Rina and the old hunter held conference at the edge of our hollow, well away from the edge of the broken circle. They spoke in low voices that I didn’t listen to, Rina’s tone purring, confident, the old man’s harsh and gruff. See, what was his name again, lass? Rina just told us.
I paused, only a few steps from the others, but stock-still nonetheless. Shrugged. We’ll ask again.
“I don’t know why I don’t remember.” I could hear the frown on Her face, almost a pout, frustrated.
You remember enough for me as it is. I shouldn’t expect you to remember everything.
“But I do. I remember that her name is Rina, and that the Inquisitor’s name was Edwyrd; I remember Luca of Alstead, the messenger we met in Caer Liath, and I remember Sir Duncan, the Templar we fought in Bridgeport. But I don’t remember…him.”
Maybe it’s that he’s a druid. I wouldn’t worry.
“Talvec of Starfurrow Hold is a druid. You are a druid, my Dermot, and I remember your name.”
I hope so.
She laughed. We entered the circle. The air within still felt cold.
“All right, Mariead?” I tried to sound cheery, but I might have just come off as callous. “Feeling better?”
Mariead had one hand on her neck. The other was pressed between Eris’ gigantic palms, Eris leaning in close, the two of them forehead to forehead. Aidan stood off to one side like a useless fuck, studying the treeline like he wasn’t sure where he ought look.
Mariead nodded. She croaked something hoarse, winced, rubbed her neck.
“Don’t speak yet, my firebrand,” Grannine murmured, wrapping Her hands around Mariead’s shoulders. “You’re not well.”
“I’m…well enough.” Her voice was ragged, raw, hurt to hear.
I tried not to make a sound. Didn’t entirely succeed. Mariead cast a canny look in my direction. “I…saw. The…” She shook her head. “I didn’t know such things…”
“Once you can talk, you can ask Rina. I’m sure she’d answer a question or two for you.”
Mariead offered a nod, lowered the guarding hand at her throat. The skin there was pale, new-grown and sunless, the edges of the scar still an angry red like frostbite.
“A miracle.” She spoke just above a whisper. “Eris, if you…”
Eris stood, helping Mariead carefully to her feet. She looked at me, then to Aidan, then to Eris, with varying degrees of earnestness and intensity, before looking back over her shoulder to Rina and the old druid whose name escaped us.
She took a breath, experimental, and took her hand back from Eris with a soft smile, gathering back her wild mane of hair behind her head, tucking it into place beneath a rag.
“I will do it,” she said, in her dry, pained whisper. “I will pay what is owed. Will you?” Her eyes traveled over us again, each in turn. “I cannot compel you to do so on my behalf.”
Eris only leaned closer, pressed a kiss to the side of Mariead’s sweaty, leaf-strewn head. That was her answer.
“Already stole from the Church once this week. Might as well do it again before I lose the knack.”
Aidan said nothing.
I looked up, around the ring of the hollow. The druids had already dispersed—I saw one or two standing watch, but no more than that. Rina waved, drawing attention, moving closer.
“We are exposed here. We are moving. Can you walk?” Her attention was fixed on Mariead, her voice calm, carrying. Mariead nodded. “Good. Dermot, are the Scarlet close behind you?”
“Not as close as expected.” I grinned, tucked Fury’s scabbard into my belt. “We killed an Inquisitor just outside Bridgeport, and I think that gave them a bit of pause.”
Rina’s expression didn’t change as much as I’d hoped. But it did change a bit. She nodded, didn’t ask any questions. Yet.
“Nash will lead the others on. Dermot, walk with me.”
That was his name.
“I will try to remember.”
I put a hand on Eris’ shoulder again, just a touch, and moved on to follow the priestess out of the hollow. She walked north, up the hill, not waiting for me; I reached her soon enough.
“Witchbane,” she said, her voice cold. “You are welcome as well.”
Just about jumped out my skin, looking over my shoulder to find Aidan climbing the hill behind us. He nodded to me without emotion. Rina paused at the top of the hill.
“I wished to thank you.” Aidan’s hand rested on the hilt of his sword. Rina showed no fear at the implicit threat; the star-and-moon was bright in the face of his black and scarlet. “I had heard tell that druid priests could work wonders. It was an honor to see in the flesh.”
“Perhaps.” She never was easy to read.
“Had you told me of her before?”
I think I had. Don’t you remember? I smirked into my hand.
“You’re a wicked man. Don’t mock me.”
“I’ll forgive you. This time.”
“The ritual you performed. Dermot called it an Intercession.”
“Did he.” Rina cast a look in my direction. I tried to answer with an expression that was apologetic.
“This healing. Do you draw on your life? Or on hers? I know little of such rituals.”
She cocked her head to one side, black hair standing out stiff, seeming to somehow bristle, dark hackles raised.
“Do you ask for yourself? Or for the Church that hunts you?”
Aidan half-laughed, a familiar expression on his face. The one he put on when he pretended not to understand someone offering him offense. Rina clicked her tongue. “I think you have forgotten that you are an outcast, Witchbane.”
His jaw worked.
“Druid,” he said, in a deadly tone. “I have not.”
“And yet, when I look in your eyes I see a man who has not stepped free of his past.” She stepped close to him, close enough that his arm twitched. “What holds you there?”
“Is this how you welcome all outcasts?” He glanced at me. “I notice you didn’t have such harsh words for Slate.”
“Those who hunted our children in prior lives earn less favor when they defect.” She was not as tall as Aidan, but she had the slope of the hill on her side, and she smiled down at him. “Every living hunter in our troupe has lost blood and kin to your Circle’s predations, Witchbane, and only the debt owed by Talvec stays our hand. Be mindful of that. Your life is not given. It is bought.”
His breath was a hiss, and this time, when Rina turned and continued into the forest, he did not follow. I tried not to look at him. He might have seen me smirking.
“I won’t say I didn’t enjoy that. But you might ease up on the boy.”
“He may yet betray you, Slate. He is lost.” Her voice was distant, thoughtful. “How is it you came to be traveling with them?”
“As a sellsword.”
“Did he offer you a price? Or compel your loyalty?”
“Is it ever not both with the Templar?” I was falling back into the old ways of speaking, the poetry and the meter of it, even the accent of the old language. “He offered me a price. A fair one.”
“Will you live to spend it?”
“I suppose that depends on Caer Lunan.”
“You killed an Inquisitor.” She did glance at me, now. “How?”
“I…” Don’t know.
“I took something from him. I don’t remember what.”
You—I know that, lass. We ate his soul.
I stopped. You don’t remember that, either?
“I know what we took. But I do not remember its name.”
Lass, what the fuck does that mean?
“I don’t know.”
“We…killed it all together. The…four of us.”
Her black eyes didn’t miss much. I worried they didn’t miss that.
“The Witchbane as well?”
“He helped, aye.”
She nodded. Was silent a moment.
“Very well. I’ll ease up on the boy. But only if you stop telling him the names of our rituals.” She poked my shoulder with one bony finger.
“It was one time.”
“He learns nothing more of our ways until I decide. You are no longer the Speaker for your troupe.” She raised an eyebrow. “Is that clear?”
“Of course it is, ortag-al.” I poked her back. “Voice of the Sacred. What’s your wisdom for Caer Lunan, then?”
“I’ll tell you while we walk.”