The north shore of the Runing was a jumble of rock, moss, and roots, with plenty of overhangs and outcroppings to hide us from eyes on the bridge. Eris put in between two low hills that crumbled into the river, overgrown with brambles on either side. A tranquil little cove was formed among the stones, looking north into the strip of forest along the Northshire road.
I hopped from the boat, into the water, feet numb in my boots, sinking almost to my chest. My heart fair stopped again as I sank up to my chest. Scraps of ice floated past on the current. The light was grey overhead and getting darker, a storm coming on fast out of Northshire.
“Slate,” Eris snapped, glaring at me from the bow. “Let me–”
“No s-sense t-two of us f-freezing.” My teeth knocked together when I talked. I took the boat in one hand, hauled it to shore best I could. I clambered up onto the bank as Eris helped Mariead step lightly from the prow to the stones. Her stolen boots slipped on the moss, and she caught herself on my shoulder.
“Forgive me, sir.” When she turned her head to speak to me, it brought her blackened right eye into view, a dark patch over her features. The split in her lower lip had been wiped roughly clean, the black old blood gone, a fresh dribble of scarlet at the edges.
“All right, Sister,” was all I said.
Eris came ashore next, cast a longing look at the boat, and kicked it off into the river with both oars aboard. She made a face like she’d just had to toss a dog into the river instead.
“On,” she said, pointing. “Horses will be hidden on the Northshire road.”
Storm winds still reached us here, among the crags on the coastline. I pulled my oilcloth close. Shivering so hard it was difficult to put one step in front of the other. Tried to think of something other than being fucking freezing.
We struck out north into the forest, mercifully free of the wind. Wouldn’t be a long walk; there was only a narrow stretch of trees between the Runing’s north bank and the road to Caer Alstead, though there didn’t seem to be any paths cut. Good thing it’s still early.
Lass, what time is it?
My legs ached and creaked as I walked. Hitting the surface of the river had left them bruised and jarred, left me halt-stepping along ahead of Mariead and Eris, using Fury as a cane. The one gauntlet left on my right hand kept out little cold, better than nothing. At least I can walk on the sword. Don’t want to think what I’d have had to do if I’d picked a shorter one.
The thought wasn’t funny. I snickered despite that, hoping to draw Her back. Lass. Are you there? Haven’t heard a sound from you since we hit the river.
“You’ve b-been quiet before, lass. B-but I could use your help now. C-could use those eyes of yours finding our horses.”
Only when Mariead asked did I realize I’d been talking aloud.
“Have you gone mental, Slate?” Eris put a hand on my back, pushing me along, steadying. “Can you hear me?”
“Aye, I c-can fucking hear you.” I limped a bit faster, out from under her hand, looked back. “You alright, Sister?”
“You’ve asked me that before, Sir, but I will gladly repeat it.” Mariead’s head poked out between the shoulders of Eris’ doublet, far too large, fastened around her by a broad belt. The wool vest I’d worn into the fortress was somewhere among those layers. “I am fine. Eris caught me before I even touched the water.”
“Some people have all the luck.”
These woods had once been farmland, but they’d been overgrown, close and tangled with undergrowth, and I could hardly see more than ten feet. No doubt that’s why Eris had landed us here.
It was cold, even without the wind. I had to force myself to take each new breath, the smell of mud and winter in my nose. My hair was plastered flat and freezing cold. I could feel the heat leaving me every step.
I patted down my head. Nothing. I’d lost Mariead’s wee scrap of cloth, my bandage. Missed it. Would have kept off a bit of wind. Should have taken one of the helmets. No hood on my oilcloth, but I turned up the collar, stumbling on northwest toward where the road ought to eventually cross our path.
Fury was heavy in my hand. Like walking through the woods with an iron bar. My shoulder ached to carry it, or maybe it ached from riding that rope down. Either way, my breaths were coming in shudders, and I had to blink to keep my eyes open.
“Don’t suppose you have a change of clothes waiting with the horses?”
“Maybe.” She at least sounded sympathetic. “Sorry. Didn’t think of it. Aidan might have.”
A wall of brambles blocked our way north. I plunged in, making a hole. Eris came crashing through behind me, widening the path for Mariead. My foot caught on a root, and I nearly plunged headlong into the thorns, but I managed to get off with only stabbing my left hand half a dozen times.
“Fuck.” I pushed on, bleeding, emerged at last on the open Northshire road. Looked north. Looked south. No traffic on the road in either direction. Bridgeport, away in the fog to our right, was only just visible as a looming shape in the gloom. I let out a breath. “Fuck me, minstrel, we went a fair way upstream.”
“We did. Come on.”
I turned around to find that Eris had taken a knee, and Mariead took a step back, arms thin and birdlike folded over her chest. “Madi. There’s no time to be proud about it, get on.”
The battle of wills went on a moment longer, until Mariead relented with only a wee huff of protest, putting her weight onto Eris, arms on her neck. “Aidan said he’d leave the horses off the road and mark them, so keep a sharp eye.”
“Mark them how?” I walked backward behind Eris for the first dozen paces, watching in the direction of Bridgeport, listening. No torches were kindling at the northern gatehouse, at least none that I could see through the fog. Lass, again, if you’re there, I could use your eyes.
“He’ll pin scarlet to a tree,” Mariead murmured. Her voice shook slightly with each step Eris took, as she rode up and down. “It will be low, close by the ground, on a south-facing hardwood. It’s what we would do to mark a secret meeting in the woods at our manor.”
“Had a lot of those, did you?”
She glared at me with a regal expression, the menace in her eyes undercut by the way her oversized doublet made her look like a bolster being carried along on Eris’ shoulders. I laughed, shook my head again, crossing behind them to walk on Eris’ other side. “Easy, Sister. I’ll keep an eye, if you’ll watch the right.”
I watched the left side of the road, forcing my eyes to stay open. Each step was harder than the one before. Lass. I’m fading. Not a bite to eat or a drop to drink except for falling into the Runing. I need you. Need the company. Even just a bit of encouragement.
I shook my head, stumbling on, and caught a flicker of scarlet from the corner of my eye. My heart leapt in my chest for a moment, fire blazing—but it was only my own excitement, and the red was only a scrap of scarlet cloth pinned to the base of a birch.
“There,” I said, pointing. “Off there.”
I knelt at the edge of the trees, ran my hand over the moss. Sure enough, there were prints where horseshoes had torn up the loam. “How long has he left it here?”
Eris shrugged, jostling Mariead lightly on her shoulders.
“Said he’d place them last night sometime?”
“Eris, take the cloth,” Mariead ordered, and Eris grunted, kneeling to take hold of the strip of scarlet and rip it away, leaving only a bare nail behind. “I can walk from here.”
“Can,” Eris muttered, following me into the forest. “Won’t.”
Horse. Need to get the horse, so we can get to the road. Need to get to the road so we can get away before the Church comes down the river. Need to get far enough away, so we can get a night of sleep. Just the thought of sleep was enticing, alluring as Grannine could be in Her darker moments. I was more than half tempted to just kneel down and give up right there on the side of the trail, trudging through the gloom under the branches. It felt eerily like we were going backwards, forging through the forest; the brambles had been cut or crushed to one side by the passage of horses, and I couldn’t help but feel that if we walked far enough, we might come upon our boat, climb back inside, and shimmy up a rope into the heart of Bridgeport.
I blinked, waking again just before I walked facefirst into an aspen.
End of the trail.
Wasn’t much of a clearing. Looked handmade, like the lad had gone around in a short circle with a hatchet and taken down five or six saplings. The horses were tied with long halters, grazing idly on the grass, and their ears turned toward us as we came out of the forest. They were well-trained, bridled and ready, and when I finally took my eyes off them, I noted saddles and packs on the southern side of the clearing, tucked under a low pine.
Lass? Anyone hiding here?
Beside me, Eris knelt again. Mariead slid off her back, rocked to one side, bumping into my shoulder. Eris and I both steadied her between us.
Eris walked forward into the clearing with a strength I simply could not match, lifting one saddle and strapping it into place. She dug into the saddlebag, rummaged, and threw a cloth-wrapped bundle at me.
“You two. Eat.”
In the bundle was stale bread, a bit damp. It was accompanied by Aidan’s canteen, full of cold water. At the bottom, in another layer of cloth, I found a hunk of cheese and the end of a sausage. Mariead took it from me, broke the bread in half, and we sat down right there in the moss and ate together without exchanging a word, dividing the rest between us.
I felt like shit.
I wanted to get up. To run. To draw steel and stand in the middle of the Highroad and wait for the Church to come. To sprint to the Runing and swim across. But there was nothing I could do. Not yet. I hadn’t the strength to drop a saddle on a horse; I wasn’t sure I had the strength to sit upright on one.
All I can do is sit here and be useless. Far better to sit, to do nothing, to rub my arms against the cold and to eat my dried, stale bread.
Maddening. To be full of rage and fear and sit there doing nothing at all. But I did. And I called for Her, in the back of my head. Thought I felt Her for a moment, stirring through my thoughts, a flash of joy in the drops of dew across the moss.
I should be dead. Should be a dead corpse in the depths of the Runing. Might have made it all the way to the sea, if the current is strong and I don’t get snagged on a root. Might bob to the surface in summer when I bloat, scare some poor riverman half to death.
I put my head down, squeezed my eyes shut. Felt sleep rising up after me.
“Still with us, Sir Slate?”
I laughed, dry in my throat. Drank from Aidan’s canteen, screwing the silver-star cap back into place.
“Against all odds.” I wiped my mouth.
“Let me see you.” Mariead brushed my hair back. “You’d been…” Her voice trailed off. I looked at her from the corner of my eye. “You’re burning up. Do you feel feverish?”
“I’d been…” I prodded her shoulder with the knuckles of my blackened left hand.
“You’d been cut,” Mariead leaned closer, staring at my forehead. “But it’s…does this hurt?”
She ran her finger back and forth over my right temple.
Mariead screwed up her features, squinting at my head. I started to want to be somewhere else. “You all right, Sister?”
“I don’t understand this.” She let her hand fall away. Then she grabbed my arm, pulling my left hand to her, palm up. “God Almighty. What happened here?”
“Put my hand in the forge.”
She looked at me in a way which expressed that she very much did not find that to be a particularly helpful explanation. The tilt of her head and her tone of voice as she asked the next question suggested that I was being a bit thick.
“Seemed like a good idea at the time.”
“Come on, you two.” Eris lumbered back into our conversation, holding her hand out to Mariead first. “We’re ready to go. I want to make that old church by noon.”
Mariead put a hand on Eris’ waist, standing close to her. They had an easy comfort between them which I envied. I missed. Eris hauled me to my feet like a sack of coal. I grumbled and clicked and clattered like one, too.
“You alright to ride on your own, Slate?”
Wish I wasn’t.