An hour or so later Hobbart grunted in his sleep, and stirred enough to look over at the three of them sitting around the fire. A sour look flashed aross his face, replaced a moment later by a sly smile. “Maybe the girl knows how to cook better than you Pierson. I’m sick of Army Boot Soup and tooth cracking Captain’s Dumplings.”
“I’d tell you to go fuck yourself Hobbart, but we all know you’d enjoy that far too much.” Pierson stopped, concern on his face as he turned to Eris. “Um, sorry, lass. We aint had female company for a while.”
“Hence the god’s awful boot soup. You can cook can’t you girl?” Hobbart was running his fingers through his straggling hair, smartening himself as best he could.
“I know some things. I’m better at the knowing of balms… and greenings.” She looked pointedly at Hobbart who quickly made himself busy tidying away his bedroll and digging through his pack for some scraps of cloth, which he took with him out of the cave.
“Great. I wanted to be going soon.” Pierson set to work on his own things, Eris’ sharp ears catching the tiny clank of buttons in his coat pockets as he swept it about his shoulders. From his pack he brought out a small bag of oats and some fatty bacon wrapped in thick green leaves. “You don’t have to cook, lass. I’m happy enough keeping to that duty.”
The men fell into their domestic routine then. It was familiar and strange all at the same time. Pierson cooked just as she and her mother, and her mother’s mother, had cooked, stirring a pot above the fire and frying bacon in a pan. Nemnir walked out to fetch more water just as they had done, walking from where the caravan was halted to a nearby stream or river, letting the piebald Floris loose to graze and drink too. Hobbart reappeared from his toilet, and Nemnir helped Eris to a dense patch of bushes, and politely looked away as she held onto his arm and did what needed to be done; her one leg jutting out, useless, rather than supporting her. All these things had been done day after day with her mother before. But when they’d snuggled into their cabin beds at night and her mother, Arlayne, had told her stories of the bold and often rogue-ish woods-voln and their daring raids against the city-voln she had never mentioned those same thieves bickering over whose turn it was to take porridge crusted bowls to the river to wash or who needed to cook the next meal.
Finally the morning’s work was done, and Nemnir and Hobbart appeared to wait on Pierson’s decision. He sat contemplating her for a moment.
“Eris. Your people. Why aren’t you with them?”
She’d had time to think about this question. She had thought about giving him back his own words, ‘You gotta know I aint going to answer all your questions? Right. You get that don’t you?’, but there was a bitterness in making that response that she didn’t think Pierson deserved. There was an answer that worked, if he knew about woods-voln.
“I got the nomad-fever. Went a wandering.”
Pierson looked at her intently. Hobbart laughed. “You’re a bit young for that, girl.”
“It doesn’t always mean you’re looking for a mate, Hobbart Raronvurt!” She snapped at him, using his full name as her mother, and her mother’s mother, had sometimes done when she’d gotten into something she shouldn’t have gotten into. Her mother’s supplies of sweet and tart Everberries once, red staining her lips and her apron.
“Still. Long bloody ways to wander.”
“How long… how far to Attavine woods Hobbart?” Pierson’s grey eyes were sharp, reminding Eris of a woods-voln. No wonder he’d found the army not for him. That sharpness, and Nemnir’s punishment, she guessed.
“Hmmm, at a slower pace, through the woods and avoiding the King’s roads? We’re looking at a ten-day or a twelve-day.”
“And you know the way Hobbart?” Pierson steepled his fingertips. “You know the way.”
“Sure. We’ll have to come within spitting distance of Bara to make it quicker. Or we can think about horses and taking the King’s roads.”
“‘A woods-voln, a city-voln and a mountain-voln ride the King’s roads to their execution’. Doesn’t sound like much fun Hobbart.”
“We could disguise-”
“The fact that Nem’s built like seven-foot tall fucking bull?”
Hobbart held his hands out. “You’re the boss, boss.”
“And your people, Eris. Are they going to want you back?” Those fierce grey eyes were boring into her own forest green ones. “You didn’t run away for some other reason than nomad-fever? Maybe you were in trouble? Maybe you did something you feel bad for now?”
“No. That aint the case.” She instinctively picked up his own ways of speaking. “And even if it were, wouldn’t they want me back for punishing? Good for your firm too, right?”
Pierson scowled. “But not good for you.”
“I promise Pierson, I only went a wandering. I wasn’t running. They’ll want me safe and back in my own lands.” Her stomach twisted, what was she going to do when they met with the Attavine and they didn’t claim her? But that was a ten or twelve day away. She had time to think. She had time to… heal. Something had happened that first night and she needed to figure out what had saved her.
A sudden memory. A man, crawling to their fire in the night, mother standing quickly in front of her and drawing her dagger. The man had begged for help, close to death, blood all across his face, in his beard and hair turning them a dark red even in the firelight. So close to death that his lips were near blue. And her mother… her mother forcing life back into him, holding onto him and healing him without herbs or balms. He’d stayed a bit after, watching both of them so intently that Eris’d avoided looking his way and just got on with her chores under his gaze…
There had been something in her mother’s touch that night. Something that had visited her when she was bleeding her own life away after the wretched Gyreblack boy had hacked her foot off. Sutith. The Healer. The Helper. Sutith had come to her tongue and stopped her dying. Could she do that again? Could she even… get stronger? With Pierson, Nemnir and Hobbart helping her she had time now to try.
Eris blinked her eyes, coming back to the cave. Pierson was nodding, accepting her story, already planning the words to present their poor lost girl and work out a deal so that they could stay on their lands.
“You want to raid the King’s roads from the woods-voln lands. As they do.”
Pierson nodded. “No place for us in the cities. Too many city-voln firms in competition. Too many who’d notice a city-voln and a mountain-voln together. But woods-voln care less about robbing city-voln, they do it mostly for sport, not to live. There’s plenty to go about. But they need to let us stay on their land, or we’ll be facing down greened arrows every moment of every day.”
Eris nodded. It was a fair plan. Not the kind of plan that leads to a long life and good retirement. But it wasn’t too different to the life she and her mother, and her mother’s mother had lived. Moving about, off of the King’s roads as much as possible, meeting with the woods-voln of a place and showing what benefit they could bring in return for somewhere to stay, and for silent, undrawn bows. Eventually they’d moved on, even when they’d stayed among the mountain-voln who’d often offered them a place in their hide tent villages in the place of their caravan and Floris. A home.
But staying was not their way.
Eris nodded and looked to Nemnir. “Can you really carry me the whole way.”
A low jambled chuckle. She looked to Pierson.
“He says you weigh less than the first dancing snow on the low steps of his mountain, lass. He can do it.”
She nodded and raised her arms towards Nem, who came over and picked her up, letting her loop her arms about his thick shoulders and rest her legs over his right arm.
“We’d best bloody well not be ambushed! Nem’s our best fighter. And she’s got his arms all occupied.” Hobbart grumbled.
“He says you better bloody use those sharp woods-voln eyes you are fucking meant to have, and keep look out for them!” Pierson snapped back.
Eris pretended to snuggle further into Nem’s protective arms, to hide the smile that spread on her face in his wide chest.