Fury hung on my belt like a lump of lead. Aidan hovered at my left, just at the corner of my eye. Grannine wrapped Herself around me from behind, while I stood with my right hand on Eris’ shoulder. The four of us, and the fifteen druids without the circle, watched, as Rina pressed her right hand to Mariead’s heart, and raised her left, fingers hanging just above the knife handle in her throat. The clearing was still, hushed, with no words and no conversation breaking the silence. The silence before a thunderbolt.
The priestess had her back to us. Narrow shoulders moved confidently beneath the cloak she wore, an overlarge hood still draped across most of her head. Only her hands were bare, arranging Mariead’s arms at her side, brushing a thumb across her forehead.
“She’s frightened.” Grannine paced the far side of the circle, prowling the outer edge like a restless animal. “Dermot, she’s–”
Lass, I’ve no idea what happens if you cross that circle while Rina’s speaking the Intercession. All I know is, it’s bound to be fucking complicated.
“I…I think I understand it.” At the moment when I caught sight of Her, She was tall and willowy, sleek like a golden chain, ruby eyes tight in contemplation. “It’s not to keep us out. It’s to keep something in, I think.”
It is. And if you step over, might be it’s you that it’ll be keeping in, don’t you think?
“I…that might be. But I want to see. I want to–”
“Stay outside the ring.” I said it out loud. Eris didn’t answer. Her shoulder was steady as a slab of frozen oxflesh under my hand.
“I’m troubled, Slate.” Aidan ‘s voice was dry, icy. “How little self-control you seem to think we pos–”
Rina shifted. One knee swung wide, gently pinning Mariead’s near hand, and the priestess closed her fingers around the wooden tube in Mariead’s throat.
I know, lass. It’s all right.
The nun’s eyes went wide, and her arm jerked. Rina pulled her bandage free. Mariead twisted on the ground, eyes rolling back in her head, and without a sound her hands went limp, fell back to her sides.
I was already raising my left arm to block Aidan, tensing my right to hold Eris. It was Aidan who gave me more trouble, half-starting forward. I felt Eris tensing under my hand.
“Slate.” Her voice was deadly quiet. “I won’t be moving. But I won’t have you holding me back, either.”
I let go. Folded my arms, tucked bare hands into my armpits for warmth.
Blood bubbled up from the narrow wound in Mariead’s throat, black and red mingling, some rotten, some fresh. Rina laid her left hand over the opening, leaning forward until all we could see was Mariead’s pale face, eyes shut, head lolled back.
A murmur rose from the druids around us, even the oldest, words under their breath in reverent tones.
Cold air crept through the clearing, heavy, dry, and dark like a crypt. The grey light that threatened rain now seemed to threaten night, the colors turning pale and pallid. Only Grannine seemed unaffected, her eyes and hair a slash of scarlet against the eerie, bluish shift in tone.
It’s already here.
Darkness stirred, just in the shadow of my left eye, a prickle that stole across my shoulder, up the back of my neck. Do you feel that, lass? Can you feel that, deathless as you are?
“I know death.”
Rina’s shoulders shifted, the rise and fall of a single breath. Her voice was inaudible, as if no sound could cross the circle. Drops pattered over my shoulders. The long-promised rain, here at last, speckling the ground in fits and starts.
The druids fell silent. Even Grannine was quiet. There were no birds. For a moment, even the sound of rain stopped, and it was silent as the grave in the hollow of our hills.
Quick as it had come, the stirring, circling sense of presence in the hollow vanished.
Mariead sucked in a breath, deep, gasping, bereft of that awful sucking, whistling sound. It turned soon after to a cough, and she curled up on the ground, clutching her chest. The priestess guided her to lie on her side, and she hacked up a glob of blood and spittle, retched after it with an ugly sound.
“Slate,” Eris whispered.
She went, crossing the line, not quite bulling Rina over in her haste to cradle Mariead’s head, tuck her hair back despite the gobbets of blood still stuck there. Mariead continued to cough, spitting onto the ground. Rina touched Eris lightly on the forehead with her right hand, then Mariead, with her left. She might have said something, but we couldn’t catch it.
I broke the circle with one long, deliberate scuff of my foot.
Rina turned to Aidan and I. The sigil around her neck was bright silver, a crescent moon and pentacle with all the rust seared away. She approached the edge of the ring, noted the point where I had broken it, and stepped across precisely there. Her black eyes set on the choir boy.
“It is done, Templar.” Her voice billowed, low, smoke on the wind. “We’ve kept to our side of the bargain. Now we will put your knight’s honor to the test.”
“Dermot, will you speak to her for me?”
Not yet, lass.
Grannine rested Her chin on my shoulder, arms around my waist. I saw Her behind Rina, too, coiling low into the space between Eris and Mariead, a concerned hand on Mariead’s shoulder. How’s the Sister?
“She’s alive. I don’t quite understand the whole ritual, but I think she’s…healed.”
I’ll explain later.
“My Dermot, you are already overdue for an explanation on many things.”
Rina shot me a look, sidelong, testing, the hollow bones of her cheeks standing out. She reached up and pulled back the wide hood, freeing a wild, uneven head of thick black hair that stood out in spikes and clumps. “Dermot Slate. I didn’t think you were still alive.”
“Didn’t think you’d recognize me, Rina.” My folded arms hid blackened hands from sight. I tucked them further away.
“Just because you grew a beard? I did not forsake my eyes when I chose the Speaker’s path.” She looked me up and down with an appraising smirk. “Time has been kinder than I might have thought.”
“Made a bargain with a witch. Got ten years onto my life.” That wasn’t even strictly wrong.
“Not good years, I take it.”
“I’ve had better.”
She laughed, turned her attention to Aidan like she was slamming a door on me.
“Aidan Valraven. Many’s the time I’ve seen your family home from afar. I would not have expected to come upon you as a fugitive in the woods.”
“I imagine it is not entirely an unpleasant sight for you.”
“I imagine not.” She half-grinned at him in a way that reminded me uncannily of the lass in my head. “I’m eager to put you to the test, Witchbane Valraven.” She nodded over her shoulder. “Go see to your wounded. We will share what supplies we have before we march, but we have time.” Her eyes met mine, and she tilted her head, curious. “Dermot. I would like a word, if you will spare a moment for me.”
I lowered my hands behind my back as subtly as I could, bowed to her.
“It’d be my honor, Speaker. Well met on the common path.”
She did not answer. Instead, she looked at Aidan, not malicious, not forceful, only watching, until he moved on, across the broken ring, toward Mariead and Eris. Her eyes turned to me, though her head did not.
“Well met. You’re different.”
She took my arm, pulled it out from behind my back, bent it up to show off the unnatural, blackened skin of fingers and hand. She looked at my hand, then at me. Her grip was strong. I tugged loose. “That might be ink.”
“It might be.” She tilted her head. Her right hand gently crept up to touch the silver star and pentacle hanging from her neck, eyes flicking back and forth between mine. “But it’s not.”
“Tell me about the storehouse.”
Her expression might have been a smile, or a grimace. She lowered her hand to her side.
“Do you know Caer Lunan?
“It is north of here, and well-guarded. There is a messenger post, a small garrison, and a granary, as well as the reigning Templar’s mansion.”
“And that would be…” I trailed off. Grannine supplied the name.
“It is.” She looked back over her shoulder, to the ring. I followed her eyes.
Mariead had sat up, with Eris supporting her. Her hand was at her throat, gently pressing a fresh bundle of bandages to her neck, and though they came away bloody, the skin underneath was unbroken—scarred, pale, knotted…and whole. She looked at the bandages in her hand, and then, as if she could sense our eyes, she looked to us.
Rina nodded to her, and turned back to me, her eyes sharp. “Will he serve?”
“It’s all he knows how to do.” I tracked Aidan over the top of her head. His back was to me; he’d knelt at Mariead’s side, a hand hovering near her shoulder as if he was afraid to touch her. “I don’t know if he has the imagination to betray you. It’s Eris you’d need to worry about for that.”
“The riverwoman.” Rina’s eyes narrowed. “You travel in interesting company, Slate.”
“You’ve no idea.”
“Will she be loyal?”
“Rina,” I said, and I didn’t take pains to keep my voice down. “I’ve never been able to predict what it is Eris Malarin is likely to do. What is it you’re thinking to use us for? It was your plan, wasn’t it? Or was it the old man’s?”
“Nash wanted to kill you. I thought there might be better uses for you.” Her eyes glittered. “Just like old times.”
“I’m too sore to think about old times.”
She chuckled. The sound was more familiar than I’d thought it would be. She touched my shoulder.
“Come speak to Nash with me. We can tell you more. I am sure there is much to discuss.”
I ran my tongue over my teeth, let out a long breath.
“In a moment. I’ve got to see to them.”
Rina twisted her head a bit to one side, watching me with that weighing, prying look.
“You are different. Or maybe they are.”