Snow was falling. Not proper snow, not heavy flakes that clung and stuck and would linger through the afternoon. Only the first shy snow of autumn. Half sleet, it melted when it struck, vanished into the ground. But it was a reminder. Something inevitable. Something we couldn’t outrun.
It was cold. The wind cut like a fistful of knives. Mariead was bundled up in Eris’ doublet with a shawl wrapped around her neck, but Eris herself was shivering. Trying to hide it when Mariead looked at her.
Aidan unpinned the mantle from his left shoulder, then his right. He stopped, gave Eris and Mariead time to catch up to him, and handed it to the minstrel. His leather-faced armor wouldn’t have been as cold as naked plate, but it couldn’t have been warm. He hadn’t had time to smoke the steel on it, so it shone like a mirror still. I considered giving him a bit of grief over that; elected to not. Still too busy sorting out my own head.
Not much point to sharing the warmth. Winter’s colder than all four of us. Five.
We walked the strip of woods along the Runing, out of Angelshire. Just enough forest for us to disappear, out of sight from the water on one side and hidden from the road up the other. The storm had made some pretense of thinning before coming on in earnest out of North Flint, rolling east along the river.
Aidan walked ahead, alone. Maybe the most alone of the five of us. At least there was company in my head.
We’ve delayed the inevitable. I watched Mariead’s narrow shoulders rising and falling as she fought to breathe. But only delayed it.
“We’ll delay it again.”
Grannine walked with me. Hands clasped at the small of Her back, She danced over the muck and moss of the forest floor, barefoot over lichen-wrapped stone. She wore only the tattered dress, skirt and hair fanned slowly around Her like She was underwater.
Her voice was in my ear, sanguine, confident.
We haven’t had much success so far. My eye roved over the three ruined, wrecked people who walked ahead of me, trusting me to watch the rear. The minstrel’s already wanted. The nun is maimed. The knight, disowned. We can’t afford to lose much more, lass.
“Then we won’t.”
You don’t have enough miracles up your sleeve for that. I snorted. Don’t even fucking have sleeves.
“I feel stronger, Dermot. More alive.” Her eyes glittered, dancing like the castaway embers of a campfire. “Let them try again. This time I think we may be able to muster more than a spark.”
You’ve said as much.
“But isn’t it alluring?”
“Wasn’t worth dying,” I muttered, not quite able to think the answer. “I should have said no. When he offered me that sword.”
“You really think so?” She flickered in front of me, walking backwards now, Her glare challenging. “I’m in your head, Dermot Slate, so don’t you lie to me. You’re kinder, brighter, quicker to act in service of this quest than ever before. You’re not the coal-hearted sellsword you were when I met you.”
Aye, but at least that cold-hearted sellsword wasn’t due for an execution.
“He wasn’t alive to start with.” She took my shoulders, and I stopped, the force of Her grip rooting me to the ground. I wondered how it might look to the others, if they were to turn round, to see me held in place by an invisible woman. “Dermot. My Dermot. Look me dead on and tell me from your burning heart that you would honestly trade this for a strangled safety.”
You can’t ask me to make that choice. Or them. I glanced at the three of them, still slogging on.
“See, maybe you shouldn’t have been asked.” Heat rolled off Her like a fire. I could feel Her gentleness, so foreign, the surest marker of Her mind being other than mine. Never a feeling I’d been able to muster. “But you were asked. And you chose. You were offered oblivion, and you were offered the chance to burn bright. And you chose to shine. All of you, you chose to shine.”
I swallowed. The forest was cold, less challenging, easier to think about.
“Dermot. Look at me. Take my hands.” Her fingers were warm, almost hot to the touch, and soft, alive. Grannine moved closer, murmured in a low voice that hummed through to my very bones. “Dermot Slate. You only have to say my name, and I am here. Take the power I offer you, and I will never stop.” Her expression twitched, shivered, lip curling. “They can crush us, maim us, pursue us over forest and field, but I will not break. We will not break.”
She squeezed my hands. “Say my name, and we will burn until we are spent.”
I looked down at our hands, intertwined. Hers looked so real. Couldn’t see the difference. Wondered if it was me that was the illusion.
I’m frightened, lass.
I don’t know where to take them. Where they’ll be safe. We can’t survive winter in the Forest.
“You know. You thought it before. Raven Lake.”
The druids will kill us for trespassing.
“A problem to be dealt with in its time.”
We’d have to cross all of Northshire, hunted, with winter bearing down.
“Winter isn’t here yet. And Northshire isn’t all that big.”
I laughed out loud until it broke into a cough. Aidan, Eris, and Mariead turned back, now more than thirty paces up the trail. All three stared at me.
“Fuck me, lass,” I said, and sighed. “You always seem to convince me when you’re like this.”
“Slate.” Aidan’s tone was flat, questioning. He had a hand on the hilt of his sword. I pulled one hand free from Hers, blinked.
Grannine was gone between the blink and the seeing, Her only farewell a low giggle in my ear.
“I know where we’re going.”
“Valraven Manor,” Aidan did not take his hand off his sword. “Our ancestral home. If we hasten, we may be able to take supplies from there before they claim it.”
“Aye, no, lad, I mean, after that.”
It felt good, to have a plan. To have a purpose. A destination.
“And where is that, sir sorcerer? If you have an idea, pray share it.” The fallen knight lifted his chin, stared at me without expression.
“I have an idea, all right.” I straightened up, rolled out a knot I hadn’t realized had been building in my neck. “The Church will come for us, aye, sure enough. We killed an Inquisitor, and they’re not like to let that slide.”
“We know, Slate.” Eris had her hand on Mariead’s shoulder, like she could protect her from the thought. The nun looked like a ghost already, pale and gimlet-eyed. “Here I was hoping you had something new.”
“Aye, I might.” I rested my palm on Fury’s rough granite pommel, worked the heel of my left hand until I felt it stretch, tension easing. I took a breath of sulfur-scented snowfall. “How long have you spent hiding, Mariead?”
She met my gaze. She nodded, not answering.
“She already knows.” The lass murmured. “I hear her. She knows this song.”
“And you, Eris? How long did you creep about at the edges of the river, unwelcome?”
“Don’t light a fire you can’t put out, Slate,” Aidan warned. He took half a step forward. “We are not yet in a position where we can afford to–”
“We’re in exactly the position where we need to.” I gestured to the empty forest around us, snow falling, only moss and mud for witnesses. “We can’t just survive. We can’t just run. We have to do something.”
“What is it you’d say we ought to do, then?” Eris put her other hand on Mariead’s shoulder, drawing her close. “Lay siege to Blackforge? Burn down Bridgeport?”
“Don’t know. But I’m sure as fuck not going quietly.” I started down the trail to join them. “We can stop off at your wee family home, choir boy. But after that we’re going north to Raven Lake.”
“Raven Lake?” Eris narrowed her eyes, shoulders shivering. “It’s haunted.”
“Only by druids.” I felt the wolf smile coming back over my face. “And they’ve never been fond of the Church. We’ll see if they’ll shelter us through the winter. And after that.” I paused, just out of arm’s reach from Mariead, whose eyes were blazing, furious brown. We shared that look, for a long moment, before I looked up to the others. “Mariead. Eris. Aidan. Grannine. After that? We’re going to start some fucking fires.”
End Book 1