Orange sparks drifted off the campfire, vanishing briefly in the sunset’s glow. Janne watched them flicker and vanish as she tended the flames. The crackling wood was soothing, an ordinary sound from an ordinary task dragging her mind away from the battlefield and its victims. A sigh escaped her lips as she made the sign of the sword across her chest again, praying for the families that would soon know what had been done to their loved ones.
Asgeir stepped out of the darkness carrying a load of firewood. Janne marveled at the page’s resilience; unlike her, it seemed that the sight of the battle and its aftermath hadn’t affected him at all. Was it experience, she wondered? Would she get used to seeing fallen friends dragged back from death to serve the Church until their bodies collapsed? A very large part of her hoped that she would never grow that cold.
Laying the wood down nearby, Asgeir drew a small knife and sat down next to the visibly exhausted hospitalier. “How fares the fire, milady?” he asked, whittling at one of the sticks.
“It lives,” she replied with a brief, friendly smile that faded like the fire’s dim sparks. “Unlike my compatriots.”
Asgeir looked down at his stick, satisfied with the point he’d carved, and picked up another. “I understand, milady. It’s not an easy sight to behold. The power of God shouldn’t be, I don’t think, not for us who yet live under the first oath.”
Janne stared off into space for a moment. “…he loves us, right?”
Now Asgeir paused. “Odd question to ask, milady.”
“Is it?” She shook her head, short red locks trembling in the flickering light. “God judges us, sets the Church over us, demands perfection or sentences us to an eternity of suffering. Even death doesn’t free us – our bodies are simply lifted out of the dust and sent back to work.” Janne turned to face Asgeir, tears again filling her bloodshot eyes. “The Archbishop called it compassion, so why can’t I see it?”
The page shrugged. “I can’t speak for you, milady,” he answered softly. “It’s not a question I’ve ever asked, nor do I see the purpose. The Church does as it wills, and the Church’s will is God’s will. I don’t need to know anything else.”
Janne bowed her head in confusion and frustration. “I know you are right, and yet…”
“Asgeir!” The Archbishop’s voice broke through the night, stopping Janne in mid-sentence. The page and the hospitalier turned to face Valgard, who held a trio of rabbits in one hand and a longbow in the other. “Our dinner needs cleaning.”
“At once, Your Grace,” Asgeir replied with evident relief as he got up and moved to take the evening’s meal. Valgard nodded with approval and handed off the rabbits, then stepped over to Janne.
“Bishop.” His tone was cold and commanding. “Tell me again how many men my son had.”
“When he saved us at the Reach three days ago, he had at least fifty.” She stood up, rubbing the tears out of her eyes. “There may have been more, Your Grace, but those are the ones I saw myself.”
“All mounted?” he pressed.
“Yes, Your Grace, as I’ve told you before,” Janne responded, looking quizzically at the Archbishop. “Some with swords, some with spears, but all of them were mounted. Why do you ask?”
Valgard frowned, nocking an arrow to the bow. “I came across footprints while tracking our meal,” he explained as he scanned the boundary of their makeshift encampment. “That’s why I don’t send Asgeir to hunt – it gives me a chance to scout the area.”
“I don’t understand, Your Grace,” Janne continued. “Isn’t that a good sign? We must be catching up to the Cardinal and his men.”
“Hoofprints would be a good sign, Bishop,” Valgard corrected as he drew the bow back. The arrow’s white fletching quivered next to the Archbishop’s cheek as he spoke. “Mounted soldiers have no need to be on foot, however. What does that leave?”
Janne considered for a moment, then looked up with sudden realization. “The metal-stealing goblins that the Cardinal drove off. They would leave regular footprints.”
“Excellent observation.” The Archbishop released his arrow. It whistled through the air and landed in the nearby darkness with a solid thunk and the piercing scream of a goblin. A few seconds later, a chorus of shrieks joined it.
“Ready yourself,” Valgard told her as he dropped the bow at Janne’s feet and drew his sword. “They come!”