Eris followed Pierson towards the mountain-voln, who was just about to begin work on another thick trunk, settling it down in front of him and limbering up for the swing. She kept up with Pierson, but only just, and the dark haired man made no concession for her crutches. Even going those twenty or so feet at such a quick pace tired her, but she tried to hold her breath steady.
“Nem. Time to stop.”
Nemnir turned mid swing, and then rested his borrowed axe on a nearby stump. Eris saw some shadows among the trees flit away as their entertainment for the afternoon finally came to an end.
“I found a good spot. You’ll need to carry Eris there. She’s tired out just getting to you across the clearing.”
Red plumed on her face. She’d thought she’d hid it well enough, but Pierson still knew!
“I can do it!”
“Lass, even if it weren’t exhausting for you, crutches aint going to make sneaking through between the trees easy.”
“And being carried by a mountain-voln is such a subtle way of travelling!” Eris fumed. “I’m tired of being carried like a child!”
She regretted her sharp tone as soon as the words came from her mouth, but that rich vein of anger was still there, under everything, just dying to be tapped into.
“You’re one of our firm. We help our own. It ain’t pity. And we need you. We need your eyes, and we need whatever skill you got with the bow.”
“I don’t know if I can heal again Pierson… not the way I did with Nem and the ghostblight greening.”
“We’d best not get hurt then.” He smiled. “You still have more experience with herbs and balms than most. Eris, letting Nem carry you ain’t no slight, you too proud bloody woods-voln idiot!” He smiled as he insulted her and Eris nodded.
“Very well. I’ll need a bow then. The Diarnilys will lend me one, but they’ll only let me have naked arrows, not greened. They won’t share their greening.”
“We won’t need poison. All going well, we’ll not need to hurt anyone. Just relieve them of some weighty and burdensome coin, to make their journey on the king’s road that much easier.” Pierson smiled again, and it was wicked. And it made Eris laugh.
After a bit of negotiating with another of the older-heads of the family, Eris got her bow, as well as some young woods-voln’s leathers. She felt sad stripping away her dress and apron in the tent they’d lent her, but they were near beyond patching already. She debated letting the one leg of the trousers hang empty from her stump, but decided instead to sew it closed, using a wicked leather needle and some thick black twine. Before she did though, she sat on the furs of her bed and thoroughly looked over her stump, bending her leg to bring it closer. It wasn’t pretty, it never would be, but it had healed together in a way that shouldn’t have happened without more needles, thread, balm and time.
And there, beginning to spiral up from within its creases was the same patch of darker cracked skin that had once curled about her foot and ankle. A birthmark, her mother had said, showing her the same twisting thickening and thinning line of skin that circled her upper arm. A birthmark, her mother’s mother had said, lifting her white hair and showing where her own mark spiralled into her scalp. But her foot was gone now, and the ‘birthmark’ was coming back.
“Are you bloody coming, scout?!” Pierson was barking from inside. He’d insisted on the separate tents, they weren’t in a cave now, and neither he nor Nem ever came to see her when she was inside on her own. The two of them however still shared one, which had had Eris in near giggles at the thought of Pierson squashed to one side by Nem. But it had turned out that Pierson had found himself other tents to sleep in, away from the mountain-voln and the potential of being crushed if Nemnir rolled in his sleep.
“Coming boss!” She snapped back, while jiggling herself into the leathers, quickly fastening with suddenly quivering fingers the buckles and laces of the woods-voln gear. Her mother, and her mother’s mother never wore woods-voln leathers. They’d said it showed the different families that watched them enter their territories that they weren’t trying to defend themselves from their arrows, so they’d know that these woods-voln were something different. Leather couldn’t turn away an arrow of course, but her mother had known that sometimes roughspun cotton could.
She crawled out of the flap and let Nemnir pull her up into his arms instead of struggling to stand and trying to fetch her crutches that rested on the floor. He’d returned to his massive shirt and patched coat, the sword and shield re-strapped to his back, now alongside a girl’s bow and a Diarnilys quiver of arrows. She was relieved not to be being hugged close to his bare, hairy and sweaty, chest! He even smelled sweet, as though he’d washed down quickly after his chores with some flowered water. She wrapped her arms about him. “Thank you Nem.”
He grunted in response.
“Nem says we ought to be bloody going now.” Pierson snapped back. He was as he had been dressed before, although she noticed a small white Diarnilys slower pinned to his coat. Which of the widows was giving him charms to protect him she wondered?
Nem grunted again, more crossly.
“No he didn’t. He said it was his honour to carry me, and that I weigh no more than the snowbird that greeted his steppes home every morning with the prettiest of songs.”
Pierson smiled. “So now you can translate for him, is that so. Learn how to charm the ladies and twirl a dagger or two, girl, and there’ll be no purpose left for me in me life!”
Nem started forward, making a series of low sounds.
“What was that Nem, I’m already more charming than Pierson?” Eris pretended to translate.
“Very funny. Now this path is easy enough, but we’ll keep quiet nearer the king’s road. It’s about an hour away at our pace.” They then plunged into the treeline from the clearing, and Eris began to scour the trees about them. Quickly she spotted three of Nemnir’s admirers, flitting about the trees, following them. Sometime later they peeled away, realising that Nem was sticking with the much more boring task of carrying the weird Atta-Sutith woods-voln and not about to prance about with his shirt off again in the near future. Eris wondered if Pierson had even spotted them, until she heard him muttering under his breath about being stalked by woods-voln ‘nutters’.
Finally, they were within sight of the king’s road. Although, road barely described the rough stone and worn earth path that had once been pushed through the woods-voln lands but which now had nearly returned to its former state. This one led between Bara and the North East to some other city where Lios worshippers broke their backs in his name. At least that was how Pierson described it, with contempt on his face. They skirted the edge of it and made their way to a curve in its line, overlooked by a proud oak tree with sagging boughs. One of which was just the right height to be nearly out of the sight of any on the road, but low enough for Nem to lift Eris up onto.
She settled herself there, and then he passed her the bow and quiver.
Her mother had trained her with the bow, as all woods-voln mothers did their children. But she had been a healer, and they’d only ever hunted for food when they could not exchange her healing skills for goods and shelter with other woods-voln. But as soon as Eris’ left hand grasped the bow about the grip, she felt the finely crafted bow speak to her. Whisperings of how much to draw it, how much to aim slightly above her target. It was instinct older than even her mother’s mother’s mother. It was the gift of the Pierced One to the woods-voln, the bastard god who had three arrows in his shape. One above his head, one through his neck and one bisecting his body.
“Are you set?” Pierson was looking up at her through the leaves. “We’ll take positions there and there.” He pointed into the trees at the sides of the road. “Fire a warning shot to the feet of anyone who looks likely. No farm-voln with a few potatoes in a hand cart. Look for fat city-voln. If they have guards, don’t fire. If I make the sound of a dying owl – yes, it’s the best I can do – then don’t fire.”
Pierson moved closer to the base of the tree. “And if you don’t want to do this, lass. You don’t have to. Nem can get you down and take you somewhere out of the way in the trees until we’re done-”
“I’m in this firm, aint I?” She put a rough city-voln tone on the words, and was granted a broad smile from Pierson.
“That you are lass, that you are.” Pierson melted away into the shadows of the trees nearby, and Nemnir smiled his own smile up at her before walking across the road to his own post. Then there was the waiting. Eris was glad she found time to sneak away to make her toilet before they’d left, given how long it was before the first body made its way towards her up the road. She slid an arrow from the quiver, but she could quite quickly see it was just a female farm-voln, walking her donkey up the road, laden with apples. Later came a pig herder. And then a shepherd. And then a milkmaid. All were female, and all were farm-voln. She shifted her weight, her behind beginning to numb. And then she heard the jingle of reins. A cart came into view. For a moment she was about to lower her bow again, and then her sharp eyes caught a glint of gold material underneath the misshapen grey woollen sack it was wearing as a cloak. In fact, the shape of it was perhaps less made by the sagging material and more likely made by the figure’s sagging belly.
She let her arrow fly, having it whistle to embed itself into the earth in front of the cart’s surprisingly fat pony’s hooves.
Pierson emerged from the treeline, with Nemnir silently walking up behind the cart. The man spun about seeing first the city-voln and then the mountain-voln, both smiling. The woollen sack fell further apart, revealing rich golden robes below it.
“Your money or your life?” Pierson stated, spinning a vicious dagger in one hand. The man sighed and stood, dropping the sack and revealing his opulent robes.
“I am a man of Lios. You will let me pass!”
Pierson laughed. “A priest. A bloody priest!”
“If you do not let me pass I will commune with Lios and he will turn his blessings from you!” The man’s double chins were wobbling as he barked at Pierson.
“Oh no! Will I become a restless spirit when I die? Oh no!” Sarcasm dripped from Pierson and Nemnir laughed his strange broken laugh. “Aint no Lios in these woods, priest. Lios is in the city, and he’s on the front. But these woods belong to the woods-voln.”
“So why is a city-voln and a mountain-voln terrorising honest travellers on their lands?!” The divinely blessed ‘Chins’ was turning redder and redder.
“Honest? Aint you a priest of Lios? Check the cart!”
Nemnir nodded and moved forward, grasping the wood of the apparently empty but rather tall cart and pulling at it until it split apart. He pulled a golden and bejewelled chest from inside.
“That belongs to Lios!” ‘Chins’ was fuming. “That is the repentance of the good men and women of Bara. That belongs to Lios!!”
“Hmmm repentance looks a lot like gold coins and fine jewellery to me. Wait. Aint there a number of priests in Bara, all as fat and gross as you, all living among the silks in that fancy temple? Why aint the coin there with them? If it was going anywhere, wouldn’t it be going to Liosinium and to the King’s treasury?”
The priest paled. “There is important work for me in Tralis! I need the monies for Lios’ will there.”
“Liar!” Eris called down.
“By Lios, how many of you are there?!”
“That’s our truth-stealer. Its an old woods-voln gift. She can always smell out a stinking lie. You’re a thief!” Pierson smiled. “Which I kind of admire, I have to say. But you stole from thieves, and now thieves will steal from you!”
‘Chins’ went to get up from the cart and Nem pushed him back down, one large hand on his shoulder. The other hand now held his sword, the box secreted away somewhere safe.
“Those robes, did they cost you much? Strip.”
The man shook off Nem’s hand and reluctantly drew off his thick gold robe, revealing a stained and baggy white vest and long greying trousers beneath. “Lios know of this. He sees all!”
Nemnir pulled a golden chain out from under ‘Chins’ vest and revealed a golden eye pendant of Lios. That too was tucked away.
“Well, it looks like he’s blind now.” Pierson said smugly.
Eris was enjoying seeing the fat man stripped of his hidden gold. So much so that it was a moment too late that she heard the pounding of horse’s hooves on the road behind him, heading towards them at great speed. Someone had sent the button men to find the thief, and they were going to get four thieves for their effort!