Mariead cradled the Teague firearm like an infant, the long neck of it braced in the crook of her elbow, the hilt of it in her hand. Her eyes were wide, glazed off into the hillside. Thin fingers hovered over the mechanism, old cuts black and silver on her skin.
Grannine stood at her side, one hand draped over her shoulder, one laid over the top of the firearm. Seen with a moment to breathe, the thing was beautiful; dark wood and steel inlaid with scarlet and gold, the thick end glutted with a mechanism that dazzled my eyes.
Mariead blinked, looked directly to me. Looked about, intent.
“Sir,” she said, and pointed with her left hand, not letting go. Her voice was rough, grating in her throat, still raw and healing. “The canvas roll, there. Could you be so kind as to fetch it for me?”
The dead knight’s dead horse had fallen hard, dragged a divot through the loam. The bloody fletching of her arrow was just visible in its heart like the petals of a flower. Saddlebags had skewed wildly to one side; one of them had been crushed beneath its body, but the other had fallen open, and sure enough, a rawhide bundle had fallen free, buckled with brass. There was a scabbard for the firearm as well, clipped onto the saddle, but I let it lie, picked the bundle up, opened it.
I presented the array of pouches and tools to Mariead. She nodded, returned her attention to the musket.
“I’d always been fascinated by such things.” She tested some part of the action, tilting it forward until it clicked into place, nodded to herself. “I’ve never had the opportunity to hold one before.”
“You meaning to take it?” I picked up a thing like a ring of keys, three tools hung off a central loop.
“I do.” A smile passed over her face. Subtle, like the pull of falling fabric that suggested a hidden knife. Her eyes flicked to me again. “I suspect this will not be our last encounter with the Third Circle. If I can put Sir Finnley’s firearm to use against them, even those who ride forth in full armor might well hesitate to pursue us.” She beckoned with her right hand. “Give it here, my friend.”
I cleared my throat, did up the buckle on the roll of tools, handed it over. She weighed the thing in her hand, tucked it away into a pouch or pocket within her many layers of rags, and shifted the musket, fixing me once again with her bright, mad brown eyes. Her head twitched to one side, quick and watchful.
I held up Fury, plunged its tip into the soil, drew it back out again covered in filth. She kept watching. I wiped a man’s drying blood off my sleeve, met her gaze when I could.
“Something on your mind, Sister?”
“Yes.” She raised her chin. Behind her, the druids were finishing their work, and the wounded, gliding up the hill like ghosts. They whispered Death’s name as they came, stirring the breeze, turning the air cold. Aidan stood a ways back on the trail, looking down at his sword, turning it over in his hand. Mariead tugged on my attention, stepping closer, cradling her new weapon. “Are you certain you’re quite well, Slate?”
“Well enough. Picked up a new bruise or three, but not much more.”
“You don’t look entirely like yourself.”
“Don’t I?” I laughed, rough out of the throat, and spread my arms open, black hands wide, Fury hanging by the guard from three fingers. “What about this man here seems unwholesome to you, Sister?”
Not far from me, I spotted a man dead in Church Scarlet, rounder about the middle than most, with longer arms. Cast an eye to the druids about him. None had yet managed to work their way to stealing his armor. Might do.
“You fought like an animal, more than a man.” Mariead’s voice called me back again, hard though it was to listen to without feeling the same itch build in my palms. “The Dermot Slate who came to me in Bridgeport was a canny fighter, a swordsman who put some of my old teachers to shame. But today there was a rage in you I have not seen before.” She glanced to one side, then the other, pupils flicking to the corners of her eyes, scanning her blind spots before looking back to me. “Is it yours? Or Hers?”
The word struck a chill through me.
“Whose else could it be, Sister?” Fury’s hilt was warming up the longer I held it. Tried hard to keep an innocent look on my face.
“Don’t play coy with me, sir. You and I know very well what it is that lives in you.”
Aidan sheathed his sword, below. The golden-haired wee fuck seemed to be coming to some kind of inner conclusion. I imagine we’ll have a word from him before long.
“Do you?” I folded my arms, holding Fury like a convict with a shovel. “Why don’t you enlighten me then, Sister?”
Our traitor knight looked about until his eyes fell over Mariead, catching me in the same angle like shrapnel from a Church-made powder bomb. He started in our direction. I clicked my tongue, shook my head at her before she spoke. She nodded.
“Another time, perhaps.” Her voice was lower still. She rubbed at her throat with one hand.
“Does it hurt you? Talking?”
“It does.” I felt her stare pin my eyes, hold them with hers. “But I don’t intend to stop.”
I gave her a cheery half-bow, curling one hand in the air. She laughed, more a cough than a chuckle.
“You shouldn’t have done that, Mariead,” Aidan snapped, voice carrying up the slope. A few of the druids glanced our way. Rina among them; she was holding council with a knot of the others up to our north, along the trail. I raised my voice back to him, indolent as I could manage.
“That how they teach a knight to speak to a lady? I thought yous were all up in your fucking arses about chivalry. Shouldn’t you at least lead with a thank you?”
Mariead cast a look in my direction that I couldn’t wholly read, some of it amused.
“Thank you, Sir, but I think I do not need you to speak for me.”
“Have at it, then.” I stepped away, toward the long-armed corpse. The task took me far enough away to be out of their business. But not too far to listen in, ay lass?
Grannine’s chuckle felt like it warmed me up from the bones on out, and the sound of Aidan’s voice sharpened, swelling to drown out the waterlogged forest, the birds slowly returning after their fright, the prowling druids whispering valediction.
“–must you take even that from me?”
“You chose this, little brother.”
I cast a glance in her direction while my fingers fiddled with clasps on the dead Scarlet’s tabard. Mariead’s arms were folded over the musket. She and Aidan stood eight feet apart, and she held the high ground, glaring down at him, mane of hair wild around the edges of her hood.
“I didn’t.” Fully armed and armored like a knight, Aidan managed to seem petulant. Perhaps I just didn’t like the man.
“Not this.” He gestured to the bodies on the hillside with his left hand, glanced in my direction. I tipped him a wink. He held my gaze, a glance turning to a glare, until I chuckled and looked away, pulled my hunting knife, ripped the tabard open along the left side.
Mariead’s tone was delicate and frigid, like an icicle between the ribs.
“Would you have chosen otherwise, then? If you had known it would lead to this, would you have left me to the pyre?”
He was slow on the response. Too slow. She cut him off before the words were fully formed. “At least you might have the decency not to suggest such to my face, nor to Eris, who is perhaps the most blameless of us all.”
Her voice half-broke on the name, a building cough suppressed and strangled in her throat. I shuffled the dead man’s coat of mail up his arms. Aidan’s hand was opening and closing again on the hilt of his sword. “And before–” Mariead broke off at last, succumbing to the coughing fit that racked her, bent her shoulders in. “When–”
I looked over the coat of mail. It was newer, better made. I set it over the corpse, threw my oilcloth to the ground, pulled the old chainmail off.
Aidan shook his head, turned away.
Mariead rubbed at her throat, raising her voice, sharper. “–we’re not done.”
“I think we are.”
I tugged the new coat of mail over my head. It scraped a bit going over my ears, didn’t quite reach to my wrists, but it fell far enough to serve. I shrugged back into the battered overcoat, plucked up the torn tabard, wiping the mud and gore from Fury.
Grannine rested Her chin on my shoulder, mantled at my back. I rose to my feet, threw the filthy red cloth aside. Rubbed my thumb over the blade. It had a glassy texture, more like polished stone than oiled steel. Fucking hell. Do Templar even oil their weapons?
Mariead looked to me, hand still on her throat. She shook her head.
“How much further? I’m getting tired of having to play peacemaker for that man.”
She mouthed the answer. Grannine outlined it in the back of my head.
“By nightfall, you think?”
“So long as the lad doesn’t somehow manage to get us all killed.” I pointed at her, half-turning to go. “But I’m not done with you, either, Mariead.”
She laughed, breaking into a cough. Grannine spoke her voice for her.
“You’ll have time.”
“You always know how to put a smile on my face.” I took hold of Fury by the flat, saluted her with the pommel, and set off to find my scabbard again.