Aidan and I stood just below the road, at the edge of the trees on the downhill side of the slope, looking up as Church scarlet massed on the ridgeline.
Our druids hid back among the undergrowth on the far side of the bog at the bottom of the slope, Mariead and Eris among them. Mariead sighted down one of her arrows. Past them, the ground stretched out level, with no cover beyond the saplings and underbrush, rising into hills at last after a long run.
They’ll cut us to ribbons. We have cover, but they have the ridgeline, and—
My jaw dropped, slack before I even turned around to see scarlets pouring over the edge in a straggling line, followed by a second, and a third.
“Thirty-six,” Grannine said in my ear, Her voice brisk. I caught a glimpse of Her from the corner of my eye, standing by my side, shoulders squared, head back. “Two sergeants, fifteen penitents, and the Templar.”
“They’re fucking mental.” I looked at Aidan. “They’re coming on?”
“Of course they are.” Aidan did not look at me. He drew Tensil with his left hand, and it sang from its sheath like a sword in a minstrel’s story, ringing cold in his hand. With his right hand, he drew a long parrying dagger, its broad hilt sculpted to match the quillions of his Templar steel. “Sir Finnley commands it.”
I gaped up at the Templar on his horse, who was briskly reloading his musket like he planned to use it to hunt quail. He spurred his mount forward, and the horse began to descend the slope, picking its way down the hill while its rider leant back, butt of his firearm braced into his shoulder.
“We killed an Inquisitor.”
“Perhaps he doesn’t know that.” Aidan stepped to my left, putting more space between us as the scarlet came on. “Why don’t you go tell him?”
In an ordinary charge, there was a gentle sort of game that fighters played with one another. You wanted to reach the enemy, to start the fighting so you could be done with it. The man you were out to kill wanted the same thing. Neither of you was in much of a rush to die, so traditionally, you’d run full tilt at each other and then stop, feel each other out, wait for an opening.
The great innovation of the Church’s convict-soldier was they knew the man following behind could kill them if they hesitated. They didn’t stop, only braced for the first trial of combat.
That might break a green rabble of farmers. It wouldn’t break a druid hunting party. It wouldn’t break us. But the six men with crossbows behind them, and the Templar with his Teague firearm, those might well do so, especially when we were perched at the side of the road like idiots.
I saw Aidan reach the same conclusion. We shared an irritated glare. He sheathed his sword, and we scrambled back down the slope side by side as the first wave of Penitents reached the road behind us. A Church sergeant shouted indistinctly.
“Seek cover, my Dermot.” I looked up, found Grannine standing before me, hand out in warning, Her arm outstretched to indicate a tree stump that jutted out from the hillside. Scant cover, but the nearest thing to me; I’d nearly run right by it. “Now!”
I let my feet go out from under me, hit the ground on a hip and an elbow, rolled into cover with Fury clutched in one hand. I had time to shout, though the second word was more of a bark, air forced from my lungs.
Crossbows thumped on the hillside above. The Templar’s musket went off like a thunderclap in the midst of their volley.
Quarrels scattered through the forest. One struck the stump behind my head, a hammer blow into the rotten wood. I looked left and right, seeking for Aidan, found him among a stand of saplings in time to see him drop the silver helm on his head. A bolt skipped off his shoulder, defeated by church-forged brigandine.
It’s not fair. I started to feel something hot bloom in my chest, rubbed my palm over my Fury’s pommel, scratching the itch. So we’re to fight for our lives now? All these men charging to their deaths because one Templar was impatient?
“At ease, my Dermot.” Grannine whirled out of the air beside me, hair dull red like blood with embers creeping along each strand. “We will not end here.”
I flexed my fingers, closed my hand into a fist.
Mariead’s bow struck out, the snapping string like a whip crack among the trees. I couldn’t see where she was aiming, but I saw her face, cold and heartless, with the lass hanging at her shoulder like a shadow.
The Templar’s horse screamed. The fire in my heart flared up with vicious satisfaction. Mariead glanced at me, expressionless, drew back into cover and set another arrow on the string.
Impact. Heavy weight striking the ground above the hill—like the sound of a horse in knightly tack losing its footing on the slope.
Lass. I looked to my left, where She was crouched in the mud, invisible to the Church soldiers, looking up the slope with watchful red eyes and a wolfish grin. Her anger matched my own, temper flaring, deep, furious.
The smooth skin of Her hand cracked, a deep ceramic-fired furrow shivering past the wrist, up the arm and bare shoulder, scarlet light blooming beneath Her tattered dress. Her voice sang through the air around me, turned it to molten lead. There was a ragged edge to the words, tired, near-broken, full of defiance. “We will not end here. Not again. Not yet.”
I stared at her.
She put Her hand on my wrist, pulled once. Her eyes did not leave the scene above.
I rolled out from behind the stump. Grannine twined around my back, right hand drawing over my shoulder, pressing me forward. Her left hand joined mine on Fury’s scabbard as We drew the sword, cast the sheath away to fall down the hill.
The knight was on his feet, drawing the eye in fine silver and scarlet, halfway down the hillside with his musket in both hands, shield slung from his back. His horse was breathing its last behind him, fetched up against a broken sapling with Mariead’s arrow in its heart. He took a breath, shouted it out down to us.
“Aidan Valraven! Stand and face your judgment!”
Church soldiers in scarlet were crossing the road. The penitents were first, wild and wide-eyed, with cudgels and daggers. One was near me. The lass drew my eye to three-year chains stitched into the sleeves of his tunic.
My hands snapped out, right braced high near the crossguard, left low on the pommel, working the lever, adding strength to the cut. I stepped off the line from him, slashing up and forward, and felt the air piling up around Fury’s blade, slithering off the edge as it came into line. He folded around Fury like it was an ox’s horn. Rivets and rings scattered across us, and I followed through on the stroke, forcing him to the ground, drawing my sword across him and away to the left.
If things had been going well, Aidan and I might have made it across the bog at the base of the hill. We could have fought them from the high ground while their feet were caught in the mud.
Fury came up into my arms, locked into them like a key, blade braced across the upper left sleeve of my oilcloth. We glared Our hate at the Templar high on the hill, who paid us no mind at all, his eyes elsewhere, on the point where I guessed Aidan to be standing, too far for me to look, too far to risk taking my attention off the men closing in.
He doesn’t even see us. This isn’t even about us. We’re all to fight and kill one another so he can have his moment with Aidan, play at his game of honor and justice.
“It’s always so.” Grannine’s voice warped with each word, Her old and broken rage dripping molten like pitch. It stung my hands and speckled my arms in black, the pinpricks and scrapes of rolling down the hill and over the trail burning suddenly cold.
Lass, what are you–
I couldn’t quite parse the mass of soldiers coming on. Running out of time to think. To count.
Lass, how many? Fifteen penitents?
“I don’t remember.”
My teeth ground together even as We grinned, sinking further back down the slope as the nearest three penitents came on, judging us a better death than the druids waiting across the gully.
Up the slope, one step, left side braced. Fury twisted up and out of my arms, blade winding around my shoulders, hissing through the air into a high guard. The nearest man left his companions behind in his haste to reach the grave, and I struck his cudgel aside, shattered it with Fury’s too-heavy edge, kept the weapon circling again to strike him down from shoulder to hip. The weight of the blow crushed him down into the leaf litter, broke him around the edge, and I came on, two steps, trading to present my leading foot, sword held close and watchful, near enough that I could catch glimpses of reflection in the sparse, winding threads of silver over its black blade.
Two men close. More coming on. Too many to count; the mob of scarlet was parting, narrowing in on Aidan on the one side, myself on the other. The trail was ahead—firmer footing, even ground, a chance to fight on easier elevation. The druids waited in the underbrush behind.
The man I no longer was might have broken ground then.
Every soldier who stops here is one less they’ll need to fight.
I sank Fury back into guard, arms crossed over the hilt, blade in line with the ground, pointed up at the mob. Beyond, over their helms and heads, the Templar lifted his musket. I abandoned the guard with my left hand, threw it out before me. Grannine!
Wordless, she answered, a sharp breath of affirmation.
Powder flashed in the musket, premature, and I heard the ball skip and whine off a rock on the hillside, hissing past out of sight. The Templar cursed, and his eyes turned to me.
“Fifty golden crowns to the man who brings me that warlock’s head!”
I grinned at him, took one step back onto my left foot, taking hold of my sword in a long guard, almost at the extension of my arms.
“Ah,” I looked around, as five men shuffled loosely in a half-circle toward me, none of them willing to brave the sword yet, not while one of their number was dead at my feet without leaving a mark. “Now this will be a chore.”