Fourteen druids descended into the hollow. Talvec was the first to approach us, hands empty, hood thrown back. He offered us a bow, hands at his sides.
“Dermot of Raven Lake. Well met on the common path again.”
“Hell of a path, Talvec of Starfurrow.”
“Thank you for vouching for us.” Eris offered her hand. He looked at it, smiled, took it hesitantly.
“It was owed.” He bowed, still holding her hand. “I did not learn your name.”
“Eris.” She let go of his hand, finally, after almost too long.
“Eris-tae. Well met.” He turned to Mariead, bowed. “You are not known to me, yet Rina will intercede for you. An honor. I am Talvec.”
“Her name’s Mariead.” Eris’ voice was low, tense. “She cannot speak.”
Mariead offered her hand. He looked at it, smiled.
“Ah.” He clasped his hand over hers. “Perhaps Rina can tend to that as well.” He stepped back, releasing Mariead, and gestured toward the center of our wee camp. A half-dozen of the other druids were clearing ground, laying out cloaks to cover the mud. “Mariead-dae, if you will come this way.”
“I won’t leave her.” Eris had Mariead’s left hand twisted up in hers, her wrist almost disappearing under the minstrel’s large fingers. Talvec nodded. He had a serious face, the solemn expression almost funny on his peaky wee features.
“We will keep you by her side.” He bowed again, to me. “We go.”
I waved them off.
The back of my head itched. A chilly presence intruded into the morning as Eris and Mariead followed the druid across our wee hollow. I tried to ignore him.
“An intercession.” The Templar’s voice wasn’t warm enough to be neutral. “We often speculated on such things.”
“You haven’t spoken to me of the druids.”
True, I haven’t.
Talvec had led Mariead and Eris to the edge of a ring that was emerging, cut into the loam around the laid-out cloaks. They were exchanging words, and I saw tension in Eris’ shoulders. Might need to step up and deal with that.
Only Mariead and the Speaker should be in the circle. It’s dangerous, otherwise.
Aidan, I ignored. He took that as a prompt to continue. “A healing ritual?”
“You could say that.”
“But you wouldn’t.” He said this with a leading, pressing tone that I didn’t at all care for.
The Speaker pulled back her hood to address Mariead and Eris. She had a languid, lanky way of walking, picking her way across the circle like a housecat stalking a sparrow. I wondered if the woman I’d known was still under that grey mantle of rags.
“You knew her?”
The lass prodded through memories, old ones, tangles of bare skin and peace, a true sense of respite that I hadn’t felt again until…
Until now. Isn’t that funny. I knew Rina, aye, but that was a long while ago. Didn’t even know she was alive.
“She was dear to you once.”
As much as anyone has been. Grannine pondered this for a moment, then made a decisive sound under Her airless breath. She wrapped Her arms around my waist, resting her caltrop-point chin on my shoulder.
“I’d like to speak to her.”
Funny, I’m hoping to avoid it. She laughed softly in my ear, Her giggle blending with Aidan’s words as he broke into our conversation.
“We did fight.” He was still looking at me sidelong. “Eris and I.”
“It was not about you.” I had the sense that if he thought he wouldn’t lose fingers in the process, he’d put his hand on my shoulder. “You needn’t concern yourself.”
Eris put both hands on Mariead, pulling her gently one step back from the circle. I couldn’t quite pick out what Rina was saying to her at this distance.
“I wasn’t going to. Your relationship with your sister and Eris is not my concern.”
I started forward, and Aidan caught my arm.
I’m going to turn this man’s head into mush.
Reflex ripped my arm free from his hand, sharp, and I half-raised the sheathed sword in my hand, threatening. Aidan’s hand snapped to his sword faster than I could raise mine, Tensil chiming softly in the scabbard and ready to draw.
“Isn’t it?” Was all he said.
Teeth ground in the back of my jaw.
“He doesn’t understand,” the lass whispered. She put Her hand on my arm, pressing gently down. “He doesn’t know what he’s done wrong.”
Don’t think that’s true, lass. I think he knows exactly what he’s done. The young knight had a look on his face, like the one he’d had a few days before, in a clearing full of dead men. He wants me to agree with him.
The idea made me just as sick as it had then.
“They like me fine, choir boy.” I lowered Fury, drove its point back into the ground. “And I don’t give them dirty looks when they kiss.”
Aidan’s lip twitched, a smirk or a sneer half-hidden. His eyes flicked to glare past me, then returned to mine.
“My sister would not be in this position if it weren’t for her.”
“I think your sister chose her position all on her own, lad.”
For a moment, I thought he was about to strike me.
A week ago, that idea might have been fucking terrifying. Not any more. I’ve crossed swords with a Templar, now, boy. Torn the heart from an Inquisitor and put him down like an animal.
You don’t frighten me like you did.
“Choir boy, I don’t care. But I’m not about to stand here and chat with you about the Rite of Intercession. My friend needs me, so fuck off.”
My friend. Wasn’t sure which of them I’d been thinking of. I suppose…either.
Hadn’t used the word in a while.
“Not even for me? I’m wounded.”
You’re more than that.
“How poetic. I’ll ask you to elaborate another time.”
There was a look on his face that I quite liked. The frustration of a man not used to being denied. Sent quite a thrill down my back.
Aidan stepped forward, threatening. Posturing again! Tell him to fuck off and he puffs like a cockerel. My palms itched.
“Don’t I deserve to know what they are doing to my sister?”
Had a lot of ideas for what to say to that. The arrogance of him, the entitlement. A lot of ideas I couldn’t quite articulate, and the impulse to hit him with a rock. Grannine’s hand on my arm was what held me back, her touch piercing the oilcloth like an arrow. Strong and soft as cast iron, warm like nothing else in this barren stretch of forest.
Peace. I felt peace. A core of white-hot calm within the fire.
“No. You don’t.”
I left him.
“…happen to her?” Eris was saying. She had fire in her voice. “You still haven’t explained a damn–”
“–and I will not.” Rina’s answer stirred older memories, ones I thought I’d forgotten. She had a low, self-sure voice, none of the artificial softness prescribed by the Church’s Seven Virtues. “Only she may cross the ring.”
“I won’t–” Eris broke off, looked over her shoulder at me, drawing up her arms to shield herself. She didn’t seem much happier to see me walk up than Aidan had been to see me walk away. Not my most popular morning. “Dermot. Can you tell me what this is about?”
“Mariead says she will not begin until Eris is more at ease,” Grannine whispered. Mariead’s face was pale, the bruises still yellowing on her features, but her knuckles were white around Eris’ hand. I smiled to her.
“Rina.” We looked at each other. She wore the moon-sliver and pentacle around her neck, beaten iron with a hint of silver still showing. “You’ve done this before.”
“Twice.” She’d always had a face that was hard to read, but the years had drawn it tighter and colder, cheeks hollow. Her eyes were black and sharp around the edges.
“You’ll do right by her.”
“Death will take us both if I do not.”
“You know her?” Eris turned to face me more, hand still on Mariead. “Do you trust her?”
I eyed Rina again. Her expression didn’t soften. She only nodded back to me, once, held out her hand to Mariead.
I looked down. The druids had cut their ring into the mud, a trench half a handspan deep, marking out the ritual ground. Mariead stood just on our side of the line.
“If you’re willing, Sister, step in. Eris and I will stand right here until it’s done.” I touched Mariead’s shoulder, as lightly as I could. “And if something goes wrong, we’ll be in that circle in a heartbeat.”
Rina’s look turned sharper, evaluating. I met her gaze, impassive.
Eris let go. Mariead held on a moment longer, a final squeeze, before she took Rina’s hand and stepped across the ring.
“Eris is frightened.”
I know. I didn’t touch her, only moved a bit close, stood at her side. “It’s all right, minstrel. She’s in good hands.”
“I’ve only heard stories.” Her fists were clenched. “The druids and their…rituals.” Her round face was twisted up in worry. “I’m…I’m still…”
“I know.” Rina led Mariead into the center of the circle, eased her down onto her back, hands at her sides. She knelt at Mariead’s side, with her back to us. I wondered if that was deliberate, or simply the nearest place to sit. “Me too. Have you never seen an intercession?”
I took a breath. The air was cold.
“Whatever you see,” I said, tried to keep my voice urgent, low. “Whatever you hear, Eris, stay with me outside the ring.”
“Until…” She looked at me, then back to Mariead. “Slate, what is she going to–”
I won’t make you. And I can’t stop you if you try. But…please.
I saw her subside. Give in to the request. Saw her eyes dart around the clearing, taking in the other druids, cross-legged or squatting on the forest floor, watching their priestess at work. The light seemed to be waning, though it was just midmorning.
Rina drew a silver knife from her belt.
“Eyes open, minstrel.” I put a hand on Eris’ shoulder. “You’re about to see something new.”
Rina held out her hand over Mariead’s heart. She spoke a word too silent to hear.
The air started to sing.