Mud squished up under my feet as I stared, hands on her shoulders. Damp air was cold on my newly-bare face, and the skin felt too tight, taut, like a skull.
The Inquisitor rode a white horse. Everything he and his horse wore was white, splashed with mud from the road north, tack and harness and armor all pale as a corpse. Eight men in white rode behind him, and the man furthest on the left bore a black flag.
The sight of the flag was almost as bad as the sight of the Inquisitor. Not because I hated it in the same way that We hated him, not because it drew the eye like he did, gold hair cut short, eyes pale and bleak and lifeless, sweeping the square. Because of what it meant.
The Inquisitor picked up a mask from his saddle, snow-white leather, lenses blank with the grey of the clouds above. The seven-pointed star was inverted in silver over mouth and jaw, its longest single spike lancing up across the bridge of the nose, terminating between the eyes.
My arms shook, fire hot in my chest. My heart was a knot of molten steel plunged into the quench, brittle and searing, spitting smoke and oil. Grannine whispered in my ear, urgent, Her voice as strained as I felt.
“Look away, my Dermot. Look away.”
I wrenched my head away, stepping back. Grannine stood at my side, Her back to the Inquisitor, hands over Her eyes. Firelight flickered between Her fingers.
“I don’t understand,” Faith said, speaking through her hand. She wasn’t speaking to me, not exactly. It was almost a prayer. “I hadn’t heard anything, how would they even know? Why wouldn’t we know?”
The lass glanced at me, ever-curious, a sliver of iris glinting like the blood moon between thumb and forefinger.
Black flag, white horsemen. My lip curled in a sneer.
“Faith.” I didn’t look back. “You’d best start packing.”
Mist was still curling over the ridge west of Caer Lunan. I fixed my eyes on it, took a breath.
“Thinking of the others?”
Might be we can still get the job done.
“Dangerous to try and lock them in their barracks now.”
But if they’re going door to door…might be we don’t need to. Light a fire or start a scare at the wrong end of town, draw them all away.
“What does the flag mean?”
“I don’t understand.” We heard her voice shift as Faith turned. “There’s been no plague here. There hasn’t been plague north of the Runing in years, not since Caer Fara.”
It ate through the southern shires, Eastmarsh and Flint, but they stopped it at the Runing in 299. Blocked up the gate at Bridgeport, let no one through. That’s when they started declaring plague towns, when they started spreading those rumors about river folk. Flares up now and again in the winters. At least, I’d always thought it did. Now I’m not so sure.
“Faith.” I raised my voice, looked back, trying to shield my eyes from the Inquisitor. Reached out for her arm, found it with one gloved hand and tugged her around to look at me. She had to tear her gaze off him. “Look at me.”
I’d seen people look like she had. Wild and witless, not ready to know what they knew. Living in that moment of shock, the fall before the water took them. It drowned you, clung to you like a mire, until it was too late to run.
And they have to run.
With the Inquisitor out of sight, Our anger was waning. Now I was just tired, my fresh shave and bath forgotten. “Caer Lunan’s gone. Do you understand that? When they plant that flag, the town ends. Just like they did with Caer Fara, wherever that was. Did you know anyone from there?”
“The Dannigs. Dora and her boy. But they came here before, when she wed.” She blinked, frowning, trying to focus on me. “Why?”
“They’ll be packing already. You’ll want to be packed, so you can help them.”
“Packing…” She swallowed. “But–”
“Faith.” Lass. Help. I put all the softness I could into my voice, all the song I could take from Her.
Grannine’s presence crackled at my back, jagged like broken pottery.
“My–mot,” Her voice snapped in the middle, crashing down into another unintelligible, glacial rumble. I caught frustration from Her like smoke on the wind. “I’m–sing–”
“Faith,” I said again, repeating myself. “Look at me.” I put both hands on her shoulders. I wanted to take her closer. To tell her to run. Anything that would make her go, stop staring at me with that look like a woman who’d just lost a hand or a son or a home. I swallowed. Fuck.
Her brow furrowed, staring at me, looking from one eye to the other.
“Dermot,” she said, slowly. “What sort of scholar are you?”
I kept my voice level, as soothing as it could be.
“They’re going to end the town. You need to be ready to go wherever they take the survivors.”
“They can’t end Caer Lunan. What about the storehouse?” She looked over her shoulder to the ridge behind her tavern. “What of Lord Valraven? What of your research?” She backed away, breaking out of my grasp, eyeing me warily. “This town is older than the Fall. End it?”
“Come now, Faith. You said you were a scholar as well. Do you really think they wouldn’t?”
The hair on my neck was standing on end. I had to pull myself out of her eyes and listen to the world again to hear the sound of boots in the mud.
The Inquisitor’s voice spun into my head like an auger. It rattled off the faces of houses around us, stirred ugly echoes in the windows and eaves.
“By the will of Saint Pharrell,” he cried, a lifeless shout that made my skin crawl. “I declare this township forfeit by cause of pestilence. Void are your titles, your leins and lordships. By the grace of God, we have come to deliver you unto a home without disease, to deliver cleansing mercy to the unclean.”
One by one, people straggled from their homes, doors opening, windows opening, people stepping out to stare past us like Faith had, disbelieving.
A thick, stupid, beautiful voice rang out, cut the fearful silence, a man who spoke straight from his jowls with a mesmerizing authority that We could only admire, bereft as We were of song.
Lass, what the fu–
“Good morrow to you, my lords,” Sergeant Cooper’s girthy voice swayed off the houses. “And what a fine procession you are. You’ll forgive me, I’ve only just awoken, could you tell me your business here in Caer Lunan? I’m afraid those doors are dreadful thick, and my ears not so young as they were.”
Next sound we hear will be a sword. Or a head in the mud.
It was neither.
“Soldier of God,” the Inquisitor said, soft and hideous. “Name yourself.”
“Well, I’m Sergeant Cooper, my lord, if it pleases you, and very much honored I am to make your acquaintance. So many fine sirs here, I must imagine it’s business you have with our Lord Valraven, is that right?”
Nothing. The man kept on talking with the self-certainty of a bulldog locked on an ankle. “Well, begging your pardon, my lords, but you aren’t in the right place to see him, not at all! You must have gotten turned around in all this mist. Shall I escort you to the Manor so you can speak to him properly?”
“Cooper,” Faith whispered. “What are you–”
“There are Templar coming presently. They wish to speak to your Lord Valraven.”
My eyes went wide, and I stared at Her reflection in the window across the way. They’re coming for Aidan.
“Or for his father.”
“Fuck,” I said. “Now we do have to warn them.”
“I thought so,” Faith said, with satisfaction. I nearly jumped, suddenly realizing that she was standing very, very close. “You’re no scholar, are you? Not with the scars you have.”
I opened my mouth.