“I asked Rina for food, as per your instructions.” Aidan delivered this report brusquely, just like he delivered us the flatbreads, now piled high with a glistening, broken-up topping. We sat together in the dark, our backs to the camp. “She gave us some of her rations. Something called–”
“Oh, fuck me,” I recognized the smell of it, took it from him almost by force. “It’s remma.”
“Is it?” Mariead took her portion in both hands, holding it carefully flat in her palms. “It smells rather like berry.” Her eyes roved over the forest east of us, darting little glances like she could pierce the gloom if only she looked quick enough.
“Berry, nut, acorn, and honey.” I inhaled, folded the flatbread on itself, wasted no more time in taking a great wolfish bite. The flavors leapt out, sharp. White acorn. Chestnut. Wild blueberry. Fresh from the harvest. Honey kept the mix bound tight together, stuck it fast to the face of the flatbread, kept rot at bay. A batch sealed in clay could be edible for years, and the taste of it went better with rainfall and leaf litter than anything I’d yet encountered.
Though the bread was stale and just a bit burnt, the smell brought back things I’d thought better forgotten. The safe, watchful dark of a hold. Hunters crying their return. A Speaker’s whispers. It brought me closer to tears than I might have thought. I leaned back against the tree until my head touched cold bark, tilted up blind into the sky.
Lass. You see what I see. Do you…taste what I do?
She nodded, more than answered, offering the tiniest wee sound of assent as if Her mouth was also full. I shook my head. Didn’t know I’d been sharing that much.
“Would you like to not?”
No, it’s…I shook my head again. Never mind.
Mariead had folded her piece over as I did. Maybe copying my example. By the time I looked back, she was already a third of the way through her portion, pausing to make a rough, sticky noise with her mouth full of berry. I nudged Aidan.
“Choir boy. Water for the nun.”
Aidan unclipped his canteen, handed it to her. She drank, coughed, nodded.
“I’ll keep this.” She hung it from the strap of her firearm.
Our wee Templar showed little emotion, as usual, while he ate his meal one wee bite at a time. I squinted at him. He looks calmer. Not cold, but calm.
“I’d agree with that, my Dermot. I think you’re right.”
“What’s in your head, lad?” I nodded to Aidan, a jerk of the chin. Took another fragrant bite.
“A bit rich coming from you of all people,” Grannine observed, and I tried hard not to cough remma all over my legs. Caught a glimpse of Her, stealing away behind Mariead. There was honey on Mariead’s chin. I caught her eye, tapped a knuckle against my cheek.
Mariead’s brow furrowed, and she brushed the crumbs away.
“I have been watching the druids,” Aidan spoke carefully. Like a man testing the weight river ice would bear. “They are…not quite as I expected.”
“Did–” —you think they’d be eating the wounded? Kept from finishing the sentence as I’d planned. “…you learn anything new?” Perfect.
“I don’t know.” He shrugged. He still wore his armor, leather and steel, like he expected another fight. Maybe he does. “You trust them.”
“I trust them to keep their word. And Rina’s all right. But they’re still using us. And if it goes bad, they’ll leave us to die without losing sleep.” I shrugged.
“I had thought you one of them.” Mariead held the remaining half of her meal in both hands. “You speak their language, know their ways.”
“Aye, but I’m not one of them. Wasn’t born to them. Even if I speak the Grey tongue, I’ll never do it properly.”
“You said the druids raised you.” Aidan now fixed me with his full attention. “Was that a lie?”
“If it was, I wouldn’t lose much sleep over that, either.” I took a bite to make him wait for an answer. He only stared at me. “They raised me, aye, but not at first. Don’t know for how long I was on my own before that. Might be I was eight, nine, when they found me.”
“And took you to Raven Lake.” Aidan frowned. “That was your home?”
“Closest thing I’ve got to one. We were traveling hunters. We spent winters at Raven Lake. Five winters.” My face twitched. My palms felt hot again, and I tried to press them to either side of the flatbread. Now that would be a trick, lass. Can you heat my bread for me? The amused sound She made at the back of my head was answer enough. Can’t and won’t, you say?
“I fear I might only burn it, but I can try.”
Save it, then. We might need you later.
“Sir,” Mariead said, quietly. “You needn’t…explain yourself to us.”
“If I don’t now, when will I? I don’t often get talkative.”
Aidan opened his mouth like he was about to say something. He didn’t. I eyed him warily.
“The Church found us. Rode into our campsite on horseback to hunt us down like wolves. I ran. Didn’t know how to find my way back to Raven Lake.” Old memories stirred. “Took up with a sellsword. Man named Milo, after the saint, and just as coldhearted.” A laugh boiled up, shook me as I sat thinking. “Threw in with an outlaw band to get through the winter. Church came down on us and put them to the sword.”
I looked at Aidan. “That was the third time the Church came for me. Third time I escaped.” Held out a hand to Mariead for the canteen, took a swig to wet my throat. Voice came out hoarse anyway. “Learned that lesson quick. Church never gives you a moment of peace, no matter what it is you are, or what you’re doing.”
He said nothing.
“But you did return to Raven Lake. And you met Rina there.” Mariead was watching me more closely than I’d thought, dedicating herself to the task of eating as many of the crumbs of her meal as she could. “Didn’t stay.” I inhaled the smell of the food again, lingered in it.
“You said she would leave us to die if need be.” Aidan said. His voice had less malice in it than I’d expected. “Do you think she would help us, if we succeed?”
“Hard to say.” Would be cruel to tell them. Not a sure thing, yet.
Grannine put a warm hand on my shoulder. Her touch pierced oilcloth and chain.
“Would it not be crueler to deny them the hope?”
I shook my head. They’ve been hurt enough. Lost enough.
“They’re not you. Might be hope makes the difference for one of them.”
And if it doesn’t turn out? What a waste. I won’t give them false hope.
Her presence at my back turned hot, a searing, forbidding heat like the depths of a furnace. Her hand tightened on my shoulder.
“So you die. In their last moments, would you let them die knowing there was a chance? Or are you thinking you’d like your friends to die despairing? Would you want them to think there was no place in this world for them to run to?”
I lowered my flatbread.
“She…” I ran my tongue over my teeth, wiped crumbs from the stubble on my chin. “Where’s Eris? She should be here.”
Mariead twisted, peering back to the camp.
“I don’t see her,” she reported, after a moment’s study.
“I hear her.”
“You do. You just don’t know it.” She sounded smug. The sounds of the forest around us faded away, the shift and stir of Aidan and Mariead first, then the rustle of leaves, the patter of rain, the low voices of the druids…until at last all I could hear was the pop and crackle of a restless fire, and the unmistakable tone of Eris, her words just at the edge of hearing, too distant to make out. “See?”
Fuck me, lass. Have you always been able to do that?
“Not so well as this.” She curled closer to my back, self-satisfied, as the other sounds came back one after another.
Another benefit of your meditation?
“You could say.”
“Eri,” Mariead cupped a hand to her mouth, called softly back to the camp. “Eri, join us.”
One of the druids muttered something back in the Grey tongue, along the lines of a comment about carelessness.
“Fuck off,” I told him.
Eris threaded her way through the camp, audible even while I was looking at my supper, heavy footfalls on the forest floor.
“You called, my lady?” She answered Mariead in a gentle tone I’d hardly heard from her, before she paused in her tracks not a few dozen paces away. “Slate. I didn’t see you.”
“Nor I.” Aidan’s tone was dry, but not malicious. If I didn’t know him better, I’d almost imagine he was smiling. His expression was hard to make out in the dark.
“Oh.” Eris slowly resumed her advance. “You, em. You wanted me?”
“Always,” Mariead said, her voice lower. “Have you a moment to spare from planning our grand strategy?”
“From…” Eris put a hand on Mariead’s tree, looking down at her. “Ah. Yes. I haven’t started yet; one of the hunters was teaching me druid history. Fascinating stuff. You know they’ve passed down stories and songs from before the Fall? As far back as the reign of the Tarqual queens, and more? I wish we had more time here with them.”
“Careful what you wish for.” I paused, felt like smiling. Let it show. “Spoke to Rina. She says that if we do this job, do it well, keep to our end of the bargain, she’ll vouch for us. We can seek refuge at Raven Lake, shelter there through the winter, move on when the snow melts.”
Mariead put a hand over her mouth. Her other hand reached up, almost unconscious, and Eris took it in hers.
“You’re not fucking with me, are you, Slate?” Eris murmured. She crouched by Mariead, not letting go. “You’re serious?”
“Aye, no, I thought it’d be a laugh. Course I’m fucking serious. If we hold to our bargain, between my word and her blessing, there will be a place for us. Somewhere to hide and plan our next move.”
Aidan smiled. I looked at him without asking a question.
“Plan our next move, you say.” His smile widened. “And here I’d thought you were going to, how did you put it? Take your magic sword and your gold and fuck off forever.”
I didn’t have an answer. Eris rescued me.
“Aidan, you can’t say that in front of Mari. She’s a consecrated Sister.”
“Oh, I know the meaning of the word,” Mariead tilted her head up to Eris, a glitter in her eyes. “He shan’t besmirch my ears.”
“Let me know if you’d like me to.” Eris leaned a bit closer, nipped at the air.
I took a breath, closed my fist in front of my mouth, and cleared my throat loudly, phlegematically. Mariead burst out laughing.
Our plan. I nodded, looked down at the food in my hands, forgotten. I hadn’t even noticed. Us.
I lowered my left hand to Fury, to the warm stone set in its pommel.
“Wasn’t sure if I should say.” I nodded again. The bread was still warm in my hand, solid and real, a reminder. I took a breath in, let it out. No fire without air.
The lass hummed at the back of my head. I looked from one to the other of my friends. The moment felt fragile. As if the wrong move, the wrong word, could break our delicate happiness. It felt too sweet, too ephemeral for me to hold safely. I cleared my throat again and broke it on purpose before I could break it by accident. “We should reach Caer Lunan tomorrow. We’ll need to be ready. Yous should get some rest if you can.”
“I have some ideas,” Eris squeezed Mariead’s hand and climbed back to her feet. “Aidan, I have some questions about your home, if you don’t mind.”
Aidan had a funny look on his face. I wondered if he’d been hit in the head during our last fight. He looked like he was about to say any one of a half dozen things. Spread his hands and climbed to one knee, then to his feet.
“I am at your service.”
“And we are on watch.” Mariead reached out, lightly nudged my shoulder. “Keeping our vigil.”
I snorted. Eris reluctantly left with Aidan, letting Mariead’s hand fall.
We sat together in companionable silence, listening to the sounds of the forest. Mariead spoke out before long, her voice low. “Sir.”
“It has been too long since we have had good tidings. Bless you for speaking to Rina on our behalf.”
“Was good for me as well. I’m an outlaw as much as any of yous.”
“Mm,” Mariead made a sound as if she knew too much. “Certainly. Only did it for yourself.”
She laughed again. For a woman who’d nearly died more than once in the last three days, she had a good laugh.
Our plan. Fine then. I cracked my knuckles.
“I’ll say this.”
“Hm?” Mariead’s answer was a noise of polite interest. I looked over at her, grinned.
“With Eris putting together our strategy, at least things won’t be boring.”