The afternoon wasn’t proving to be any less gloomy than the morning. At least I had company.
“Sure you caught all that, lass? There was a lot to remember.”
I couldn’t keep the grin off my face. Hard to remember that there wasn’t a need to.
We were the head of the column of druids, making our way north like an arrow flown up the length of Near Runingshire. Another druid—I couldn’t recall his name, but I wasn’t about to ask Her, not yet—was running scout at the top of the hill to our left, longbow in hand. They drifted in and out of the trees up there like a ghost, head on a swivel.
Grannine’s breath was a huff at the back of my head. She kept pace on my right despite the slope that fell away below Her feet. She’d put on boots today, very like Mariead’s, mudstained, a bit too big for her. She folded Her arms with a look of exasperation, tiny wee jacket pulling around Her shoulders.
“You aren’t nearly as funny as you think you are.”
“I don’t know if that’s true, either. Maybe you’re losing your edge.”
“Dermot,” She fixed me with an uncharacteristically solemn look, scarlet eyes shining like lanterns, gold hair floating around Her like some kind of lake spirit. “Please.”
I managed to only give half a chuckle, shook my head, eyed Her sideways.
“You are truly worried, aren’t you, lass?”
“I am.” She shook Her head, looked away down the hill, through the trees. “If it happens again…I don’t know what it means.”
“I’m sorry, lass.”
I traded the walking stick to my left hand, reached out to take Her shoulder. It felt solid enough—felt real, quilted coat and cotton dress and muscle under my palm, hot as a fever-patient in summer. “I don’t know what it could mean either. But whatever it is, we’ll sort it.”
She nodded, put Her hand over mine.
“I know, my Dermot.” Her fingers were nearly scalding, hot enough I fancied the air should have shimmered around Her. “I am still afraid. I feel something is…wrong.”
“Look all right to me.”
She laughed. Her eyes rose off the forest floor, tracked up over the trees. I felt Her peering through my field of vision as well, taking in the grey light, the bare branches, the clusters of moss and the few surviving plants that hid in hollows and sheltered places.
“There’s more light here,” She remarked, gazing across the landscape. “I can see further. See more.”
“That’s why we have our lad back there on the ridgeline.” I took my hand off Her shoulder, shifted the walking stick back to my right. Fury was riding heavy on my hip, and I hiked the belt up a bit higher, adjusted the fit. “We’ll have to have someone take that hill up there, as we come to it.” I nodded ahead of us, where the forest floor was rising into a slope that would loom up over us on the right, cutting off our vision. “Near Runingshire used to be full of farms and farmers, and there are still some homesteads. After Saint Blake’s rebellion, the Church wanted its people closer in. Now the Forest is coming back, but it takes time to grow in.” The hill swelling on our right was more a plateau, our trail cutting down along the western edge of higher ground. It made my neck prickle to look at it.
“That’s why the trees are so small.” Her voice had a melancholy to it that ran deep, a heartsick sorrow that shook me more than I thought it might. “Still young. Fragile. I…I don’t…” She paused, and there was nearly a sob in Her voice. “Dermot. Why does that make me feel…”
She let out a breathless exhalation, and turned to me, arms drawn together, disappearing from the world between one blink and the next. I felt Her settle into my heart like a well-sunk arrow.
I swallowed, scrubbed a tear from my eye with the back of my hand. Looked up the slope ahead, then back, to the scout on our left. I passed the staff back, signaled to him, fist to heart, two fingers rising to touch my eye, flattened palm, extending my hand to the east. I’ll scout the right.
He signaled back, fist to heart, opening his hand to an upwards knife that gestured down the slope into the hollow.
I know what’ll cheer you, lass. I tried to keep my thoughts off the flash of color I’d seen at the top of the slope.
Her hands fell around my neck like a mantle, a weightless presence at my back. I left the trail, climbed the hillside, threading past young trees and saplings, brambles and dead bushes, working as hard with staff and shoulders as I did with my legs. I slipped once or twice, mud slick beneath me, and had to steady myself with my open right hand, wiping off muck and leaf litter on my trousers. It was getting harder to find a patch of fabric to clean my hands.
I paused, halfway up the rising slope, looked back down at the column. A handful of druids made up the spearhead, with Aidan, Mariead, and Eris in the heart of the troop. As much to keep us from running as for our protection.
Aidan had a sour look on his face, as usual. Wonder what the choir boy is thinking?
“We should speak with him.”
Do I have to?
“He feels…fragile. Like me. One push might be enough.”
Rina was walking behind them, talking quietly to Nash, the old man who led the hunting troop. I grimaced, returned to the climb. Do you feel you’re one push away from something, lass?
That’s unsettling. I sucked in a breath of mossy, misty air, right below the summit, and reached the crest, kneeling down for a closer look at the plant that had caught my eye.
“There you are, lass. Baneberry.”
Brilliant red fruit topped the stems in a starburst. Many of the leaves had gone, but the body of the plant had taken on some of the color that marked its namesake. “Druids use it for all kinds of remedies. Rina drinks tea from it a few times in a moon.” I grinned, reached out to cup a spray of berries. “Church women use it to poison their husbands, as well, so it’s quite a virtuous plant.”
Her hand unfurled from the air, reaching around mine to brush the edge of one swollen, scarlet fruit.
“I like the color.”
I knew you fucking would, lass.
She laughed fondly in my ear. I grinned, looked up across the open, grey-lit expanse of forest at the top of the plateau, saplings and low brush hardly impeding my vision at all across fifty, one hundred, two hundred paces.
Another flash of scarlet drew my eye, I straightened to look after it.
At the far edge of the hill, a man in a brilliant red uniform was staring straight at us.
Four men in the Scarlet crested the hillside behind him. Then four more.
Behind them, a knight on horseback reached the top of the hill, a brilliant display of skill to guide his mount up the slope. Or maybe it was a shallower incline.
“Fuck,” I hissed, and leapt back, turning in midair, skidding part of the way down the slope. “Rina! Urath t’ych caryg.”
To my man on the far flank, I held up my filthy right hand, palm out, and twisted it inward into a fist.
“Slate,” Aidan managed to make his voice carry. “What is it?”
“Scarlets. Coming fast.” I cast an eye over the forest.They’ll have us well and truly fucked.
We occupied the trail three-quarters of the way down the hillside, with only the smallest incline at the west edge of the gully. The ground there was damp, boggy, and open—more of this old, once-cut forest, growing back too slowly to hide sixteen druids, four fugitives, and one demon.
“Fuck,” I hissed, again, and fumbled with the buckle of my sword belt.
“Oli,” Rina snapped. Her voice struck the air like a hammer blow, clarion-clear and low in her chest. “Fedxir, Aj, Berel, Sedec, Utac. Get to the marsh, hold the far edge, keep your feet dry. Archers behind them. Nash, with me. Move.”
She and Aidan shared a glance. “Templar. Choose a side.”
I scrambled down the hillside, trying not to stumble and split my head on a rock. Mariead’s voice was too hoarse to hear over my footsteps, but I saw Rina nod to her and point down the slope.
Aidan stood on the trail. The druids, in unison, fled down the hill, sorting themselves into twos and threes without a word exchanged, flashing gestures to one another.
Think we can take them, lass?
“We can try.”
Our choir boy knight opened his mouth to speak to me.
Hooves pounded the top of the hill, growing near. I felt them in my feet before I heard them with my ears.
I pulled Fury from my waist, dropped down to one hip, skidding through the mud, leaving a rut, grinding more leaves and loam into oilcloth and trousers. My feet hit the dry ground of the trail and I lurched up into a crouch, turned to look back up the hill.
The mounted Templar reached the ridge, reining in his horse. He wore a steel helm and a scarlet coat of plate, brighter than Aidan’s dark brigandine, emblazoned with the shining silver star, and as he glared down at us, he leveled a long, dark shape over his forearm–
Aidan slammed into me, knocking us both off the trail and down the slope, head over heels, picking up scrapes and bruises from rocks and roots. The Templar’s musket went off with a thunderclap that shook the forest, but I felt no blazing sear of pain—not from that, at any rate.
“Sir Aidan Valraven!”
The knight’s voice sounded nearly as loud as his firearm. “Recreant! Traitor! Surrender your weapons at once, and face the judgement of the Circle!”
I flopped to a halt in brackish water, half my face and most of my left shoulder instantly soaked and stinking. Let out a groan, planted my hands, shoved to my feet.
Aidan had managed to land in a crouch, gauntlets dug into the slope in front of him, his boots sunk into the bog. He glared up, took a breath, and answered in a shout more petulant than fearsome.
“Sir Finnley of Southshore, come and make me!”
The druids had reached their positions on the far side of the wee gully, scattering in their twos and threes to whatever cover they could find. Archers fitted bowstrings and chose arrows.
Rina and the old hunter crouched together behind a vast old stone at the base of the hill, shoulders to the rock. He was only half-visible where I stood, she much more exposed, staff in hand.
Soldiers crowded the top of the hill. Five, fifteen, twenty, more. A full patrol, and a Templar to lead them. Just for us?
I saw Rina’s jaw grind. I took hold of Fury with my right hand, the scabbard with my left, and pulled sword from sheath.
“She means to kill them,” Grannine whispered.
“So do I, lass.” I took a step up the slope, casting an eye over the terrain. “Rina! If we’re to do this plan of yours, we can’t have them sending back word.”
She nodded at me, grim.
“Epa, Carrig,” she looked toward her line of hunters. “Break off south. Cut off any messengers, meet us up the trail.”
A man and woman broke away from their trios and went south down the gully, picking their way through the mud. Rina showed her teeth to me, not a grin, more a snarl. “I suppose we will see whether you were telling tales or not, Dermot.”
I grinned the wolf smile back at her, and pulled the lass into my eyes until they burned.