Sword and scabbard were heavy in one hand. We were standing before I realized I’d pushed myself up, too late for me to worry about how stiff my knees had been from riding. I put a hand on Mariead’s shoulder to steady her before she stumbled.
“Why would they sound a horn first?” She had her bow strung and ready, quiver leaned against her leg, right hand hovering over feathered fletches. “Is it them?”
“It’s them.” My heart had started hammering in my chest again, trapped, fighting to break out. I put my palm against it, looked down. A pitch-black scar stamped over my chest like a slash of charcoal, dark at the neck of my shirt, a twisting, arcing shape where the Templar’s blade had passed through me. Lass?
“No time to explain.”
“Ever seen a Church raid before, Sister?” I started down the aisle of the church, scabbard in hand.
“I have not.” Mariead followed along behind me. The calm on her face was eerie. I had nothing to say that could deflect it. I looked away.
“Well, you will.” I tossed my sword to the ground. It clanged like an iron poker. “They’re coming.”
“Is it customary to give the alarm beforehand?”
“They’ll have seen the light. Or maybe found the horses.” It didn’t matter which. The bugle honked again, off in the storm, barely audible now. “That’s a scout, riding back to the host. They’ll split the column, surround the village, and sweep every house until they find us.”
Maybe, after that, they’ll declare the houses clear, and folks can come back to the village. More likely they’ll burn the whole place down.
“We should run.” Mariead’s whole body pointed toward the tunnel, concern on her face. “Eris–”
“Eris is likely on her way back. She’s clever. She’ll know what’s happening.” I heaved the end of a pew off the ground and started to drag it over the stone toward the door.
I laughed, a loud, barking sound that echoed weirdly through the church. Eris was just climbing out the tunnel at the altar, hands and face streaked with mud, grinning from ear to ear.
“There you are, minstrel. They’re blocking us in. This is it.” The other end of the pew scraped and splintered over the stone floor, rotten wood disintegrating. “The proving hour.”
“I’ve brought us some proof, then.” Eris heaved herself out of the altar, turned back, and offered a hand into the dark.
One red gauntlet took her wrist. Her bare arm twisted, muscles tensing, and she hauled a knight up from below.
Aidan’s hair was bound back behind his head, and he carried a silver helm. Steel armored him from shoulder to wrist, from ankle to knee, and under the scarlet mantle of a Templar he wore a long, armored doublet of black leather that hung nearly to his knees. Each plate of steel was riveted in place in the pattern of a seven-pointed star, silver like the sword at his side. His pistols swung from their bandolier, freshly-loaded and polished.
He looked like a prince, like a storybook king, a cold light in his eyes as he set one foot atop the altar and dropped down into the church with a ringing of metal.
“Oh,” Grannine whispered, at the back of my head. “Beautiful. Look how he carries his conviction.”
Aidan cast his gaze over the church and smiled. Genuinely smiled.
There was a fey light in his eyes. The zealot’s fire, again. It was infectious. Tempting to give in to it and burn.
We might actually survive. We might really, truly live to see the sunset.
I looked away, slammed my bench into place against the rotten door.
“About fucking time. Eris, lend us a hand?”
Eris made a sound of assent. Aidan caught her arm, reached behind his back and withdrew a solid steel mace, two feet of metal terminating in a flanged tip.
She took it. Nodded.
Mariead and Eris passed one another in the aisle, pausing only long enough to exchange glances. Mariead touched her arm gently in passing.
“You’ve grown taller, little brother,” she said, tearing herself away from Eris, stepping forward. Aidan and Mariead hung back from one another, staring.
Eris came to the end of the aisle and lifted her half of the pew one-handed. I used two. We carried it to the door, set it in place atop the other, braced at an angle against the floor.
“Someone’s hurt you.” Aidan’s brow furrowed. “Are you well enough to fight?”
“Not so well-outfitted as you, little brother.” Mariead reached out, tugged at a pauldron. From here, I couldn’t see her face. “I think the heart of the battle will not be my place today.”
“Not today.” Aidan nodded. They stood there in silence, staring at one another.
We threw a third bench on top of the others, crosswise and wedged into the floor. The clamor of wood on stone seemed to jar them free. Aidan was coming down the aisle when we turned about, helm swinging from his hand. Mariead followed him, an arrow in hers.
“Look at them,” the lass in my head twisted around my thoughts like rising smoke, Her voice purring in my ears. “They’re just alike.”
“We don’t have long.” Aidan took up the end of the next bench without question, and I took the far end before Eris could duck in. “I arrived just before their cordon closed.”
“Took you that long to get your armor on?”
He cast a wry look in my direction.
“I would not get far into the wilds in bleakest midwinter with a full coat of steel,” he said mildly, as we braced the bench over the top of our barricade. “This was prudence, not vanity.”
“Maybe a bit of vanity.” I wasn’t looking her way, but I could hear Mariead smiling.
Aidan ducked his head, not quite hiding his grin. The expression made him look boyish.
They can celebrate later.
“They’ll send Penitents in first. Prisoner-soldiers.” I looked at Mariead. “Remember that last man in the Armory who gave me such trouble? Men like him.”
Grannine shivered out of the air at Mariead’s side, laying Her white hand across the nun’s shoulder. I gave Her a very pointed raise of the eyebrow. Aidan adjusted the plates of steel on his arms. I pointed at him.
“You’re going to blue that silver before we run off.”
“I will smoke it once we have won the day.”
“We’ve got time now. They’ll spot us a mile off with you wearing half a mirror on your arms.”
“We do not.” He dropped his hand onto the hilt of his sword. Eris pulled the mace, turned it over in her hands. “Once they judge the Penitents have served their purpose, proper Church soldiers will enter, led by a Templar. I do not know for certain who we will face, but I do know Sir Mayhall was on guard at the North Gate when I fled. If he is in command, he will come sooner, rather than later.”
“Sir Mayhall,” Mariead mused. “That name is familiar to me.”
“I see you’ve started a fire.” Aidan’s attention went past his sister, to the bonfire now crackling. “Mariead, when the Penitents are spent, take some of that fire and set it at the base of a beam. They may try to ignite the structure from without, but we must be certain it burns and collapses.”
“We can do that.” Grannine spoke from my shoulder, warmth stealing across my back, over my neck, soothing the aches and soreness.
Can you, lass? A moment ago you told me you’re not yourself yet.
“Trust me. I think we will have the situation in hand by then.”
I don’t think we’re going to have anything about this situation ‘in hand.’
“Ever the pessimist.”
“Slate,” Aidan said, again. I realized a moment too late that he’d said my name twice now. I grunted by way of response, kneeling to retrieve my sword from the ground. “I’d have you with me by the door.”
“But Aidan, if you and I are–” I grinned at the memory. “How’d you say? At the fore.”
“At the vanguard.”
“Vanguard,” Eris corrected, softly.
“Same fucking thing.” I waved them both away. “If you and I are at the door, and someone gets past us, who’s to keep them safe?”
“If you and Aidan are at the door, who will get past you?” Eris swung the mace once, experimentally. It looked like a toy in her hand.
“A Templar might.”
“If a Templar passes me, you and Eris both will die before you lift your weapons.” Aidan shifted the sword in his belt. “Of that I am certain.”
“Wouldn’t you want them to have a chance to run?”
“Do you have an idea?”
“You want to have a say, minstrel?”
“I’m…I don’t know.” Eris twisted the grip of her steel mace. “I’d like to help.”
“You help by sticking to your lady fair.” I pointed at her, then to Mariead. “And sing out if you need one of us.”
She nodded, lifted the mace.
“Is there…something I should know? About how to use this?”
“Just hold by the end and swing. If you fight a man with more armor, swing it harder.”
“Thanks very much for that.” She slapped the mace into her hand. Her expression changed slightly. Hard not to respect a mace.
Hit them with it. No need to keep the edge straight, not a lot of length to be used against you. I nodded to Aidan. Not a bad choice for a novice.
The rain was lessening, but the day wasn’t getting any brighter. That was fine.
But without the rain, we could hear something else.
Drums. Coming closer.
Aidan pulled on the helm, drew down the front.
“Make your peace.” His visor was faceless, with the seven-pointed star stamped across its front. Three slits cut across the right eye for vision; four narrower strips cut across the left, mismatched and ominous. He glanced my way. “With God, or with whatever it is that brings you solace.”
I was bone-tired. My limbs ached, and my feet were heavy. My heart fluttered in my chest like a bird caught in a chimney.
There was fire behind us, burning brighter. Mariead and Eris took up their places behind the altar, across twenty feet of empty benches. Aidan and I split the door, pressed to the wall on either side, him with his right hand leading, me with my left.
Footsteps squelched in the mud outside. Low voices, too low to pick out. I looked at Aidan’s eyeless helm, wondered if he was looking back with those cold grey eyes. His right hand was twisted back across his body, gauntlet-grip light around the hilt of a sheathed sword, ready to flash it free in the first moment.
I took a breath. Coughed it out. Drew steel. My arms strained to hold the sword, so I swung it back into a low guard, cocked away to my hip, the point resting on the floor, waiting. Suppressed a cough. Here goes, lass. Wish us luck.
“I’m your luck, my Dermot.”
They hit the door.