The road to Caer Lunan was long and marked with wagon ruts, packed dirt torn up into muddy furrows. My legs ached, bruises from yesterday’s fight and more twinging with each step, and I kept my head down, eyes up under my hood, watching the fields to either side as we walked in. I felt naked and exposed, creeping over the open space like a spider on the wall. Straggling plants sprouted in the field, sprays of green turning brown from the frost, weeds that sprung up after the harvest, too late to escape the winter.
“‘I’ve got an idea,’” I muttered, in a mimicry of Eris’ nimble river accent. “‘But you won’t like it, Dermot,’ aye, I fucking won’t, because it’s my neck on the line.”
I jammed my hands further into my armpits, trudging up the northward road into Caer Lunan, alone. Fury thumped on my back, wrapped up in rags and topped off with the rough-cut head of a wooden spade.
At least I had a cloak, with a hood that kept off the drizzle. Gloves covered my hands, long enough to reach past the wrist where the skin turned grey.
I was alone. Nearly.
Grannine flitted along on my left, tattered skirts whirling about Her feet as if She were underwater. Her hands were clasped behind Her back, chin raised as She peered around us, taking in everything with wide scarlet eyes.
There were people stirring even in the grey morning, children playing out in the street, a few townsfolk out and about. Two soldiers in the scarlet were standing by the front steps of the central house. While I watched, a child ran by chasing their dog, and one of the men palmed the lad’s head affectionately as he ran past. The town was a patchwork of houses; some of piled stone, some wood and plaster.
“See, is that unusual?” The lass brushed my shoulder with Hers. “You haven’t spent much time in villages like this.”
“I haven’t.” I kept my voice to a mutter. “That’s no accident. There’s little here for someone like me.”
“A child of the druids? A sellsword? A man who looks like you?”
“Why not all three?” I wiggled my eyebrows at Her. She laughed, a bright and fearless sound, warm enough to heat my hands by. “There’s more men who look like me further south in East Carrig. And more among the druids than the churchfolk.”
“Druids seem to be wanderers.”
“They surely are. Less now that they’re stuck inside the Veil.”
“It seems an untenable scenario. Impact to the local ecology would be catastrophic, let alone…” She frowned. “My Dermot, what do the riverfolk eat?”
I did my best to look at Her in a way that suggested the phrase, what the fuck, without having to speak aloud as we got closer to the town. Sound carried over open fields, and there was little I wanted less than to be heard muttering to myself as I crept up to the outskirts. She looked back at me, deadly serious, and for all my worries I couldn’t stop a laugh at the earnest expression on her face. They eat this and that. Whatever they can. Ducks, goose, fish–
“A fish is the–” She held up a hand and made a swimming sort of gesture with it. I nodded. “What sort of fish?” A stupid sort of noise escaped my mouth while I thought.
Salmon? Trout? Bluefish? Anything they can catch on the river.
“That doesn’t make any sense.” A taut, tangible excitement bubbled in her voice. “Dermot, that doesn’t make any sense. Can’t you see?”
No, I fucking can’t, lass, I thought that was obvious. I wedged my arms a little closer to myself against the cold. Should have cursed someone smarter.
“Why would I want someone else?” The simplicity of Her answer stole the banter from me. “No, it doesn’t make sense. Why is Caer Lunan so big, if there’s only a wee bit of farmland about?”
I laughed, not because it was funny. Lass, I’ll say this, you are never boring. See, what the fuck are you thinking?
“Answer the question, my Dermot, please.” She pranced across a puddle to hang on my shoulder, offering me a pleading look with eyes that glowed like coals. I sighed.
Food from the storehouse keeps them fed in the winter, and the Church puts soldiers here to mind the storehouse. I frowned, trying to read the ever-shifting figment features of Her face, to put my head behind those eyes. Though I’d bet a queen’s mark those guards bring wives and children with them, as well, if they stay here long enough, which means more mouths to feed, but more people to work the land as well.
“That’s it, my Dermot, that’s it.” Grannine’s voice sang through my veins, excitement tangible. “They bring food in from outside. There are men coming from outside. My Dermot, how could the Riverfolk and the druids survive so long foraging, how could the cities on the coast keep fed after the fall, if–”
“–if there weren’t more fish coming from out the Veil.”
I stopped dead in my tracks in the middle of the field, staring at Her. “Lass, what the living fuck does that mean?”
“I’ve no idea, my Dermot.” She grinned, running a scarlet tongue over Her perfect teeth, lip curling in a triumphant little smirk. “But if it lets in animals and it doesn’t let out men, see, that seems just a bit stranger than a wall, doesn’t it?”
I searched for words. Found none. Started a sentence without having the thoughts for it, broke it off after just a sound. Might be there’s something I’m missing. Something I don’t know. Not smart enough to know more…can’t say for sure that’s true, lass.
“It must be.” I heard Mariead’s conviction in Her voice. “Kingdom’s not big enough to sustain the population we’ve seen, and if the Veil was a perfect hermetic wall, we’d see stagnation in the plants, in the birds and the animals, even on this narrow timescale. Think about how the forest here in Near Runigshire is thinner, weaker than on the far side of the Runing.” She stopped for dramatic effect, like Eris sometimes did. “It’s because it’s cut off from the rest. That should be happening more. But it’s not.”
Closed my mouth. Started walking again towards Caer Lunan. Are you sure you’re all right, lass? Since your meditation, you’ve not been talking like yourself.
“You’ve asked me this before in half a dozen ways, my Dermot. It’s sweet of you to worry for me.”
I started to answer before I realized She was having a laugh, the giggle in Her voice hidden beneath a cool deadpan that reminded me very much of Aidan. I cursed Her under my breath, and She laughed louder before Her face turned solemn with a nearly unnatural speed. “I still…can’t say what’s wrong. Every time I get close, it’s like I can’t even think any longer. The thoughts are…broken, or corrupted. But so long as I keep my mind on other things, I think I’m even smarter now.”
We walked along in silence a bit longer, mud sucking and sinking around my boots with every step.
“What is it, my Dermot?”
I think that’s the first time you’ve said you had a mind of your own.
“It is, isn’t it? Isn’t that funny. It felt so natural. Is that how it feels to you?”
Once again She startled me to laughter, and I turned it to a hacking cough, raising the tattered oilcloth sleeve to my face to hide the smile. One thing hasn’t changed, lass. You still ask the strangest fucking questions.
Her feet came off the ground entirely, and Her arms encircled my shoulders, head resting softly against mine as we came within earshot of the town. I took a deep breath, drawing strength from the closeness. Raised my hand in greeting to the two scarlets at the center of town.
“Lads,” I called, trying to keep my head low. Unfortunately, I hadn’t counted on one of the soldiers being friendly; he had a square head and a big mouth which he used to answer.
“And a fine morning it is, sir, surely.”
I looked up at the grey sky. I tried to eye the village and pick out which house might be a tavern or general store. The man kept talking to me, his rounded Church helmet riding high enough over his head to show a mop of gold hair. “Where is it you’re coming from, sir, if you don’t mind my asking?” He took a step toward me. Since there were still thirty paces between us, I eyed him but didn’t move back. “Only we don’t get many travelers this time of year.”
His eyes were sharp. I had the unsettling feeling that he saw me, stared right through my head and out the back of me, through the fake shovel wrapped up around Fury, through my lie. But I see you too, you old bastard, and I see you’re too smart to be just a daft fat man with stripes on his shoulder.
“Ah, lovely town, lovely town.” I didn’t like how clean the hilt of his sword was. It wasn’t a fine or even a new weapon, but it was carefully kept by a man who knew how to look after steel, handguard dented and scratched like it had been through more than one trial in its time. “And what is it that brings you to Caer Lunan, sir?”
I straightened up and gave him Eris’ lie.
“I’m a scholar, interested in obscure writings of the Saints. I hear the Valraven family has quite a collection, and I’m here to ask permission to view them.” He received my little speech with a thick, guileless smile. I added something for him at the end. “See, if that meets your approval, Sergeant.”
“Oh, I’m not a man who has to approve of things, sir, I’m only sticking my nose in.” His smile widened. His teeth weren’t all straight, but they were bright white, and just a bit too big for his face. “What is it you said your name was, sir? Always nice to see a new friendly face around Caer Lunan.”
“Eris said to give a false name.”
I remember. I’m not lying to this man. Too fucking clever.
“Sergeant Cooper, sir.” He actually bounced on the balls of his feet, swinging back and forth like his gut was his center of gravity. “And a pleasure it is to meet you. I hope you have a lovely time in Caer Lunan, and find all that you’re after.”
I folded my arms, looked him over again. Made a wordless sound of agreement.
“Don’t suppose you could point a traveler somewhere to get a hot meal?”
“Of course, sir. You’ll be wanting to head to the Forge, just past Tyler’s place.” He pointed to the house to his right. “This here is Tyler and Annie’s, and the Forge is just the next house over and up. Door will be open, and Faith will take care of you.”
My smile threatened to turn ugly. That’d be new. I bobbed my head to the man, lowered my chin, and set off past him.
Tyler and Annie, whoever they were, had a fine wee house, square and small. The lower part of it was stacked stone, nearly up to the waist, and the upper part was wood and thatch and plaster. I rapped on the wooden wall as we passed. Built this summer, maybe. Newlyweds.
“How can you tell?”
The wood’s not grey yet. Doesn’t look like it’s passed a winter.
“Newlyweds.” I heard Her voice behind me, looked back over my shoulder. She trailed long fingers over the stone wall, a wistful expression on Her face. “They built their own home.”
A stab of white-hot fury jolted through me, not mine, but shared. It felt like She’d wrapped those fingers around my heart and squeezed. “Like Eris and my Mariead wanted.”
You’re trying to make me angry, lass. I’ve got to be gentle for these village folk.
“I’m drawing connections. Trying to change the way I remember.” Her attention shifted to me, and I watched Her force an impish smile, papering over the rage with a grin. “You never did give me an answer. When I asked if you wanted to get married.”
She nearly caught me out there, and I barely managed to stifle my laugh with a cough. Shook my head and tried to focus on where I was going. The squat shape of a smithy loomed ahead, smoke trailing from its heavy stone chimney in thin wisps.
Lass, you’re no good for my heart.
“On the contrary,” She answered lightly, in Mariead’s clipped, sleek accent, twining Her hand in mine. “You need me to remind you what it’s for.”