0.5.6. – Hit The River

Finally, I was warm all the way through. The cold of a long, dark autumn was gone like a bad dream, replaced by the warmth of fine furs and blazing fires. Mulled wine and fond company, the touch of an affectionate hand. Warmth filled me up, overflowed from me, pleasantly shining from my eyes, pouring hot from my lips, heavy with the earthen smell of sulfur. The pang stuck to my tongue, coated my throat, burned out the lungs inside me, but even that wasn’t so bad.  

“Breathe, my Dermot. No fire without air.”  

The air was cold in comparison, so very cold, prickling in my lungs.   

Voices. The Templar, his soldiers, still there, moving about the room, cleaning up after my mess. I heard the twang and rebound as one of them struck the rope with a sword, twisted cords singing back in protest against the blow of blunt steel.  

“The fuck was that, Liam?” a man’s voice said, very close to me. “You trying to fucking kill me?”  

“Sorry, Cob. Just thought…”  

“You didn’t think, did you? Fuck me. Cut it with a knife.”  

“There’s no time to sleep, my host, my Dermot.” Grannine’s voice purred around me, humming in my bones. She sounded fat and satisfied, lazy, stirring through my veins like a stiff belt of whiskey. Her words rose to the surface of my mind, bubbles bursting sluggish in a sunrise-red crucible. “In a moment I will need you to rise and run, just for a little longer. We’re so very nearly free.”  

I shook my head. “This is what you wanted, Dermot. What you desired. Close your hand.”  

The hilt of a sword, hot beneath my fingers. Fury. Mine, and not mine. I shifted position on the lip of the forge, my left hand hooked over the door to the fire– 

The fire? 

“Cob?”  

“What.”  

“When did the forge go out?”  

I opened my eyes. They were fixed on the mouth of the Bridgeport forge, the square-cut opening that looked into the heart of its flame.  

That had looked into its flame. The forge was dark. Lightless. The stone furnace at the heart of the armory was cold as a dolmen under my fingers, damp with condensation.  

“Dermot.”  

I looked at my left hand. The gauntlet had vanished, and my skin was blackened with soot from the fire, darkest at the center of the palm, lighter at my fingers, fading in curls and patterns up my wrist. I flexed the fingers. Closed them.  

The weight was gone from my legs.  

“Grannine.”  

I rose to my feet, swaying a bit, with the long, stolen sword in my hand. The two men by the anvil jumped half out of their skins, fumbling for steel.  

I swatted one of them with the flat of my sword and knocked him clean unconscious, left a dent in his helmet. The sword hummed back to guard almost by itself, heavy in my hand, ready to defend. The other man retreated. I looked up. Around the forge.  

The rope was only half cut. It ran taut from the anvil to the eyehook at the side of the forge, spooling out into the air. No one stood between me and the trapdoor. The Templar and his scarlets stood by the entrance. I realized then that I’d picked up a rounding hammer without even noticing, held it choked up high in my left hand. 

The Templar half-turned, looking at me. His plain, impassive face went pale, and he took a single step back, away from me.  

Whispers from the men. And fear. But not from the Templar. The Templar looked at me with recognition. And he spoke the same word that Aidan had, and one he had not. 

“The Succubus,” he hissed, and put a hand to his sword. “A warlock.”  

Strength jumped through me like a lightning, a shiver right up my spine and into the top of my head. 

I hurled the hammer at his head. His sword flashed up from its sheath, its blade white, and he swatted the hammer away in two pieces, splitting its wooden handle in one blow, returning to guard ready and anticipating my charge–  

I fucking bolted.  

Scrambled the opposite direction on the stone floor, snatching up Fury’s scabbard and almost falling headlong through the trapdoor. Sheathed the sword, pausing for only long enough to trade it to my blackened left hand as the Templar and his soldiers came after me.  

No time to take off the chainmail. That was all right. I’d rather die or drown than face the pyre. I took hold of the rope with my right hand, the only one still gloved. There was slack pooled out on the floor by the trapdoor, not much, but enough that I wouldn’t have to haul two hundred feet of rope up one-handed. 

One breath to step over the rope and throw a loop of it across my body, over one shoulder and around under the opposite arm. Exhaled, the stink of brimstone on my lips. Took one knee on the side of the trapdoor, spared a glance for the soldiers bearing down on me.  

It was cold.  

No time to look where I was falling. I pushed out into space and slid down the rope as fast as I dared, braking as I could. My body served as the brace and brake in one. The line hissed through one gauntlet, and my shoulder instantly protested the action, an old joint threatening to pop loose. Chainmail rattled, rope searing over the links, my weight ripping down the length of the line only a bit slower than falling. Wind tore at me, the rage of winter coming harsh off the mountains with no bridge or forest or fortress to give it pause.  

I looked up.  

The underside of the fortress was grey, featureless, perfectly sculpted, the trapdoor a lone point of light against the rock. I saw men in scarlet above looking down at me. I paid them no more mind.  

Might have been theoretically possible for a man to survive a jump of a hundred feet; I myself had done forty-five, once, into quiet water without any roving chunks of ice seeking to crush my legs. But I didn’t want to do it again. The longer I had the rope, the shorter the long fall would be when it came.  

Where’s the boat?  

“There.” Grannine’s hand pointed from over my shoulder, Her body pressed weightless against mine, and I picked out a wee craft bobbing among the chunks of ice. Mariead sat in the bow, bundled up, and the riverwoman sat astern, holding them steady against the current for now, nimbly steering them on. They’d drifted a bit from the rope, or perhaps the rope had drifted from– 

The rope came loose. Cut.  

My stomach dropped out from under me. My half-fall turned to a real fall, and I fought to get free of the rope, praying it wouldn’t somehow snag my neck as I hauled it over my head.  

I had enough time to have an indistinctly-voiced thought about how absolutely fucked a man had to be if he had enough time while falling to untangle a rope and reflect on how fucked he was. Braced my legs, crossed my arms, sword close to my body, and squeezed my eyes shut. One heartbeat. Two. Three.  

Grannine– 

“Never fear, my Dermot. I have you.” Her lips pressed into the base of my neck like a white-hot poker, and I half-expected to hear the hiss of burning skin. “This will cost me. Good luck. Find the fire.”  

What does– 

At that height, hitting water isn’t so much of an experience as it is the lack of any sensation. One moment I was falling, and the next thing I knew was cold. Such cold that I thought I might have turned to ice when I hit the surface. Followed by pain, by numb, blistering pain in my legs, the soles of my feet, my back and neck and shoulders. My heart was hammering at my chest. My ears were ringing, and the cold water stabbed into them.  

Fire in my bones. Cold in my veins.  

Falling into cold water kills you. Your body wants to die, to be quiet and still like a Flintshire tarn. Everything goes heavy, clothes, limbs, head. The black of deep water comes up from below and calls you down. Chainmail turns to a load of rock, dragging you away into the deep. I’d seen men die like that before, drowning in their armor. At least it was quick.  

Didn’t feel quick.  

I didn’t want quick. Wouldn’t have taken a quick death if it was offered. I wanted to die an ugly, clawing death, fighting for air. I struggled up, kicking against the weight of armor, sword in one hand, breathless, opened my mouth to scream defiance– 

I broke the surface.  

Lass.  

The sword was still tight in my left hand. I clung to it as I paddled, and a chunk of ice nearly hit me in the face, scraping down my arm. I fumbled on the surface, snatched a breath of air, and went under.  

Someone grabbed the scruff of my neck and hauled me from the river like a drowning rat. 

The air was colder than the water. A wind that came straight from the heart of winter tore all the heat from my bones, and I huddled on the floor of a narrow, nimble little boat while some stranger threw a canvas around my shoulders. My ears rang.  

The stranger tucked my canvas in. She was thin, and her pale hands flashed in the corners of my vision as she slipped into the bow of the boat, leveling out the weight, looking towards the shore. 

“Grannine…” 

“Rest, sir,” Mariead held a hand out to me, urging me to stay seated, and only then did I recognize her, bundled up in Eris’ giant cotton doublet beneath– 

“Oi,” I held out a hand, beckoning. “That’s my oilcloth, Sister.”   

“Slate,” Eris’ voice was rough and low behind me, caught between labored breaths as she ran the boat nimbly across the river. “If you stand up and capsize us, I swear to fuck I’ll crack your head open before we go under.”  

“Lass. Lass, can you hear me?” The warmth was gone from my heart. I looked up at the pillars of the Angel’s Span, mostly covered in fog. All I could see was the bridge. The beauty of it was gone. “Lass!”  

“Sir, please, keep your voice down,” Mariead put her hand on my knee. “I hear you. With some luck, we hope to reach the opposite shore unnoticed.”  

I swallowed, shivered, drew the canvas closer.  

Gone. I looked down into the boat, where I was slowly dripping a pool of water. Lass. Grannine?  

Thinking the name brought a flicker of emotion, but only my emotion.  

‘This’ll cost me.’ Cost me what? I shook my head, looking left, then right, seeking the flutter at the edge of my eyes. Grannine.  Where have you gone?  

“Thought you’d be dead twice over, Slate,” Eris kept her voice low. She navigated between a pair of floating ice chunks, then steered us north, heading up against the current with quick, steady strokes. I looked back at her, red-faced and bare-armed in the cold, a look of focus on her round face. “What happened?”  

“Templar took the door.” I touched my chest, two fingers probing. Not a twinge, not a twitch. “Had to hold him.”  

Eris looked at me like I’d told her I’d eaten the sun.  

“You had to what.”  

Hold him.” I pulled up the chainmail I was wearing, felt underneath. Skin wasn’t broken, though it was cold as fuck. Whatever had happened, it had left no open wound. “Couldn’t come down the rope till Mariead was away.”  

Feeling was starting to come back. It was not an improvement. Mariead huddled in the bow, staring at me. Through me. She looked over my shoulder at Eris just as often as she looked at me. Unspoken magnetism between the two of them was so strong it nearly made my hair stand on end.

The hem of her skirt was wet, at least, the part of it that showed under the enormous doublet wrapped around her. She was fighting to pull one arm out of the sleeve of my oilcloth. Her teeth were chattering. Mine too. I waved her off. She did not stop taking my oilcloth off.  

“Alright, Sister?”  

She might have nodded. Might have been shivers. I snorted. The distance between us was close enough to reach out and lightly bump her shoulder with one hand, fingers tucked in for warmth.  

“Aye, me too.” I drew back my left hand, looked down at the palm.  

It was still black as pitch, a sharp-edged starburst that looked like the edge of a flame. The black faded to grey at the edges, and when I prodded it, rubbed at it with my thumb, it didn’t hurt, didn’t feel any different from the skin around it. No soot came away on my fingertips.  

I grunted. Tucked this hand under my chainmail with the other; better not to risk losing any fingers now. We might be needing them to fight our way out.  

“Eris. Tell me you’ve got a plan from here?”  

“Aidan’s left horses on the north bank. We’re to find them and start for Farforest.” We were closer to the shore now, the currents more erratic. The prow of our little boat clipped over ripples and waves as we went. “There’s a town on the way, was taken by pox. Church is still standing, town’s abandoned.” She had to work harder, bringing us in closer, and I saw the north bank of the Runing ahead. Trees hung out over the water, roots twisting along the edge. “We’ll camp a while in the old church and wait.”  

“Fuck me, you’ve taken us halfway to Northshire.” I turned, looking for Bridgeport, but the Angel’s Span was lost in the fog. “How’s the lad supposed to find us in this muck?”  

“He will find us.”  

“He’d better.”  

He’d better. If he dies, and sticks me with these two, I…don’t know what I’ll do.  

I don’t think I can leave them.  

Lass. Where did you go?  

*

0.5.5 – Fury

0.5.7 – Run the Highroad

2 thoughts on “0.5.6. – Hit The River

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