The blacksmith had fled. Mariead let him pass, put her back to the door to heave it shut. She held a hunter’s weapon, short, slightly curved. Her face was red, fresh blood trickling from her lip. She put another arrow on the string.
She struggled to draw, fingers tight around the fletching, breath forced out of her in hitches. The point of the arrow trembled and wavered.
“Look at her,” Grannine murmured. “Is she not magnificent?” She stole out of the air behind Mariead, placing her hand on the nun’s shoulder. Her eyes shone like embers, like the mouth of the forge, as She blew into her cupped hand and reached out to touch the tip of Mariead’s arrow.
Not sure if it was a figment of my imagination, but I thought the shaking of the bow lessened when She touched it.
The veteran soldier lunged at me. I only escaped by catching a glimpse of him in the corner of my eye.
He cut with one hand and punched his buckler at my face, both in one. I chose to keep my face. I usually do; Ribs, I have plenty of, but I like my face. I use it to breathe.
Mariead let fly.
The veterna’s sword blew all the air from my lungs. Mariead’s arrow cut between us. I heard—and felt—the hiss, took my sword in two hands, blocked his buckler. Traded the sword to my right, stepped into him, tightened my grip on the hilt and took the far end of the blade in hand. There was no pull or jingle of falling rings, so I judged that my side hadn’t been split open. We wrestled for a moment, using my sword as a staff to hold off weapon and buckler, struggling back and forth. I glanced to one side, to the sergeant, who hadn’t moved.
The sergeant looked down, at the arrow in his chest. A lucky shot, even if it was accurate; I wouldn’t have given good odds for a broadhead to pierce chain. He looked at me. At Mariead. Fell over.
The veteran drove his knee into my side. My vision went white.
“Now, my Dermot,” the lass snapped, right into my ear. “Right hand! Now!”
My hand snapped to full extension, and I struck him in the face with the pommel of my sword, which put him back on his off foot. I hooked the crook of Our arm around his neck, threw my weight to the side, and hurled him onto the floor.
The air blew out of his lungs, and I stepped onto him. Holding the sword like a wrecking bar, I stabbed into the opening between chainmail and shirt collar, once, twice.
He spat blood on me. That was alright. A dying man deserved to spit blood on someone.
I put the point of my sword on the ground and bent over to throw up a lovely wee bit of bile. I fought for breath, after, but all that came out was a hacking, raw sound, along with the rest of my air. I bent there for a moment, one hand on my knee, and at last I managed to inhale. That breath came out instantly in another cough.
“Breathe, my Dermot.” Grannine laid the feeling of a hand across my shoulders. I closed my eyes.
Where before it had been cozy after a long run in cold corridors, now the Armory was stifling hot. Stone walls trapped heat from the largest forge in five Shires, and the air felt too thick to breathe, a gag down my throat like the weight of the fortress, pressing down. The fire in my veins threatened to burn wild.
Heat, across my side, stiff and swollen, blood and bruise. It did feel a bit better, once I could breathe.
“Sir,” Mariead said, quietly. Her voice was rough, but more soothing than the sound of my breath.
I raised my right arm.
“See blood?” The words provoked another spate of coughing.
“I do not.” She did not approach.
“How’s the armor look?” I fumbled at my side. At least I’m not missing any links.
“Lovely.” I had a grand new stabbing pain in the chest each time I took a breath. But my heart was slowing down, one gasp after another. “Sis…” That was all of the word I could manage. “Fair shot.”
“Thank you, sir.” Her voice was calm. Uneven, hoarse, but calm. “I am glad God saw fit to grace me with accuracy.”
I stared at the floor. Stone, with a layer of soot, a rough surface without any visible joint or mortar. Blank and featureless grey. “Sir. Are you all right?”
“Fuck, no.” I started to straighten, winced, shook my head. “Sister. I’ll need…a moment. But see…try and block that door. They’ll be…coming.”
“Very good.” She didn’t protest. I didn’t see her go, only heard the scuff of her boots on the stone. I took another breath.
We’re not done. That thought made me unspeakably weary. Maybe we could be. If I wanted. I can just lie down and die here.
I stood, and turned to the door.
Mariead ran a club through the handles as a sort of makeshift deadbolt. She’d threaded a chain through above it, two ends hanging down to the floor. She was, when I looked, in the process of threading the haft of a broken halberd through above it. I shook my head again, started for the door.
“Clever enough, sister.” My voice was ragged and monstrous. I coughed, spat, and it became a bit softer. “Let me finish here. Aidan said he’d hide us a rope to the left of the vault. Run and see if you can find it.”
She looked at me. She didn’t stop.
“She’s stubborn. I like her.”
You would. I rolled my eyes, looked over the pile of waiting projects. Crates, chairs. Racks of weapons. Nothing big or heavy enough to block the doors alone, but…
Mariead jammed a barrel stave through the handles until it stuck, picked up a mace and pounded it the rest of the way in, a wedged mass of splinters.
“Sir.” Her voice was quiet. “Please block this door as best you can. I will find a bar or lock for this chain, and then, only then, I will secure our escape.”
I didn’t bother to answer. Time was wasting. I spared a glance for the forge, to placate the lass. Then I set to work.
“Aren’t we in a hurry?” Grannine knelt down beside me as I lifted up a crate. Her hands slid under the box, as if to help support the other side. It didn’t get any less heavy.
It’s a balance. More time now, less time after the alarm is sounded. The more we block it now, the longer we’ll have after.
“I’m not sticking my fucking hand in the forge.” I dropped the crate by the door. Its bottom split open, but I ignored it, turning to fetch another. My arms shook as I took hold of a barrel and dragged it into place beside the crate. Every breath burned in my nose and chest, a fresh stabbing pain each time I inhaled.
“Sir,” Mariead said, and put her hand on my shoulder, pulling me away from the task. “Here.”
She was a wee thing, with no strength to her at all. Wrists like whitethorn saplings. But I bent over, and she tied a strip of scarlet around my head, around the bleeding scrape where one of the guards had gouged his sword across my skull. Her hands shook like mine did.
“Please don’t call me Sir, Sister.” I tried to speak quietly, seized by the truly mad fear that she’d shatter if I spoke too loud. “I’m no knight.”
Mariead made a little noise of amusement, tying off the bandage on the opposite side of my head.
“Not a knight? Had you thought I wouldn’t notice?” She sounded nearly as tired as I felt, and I hadn’t even stopped to take stock of how many ways I was sore. Her voice cried out for water, for rest. “You are a knight, sir.” A thought seemed to strike her, belied by a twitch or a crinkle at the corners of her eyes. She tugged the simple bandage tight—I winced–tapped the knot with her finger. “You wear a lady’s favor.”
I didn’t like any of the feelings I had about that. I stepped out of reach.
“We should move. Find that rope, get the vault open, get you down.”
“Of course, sir.”
I stormed past her, wiping dried blood from the right side of my face. Paused, to stare into the forge again.
Lass, focus. I can’t keep losing time here.
“Dermot,” Grannine whispered. “It’s so…”
Everything hurt. My knuckles were raw, and I walked with a halt step as I moved closer, one hip turning stiff and useless. My back burned from two strokes of a sword and the bite of a dagger, and something in my side which I was fairly sure was a broken rib.
I’m so tired. I’m so fucking tired.
The heat sang off my skin. It was so fucking warm, a promise, warmth to the bones, to banish the cold and the ache. Mesmerizing. Warm like a lover’s blankets, like a hot spring, like summer sunlight. I wanted it. I wanted to soak myself in it, sink into it, dissolve like mercury–
Mariead’s voice cut into my head like an axe. I turned my eyes away from the forge and hustled past it. Weariness and misery and forty fucking years of darkness landed back on me like a ton of lead. Every fresh step hurt.
Iron windows gleamed on the side of the forge. Eight of them, one every foot and a half. Some were open; I felt the heat beaming over my face, didn’t dare to look inside.
The trapdoor sat at the far end of the forge, set into the stone. Wood, bound with iron, covered with a hinged grate. A bucket sat beside it with a long chain on a windlass. The chain wouldn’t hold us; the windlass sat on the floor mostly from habit, and our weight would pull it right through the door, or snap some brittle link in two.
Then I looked up, past the trapdoor, to the far end of the room. And I forgot all of that.
The wall at that end of the room was smooth, perfect. Grey stone, the same stone as the floor and the walls, but as sleek as ice. There were doors set into the center of the wall, and I knew without measuring that it would be the dead center, geometric, perfect. They were not iron bound; they had no ornamentation and no visible hinge. They were dark, dark silver like iron ore. They gave back no light, and they had no handle.
A vault fit for the Templar.
It was nearly as hard to turn my back on that as it was to look away from the fire. But this time the siren call was all my own.
I hauled the grate off the trapdoor, let it clang on the ground. The trapdoor itself was wedged into place on a stone lip, designed to be removed in one piece; I pulled it up, set it aside. Looked down through two hundred feet of empty air to the black water of the Runing. Chunks of ice bobbed here and there in the current, and freezing cold leaked up from the open square.
“Sir,” Mariead said, pulling me back from contemplating the tremendous degree to which someone falling out that hole would be fucked. I looked over my shoulder at her.
She stood to my left, by a rack of weapons awaiting their handles, and in one hand she held the end of a canvas. Most of the canvas was falling aside, revealing an absolutely gigantic coil of rope.
“Fuck me.” I rose to my feet very carefully, walked over to the coil. “How the living hell did the lad get that in here?”
“Aidan was always very persuasive.” Mariead nudged it with her foot. It didn’t move in the slightest, and she frowned, pushed a little harder, almost knocked herself off-balance, catching my arm for support. “I’m afraid I will need to rely upon you here, sir.”
“You certainly will.” I bent down and shuffled among the rope until I found one end, tugged it free, looked around. “Right, sister, you don’t need to rely on me only. How well can you tie a rope?”
“Would you trust your life to a knot you tied?”
She nodded. I handed the end to her. “Take this end and fu…go off and tie it around the anvil.”
Mariead smirked, winced as the expression tugged at her lip. I ignored her. “I’ll get this to the door when you’re done.”
“Just what I was thinking, sir.” She wrapped the end of the rope around her wrist. “Very good.”
I bent down and tried to figure out how to move sixty pounds of rope with a bad knee.