Small hours of the morning, in the river-side stretch of forest at the southern edge of Near Runing. The wind in the trees was a breath of winter, a warning. I felt the fear of it in my bones, a fear that wasn’t only for myself, which was new. New and unpleasant; fear for them was a fear of a size much larger than I’d known I could feel. It joined the aching hunger in my belly, made them both worse.
The others were asleep in the hollow behind us. Not far off, but far enough I could talk in peace, close enough I could hear anyone creeping up on our campsite.
Our first night as fugitives. No food, no campfire, posted up on watch at the top of the hill.
Cold cut through holes in my oilcloth, seeped in through the damp log I sat on. The back of the coat, the right side, the right sleeve, had taken a beating, gained new cuts, new tears and pinholes that were slowly growing. I’d healed in an instant when we stole the Inquisitor’s heart. The cotton had not.
My fingers were numb, even wrapped together close to my chest. I pulled out my right hand, unfurled stiff fingers, looked down. Skin the color of coal marked my palm in a dark flower, fading to granite-grey in a pattern up and around my wrist. My own dark skin looked sunny in comparison.
I flexed the hand, open, closed. It was mine, from wrist to fingertip, my own, skin soft to the touch, just…different. I suppose that’s fine. I’m a bit different myself.
“See, I’d say you’re a bit more contemplative, if you ask me.”
Smiling exposed my teeth to the cold, let a coil of vapor creep out, gave up a bit more warmth to the winter. I begrudged that. I still smiled.
“I don’t recall asking, lass.”
“Glad I spoke up, then,” Her voice twisted around the outside of my head, sparks caught on the wind, laughter in her words. I knew She could match my cadence, my accent, but when she spoke she did not quite do so—almost more eerie now that I could hear Her picking up turns of phrase from the others.
You’re still learning.
“Something new every day.” She sounded smug. “Speaking of which…”
I stuck my hand back in my coat, shook my head.
“I’m skeptical, lass. Pure skeptical.”
“I intend to relieve that skepticism.” Her hands trailed over my shoulders from behind, still unseen. Playing with my senses like a cat batting about a bit of yarn. I’d call it endearing, but never to Her face.
“I tell you, lass, the thing’s impossible. I won’t believe it.”
“I’ve already done it.”
“You say you’ve done it.” Tried to stop grinning, not because I had any hope of hiding the smile from Her, but because my teeth were starting to ache. “I’m not inclined to believe you. I know I’ve not much of a head for numbers, but I won’t believe it’s possible.”
“Ask me how many.”
She spun out of the air like a piece of unbreaking pottery, fragments of pale skin, white cloth, and golden hair pulling together right before my eyes into the shape of a lass with a sideways, impish smirk on her pretty face. She was hollow, heartless and bloodless, and She showed that to me as She came together, the inner face of Her glowing with ruddy ember-light that faded as each new piece fell into place, until only Her merry eyes hinted at the fire behind.
She clasped Her hands behind Her back. Gold hair fell fetchingly over Her shoulder as She leaned forward, bent like a folding knife, head cocked a bit to one side level to where I sat.
“You’ve changed your hair.”
“That’s all you noticed?” Embers crawled through Her hair, winding their way to the tips of strands along the end of a tangled-up farmgirl’s braid. I looked Her over again, and I’ll admit She startled a laugh out of me.
She wore a wee jacket of quilted brown leather, not more than a riding coat, over the white dress with its tears and tatters. It at once reminded me of the quilted doublet Eris wore, and the coat of brigandine Aidan had escaped with, though it was barely long enough to cover half Her ribs.
She laughed, a sound that warmed me through to my fingertips, and straightened, standing barefoot just above the forest floor. She raised Her hands and plucked at the collar. “Do you like it? I thought I’d make ready for winter.”
“Lass, you live in my heart. What d’you need a jacket for?”
“Gets a bit cold at times.”
“Ouch,” I shook my head, looking away as She laughed at me. “I don’t know that I like how well you’re learning to rip holes in my pride, lass.”
“See, you know you can’t distract me.” Her eyes twinkled. “I’m better at concentrating than you are.”
I sighed, loud and annoyed, because it would make Her laugh. She obliged.
“Fine, lass, I’ll indulge you. What is it you want me to say?”
“Say my name, Dermot, and ask me.”
I rolled my eyes.
“Grannine, how many stars are there in the sky?”
“Three thousand, five hundred and six, my Dermot.” Her grin widened, and She looked up to the sky. “See, by the time we end our watch, that bit of cloud in the east should fly away and show us more.”
“If Eris wakes up on time.”
A pale figure stepped into view out the corner of my right eye, head cast back to look at the sky, turning to look at me. For a moment, I paid her no mind at all, still looking at the stars–
“Fuck me,” I jolted to one side, hand flying to Fury’s hilt. “Sister, I nearly swallowed my own black heart there.”
Mariead offered a wan smile. She looked like a spectre in the dark, hard to discern against the leafless forest, all wrapped up in every layer of warmth Eris could find her. I could make out a tattered Church tunic that came to her knees, the heavy, quilted cotton doublet, and an old blanket about her head and shoulders, that kept the cold off her arms. The boots she wore were too big for her, laced on extra-tight.
And there was the hole in her throat. It was hard not to look at it, not to stare; I’d seen mortal wounds before, but I’d never seen one in a woman who kept on going. Her neck was still bruised, ugly black and green, but the polished wooden tube—once the handle of a bodkin—stuck out from among a nest of bandages and the piled warmth of a scarf. Air whistled in and out with each breath, and she winced at each new inhalation. She cast an inquisitive look at me, sent her attention very deliberately to the patch of log beside me.
“It’s a bit damp here, Sister.” I glanced down at the fallen tree, patchwork with moss and oyster mushrooms, still waterladen from the last rainstorm. “Might be better to stand.”
Mariead shrugged, drew her blanket a bit tighter, and picked her way over the leaflitter with the cunning of an old vixen, making hardly a sound with each step. She sat down beside me, not close, but sharing the seat, and looked back up at the stars.
I swallowed, tried not to reach up and touch my neck. “How are you healing?”
Another shrug. She adjusted the blanket, held it closed with one hand, reaching up with her left to nearly touch the hole in her throat. She took a breath, steeled herself, covered the hole with her thumb.
Her voice was rough, broken and hoarse, and the act of speaking provoked a cough and a further twitch.
“Don’t speak, my Mariead,” Grannine murmured, stealing back into my head. She leaned down to the right of Mariead, hands folding over her shoulders. “Not aloud.”
Mariead blinked, shook her head, as if trying to dislodge something. She shot a look at me. I pulled my hands out, held them up, empty.
“Couldn’t sleep?” It was fucking cold. I put my hands back where I’d kept them. Mariead nodded, shoulders close, eyes drawn back up to the sky. “You should try.”
The exiled nun looked at me sidelong, almost as if she’d heard what I was thinking. I shook my head, looked at the stars as well. Easier to look at them and pretend I was alone again.
Couldn’t say this to the stars. I looked back to Mariead. “Sister, you…” She stared up, intent on the heavens, the cold, fey light of winter starlight reflected in her eyes. “You know we can’t do anything for you.”
She nodded. She did not look at me. Her face was hollowed by hunger, eyes overlarge, dark and thoughtful. Wisps of wildly curling hair escaped her blanket-hood, flowed into sight over her shoulders. I noted the bodkin itself without its wooden handle, still stuck in her belt.
“If we get to Raven Lake in time–”
Mariead made a hideous sound, winced, reached for her throat. A sardonic laugh, half-forced, and a shake of her head, negative. She did look at me then, at last, head tilted, appraising and questioning both at once. She touched my shoulder lightly.
Her features were drawn, eaten out by starvation. She had a brittle, birdlike way to her, accentuated by long fingers that stirred in talons, withdrawn again beneath her blanket. I’d seen her use those hands to frame Eris’ face, and to drive a dagger into a man’s back.
Skin around her right eye was still green and blue, the bruise fading. Eris had tended to her hurts, but it hadn’t helped all of them; the split in her lip didn’t appear to be doing any better.
She nodded to me, touched the ragged bit of bloodstained cloth bound about my right arm. There wasn’t a wound there. She opened her mouth, frowned, and gestured to her face, staring into my eyes until I nodded back.
The world turned scarlet and black, banishing the night. I saw Mariead’s face clear, stark like a woodcarving, and she moved her lips, working through the words. Thank you.
“Don’t thank me yet.” I looked back at the sky. “Maybe thank me if you see the stars again tomorrow.”
She smiled. There was something already otherworldly about her, like she was dead and still speaking, and the way she smiled was almost teasing, good-natured. She drew her hands out from beneath her cloak, and folded them as if to pray, pressing the thumbs to her heart. I snorted. “Aye. Best you do that for all of us.”
Mariead nodded. I read her wordless answer in the dark.