They stumbled onto the fire. The man sat against the tree stump, eating a piece of chicken as he watched them. His hazel eyes glowed with amusement.
Jacqueline stared at him with panicked eyes. Her stomach growled at the sight of a chicken being turned on a spit over the fire. Bren tugged her sleeve and Jacqueline watched her brush a lock of hair away from her eyes.
‘Please sir, may we join you?’
He scratched the dimple in his chin and tilted his head to one side.
‘You look like you’ve been running?’ he said.
Bren nodded, and fat shiny tears welled up in her eyes. Jacqueline’s hand went to the knife on her hip and the man raised his hand.
‘Yes, sir, we have. We’ve fled the convent.’ she said.
He whistled and shook his head, gestured to the fire and grinned at them.
‘Well then, you must join me.’ he said
Bren glanced at Jacqueline, gave her a pensive nod and sat down, crossing her legs with care at the ankles.
Jacqueline joined her on the ground.
‘Sorry.’ she said.
He nodded and pulled the spit towards him. He drew a small knife, the blade no longer than his thumb and scored along the breast. A drizzle of clear juice hissed onto the fire below and he sat back.
‘You’re just in time to eat, if you’re hungry?’ he said.
They looked at one another then both nodded. He grinned and reached towards the chicken. The perfume of it made their mouths water.
It would, Jacqueline thought, make for a fine story to tell the others.
He wore a leather jerkin over suede leggings, boots that went to his calf, scarred and faded from use and time. At his feet laid a pair of calfskin gloves, studded along the knuckles with small pitted marks. His head was smooth and he wore a few days’s growth of stubble. He wore fine things but used them until they bore marks.
‘So, how did you come to be running from them?’ he said.
Bren chewed and looked at Jacqueline, a cue for her to tell the story they had agreed upon. Jacqueline swallowed the piece of chicken, spiced with herbs that made her gums tingle and ran her tongue over her lips.
‘We wanted to make our own way in the world.’
‘Yes, we were in the kitchens, slipped out through the larder and then the stables.’ Bren said.
He gestured to the knife on Jacqueline’s hip.
‘You got that from the kitchens? It’s got a wicked edge on it.’ he said.
Jacqueline blushed and looked away, feigning embarrassment at the oblique compliment.
‘We were a day away from our Silencing.’ she said.
His face turned pale. The Sisters performed initiation rituals, altering the vocal chords and structures of the jaw to ensure silence and a bite that could cleave through oak. It never left a woman pretty.
‘Where will you go to?’ he said.
Jacqueline shrugged her shoulders, furrowed her forehead.
‘As far away as we can. What brings you out here?’ she said.
He was hunting. Snares because the rabbits grew fat here and the wild chickens had not lost their flavour.
Bren picked up the last drumstick and bit into it. Jacqueline looked at her and wished she could pretend not to enjoy this so much. He lifted his wineskin to his lips, took a deep swig before he offered it to them.
Jacqueline refused but Bren took a deep draught and giggled afterwards. She could not stop competing with her.
‘Spicy though, for wild chicken.’ she said.
Bren coughed and swallowed the last mouthful.
‘It’s superb.’ Bren said.
Jacqueline looked at the man across the fire. He stared back before he raised his hand and gave a slow nod
‘You don’t have to worry about me turning you in. I’m no friend to The Sisters.’ he said.
A guttural note came into his voice. Jacqueline decided not to press any further.
‘We used to keep chickens up at the convent, but they never tasted like this.’ Bren said.
She coughed and fought the urge to spit.
Jacqueline looked at her. Bren gave a slow blink and took the wine from him.
A shudder of foreboding ran through Jacqueline. She glanced at the man across from her as he sat there.
Bren stared at her and went to speak but a low, soft croak came out. She bent over at the waist and emitted a torrent of tan silken vomit onto the ground. Jacqueline’s hand went to the knife on her hip but she stopped. A deep, violent cramp ran through her, up her spine and into her head.
A dark pressure forced itself outwards from the inside of her skull and she dropped the knife from fingers gone dead and cold. She reached for her Sister-in-waiting and found her gone form her reach.
‘It was a good plan.’ he said
Jacqueline turned toward the voice before her legs gave out and she fell to the ground.
‘I chose a blend of things, so it should be quick for you. It’s not your fault.’ he said.
She tried to speak but all that came out was a bloodied plug of tissue and mucus before her eyes rolled back in their sockets and she died.
‘It’s like I said. I am no friend to the Sisters.’ he said.
He dug graves for the pair of them. Asra had found the location of the convent, told him when they had last laid together. She had shown him the scars from her escape and he had traced him with his finger, slow and soft as she reassure him of her health.
He swore his own vow.
He said a prayer over their graves. He found his weapons where he had hidden them along with his armour and tools. He looked through the trees, gauged how long it would take him to make it there before dawn.