The front door creaked shut behind me, shutting out the mist. A woman’s voice rang from the other room, rosy and good-natured.
“I’ll just be a moment!”
The Forge was a tavern, which I found more confusing than I’d have admitted aloud. I stepped over the threshold onto a stone floor. The roof was low, interior dim and dirty, though the tabletops and stone floor looked well-polished by arms and footsteps. Tools there were, hammers and hooks, and farmer’s implements, blows and yokes—but they hung on the walls gathering dust. In the center of the room, an anvil sat as the single leg of a wide wooden table, with smaller tables ringed about it, and a bar hewn of rough wood served to block off the only other visible doorway. The place was sturdy, kept in good repair, but empty, and I slouched up against the bar with a grunt.
“It’s warm,” the lass in my head remarked, resting against my back, Her chin perched on my shoulder. Her head swiveled, taking in the room. “I like it. Think of the fires you could stoke here.”
Flames were crackling in the forge, dry wood popping, turning the fall to midsummer. No skin-scorching blaze, only a fraction of the heat a proper forge could put out. Narrow windows were shuttered against the cold, keeping the heat in, and the place was like an oven.
We didn’t slouch alone for long.
“Sorry, dear, didn’t mean to keep you waiting,” the woman’s voice said, drawing closer. “I was just doing some washing up—oh.”
Black hair, green eyes, a woman my age or more in leather apron with a knife handle sticking out the central pocket. I wasn’t sure if she was truly lovely, or if she was only the first churchborn stranger I’d seen in more than a week. She had a voice that reminded me of Mariead’s, a precise, careful way of talking, like she was rolling out each word by hand. “Good morning, stranger. I thought you’d be one of my fellows here for a late breakfast.”
“The man outside said to come here.”
“That’ll be Cooper.” She stepped closer to the bar, laying her hands out flat in expectation. The sleeves of her dress were rolled up, singed and spattered. “Always trying to send business my way, the dear man. What can I do for you, stranger?”
“Something to eat?” I coughed into my fist. “Sorry, I just, when I expected to come in, I didn’t see.”
Only after I’d said it did I realize that I’d just talked absolute nonsense. Faith nodded as if I’d just quoted scripture, a bit of a laugh in her eyes.
“Fuck.” I scratched my head. “Sorry, been a long time on the road. Think I’ve forgotten how to talk.”
“Hunger will do that to a man.” She looked to the door, pursed her lips, musing. “I’d been expecting my boys to come in for breakfast. I suppose they can forfeit a portion for their lateness.” She rapped her knuckles on the bar. “Wait here, stranger.”
She departed again in a swirl of apron strings, and I licked dry lips, leaning to one side. Grannine was there, ear cocked to catch the whisper before I even opened my mouth.
“Right, lass,” I said, as low as I could. “Look sharp. We’ve got to learn what we can before tonight.”
“Are you thinking we’ll be doing it tonight?”
“Might do. But I don’t like that Sergeant they’ve got in the square. Too clever.”
“Rina said if we don’t signal them by sunset, they’ll do it on their own.”
“And maybe we’ll let them.” I took a breath of dry forge air. For all that I’d whined and moaned to Eris, it was nice to shake the chill from my bones after a week spent in the cold. Even the fire and brimstone in my veins didn’t compare to the heat of a real forge.
Grannine lounged against the bar, cheek resting in her hand. Her eyes roamed over the array of bottles against the wall.
“I did not expect there to be soldiers out in the open. When we’ve seen them before, it’s only to look after something of value, a prisoner or a chapel.”
I don’t know that they were soldiers. Might have been townsfolk who take the scarlet.
“That could be something to ask our hostess.”
Faith came back into the room with a smile and a steaming bowl of porridge, spoon stuck in the center like a flag. She set both before me as if for inspection, folding her arms across her chest and rocking back to lean against a barrel behind the bar.
I nodded to her and set to the task of eating my first hot breakfast in days. It tasted of water and grain and just a hint of something sweet, honey like silk on my tongue. She stood by watching without a hint of embarrassment until I looked back at her.
“The only guests we get up here wear the scarlet,” she commented, as soon as I met her eyes, like she’d been waiting for me. “Auditors, tithe collectors, caravan guards.”
“And you’re wondering what sort of guest I am.” I grinned, wiped the back of my hand across my face, deliberately coarse. “What sort of scarlet I wear.”
“We all wear some.” She leaned on the bar, looking me in the eye. “So?”
I shrugged, picked up the spoon again.
“Sergeant Cooper sent me here.” I lifted the spoon to her in salute. “Might be he thought you’d get more out of me than he did.”
“And why would that be?”
Faith laughed, settling weight onto her arms. She looked comfortable behind the bar, solid, like she was part of it, like it was the frame of her painting.
“Some of the men have not come in for their breakfast.” She craned her neck, looking past me, and I kept my eyes on my porridge until she looked back. “I don’t suppose you’d be the reason for that.”
“Think not. Sorry to disappoint.”
“You’re no disappointment, stranger. Now I have a second mystery to occupy myself with this morning.”
“No mystery.” I lifted my chin, lied straight to her. Would have felt dishonest to look away. “Just a humble scholar. Dermot Slate, researcher of all things eccentric, at your service.”
Her eyes lit up.
“You gave your real name again.”
“Really?” She leaned forward, and I leaned back, trying to keep looking her in the eye. “I’m something of an amateur scholar myself.”
I don’t know fucking anything about what I’m supposed to be researching! All Eris said was, esoterica and, what was the other one?
“Nothing serious, of course. From time to time, the men up at the storehouse have a book pass through, and they try to pass it to me.” She shrugged, a modest gesture at odds with the way she stood, confidence shown and undermined, until curiosity brought her further forward. I shoved a spoonful of gruel in my mouth in a bid for time before she spoke. “Why come here, of all places?”
“Mm,” I nodded, mouth full, made a face like I thought that was a grand question.
“You told Sergeant Cooper you were after the archives in Valraven Manor.”
Aye, but I don’t know what kind of lore they have, do I?
“Mariead said she’d heard stories about me.”
“Folklore, stories of spirits, from before the Fall.”
“Fascinating.” Faith tilted her head. “And the Church permits this research? It seems as though it would be close to idolatry.”
“Mmm, well, that’s a very fair question.” I rubbed my chin, thinking so fast it felt like smoke was about to begin pouring out of my ears. “I can see how you might think that. But no, actually,” I cleared my throat, inspiration starting to trickle in. “The mere collection of folklore is not…a threat to the Church of Saint Kendrick…because…we acknowledge that it’s a tradition of storytelling. If it were a genuine religion, like what the druids practice, then it would be heresy.” I clicked my spoon against the rim of the bowl with a silent apology to the Speaker who had taught me the Grey Tongue. “If you take my meaning.”
“I say again, fascinating. What stories of spirits are you seeking?” She rubbed her chin, forehead furrowing, green eyes downcast a moment. “I have seldom encountered such things in my own reading. Why here?”
“I was told Valraven Manor might have a source or two.” That was even true. I tried to keep the breezy sort of voice Church scholars kept when discussing secrets of scripture. Wasn’t exactly natural. Didn’t answer her question.
She looked me over again, nodded.
“You’ll be staying in Caer Lunan, I assume.”
I tried to take the measure of her without too obviously looking. She had a hard voice to pin down, each word with a hint of a smile to it. If I was a younger, handsomer man, I might have thought she was having a bit of a flirt.
“Is this an inn and a tavern?”
“Not usually, no.” She showed a hint of that smile. “But you seem interesting, and I’ve a house that’s stood far too empty since my husband was taken. You could have a wash, and a shave, and get some of the dust of the road off you.”
“You’d do that for a stranger?”
She raised her head, straightened up, looking me over with remarkable authority for a woman who ran the one bar in a small town in the far north of Near Runingshire. Gave me a stare like she was planning on a proper answer.
“For all that you say you are a scholar sanctioned by the Church, you don’t feel like a man in the scarlet,” she said, finally. “I don’t see too many men like that here.” Her smile widened. “And, if I’m sweet enough, perhaps you’ll let me come with you when you go to take a book from Valraven Manor.”
“Purely selfish, then.”
“You could say that.” She shrugged, dismissive. “But you’d be the one getting a shave out of it.”
“And a bed.”
“I never said a bed.” Her lips pursed in a smirk nearly-hidden. “You might persuade me to let you sleep by the hearth.”
I blinked at her until the words sank in, and to my own surprise, a laugh welled up from deep in my belly, split my stubble in a grin. I slapped the bar hard enough that my fingers went numb, cracked my neck to one side.
“A woman after my own heart.” I held my still-stinging hand out to her.
“Nonsense.” She took it, and we shook. Her eyes twinkled. “I’m only after something to read.”
“Keep being that smart with me, Faith, I might start to like you after all.”
Shame I won’t be able to give you what you want. I hid the thought by tucking back into my breakfast. Faith’s only answer as a chuckle.
“I’ve still plenty of washing-up to do.” She tucked her hands into the front of her apron, and winked. “I’ve got to be ready when my boys do come calling for their luncheon.”
“Don’t let me keep you.”
She nodded toward the doorway.
“Come and knock when you’re ready.” She turned, paused like she had something to say, but carried on walking without interruption, back out of the tavern.