She woke and reached for her mother’s hand across the caravan, bridging the space between their cabin beds. “I’ll make the fire this morning, mama.” Eris mumbled.
Her hand dropped down to the cold ground, running fingertips over loose stones as she started to remember.
Then Nemnir was there, a huge shadow blocking out the dwindled campfire, concern in his eyes as he offered her more of the numbing herb. Eris chewed on the green stalks as he crouched next to her looking her, and her bandaged stump, over. She looked keenly at the large man, taking in his braids, the fraying white shirt that would have fit two smaller men. His many times patched dark coat. She watched his eyes as he considered her bandages. Dark, earth brown. Kind of sad she thought. He was a long a-ways from where the mountain-voln claimed their lands; great terraces of hide tents, clinging on to the steep places where Lios couldn’t build his cities and roads..
“Mother and mother’s mother used to tend to mountain-voln near the Delvenight pass. You know it?”
He shook his head, still looking down at her bandages.
“I used to boil the water for the birthings. I even caught a baba or two when they needed twisting the right way.” She held up her hands, still chewing away like a cow or a rabbit. “Small hands. Small hands can be helpful.” She was talking through the pain, and trying to keep from thinking.
Nemnir held up his own right hand, placing it palm to palm with hers to show her the difference. The palm was soft and warm, but calloused. He’d wielded weapons before. Many times before. She babbled on.
“Mountain-voln babies are loud. Their mothers are louder, when they come, of course. The bigguns don’t stop shouting either. But you’re quiet.”
There was a groan and shift in one of the shapes lying down, swaddled in his coat, on the other side of the fire from them. Then Pierson sat up, and rubbed his face wearily. “Wish you were quiet, lass.”
Nem chuckled in that weird broken way he did and spread out his arms to her, scooping her up, and bringing her carefully to the fire where Pierson was just sitting down.
“Looks like I aint sleeping any more this night anyways.”
A low noise from Nemnir.
“Okay, yes. I’ll join the conversation… so there can be a conversation!” He looked over to where Hobbart was still jumble of clothes and limbs, sleeping on. “Lucky bastard.”
“How do you know what he means? Why can’t he talk anyway? Who are you both-”
Nem laughed brokenly again. And Pierson just held up his hands in surrender.
“Lass, please.” Then he rubbed at his face again, disturbing the dark length of his hair but bringing some sharpness back into his slate grey eyes. “You gotta know I aint going to answer all your questions? Right. You get that don’t you?”
She looked at him over the embers of the fire. Looked at Nemnir, at Hobbart. Three men. Three kinds of voln. Talking about deals and firms. She wasn’t city-voln but she could guess at the shifting shades of their enterprise.
Pierson spelt it out. “I’m saying that we’re thieves lass. Plain and simple.”
“That being said, we ain’t bad men.” Nem made a cautious noise, and Eris watched Pierson look at Hobbart again. “We aint going to hurt you at least. Don’t suppose my word means much to you yet, but you can have it on that.”
She nodded again, shifting her weight around the deadness of her leg. “Why can’t he speak?”
Pierson paused, and reached into the deep pocket of his coat. Eris made her panic hold itself, made her body not jerk away at the thought of a roarer or a dagger hiding in there. He’d given his word.
It was a golden button. Or at least… partially. Her keen woods-voln sight picked out where a dull grey was showing through the filigree. Pierson scratched at it some more with a fingernail, barely aware he was doing it.
“Button Men?” She asked quietly.
“Kind of. Once. Dunno what you know about Lios’ thrice damned army-”
“When the boy took my foot… it was a Button Man what made him do it. Or he was going to do it anyway, I don’t really know.” She drifted into uncertainty and Pierson nodded.
“Button Men give orders. True. And they mete out punishments. One took Nem’s tongue when he broke too many of the bastard’s riding crops with his back.” Nem’s face was stone still as Pierson talked for him. “We snuck out of the camp once he was healed enough up to travel again.”
She looked him over. “You were one. A Button Man. Or you stole the button?”
He smiled grimly “I was one, lass. I got nineteen other pieces of false gold in my pocket. Underneath its only tin you know. Not even good tin at that. Doubt Lios has got more than a handful of real bloody gold in his treasury these days.”
“And you were Nem’s friend?”
“Didn’t start like that. But yeah, we traded stupid damn rescues for a while on the frontline. Still not sure who’s ahead on owing their life to the other, or not. And now we’re friends. Mountain-voln don’t care much for city-voln ordinarily, and the feeling’s mutual. But some stupid Liosinium born lad with damned loyalty to Lios drummed into him from birth got posted to oversee a mountain-voln squad,and he then learnt a lot more about his own people than he bargained for.”
Nem chuckled darkly and threw over a wine skin to Pierson who caught it easily and gulped some down. He went to pass it to her and Nem stopped him, murmuring in his low almost voice.
“Oh. Right. The numbing root.”
“You understand him? How?!”
Pierson paused. “I know him. Like, now I know that if he stops me from passing you the wine it ain’t because he’s selfish and doesn’t want to share. I know it’s because there’s a reason he wants to help you, or stop you being harmed. And then I just think it through and realise what he means.” Pierson drank again. “And sometimes I just make it up and get a laugh out of him for what I’ve said he said.”
Nem laughed then, and Eris saw how the larger man had gotten the soft laughter lines. The lines on Pierson’s face were more serious. How had a man who’d lost his tongue got more reason to laugh than a city-voln Button Man? Command came with money, she’d heard that about the Button Men. There was also no conscription for them, Pierson must have volunteered out of that loyalty to Lios he mentioned. But they were both thieves now, wherever they had started from she supposed. She looked over at the sleeping form of Hobbart.
“He’s wrong you know.”
“Hobbart. He’s wrong about Attavine. It’s not a bloater, it’s a breathing cracker.”
Pierson looked at her with steady eyes.
“But you must have known he was wrong.”She said after thinking for a moment.
“Because… you know he’s wrong about most things. You’re smart. You know when someone’s spinning you a tale. Smart for a city-voln anyway.” She tried a smile out on her face. It felt false there, after her foot and her mother- she clamped down quickly on that thought, and looked instead to Pierson’s reaction. He was smiling too.
“Yes, I’m fairly smart for a city-voln. And I knew he was lying. I was just wondering when you were going to correct him. You could have done it in front of him. But you didn’t.”
She shrugged. “Other things seemed more important at the time. Like not dying.”
Nem laughed again, and Pierson joined in this time. “Sharp tongue, woods-voln. You know your poisons though?”
“Learnt them well, from my mother, and my mother’s mother.” She said proudly.
“Ever come across one that had no effect?” Pierson’s eyes narrowed, serious again. Eris paused. Confused.
“One that kills, and kills fast. But gives no sign that a poison was used?”
She felt even more confused. “What would be the point of a greening that left no sign. How would your enemies know who had dispatched one of their number?”
Pierson nodded. “I asked Hobbart the same question and he said fairly enough the same thing. Woods-bloody-voln.” He sighed the words. “I might as well have asked a mountain-voln how they leave their mountain.”
Eris must have looked even more confused as Nemnir then pulled at a leather strap at his neck, bringing out a lump of grey, rather ordinary rock from inside his shirt that was attached to the simple thong.
“Mountain-voln carry their mountains with them. No matter if you and I would say that it’s a lot smaller than we expected it to be-”
Nem growled deeply, a note of caution in the sound.
“I’ve never seen one of those before, and I’ve played among the mountain-voln.”
“On their lands, yes? But this is how they bring the lands with them.” Pierson paused, thinking, and then pulled at a similar strap from within his own shirt and brought out a small wooden carving. A bastard god. Eris recognised the carefully carved crown lying about the basic human form’s head.
“She who once healed?”
“Is that how you name her? I lean towards ‘the crowned one’.”
“Not Lios? But you are city-voln?”
“Fuck Lios. Fuck him right in his blessed arse.”
Eris laughed, and Nem and Pierson joined in. They stopped as Hobbart snorted in his deep sleep and rolled over. But still, for that brief moment, Eris had felt… better.