For three hundred years after the Fall, the Church had kept its foot on our neck. Hunted us. They drove us from the towns, into the wilds, and burnt our Holds wherever they found them. They taught that we were heretical to the Church of Saint Kendrick, traitors to the one right and holy way of life, who abdicated our place as humans and sought to be no more than beasts, living as one with the lowest creatures in the dark places of the kingdom.
They feared us. Pursued us like animals, by hound, from horseback. Dragged us to Bridgeport in chains to burn when they could, slaughtered us where we were found when they couldn’t, for every minute of every hour of every one of the three hundred and eleven years of the Church’s rule counted out by the ruined clock at the heart of the capital.
Three hundred years was a long time to the Church. To us it was no time at all. Four lifetimes of stories passed down from each old Speaker to each new druid. The blink of an eye. Our Grey Scrolls had been shared from mother to child for eight times as long, and we could quote them word for word.
Three hundred years we’d been hunted.
But every now and again, once in a lucky druid’s lifetime, we had the chance to fight back.
And now, we hunted them. Knife and arrow.
Big mongrel man that I was, lifetime sellsword, I had longer legs and surer feet, and I reached the first line in a dozen paces, up the hill with Fury cold in both hands. I felt right, drunk on Purpose and conviction. I felt true.
Grannine flickered up the hillside at my shoulder like a wildfire over the ground, feet flashing at the hem of Her skirt as She kept pace, feigning as if to spring from one stone to the next. She had a grin on Her face that was the mirror of mine, though I wasn’t sure which of Us had smiled it first.
Ahead at the crest where slope turned to trail, Rina wove her spear through the guard of a Penitent, twisting his arm out high, and drove it down into his chest. We overtook them quickly, had enough time to slam him in the head with Fury’s hilt on Our way.
Two paces on level ground. The Scarlets had formed a loose wedge on the second slope at the direction of their two sergeants. The Penitents had played their role, kept the Church’s true soldiers fresh, bought them time to draw steel and lower shields.
We overtook the charging druids.
We were the first to meet their line. Fury drove forward in two hands like a battering ram.
A shield was an advantage. On the high ground, it was more so. But not against an ugly wolfhound of a man with nearly half a head on the tallest Scarlet among them, not against a sword that more than tripled its weight in my hands.
Fury punched through the first wooden shield and into the arm of the man holding it, through his arm and into his chest. I sank low, muscles straining in my legs, and struck the shield with my shoulder, driving forward and up, felt the tension twitch in my jaw and down my neck and into my fire-black fingertips.
I snarled like an animal.
With Fury as a grip and leverage on my side, I drove into him, stabbed him through, and wrenched him off the ground whole, legs kicking helpless. Heaved him over my shoulder like the log-throwing contest they held down in Eastmarsh every spring.
I took a wicked cut down the length of my left arm from a Scarlet on my off side, put one foot wrong and stumbled sideways into the man on the right. Grabbed at his chainmail tunic and dragged him with me as I fell back down into the rotting leaves.
One of the hunters leapt over me as nimbly as a deer. Talvec of Starfurrow, not as frail as his thin little wrists suggested, wielding a sword stolen from one of the dead Penitents. He struck the man who’d bloodied my arm, notched his sword on the man’s chainmail, and managed to draw blood with the following stroke. His opponent cracked Talvec’s forearms with the edge of his shield, raised his sword in answer.
I felt Her hands on me, under my arms, around my wrists, dragging me back to my feet like a puppet hauled along on its strings. I felt the anger sing in Her, in harmony with mine. We caught my footing, and I swung Fury in two hands over wee Talvec’s head, struck the Scarlet’s blade and sent it ringing back, shaking in his grip.
He started to say something. I shoved him forward into the Scarlet and he dropped his sword, tangling up with the soldier, wrestling for control of the man’s weapon.
On my right, an arrow cut up the slope and took a man’s leg out from under him. We used Fury like a hammer and crushed his helmet in.
Three men gone from the Church’s wedge. Their wall of shields was done.
The old sergeant rushed me in turn. I moved Fury to a close block, twisted to bind the edge of his sword with mine, and earned a punch in the face from his shield. I tasted blood, grinned into it, planted my foot in the dirt and forced my way forward, drove him back, and retreated down the slope, skidding down in loam that was turning sticky and damp with spilling blood.
I took another step back. One of Rina’s hunters ducked past me, darting into the hole I’d left in the Scarlet line.
Twelve of them left. As I counted, Talvec finished his man, using a dagger stolen from his belt. Eight of the hunters had reached this far up the slope. I looked back. Corpses in scarlet were strewn across the trail. The ones to the north and south had sprouted arrows, cut down trying to run. Did we lose any of the druids?
“I saw some hurt.”
No chance you remember how many?
“No.” There was frustration in Her voice. “I don’t know why. I know it’s something I knew, but I can’t find it.”
I counted four druids laid out on the ground, wounded or dead. Two more were pacing about the edge of the battlefield with knives in their hands. The names of Death they spoke were too softly whispered to be caught from so far away.
Down below, Aidan stood on the slope, near the edge of the gully, looking more than a bit forlorn with his sword in his hand and no one to put it in. Rina was on her way up to us at the head of a trio of her hunters. Eris and Mariead were well back from the fighting, just now making their way across the gully. Good. Two less to worry about.
I shook myself from thinking, started south along the edge of the fight, looking for an opening.
“Must you kill them all?” Grannine whispered.
“We can’t leave them living, lass.” I looked at Her, couldn’t quite see more than a red glimmer in the corner of my eye. “They’d only go back to the Church and tell them where we’ve been.” I chased Her silhouette. “You sound a bit forlorn, lass.”
“I understand the necessity. But I don’t need to like it.”
I reached out one arm and caught the back of a druid’s hood. Couldn’t tell if they were man or woman beneath the filth and the grey, but they let out a yelp as I dragged them from the fight they were losing and threw them away down the hill. The Scarlet they’d been fighting did not look too happy to find himself facing me instead.
He raised his shield. I grinned.
“You hate them.”
“I do,” I said, aloud. The man looked puzzled. I swung Fury at his head, drew a rising parry from his shield. He stuck the sword out at me, and I twisted away off the line, two hands working over the hilt of my sword, swinging it into him like a mattock. It broke through his shield and shoulder, crushed him to the ground. Fury rose and fell a second time. No need for a third. “I’ve told you why.”
“You have. But I don’t remember.”
“Fucking hell.” Nine Church soldiers left, including the sergeant. I bent down, took a shield off the man I’d killed. Shifted my grip on Fury, held it high by the guard. “We’ll need to talk. Once we’re done here.”
“Dermot.” Rina’s voice cut through our conversation, interrupting my advance. “Tollau. Hold.”
She gestured to one of the hunters still following her, who nodded and cut in front, winding around to flank the sergeant. He stepped back, eyes darting quick and frantic, seeking an escape, and his attention fell on Rina and I where we stood removed from the fight. I swung Fury up, rested it bloody on my shoulder.
He died hard, without landing a proper wound on any of the three druids who took him. I couldn’t find much sympathy for him in my heart. Took a breath, looked to the priestess.
“See, Rina, have we brought enough value for your Hold yet?” I gestured to the corpses strewn over the ground, a wealth of fabric, weapons, and armor. “That’s more than enough mail for two hunting parties.”
“Perhaps. It will need to be repaired.” She cast me a jaundiced look. “And that sword of yours seems to damage it more than most.”
It wasn’t funny, but I laughed.
“Hadn’t thought of that.” I shrugged. “Sorry, Rina.”
“I do believe you hadn’t thought of it.”
“That why you stood me down?”
“No.” She took a breath. She had a way of speaking that carried despite the fighting, as if she chose to say each word in the moment of silence between blows. “I stood you down because I do not know if we can hold your Templar to his word without you.”
“Aye, that’s a fair fucking instinct.” I cocked my head in a sideways nod, watching the last Scarlets fall. “Suppose it’s a smart one, as well. Especially after his sister cut him off.” I snorted. “Fair play, I suppose. Fuck knows she might be feeling a bit pent up herself.”
Rina eyed me curiously. I didn’t elaborate. Instead, I looked back down the slope, saw Eris down on the trail, saw Mariead closer, by the dead knight’s dead horse. “Ah, fuck.”
“She’s found the musket.”