Riding the fat pony was a very different experience to the few times her mother had helped her up onto the back of Floris, their placid piebald carthorse. This chubby beast was frantic, enthusiastic, and scared, all at the same time at being released from its usual slow plodding task. Eris held onto its mane, clumping its hair between her fingers, but even that didn’t slow the creature. What finally brought it to slow, and then to a wheezing halt some three or four miles down the road, was its own unfit shape. And then it stubbornly refused to budge, no matter who she dug her heels into its rotund sides. Her heels.
“Very well then!” She dismounted. “I didn’t want to continue on the road anyway!” Walking about the pony, ignoring the strange clatter that one of her feet was making on the loose stones, she positioned herself to the rear of the pony and gave it a wallop on its rump. That got even the tired pony back into motion, and she watched for a moment as it charged onwards to the city she could just see on the horizon as the road’s thin path wound that way.
Eris walked to the tree line instead. If she headed South she could… what exactly? Her rough map of the area in her head told her that if she wanted to find a way back to her mother’s caravan then she’d still need to circle about Bara to get back to the South West. If she wanted to find the boy she might start there but it was a long and uncertain journey.
Or you could just go back to Nem and Pierson, a quiet voice inside her said. You don’t really know what they’d think about… she looked down at the strange twisting growth that made up part of her calf, her ankle and a… sort of foot. She crouched and touched the black lattice. It was solid, like bone, but when she tested the range of movement of it she found that it tensed as she pushed down on it, and she could direct it to simple movements just by thinking about it. She would never be graceful in her movement, she thought, but it worked well enough. Even if walking with it made her path clumsy and likely very possible to track.
But still, it worked well enough to get her off the road and at least beginning a march through the trees to the South, very aware that she was surely in another woods-voln territory, and that she had abandoned her borrowed bow a long time back. The arrows still in the quiver on her back were marked Diarnilys, which might give another a neighbouring greening pause. At least long enough for her to speak with them before they decided to pierce her all through!
An hour into her slow progress though the dense woods she found both a small hollow, overshadowed by a large willow tree offering protection from the rain. She also found herself worn thing with worry and fears, her last strength fading with the setting sun. Very well, she would sleep here and continue onwards to… wherever she was heading next. The Gyreblack’s sly face haunted her as she curled in on herself amongst the leaves, merging with the lattice in her dreams to make some strange and shifting beast whose body flowed as vine like tendrils, or sometimes as liquid in the air like smoke, and then in the next moment was all leathery with scales, and spikes, and claws. She slept very ill indeed.
It was almost a relief when it was not the sun but Pierson’s gentle hand on her shoulder that woke her, even though the golden light was bright about her and blinding as it pierced through the willow’s long fronds. She had been so tired. She blinked up at him, watched his concerned face as he crouched by her, taking in her ripped leathers and the wyrd foot.
“You found me.”
She noticed the grey skin under his eyes, the dust of the road on his dark coat, the scruff of beard more pronounced than before.
“Scared us lass. Running off like that. Scared Nem so bad he’s barely said a word all night.” A wry smile, an attempt to put her at ease with a dumb joke. Or a joke about being dumb. A smile tried to make its appearance but she stopped it. “And we we’re already half way to grey-hair when we had to dash off and leave you in the tree. I’ve aged a year and ten overnight, lass.” He rubbed at his face, trying to bring himself back to life. “What nonsense was this? You were scared we’d… what? Treat you funny because you learnt the trick of walking again? Like Nem wouldn’t piss on his own mountain for a chance to speak again?!”
A low growl, and she looked over to where Nemnir was standing nearby with arms crossed, almost at guard, as though unable to relax.
“Where do mountain-voln piss, if not on their mountains, Pierson?” She asked in a small, tired voice.
“They save it all up until they can come down and piss on us city-voln and woods-voln!” A low laugh from Nem, and a nod. “So, lass. You got a new foot then?”
They both looked down at the black foot resting among the leaves under the tree. “I just… I don’t know, it was kind of like when I healed Nem from the Ghostblight greening. I don’t know how I did it, but I needed to do it.”
Pierson nodded. “Bloody priests of Lios have been claiming miracles in his name for nearly a thousand years. I never bloody saw one in all my years in Liosinium, being trained in the love of Lios in the centre of the world where his power is at its greatest, and then here we are. Three bloody fools in a firm, in the woods, and one of us does a bloody miracle all on her own.”
“You think it’s a miracle?” Something about what Pierson had just said niggled at her, but she couldn’t put her finger on it. “Not something… bad? It looks bad… all black and twisting.” Her dream came back to her. The Gyreblack boy and the thing that shifted and changed. Liquid shadow and then spikes and teeth. “It’s even uglier than the twist of black cracked skin that used to be there!”
Pierson looked at her with calm grey eyes. “The priest on the road was all golden weren’t he, underneath his sack cloth?” He pulled out his roarer, angling the lion’s mouth and the barrel coming out of it away from her. “And this, a golden looking killing machine.” A hand dug into his coat, pulling out at least seven buttons. “Shiny little buggers. But every man whose worn them has killed, aye, and raped. Not everything that’s gold and bright is good. And everything that’s black and, yes, let’s say it, wyrd looking, aint bad. At least, that’s my thinking on it. And I know it’s Nem’s. There’s plenty who see a massive mountain-voln and think he’s just a lug who’ll rage and kill without question if ‘smarter’ city-voln put him to it in Lios’ name. Nem was never like that, he fought back against every dark command from our Captain, him with his golden bloody buttons and his shining smile.”
Nem grunted in agreement.
“You said everyone who has worn the buttons has… done bad things.” And there was something else you said earlier but I can’t quite remember what it was and what it made me think of, her inner voice said as well.
“Aye, well. I aint a good man. Drew the line at hurting women and children. Never taken a woman who didn’t want me to. Never stolen from someone who couldn’t take the loss and still live. Got my own code I s’pose. But I’ve killed for Lios. I’ve hurt for him. I’ve tortured. And I’ve seen things I can’t forget. And I know things I won’t forgive.” The shadows under his eyes seem to grow as he was losing himself in memories. “There’s things happening in Liosinium that aint right. Lios aint right. I don’t care if he’s going to strike me down for it, but he aint my god and he aint my king. And I don’t believe he’s immortal and I think he can be killed… But enough theology and doctrine for one day. You still a part of this bloody two copper firm or not, lass?”
“Of course I am Pierson.”
“Good, because a fucking wyrd thing like that is going to do nothing but good for our reputation as evil bastards!” He gestured and smirked again, and Eris drew herself up even as she still sat.
“The wyrdest thing here is your bloody face, you scruffy city-voln tramp! Or have you forgotten that there’s two Diarnilys widows awaiting you? Woods-voln women are bloody tough to please, and they aint going to thank you for kisses from that wolf’s arse of a beard!”
Nem barked out a laugh as Pierson smiled ruefully, rubbing at his beard.
“True at that, lass, true at that.”
He offered her his arm, and she clasped it, forearm to forearm. Standing up from the hollow she hesitated before resting fully on her left leg. And then she walked with the two men, back towards the road. With her firm.