Caer Lunan was not a large town.
It clustered up against a narrow ridge, nearly all its wee houses built with their backs to the slope. Among them, one central house stood out, and behind it, smaller but taller, a chapel with the Church’s star nailed atop its belltower.
We crouched near the edge of the treeline, near the foot of a slope littered with stumps and slabs of stone, half-hidden by brambles at the border of the forest. The valley floor had been cleared for fields that now lay covered in mist and mud, their furrows empty after the harvest.
“The barracks are there,” Rina murmured, pointing north over the fields, past the wee town. With her hood drawn low and her scarf wrapped across her features, she was hard to see even looking right at her. Squinting where she indicated, I thought I might see one low roof that could belong to a barracks, or to a particularly ugly stable. Daylight was hollow in the grey morning, diffused by mist. Clouds covered the sky, loops of fog curled from the bellies of clouds overhead, caressing the treetops, and patches of rain fell here and there across the forest. A curtain of water drifted down from clouds to the north, obscuring the trees beyond the ridge.
“And the storehouse?”
“Behind the ridge.” I hadn’t heard Mariead get close enough to overhear, let alone chime in, but she spoke out in turn, her poised accent blunted by the roughness of her voice. She’d managed to borrow, beg, or steal a druid cloak, grey and lichen-speckled, heavy enough to muffle the sound of the chainmail underneath. “On this side, the incline is gradual. On the eastern side, it is a rock face with few handholds.”
“But not none?” I held Fury in my hand, its sheath planted in the loam like a walking stick.
“But not none.” She flashed me a smirk. “For the lightfooted and brave of heart.”
“That rules me out.”
“That’s the ridge.” Eris sounded crestfallen. “Fine. That’s…if we make too much of a racket, it could carry back to the village. I’d thought it was farther.”
“It’s as I said. To get from Caer Lunan to the storehouse, one must ride or run either north or south around the ridge.” Rina indicated with her still-outstretched hand. “North, the way through the forest is longer, more isolated, but the barracks are nearer. South, south you reach the town sooner, but the barracks are nearly twice as far.”
“How many in the barracks?” Eris had reclaimed her sleeveless doublet, the only armor we had to fit her. “Don’t suppose there’s an elemental in the forest somewhere.” I mused, glancing at Mariead. “We could try to bait it into the compound, and they’d run south to get out of the woods the sooner.”
“That’s the worst idea I’ve ever heard,” Eris muttered.
“Have you got a better one?”
“About half a dozen.”
The houses were old. Well-kept, cared for. Strange to look at the wee town and think that people were down there without the faintest idea what was coming. Here we are, bargaining with druids, plotting a crime I’ve never heard the likes of, and they’re living the life the Church promised.
The lass made the faintest sound at the very edge of my hearing, and I half-turned my head, catching Aidan as he approached, a ghost in his black coat of plate. I nodded to him, earned myself a lipless smirk.
“Aidan. The barracks. How many are sleeping there, do you reckon?” Eris nodded toward the town, just as another strand of scudding fog obscured the distant roof entirely.
“It’s not one. There are three buildings.” Rina shifted back from the treeline, sliding back to rest a moment against the face of a mossy boulder. “I don’t know how many Church soldiers sleep there. We have counted many.”
“Twenty at least.” Aidan fidgeted with the mechanism of his upper pistol.
“The Lunan storehouse contains tithes from three northern shires,” Aidan cast his faint sneer in my direction. “As well as serving as the advance supply post for any patrol or military action taken beyond West Queenshire. Valraven Manor would not exist without the storehouse; its care and administration are our family’s responsibility.” He looked down at his hand, gloved and tense on the wheel of his pistol. “Or, it was.”
“Very poignant. You’re telling me there are twenty Church soldiers down there?”
“Better to say fifty.” Mariead broke off her thought to cast Eris a smile as the riverwoman shifted closer to the treeline, put a hand on Mariead’s shoulder. She continued speaking in a tone that grew colder and more precise as she went on. “The town’s crops and those of the surrounding farms are just enough to keep us from starving when winter storms cut off the roads from Blackforge and Caer Alstead, but they are not sufficient to maintain a township of more than one hundred people. About a third of the men in Caer Lunan take up the Scarlet, because a Church soldier has the right to claim his pay’s worth in food from the storehouse.”
“I’d imagine that’s convenient for the administrators, as well.” I said, more for Her benefit than mine. “To have a town full of people tied to loyalty by their bellies.”
“It is.” Mariead did not soften her words. “The people of Caer Lunan are loyal to our father because he has time and again authorized additional rations during times of need, which his father never did, nor his grandfather before him.” She took a deep breath, let it out, voice taut with anger that raised a hum from the demon in the back of my head. “I had intended to carry on that legacy, when it was my turn to rule.” “So had I.” Aidan’s voice was barely audible. They exchanged a look I didn’t care to decipher.
“Is that Valraven Manor?” I pointed to the big house in the center of town. Aidan laughed.
“No.” Mariead shook her head. “Valraven Manor is north, beyond the ridge.”
“Any guards there?”
“Few. We employ a few of the people of Caer Lunan as well, as servants, but most of them live on the grounds with the family.”
I looked at the town again. Right, lass. Got all that?
“I think so, my Dermot.” She crouched at my side, a slash of white cloth and warmth at the right edge of my vision, perched birdlike atop a fallen log too narrow and rotten to bear the weight of a flesh-and-blood creature. “Fifty Church soldiers at least, twenty of them implied to be from out of town. Information suggests the remaining thirty to be one-third of the population of Caer Lunan and the outlying farms. Conventional metrics dictate the maximum sustainable population for a region of this size and arability with the visible degree of agricultural development to be in the range of one hundred and twelve to one hundred and forty-seven people at an average age of twenty years, given observed climate and the presence of a continual supplemental source of food in the form of the storehouse wages.”
A flock of birds chirped and piped to one another in the trees above, foraging high off the ground, pausing now and again to give a warning trill as they rediscovered the five of us lurking below.
I turned and looked at Her, despite how mad it might look to turn and stare incredulously at an empty branch. She frowned, eyes still on the village, before She glanced in my direction.
Her eyes were mismatched, one blue as the sky, one the same stark, ember-red, and as I watched, the blue faded out between one blink and the next.
“What the fuck was that, lass?” I stared at her.
“I…don’t know.” She frowned. “I can’t tell you what…or how, but I…I know it’s right. Like I can count the stars in the sky.”
Aye, but can you remember it?
“One hundred and forty-seven people, twenty soldiers from elsewhere, thirty from Caer Lunan.” She nodded slowly, still looking bemused. “I can. I think I’m…I know what is missing. I’m better, but it’s temporary. The longer we go, the more I’ll need to do something else.”
You will? I shifted position, put a hand on Her leg. Is that something we can fix?
“I think so. We need–”
“Slate, have you gone entirely mad?” Eris’ voice broke right into our conversation, cut the lass off midword, and She vanished from under my hand, leaving me to lurch for my balance before I fell down the hill. My hand broke right through the moldering log She’d occupied, and I put my hand into the mud and leaf litter.
I glared at Eris, wiping my hand on my trousers.
“I was busy, river woman.”
“That’s grand, that is. We’re only here planning how to steal from a force of fifty soldiers without killing them all. Was just wondering if you’d like to weigh in, but perhaps you’d prefer to carry on talking to whoever it is that’s over there?” Eris, crouched at Mariead’s side, almost entirely blocked her from sight, as large as a boulder herself, but I could see the grin on Mariead’s face.
I hissed under my breath. Remind me to ask you again later, lass.
“Naturally. There’s little to be done at the moment, in any case.”
You sound like the Sister again.
“I like the way she talks.”
What’s wrong with the way I talk?
“Nothing. I like it as well, my Dermot.” Her hand ruffled my hair. “Or are you jealous?”
“How many living down there, not counting the soldiers? Eighty? A hundred?”
Now it was Mariead who frowned.
“Very nearly,” she said. “I remember discussing such things with my father, when I was younger. Though at the time there were only ten storehouse guards from Blackforge stationed here.”
“They doubled the guard when you left.” Aidan alone had kept his eyes on Caer Lunan while the rest of us bickered. “Five and six-year veteran Penitents from Blackforge.”
“Just so. Placed here to remind us that our manor stands at the Church’s convenience.” His face was heartless, and his hand was once again on the silver hilt of his sword. “A leash on my father’s neck.”
“What happens now that you’ve turned coat, then?” Eris sounded only curious.
In the town across the fields, a door opened, and a dog ran out, followed by a child, racing into the empty farmland to play.
“I don’t know,” Aidan said, quietly. “I…tried not to think about that.”
A chill ran down my spine.
She met my eyes. I saw the same fear in her face before she even spoke.
“You don’t think…they might send someone to take your father to task for your misdeeds.”
“They wouldn’t just send a Templar for that.” I tightened my grip on Fury. The stone inlay in its hilt grew warm under my hand. “They’d send a small army. Or even…” An Inquisitor.
“My scouts would have seen signs of such a force, if that were the case.” Rina spoke, breaking a silence she’d held for some time now. She looked at each of us in turn, dark eyes sharp. “Do you think this is possible? Would the Church seek to punish you through your father?”
“If they aren’t here yet, they might be soon enough.”
“It makes no difference,” Aidan said, bitterly. “There is little enough we could do to oppose such a force. We barely survived the last time.”
I blew all the air out of my lungs, rose to my feet and turned, heading back up the hill.
“All the same.” Mariead’s voice carried on the morning air behind us. “We had best do this quickly.”
“Perhaps we’ll be lucky.” The derision in Aidan’s voice did not fill me with confidence.
Derision. I shook my head and redoubled my pace up the slope. Seems like neither of us is sounding like ourselves, lass.
“Quick, better than lucky. I don’t wish to bring the same wrath down on our people.” This last sounded like it was addressed to Eris; gentler the tone, softer the intonation. “They have suffered enough.”
“Sure thing, love, I’ll be sure to take that into consideration when I come up with my master plan. Wh–Slate,” Eris hissed at my back, voice following me up the hill. “Slate, you never said if you had a plan! Fucking–” her voice faded into a grumbled curse as she, too, rose and followed, too slow to keep pace.
We retreated from the forest at the edge of Caer Lunan. Another night survived on the run from the Church, and no closer to safety. I flexed my free hand. The sick, shaking feeling of sleepless nights and hungry days was fading.
No fire without air. I slapped Fury’s hilt into my palm. We’ve had more than enough room to breathe.
I paused. Eris sounded different. I looked back at her.
“I’ve got an idea,” she said. She was grinning. “But you won’t like it.”
“Minstrel.” I turned around to look down the slope at her. “When have I ever?”