Sister Mariead crouched in the dark on the other side of the bars, working her hands over one another. Bruises mottled the backs of her palms. If I thought about it too much, that would make my blood boil. I thought about the air instead, the heavy, damp stink of it, the smoke that clung to every breath. I coughed. It burned a bit in my lungs.
“I mislike this plan.”
Ten minutes of fucking silence, and that’s the first thing she has to say?
“Only two minutes, my Dermot.”
“Oh, do you now?” I leaned my head back until my skull bumped against the flat bars. “Well, I’m so sorry, I’ll just go fuck myself then.”
She looked at me with an expression which reminded me very much of Aidan. One which suggested that she was wondering the same thing he often had; ‘Really? Does it have to be him?’
She let out a hiss, folded her arms, looked away.
“Perhaps it merely galls me to have no say in the matter,” she glanced at me, cold. “Had you thought of that, sir? That I might chafe at having to be retrieved like a sack of grain?”
Fuck. I sighed.
“I don’t much like the plan myself, Sister.” I shifted position, stripped off my ratty wool waistcoat, and fed it in a wad through the bars. “Here. Eris said to bring this for you.”
She didn’t lunge at it, exactly, but she took it quicker than might have been dignified. I knew, in the back of my head, that it was cold in the dungeon, I felt the cold on my arms, but it felt distant. The chill didn’t seem to get much further than the surface of my skin, like my bones were heating me from the inside.
“Dermot, give me her hand.” Grannine reached out from behind me, her arm overlapping with my own, reaching for the bars. “The poor thing is cold.” She sounded practical, like She wanted to invite Mariead into a cabin and offer her a cup of soup.
She’ll hate it. Me. See, this is going to be a hard enough job–
“I don’t care.”
“That was kind of her.” Mariead looked over at me while she wrapped the waistcoat around herself. On me it was too loose in the front, too tight at the top. On her it was gigantic, big enough to wrap twice around her. She looked like a skinned deer bundled up for sale. “I confess, sir…” she paused, long enough for me to realize she wanted a name.
“Dermot. Dermot Slate.” I held out my hand to her. She took it. Her fingers were cold and small and surprisingly rough, thick callouses on the insides of the joints.
“God smiles on the hour of our meeting, Dermot Slate. I am Mariead Valraven, once Erenach of the Abbey of Dawnfire.”
“Breathe,” the lass instructed me, soft as smoke.
I let out a breath. The air felt hot in my nostrils, dry in my mouth, tearing the water out of me. My hands went cold, and by comparison the Sister’s hand turned hot in my palm.
Mariead snatched her hand back, quickly enough that she yanked my arm into the bars, which bit down on all sides of my sleeve, scraping. The point of impact went numb, turned hot.
Mariead fumbled around with the bars on the floor, raised something short, pale, and sharp in one hand. A fragment of bone scraped into a rough point.
“Sorcerer.” Mariead’s voice was perfectly level, a dispassionate calm. “Do not touch me again.”
“I like her.” The lass slithered into the corner of my eye, within Mariead’s cell, placing Her hands gently around the nun’s shoulders. She kissed the top of her head and sank to one side, resting Her chin on one narrow shoulder. Grannine’s eyes were almost as bright as the distant candle. I could have sworn they cast light on the floor of the cell. “Dermot, would you speak to her for me?”
“Easy, Sister,” I held up empty hands. “I don’t mean to hurt you. But–”
“Dermot.” Grannine said, more intently. “Would you speak for me?”
Her voice spoke into my ears at once from both sides, and I glared at Her, before realizing belatedly that I looked more than a bit mad doing so, glaring a bit to the left of Mariead’s face.
“Sir,” Mariead did not approach. She didn’t react to the lass in the slightest, which only made Her presence more concerning, an ember-eyed woman draping herself over the fallen Sister. “What have you done?”
“Please. Trust me.” Grannine leaned a little to one side, speaking into the woman’s ear, though only I could hear Her. “You have nothing to fear from us.”
“You’ve got nothing to worry about.”
Grannine glared at me. I let the breath out of me, rolled my eyes.
“It’s for your sake that we’re here,” Grannine whispered.
She dripped from me like molten silver. Words flowed one after the other with a clarity that sure as fuck wasn’t mine. I echoed them as best I could, though I couldn’t catch the warmth. My voice wasn’t made for it. The breath in my throat was still too hot, and it turned my voice dry.
“I wish you could have seen Eris as she shared her plan.” Mariead’s face turned colder, bone-dagger rising in her hand, and I felt the urge to flinch, but Grannine held Her hand up, warning me to be still. “Her passion and her fire won my heart to your cause, and I swear to you by all that is beautiful in this world, I will see you reunited with her, see this cage undone by whatever arts are necessary.”
“…necessary.” I swallowed.
My tongue felt leaden. Breathing was hard.
Mariead stared at me, feet gathered under her, ready to strike, wary. She held the piece of bone like I wouldn’t be the first thing she’d killed.
“You speak with an eloquent tongue when moved to it, sir.” Her head swung to one side, like she could get a better measure of me from her right eye than her left. “I confess I…do not know how to respond to such an earnest profession, if it be true. I…” her voice wavered. “Hadn’t thought…”
She lowered the piece of bone. Her hands were shaking again. Something complex was happening on her face; tears, and rage. Reminded me of the anger Aidan could summon up on command. Mariead looked away, let out a single sharp breath. “It’s been…some time since I had any sign that hope was a thing worth having.”
Grannine’s intangible arms wrapped around her. She looked up at me, and the gaze struck me through, fixed with the intensity of those warm eyes.
“I am hope.”
I did not echo Her. Couldn’t.
“Trust me, Sister.” Unnatural, stilted, to speak my own words after speaking Hers. “I can’t promise you anything more than this, but,” I grinned at her, my expression. “I’m not trying to kill you.”
Mariead shook her head.
“That was never my concern, sir,” she said, softly. “You may be mad, and you may stink of sulfur, but I do believe that you are not here to do me harm. I doubt more that…” She closed her eyes, looked away. “I doubt more that this plan is not some ploy by the Bishop to torment me. Or some trick of my mind, too long gone without sleep.” Her voice grew quieter as she went along. “And most of all, I wish…it had not…” She pulled her knees up to her chest, one after the other, stiffly, wrapped her arms around them. “I was to be a martyr upon the pyre. What holier way is there to die? I…I thought I would rather that, than the life of a heretic. A terrible chase, a few more grim days of life, hunted like a dog in the woods?” She laughed a little, into her knees, shoulders shaking, a tremor that did not reach her voice. “It’s…not as clean.”
What the fuck could I say to that? I said nothing. Grannine’s eyes flared with scarlet light, brilliant enough that for a moment I was afraid the jailor would see it, but Her expression didn’t waver.
“You’re certain–” Mariead hesitated. “You’re sure she’ll be waiting.”
“Fuck me, no. I’m not sure of any fucking thing about this plan. Like it less every minute I’m here.” I rubbed my arm where she’d scraped it on the bars. “I’m here. And I don’t intend to burn. And I know for a fact I can take that dozy fuck by the door in half a blink, get his armor and truncheon. At least you won’t die in that cell.”
She laughed, bitter, under her breath. Licked her teeth. “Wouldn’t that be nice? To deny them their pyre?”
She gnawed on her lip, bloody and black where it had been split. I moved on quickly from that thought as well.
“I…need to think.” Mariead put her hands into the pockets of the woolen waistcoat, pulling it tighter around herself. “Perhaps I can come up with some amendment to this scheme that might ease my concerns. Sir, when does your plan begin?”
“Hours yet,” Grannine purred. She shifted, moving around behind the nun and vanishing from sight as She did. Her hands folded around my shoulders in turn, Her hair flowing like She was underwater. “I will tell you when it is time.”
“You’ve time to think. Hours yet. We’ll tell you.” I couldn’t recall, afterwards, if I’d said I or we.
Mariead glanced at me, a quick, keen look that I couldn’t puzzle out.
“Of course,” she said. Nodded, with such a sense of poise that for a moment I forgot we were sitting in piss-puddled cells five feet apart. “With your leave, sir Slate.”
She turned her back on me, pulling her legs close stiffly, one after the other, trying her best to wrap the waistcoat around her knees.
Did you at least manage to warm her up? That’s what started this whole mess.
“I think I did. I can’t see her like I can see you.” Grannine sighed in my ear. “We did well, my Dermot. You did well.”
I snorted. Shifted position in the cell, leaned my head back against the bars. Up above: more bars, and past them, a stone ceiling caked with soot and grime.
“How long, lass?” I whispered. “How long?”
“Long enough, my Dermot. Try to rest.”
I spat to one side, into the far corner of the cell. I scratched my right palm with my left hand, but it didn’t slake the itch. Took a long breath of smoke-choked air that brought a cough from my throat.
Eyes shut. Torchlight gone.
“Wake up, my Dermot.”
I let out a groan. In the blink of an eye my neck had gone from stiff to sore, and the flat edges of the bars felt like they’d stamped themselves onto my back. Muscles crackled and joints popped as I shifted position, blinking. I’d managed to sleep, but somehow, it actually made things worse than before.
The candle at the end of the hall had been replaced by two more, and a new guard sat by the entrance, alert, bright-eyed.
“Fuck me,” I croaked. “Already?”
I heard Her nod.
I did not feel ready to kill a man. Or six. The thought just made me more tired.
The nun in the next cell was curled up in the corner, motionless.
I hissed through my teeth, and stood as best I could, straightening up with a grunt as my back protested. Rolled neck and shoulders, one after the other.
Time to be a hero.