Daylight was fading, ushered out by stormclouds. I softened my footsteps as best I could, easing up to Aidan in muddy boots. Pine needles crackled softly underfoot. He knelt at the side of the fire, staring into the flames, oblivious to what was going on under his nose.
There was little wind in our pine hollow, but it blew the smoke toward me, mixed with the distinct smell of burning bread. I coughed, spoiling the attempt at subtlety, and Aidan twitched, looking in my direction, hands closing on the hilt of his sword.
“Can you not even manage to heat a piece of bread?” I asked him, approaching. His eyes widened, and he hastened to pluck the flatbreads from their place on the stone, their undersides scorched black. “See, if you’re too occupied by religious contemplation, I think we might be able to have one of the druids replace you.”
Aidan gave me a look like he wanted to stand and gut me. He didn’t, which I attributed more to his deep-seated emotional repression than to any interest in my well-being.
Fuck me. That’s not a thought I’d have had before. Is it?
“I wouldn’t have known.” The lass sounded almost distracted, Her voice distant.
“Aren’t you having a fine time.” He threw the bread aside instead of killing me, onto the piece of cloth where other bread was waiting. “At least you managed to do it right once before.” I gestured to the heated bread. “I was worried we’d have to demote you.”
He said nothing, only folded the edges of the cloth over the new bread, withdrew some more pieces from a druid’s pack, and set them onto his flat stone by the fire. It wasn’t hot enough to sizzle.
“You’ll have to leave off with that, lad. Rina’s ready for us. Time for us to hear what she’s got planned.”
“How wonderful.” His voice was the driest thing in our damp grove. “You’ll forgive me if I don’t leap to my feet and caper about with joy.”
“I’m sure you’re sore after your duel with Sir Fuckley.” I turned my back on him, too late to keep from hearing his answer.
“It’s simple for you to be in good spirits, Slate. You aren’t being compelled to act by your sworn enemy.”
Don’t turn around. Don’t rise to it. It’s what he wants. Don’t give him the satisf-
“See, choir boy,” I said, turning around. “There’s an awfully small number of people who aren’t your fucking sworn enemy right now, and I think that’s a list you’re doing your best to make shorter by the hour.”
He didn’t meet my eyes.
“It costs you nothing to be sympathetic, Slate.”
“Aye, might be it wouldn’t. Finish burning your bread and come find Rina when you’re done.”
This time I managed to leave before he answered.
Eris and Mariead were huddled together. They were close enough entangled that I didn’t spend much time looking. Instead, I went to Rina, who squatted alone by the central fire. She held a steaming tin cup in two hands for warmth. She’d cast back the hood of her cloak, baring her wild thistle-brush of black hair, and she saw me coming across the camp. Black eyes glittered, made hollow by shadows from the fire. The flames highlighted lines and troubled furrows in her face that hadn’t been there last time I’d seen her. Whenever that had been.
She smiled, taut and cold and more fondly than I’d expected.
“Dermot-kae,” she teased, looking up ever the more as I got closer. A younger man’s honorific.
“I’m not so young as that, Rina-al.”
“Yet younger than I remember. The years have been kind to you.”
“The years. And a witch.” I dropped to my haunches by the fire, holding my hands out to the warmth. Rina took a sip from her cup, raised one eyebrow.
“I’ll tell you later. Long story.”
“Mm.” She nearly smirked. “I did not expect you to be the first of your group to present yourself to me.”
“They’re busy.” I did not look over my shoulder.
“I can see.” Her shoulders looked broad beneath the cloak, layers of wool and fur padding them out. “Not too busy to join us, I hope.”
“Soon enough. It’s been a long few days.”
“You’re very protective.” The fire twinkled in her eyes.
“Don’t see many happy people. Might be I’d like to see more.”
“If that is so, you’re welcome in our hold once we’ve finished.” She looked around the campsite again. “Your companions would be as well, if you were to vouch for them.”
That raised my eyebrows.
“I could vouch for them?”
Rina nodded, speculative.
“I see no reason why not. We are near enough to a hunting party now, and will be more so when this is done. I would countenance them as members of my congregation.”
The fire was warm, burning warmer. I glanced into its depths, felt the heat of it. Looked back to her.
“See, could you give me a token to carry to Raven Lake? We were hoping to winter there.”
“You’re going home?” She rubbed her chin. “Interesting. Why?”
“Longer trail to walk, less chance the Church will find us before spring. If we can get there by the first snows…” I shrugged. “Might just be enough to keep us hidden.”
“I would hope it is.” Steam rose in coils from her mug, tangled up in the stink of something herbal. She inhaled, closing her eyes, opening them for the exhalation. “We have fewer holdfasts older or safer than Raven Lake. To grant you a marker that would stay the hands of their Hunters…that would be a third favor of Death done for you by our people, Dermot Slate.” Rain pattered on pine needles around us, a whisper to mark her words. Autumn chill seemed to close in, more tangible than before. Among the smells of her tea, I caught the elusive scent of violets. “There will not be a fourth.”
“If we have a Speaker’s blessing to enter, we won’t need a fourth.” It was hard to keep my voice level. I managed.
Rina chuckled into her tea. Her shoulders rose and fell with a sigh, and she nodded before she lowered the cup.
“If all goes well.” She met my gaze, held it, jet-black, intent. “If we are successful. If I am satisfied that they understand the grace and reciprocity due our people.” She rose to her feet with a quiet breath. “Then I will grant your request.”
I nodded. Cleared my throat, cocked my head up at her with a grin.
“The years have made you as gracious as you are beautiful, Speaker.”
“And they have turned your snake tongue silver.” She did smile, raising an empty hand, looking past me. I caught the sound of footfalls on the pine floor, the soft crunch of needles. “Mariead-dae. Eris-tae.”
They entered the pool of golden firelight, Eris bringing up the rear. Mariead carried the dead knight’s musket, its leather sheath slung over her back. “Come, children. Sit where it is warm.”
“Is there an honorific I am meant to use?” Mariead was still hoarse. Her voice was quiet, precise, shoulders relaxed. Some of the tension of the trail had left her, and still more of the black and blue was fading from her eye. “Should I call you mother, as I did the reverend superior at Saint Isaac’s?”
“If it would bring you peace.” I saw a smile on Rina’s face that I’d seen before, but warmer, almost nurturing. “Others have called me Speaker, in your tongue, or Voice of the Spirit, in the older fashion. You were a Sister of the Order of Saint Isaac?”
“I…” Emotion darkened Mariead’s eyes, pained surprise. “Ah. I was. I suppose I am no longer.”
“Didn’t you say something before about being laicized?” I glanced at her. She seemed taken off-guard by the laugh that burst from her, winced, rubbed her neck. Rina took her time with the next question.
“Were you very faithful to the teachings of your Order?”
“I would like to think so.” Her mouth twitched at the edges, a wry smile undercut by the still-healing split in her lip. “Perhaps the reverend superior might disagree.”
“Is that so?” Rina folded her arms behind her back, tilting her head to one side. She and Mariead were nearly of a height with one another, and looking up at them there was almost a sense of exchange, the back and forth of two duelists feeling each other out. “And how would you say you were faithful?”
“Saint Isaac’s Gospel treats of mercy and the healing power of forgiveness. He was a great influence on me.” Her smile turned sharper. “He is most known for teaching the Church to conserve their ammunition.”
I burst out into a laugh. Mariead’s grin turned sly. Without explanation, she dropped to her knees, heedless of the mud on skirts and stolen trousers.
The brimstone presence of Grannine’s curiosity stole into my head on the wind, carried along with smoke from Aidan’s burnt flatbreads. My laugh resurfaced as a chuckle.
Saint Isaac the Merciful.
“See, if you’ve told me why he was merciful, I’ve forgotten it as well.”
I haven’t yet, lass. You’ve been quiet.
“I’ve been…meditating. I think. Or praying.”
I snorted. Eris sat behind Mariead with a grunt, winced as she bent one foot under herself. She offered a rueful smile at me. Might be she thought I was snorting at her. Did your prayers help?
“Not a bit. But I should be able to speak up a bit more the now.”
And so you’ve come to ask a question.
“I have. Why–”
They call him the Merciful for ending execution by molten lead.
The lass laughed softly at the back of my neck, folding her hands over my shoulders to peek out from the corner of my vision. He put a stop to the old way of killing heretics by pouring boiling metal down their throats.
“That does sound merciful.”
I suppose it was. Of course, Teague had only just started making firearms for the Church in those days. A very promising mind. Saint Isaac saw a future where every knight carried a Teague weapon.
“Ah. And I suppose they do…still burn heretics.”
Very much so. I nodded to no one. To Eris, by coincidence. She looked at me quizzically, nodded back.
“And here is our Templar,” Rina said, raising a hand. “Sir Aidan. Be seated, child.”
Aidan had snuck up on our meeting circle like a ghost. I didn’t jump when he entered my sight, but it was a near thing. Fucking unsettling.
He wore an expression of contrition and a mane of unbraided hair. Sweat and damp had struck waves into the locks that had been bound back from his face.
“Forgive my tardiness. I’d…” He stopped to pick his words. “I’ve been distracted, of late.”
Rina eyed him curiously, as did I. She nodded.
“You said you wished to speak to us. About your plan.” Eris was hard to hear over the crack and rustle of the fire. “I’m ready.”
Rina favored her with a smile.
“The outpost is north of the town, at the base of a cliff. If you are, as you say, newly fled from the Church, then perhaps word will not have reached the soldiers, and our Templar may simply order them to open the doors to us. If we are unlucky, we will have to rely on the fealty of Caer Lunan’s people.”
“You would ask them to commit treason.” Aidan met her eyes evenly, as if he had prepared for this moment. Perhaps he had. “To forfeit their lives.”
“I will not. You will.”
“Who am I to ask such a thing of them?”
“Their liege-lord, if I am not mistaken.” Rina took another sip of her drink, punctuating her words. “Do not liege-lords often ask their subjects to give up life on their behalf?”
“It is not on my behalf. It is on yours.”
“If you renege on our bargain now, your life and your companions’ will be forfeit. Does that alter how you imagine your position?”
“I mislike it.”
“And that is your right, if you choose to exercise it. Choice belongs to the one who chooses. So it is with you. So will it be with your townsfolk.”
Aidan closed his eyes, took a deep breath.
“Speaker,” Eris said, hesitant. “This isn’t much of a plan. How will you get the goods home? What will you do if they call reinforcements? What is it you’re hoping to find?”
Rina turned to look at her, wordless. Eris squirmed a bit under her gaze. “It’s only…I couldn’t help but notice your people took the armor from that Templar.”
“Truth be told, this plan was conceived in the moment, when I learned that you had a Templar from Caer Lunan in your midst.” Rina gestured to Eris. “If you have some insight…”
Mariead covered her mouth, shot a glance back over her shoulder that was almost a grin, the mad glint back in her eye.
Eris swallowed loud enough for me to hear, forged on into the silence.
“I know good steel is hard to find, but…if we have enough scarlet to put the lot of us into armor, and a full suit of plate for Aidan…” Some deep vein of sap in the firewood popped.
“You’d put us in costumes?” Aidan murmured. “Have me wear a dead man’s armor?” He sounded appalled, sounded very much like a man who needed a good battering. Silence fell after his words.
“Eris.” Rina’s eyes weighed the woman long and levelly before they crinkled at the corners, twinkling to a smile. “Speak your mind.”
Eris flushed, looked away, down to the dirt. Rina laughed, and Mariead’s eyes turned back to her, cooler, appraising in turn. “You had a plan?”
“I’m sure I did,” Eris muttered, and shook her head. “I…could I have a moment to think?”
Rina chuckled under her breath, sank back to sit cross-legged on the forest floor.
“We have the night. Take your time. Once you have conceived of a suitably elegant design, find me, or find Nash.”
“That’s the old man’s name?” Think you can remember that, lass?
“Glanash.” Rina’s eyes twinkled. “Nash among our party.”
I shook my head, half-laughed, and rose to my feet with a grunt.
“Think I’ll stand a watch. Relieve some poor fuck from having to stand out in the rain.”
“I’ll join you,” Mariead said. She gave Eris’ hand a squeeze, planted her free palm on the grove floor. She paused to lay a proper look on Eris, one that I hadn’t ever seen on a nun’s face before. “I worry that you may not do much thinking if I stay.”
Eris’ round face turned redder in the firelight. Mariead laughed, rough and cheerful, warm and unexpected as a ray of sunlight. “Come, sir Slate. Let us take up our vigil.”
“The two of you, I fucking swear.” I looked at Aidan. “’Take up our vigil.’ Yous talk like nobility.”
“We speak as we were taught.” Aidan said, matter-of-factly, as if I was an idiot for not realizing. “The fruits of long lessons on elocution.”
I made a dismissive sound at him, waving my hand. Mariead stepped past her brother, grinning at me sidelong.
“Do you have trouble keeping your elocution, sir Slate?”
Rina coughed into her mug, drawing our attention for just a moment.
“We are preparing food,” she lowered the cup, dark eyes bright. “If you need to eat, what is ours is yours, until such time as you forfeit that communion.”
I grinned at Aidan.
“Choir boy. Got any bread left?”