I came out of the Vault like a marten into a henhouse, if that marten staggered out one foot in front of the other, limped on a bruised hip, and nursed a knee that throbbed with each step.
There were scarlets at the door, clearing the way into the Armory over my half-built barricade. They held ironbound shields, wore swords; not armed for open battle, just chain with the weapons they’d had to hand. There were eight. They stood in a loose arc watching me, with one man in their center whose scarlets were more ornate. The silver star on his chest was embroidered with real silver; forgelight burned off it, blinding.
He wore a sword on his hip, long and curved with a golden handle. But what really gave him away was the arrogance, the confidence in his face, the cold sneer on his features.
We were dead.
I looked down the trapdoor. Mariead was still shimmying down, sliding in fits and starts, not even halfway. Wind ripped at her, threatened to tug her off. I looked away. I go now, we’ll knock her off like a rag. Even if I didn’t, we’d both fall when they cut the line. I shook my head. Let out a long breath.
“Sorry, lass,” I said, and it was such a fucking relief to speak to Her aloud. “Was always coming to this, I think.”
“I know.” Her voice was soft, almost the tone of a correction. Like She’d known all along. Maybe She had.
“You know me too damn well.”
I drew steel, flung the scabbard to my left. It hit the floor with a clamor like iron.
The Templar sword was just a bit heavy in hand—heavy like a steel bar, like something meant to crush more than cut. I liked that about it, though the sinews in my arm strained and burned to hold the thing upright. It would be slow to maneuver, harder to parry, harder to use for long. I won’t need it for long. Lass, whatever grace you have, I need it now.
I straightened up, cracked out my neck and shoulders. It stung to stand up, stabbed the breath from me, brought out a series of pops and creaks from my back.
I know how it ends. They’ll mob me, sooner or later, and drag me down, if I can’t get them to kill me. But maybe the nun will make it.
If anyone had made it before, I hadn’t heard of it.
I lifted the sword. A broad blade, tapered only at the very tip. Folded steel, black as cast iron, hints of silver like the grain of a birchwood stake.
I flourished it once in my hand, jostled it. The blade was solid to the hilt, and the hilt was rough, easy to grip. Stone laid in the handle quickly took on the heat of my palms.
Grannine wrapped Her hands around mine, warm and comforting. The ache in my knuckles faded, and I felt the blood starting to rush through my veins again. I couldn’t hold back the smile, wild and animal.
Quiet enough in the Armory to hear a pin drop. We stood at opposite ends, with the anvil nearly equidistant between us.
The Templar spoke. He had mild features. Brown hair. Brown beard. A way of looking at me like he knew I was being unreasonable, and expected me to just sit down and die.
“Heretic.” Every Templar I’d ever met had control of their voice. They learned rhetoric as well as wrestling. His voice was reasonable, educated, with a touch of Flintshire, and if he was cowed by my holding a Templar sword, he didn’t show it. “Get on your knees.”
I shifted closer to them, along the side of the forge, lowering the weapon. I held the point out to them, the hilt locked into my arms like a key. Lifted my chin. Look at me. Don’t look at the rope. Look at me, the madman, the heretic, the intruder. Look at me, come kill me.
“See, choir boy, why don’t you make me.” I barely recognized the lean, hungry growl as my own voice.
His face twitched.
“Ken, put this dog on his knees for me.”
One of the men in scarlet came forward at his master’s command, bearing sword and shield. I laughed, one single bark of sound. See, lass. He won’t risk me beating him at the first trial. He’ll send his lads in to test me.
The forge on my right seemed to get hotter still. The warmth of it struck through to my bones, burning in my chest like a hot cup of sherry.
“Let him.” Her voice hummed at the very back of my neck, sleek, wanton, and full of madness. She prowled at the edge of my vision, eyes gleaming like coals. Her words beckoned to me, stoked me to be wild and impetuous, to feed the anarchy in Her smile.
This time, I didn’t fight it. I chased after the fire in Her voice and let out a breath that tasted like smoke. It felt like my nerves were writhing in me, calling out to jump forward, to leap into action, disrupt the silence. I held. Easy, lass. Every second spent testing me is a bit further for Mariead.
Tension seared through my veins, slackened, ever so slightly. I couldn’t tell if it was because She’d loosened her grip, or if I was just getting used to it.
The soldier eked out another step, shield raised. He had a steel helm and a full shirt of proper chain, held himself well and warily. The shield was broad, a horseman’s heater, plain wood and iron bands.
Lass. How much longer?
“Minutes, at most, my Dermot. If she doesn’t slip.”
Can’t help that. I gave ground, drawing him in, wasting their time.
“Sir Lansing.” One of the scarlets closest to the forge pointed, and I wished I could leap forward and kill him before he spoke. I had the insane urge to try, and fought it back. “Look. The rope.”
Eyes turned to the anvil.
I came forward in a rush, brought the sword down.
Fighting a man with a shield is mostly a matter of getting past the shield he’s holding. Which wouldn’t be so complicated, if it wasn’t for the fact that a shield is often larger and wider than a sword, and usually, while you’re trying to get around him, he’s trying very hard to open you up with something sharp in his free hand. But if I came down on him fast, while he was off his guard, I might be able to push his shield down and give him a bit of a rap on the skull, which–
Deafening impact. Far, far louder than it had any right to be, sharp like a thunderclap. The air buckled where sword and shield met, warping in heat-shimmer lines.
I killed him at the first blow.
His wooden shield cracked, and the iron rim buckled, denting down. I pushed his arm lower, as I’d thought, caught him before he could raise his guard, as I’d hoped.
I hadn’t dared to hope for what happened after.
The very upper point of my stolen Templar sword hit his head with far more force than I’d put into the strike, caved in the front of his helmet. He didn’t even make a sound, only went to the floor in a heap and did not move again.
I stared at him.
By habit, not by intention, I stepped forward, raising my sword in guard, two-handed out before me. Rough patterns crazed over its mottled surface, folded so many times it was more black than silver. Or maybe it was something else, some secret alloy. I didn’t know. I didn’t care.
They all—even the Templar—all hesitated, and what a delicious moment that was. I had them daunted now, had them doubting, and in that I saw a slim chance to survive.
“Sir Lansing, there’s someone on the rope!”
Hesitation was death. I charged them.
Credit to their training; they didn’t falter. The three nearest men raised their shields as they’d been taught, falling back into guard. Just like the Penitent soldier I’d killed, like the green scarlet I’d put down, they retreated first, attacked second, holding ranks, preserving the illusion of a God-graced soldiery, their reflexes sped along by fear.
They gave me the ground around the anvil, and the rope tied to its base. Lass. How long?
“Minutes yet. A minute and a half, perhaps?”
I don’t know if I can give her that. They won’t stay cowed for long.
The open door of the forge blazed behind me. My chainmail was steadily getting warmer just standing this close Too long here and I might genuinely burn.
The Templar didn’t move. His soldiers in scarlet fanned out to either side, surrounding me in a wary ring of shields—but after the demonstration I’d just given, they were none too keen on getting within sword’s reach.
I wiggled my jaw, looser and looser, set it. Held up the sword. Forge and anvil at my back would keep me from getting my spine cut open, if they didn’t force me into the fire. But if I had to guard the rope while I–
“Walter, cut the rope. Cob. Liam, bait him.”
“Dermot, the left.”
She’d caught the man responding before I had, the way his eyes had turned to the Templar, and I broke away from the anvil while he was still turning to comply. I brought the sword out sidelong in an arc through the air on my threatened side, a cursory defense. He retreated from me, raising his shield to defend.
I hit it square like a sledgehammer, smashing the shield arm into his side. He staggered, thrown off like I’d hit him with a leaden weight, and I raised the sword again, quick and furious, brought it down and crushed his shoulder, brought it down again, broke him on the floor.
Blood marked my face. Not my blood.
Men behind me, closing on the anvil. I darted back, warding them away with a slash, and one of them held out his sword to oppose me, testing. My sword swatted his away, nearly tore it from his hand, and he retreated.
It’s heavy. Heavier for them than for me. I let out another bark of laughter, felt my eyes standing out wild in my head. How could I ever have thought any other weapon would suit? My breath came ragged already. Lass.
Aidan had said his sword told him its name. I heard nothing more than Her voice in my head, but I knew the weapon, the blunt, scarred blade in my hands, long-neglected and brutal in my hands. It was so good to finally wield, to pull out this scabbed and bitter weight I’d carried for so long and use it.
“Come on, lads.” I raised the sword to extension, swinging out across the empty space I commanded. Step by step I edged around the anvil, keeping it at my back, feeling the base of it out with my foot, while I worked menacing arcs with the sword. The blade hissed as it came in and out of alignment, matching the steady tone of my voice with a constant threat that rose and fell. “Which of you wants our Fury next?”
Frozen silence. How far is that for Mariead? How many more heartbeats do you need?
“Not long, my Dermot. I’ll give you the word.”
I don’t know how long I can hold him.
“Moments, not more.”
The Templar spoke at last.
“Step aside.” He drew his sword with a lazy hiss, no shield, only a blade and a bare hand. He raised the weapon in salute, snapped it out into guard, pointed at my eyes. “Heretic. For your sins I consign you to death at the point of Abner. May God have mercy on your soul, and may you find purity in the hellfire that consumes you.”
He nearly killed me. Fast as sight, with clarity and focus, he cut at me and I retreated, lifted Fury to beat him back. His sword was shaped like a leaf of grass, and it flashed white just before the blades met edge to edge.
His blade passed through my sword like a scrap of mist.
By chance, by luck, I put my foot on a hammer handle. The one the blacksmith had dropped on our entry. My ankle rolled under me, and I fell back out of the arc as his sword flashed up into a perfect high guard.
I landed with a crash among the forge implements, bracing myself on the cold stone of the forge with my left hand, stolen steel out in the right. Hammers and tongs left bruises up and down my side, but I had no time to do more than gasp out the air in my lungs.
He lunged. I caught the blade of my sword with one hand, hilt in the other, and wormed to one side against the tools, trying to parry.
Once again, his sword went through my blade like smoke, through my guard—and into my chest like a lance. I heard the ring and felt the jolt as his point struck the stone behind me.
He ripped the weapon back out with a clatter as it caught briefly on the handle of a hammer behind me. White-hot stiffness pinned me through, flaring when I moved. The entire lower half of my body turned to molten lead, crushed into agony.
I felt Grannine’s hands on my chest, near the wound, like She was trying to stem the flow of blood.
The Templar flicked his sword, once. It wasn’t even bloody. He sheathed it. “God have mercy on your soul.”
I let out an animal noise. Clenched a fist around the Templar sword, my prize. My fury. Tried to stand, but I could not. Tried to raise my sword, but it was too heavy. Lass.
“I’m here, my Dermot.”
“Say my name!”
Grannine. Did she make it?
My vision was red. Blurred. But I could see the corner of the band tied to my head, just in the very edge of my sight. I fixed on it, followed it up and to the left. How long…
“If she did not fall…she will be close enough to let go.” Hard to keep track of myself. I was pinned to the ground, body broken. “If they cut the rope…she will live, if the Runing does not freeze her.”
That’s the best I can do.
“It’s not. We can do better. We can do more.” Her voice scourged me, dragged me out of the dark and the peaceful silence, and I moaned, tried to curl to one side into the heat of the forge. “You will not die, not yet, my Dermot. I’m not done with you.”
Lass. I’m broken. What more is there to be done? I just…want…
“I am not leaving you. Give me your hand, Dermot. Say my name!”
“Damn you, Dermot Slate.” She was fire behind my eyes, pricking, inescapable. “By song and silence I swear to you, I will make your final moments an interminable agony if you do not fucking crawl now as I command!”
Blind. Breathless. I had no will to fight Her. I leaned back into the light and madness of Her voice.
I fumbled over tools, burning my hands on iron that felt cold enough to freeze my flesh like water. My hands moved numbly, out of my control, and I was too tired to resist as I hauled myself up onto the shelf by the forge, scrabbling for purchase. Voices, distant.
“Leave him. If he wishes to set himself a pyre, who are we to deny him?” The Templar. “Reid. See to Walter. Perhaps he is not beyond saving. You, cut that rope.”
The mouth of the forge was all I could see. It loomed, a doorway to warmth, to comfort, to Her. A promise. An end.
You’re right, lass. It is beautiful.
I put my hands out to the fire and took it for my own.