Scarlet soldiers in the square behind her were moving in our direction, led by one of the Inquisitor’s white riders. I couldn’t pick out the stupid shape of Sergeant Cooper without risking a closer look, but in the corner of my eye, the Inquisitor’s white shape drifted away out of sight, taking with him that hunted, nightmare sensation of furious terror.
I turned to face Faith. Her dead husband’s shirt squeezed me like a sausage, too narrow in the shoulders.
She cocked her head, hair falling to one side, baring the defiant jut of her jaw. Her eyes went over me quicker than a four-year Penitent’s sword stroke, taking me in; empty hands, loose posture, square shoulders. I felt the bizarre urge to raise my arms in self-defense.
“You’re no scholar, I’m sure of that.”
“I might be,” I said, defensively. “I know things.”
“Do you?” She stepped forward. She was shorter than me, softer, but I backed up a step regardless, mud squishing cold between my toes. I grimaced. Fuck. I’d only just managed to get my feet fucking clean.
“And your hands.”
“Tell me something scholarly.” Faith raised her voice in a challenge, stoking a flare of anger in my chest. I screwed up my face, glaring at her, searching for a response.
“What kinds of things do scholars know?”
I don’t know!
“Go on. Eccentricities, you said. Tell me something eccentric you’ve researched.”
Two men walked at the front of the group; one of the Inquisitor’s white riders, and another man, shorter, with a stern nose and a mop of greying hair that fell wild about his face. He wore a Sergeant’s stripes, no helmet, and a bleak expression. They paused at the door nearest us, began to exchange words with a man standing there. I couldn’t hear what was said, didn’t have time to ask the lass.
I reached out, taking her arms. They weren’t as slender as I’d thought they’d be.
“Faith, I can’t tell you why I’m here. But I’m not here to harm you, or anyone else from this town.” Technically that’s even true, assuming we don’t count the Inquisitor.
“Because we are going to take his soul?”
Not if it kills us.
Faith stared at me. Wrinkles deepened her brow, eyes narrowing, green and heavy with suspicion.
“Swear to me,” she ordered. “On something you’d die for.”
Grannine’s hands closed on my shoulders, and I felt Her press against my back, stifling the wind. Faith’s arms were warm, gripped tight enough that her skin was whiter where my hands–
My pitch-black hands, fading to forearms traced in charcoal-grey, warm and living and so perfectly, damnably clean on her bare skin.
I took my hands off her faster than I’d dropped Aidan’s sword, let them fall to my sides as quick as I could without looking like I was actually recoiling from her. A grim smile came over her face.
“I wondered when you’d notice,” she said, softly. “I’d say it’s a miracle the boys didn’t see, earlier, but I know what they look at when they come in.” She raised her head, nearly standing on tiptoe. If I hadn’t had more than a head on her, she’d have been staring me in the eye.
We stood there for a moment, looking at one another. Grannine stirred, looking through me, illuminating Faith’s features. Even on a dreary morning choked with mist, there was enough sun to light all the facets in her eyes, the lighter and darker greens, the flecks of hazel. The lines on her face marked sorrows felt, merriment had, years passed.
The conversation at the next house was coming to an end. I saw soldiers looking our way, the gaggle of six starting to glance in our direction. I swallowed.
“I need my things.”
There was a scar through her left brow, the faintest old notch through the black and grey. It flexed and twisted with each change of expression as she offered me a not-very-regretful smirk.
“They’re not ready for you yet. The boots are passably intact, but I had just started on cleaning them, but that thing you seemed to be using as a coat has so many holes in it, it’s a wonder you haven’t started to grow moss.” Her notched brow quirked a bit high over the other, challenging. “So really, there’s no rush.”
I licked my lips. Couldn’t stop myself glancing at the soldiers.
“They know me.” Her voice was low. “I can vouch for you. If you promise to explain.”
“I can’t do that.”
“Then promise to take me with you.”
My mouth really and truly fell open. I gaped at her.
“Woman, I haven’t even told you a thing about me. Take you where?”
“I don’t know. Where is it you’re off to in such a hurry?” She cast a quick glance over her shoulder, pushed forward into me. “They’re coming. Promise.”
“Promise, or I’ll scream.” Her voice was a whisper now. “Sergeant Lee is one of the best swordsmen in town, and a dear friend. He’ll kill you where you stand.”
“I could do without the threats.”
“Then say yes.”
No more time.
“Faith. Morning to you.” The long-haired Sergeant spoke a bit louder than was polite, cutting into our hushed conversation.
She turned her back on me, and we faced the group together. I couldn’t see her face, but her shoulders caved inward, pressing back into me, demure. She threaded one hand behind my back, took hold of my shirt in one fist, like she was trying to keep me in place.
“Alan,” she said, her voice all butter and warm honey.
The Inquisitor’s rider had a well-fed, punchable face framed by lovely gold hair. He reminded me of Aidan, if Aidan were a bit taller, and crueler, and had an uglier face. He looked to the Sergeant with an expression of polite and uncaring curiosity, dressed in a priest’s white armor.
He doesn’t look like a priest. He looks like a Penitent in whites that don’t suit him.
“You know one another?” He inquired, dispassionate. The Sergeant on his left had a warding hand on his sword, but the sword of the soldier on his right was unguarded, unwatched.
See, if I move fast enough, I could have that sword in him before the man misses it. I looked over the other five Church soldiers. They looked back at me. Something about the group of them was off. Lass, do you–
“Faith runs the Forge.” The Sergeant shifted his attention to me without a change in expression. He spoke with a friendly tone that was as genuine as the rider’s curiosity. “Faith, this is Brother Kalan.”
“God be with you, Brother,” Faith took her skirt in her free hand and curtseyed, never letting go of me. “My husband and I are honored to meet you.”
For a moment I thought I was going to choke on my own spit. I coughed into my fist. Full marks to Sergeant Alan; his face hardly changed.
“Duncan. You’re looking well.” He shifted his weight casually, rocking back onto his left foot, resting his hand on the sword hilt at his side. I cleared my throat, tried to match his way of speaking.
“You sound surprised.”
“Perhaps I am. Last time I saw you, you looked half dead from exhaustion.”
“Might have been more than half.”
He smiled without meeting my eyes. Mirthless, dry. He looked to her.
“He treating you all right, Faith?”
“Of course he is.” Her voice was angelic. Her fist tightened in my shirt, pulling me closer. I cleared my throat again. Faith cast her head to one side, causing her hair to cascade over that shoulder. “As well as I treat him, at least.”
“Mm.” He looked me over with far more interest than the priest had shown in Faith. “A cold morning for cleaning the chimney.”
“You know my Duncan,” Faith said sweetly. “Always looking for ways to keep me happy.”
I put one black hand on her shoulder, tried to squeeze it in a way that was friendly and not possessive. If they charge, if I pull fast enough, I can throw her back, take the first.
“It’s either keep her happy, or find a way to skip town quick.”
“None of those soldiers are Penitents,” Grannine whispered, Her voice low. “They must all be from the town.”
That explains the looks they’re giving me.
“You heard the order?” Brother Kalan had evidently had enough of our small-town conversation. He broke in almost before I’d finished talking. I once again looked about for the nearest object to shatter him with. A Scarlet behind him was carrying a full-size wooden shield on one shoulder. That would do it.
“We did.” Faith’s free hand clutched at the neck of her dress in contrived and distracting distress. “I still can’t believe it. Is it really true, Alan? It’s just…we’ve spent so long making the Forge our own.”
“I’m sorry.” That, at least, sounded genuine. He looked back at me. “Duty bids us move on. I’d like to finish our conversation sometime, Duncan, as circumstances permit.”
“That’d be grand.”
“I look forward to it.” His eyes flicked to her. “Father Zachary and Inquisitor Cassius will be holding a final sacrament for Caer Lunan in an hour. I’ll expect to see you both there.”
My heart froze solid in my chest.
“How could we miss it?” Faith nodded to him.
“God be with you,” Brother Kalan said, already moving on. He looked like he forgot we existed the moment he stopped staring at Faith.
“Alan,” she said, and the sergeant paused, waving his men on. “Thank you.”
“God keep you both. Stay safe. Pack your things.” He looked at me, said nothing more, and followed in the wake of his soldiers.
We watched them go, Faith’s hand still locked in a claw on my shirt. Her grip slackened as they moved away, until at last she rounded on me, all the intensity flooding back to her.
“Now at least you owe me the truth.”
“You’ve fucking killed us. I can’t go to that service.”
“I can’t–” I stopped, grunted deep in my throat, closed my hand into a fist. The snarl on my face felt like it formed by itself. “Damn you.”
“You’re welcome.” She pushed lightly on my side, like I was a particularly skittish horse. “We’d best get you inside. Alan was always a clever man, but there are others who would be less discreet.”
I started for the Forge, and she fell into step with me, her boots splashing through the muck and puddles. “You’re some kind of criminal, aren’t you? Deception came easily to you.”
“I could say the same of you.”
She let out one solitary chuckle like the last breath of a corpse.
“You’re a man. No Church-born woman can keep to the Virtues without lying.”
“Some would say that’s not a mark in their favor.”
I changed the subject.
“You don’t seem very shaken.”
She shook her head. We took the step up into her tavern, and I hesitated without thinking before stepping in, mud clinging to my ankles. She gestured me across the threshold impatiently.
“It’s no secret Lord Valraven isn’t the man of high standing he once was.” She bolted the door behind me. “We thought a day like this might come. Never planned for it, not really, but when it’s late at night and it’s only people you trust…you talk about the end.”
She stood there a moment in her mudstained boots, hand on the bolt of her door, and her shoulders sank. For a moment, she didn’t look so much in command. Instead, she looked like a tired, frightened tavernkeeper, eyes red from smoke or tears. She swallowed, raised her chin, and put her air of confidence back on like it was armor. She smiled at me, a defiant curl of uneven white teeth. “I just didn’t expect it to be this morning.”
Nothing to wring my hands around. I stood and dripped mud on her floor.
“I wish there was more I could do for you. I do.” I shook my head, looked about the place, started for the kitchen. “I need my things.”
“I told you, they’re not ready–” she followed, heated, and I quickened my pace.
Through the door, in the kitchen, my boots sat near the stove in a pail of muddy water so dark it looked like dirt. My oilcloth hung against the back wall, filth drying in crackled cakes across its surface, and Fury was leaned beside it, still in its haphazard disguise as a shovel. I went for the boots, dumped the dirty water out of them into the bucket one after another, gave each foot a rinse before they went on.
Faith stood by the stove, arms folded, looking angrier and more helpless with each passing second. I couldn’t look at her for long.
“Take me with you.”
There wasn’t any venom in that one. Just mourning. “Please. I can’t stay.” Her voice almost cracked. I bowed my head, laced up the right boot, started on the left. “Losing Duncan—if I hadn’t had this place, I don’t know what I would have done with myself. And now I’m meant to start over? Without land? Without a forge? What man would have an undowried plague town widow? And how do I…what do I do if I can’t…”
I finished the left boot.
“…You can’t just leave.”
She was staring at me when I finally built up the courage to stand, and look back at her. She looked unbelieving. Or maybe, betrayed. “I saved your life. You owe me. That’s…”
“That’s not how it works.” Each word felt like a blacksmith’s rasp working over my throat. “The world’s not fair, Faith. I can’t help you and help the ones I…” Care for? Am promised to?
“Can’t we bring her?” The lass whispered, chiming in exactly when I didn’t need Her. “We are going to Raven Lake to seek refuge. Surely they can take one more.”
And where does that end? What if she turns on us? Gives us away in the wilderness?
“Those are only possibilities. Here and now? She’s about to break in front of you.”
I notice you didn’t have much to say before it got that far!
“I wanted to let you try.”
While trying to turn over that thought in my head, I missed the moment despair turned to anger.
“Fine, then,” she snapped, and, lost in definitions, I was taken off guard when the oilcloth hit my head, thrown with all the force she could muster. It didn’t draw blood, but it stung, and I staggered. “Take your fucking coat, and your fucking shovel–”
Her voice broke off in a high, startled shriek that pierced me to the core.
Fury hit the floorboards with a thud of splintering wood, and I pulled the coat off my face to see her staring stricken at its granite-set hilt, revealed by broken planks.
The skin on her palm was seared white from the touch of its scabbard, a burn slowly fading as she raised her eyes to me. Anger, fear, and shock choked her all together, and for a moment we stared at one another.
Shaking, she drew the knife from her apron. Her body tensed, wild and half-mad with some strangling fury.
She’d surprised me quite a lot already. I thought I was ready for almost anything. I wasn’t.
“Blackguard,” she hissed, and I watched as Faith lost all trace of grace or charity. “What have you done with Sir Aidan?”