I struck the flint. Sparks leapt, not many, not enough. Ugly little things, chips of yellow that failed to start the flame. I hissed under my breath, struck again.
The fire still would not light. The air in our wee church was cold, with gusts whistling through the rafters above. The day was black outside, rain pouring down, deafening on the shingles.
Mariead took the flint from my hands without a word, reached down and rearranged the kindling. Her second spark caught in a curl of lichen and began to crawl along the strands. We sat and watched it bloom, licking at scraps of wood, burning brighter, not quite catching as it explored the undersides of the lumber we’d given.
She’d thrown back her hood. Her hair was long, brown, curled. It tangled over her like brambles, shining with the damp and the sheen of long days unwashed.
“Sister.” I picked up a bit of wood, threw it into the flames. “What is it you want? I know for a fact you didn’t need my help to light a fire.”
“To be perfectly honest, I only wanted to get Eris to put down the flint.” Mariead’s expression was one of terminal endearment, her voice pitched low. She looked back to the mouth of the tunnel. “She was getting quite frustrated.”
I lowered my head.
Mariead drew out the narrow, wood-handled bodkin Eris had lent her, used it to cut some curls of cloth from one of the layers beneath her quilted doublet. “Blow. We must maintain the impression that you are helping, in case she comes back.”
I laughed. She fed her cotton into the fire. I blew, and the fire flared far brighter than it should have, so bright that Mariead twisted away in surprise, rushing to grab and pile a few smaller pieces of fuel atop it. The air smelled like sulfur.
Fire caught, flickered, began to gnaw at the logs.
“You look tired, sir. And your breath stinks of brimstone.” Mariead’s low voice felt like it belonged with the hiss and crack of burning wood. “Are you well?”
I looked at her sidelong. She knelt at the edge of the fire, back straight, and unslung the quiver from her shoulder. Looked up at me. In her bright, hawkish eyes I saw that touch of holy madness.
I squatted by the fire, held my hands out for warmth. It was a lovely little blaze, and it made the absence in my head keener, even as it warmed my old bones.
“I’m not exactly used to sympathy from Sisters of the Church.”
“If it helps,” Mariead pulled out her sheaf of arrows, brushing dust off the shafts. “I assure you that by now, I have been very thoroughly laicized.” Her mouth twitched.
I looked back at the former nun, who was inspecting the point of a broad-headed arrow. She tapped the tip with her finger, looked at me with the same wildfire in her brown eyes. “So I repeat myself, sir. Are you well?”
“Are your arrows well? We’ll be needing those.”
“I think eight will fly, sir.” Mariead had a rhetorician’s tone to her voice, the calm rise and fall like she was delivering a sermon. “There are two more with cracked fletching, which I shall be reserving for the last trial. You’ve ignored my question.” That last might have had a bit of a wry tone. “Should I worry? Are you well?”
“No.” I blinked at the flames, warmed my hands by them. The undersides of the logs were starting to change color. “She’s not answering.”
“By ‘She’ I assume you mean your familiar spirit.” Mariead ran her fingers over the fletching of her arrow, set it aside. “Or the means by which you work your sorcery.”
I closed my mouth. Mariead cast a look in my direction which might have been her taking pity on me.
“Your eyes glow in the dark often enough to make the connection, sir.”
I touched my eye. It hurt. I touched my eyelid.
“I was going to say.” My eyes felt the same as usual. I blinked experimentally, squinted at the fire. “Am I glowing now?”
“Not at the moment.” She slid another arrow into the quiver.
“Does it frighten you?”
“There are many wonders in the world which are not spoken of in the writings of the Saints.” Mariead had a quiet tone like a schoolteacher, sighting down the shaft of a broadhead. “The ways of the deep forest, the place-spirits of the mountains.” She hefted one of the arrows in her hand. “The Saints are quite explicit when it comes to damnation, but when it is time to speak of the marvels and splendor of God’s works, they fall silent. There could be many splendid things that are yet unspoken, that have simply never been seen for what they are.” She smiled. Set the arrow aside. “I was never a very good nun.”
“I don’t know if I believe that.” She went to rise. I offered her my arm. She stood up, leaning on my shoulder. When she was steady, she began to string the bow, narrow arms bare and straining.
“I don’t say this only to hear the sound of my own voice, but to assure you that you’ll have no judgment from me. Who am I to claim that God’s grace is extended only to the faithful?”
“Not something I hear often.”
Mariead tested the string, smiled very faintly.
“Nor will you, unless we survive.”
The fire really was lovely. Mariead said something else, but I didn’t hear, so focused I was on the sound of dry, old wood cracking and crumbling. I held my hand closer, the left palm bare, skin still black as coal from the heart of the forge.
My lips parted. Hadn’t realized I’d been breathing until I stopped.
The fire was beautiful. It was warm.
In cold water and empty forests, I’d tried to remember the wild, witless heat of summer, the sense of wholeness that had eluded me for so long. The memory of other seasons fled at the turning of the last leaf, swallowed up by winter.
But now summer was back, in all its heady, sticky, vital glory, in the light of a fire in a plague church somewhere at the north edge of Angelshire. I couldn’t take my eyes away.
I needed it, needed to reach out my hand and take hold of the poetry of it, the splendor of its radiance.
Mariead said something else, urgent. I ignored her, and reached into the heart of the flames.
Fire erupted from the woodpile, flames in a dazzling, deep reddish color unlike anything I’d ever seen, redder and darker than the flames of a forge. It burned like an ethereal ruby, crystal in motion.
And then it went out.
I sat there before a heap of blackened logs, blinking like I’d been struck by a thunderbolt. My left hand was cold, the skin black like coal. I turned it over, stared at the back.
Pale fingers flickered from the spaces between mine, stark in the contrast. Shards of skin spun themselves out of the air like scraps of porcelain from an un-breaking vase, piecing together into a slender forearm. I saw into the inside of Her as She unfolded from the flames, hollow and doll-like, a sculpture of stained glass. Her skin was white one moment, black the next, brown as mine another, the dress flickering through inverse colors. Her hair twisted in a wind I didn’t feel, and Her eyes came before the rest of Her face, embers hot enough to warm myself by.
“There you are, my Dermot,” She murmured, in the throaty, back-of-the-neck voice I’d carried in my head for months. “Did you miss me?”
“Sir.” Mariead had a resigned tone to her voice. “Dermot Slate. Can you hear me at all? Does your fugue admit of response from the senses?”
My throat felt dried-out, desiccated, scorched out like a dirty chimney.
“I can hear you.” I blinked, focused on her. “I’m back.”
Mariead folded her arms, raising one eyebrow, her eyes narrowing. She had to struggle a bit to compress the padding of Eris’ quilted jacket.
Grannine’s hands shifted from my palm to my shoulder, and the sense of them remained there even as She slid her grinning face out from behind Mariead and left a soft kiss on her cheek. Mariead didn’t move.
“My brave little believer,” She whispered, embracing the nun around Mariead’s folded arms. Scarlet eyes glittered at me from the shadows of Mariead’s hair. “And the singer? Where is she?”
“Down a hole.” I jerked my head toward the altar. “You really missed that, lass?”
Mariead’s eyes tracked mine to the point behind her head, and she went still, holding carefully frozen. Grannine let out a low, simmering chuckle like the rasp of iron on a blade.
“You have nothing to fear from me, my Mariead.” Her voice painted images in my head; sunlight, firestarting lenses, focused warmth. “Tell her, my Dermot.”
“You’re alright, sister.” The heat was spreading up my hand, into my neck and shoulders. Some of the ache of my fall was fading, muscles loosening, knots ironed out. I coughed, put my hands on my knees and staggered up to my feet, holding the sword Fury in place before it slipped out of my belt. “She likes you.”
Mariead raised her chin, not moving, eyes looking one way, then the other. Grannine’s expression was the picture of mischief. She reached up from behind, tapped the tip of the nun’s nose, and vanished behind her in a swirl of white fabric, reappearing in the corner of my eye, draping Herself over my shoulder.
“You’ll forgive me, familiar spirit.” The nun’s voice was curiously formal, cautious. “I cannot see or hear you, and I have no wish to offend, but I do not know that I trust you.”
“I could forgive you nearly anything, my Mariead.”
“All right, that’s enough.” I shrugged Her off my shoulder. She laughed in my other ear, stirring around me. She was a breath on the wind, the warmth blooming in my chest. “No harm done, sister.”
Mariead nodded. She turned her nod of troubled assent to a nod of indication.
“You’ve put out our fire, sir.”
“You’ve put out our fire,” Mariead enunciated more clearly.
“I’m sorry, my Dermot, my strength isn’t what it was.” Grannine folded me in a many-handed embrace from behind, but I did not see her. “I’ll need more time to recover before I can light a spark for you again.”
“Wonderful.” I beckoned to Mariead. “Give the flint here, sister. I’ll start another one.”
She moved toward me slowly, halting, gradual, like a quail entering an empty clearing. I saw the grace in her now, the sleek blue of the veins in her arms, the pinprick slivers of hairs standing out in the cold of the church. I’d missed that, missed seeing the beauty of things.
I held out my left hand, stained black as coal. Mariead faltered.
“Sorry.” I withdrew the arm, held out my right, the one still wrapped in a leather gauntlet. She swallowed. Put the firestarter into my hand.
“Forgive me, sir.” She spoke softly. Carefully. “My nerves are not what they were.”
We laughed at the same time. I shook my head.
“We’re not offended.” I closed my glove around the steel, and felt Her hands on my shoulders. I grinned, wider. Not the wolf smile that presaged violence. Something else. It felt good.
I struck the flint. Fire blossomed at the base of the pile. I let out a sigh.
I can almost believe we’ll be all right.
That’s when I heard the first distant horn.