Dawn came slow. More than once, I saw the light of it through shut eyes, groaned, and rolled over, with Grannine’s quiet laughter chasing me back to sleep. Birds rustled and sang in the trees all around, searching for the last scraps of food before winter came on. I did my best to ignore their music.
At last, when it felt like the grey sky had not changed at all, She spoke.
“Time to rise, my Dermot.”
I rolled over with a grunt, and put a hand into the mud, pushing myself up. Blood rushed from my head as I stood, black spots flicking at the edges of my vision, and I rocked from one leg to the other, rising and unsteady.
Aidan was on his feet already. He still wore long hair tied behind his head, likely in fear of how it would smell when he let it loose. His armor was dark, plates of steel riveted into a leather doublet, smoke-blued plates on his arms and legs, dark crimson gauntlets on his hands. The sword Tensil hung at his hip, bitter-cold and silver like the frost that would soon come for us.
Even its scabbard was a work of art; an open notch in the throat let Tensil’s spur slide into place like the firing pin of a Teague pistol, with a narrow, hooked guard that curved over the spike to prevent the wearer from impaling himself by mistake.
I picked my sword up off the ground and buckled it on. A few damp leaves had stuck to the granite pommel. A shit material to pommel a sword with. With my luck it’ll chip the first time I use it to batter someone.
Mariead had a smile on her face like she’d slept quite well after our conversation. There was peace in her eyes. I was skeptical. Didn’t stop to ask. She stood while Eris knelt and fussed over the bandages around her neck. We were too far away to hear the words exchanged between them.
Won’t make much difference if the bandages are tight or loose.
“I think there is no medical basis to this little ritual, my Dermot.” Grannine’s arms stole about my shoulders, crossing before me as She hung on my back like an imaginary bearskin, blotting out the cold and the damp of the morning. “They only wish to be close.”
They should go steal a cursed book like the rest of us. I might have grinned when I turned away. Mariead noticed, cast a wee look in my direction, but I was already looking east.
“You’re in a fine mood this morning,” Aidan said, ruining it immediately.
“Woke up feeling blessed, choir boy.” I clapped him on the shoulder, moving past him to the edge of the camp to stretch, hands high in the air, bones cracking up and down my back. “Said you saw this town to the east of us?”
“I do not know its name.” He appeared at my shoulder nearly as noiselessly as the lass. “Walk east from here, between those two ash trees.” He pointed into the forest. I did not see which specific trees he indicated.
Did you catch that, lass?
“Don’t worry about me, lad. I’ll find my way there.”
“Not a word about us. If anyone asks, you are travelling alone.”
Grannine laughed in my right ear, bright and sunny, echoing out over the trees.
“Don’t worry, lad.” I nudged his arm. “It’s not my first time using that particular story.”
He did not smile. His eyes were as grey as the morning sky and about as comforting.
“Remember, you must return before noon. We will move camp at noon, and you will not find us again.”
“And we can’t have that, can we?” I turned to look him dead in the eye, to show him the grin before it spread. “Can’t leave the lasses alone unchaperoned. Who knows what they might get up to?”
His face tightened. I lightly rapped my knuckles into the breastplate of his brigandine. “Want my advice, lad?”
“Why don’t you go hunting? If you roam north and back, it’ll even count as a scouting trip. Take two hours and let them know when you’ll be returning. We could use the supplies, and they could use the peace.”
“Consider me advised.” Aidan’s answer came just a wee bit too soon after I’d finished speaking for me to have any faith that he’d really heard. “Do you remember what we need?”
Rope…trail rations, linen for bandages, arrows…
“A fresh string for the bow, a cloak for Eris, more vessels for water, a kettle if we can find it, and herbs as well. I remember.”
“Don’t you worry, lad.” I tapped my right temple where a long wound had healed in black. Aidan did not appear reassured. “We’ve got it handled.”
“I certainly hope so.”
I bit back a reply. It won’t make a bit of difference to Mariead whether or not I find a kettle, choir boy.
“Best be fucking off, then.” I stepped back from him, more to put space between us than to end the conversation. Looked over his shoulder to Eris and Mariead. Only Mariead noticed; she raised her hand in acknowledgement. I nodded back. “I’ll see yous before noon.”
The night before, I’d shaved and fired a fallen branch, left it leaning at the edge of our wee encampment. I took it in one hand and struck out east into the forest. Aidan did not offer a farewell.
Near Runingshire. Haven’t been here in a year and a day.
“I do not know this part of the kingdom.”
You will. I saved my breath for walking, spoke to Her in my head. I’m finding it easier now to talk to you without talking. Is that good or bad, do you reckon?
“I couldn’t say.”
She paced me barefoot, wandering over the forest, sometimes vanishing behind a tree and reappearing ten, fifteen feet away. She paused here and there, hands behind her back, to examine a fern or a clump of moss in the crook of a tree branch.
“The forest here is different. Softer.”
Been beaten back by the Church here. That’s why we’ve no need to light fires, and why we have to stand watch. Caer Alstead is not far north of us, and Bridgeport to the south; this patch of trees has been cut off from the rest, and nothing walks the paths.
“That sounds lonely.” A passing branch cut off my line of sight, and as I moved on, I spotted Her sitting cross-legged on the side of a tree in blatant defiance of gravity, chin in Her hand as she contemplated a comb of foxfire.
I looked at the staff in my hand as I climbed the side of a hill, slid down the other into a hollow. Lass, I don’t think the forest knows it’s less than it was.
Her voice was only a whisper. I’d have said it was a breath, but She had no lungs to breathe with.
“I know.” When I crossed from forest to clearing, she was standing at the edge between one blink and the next, blocking my way, an expression on Her face I hadn’t seen often. Contemplation. Confusion. “I know.”
She lifted Her head, met my eyes. Frowned, a bit puzzled. “I hadn’t…meant to say that. What did I say?”
“You all right, lass?” I kept my tone low, spoke out loud to Her. I even reached out to Her where She stood in my path. She felt real enough—I touched Her shoulder, soft and solid in its quilted coat—such a stupid little contrivance on Her part, purely for show. Or maybe more? Maybe you wanted to feel more like us? “You’re sounding madder than usual.”
“I…don’t know.” Grannine’s outline shivered, and She laid a hand upside Her own cheek. A wee frown crossed Her face, and She cracked, fault lines running down Her arm, splintering out Her eye from the inside, turning the blue iris scarlet. It shone with an eerie cherry light, almost too purple to be ruby. “I…what were we talking about?”
I blinked, and She was gone, stood halfway up the next hill, arms wrapped about Herself to ward off the cold. She looked to one side, then the other, eye shining blue on the right, red on the left, slowly equalizing into a dull, forge-iron scarlet glow. The puzzled expression didn’t leave Her face. “I don’t remember.”
The end of my walking stick thumped twice on the ground as I raised and lowered it, looking up at Her.
“The Forest.” I’d said…what had I said? “Does it…something.” I racked my memory, came up empty. All I had for her was half a laugh. “I’ll tell you, lass, I don’t rightly remember. Usually it’s you that remembers things.”
“It is.” She shook Her head. “See, if you recall it later…”
You’ll be the first to know, lass.
She nodded. Stepped behind a tree and reappeared from another, further along.
“Then we’d best hurry up.” I could still see the mischief on Her face, hear the smile returning to Her voice. “We’ve only until noon to return.”
I laughed, put my back into the ascent, reaching the top of the hill. That boy worries too much.
“Something’s burning him up inside.”
Nothing to blame for that but himself.
“You think you know what it is?” She walked with me for a few paces, eye-to-eye, Her feet not quite touching the ground.
I do. I leaned the opposite way from Her, spat on the ground. “All well and good for him rescuing his sister when it was only the idea of her being persecuted. I imagine he’s finding the actual fact of her fucking a minstrel difficult to handle.” The thought lifted my lip, half a snarl, half the wolfish smile I got when I was pounding a man’s head into a doorjam. No mirth in it, only bitter violence. “More so when his holy wee sister might fuck off and die and leave him with the responsibility for getting her lover away safely.”
“He would rise to that. I see the fire in him. He would not break.”
You hope. I shook my head, looking around at the quiet, grey forest, mossy trees, dead and moldering leaves on the ground. But he’d fucking hate it, wouldn’t he? Almost what he deserves, the self-righteous bastard. But I’ll be damned if I see that nun dead without–
I stopped. It was quiet.
“Without what? What is it?”
How many birds have you heard this morning, lass?
“Seventy-six since dawn, my Dermot.”
How many since we left camp?
“Twenty.” I passed a tree and found Her standing behind it, arms folded, casting a concerned look in my direction. “You’re thinking something.”
How many since we crossed that last hollow?
I did not take another step.
I crouched down, stooped as low to the floor as I could. My knees strained. I put a hand on Fury’s cold hilt, let my eyes track back and forth over the landscape, not quite trying to look at any one thing too much. Lass. Your eyes.
The forest turned black and ruddy maroon, bare trees the color of scabs. No light leapt out at my eyes, no birds, no mice burrowing among the leaf litter. It was quiet. Give me mine.
Color flooded back, the cool greys and greens of decay, Frydain in late autumn. My head turned from one side to the other, back and forth. Keep a sharp eye.
My legs were starting to ache. I stayed crouched, watching.
A noise. The pip-pip of a bird, black and white, hopping from branch to branch, high and to the west.
“What do you think it is?” Grannine spoke in a hushed tone at my ear, and I felt the heat of Her crouched at my shoulder, like we were hiding together. A few months before I might have jumped out of my skin at the sudden closeness, but now I’d practically expected it.
Whatever it is, we nearly came across it. I glanced back at the bird. It chip-chipped again, and another wee bird fluttered in to join it. They talked to each other, exploring their way through the forest. Imagine it’s gone now, or on its way to gone.
“The others. Will they be safe?”
Ought be. They’ve a Templar looking after them. It’s me I’m worried about.
“You told him to go hunting.”
Do you think he would?
I rose up to my feet, muscles aching.
Damn it all.
I turned and sprinted back the way we’d come.