What does that mean?”
Sleep had left a bad taste in my mouth. I’ll explain later.
I tossed the makeshift spear to Eris, point wide out to the left, easy to grab. Her eyes widened, she snatched at the air. She fumbled it a bit, swayed to one side, but she laid hands on it well enough, eventually. I rubbed my eyes with my newly empty hand. It’s too fucking early for this.
“Fuck me. I bet you haven’t had a proper fight once in your life, have you?”
“And what if I haven’t?” She held the spear in two hands across her body like it was an oar. “I’m strong. I want to learn.”
“We’re going into town in a day at best, girl.” I slid the knife back away into my belt. “I can’t teach you some fucking sorcerer’s trick that’ll best any swordsman you encounter.”
She had that fire in her eyes again. The one I saw only at intervals. The one that I had not to date managed to say no to.
“It’s kind of you to help her,” Grannine said thoughtfully, in my ear. There was a hint of a smile in Her voice. I rolled my eyes.
Fuck off. I haven’t even told her yet.
“Kind of you, all the same.” Her laugh echoed in my head.
I groaned a long breath out, slapped my hands on my knees. The next groan lasted the entire way up to my feet.
“That’s not how you stand when you’re tying off a boat, is it?” I stepped a bit closer. Eris held the spear like she was about to paddle a skiff. “Fuck’s sake. Mind your feet.”
“Oh.” Eris looked down, widened her stance a bit. “Like that?”
I took hold of the spear. She let go. I looked at her. She took hold of the spear again.
“Hold your ground,” I said, and shoved. Her feet scuffled on the needles for a moment before she found something more solid. I drove her back a bit, until she got the leverage to hold steady. “Feel that? First lesson is mind your fucking feet.” I let go the spear again, gave her distance. “It all starts with your feet, and your legs, and the rest of you.” I gestured to one side. “Toss that away. Aidan!”
“What.” He didn’t sound very eager to help.
“When your watch ends, you’re taking over. Someone’s got to teach this woman how to stand before a Pentient knocks her on her ass.”
“What if I took your watch instead?”
“Fine with me. All right, river minstrel. Let’s get your stance sorted.”
I stepped in, pushed her shoulders about a bit, showed her where to put her feet, how to hold her knees. “See, didn’t your wee nun show you how to fight?”
“Somehow, it never came up.”
Grannine laughed. Despite myself, I was starting to like her. And Her.
But it wasn’t a bad way to spend a morning.