“Fucking hell–” I jumped back a pace, and a too-sharp knife hissed in the air, nearly opening me up like a pig. “Easy! I didn’t lay a hand on your fucking wee prince!”
How does she know? What kind of fucking witch–
“Then who are you? And why do you have his sword?”
“That’s not his sword,” I said. “Fucking look at it. It’s got a rock for a pommel.”
She shuffled half a step around the room, keeping distance from me. Glanced at the sword suspiciously, like she thought I might lie about it even when it was right there to look at. The tip of the knife shook in her hand, but her fingers were tight on the handle. Might be the first time she’s ever used it for a weapon.
Her eyes darted back to me.
“How do you know what his sword looks like?” She punctuated the question with a jab of the knife that forced me back a step, hands in the air.
I heaved a very long sigh. I’m fucking tired. Any chance we could just fuck off and have a lie down?
“I don’t?” I tried. The look on her face suggested she did not find my delivery of that statement particularly convincing. I glanced out the back window. When did it get so fucking dark?
“You’ve time yet before nightfall. Two hours, maybe, before the daylight’s gone. Less with the cloud cover.” Grannine’s hands found their way to my shoulders, and I looked back to Faith as the lass placed Her lips close to my ear. “I know what you need to ask her…”
“How is it, Faith, that you know Aidan by name, and are well-enough concerned for his life to attack me blade in hand, but you don’t have the faintest idea what his sword looks like?”
Her suspicious look wavered. I pressed forward, advancing a step, eyes half on her, half on the knife in her hand.
“That’s for me to know, and you to wonder.”
“Oh, I think it’s for you to tell me.” I put my arms out to either side, ready to fend off a knife if she came at me again. “Trying to convince me to trust you, and you won’t come clean? Fucking hell. We don’t have time for this dance, Faith. It’s now or never.”
“Is it really?” She lowered the knife to her side, but the look on her face was just as keen. “That argument didn’t work when it was whispered to me by boys in cornfields, and I won’t fall for it now. One word out the door from me and the Inquisitor will have you.”
Grannine whispered to me. I echoed Her aloud, holding my ground.
“And you don’t think he’d have questions for you? No, we think you’d rather run to the Forest with a man you’ve just met than face an Inquisitor. What is it you’re afraid of revealing?”
Her eyes narrowed.
“You’re guessing. Grasping at straws.”
“Maybe we are. But we’re fucking good at it.”
A knock echoed from the front room, someone rapping at the door of the Forge.
We stared at one another. Faith’s dark hair fell about her face, and for a moment she bore a look in her eye as wild as a druid huntress. Fury lay sheathed on the floorboards between us.
“Go on,” I whispered. “Answer the door. Call your boys in the Scarlet, and–”
“Ssh!” Faith held a finger to her lips, knife still hanging from her hand. She shook her head. “We’re both wasting time. I don’t know what you came here for, if you did not come to torment me, but whoever you are–”
The knock sounded again…but this time, from the shuttered window to my right, in the wall of the kitchen.
A woman’s voice hissed through the gap between frame and shutter.
“Faith! It’s me. Temperance.”
I cast a look at Faith. She chopped her free hand across her throat ominously, slid the knife back into her apron, and put on the sweetest smile I’d seen on her yet just as she opened the shutters.
“Oh, thank God, you’re all right. How are you holding up?” The woman on the far side of the window had a bun of greying gold hair gathered back off her face, features weathered, instantly curious when her eyes caught me halfway through trying to pick up Fury off the floor. “And who’s that?”
“He’s no one. What do you need?”
“Mm, no one, is he?” Temperance looked at Faith with a crafty, sidelong smirk. “Glad to see you’ve company around the house again.”
“Tilly.” Faith’s voice was almost pleading. “What do you need.”
The older woman gave me a thorough once-over, pursed her lips, relented.
“Thought I’d see if you needed a hand. We’ve got Dora and Millie over to help with the little ones, but I said to Millie, I don’t know if Faith’s going to be able to be packed and ready in only an hour.”
“I don’t have that many things to…” her voice trailed off, and Faith blinked, glanced at me. “An hour?”
“That’s what Blake said, yes, an hour to gather our things and meet at the edge of the town.”
“That’s not what Alan said. He said we’d be meeting in the Church in an hour.”
I looked down. Fury’s hilt swallowed the firelight like a black iron poker. I’d run the sword belt over and around the quillion, locking it in place to keep its disguise as a spade convincing.
“What? That’s…” Temperance made a face. “I don’t understand that. Why would they tell us two different things?”
An idea took root in me, a seed planted like a spark in thatch roofing, the faintest flicker of slim fingers pulling back from the moment of contact. It flared to life, tracing a bitter line that raced through my head like strangling smoke.
Damn you, lass.
“It’s a guess. We need more information.”
Might be a guess, but I think it’s right. Feels Church.
“You mentioned other names.” I lifted Fury in one hand, laid it sheathed over my shoulder like a spade. “Dora and…”
“…Millie? Don’t suppose they happen to have children?”
“Dora doesn’t,” Temperance said.
“She has a son, but he’s no child.” Faith looked at me, curious. “He’s worn the Scarlet for two years now.”
I could use a drink.
“You don’t have family in town.”
“What? I do.” She looked at me oddly. “Why do you think I don’t?”
“You do.” I scratched my chin. Strange to find it nearly bare. “You’re sure?”
“We’re family,” Temperance gestured to Faith. “Try to keep her close, you know, it’s what my brother would have wanted.”
Temperance frowned. She reached through the window to tap Faith on the shoulder.
“Come round to mine for a moment? Blake and Milo are getting some of our boys together, to help pack, or for whatever needs doing. They should hear this.” She gestured to me. “And they should hear whatever it is you’re thinking, stranger.”
“Alan came by with one of the Inquisitor’s priests.” Faith moved closer to the window, set her hands on the sill. Temperance laid a hand over hers. “I…told them he was my husband.”
“Wh–” A laugh startled up from her throat. “Why in God’s name would you do that?”
“I don’t know.” Faith looked at me, took a deep breath. “I…don’t know. It seemed like the thing to do.”
I hooked Fury into the crook of my elbow, shook my oilcloth out in two hands. Dried and crusted dirt showered the kitchen, drawing a silent glare from Faith.
“I don’t know what you see in him, but who am I to judge?” Temperance’s eyes twinkled. “Hurry it up, darling. Time’s wasting.”
“Let me fetch a shawl. This damp is dreadful.”
“Be worse if it were a nice day, love.” Tilly patted her hand. She leaned in the window to stare at me shamelessly as Faith pulled away and strode into the other room. I kept my eyes on Fury, undid the belt, strapped it back into place at my hip. The oilcloth didn’t hide it, but might keep the hilt from being seen.
Lass. How long do we have?
“You just asked.” Her hand rested gently on my arm, touch searing through the layers of fabric. “You’re preoccupied.”
I fucking am. The way this woman says their lads are gathering…it might be something we could take advantage of.
“These people are upstanding subjects of the Church.” Grannine’s attention drifted from me to the woman at the window, and she flitted from the air, folding her arm across the sill and resting her chin in her hand, nearly close enough to Temperance to lay a kiss on her cheek. “Do you really think they’d do something untoward?”
Might be they’re planning to settle old scores with a quick witch-burning. Not a bad time for it. Anyone in Caer Lunan looking to lay a grudge to rest is about to have their chance. Whatever it is, it might be loud enough to draw attention. If we can find out what they’re thinking and get them to delay until nightfall…
“You’re thinking to use them as diversion for Aidan and the others.” The lass looked my way, red eyes soft with worry. “That’s rather callous. Not very like you.”
I don’t know where you got this idea that I wasn’t a coldhearted bastard, lass.
“I know your heart better than you do, my Dermot.” Her voice was a caress, set a fire in my chest that bloomed to the tips of my fingers, set my palms itching. “That’s not your whole plan.”
If we get them to stay till dark, might be we could use the distraction our own selves. I don’t like the odds of fighting a whole town of Scarlets and Inquisitors in the open…but if we can get the man in white from behind while he’s trying to keep order…
Faith walked through Grannine, a woolen shawl around her shoulders and a pack over her shoulder. The lass let out a wee yelp of surprise, shattered against Faith like a crust of maple sugar. I hid a smile. Don’t see everything, do you?
She huffed in my ear. I had the strong impression of folded arms.
And to think I feared you.
“I can be fearsome.”
Now you sound like me.
“I always sound like you.”
“Dermot,” Faith said quietly, interrupting the banter taking place in my head. “Could I have your help?”
I shrugged. She kicked a long leather bundle beside the door at the back of the kitchen.
“Carry that for me?”
I nodded, bent down to look it over. Six belts bound it in place, and I yanked with one arm, grunted. Fuck me, that’s heavy.
“Is this all your fucking cookware?”
Faith chuckled, but didn’t answer. Instead, she unlocked the back door of the kitchen and swung it open, admitting a rush of cold, damp air. I strode through, ducking under the doorframe, and nodded to Temperance, more than a head shorter and wrapped in a linen coat. A pile of lighter logs sat by the back door, a single splitting log set upright with a hatchet buried in the center. I reached it in two steps, wrenched it free and wedged it into my belt, opposite the sword. The weight was reassuring.
Faith’s Forge backed to the ridge. Trees and rocky ground stretched up over us. I rubbed my chin again, wrinkled my nose at the ridgeline. Almost looks too rocky. Farmers must have put some of the stones there instead of carting them all the way out to the edge. Soil must have been a nightmare to plough when the town was founded.
“This way,” Tilly gestured north, around the ridgeside edge of town. The four of us set off, Faith and Tilly leading the way, the lass and I slinking along in their shadow, trying to keep out of sight. I caught glimpses of the main square through southfacing gaps in the huts and houses, people trickling into the chapel in ones and twos. Early for the congregation? I set my jaw. I hope you’re wrong about this, lass.
“As do I.”
We cast a final furtive glance behind, not south but west, gauging the grey of the clouds and the light in the sky. Fuck me, the night’s coming quick.
“It’s coming at the usual time. A bit sooner than yesterday.”
The ridge cut west to east, north to south across the edge of town, and as we reached the corner of a house, we had to wind our way between stone and siding, through a narrow pig trail with an embankment on our right and steep rock face on our left. I shifted Faith’s bundle into two arms, held it in front of me to ease the load.
The channel spat us out in the midst of a commons, a fenced-in yard shared by four houses on the northern side of Caer Lunan. Chickens bustled about the far edge, eyeing us skeptically, and my heart stopped entirely as soon as I entered the space.
Twelve fully armed men in the Scarlet were sat about the open back door of a house on the east side of the yard, sat on stumps or chairs or just posted up against the wall, and from the looks of it, while all of them held food or drink, they were all more than a bit on the alert.
They saw us at the same moment we saw them, caught out in the open with my arms too full to draw steel.