The forest bounded up and down with each step. I didn’t bother to ration my strength; I ran flat out, scabbard in one hand, the walking staff abandoned.
Cold air sank its claws into my throat, gnawed down to my lungs. I blew it back out again hot and sulfurous, crashing down the old forest path, crushing underbrush aside. The distance we’d covered, the progress we’d made, all mocked me, recognizing trees I’d passed, fallen logs I’d climbed over.
I took the next hill faster than the last. My foot went out from under me, and I fell flat into the leaf-strewn mud and moss just below the crest. Rocks knocked on my ribs, left bruises I hardly felt.
One fist into the loam on one side, scabbard and sword as an icepick to haul me to my feet. Running on.
The last hill. It sat to the side of our wee campsite, a bit further off than the slope to the north, fenced it in with a small grove of aspen struggling to push aside the elm and birch. I made it up in a few unsteady steps, nearly lost my feet again, held myself up and running with a hand onto rough bark.
Something held me back from hurling myself down the hillside. Tension in the air.
They hadn’t even started a fire yet. They were stood there at the base of the hill, twenty paces away in the midst of the hollow, on dark mud and leaves and dead grass, surrounded by bare trees, looking up at me like I’d just caught them in the midst of something desperate. Fog billowed at the edges of the clearing, along the north and eastern hills. The campsite was marked only by the two makeshift beds, Aidan’s and Mariead’s, put together from the pack Eris had smuggled along for us. Somewhere in the middle was the hollowed-out hole in the mud where I’d lain down to rest. Mariead’s hunting bow and her few arrows lay on the ground by her bed, far from hand.
Aidan and Eris were close. Mariead was stood between them, one hand to either side. Aidan’s face was expressionless as ever, cold and perfect like the top of a tomb. Eris, big gentle Eris, had fury in her eyes again, the kind that animated her far beyond what she thought herself capable of. A holy anger in its own right, the equal to Aidan’s coldness.
They’ve been fighting.
“Breathe, my Dermot.”
No fire without air.
“You’re starting to anticipate me. Very dear of you.”
I half-laughed, half-gasped for air, bent down to rest my hands on my knees. The filthy sheath of Fury got mud on my trousers. Laughing turned to a cough, and I spat to one side, stood back up.
“Slate.” Aidan was first to speak, of course, the fuck. “What is it?”
“Feeling.” I shook my head, fought to get air in my lungs. “Something. Needed to…”
“Dermot.” Grannine stepped into view behind Mariead. Her head was tilted back, fixed on the trees. “I’ve heard no birds since we reached the camp.”
We were followed.
I held Fury sheathed in my left hand, set my right on the hilt.
A blade touched my shoulder, very close and cold as the muck and mud on my hands. Its edge set against my neck, and an old man’s voice spoke in my ear. I felt the heat of his breath twining through the harsh sound of his accent.
“Leave that fang in its sheath, or your time will be now.”
I let go the hilt. Held my hand out to Aidan quick as I could, spoke up.
His sword was already half drawn, spur singing from the throat of his scabbard, but to his credit, he held. At least the boy’s good at taking direction.
“It is confidence, not obedience.” Grannine strolled behind Mariead, eyes locked on our traitorous Templar. “He thinks he can act quickly enough to end this before you come to harm.”
He’s wrong. If there’s one at my back already…
The mist and moss around the clearing shifted.
They came like shadows. Behind trees, or over the ridgeline. Figures with dirty faces. They wore rags in many layers and colors, brown and grey and moss-stained green, even the flash of white like the thrust of a fungal shelf. I saw four with slings, two with bows, and the rest bore weapons of stone or smoked steel that caught no light in the gloom of an overcast midmorning, knives, spears, and cudgels.
Sixteen. You’re sure?
“Have I been wrong yet?”
I shifted against the man behind me. Took a breath. The old tongue was rough in my mouth, like mossy stones.
“Grey hunter. Well met on our common path.”
I felt him tense against me, a hand on my shoulder that was not Hers. Didn’t much care for him touching me. I itched to hurl him down the hillside.
“Well met on the journey,” he said, back. “You travel in strange company, and trespass where you are unwelcome.”
“Slate,” Aidan’s sword was half-cleared from its sheath, held tense in his hand. “I don’t care for this.” I’d had stabbings that were gentler than Aidan’s inflection. I ignored him.
“Grey hunter,” I half-looked back over my shoulder. He shoved me forward before I could see his face. “What’s your Hold?”
“Starfurrow. Name yours.”
He pushed me again, letting go this time, and I nearly fell headlong down the hill, stumbling to a stop. I turned back to the man behind me, looked up to see his face. His hair was dark, patched with silver here and there, impossible to tell whether the black was mud, pitch, or its natural color. He looked down like he’d very much like to kill me with the flint knife in his hand. I rather wished he’d try it, but it was a wary wish; his left eye was white, clouded and scarred, and he had a pitted, pocked wound up the right side of his face that marked him as the victim of an elemental.
He spoke, commanding. I didn’t care for it.
“Are you all children of Raven Lake? Or are these strangers we must dispose of, now that they know our greeting?”
Aidan was holding fast, ready to draw steel. Eris had stepped in front of Mariead, like she was trying to shield her from every direction at once. Mariead had her dagger in hand. My eyes traveled around the clearing, searching for familiar faces.
I know, I see him.
“They are strangers, hunter. But you cannot kill us. They are under my protection. And…” I threw out my arm dramatically, pointing west to one of the druids lurking at the edge of the clearing. “Talvec of Starfurrow owes me a life. He’ll vouch for us.”
Dead silence fell over the clearing. I planted the tip of my scabbard in the ground, leaned on it, and glanced over to Talvec where I’d seen him, lurking to the southeast, still pale, still thin, with cuts on his face that were still scabbing. “Vouch for me, Talvec.”
He squared his narrow shoulders, nodded. I wondered if he would have spoken up, if I hadn’t called him out of the ring.
“Dermot of Raven Hold, I hear you. Nash, I will vouch for them. He and that one, the shanepejiv, I do owe them a life.”
The one-eyed druid glared at me, like he could see through me better with that dead pupil. He turned the stare on Aidan, on Eris, on Mariead, one after another.
He held a stone knife, but a very real, very sharp steel hatchet swung from his hip, the head blackened by fire. My hatchet.
“You,” he leveled his knife at Aidan. “You carry yourself like one of their knights, stranger. Name yourself.”
Aidan’s lip twitched. I prayed he wouldn’t say something that would get us killed.
He drew himself up to his stocky, short height, and I could hear the leather creak as his grip on Tensil tightened.
“I am Aidan Valraven, Witchbane, Templar of the Third Circle, heir to Valraven Ma–”
“Enough.” The one-eyed Hunter cut him off. I hoped I didn’t look like I was smiling as much as I felt. “And you.” He pointed to Mariead. “Name yourself.”
At times, Eris had a powerful voice. She had a way of lowering the timbre of it, putting a snarl and a smoothness into the undertones. It came out on its own when she sang, and I’d heard it once or twice before, when her blood was up. I heard it now. Grannine marked Her approval with a chuckle at the very edges of my hearing. “She’s hurt.”
Erin. You brilliant riverwoman. You don’t know it, but you’ve given me an idea.
“Hunter. One of your band owes us a life.” I locked both my eyes with the old man’s one. “One of our band is dying. Is there a healer among you who’d honor the debt?”
His eyes went to Aidan, back to me. There was something calculating in his stare.
That’s a man thinking something I can’t quite get.
“Their ways are…different.” The lass stirred around me, Her voice light, curious. “I cannot read him so well as I can the others.”
Druids. It was all the explanation I offered.
The silence lasted long enough that my palms started to itch for something to hold. I made my hands into fists on the scabbard.
“I will deliberate,” he said, at last. He took a step back. “Talvec, oltag-al, join me.”
The old druid turned his back on us. Talvec broke the circle and went to him, as did a woman on the opposite side of the ring, circling wide.
I let out a breath, moved closer to the others, Fury in hand. The others encircled us, watching from far enough away that to rush any one of them would allow the others ample time to kill us from a distance.
Eris shifted one step in my direction, Mariead coming with her.
“You know them?”
“I don’t.” I didn’t look at her. The faces around the clearing weren’t hateful—they were uninterested. That was almost worse. “We’ve little hold on them as it is.”
“If it comes to open battle…” Aidan’s words were almost a hiss.
“Easy, lad. We’re in no state to–”
“Don’t lecture me, Slate.”
“Fuck me, you’re testy this morning.” I hated to take my eyes off the figures around the hollow, but I had to look over. He didn’t look back. Eris had an expression on her like sour milk. “How did yous get into a fight already? I’d hardly left.”
“That’s no concern of yours.” Our young knight stood still as a statue, ready to lunge into deadly motion. I couldn’t see where he was looking. “Focus on the situation.”
“There’s naught to be done for the situation, choir boy. Only wait to see what they decide.”
“We should say something.”
“You think you’d be able to sway them?” The tension was clear on Eris’ face, an acrid tone in her voice. “They don’t seem much interested in what a Knight of the Third Circle has to say.” Her arm pulled Mariead closer.
“I mislike the idea of awaiting our fate in silence.”
The arid tone of Eris’ voice startled a laugh out of me, louder than I thought in the clearing. A few of the druids around the hollow twitched at the sound, a few arrows shaking on strings. They should have drawn those bowstrings the moment they heard there was a Templar among us.
On the other hand…a full band of druids might just be enough to bring him down.
The one-eyed druid turned back to us, Talvec and the other at his side. He looked pleased with himself as well. I felt my heart sink. Ah. The man’s had an idea.
He sheathed his flint knife, and raised an empty hand to the ring.
I felt Grannine’s hands on my shoulders, Her presence closing behind me.
“I have decided.” His one eye was too dark to show its color in the gloom. “You have saved Talvec from the jaws of the Devourer, and returned him to us. A life is preserved. We are grateful, and we spare you in turn. Our ortag-al is willing to do you a further kindness; she will intercede on behalf of your wounded and lift her out of danger.”
Eris made a sound of disbelief. I didn’t. The old man’s eye glittered as he looked down on us. “But this is a second kindness, of another order. This is a kindness of death, and it must be repaid by a kindness of death.”
“He asks a price for Mariead’s life?” Aidan glanced at me, violence in his glare.
“No.” I didn’t look away from the leader of the pack. “He wants us to do something for him in exchange.” I raised my voice. “What kindness do you ask for this intercession, hunter?”