The old druid nodded. He beckoned to the woman who accompanied him. She was only just his height, features hidden by hood and shawl, hands hanging loose at her side. No weapons on her belt, not that she’d need any.
“What is she, my Dermot?” Grannine broke a silence I hadn’t realized She’d been keeping, as still as the birds that had fled the druid’s hunting party. She peered past my shoulder, a slash of scarlet and cheekbone just visible in the corner of my eye.
Ortag-al. She’s the voice of the hunting party. She knows the trails, the secrets of druid magic, their whole tradition.
The druid woman looked familiar. Something in the set of her shoulders. I hoped that whoever she was, she didn’t recognize me. Filth coated my hands, mud up and down my front, my trousers, my sleeves heavy with it. It would dry slow in the cold, but I could feel it starting to turn to crust at the edges, transforming from the muck of rotten leaves and loam into a crumbling, grey dust that would stick with me for weeks after.
“I don’t like this, Slate.”
“We know, lad.”
I was tired. Didn’t try to keep the weariness from my voice. My lungs still burned cold, legs shaking. The heartbeat felt too loud in my ears, giving every step and sway a trembling like a thin sheet of tin. A run through the forest evidently hadn’t helped.
Aidan turned away from the druids, taking me by the arm. The impulse to punch him was strong. He lowered his voice like that would stop them hearing us, and I felt the lass fluttering about us, Her presence subtle, curious, dancing through the air like a will-o-wisp.
“I won’t be beholden to these people.”
“That’s a fine principle.” I jerked my head over my shoulder at Mariead. “Is she ready to die for that?
“Whatever the price is, we’ll pay it.” Eris was still holding her close. “But–”
“That druid,” Aidan said the word like it was a curse. “Only wants to use us.”
“Of course he fucking does, lad. Wouldn’t you?” I struck his arm off me, and for a moment I thought he would strike back. “I’m not the one who told him my fucking rank.”
He glared at me.
“Dermot.” Eris was looking past us, at the druids who still kept us encircled. “Can they do it? Can they save her?”
I grinned. She did not look like she appreciated the smile.
“You haven’t heard the stories?” I looked back to the ring of hunters. Even knowing they were there, it was hard to pick them out from the forest, so still they stood and so closely matched their colors were. They looked like extensions of the mist, weapons lowered but very much present. “There’s no match for a druid’s healing.”
“Mariead is willing to make the bargain.”
I looked to the nun. Her face was set. One hand was locked to Eris, fingers interlaced, but she held her bodkin in the other, tucked away into the sleeve of her tunic where only I could see it.
“What do you say, Sister?”
I felt Aidan’s glare on the back of my head as I turned my back on him to look at her. “It’s your life we’re betting. Will you take their healing?”
“What guarantee do we have that these druids will match their end of the deal?” Eris spoke just above a murmur, intended for our ears alone.
“I’m more concerned with how confident they seem that we will match our part.” Aidan eyed the treeline, hand on the hilt of his sword.
“They are worried. Might say they’re afraid.” The lass coiled through my head, smoke, a voice. “You’ve said little of the druids, my Dermot. Should we be afraid?”
“Aidan.” I could tell using his proper name got his attention. He almost looked startled. “Have I ever given you cause to distrust me?”
“Many times.” He was deflecting. Not quite a joke and not quite a jab at me, brushing me off. A week ago I might have risen to it. Now, I felt…different. Slower. Not slower in the sense of thicker, stupider, but slower to anger. I think you’ve changed me, lass.
“You also haven’t gotten more than a night’s sleep in the last three days.” I caught the barest glimpse of Her face as She flitted between Mariead and Aidan, casting a sidelong grin in my direction. Her tone softened the words. “That would change anyone.”
Didn’t realize until after I’d already laughed that Aidan might have thought I was laughing at his joke. Too late to take it back.
“I can’t promise they’ll be honest with us.” I thumped the tip of Fury’s sheath in the mud. “The frost is coming, and that makes people desperate. But this isn’t just a bargain.” I nodded to the trees, met Aidan’s eyes flat as I could, let him feel the truth of it.
“A favor of life, he said.” Aidan’s grey eyes ticked back and forth between mine, hunting out each twitch and expression. I had the urge to recoil, turn my back on him again. Drew the lass up to me and faced him down. “What does that mean?”
“We spared that Druid in Highcopse. Stayed the Church’s hand.”
D’you think I should mention it was my idea to spare Talvec of Starfurrow Hold?
“Perhaps this is not the moment, my Dermot.” I’d managed to stir a laugh in Her voice.
Aye, perhaps you’re right.
“We acted the part of death, but refrained from taking him. Now,” I gestured around the hollow. “They had us in their jaws, played the part of death. He held them back.”
“So why is saving Mari not a favor of death?” Eris didn’t sound so defensive any more. Now she sounded curious; the minstrel, taking note, hunting down information.
“Because they aren’t the ones killing her. Her death is her own. They wouldn’t be staying their hand; they’d have to interfere.” I grinned, turned around, raising my voice. “And grey wanderers hate to interfere, isn’t that right, hunter of Starfurrow?”
The old druid was standing closer than we’d thought. Not at the rim of the hill, but nearly at the bottom, scarcely twelve paces from us. I managed not to startle at the sight of him, but only just. He bore a walking-stick in one hand, short and leather-bound into a cane, with dents along its length that suggested it also doubled as a cudgel.
“We interfere when it is needed. No more.” The way he spoke, the rasp of the consonants, it woke old memories in me. This man’s never known life outside a hold.
“This favor must be quite a fucking thing.” I clapped both hands on Fury’s pommel, driving it further into the muck. “How is it we’re worthy of being offered an intercession? I’ve never seen one done.”
The old hunter smiled. His teeth were a shock of white, his mouth a bit too wide for his head.
“We have need. You may be the answer to that need. Our Speaker is young, and has only performed one intercession.”
“A favor of life…we’d be interfering, somehow, then? Saving someone?” Eris stepped forward, Mariead stepping in time with her. Their hands were still linked. The druid looked them over, nodded. “That doesn’t sound so bad, saving someone.”
“You would save a hold.” His hands were overlarge for his arms, and the leather of his walking-stick creaked beneath strangling fingers. “Winter is here. The land is grey. There is still nourishment in the forests for those who know where to look, but not enough to sustain our numbers in Starfurrow. Your Church,” the old man’s eye fell on Aidan, who endured the stare without rising to it. “They take fruits of the harvest from their servants and store them in houses of stone, where they serve no one. There is enough food in one of these storehouses to allow our numbers to grow through the winter, into the spring, but it is too heavily guarded for us to think of raiding.”
Aidan half-laughed, shaking his head. The smile on his face had a bitter edge to it, lemon-sour.
“Unless you have a Templar.”
The druid matched his smile. They looked almost alike, staring at one another across the distance between them.
A Church granary. I had to grin, looking to the ground. I realized that the way I stood closely matched the stance of the old druid—arms out, braced for balance on Fury’s hilt, rather than a walking stick.
Aidan spoke again, in the flat tone he used when he was coming round to an idea.
“I will not kill for you.”
“I do not care.”
“We would not ask death of you.” The woman’s voice was sure. She spoke words like she was beating them out of red steel. “This is an act of Life.”
Aidan bowed his head.
“Where’s the granary?” Eris had not let go of Mariead. “We had a destination in mind when we chose this path.”
“There is one not far from here.” The druid woman answered her with a solemn tone. Her black eyes were like chips of flint under the hood. “In a village they call Caer Lunan.”
Aidan laughed. He shifted position, resting a hand on the pommel.
“You have tried to raid this storehouse before.” It was a fact, not a question, delivered with a knight’s certainty.
“We have.” The old druid smiled.
Have the definite sense I’m missing something. Anything you see, lass?
“Nothing you don’t.”
“What makes you think we could be the ones to breach it for you?”
“Your name,” the druid woman tilted her head back, and I recognized the familiar slash of brows revealed beneath her hood. “Sir Valraven.”
“I am exiled. My name has no currency with the Templar.”
Eris made a half-aborted lunge for him, and I nearly joined her. Idiot boy. Why’d you tell them that?
But the druid priestess only smiled, eyes crinkling up at the corners.
“Perhaps not. But with the people of Caer Lunan who serve Lord Donal Valraven, we believe you will still have some sway.” She rolled her shoulders, tilting her head back, radiating confidence. “And we are prepared to bargain from that belief.”
“You’d ask me to steal from my own people.”
“Get off your pride, choir boy.” In comparison to their sleek, fat voices, mine sounded like two rocks grating together. “The Church has already done the work of stealing from them. We’d only be stealing from an empty box.”
I could practically hear his teeth grinding.
“Fine.” He stepped back, nodded to his sister. “Work your ritual. We’ll pay your price.”
“Swear it by something that will bind you.” The druid priestess did not ask, she ordered, with such conviction that even Aidan did not protest.
“I swear by my honor as a knight.” His voice was bitter again. “What little remains to me.”
“I will accept this.” She looked to the old man. “Nash, have them prepare her.”
I took a breath. Let it out. No fire without air, right lass? Looks like we’re going to rob the Church one more time before we’re done.
“And why not? It worked so well the last time.”
What frightened me was that She didn’t seem to be joking.