0.5.8. – Plague Church

The ride passed in fits and bumps, right hand twisted up in the reins while I tried very much not to fall out the saddle, trusted my horse to know what he was doing and follow the other.  

I didn’t manage to get any sleep. Mariead might have—at times I looked over and saw her head lolling into Eris’ arms. I woke up now and again, half-slipping from my place. There was no warm whisper to catch me when I jolted back to life.  

After a short eternity, our destination rolled up out of the fog. The sky was getting darker, not lighter, as the day wore on, and I no longer knew what time it was with any certainty.  

What I did know was that this wee village was dead.  

Houses are living things. The slate or thatch on the roofs, the plaster or the siding, the windows and thresholds all needed a hand to tend them, to keep them working. It was subtle in a living house, the difference made from one day to another. Plague houses you could spot at a hundred paces. Damp in their sidings, rot in their shutters. Black, slimy leaves piled up on the stoops, shielded from wind, turning slowly to formless muck. The roofs turned grey, then black, then green, mottled like the corpses left inside them.  

The church was wood and stone, a far finer construction than the huts and cottages around it. It, too, was failing in disuse, its door barred, its roof falling in. It sat a bit south off the road, closer to the Runing, more at the edge of town.  

There was a sign up, on the stoop of one of the houses, out of the rain. Hand painted, by the look of it, with a basket set underneath. ‘LEAVE FOOD. TAKE CLIPS. GOD BLESS.’  

There was a pile of muck in the basket that might have once been edible. No one had claimed it. No new coin or clipping had been placed there.  

“This is where the choir boy wanted to make his stand?” I reined in my horse. My left hand was jammed up in my armpit, keeping warm. I stood in the stirrups, looking around, which meant quite a bit of height on my horse. Didn’t manage to see anywhere more defensible. No fortifications, nor any better hiding-place in town than the church, the only building where it didn’t look like I could push my arm through the walls. “This place is dead.”  

“This is where he said wait for him. Plague town.”  

“Hope the fucking plague’s died down aswell.” I sat back into the saddle, grimaced, and swung down off the horse. “What’s his plan from here?” 
“Don’t know. He was going to come.” Eris slid off her horse, holding Mariead in place, and then took the nun’s hand, easing her down. “Said he’d lead us into the forest.”  

The forest wasn’t far—only a hundred feet back from the southern wall of the church.  

“The Runing’s on the far side of that forest, minstrel. No escape there.”  

“I don’t know, Slate. I don’t know what he’s thinking.” Eris rummaged in her pack.  

“And when was he supposed to be here?”  

“I…thought he’d be here already.” She did not look at me.  

“Don’t see his fucking horse.” I swept an arm around the town. “Do you?”  

“He had already hidden the horses along our path.” Mariead had her arms tucked into Eris’ doublet. 

“They’d cropped the grass down a fair bit,” Eris’ voice was quieter, and she looked east along the road, back toward Bridgeport. “He could have set them there last night and been back in the city with time to spare.”  

“Then we will wait for him.” There was something in Mariead’s eyes that was like madness, resolute, long-nursed. Eris opened her mouth. Closed it.  

I shook my head.  

“We can’t last the night here. I haven’t slept. She can barely stand. And you’ve just spent your day fighting the Runing, river woman or not. We’ve got to have another plan.” 

“Then come up with one.” Eris put an arm around Mariead’s shoulders. “I’m going to set a fire so you don’t freeze to death, if you haven’t already.”  

I growled under my breath, turned away, turned too quick. My legs, hips, back, all kindly let me know that I’d dropped at fifty feet into freezing water without so much as a good night’s rest. My heart fluttered, and my hands shook. I steadied myself on the saddle, turned my head for them to hear me.  

“So are we just meant to fucking leave the horses?”  

“That’s what he said to do.” Eris spoke in a crisp, quick tone I hadn’t heard from her often. “Said we’d slip the net better on foot. Strip the packs. I’ll help you in a moment.”  

“Fuck me.”  

I didn’t wait. In the absence of help, I simply unbuckled the packs and saddlebags and dragged them off the horses one after the other. I ended up with a tidy bundle too big to bring in all in one go, and spent the next few minutes dragging it all in a few loads to the door of the church. The sword, I jammed through my belt, under the oilcloth, and didn’t bother to properly loop it in. Its stone pommel grated on my ribs when I walked, which didn’t do much for my mood.   

There was only one entrance and not much of a step on the north face of the Church, just a doorway barely tall enough for Eris to duck through, and a wooden door bound with iron. Planks scraped on the threshold as I shoved it open. The wood was warped, coming off the hinges.  

I threw the bags one after the other into a pile by the side of the door. Shut it again when I’d finished, left the girls to have a moment without me lurching around them, breathing down their necks.  

High windows, tall and narrow, too thin for a man to fit through. No stained glass—no glass at all, in fact. Didn’t like the thought of those windows open on us when we tried to mount a defense.  

No belltower to count the hours. No spire mounted with the silver star. Just a peaked roof slowly rotting, moss growing on the shingles. At least it’s damp. Won’t take a spark as easily.  

No entrance on the eastern side.  

The storm was rolling on. No thunder, no wind. No wild summer here; this was autumn, just bone-chilling cold and icy rain. 

“Grannine,” I lowered my voice further as if anyone was around to hear me, blew hot breath onto my hands, watching the storm roll in. My fingertips smelled like smoke and sulfur. “Please. I can’t do this alone. Not alone. If Aidan’s not here within the hour…I’ll need you, lass.” I pushed away from the wall. The wind was viciously cold, and I pulled up the collar of my oilcloth, halfhearted defense. “I’ve got to see this through.”  

Rain started to fall.   

I stopped at the southeastern corner of the Church, hands in my pockets, head bowed. If I was the sort of man to pray, I might have done it now. Can’t do it without you, lass. I’m no fucking hero. Not without you. “Fuck that Templar.”  

I rapped my knuckles against the side of the church. “He’s going to get me fucking killed.”   

The walls were solid, simple. Stone and mortar. One window over the door. They’d dug a full foundation, it looked like; no grates, no doorways. High roof of slate tiles, which was good, suspended by wooden beams. That was bad. I was running over the details again, things I’d noticed before, staving off the inevitable.  

I could go. I could go and just fuck off. No one’s known my name yet. Could just fuck off back to Barre-On-The-Reeds, dig my gold out the floor and live like a king. No need for me to stay and die for these two women who are no blood of mine.  

The grass around the church was untrimmed. Wasn’t much by way of cover until the forest south of us. Rain began to run off the roof, pattering onto my scalp, running right into my eyes. I had to laugh, because the alternative was to scream.   

“Perfect.” I rounded the corner. “I can die wet and cold.”   

No entrance to the west. Only one way in or out. I stood on the south side, in the lee of the church, shivering in the dark and the rain.  

I looked north, up the road. I saw no miracle waiting to happen. Come on, choir boy. What are you thinking? Why make your stand here? What is it about this place that’s better than anywhere else? You haven’t been stupid in your planning yet, though you’ve been rash. Why start now?  

My shoulders slumped. Hadn’t realized I’d been holding myself up. I coughed. Lass.  

Silence. Maybe it was a listening kind of silence, like I wasn’t alone.  

Maybe I was just going fully and irrevocably mental.  

I looked at the church. Coughed into my elbow. Snorted to myself. 

“Funny, that,” I said, out loud, more to drown my thoughts than anything else. “No backdoor. Most priests like a nice…back…door…”  

I stood there blinking in the rain, almost holding my breath, as if keeping quiet while I had the thought would make it more likely to be true.  

Then I turned and ran for the front door, slipping and stumbling on wet grass, one hand on the stone wall to guide me.  

Let me be right. Just this once. Let me be right. Give me this.  

I slammed through the broken-down northern door. 

Eris and Mariead were sat up by the altar. They pulled apart quickly, disentangling themselves from each other. I looked around. 

Wooden beams. Slate roof. I clapped my hands together, rubbed them for heat. The sound of rain on the shingles was louder in here, a constant percussion, and drops fell through gaps in the slate. Wind whistled through the rafters, but didn’t quite make it into the lower part of the church. Not what I’d call comfortable, but at least our fingers wouldn’t fall off if we had to stay the night.  

Pews were moldering in rows down the aisle. Eris had broken up some of the furthest, piled the pieces into a heap for firewood. Neither of them looked like they were close to lighting an actual fire, unless they’d lost the flint somewhere down Eris’ clothing.  

I advanced down the aisle, hands at my sides. My whole body was shaking again, anticipation, a bit of anger, fear I’d be wrong. “Eris, give us a hand, will you?”  

“With what, exactly?” She had a flint and steel in her hands after all. “I’m about to light a–” 

Grannine. 

No spark flashed their kindling. 

“Let the wee sister do it. I need your arms.”  

The air in here felt cold and damp, calmer than the storm-lashed wind outside. It didn’t smell of death; I wondered if there were any corpses here at all, or if they’d been dragged from the church and the floor scrubbed in their absence. It was the kind of meaningless little thing the Church might do, to rob this place of its builders.  

Eris handed Mariead the flint, muttered something I didn’t catch. She stood up with a grunt.  

“What is it, Slate?”  

Simple stone altar. A flat slab with the Star in its center, on a raised stage in the middle of the wooden floor. Nothing fine or fancy for a church in a town too small to be remembered. Eris swaggered up on my right.  

“Right, don’t know how this is going to work,” I planted one foot and kicked the altar, leaning into it. Nothing happened. “Minstrel. I need you to shove. Don’t put your weight on the slab. Just reach over and shove.”   

She had just enough height to reach the altar with her hands without stepping onto the platform. “Ready? On three. One, two, three–” We shoved together, and the slab at the top of the alter grated against its base and slid back three inches.  

I hit Eris triumphantly on the shoulder. Bruised my hand, even through the gauntlet.   

“Look at that! Look at that, lass! Isn’t that the most beautiful thing you’ve ever fucking seen?”  

Two inches of black, empty space showed between the edge of the slab and the edge of the altar.  

A tunnel. A bolthole. A place where priests could hide their ill-gotten goods, or the corpses of children. Less cynically, a place where the village could retreat if the druids came down out of Farforest.  

“I’ll bet you half my gold, minstrel–” I grabbed a piece of wood from the floor, a scrap from the broken pew, and wedged it into the hole as a lever. “Half my gold this opens up into the forest.”  

I threw my weight against it. Eris shoved into me, and the two of us wrenched it open further. Once the gap was big enough to let the lever fall, Eris put her hands into the space and shoved, and between the two of us we revealed a gap almost a foot and a half wide.   

Breathless, burning with excitement, I rubbed my hands together again. The plank had given me fucking splinters. Lovely. “That’s our way out, minstrel. We’re fucking golden.”  

“Fuck me. Why didn’t I think of that?” Eris looked down into the dark. “Now we’re only waiting on Aidan.”  

“Sir Slate.” Mariead’s voice was quiet. I rounded on her, and her expression was so serious I couldn’t help but laugh. “Would you care to explain yourself?”   

“Explain!” I stepped away from the altar. “Sister Mariead, your wee brother is one clever bastard, that’s my explanation. This Church has one way in and one way out. Look up there!” I pointed at the rafters. “The ceiling?” Her arms were folded inside Eris’ big sleeveless doublet.   

“Wooden beams! This whole thing is held up by wooden beams! Picture it. They chase us down the coast, send their dogs in, but the Church is one fucking thing above all else, and that is efficient.” I gestured to the roof. “They’ll try to light the whole damn thing on fire and burn us out. It’ll collapse and bury us in red-hot shingles.”   

Mariead’s eyes darted to the tunnel.  

“But we…”  

“Won’t be fucking here!” I clapped my hands together, loud in the confined space. “We stall here and make life hard for the Church until they set the building on fire. Then we crawl out through the tunnel and fuck off.”  

Eris spoke up.  

“Where’s the other end?”   

“Edge of town,” I said. “Guarantee it. Priests are paranoid, love to be able to come and go in secret, love it almost as much as they love fucking children and killing heretics.”  

Mariead was nodding.   

“The abbey had a secret entrance as well.”  

“It what?”  

The mood in the room was changing. I felt ten feet tall, invincible, a stolen Templar sword on my hip, an escape plan in sight. I rubbed my hands together, winced as splinters protested. “We sneak out from under the rubble and off into the forest, and yous are safe, because the Church thinks we’re dead.” I clapped Eris on the shoulder. “Come on, minstrel, let’s find the end of it.”   

“Sir Slate, come help me light a fire.” Mariead set her hand on my arm. “I think Eris will have the task well in hand.”   

Eris and I both looked at each other, and then at the nun. Eris headed for the tunnel.  

I went with Mariead, to help her light a fire.    

*

0.5.7 – Run The Highroad

0.6.1 – Two Fires

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