A proper witch raid had a set procedure. Two hundred years ruling over Frydain had left them plenty of time to refine the process, and as a sword for hire, I’d seen more than my share.
Scouts rode up on horseback. They beat the countryside, sounding the alarm with a bugle once they found their prey. Foot soldiers came next, following the largest road; a Templar on horseback marched the Penitents at double-time, to get them into the fight.
Church soldiers followed. They’d form a search line to close off the retreat.
Penitents would break down furniture, seize tools, chop down trees—anything they needed to make weapons, to make battering rams, to make shields. They’d be given minutes to do it on pain of death, minutes before charging into whatever demon the Church was hunting that day. A crew of Penitents could flatten a pine grove like a windstorm in their desperation to arm themselves.
Further out, in the outlying shires, the Church’s grip was weaker. Harder to march men into the mountains around Dawnfire when winter came on, or through the trails of the north Forest, where armies turned mad and paths like hungry mouths ate men by the dozen.
But we were half a dozen miles from Bridgeport. They’d come for us in force.
A battering ram hit the door, blew our barricade in. A few Penitent hands and feet were caught and crushed between wood and stone, no heed paid to their screaming when it was drawn back by a score of captive criminals all thronging to get in, driven by loaded muskets behind and the promise of a pardon ahead.
Steel was precious, metal weapons not worth giving out to men who’d proven themselves not worth executing. They carried cudgels, spears, stakes. The veterans might have a knife they’d managed to steal and hide on another raid.
Aidan wore brigandine, carried a sword that had nearly double their reach. It was a slaughter. He held the doorway alone while I braced my back against the wall to the right of the entrance, waiting my turn.
His helm obscured his features, silver like the head of a hammer, with no color or crest. He cut a streak across the first of the men who fought to enter. His victim tumbled down bloody and was trod on by the next.
The bolt of a crossbow hummed through the doorway and skipped off Aidan’s shoulder with a ping that I felt in my jaw. He drew a pistol left-handed in response, sighted and fired. His right arm wove his weapon through the waving clubs of the next three soldiers and put them to rest with an elegance I wouldn’t match.
I held my sword in two hands. Stone inlays in the handle were cold against my bare left palm.
Grannine perched on the back of a pew in front of me, leaning forward at an impossible angle. She kicked one leg idly, ragged skirt swirling around Her knees, eyes a dark red like blood.
“Breathe, my Dermot. No fire without air.”
I took a breath of cold, damp air, exhaled it hot and sulfurous. Our bonfire set before the altar was burning brighter. Smoke climbed up from it in eerie spirals, tracing lovely wee lace patterns through the air. The world was sharp, luminous, light blooming at the edges, the thrill of panic closing in.
Aidan threshed bodies like wheat at the threshold, with the dead and dying piled up at his feet. The pews on the right side of the church had been thrown against the door and now were dashed to pieces, leaving empty floor marked by scraps of wood.
Eris and Mariead were braced up behind the last pew on the left. Mariead crouched at the edge of the aisle like a falcon on its roost, an arrow on the string of her bow. Her hands were steady, eyes mad and brown and cold as the stone under her. Eris’ short-haired head was the only part of the minstrel visible behind the pew, but I could see one fist holding the mace, braced against the floor, and her other hand was balled up on the back of Sister Mariead’s quilted doublet, knuckles white with worry.
Grannine was with them, hands clasped behind her back, dress hanging loose around her shoulders. She bent at the waist, mischief in her eyes, and blew a whisper of breath across the broadhead point of Mariead’s arrow. Her smile was white like spent embers.
“You see it.” Her hands were on my shoulders, on my ribs, on my back. “Look at them. Do you see it? The fire in their eyes? The conviction in their hearts?”
She was warm. Warm like the summer sunlight I’d been hunting for so long. Like a fire that filled me up from the belly, licked my ribs, sang its smoke from my eyes and nose and mouth.
“Is it beautiful enough to fight for, my Dermot?”
I felt the wolf smile split my face. It is.
“Beautiful enough to kill for, my Dermot?”
Mariead let her arrow fly. A fucking brilliant shot, dead on across the room; on the far side of the door, the nun’s mark hissed out a curse before he died.
Resting my shoulder blades on the stone, I looked back to Aidan. He glanced my way, and I caught a glimpse of an eye behind the slit in his visor. A nod.
It is, lass.
All other sound ceased. I heard her voice alone in my ear.
I raised my Fury in both hands, high and close to my head.
Aidan flung out a wide, waist-high cut, easy to anticipate, easy to avoid—forcing them back, just for a moment, just long enough for me to step up in his place.
A man stepped into the space Aidan left, tall, grizzled, with chainmail and no helmet. I swung Fury in an arc at the height of his eyes, and it smashed his head like a melon, blunt and brutal. He fell to one side in a tangle, and the momentum of my sword took it around my head again, whipping in to strike the next.
A makeshift shield was raised in defense. I struck it two-handed, bringing all the force I could bear into the impact, and the sword hit him like a falling tree, crushed him back into the doorframe and knocked him out into the rain.
I held the door. Blood rushed in my veins.
The vaulted ceiling of the church meant I could use a taller guard, set the longer blade to moving, use the weight of it against them. With my great, gangling arms spinning the sword, I could smite them before they even came close enough to scratch me.
A moment of respite. The press of bodies at the door thinned, Penitents fleeing to either side before something coming to the fore, something large and metallic.
I barely even had the chance to see it was there, hardly knew what I was seeing, but I felt the air by my ear buzz, felt the fletching of an arrow cut past my temple and, out the door. Mariead’s, loosed in an instant. I flinched away from it, and that saved my head, as a heavy, axe-bladed spear cut the air where I’d been staring.
I scrambled back aside.
An armored figure stepped into the doorway of our little church, bearing in its hands a halberd. It wore a frogmouth helm, and a sword hung at its side, a shield across its back.
Over plates of glittering silver, it wore a red tabard emblazoned with a white star.
The faceless, featureless helmet turned from side to side, surveying the room. His halberd flashed in the air, blocking off the slit in his helmet. Her third arrow shattered against the blade, a true shot just an instant too late to fly through.
“Sir Oscar Mayhall,” Mariead said, lowering her bow. “How nice to see you again.”
The Templar’s voice was deep and metallic within his helm.
“The recalcitrant Mariead Valraven,” he said. “Your father would be pleased to see you have carried on his tradition of irreverence. Have you any final prayers to utter?”
“Yes, Sir.” Mariead’s voice was like a snowdrift. “I pray you lower your halberd a few inches, that I might see your eyes.”
The Templar turned his head to me. Behind him, Aidan’s right hand held his sword, his left slipping behind his back for something shorter.
I don’t suppose you can conjure another miraculous regeneration for me, lass?
“Not yet, my Dermot.”
The halberd flashed for me. I threw myself back, crashed into and over the first bench on the left, sprawling. Fury rang on the floor, abandoned in my haste, and I snatched it back up, lurching to my feet, bracing my arse against the pew behind.
“Aidan Valraven, is that you?” the knight thundered. Aidan stood between me and the Templar, his sword raised, a knife drawn in his left hand. He’d caught the speartip of Sir Mayhall’s halberd on the wide guard of his sword, forcing it away from his body.
His back was to me. The mantle he wore was scarlet—but unfinished. It bore no silver star, no hem, no embroidery. No mark of the Church.
For a moment it was quiet. Penitents clustered at the door, fighting to watch but fearful of drawing Mariead’s attention and her fire.
“Sir Mayhall,” Aidan answered, sounding not at all out of breath.
The armored knight withdrew his halberd. Aidan let it fall away from his sword.
“Drop your sword, Sir Valraven.” He took up the halberd in two hands, choked up on the grip, ready to lunge. “Out of courtesy for the memory of your father, I will offer you the chance to plead bewitchment. Perhaps we may yet contrive to spare you.”
“No such courtesy will be offered to us, of course.” Eris’ voice was high, nervous, but defiant.
“Be silent, whore,” the knight replied, easily, in the same flat, jovial tone. “You’ll have your turn soon enough.”
“Dermot,” Grannine hissed. I felt Her hanging on the air around me like a mantle of my own, could practically envision Her leaning on my shoulders from behind, Her face a wolf smile to match mine. She was warm at my back. “Take him.”
“Come on, choir boy.” I raised Fury into a close, warding guard, locked into my arms like a key. “We don’t have all day for reminiscing.”
“Hush, revenant, or I will end your unnatural life.”
“You’re welcome to try,” we answered. I smiled.
One knight. If we take him quick, before the Penitents find their nerve…
I should have given up on guessing what might happen.
Didn’t, though. We have Aidan. We have an escape.
We have hope. For a little longer.
No use waiting.