I wore one stolen sword at my hip, carried the other in my hand, fingers wrapped around crossguard and hilt. Mariead had the bodkin somewhere under her stolen scarlet, cudgel in hand.
The halls were a maze, each corridor the same, every line of sight blocked by sets of doors. It was like being in a dream surrounded by grey stone, lit by racks of candles. Our footsteps echoed, voices carried, every sound magnified, and the echoes of other distant footsteps shuffled around us. Each time we approached a set of doors, I braced myself for a fight. Was a bit disappointed each time there wasn’t one.
If we’d blinked, or faltered, or taken a wrong turn in our escape, we’d have gotten lost, been found, been killed. Even after walking the halls with Aidan, even after having the way pointed to me, I wasn’t too sure of the path.
We weren’t alone.
“Dermot,” Grannine whispered. “Take the left. We’re nearly there.”
“I’m always sure, my Dermot.”
I blew out a breath, shook my head, and took the next left.
“Is it very far?” Mariead kept her voice low.
“You’re certain it isn’t this way?” Mariead lingered at the intersection a moment longer, staring toward the doors.
Grannine stole out of the air behind her, placing a hand on the nun’s shoulders. She didn’t push—couldn’t push. I hoped.
“Come along, my Mariead,” She whispered.
“I’m sure, sister.”
“As you like, sir.” Mariead shook her head. “But I pray whatever genius guides you is unerring in its direction.”
“Unerring, it is. Helpful, it isn’t always.”
“Hurtful, is what you are,” Grannine commented. She sat on the ceiling when I looked, hair and dress pooled around her in an impossible disregard for up and down, eyes glowing like embers. The tips of Her fingers were as black as coal, and they dug into the stone.
“Having fun?” I tried to keep my voice low.
“I don’t know that I would call this fun, sir.”
Even the dozens of candles didn’t manage to keep things warm. I tried not to think about the long stretch of cold air between the floor and the surface of the River Runing. Lass, are we on the bottom of the fortress?
“Nearly so, as I would reckon it, my Dermot.”
She lent me Her eyes.
I stood in pitch-black air, looking at a landscape I could not understand. Unfamiliar red constellations surrounded me, and burning shapes wove in and out among them. An enormous, mesmerizing shape of scarlet glowed up ahead and to the right, blocky and harsh like stone, barely visible in the bloom of light. There were other lights around it, but I could hardly see them.
It was beautiful.
And I could hear something. A distant, clear ringing, a roar, the murmur of voices.
Not lights. Heat. That’s heat.
That’s the forge.
With that realization, it became clear. The points of light I’d taken for stars? Candles, lining corridors above and below. The shapes? Men in the scarlet, walking patrols of twos and threes all around us. And the forge, close now.
I reached out a hand toward it, touched cold stone. The wall was still there, I just couldn’t see it.
“Sir,” Mariead said, cautiously. “Are you–”
I whirled, seeking. Searching. Disorienting, to see up and through the fortress like this, without seeing the ground under my feet. I could see the patrols—none close, thank fuck, but still a present menace—Lass. The dungeon.
Here, my Dermot.
Her hand appeared in the corner of my eye, pale white against a world of fire, pointing. I followed it and saw only one living shape, the guard we’d left behind, lying in his cell.
Well. That’s lucky for us.
Eyes squeezed shut. Blinked them a few times. The world came back, solid stone and only the hall in front of me. I shook away the afterimages and turned around. This way?
“We’re going the right way.” I hefted the sword in my hand. No chance you know how many men are in that forge?
“It’s so bright.” Her voice was hushed, almost adoring. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Aye, you haven’t seen much, though, have you? So that’s not surprising.
She laughed, and we passed through another set of double doors, set in the center of the corridor, midway along its length. This time, I approached them at ease, shoving through, held one open for Mariead to come along. I’d seen the hall empty.
Thirty paces down the hall, a set of iron doors was set into the wall to the right, just the slightest bit ajar. I took a deep breath. The air smelled like smoke and stone.
“Don’t call me that.” I glanced at her, licked my teeth, grimaced. “Don’t know how many men are in there.”
“Do you not?”
“Aidan said it might be as many as five or six.”
Her face changed as I said that. The way she looked at me was different. I’d been expecting that. Took the sting out of it. “Sister, see, if it’s more than two, I want you out the way. You find a wall and you put your back to it.”
“I will not watch you die on my behalf.”
“You can and you will. I’d do the same.” I glared at her, to emphasize that. Didn’t quite believe it as I said it, but she had the look of a woman who’d do something stupid if I didn’t drive that point home. “Aidan said he’d have a rope hidden for us by the back of the armory, to the left of the vault door. I’ll do my best to clear the room. Do not leave that fucking wall until I’ve done.”
I saw her want to reply. Didn’t let her. “I’m not fucking joking, Sister.”
Her lip curled in a sneer, quickly hidden. Good. Hate me a bit. So long as you actually stay out of it if there’s trouble.
“If I’m approached,” she said, in a warning tone.
“If you’re approached, Sister, you can put them down as fast as you like, or shout out for me and I’ll handle it. Or both.”
“I’d appreciate that. Sir.”
I snorted. Hefted the sword in my left hand, fingers split two and two around the crossguard, blade pointed down toward the stones. Checked the other sword with my right. I liked the one in the sheath a bit better; old, weathered, well-oiled.
One step to the door in battered old boots covered in shit, piss, and blood. Then another. The double doors opened inward, plated in solid, black iron. Almost ostentatious. Subtle workings and hammer-marks covered the doors, accentuating the edges of each panel.
Think they might be enchanted?
I stopped moving. Lass. I was joking.
“I wasn’t. They’re not enchanted.”
I looked toward Her voice. She sat against a wall opposite the door, cross-legged, dress flowing out around her like a white flower fading to black at the edges. She shrugged. I rolled my eyes.
Back over my shoulder to Mariead, pale and too small for her armor. For all that the woman looked annoyed with me, she nodded, set her wee jaw.
Set one shoulder against the wall, closed my eyes, took a deep breath. My palms itched, and blood pounded through my veins. I took another breath. The blood hissed in my ears. I squeezed my eyes shut harder, pictured Mariead and her black eye in the cell, pictured thirty years of shit and curses. A third breath, and air crackled in my lungs.
It’s best, in these situations, not to sit around and wait to be ready. Who the fuck is ever ready for a fight? A fight starts when it starts, and not when you’re prepared for it. So you might as well know when it’s going to go off.
I put my right hand on the sword at my side.
Slammed around the corner, through the door. My palm hit the iron, shoved it inward. I bulled through the door, raised my left hand with the sword point flying high.
We were fucked.
The room was longer than it was wide, stretching away to my right. The near end was full of boxes, crates, racks of weapons, chairs with iron fittings, chests with iron bands—all packed so close that it would be easier to walk over them than among them. Windows on the opposite wall looked out underneath Bridgeport, through a warren of wood and plaster, into fog and clouds.
Tools and raw materials were set across the area further in, hooks and hammers, clamps and tongs, sacks of charcoal and coal.
There were not five men here. Not six, either.
There were eight men, including a blacksmith the size of a barn door who stood caught in the midst of fitting a fork into his anvil.
Eight men. Six in the scarlet, mid-conversation. Three close to me among the crates and weapon racks. Four further in, closer to the forge, one trying on a suit of chainmail too big for his arms. None higher than a sergeant. All armed.
Chainmail is sturdy stuff. Links of iron closed by clever rivets, light, strong, and expensive when properly made. Men in the scarlet here wore only the best, courtesy of the Templar, and it would turn the edge of a blade as easily as turning a single-stick.
The edge of a blade.
I threw the sword in my left hand. It punched through the chest and chain of the nearest man and knocked him half off his feet, sent him sprawling to the floor. Pulled the other sword free.
Here’s the secret.
No ordinary man can kill eight in a straight fight. It can’t be done. There aren’t even many who could survive fighting two at once, especially when they’re all veterans. If the men you’re after murdering have you outnumbered, if they have even the slightest idea what they’re doing, they’ll kill you if you give them half a chance.
So you don’t fight fair. You hit them fast. The more you kill at the first go, the less you have to face at the end. If you’re lucky, you kill them all before they know what’s happening. That’s the safest way to get it done. Quickest way to end a fight is to be the only one who understands you’re fighting.
Throwing the sword bought me a moment of surprise, killed a man without having to step to reach him. On my draw, I killed the second; caught him too close to the door. But by the time I got to the third man, my luck had run out. His sword was half cleared; I could take him, I knew I could take him, and he knew it as well, saw it in his face—but then I’d still be left with the others.
The difference between five men and three might as well be a thousand. I’m a sellsword by trade. A killer. But I’m not a hero.
This was beyond me.
Oh well. Might as well give it a shot.