She felt his large hand on her hair, gently flattening some of the wild strands of dark hair that had escaped her braid as she had not tended to it all day. He murmered a soothing noise as she fought off tears for him, her face against the hard muscle of his torso and the roughness of his many times patched coat. She was getting it wet, so she pulled away. His hand moved to cup her face and to make her look up at him, making her see the slight smile on his weathered face. It’s all alright lass, she heard Pierson’s voice from Nemnir’s lips even as they smiled. The only voice she’d ever heard speaking words for him, it’s all alright.
“It’s not alright!” She began. “Don’t you want to… hurt them too?”
A frown, creasing the skin between those usually cheerful eyes. Pierson speaking for him again, Aint stealing their precious gold enough?
She thought of the Gyreblack boy, and what she would do with him if she ever caught the rat. No, stealing their gold wasn’t enough. A city-voln boy had taken her foot with a short sword. A city-voln button man had taken Nem’s tongue… how, with a dagger? Both of them had suffered at the edge of a city-voln’s blade!
The hand on her cheek left, and Nemnir suddenly drew his own dagger from underneath his coat, grumbling under his breath, likely about having left his great sword and his burnt hide shield in their tents. A figure was walking through the woods towards them, light on their feet and near silent, but not hiding their wandering path. Eris’s sharp eyes recognised the silver hair of Verla DIarnilys, the older woman in a loose fitting leather and cotton robe that still merged her into the deepening shadows between the trees as she got closer.
“Peace Nem, its Verla.” The mountain-voln nodded and hid his dagger away again with a quickness she had not seen from him before.
“Eris Atta-Sutith. Nemnir Mountain-Voln.” She nodded to them both.
“Verla Diarnilys. We were just heading back to the camp.” She watched the older woman’s eyes dart about them. “Pierson is a-ways back there. With Sarai and Callia.”
“Ah, I see. Well, really it was you I wanted to see. Alone.”
Eris looked up at Nem, and then back at the old woman. “No.”
“Very well. I came to offer my thanks.”
“You thanked me yesterday. Before the birthing, during the birthing, and after also.”
“I offer my thanks… and a place between the trees with the Diarnilys.” Verla looked up at Nemnir, sensible enough to have embarrassment writ across her face.
“Just me though?”
Verla pursed her lips, deepening the wrinkles about them.
“I decline your offer. Furthermore, the widows Sarai and Callia will be leaving with us.” Eris felt as though she was drawing her own dagger, showing the edge and sharpness of it to Verla. She found that she liked how brandishing her strength made her feel.
“But they are Diarnilys!”
“The flower has no weight at all, they will carry it with them.” She said, repeating Sarai’s words and adding her own spite.
“They are too old for the nomad-fever! It is time that they wed again and hunted for their family!” Verla snapped, age creeping into her voice. Eris felt Nemnir’s blade arm twitch near her, and she put a hand on his forearm.
“Nomad-fever would bring them to husbands as well, would it not?”
Verla glared at Eris, before her eyes softened into something like admiration. “I said it afore, child, you would have made a great leader of a territory. There is no Atta-Sutith greening is there? Perhaps you should boil a new one, and seed sons and daughters throughout your own woods. If I was city-voln near your lands I would quake in terror beneath my bed!”
A stumbling laugh from Nemnir, and Eris dipped into a short bow, just as she had seen her mother’s mother do when greeting mountain-voln and woods-voln on their journeys. “You might be right Verla Diarnilys. Or perhaps I will start my own army, and shadow the sky with my own poison greened arrows as my people take out the god-king Lios himself!”
“I would believe it if I heard tale of it!” Verla laughed. “Very well. Callia and Sarai join your ‘firm’. But take another of my people and I’ll skin you like a farm-voln’s cat and sleep beneath your hide on my bed roll.”
The silver hair winked at Nemnir whose face was darkening again. “We’ll prepare you supplies for your journey… keep your bow and arrows, and those ill-fitting leathers. Callia and Sarai will have to make up their own bottles of greening to bring, they’ll not have ours.” She was talking out loud, always planning like the older-head she was. “Pierson has given the Diarnilys a cut of your spoils already. I’ll say that for your city-voln, he does what he should do, even before he is asked to do it. He knows what is proper and right. Rogue or not.”
Verla dipped into her own bow and left them, circling back towards the Diarnilys camp, making sure to be heading away from where Pierson and the widows might be.
“Back to the road then, eh Nem?
He nodded and started his long legged walk back to their tents, Eris trotting after him on her two differing feet.
The road was near enough just as they had left it after their last heist, but perhaps with a few less newly poor, and newly terrified, city-voln merchants and traders on it. For now.
They kept a reasonable distance from the road, even though it was quiet when they finally reached the end of the treeline from the edges of Diarnilys territory. With Sarai scouting ahead, and Callia circling about their rear, they were well prepared for anything on their way there. Even though Pierson still showed his nerves through his constant silent flits to Sarai and then back to Callia, Eris and Nemnir actually found the journey to be tranquil. Eris even enjoyed the trek through the wooded lands, on feet this time instead of up in Nemnir’s arms, finding pleasure in the pace they set themselves, in the steady movement of legs and arms. She still kept her bow ready, the Diarnilys youth’s bow with the naked arrows, but the only movement in the woods was from small critters that darted away in the undergrowth as they got closer. But as the day was cool and rain didn’t threaten, Eris spent the time walking allowing a small amount of joy to grow in her among the tall, thin trees.
They stopped in view of the road, staying back in the shadows and crouching down together. Sarai looked excited, her eyes bright as they shared water and discussed their plans.
“We follow along with the road? Heading to the North East?”
Pierson nodded, swallowing from a small skin of his own, something perhaps more potent than just water, Eris thought. “Aye, the other way takes us closer to Bara, and woods-voln territories that have already moved us along. Forcefully.” Eris could tell that he was remembering the Ghostblight poison and Nemnir struggling painfully to breath, lying on the dry riverbed road. “We could head North across it. Make our way there. Further North still there’s mountain-voln lands I suppose.”
Eris looked to Nem, crouched down with them and still overshadowing the party. She saw the shape of his mountain stone pressing against his tunic as it dangled underneath. Did he want to go back to his mountain one day? She suddenly realised that Sarai and Callia were both looking to her for her words.
“What’s Tralis like? Should we head towards the woods about there? Is there another king’s road from there to elsewhere…?” Eris felt lost. Her mother’s meandering journeys had never been so well-planned, or if they had, she’d never been a part of the conversation or the decision. And should she raise the subject of the Gyreblack boy? What would Pierson think of her dark plans for him?
“Tralis? Cold and damp was all I ever heard about it. But then when you’re born in Liosinium, everywhere else seems col-” he stopped himself and Eris realised that was the closest Pierson had ever come to talking about his past. Before the war and saving Nemnir. Before he was a button man. “It’s poorer than Bara, if that can be believed. Anything coming from there will be trash, but we can pick up Bara couriers and traders heading there. Know anything about the woods-voln in the forests about it, ladies?” He looked to Sarai and Callia.
Sarai stretched and stood, placing her hands on her rounded hips. Her hair was recently cropped, and she’d made sure to grease it before they’d set off as well, expecting to need to be on high alert. Eris liked Sarai’s down to earth practicality, and was beginning to trust her blunt opinions.
“Very little. The Diarnilys sometimes traded, both goods and youngsters with nomad-fever, with the Volinblu to the North of East. We will encounter them if we head along the king’s road towards your city-voln ‘Tralis’. They’re nothing unusual for woods-voln.”
“Ah, so they’d skin us for their leathers as soon as look at us, you mean?” Said Pierson, only half joking.
“Perhaps. With two Diarnilys and a healer with you, you stand a small chance. If they’ve ever heard of an Atta-Sutith before we’ll stand more of a chance of getting an audience. We might buy ourselves a week or two if they are in urgent need of a healer.”
“Again.” said Pierson darkly. “Callia, any thoughts on how we find a more permanent base?”
“Stop being a city-voln, my love?” She said softly, but with an edge in her voice. Eris wondered if she was the only one who had caught it.
“Tempting.” He smiled ruefully.
Eris smiled, enjoying the flow of words between the women and Pierson. But something in the gaps between their words nagged at her. At her ears.
“Something comes! On the road!”
“Sharp bloody woods-voln ears!” Hissed Pierson with a smile, as Sarai and Callia quickly became indistinct shapes among the trees and then were gone. Pierson looked after them but stayed with Nem and Eris. “What do you hear?”
Eris concentrated. The light jingling of bridles. The creak of wooden wheels. More than one set. “Carts on the road, coming from the right, from Tralis. I’m not certain how many.”
“Good work Eris. Sarai and Callia will burn with jealousy that they didn’t hear earlier because they were too busy charming me!” He gestured and the three of them snuck closer to the road, hugging the thinning trees and remaining in the shadows. Eris was as careful as she could be, but her foot still made her passage slower and louder. Nemnir had similar problems, and it was only Pierson who managed anything like a stealthy passage towards the road. They halted by him behind a prickled bush, peering through.
Soon they saw the carts. Three of them, and two horses with them besides. Each cart had two men mastering the mules. Each horse had a button man astride it and was wearing the elaborate hair braids and saddles that they would have expected for the men’s mounts. And in the carts, forlorn looking and as grubby as lads could get, were city-voln boys. Their heads were down, their dirty mops of grey and dark hair over their faces as they stared at their hands. Eris counted quickly, twelve of them she thought. Heading from Tralis to Bara.
Eris looked at Pierson. “What’re button men doing with city-voln lads?” she whispered.
Pierson looked as confused as her, and then said in a quiet voice. “They aint recruits, unwilling or not. The front’s in the other direction. There’s Lios’ workhouses in Bara, but there’s the same in Tralis. I dunno Eris, I never seen anything like this before.”
“Maybe they’re criminals?”
“Tralis has its own oubliette. No, something else is going on here.” He looked concerned. Then he smiled. “There’ll be little profit in stopping them…”
“But you want to?” she whispered.
Nemnir added his own low approval.
“Two button men, at least two roarers. Six muleteers. We’d be best hanging back and picking them off. We’ve three bows and a roarer. Sorry, Nem, you’re best up close and personal and we can’t risk that.”
Nem smiled ruefully.
“All we need is Sarai and Callia to return-”
“You need us?” Callia emerged from shadows nearby, along with Sarai, and surprising even the ever alert Pierson.
“Bloody woods-voln! Aye. How do you feel about liberating a bunch of like as not very ungrateful city-voln boys who also like as not would have put a blade in you if they’d met you any other time, because Lios tells them you’re cursed, godless, but bastard god loving, savages?” he said quickly but quietly.
“When you put it like that Pierson, how could we refuse?” Callia smiled sweetly, and unslung her bow.