The large man struggled up, leaning on the much shorter city-voln for support. Pierson took the weight of him as best he could; he was shorter than Hobbart, who was between the two in height, but he had the stockier, muscled, build of the city-voln. Hobbart dithered for a moment, and then finally helped Eris to stand when Pierson snapped the order at him, pulling her against him roughly, taking the weight off of her left side.
“We’ve got to get moving.” Pierson said, the strain of supporting Nem in his voice and in how his lungs already grabbed for breath. “The Ghostblight bloody woods-voln might come back to finish the job. Can you walk Nem?”
The mountain-voln nodded, but there was sweat beading across his brow and making his hair mat thickly against his face. Whatever Eris had done had been enough to bring him back, but he was still fighting against the effects of the Ghostblight greening. So, the four of them hobbled onwards along the riverbed, two pairs of mismatched partners, two leaning on the other two. Pierson was suffering the worst, Eris judged. Hobbart was woods-voln sleight but she was not yet full grown. The awkwardness was only in the difference of their height and in the strength of his grip upon her. She was sure she would look at her waist and ribs later on, and see his fingers still marking her there.
But they made their way onwards, hoping for some sign that they were at least out of Ghostblight territory. Of course that would mean entering the woods of some other family, but they might have better chance of talking their way into their passage with them. Eris was ready to claim her full name again, the words already at the front of her mouth with every shake of every bush or tree in the early evening breeze. Hobbart was regularly being quizzed by an increasingly stern Pierson about what territory might be next, but he was non-committal, muttering about needing to wait for woods-voln sign to be certain. But Eris’ keen eyes hunted for it as well, and saw no sign, even as the sun went down and the fat moon came up, bringing with him his lovers, the star-voln, twinkling above them as the exhausted travellers finally conceded defeat and looked for places to camp.
They stumbled together up the banks of the dead river, and settled on a small dip just feet from the arching trees. It was no cave, but it took them slightly lower than the edges of the river, and would just about cover them from sight. Nem would most likely have to lie down to avoid being seen, but that seemed to be something he was keen on. Before a meal was even prepared he was gently snoring. But not before he’d given Eris a curious, but silent, look. Her stomach churned with worry about what he was thinking.
But Pierson threw together oats and chicken bones to make a watery soup, and then also fell into his own exhausted sleep, an arm thrown over his forehead as he lay under his button-less coat.
That left Eris and Hobbart for first watch.
Eris often took first watch. She wasn’t walking and was never as tired as the men when nightfall came. She also liked to see them all settled and peaceful. She could then also be alone with her thoughts and memories before Pierson or Nemnir relieved her, hoping to sleep with them out of the way for the day. Hobbart always preferred the last watch, getting in his sleep first and hoping that Nem or Pierson would leave the start of his watch a little later when they were in their cups, or chatting in their one-sided way. But this time he stayed awake, watching her across the small campfire as he still slurped his soup. Eris refused to speak first and busied herself with patching some trousers of Nem’s, remembering the flash of her mother’s needles in their clothes, and sometimes in the flesh of those brought to her to heal. Had her mother… had her mother been able to heal as Eris had with Nem just hours before? When she had held onto that man in the dark, had she been pushing life into him as Eris had done for Nem? Had her mother’s mother known about this? They were all Atta-Sutith. Had she known?
“A copper Lios for your thoughts, girl?”
Hobbart put the bowl to one side and looked at her, his face illuminated by the flickering flames. She didn’t care for his eyes, they were a watered down green, but more than that, they were assessing her. She’d never taken much notice of him before, but now she compared him to Nem and Pierson. All had beards, of varying fullness, but now she noticed how ill Hobbart’s actually suited him, and how he had shaped it with more care than the other man had bothered with. There were also angry red spots where he had roughly shaved at it, bringing it to this shape.
“I was thinking on…” She was about to say ‘my mother’ but bit her tongue. “On why you lied to Pierson.”
Hobbart’s eyes flicked cautiously to Pierson’s sleeping shape, noting the steady rise and fall of his chest.
“Careful girl. Pierson is many things, but a deep sleeper he is not.”
“You lied.” She said carefully. “Why?”
Hobbart took a whistling intake of breath, leaning back as he considered her. “They aren’t like us, girl. They aren’t our kind.” He picked at a tooth with a sharp nail. “Atta-Sutith. Heard you say it. The once healed is it? Vaguely remember something about healers. Didn’t know it meant woods-voln who could cry away a Ghostblight poison.”
A sharp edge entered her voice, something that surprised even her. “Seems there’s lots you don’t know Hobbart.”
“True enough. But Pierson… he’s a city-voln who thinks he can sweet talk woods-voln into some kind of truce. Thinks his tongue’s made of gold because he grew up with shiny coins a plenty in a past life. And Nem…”
Eris frowned deeply, but the man was oblivious.
“No tongue, and likely half a brain. Good fighter, when a tiny nick from a gods damned arrow don’t take him down. But you and me girl. We’re the same.”
“That the way it is, Hobbary Raronvurt?” She emphasised his full name, and he put up his hands.
“Sure. I aint no Atta-Sutith. And maybe I don’t know my greenings as good as you…”
“Or how to scout. Three woods-voln! Three, Hobbart!”
He paused, and a sickening smile spread across his face. “I knew, girl. I knew.”
She was up then, pushing herself away from her seat on the bank, knowing she couldn’t get far, but feeling the instinct to run and going with it. Even as she crashed to the ground straight away, stumbling over her absent foot, she kept moving, crawling in the banks of leaves.
“You stupid, fucking-” Hobbart hissed, stumbling after her and landing on her. They must have been making enough noise to wake the Lios damned, but neither Pierson or Nemnir seemed to be coming for her as Hobbart jammed his hand, stinking of the weak soup, into her mouth. It was the Gyreblack boy on top of her then, the short sword shining in his hand as he reached back to…
“Shut up! Shut up!” He hissed right into her ear. “Be still and I won’t cut you.” It hadn’t been the boy’s short sword she’d seen. It was Hobbart’s dagger, a cruelly hooked thing, glinting in the moon light. She stilled herself, her heart pounding in her ears.
“I won’t hurt you. I won’t hurt you. But we’re going. Together.” Hobbart’s eyes were feverish, glinting in the night. “A healer. A fucking proper healer, and they’re taking you back to your people in the north? Fuck that. You and me girl, we’ll wander together for a bit, do some good work. You do want to help people don’t you? A few coin in exchange isn’t much to ask is it? A bit more respect from my own kin too, maybe. Once they see what I’ve brought them. Once you’re a Raronvurt. Or a Raron-Sutith maybe. Whatever you prefer. You’re a few years off of bedding, but I’ll look after you and your gift until then. We’re the same, girl. You’ll see, we’re the same.”
She started fighting again, drumming her one heel into the soil as she had down under the slighter weight and shape of the Gyreblack boy.
Then Pierson was there, a whirling shadow of anger and violence, daggers flashing in both his hands this time as he ripped Hobbart from her and threw him up against the crumbling bark of a tree. The daggers were at Hobbart’s spotted throat and Pierson was snarling into the terrified woods-voln’s face.
“Tell me why I shouldn’t gut you right now, Hobbart? Sure as blood is blood I damn well want to!”
“Just a talk Pierson, just a talk. Girl had the nomad-fever, wanted to leave us and try and make her own way. I was just talking her down when she tried to run-”
One blade sliced across his throat and blood sprang from the thin line. Not enough to kill, enough to mark.
“If Nem was awake this tree would be wearing your guts by now.”
“Yeah, Pierson, we know how you love to talk.” Hobbart’s pretence about nomad-fever and helping her was completely gone. “You’ll still be sweet talking as the Attavine pour their poison right into your throat instead of offering you the fucking home you want!” He laughed then, even with the point of Pierson’s other dagger at his throat. “She isn’t even an Atta-”
He got no further. Pierson had already begun pressing his blade into the man’s throat. He gurgled, blood coming from the widening tear in his throat. Pierson let him drop, watched as he tried to hold the two halves of it back together. But his life’s blood was draining onto his chest and the tree as he slid down it, his face white in the moonlight.
Pierson wiped his daggers on the man’s tunic and then re-sheathed them, his breath both laboured and fast at the same time. “I thought… I thought we would just part ways along the road Hobbart. I never thought-”
“He lied. About what happened to Nem.” Eris was struggling to sit up and Pierson crouched down to help her. “Pierson…”
“I know, lass. I didn’t know what happened, but I knew Hobbart was lying. Because that’s what he does. Did.” Pierson’s eyes were heavily shadowed in the dark, the usual grey made almost black. “I heard some of that. Some of what he was promising. And threatening.”
She nodded. “He said you and Nem were too different from us. Him and me. He said he wanted to make money from me. To bed me.” She looked away, embarrassed at having to say the last part.
Pierson cursed under his breath. “I’m sorry lass. I told you we weren’t bad men, and seems I was lying too.”
“No.” She said firmly.
“We are thieves. Best we get you back to your people sooner rather than later.”
“No. They aren’t my people.” She swallowed and braced herself. “I’m not an Attavine. My people… my mother, and my mother’s mother, were Atta-Sutith.” She took in his confused face. “It isn’t a family as such. It was always just the three of us. And then the two of us. Travellers. Helping where we could for a few bits of traded food.”
“I know that much, lass. I heard you talking with Nem in the cave…”
“But you don’t know how I healed him. Without herbs, without balm. Just with… needing to. Needing to so much that my tears stopped the Ghostblight.”
The city-voln was silent, looking at her intently, breathing calmly now. “I’m just a common city-voln rogue, lass. I don’t know anything about that.” He moved to straighten her hair, her clothes, to brush away a leaf or two. He stopped himself. “But I do know that we need a scout. I do know that we need someone who knows their greenings and the territories. Someone who might not know the path, but might have an idea about how to walk it. Do you know anyone like that?”
“But I can’t walk, Pierson.”
“And Nem can’t talk. And I can’t… well, there’s little I can’t do.” He smiled at her. “But maybe I need some help sweet talking these sharp minded woods-voln into letting some dumb old city voln and a clumsy old mountain-voln stay on their land.”
“Well, I aint Hobbart, aint going to try and bed-” He stopped himself, frowning that he’d even started that insensitive flippant comment. “Your fate is your own, lass. What do you want to do?”
She thought about it, looking deep into his eyes, until it was like looking up at the night sky. The moon and his star-voln ladies.
“There’s someone I want to find. The boy. The Gyreblack boy.”