There were no beautiful things here. That suited me fine. The dungeon smelled like piss and smoke. A single fat candle provided illumination for the end of the hall. My side was starting to sting.
Light streamed under the door from the corridor outside, and when I listened at the keyhole, I could hear two voices in low conversation. They spoke in low, doltish tones, without the refinement of a Templar. I hoped.
They knocked again, louder.
No time for contemplation.
“Open up,” one of them shouted. “I don’t have all fucking morning.”
I looked back down the narrow dungeon. They’d meant for prisoners to be marched to their holes in single file. The walkway widened a bit at the end, enough to leave space for a chair and a wee barrel that served to stand up the candle.
Mariead stood in the center of the walkway like a ghost. She wore the chainmail like she’d blow over if I opened the door too fast. Her pupils were wide, knuckles white on the handle of the dagger I’d handed her. The hands poking out from her sleeves were pale and shaking, though I couldn’t tell whether it was from fear, anticipation, or the sheer effort of standing with so much weight on her; chain over scarlet tunic, over waistcoat, over rags. Her hair was tucked back under a leather cap, under her hood, and she still swam in the clothes, even swaddled and padded.
“Well, sir,” she murmured. “How will we reckon with this?”
I eyed the door. Then the candle.
“Well, Sister.” I hefted the club in my hand, two feet of solid, dented elm. Sniffed. “We’ll have to let them in. Close the door and pray that cuts off the sound.”
“I believe I have prayed enough.” She tested the edge of the knife on her finger absently. “I will finish one.”
“That won’t be necessary, Sister. Give me a chance and I’ll have the two of them.”
“I won’t sit by and have you do my dirty work, sir.” Her voice was sharp, and carried in the dark like the point of a dagger. “If there is to be blood on my hands, I would like to have a share in spilling it.”
“Fuck me,” I grinned. “If I’d met more nuns like you, Sister, maybe I’d have liked the Church more.” She did not smile.
You’ve got a good eye for the measure of people, lass. Think she can do it?
“I’ve no idea.” Grannine stole through the room like a breeze, intangible, Her voice moving from the nun’s side to whisper in my ear like a conspirator. “I wouldn’t like to try stopping her.”
I looked her over. She looked more than a bit mental, clutching the knife so hard that her knuckles were white, breaths coming quick.
“You can handle that hairpin?”
“If you have another weapon for me, sir, pray reveal it.”
Another knock at the door. Mariead started, chainmail rattling. I grimaced. We don’t have fucking time for this.
“It’ll be dark. You’ll have the drop on him, but I might not be able to save you if you don’t use it.”
“God will provide.” Her eyes burned dark and wild in her features like chips of dark glass. She let out a hiss of breath, venting the heat from her voice, each word cold and precise. “Let us have this done with, sir, lest I lose my nerve.”
“Get yourself back a step. Give them space. If you can’t handle one, I will.” The door handle was cold, rough on my palm. I stepped to one side, letting Mariead stand in full view of the doorway in her tunic and chain. Ready, lass?
“I am, my Dermot.”
I picked up the candle in one hand, hauled the door open.
One man in the scarlet barged right in, and a second swaggered after. That’s right, you dumb bastards. Come right in. I’d be impatient as well, if I’d sat out there stewing so long.
“You’ve got some fucking nerve, keeping us waiting.” The first man saw only the uniform Mariead wore. He advanced on her, closing to ten, seven, five feet.
“Almost ten minutes out there, we were,” the second man stepped through the doorway, without bothering to look at her either.
“Four minutes,” Grannine corrected softly, at the back of my head. I didn’t laugh, too busy watching his shoulder blades move down the corridor. Go on, man. Keep walking. Give me space.
The first guard in line finally stopped talking long enough to notice Mariead’s face. Her pale, sunken, haunted face, brown eye burning from a heavy bruise, lip still split and bloody. He reacted with the grace I’d expected.
“…what the fuck? Who–”
I threw the candle at his head and put my shoulder into the door. It swung to, and slammed into the slower of the pair with all the force one tall bastard could muster, knocked him to one side into the wall. I shoved harder, put my back into the door, moved with it.
There’s a simplicity to fighting. To having to act or die. Thinking about the world, the Church, about God or demons or damnation for too long, it only made my head hurt, made my chest rot, gave me heartburn.
But this. This is what I live for. This is what I’m good for.
The candle went out. Never did see whether or not I’d landed the shot.
I slammed the door. The lass gave me Her sight.
The world turned bloody scarlet, three bodies blooming in the dark like embers, red light shining at the seams of their armor. Each exhalation a puff of ruddy crimson. Hands, faces, eyes were starkly visible.
Mariead hit the nearest of the pair, silent. She drove the bodkin into his neck, into the gap between helm and hauberk, not once but three times. Arterial blood glowed warm, flooding his shirt. He clutched at her blindly, and she switched the knife to her other hand, fumbled in the dark, and stabbed it up under the pit of his arm, finding her way by feel.
See, I knew I liked her.
“What the fuck,” my man repeated, reaching for his belt.
Mariead’s opponent gurgled, and she withdrew, slipping on rag-wrapped feet down the hall with unsteady paces, bodkin shining in her hand.
I didn’t have a chance to see if she was hurt. Instead, I hit my man a stunning blow on the back of the head—or I would have, if my wooden club hadn’t clunked off a very solid iron cap hidden beneath his hood.
He let out a cry and stumbled forward. I heard the hiss of a well-oiled sword, saw his fist burning around a weapon as black as the dungeon air.
The other man let out a hoarse, gurgling cough.
My man was well-trained. His feet were hard to see, flashing in and out of view, shielded by boot and trouser, but I saw him in lines and glimpses of red light while he found steady footing on the dungeon floor. He advanced, eyes beaming blindly, head scanning side to side, listening.
I couldn’t spot his sword, either. That gave me pause. I had to watch the set of his shoulders, his arms rising close to his chest, held almost level with one another. I thought I recognized the guard, might have been able to guess where the blade would be, but I gave him space to be sure, backed up until I had the door at my shoulders.
I stomped my foot on damp stone. He stabbed at me right away, lunging, and I ducked to my right, let him run his sword into the door.
It rang dully as it hit the ironbound wood. There you are, you bastard. I went for him. Fumbled in the dark with my left hand until I touched something long and flat. Brought the club down.
I hit him. The sound was muffled by chain and cotton, but I caught his arm somewhere between wrist and elbow. I closed my palm and fingertips together over the sword, tight on the flat. Hope these fucking gloves are up to the task.
He’d taken his training well. Managed to hold onto the sword a bit longer, until I put the club into his face and yanked it from his grip. Struck him across the face again with the hilt, metal on bone. He sputtered out a fireblast of steaming blood, air, and curses.
I tossed the sword to one side on the floor.
The clash was deafening, echoed off the walls.
At least they’d left me my boots. Probably thought they were so caked with mud that they couldn’t possibly be of any use. They were to me. I kicked him in the ribs for good measure.
“Sister,” I said. Didn’t take my eyes off the man on the floor. Sure enough, he started to reach for a knife. I kicked him again. “Answer me.”
Mariead’s voice was thin. I strained to hear it down the hall, over the noises the other man was making. Lass.
“She said, ‘I am unharmed, sir.’” Grannine’s voice became, just for an instant, the very image of Mariead’s, her diction cold and perfectly duplicated, an eerie noble accent in the lass’ throaty purr.
See, that’s not a bad sound for you.
“Would you find it more amenable if I were to adopt it? Sir?”
I rolled my eyes. Took a fistful of my man’s tunic, dragged him down the hall to the cell Mariead had once used, threw him inside. In the dark, with his arms broken, he’d be some time in getting out. The other guard was dying. I left him for now.
“Lass, where’s that candle gone?”
“I do not know.”
Grannine’s pale hand flashed in the corner of my vision, her arm clearly illuminated as if by a shaft of light. I knelt and fumbled where she indicated, found the candle cooling and mashed on the floor. Lass.
Fire on the wick. Scarlet, fading to gold. Light, ordinary, gloomy candlelight, chasing away the red. I looked up to Mariead, not far off, with her bodkin raised and blood on her front. She wasn’t shaking any more.
“We alright, Sister?” I held out the club to her, still bloody. She looked at it, then at me. “Take it. I won’t have you going about unarmed.”
“I can handle a sword.”
“Sure you can.” I held out the club. I’m betting it’s been a fair bit since you’ve held a sword. You lose your grip. Some man in the scarlet takes this club from you, better odds you won’t be dead when I have to come over and pry him off.
Mariead’s upper lip twitched, a grimace. She took the cudgel wordlessly and pushed past me, toward the door.
“Don’t go anywhere yet,” I bent down and unbuckled the sword and belt from the dead man.
A faint ringing sounded behind me. I looked over. Mariead had taken the other sword off the ground. Her arm shook as she held it to full extension, and with some effort passed through three positions; a high guard, a key guard, a low. Her back was turned to me, so I could not see her expression, but her shoulders sank. She lowered the sword. Didn’t say a word.
I picked over the dead man. His hauberk was covered in blood, but it would fit; I stripped it off him with a bit of difficulty, then peeled his cotton off him. The sleeves were too short on me. The cotton went on, fastened as far as it could, and the chainmail over that. The jacket stuck to me, still warm with gore.
Looked up to see Mariead back before me. Her feet were still wrapped in rags. She held the sword out to me.
I climbed to my feet, took it from her. It was old, battered, well-oiled, steady in the hilt. Churchmade, with the seven-pointed star stamped into the pommel, but maintained by a careful hand. Should have killed the man after all. He’s too good a soldier for the Church.
“Sister.” I jerked my head back. “See the man in my cell? Feet like a wee bird. See if you can’t get his boots on you.”
The new scabbard went around my waist, cinched firm. The sword it held hadn’t been nearly as well-kept; I glanced at the man I’d beaten, the only survivor of the three we’d dealt with. Traded one sword for another into the scabbard.
“It won’t be this easy, you’re thinking.”
“We were lucky this time, lass. Twice lucky. That I had you, and that they weren’t ready for me.” I grimaced.
“I dare to hope it is providence, and not luck,” Mariead replied from our cell, scaring the life from my bones. “I suppose we will see.” She worked at the man’s boots for a moment…a moment longer…Too long.
“Dermot, help her.”
“Fuck’s sake.” You don’t have to tell me. I was going to. I stepped back over the dead man on the floor, put aside the sword, stepped into the cell with Mariead.
She fought me for a moment over the laces.
“I can do it.”
“Fucking hell, Sister, your fingers are half frozen.” I thought about further commenting along that dimension, left off, tugged one boot off the man and thrust it at her. “Here. Get that on you.” I set to work on the other, had it off quick enough. “How long?”
Grannine stood on the other side of the bars, white dress and golden hair, looking toward the door with an expression of some concern on her features.
“We’ve spent too long, I think. Better move, my Dermot.”
“Right. Ready?” Mareiad was fumbling with her own laces, now, nearly done with the first boot. I tied the other. “You walk in those?”
“I believe I will have to, sir.”
“I’m…sorry, Sister.” I wrenched up to my feet, knees aching. Thought about what the lass might say. “I don’t mean to pull you about. Eris said you’re very capable, and maybe so. But it’s my part to treat you like glass, make sure we have you out of here in one piece.”
I offered her my hand. She took it. Light as a goosedown bolster coming to her feet, fingers still cold in mine. She only nodded, and I might have missed that if I hadn’t been looking at her so damn close.
“That was well said, my Dermot.” Grannine whispered, at the back of my neck. “You’re learning.”
Turning away hid my expression from Mariead. The wolf smile again, too many teeth in a black beard. My palms itched. I took up the sword.
Find the armory. Find the vault. Out the trapdoor. I took a deep breath of filthy, bloody, piss-soaked dungeon air. It tasted like the misery of every poor bastard who’d come here for execution without the help of a Templar. I won’t stand on a pyre, lass.
“I wouldn’t let you.”
We’re going to put our hands on Templar steel. The old, old anger boiled in my chest. From knots and scars to molten lead, white-hot and quick. I felt sharp, black and incendiary. I’m going to get us through that trapdoor. Or we’re going to die trying.
“Freedom or death.” The lass let out a little sigh, perfectly content. “What more is there?”
I didn’t have an answer. Didn’t think I disagreed.