“For fuck’s sake,” I lowered my stick. “You’re not trying to strangle it. Ease up on the damn thing until you’re going to hit me with it.”
Eris looked down at her hands, tried to adjust the grip, failed.
“I keep feeling like I’m going to drop it.”
“Then don’t drop it.”
Eris tried to tag me with the end of her branch. I braced mine in two hands and blocked her cut, though she might have had better luck hitting Aidan than me.
“She doesn’t understand what you mean, my Dermot,” the Lass observed, unveiled in the instant between one blink and the next. She folded Her arms, watching me hold Eris back.
“You’re out too wide. Look at that knee.” I let go with one hand, pointed to her leading leg. “Get that back in line, or the first man you fight will blast it out from under you.”
“Sorry, Slate.” Eris stepped back, lowering her sword. “Let me try it again.”
“This time, try to hold it a bit lighter. Like it’s a drumstick.”
Eris swung the branch in her hand experimentally.
“Ho,” Aidan said. His voice was tight, low, and the utterance came just in the moment of silence. I raised my hands, let my makeshift singlestick fall to the ground.
“Lad. What is it?”
Aidan did not take his eyes off the Highroad down below. His hands were white on the hilt of his knife.
Eris dropped her cudgel. She pushed past me harder than I cared to oppose.
There were footholds cut into three of the pines to the north, west, and south of the camp. Aidan had climbed the one to the west, set himself quite comfortably among the branches, twenty feet off the ground. Eris hit the footholds at a run, hauled herself up hand over hand, fast as a bear and twice as hard to stop. Aidan held out a warning hand which she did not at all heed.
Brambles grew around the outer ring of the clearing, thick and tall. They blocked us and our horses from sight, preserved the illusion that this was another hill like all the others. I shoved into them, relying on the oilcloth to keep the thorns back until I could see out across the countryside just a bit better.
From there, I had a surprisingly effective view of the curve in the Highroad, where it arced through a narrow patch of treeless marsh and turned north toward Bridgeport.
“Oh,” Grannine whispered. Her hands landed on my shoulders.
The silver spearhead of the Angel’s Span rose from the clouds some ten miles to the northwest, rising high over the hidden riverbanks, pointing almost due north across the Runing. From this distance, among the fog, only three of its pillars were visible, and they were white in the rising sun, like the teeth of a corpse. Impossible to recognize as a bridge, from here.
We saw the Highroad.
A witchwagon was a noisy affair. The plates of armor on the sides often came loose and clanged together, and the axles of the wheels squeaked and grated, even on the Highroad. There was no consideration given to softening the ride of the passengers, so the smallest bit of gravel made the whole construction shake.
It wasn’t meant to be subtle. A Witchwagon was the rolling incarnation of Church justice. The last chance for the living to view the damned on their way to the pyre. A warning to the rest. It could only have been less subtle if the prisoner had been actively screaming the entire time.
We could hear it rumbling from the hilltop.
And we hated it.
“Dermot,” the lass whispered. Her voice made the hairs on my back stand on end. “Could you do something? For me?”
I snorted. Don’t suppose you’ve figured out why it is you hate that wagon so damned much?
“Not yet.” Her anger dripped at the back of my neck like boiling oil.
I shut my eyes for a moment, quenching Her presence. Opened them again.
The Witchwagon rode at the center of a caravan. Church soldiers in red flanked it on horseback. Two knights rode behind, and at the fore of the line, in a black-and-red coat that forked to fall over his saddle, was an Inquisitor.
Even from this far away, it made my blood run cold. His head was bare, without armor, and he wore only a plain doublet underneath the dark coat that marked him.
“What is that?”
“Not now, lass.”
“Hush, Slate,” Aidan said, from up above.
“I can’t see him.”
I didn’t bother to try and parse that. Instead, I stepped back from the brambles, brushing off my sleeves.
“Is that your boy?”
“It is.” Aidan slipped from the branches above and landed like a cat on the pine needles, a few feet from my side. He straightened up with a young man’s ease. Eris, meanwhile, had not left her perch, looking west with a hungry expression.
“Minstrel,” I said, in a low voice. “We can’t get to her yet. They’d cut us apart.”
“I know.” Her response was clipped. “I didn’t just think it’d be this hard to watch.”
“Come on down,” I beckoned to her. “We’ll talk it out.”
She didn’t move.
Aidan put a hand on my shoulder. I might have looked at him with murderous intent. He removed it as soon as my eyes met his.
“You remember the plan.”
I snorted, wiped my nose on my sleeve.
“You get me in that fortress, I think I can manage to piece it together. Minstrel.” I clicked my fingers at Eris, “Minstrel. You remember the plan?”
“I’ll see to the horses,” Aidan picked up his sword, buckled it into place, threw his pistol belt over his chest. Between the trees to the northwest, the Angel’s Span shone like an upraised sword. Up above, Eris slowly lowered her head, began to make her way back down.
“Runing can be hard this time of year.” I watched her for a sign of madness or hesitation. After all, it was my ass that was going to be dangling at the end of a rope if she didn’t show face. “Sure you can ford the current?”
Eris stopped her climb to glare down at me.
“I grew up on the Runing, Slate. I’ll be there when you need me.” She took another few footholds down before she finally let go and dropped, shaking the trees around us.
You with me, lass?
“I am, my Dermot. Are you afraid?”
Obviously. Not exactly a safe plan.
“Slate,” Eris said. I realized then that she hadn’t moved, looking northwest over the brambles at the edge of the hill. She didn’t raise her voice, didn’t turn. “You’ve done…things like this before?”
“Well, this is my first time breaking out of Bridgeport.”
She nodded. I ran a hand over my face. “And I’ve…had worse.”
Wasn’t entirely true, but it was true enough. She laughed, a bit surprised.
“Ever been out to North Flintshire?”
She finally turned to look at me, quizzical.
“There’s nothing out there but Forest.”
“Not true. There are druid holds out there, if you know how to look. And outlaws, poachers, plenty of settlements trying to live out far from the Church.” I put my hands on my hips. I was missing that hatchet, if only to have something to fidget with. “Plenty of them. I wintered out there one year, when I was on the run.”
“And it looked worse than this, here.” Eris said, sounding rightly skeptical.
“And how was that?”
“There was an elemental, lived in a torn-up tree a mile out from the settlement.” The memory alone was cold enough to make my joints ache. “It used to walk the paths at night, come right past. For nearly half a year, you couldn’t go out after dark, and this was in midwinter, deep enough in the Forest that you couldn’t make it out in a single day.”
“Oh,” she said. “How did you…”
“No time,” I slapped Eris on the shoulder. “Get your big bag of shit, come along.”
“Hurry up,” Aidan called, sharp, across the clearing. “We’re ready.”
“Clothes,” Eris bent down and picked up her pack with one hand, heaving it over one shoulder. “It’s clothes for Mariead. And supplies for us.”
“Won’t she have clothes?”
I had to stand and give that a think for a moment. There was something very simple about that. It was almost disarming, even for me.
She’s a nun. Anything she owned would have been reclaimed by the Church. If she’s lucky, and they feel ashamed of themselves, they’ll throw her some rags that belonged to another prisoner. She won’t have a shred to her name.
“I’ll say this, minstrel.” I wagged a finger at her, wavering just a heartbeat, poised to turn. “I would never have thought of that.”
“She’ll be so cold,” the Lass whispered, and I’d never heard her so distressed. “Dermot, is there nothing we can do?”
I rubbed the scruff on my chin.
She stopped, about to walk past. “You have a doublet in there that’ll fit me? Something I can wear?”
Eris looked me up and down, blinking. “I’ll wear it in, and if they don’t strip it from me, she’ll have something to wear on the way out.”
“Slate, that’s…that’d be kind of you.” She nodded. “I’ll pick something on the ride in, yeah?”
“Grey’s my color.”
“When you two are quite finished.” Aidan passed us, heading for his armor and mantle.
“There’s no rush. We’ve got to wait for them to reach the city.”
“I would rather follow from the woods than wait from up here.” He pulled the chain shirt over his head. “I begrudge every moment apart from her.”
“Why, choir boy. That’s the most human thing you’ve said since we met you.”
Without waiting for a reply, I turned my back on him, picked up my spear, and headed for the saddle.
You’re with me, lass?
“To the pyre, my Dermot.”