“Riders! Button Men!!” Screamed Eris, her voice breaking.
Pierson and Nemnir abandoned their threatening poses over the cowering priest and ran for the tree line. Pierson showed remarkable woods-voln-ness and merged into the shadows quietly, while Nem barrelled through, leaving a trail of bushes with broken branches behind him as he pushed through them with his round shield.
Panicking, Eris thought about notching another arrow, but it was near pointless against button men with roarers. Instead, she began to flatten her body along the bough, bringing her legs up and further into the shadows.
As she lay there she watched four riders reach the near hyperventilating priest, his chubby hands as far above his head as they could go. They surrounded him and sighted their weapons on him, their gold buttons flashing as they drew their lion headed roarers out from under rich burgundy coats. Tin buttons, Eris thought vindictively, they’re mostly tin underneath all that fake shine.
“Dunnell, once of Lios?” One, a Captain perhaps, asked of the priest, his voice a whip cracking out on the silent road.
Eris shivered. Each of these men were alike to the one who had commanded the boy to take her foot. The same sneer under elaborately shaped facial hair. Some had goatees as well as the moustache, or oiled hair rather than flowing locks. But it was still as though her nightmare was made into four and was come a-riding to find her.
“There’s been a mistake. I was merely bringing the repentances to Tralis! For the temple there! And… and… there are bandits in the woods! You should be dealing with the real criminals. In Lios’s name!” He made the symbol for Lios with his left hand. “There are things you should be doing in Lios’ name, not terrorising his own priests. There are bandits in the woods!!”
“There are always bandits in the woods. But rarely does our King write a writ for their hearts.” The Captain brought out a sealed document and waved it towards the cowering priest. “You have won his particular ire with your thievery Dunnell, cursed of Lios.”
“But he is in Liosinium?! How could he know…”
“Have you fallen so far that you forget your faith? Lios sees all! Even if you no longer wear his holy eye!”
The fat man’s hand went to where his holy symbol should have been, the symbol that was now with Nemnir.
“Thieves, bandits, cut throats!” He pointed wildly to her hiding place, and Eris began to shake. “There in the tree! Two others went into the woods!”
The Captain nodded at one of his men and he began to walk his horse slowly towards Eris’ hiding place.
“He has a bow!”
“We’re on the king’s road, and surrounded by woods-voln. I’d expect nothing else.” The Captain mocked.
“Your man will die!”
“Worry more for your own skin, apostate!” The Captain swung down from his horse and stood over the priest, muttering something Eris couldn’t make out as she struggled to get to a crawling position on the bough. The other button man was getting closer, and soon he would be able to look up the tree and see her. She abandoned the bow to give herself two free hands, flinging it deeper into the woods away from the road. The movement was a risk, but falling because she had only one hand to grasp with would have been worse.
She looked about desperately. Going up was no option at all, he’d still see her when he reached the foot of the tree, and he had a roarer to fire up at her. Going down would mean reaching out with legs stretched to their limit as she hung from the bough, her absent foot throwing off her landing even if he didn’t see her hanging there like some kind of ridiculous woods-voln fruit! The only path was across, to where another tree was perhaps just close enough, and from there across other branches and trees until she was far enough from the road to drop somewhere soft. But that meant climbing through trees without one foot to reach out with. Even crawling up to the trunk of this tree she felt off balance as her other foot natural curved around the bough to give her some kind of anchor, and the other did not.
It was impossible. She managed to drag herself to her foot, hugging the trunk, but she simply could not circle herself about the body of the tree without a left foot to put down on a bough on the other side! It was impossible!
Tears of frustration began to well up in her eyes. There had to be a way!!
Tentatively she began to reach out with her left leg, preparing herself for the disturbing jolt as her leg failed to compensate for her missing foot and ankle and her body moved further than it was expecting.
But she made it without the sudden fall.
Through the stitched up leathers her stump make contact with the opposite bough as sweat began falling into her eyes and stinging. Oddly, it didn’t hurt. It was however strange and disconcerting to put her full weight on it and to pull herself about the trunk. Crouching down on the other side, she half expected the bang of the roarer in her ears, but looking back through the veil of leaves she saw that the man was still approaching, the Captain was still whispering to the priest. She had been certain that hours had passed, but it was near enough no time at all.
She released the trunk and cautiously turned, keeping her hands touching the bark behind her to steady her, pivoting on her one foot before dropping to her knees and crawling to where the next tree began to interlace its branches with hers. But the nearest was just a measure too high to reach and pull herself to without standing and stretching up on tip toes. Should she drop to the wood’s floor and hope that the shadows caught her and covered her over with the man just feet away? Or should she risk standing on one perilous foot to reach up and grab at it and make her way further away?
She was debating it still when she heard the priest’s scream.
Lios had written a writ for his heart the Captain had said. And he’d claimed it too, it seemed.
Ice flashed through her veins and spurred her into movement, moving from her crouch to balance on the branch, arms out stretched, on one leg like a crane. She wobbled, seconds from falling.
“Atta-Sutith!” She whispered to herself in panic.
Her left leg instinctively moving forward to stabilise her. And then there was the jolt she’d been expecting earlier, as it went further than her instinctive memory remembered, even if her rational mind knew there was no foot there anymore.
She fell forwards and caught her weight on her palms, scrapping them, then feeling the air pushed from her lungs with her impact with the bark. If it’d been a younger tree, a thinner bough, it would have shaken, but it just absorbed the blow and kept her secret.
Eris wanted to lie there and just rest, but there was no time for that. Come on! Come on Atta-Sutith! She pushed herself. You have to move, you have to go! Atta-Sutith!
She felt icy-fire coursing through her veins, burning her muscles at the same time as tensing them. The hairs on her arms rose and her scalp prickled as energy skate across her skin. Then it was pooling in her legs, reading them to try again. She got to a crouch and closed her eyes, urging it to work this time, urging her body to get her up and reaching.
There was a sudden burst of pain from her stump, a flash of black across her vision as her breath caught in her throat.
Eris moved, lifting her good leg to push up to stand. As she did she suddenly felt something flapping and move against her right calf. Looking down she saw the ragged ends of her leathers being pushed about by thin tendrils of black that looked like growing vines. They crossed and twisted about each other, coming to settle in a mesh of dark lattice, arcing around her stump, and flowing down. They bent at the point where her ankle would have been and drew together into a flattened end as though her toes had returned.
Her head spun, and she nearly vomited, over the edge of the bough.
A disturbance just behind and below her brought her back to the moment. He was under the tree. If he looked up and to the left he would spot her standing, staring in amazement at the black twisting shape that was emerging from her stump.
“Move. Atta-Sutith, move!” She whispered to herself again, daring to put her weight on both her good foot and… whatever it was that was stopping moving and keeping this ankle and foot shape.
She reached above her, moving as slowly as she dared, reaching up and then reaching further. Her good foot and the black lattice were working together, raising her up on to tip toes on both to get her in range of the branch. She hooked her arms over it, and swung her left leg up. The thing on her leg worked as a foot might, or near enough, allowing her to twist it as she got her up leg up, helping to grip there for a moment and then, with her left knee, to work around the new bough to bring the rest of her up onto it.
She paused, panting. She could just see him, a dark shape looking about but not looking with much perseverance. The Captain shouted to him as he aimlessly examined the bushes about her first hiding place.
“Soldier, the woods-voln aint going to be still here. Not with button men on the king’s road. We got the heart, lets head back. There’s a whore in Bara I want to see.”
“The red head again sir?” the useless scout below her asked, a sly grin in his voice.
“Yeah. The woods-voln bitch. But unlike her voln she’s not disappearing into the woods like some fucking coward when she hears me coming, sure as blood is blood! She’s got a warm welcome ready for me between her legs.”
The button man below laughed and went back to the road and his horse. Before long she heard the curt clip clop of the four horses’ hooves, heading back the way that they had come.
Eris let out the breath she hadn’t realised she’d been holding while they spoke. She’d have to get down, and then think about… the thing that’d grown where her foot had been. She’d have to find Pierson and Nemnir. And they’d want to know what had happened. And what it was. And the Diarnilys would stare even more than they had at her crutches. They’d all stare.
Hot tears again on her cheeks. She ignored the stinging grazes on her palms as she made fists and pushed them away with them.
A whickering noise caught her ear. The priest’s fat pony, alone now and confused.
She let her body fall from the bough, holding herself as long as she could, legs and… feet… stretched as far out as they could, and then dropped. She landed on her feet. Her two feet.
Within seconds she was by the pony, looking over the harnesses that buckled it to the cart. There was a lump she could see out of the corner of her eye, lying on its back in the middle of a shining red shape, which still spreading outwards from him. She kept to her task, working at the pony’s buckles, until it was free.
She turned to look at Pierson, emerging from the woods. Nem was at his side, ducking to avoid branches.
“Thank the bastard gods… Eris what are you doing?!”
She couldn’t even answer the question. Instead, she swung her left leg over the back of the small horse, the new strange black part of her towards the two men. Quickly she gee’d the beast on, turning it about against it protests to canter back down the road. Towards Bara.