In actual fact, people are not so often willing to charge into violent confrontation. They hesitate around the edges and wait for someone to slip. There’s always a first man to break. I’d seen enough to know the signs; the wild animal eyes, the shift of weight, the tensing in his shoulders. I spotted those signs in a Penitent to my right, a pockmarked and sallow man working up the nerve to come for me.
I baited the attack. Changed my stance, turned my head away, like I didn’t see him practically shouting his intentions, like I didn’t see his club arm rising. I waited my turn, for him to lean in, to step out of–
An arrow took the southernmost of my new friends in the back, well-aimed and well-timed. He let out a harsh cry and fell to one knee, limp, tumbling down the hillside in a hail of leaves and limbs.
Two of the others looked after it, startled.
“The pair Rina directed,” the lass was a flicker of fire in the corner of my eye. “I…don’t recall their names. They are crossing the trail.”
I didn’t have time to answer. Instead, I raised Fury into two hands, circling the point of the blade up over my head, and brought it crashing down onto the closest man’s helmet while he was still staring south, fearful of some hidden archer sowing death in his back.
Swordtip and steel collided, and the thump of breaking bone was tangible, Fury’s dull, brute impact crushing him to the ground. I pulled back, dragging the sword along with me, retreating one step down the hill to twist the sword up into a high guard, menacing. I flashed them a grin.
Some silent signal from Rina traveled up and down the line of druids waiting by the gully. That, or they’d judged enough soldiers had crested the hill and come within range. Whatever it was that tipped their hand, they loosed arrows coolly and well, with the luxury of time and distance.
To my left, Aidan brought his blade across in an elegant sweep, somehow managing to slip it through the defenses of three Penitents in one pass. He barely looked at them, and the descending Templar on the hill didn’t so much as blink. They hardly took their eyes off one another.
Our anger flared again at that. I’ve half a mind to kill Sir Finnley there, just to stymie him.
One of the Church sergeants had finally made it down the hill. He pointed at me, huffing for breath, and managed to shout an order while he dragged the sword from his belt.
“Hang back and I’ll gut you! Take him down!”
He threatened toward the nearest Penitent, who flinched away. A few of them turned to curse him, flinching away.
“They are unsure. I see confusion, fear, anger. They’ve not made up their minds. The right word now, and we could sway them to do…something.”
Do what, exactly? If Caer Lunan gets word of our presence, we’re fucked.
“You said yourself, these men were criminals. They’ll run. How long will it be before the Church can catch one?”
They’re dead if they’re caught again. And they will be.
“We’re giving up, then? Without even giving it a try?”
I shook my head, half-amused by Her audacity. You are trying to wind me up, lass.
“Is it working?”
Shut up and tell me what to say.
“Your Sir Finnley has led you to your death, lads.” I lowered my sword from a high guard into a lower, deceptive stance, canted back toward my leg. “The scrollers behind me won’t show you a whit of mercy, and nor will your sergeant.”
“Find each in turn, look them in the eye.” I glanced from man to man through the Penitents nearest me, and found more than a few frightened faces among the Church soldiers behind. Wish it was Rina doing this. She’d have them breaking with a word.
“They can’t catch all of you.” I took a step forward, nearly within reach of two of the Penitents. The sergeant at the back grabbed another convict-soldier and thrust him forward, into the backs of two more. I raised my voice as loud as it went, until it scraped and rumbled in my throat. “Run south, don’t breathe a word to another soul until you cross the Runing, and you might live to see sunset.”
They wavered. They might have broken.
But then the second sergeant shoved his way to the fore, grabbed a Penitent by the collar, and drove a knife into his belly. This new Church sergeant was older, stern-faced and weathered, and he met my glare without hesitation. He threw the dying man down and spoke no words to refute me. None were needed.
Along the slope between me and Aidan, only one Penitent blocked the path. Killing him without taking a mortal wound from the rest of the throng would be a challenge. If I was after killing him.
Throwing him on his arse was another thing entirely.
I struck into his sword with Fury held in both hands, slammed him with my shoulder, and bulled him off his balance, down the hill. He went rolling away, and I paid him no more mind. The hunters will take him, or they won’t.
I kept running along the hillside. Six Penitents were closing in on Aidan, a wider half-ring of spear-wielding Church soldiers on the outside, wary and skittish like a party of peasants hunting boar. Sir Finnley of wherever-the-fuck had reached the trail, and stood on the level ground staring down, as if this were all for his personal entertainment.
He drew his sword. It was sleek, silver, and finely made, with curved guards that bent in opposite directions, one up, one down. He raised it to his face, pressed his lips against the blade, eyes still locked on Aidan.
“There’s blood on him.”
Doubt it’s his.
The lass in my head laughed, softly, with an undertone of wicked satisfaction. I didn’t think what I’d said was that funny.
“That’s not why I’m laughing.”
Sir Finnley lowered his weapon, and called out to Aidan with contempt thick in his voice. His eyes fairly bulged from his head, fixated on Aidan, his chin held high, displaying the fine sweep of tense musculature that lifted his jaw over the top of his gorget.
“Trial by combat, traitor? Will you dare to test your blade on mine?”
I saw Aidan’s shoulders relax, saw him straighten. He smirked, a proper expression of disdain for the first time in days. Lad must be feeling better. He opened his mouth to shout some knightly answer.
Grannine’s voice stole through my head, the words alluring, fond, almost seductive…and not for me at all.
“Aim true, my firebrand.”
My head whipped around, looking down the hill. I saw brush, dead grasses packed close about the far side of the bog, saplings and the occasional stone and stump. Dull grey and brown with flashes of russet-red.
The grasses at the foot of the hill parted, ever so slightly, to admit a slender wrist and an arrowhead. By some chance of angle or alignment, I saw the glitter of Mariead’s eye sighting down from the broadhead tip, saw the grasses around her stir in some sourceless breeze. Pale fingers mantled her shoulders, squeezing fondly, and Grannine pressed Her intangible cheek to the nun’s, their eyes brown and scarlet, glinting up. She blew gently along the length of the arrow.
Mariead let Her arrow fly.
It wouldn’t work, of course. I’d seen Aidan move faster than a loosed arrow. Rumors held that a Templar in their prime and on their guard could even cut a bolt from a crossbow, no easy feat. Sir Finnley’s veterancy was hard to determine from the brief, irritating interaction I’d seen, but he didn’t appear to be anything other than in his prime.
And yet, his eyes were locked on Aidan.
Sir Finnley shifted position, falling back a single elegant step. The sword pivoted across in front of him twice, not once, a sweeping, circular guard, held back and high, ready to strike. He glared away from Aidan, eyes wide, and all the mad, intent focus in his features shifted to affront, outrage. He sputtered for a breath, face turning red.
He made a strangled noise. Clutched at the arrow buried in his throat.
I looked at Aidan. He stood frozen, at bay, rooted in place by shock. There was an expression on his face like disappointment, or loss, or frustration, or all three at once. He didn’t even think to look over his shoulder.
It was very quiet as the honorable Sir Finnley dropped to one knee and sank his fine sword into the sod as a crutch.
Compelling, an extension of thought; she spoke, and it seemed natural to listen, a single, sharp command.
Druid arrows peppered the circle of Church soldiers, felling the three between me and Aidan. They kept up the assault as Pentients and soldiers alike fell back in disarray, their companions dying in twos and threes.
Ah. Of course.
I traded Fury to my right hand, stepped into range, palm out to the lad. By some miracle, he recognized me soon enough to keep from cutting me down, and when I put a hand on his shoulder and hauled him down the hill two steps, he did not resist. We backed away one more step. Scarlets quailed, looking to one another for guidance, then to their sergeants.
The older sergeant recovered first. But it was too late by then. Their footsteps were like falling leaves as the hunting party passed to either side of us in lethal silence and set upon the Church soldiers first, Penitents second.
I thrust Aidan another step down the hill. He staggered back, fighting for his footing, and looked at me, confused. I offered him a shrug and a grin that didn’t feel genuine even as I smiled it.
“Sorry, lad. I think that means we need you alive. Hold back.” Rina passed on my right with a spear in her hand. I firmed up my grip on the sword. “This is druid work.”
That felt right. Natural. I fell into the thought like a ball carried along the barrel of a Teague musket, let it sweep me away. This is druid work.
“This has happened before.”
We went to work.