Storm clouds choked the light well before sunset, more cold, bitter rain cutting easily through the open canopy above. I was warmer, at least, a ripped scarlet tabard and stolen Church cloak between oilcloth and chain.
No more fumbling about in the forest. We sat on a stump at the edge of a grove of pines. Soon after the rain started, one of the druid scouts had drawn us off to the west, to a patch of night held dear in the shadows of a ring of trees. Across the Runing, or in the true Forest to the north, that might spell our death, but here, where farming had left its mark since well before the Fall, there were no trails to watch.
We’d even started fires. I was watching the play of gold and scarlet in the blaze at the heart of our camp. Almost felt like I could see the heat come off it. Further back, around the ring of wounded and bedrolls, Aidan had been pressed into helping. Or perhaps he volunteered. I snorted, craned my neck. He was heating flatbreads on a slab of rock set across the fire.
“What d’ye think, lass?” Over my left shoulder, She crouched like some forest animal, legs twisted under Her, with blood on Her tattered dress and wee coat. At the sound of my voice, Her outline shivered, as if She were calling up Her attention from some resting state. She blinked, eyes blue but still faintly luminous in the dark.
“Think?” Her brow furrowed, but the familiar, lopsided grin stole over Her face. “I didn’t catch what you said.”
I nudged Her with my elbow. Her ribs felt real enough. Lass. Where has your head been? She made the faintest sound of protest at my jab, shot me a glare without any malice. “See, you know I think about other things besides you, my Dermot.”
“Is that so?” I shifted to look at her, one hand on my knee. Tried to focus more on our conversation than on the sore muscles up my back and the shaking in my limbs. “And what is it you’re thinking about now that’s so important then, eh?” I went to jab Her again, and She was gone in the span of an eyeblink.
Two long fingers poked into the ribs on my right side, and She laughed in my ear, low and wicked.
“Devil creature.” Mostly didn’t glare at Her, but managed not to smile, either. “See, I ought have Mariead exorcise you.”
“Careful. She might fancy that.”
I laughed, out loud, at nothing, and realized only after that I’d earned a wary stare from Eris, who had until recently been working her way across the camp toward me. The outline of her was different; Mariead had made her put a hooded Church cloak as well, though it was more like a mantle on her broad shoulders. She held out her hands to a wounded druid in apology, stepping past where they lay.
“Minstrel.” I raised my voice. She paused. “It’s a spiral, not a ring.”
Eris stopped, halfway through the heart of the loop. She looked about the camp, where the wounded and the bedrolls and the fires were placed. Lifted her chin, mouth going to a little ‘oh.’ I nodded to her. She continued her trek toward us, stepping over bedrolls and packs all the same.
Grannine chuckled, leaning in to rest Her elbow on my knee, shoving my arm out of the way. I straightened up, tried to find a way to sit so that it didn’t look so much like I had an unseen and otherworldly presence using me as an armchair.
“Can I do for you, Minstrel?”
Eris paused before the stump, looking like she wasn’t sure whether to sit or stand. She settled for leaning back against a pine, pulled the hood back off her head. Short hair stood up wild in every direction.
“Things I wanted to ask. Things they’d done and said.” She nodded back at the camp. “I didn’t…want to ask them.” Her eyes were narrow on me, dark and clever, weighing. “Can I ask you?”
“She’s asking if she can still trust you.” Grannine tilted Her head to one side, the line of Her neck stark and perfect as hair fell away.
Aye, lass, I’m not completely dense. I can understand the question.
“Perhaps you can now. Might be you’d have missed it before.” Her voice was kind. Tried not to think about it too much. “Would you like my help?”
No. I…want to try.
“Min–” I stopped myself. “Eris.” Eris cocked her head. I looked for the words to follow now that I’d started this thought off. “Eh…fuck. You know I’m–fuck.” I rubbed my head, waved at the demon on my lap. “Shift it, lass.”
Grannine vanished, and I leaned forward, resting elbows on knees. I felt Her back at my left shoulder, hand on my back, listening.
“Me?” Eris hadn’t moved.
“No. I–” I put my face in my hands for a moment, drew them from temple to chin, looked back up at her. “Fucking hell. Eris. You know I’m on your side.” You know I’d have killed Aidan for you, or tried. Ever since you told your story. You know I went into that dungeon for you, not for him, not for the gold. You know I know what it is to be an outsider, to feel you’ve trampled into someone’s life and left it in shambles, when all you were trying to do is live.
I exhaled, clenched up a fist. How can you not know that? Why would you? I can’t even manage to… I didn’t look at her. Easier that way. Studied the ground at her feet; mud and pine needles, moss and wee saplings. Droplets of water hung on each needle like jewels, the colors of the surviving plants so vivid against the reddish-brown. Beautiful.
“Slate?” There was half a laugh in Eris’ voice. “You look like you’re about to keel over, my man.”
I laughed myself. Shook my head again.
“I’m not…used to…” Picked each word like I was building the stairs while I climbed them. “Traveling with the same person for long.”
Grannine huffed in my ear, teasing. I swatted at the air in Her direction. “I used to know what to say, before. Not so much, now. But…” There. That’s how. I nodded, looked up at her. “You especially can ask me anything. I’ll answer if I can.”
Eris nodded, slowly. She had a look that suggested I’d surprised her somehow.
“All right,” she said, carefully.
“Well done, my Dermot.” The lass smiled with Her voice, still out of sight on my left. “I don’t know that you could have said such a thing a week ago.”
I waved Her away again.
“We lost four,” Eris kept her voice low, controlled. I had to strain to hear her. “I saw the priestess tending to them.” She glanced to the edge of camp, where the bodies were being kept, and back to us. “I think some of the others were hurt.”
“I know I fucking was.” Bruises up and down my back and arms reminded me of the rocks I’d found in my scrambling up and down the hillside. “Aye, is that your question?”
“I don’t understand. I counted more than thirty soldiers coming down that hill. There were how many of us?”
“Twenty-one.” I rubbed my eyes. “Aye.”
“Twenty, you mean.”
“Aye. Twenty, I mean.” I blinked. Fuck. “Sixteen druids and the f..our of us. Twenty.”
“Half again as many? And one of them a Templar? We should have been done.” She gestured to the camp behind us, incredulous. “They fought like animals. I know their charging in was foolish, and we held back and fired arrows as long as we could, but still. I don’t understand how…why are things still like this?” Her voice threatened to rise out of her control, and she lowered her head, speaking almost in a whisper. “If one druid can end two Church soldiers, if one druid priestess can kill four, and not a scratch on her…”
“How is it we don’t run the country?” I flashed her a wolf’s smile, shook my head. “Not that simple.”
“I know it’s not that simple. That wasn’t my question.” She looked away, arms tightening around herself. “They’re…more. Aidan is a Templar. Mari…she’s herself. You’re…” Her voice trailed off. “But I’m not, that. These fights, killing to survive, I can’t do that. I can’t kill four soldiers. I can’t not think of them as…people.”
“Aye. You learn that.” I heard myself say it as it left my mouth, left a sour taste behind. When did I learn that?
“Dermot.” Eris met my eyes again. “Mari is…she’s frightening me. She’s over there cleaning that thing she took from the Templar, and talking about how it’ll make things easier the next time they come for us. The next time.” She swallowed. “I’d hoped…I’d hoped there would be no more. I thought…”
My heart sank. I looked away from her.
Her voice was quieter. Intent, almost imploring. “Dermot. Tell me there’s an end to this. If we help your people here, will they hide us? Will we…”
I clenched my hand into a fist. Her voice broke to a whisper. “Why can’t you even look at me when I’m asking?”
Thinking felt like forcing hot treacle through cheesecloth. My head was all aflutter, and I heard the crack and clatter of breaking porcelain.
“Eris.” My fingers itched. “I can’t promise this ends soon.”
“Soon, I don’t care. I can last the winter through if there’s a spring. But I don’t want to lose her.” She looked back over her shoulder, peeking around the edge of the tree.
Across the camp, Mariead sat on a fallen log with her back to her brother, holding the largest metal piece of the Templar’s musket. The lass was perched beside her, eyes bright and curious, the both of them wrapt in contemplation of the thing.
Eris’ voice was an instrument, trained and controlled. Like hearing a fiddle in mourning. “We had a cabin planned. Out south of Dawnfire in the mountains.”
I’d heard this before. It hurt nonetheless. I flinched from the raw quality in her voice. “The woman I see when I look at her sometimes, now…I worry she might not be able to find her way back there.”
“I don’t know, Eris.” I shrugged at her, held out my hands, scorched so pitch-black I could hardly see if there was blood beneath the nails. “I’ve spent years trying to outrun them. Hoping they’d let me be. They never have. But if I can make it have an end for you…” Words ran out. “That’s why we’re here, ay?”
Silence. I put my hands together. They felt alive, still, at least.
“Don’t mistake me,” Eris said, at last. I looked up, met her eyes. There was anger in them still, hurt and fear intermingled with it, but anger, potent, familiar. “If we have a chance to hurt the ones who did this to us, I say take it. Whatever we’ve got to do to get to the end of this, and maybe make things righter. But I don’t…I’m not a knight.”
I grinned, the wolfish, ugly smile that split my face before violence.
“Nor I. But I do think that whatever you are, Eris, it’s better than a knighthood.”
“Hope so.” A twinkle of humor. “Can’t say it’s dull.”
She pushed herself off the tree, paused. “The priestess. Rina. She said she’d like to talk through the plan with us, when we’re ready. Tell Aidan?”
I looked at her, then past, to Aidan, who sat on his haunches by the fire, staring at the flame while smoke rose from his flatbreads. I shook my head.
“I don’t know why it is I’m the one has to handle the lad.”
“He listens to you.”
“Only because he’s a prejudiced fuck.” I stood up with a grunt. “Hellfire.” Put a hand on her shoulder, rubbing my back with the other. “Eris…” Didn’t have the words for it. “Thanks. For asking.”
She laughed, swatted me lightly with the back of her hand.
“You’re an odd one, Slate.” Her lips twitched. “It’s comforting to talk to you and realize what a deeply strange little man you are beneath the fire and brimstone.”
She laughed. I left without another word.
I hadn’t answered her question. Barely been able to think about it.
“Dermot.” For an instant, She was at my side, and at Mariead’s, before vanishing from sight across the camp. “You look better.”
I feel better. More myself. I cracked my knuckles, one at a time, picking my way around the spiral towards Aidan. I don’t know what to do, lass. With all of it.
Well, fuck. The smell of smoke was distinct the closer we got to Aidan. Don’t suppose all your introspection’s told you what was wrong with your memory?
“Sorry to say it hasn’t.”
Fine, fine. One thing at a time.
“One thing at a time.” I felt Her nod.