When it finally happened, it happened fast.
They had run through the thin trees, racing ahead of the carts to set their ambush, Eris fighting the urge to smile as the five of them wove among the boughs and darted ahead of each other. Nemnir brought up the rear as Pierson and his ladies showed off their light-footedness. She was clumsier, still. But even so, Eris found that she could push her wyrd foot to the same efforts as her real foot; making it run, making it jump her over dips in the ground or around bushes, making her way through the trees to where they would attack.
Her smile was controlled because she knew what they were going to do. With fat city-voln they’d let them go on their way after lightening their loads. Some had not gone willingly, and Nemnir or Pierson had knocked them out and left them for wiser days ahead of them. Those traders and merchants would have brought word of robbers on the roads back to the cities, but that was not unusual in woods-voln lands. This attack on button men, this had to be covered up. This would need dark secrecy and the men would have to die.
Pierson had fretted about her involvement, taking her to one side and crouching down to get lower than her. His brow had creased, his grey eyes shaping themselves with his concern. And all she’d had to do was remind him of the button man who’d made the boy take her foot. And of the one who had taken Nemnir’s tongue. Then he’d reluctantly let the topic go.
But as she ran, there was a dark joy in her veins. The men on the horses were strangers, but each wore the sneering button man’s face, that daft elaborate moustache on his twisted face. Cut her impurity away, boy. Let her bleed it into the ground with her life, he’d told the Gyreblack boy. The swirl of strange dark skin on her ankle and her foot had been there for as long as she could remember. It had been a part of her in a way that her new foot still wasn’t, couldn’t ever be she thought angrily. It had been the same as her mother’s; the same wrinkled darker skin looped about her thigh. It had been the same as her mother’s mother’s; a smaller twist had run up her neck and into her silvering hair. It had been something that made them family, like their shared green eyes, and the way in which all three Atta-Sutith women had the habit of resting their hands, balled into fists, on their hips when they were annoyed. And he’d cut it away from her, using the damned Gyreblack boy as his weapon. She daren’t let Pierson know how keen she was to finally use her naked arrows on the button men and the muleteers working with them. Of the boys, she thought very little, if anything at all. Her blood was singing loudly for blood, and stopped her thinking on them.
Finally, they made a point that Pierson liked, dropping from their crouched run onto a knee each to look back to where the carts were still coming up the road. Pierson brought out his roarer and checked it over. It was the closest Eris had been to one, and she looked at the open lion’s mouth about the barrel with a sick fascination. It was elaborately made, with scrolling and swirling work on it, a thick well-crafted and oiled handle of wood and metal. She was about to ask to have a closer look, when Sarai and Callia started checking over her bow and arrow for her, a finger to Callia’s lips when Eris started to complain that she knew how to maintain a bow. Then they nodded when they were pleased with her care of it, and looked to Pierson.
He gestured to Nemnir to stay in the treeline. “You are our last hope if all goes to shit.” The large man rolled his shoulders and drew his sword and shield from his back in readiness.
“But the idea is for it not to go shit, right Pierson?” asked Sarai cattily under her breath.
“Exactly. We attack from range. Roarer and arrows. I’ll get one shot off and then need to reload-”
“Fucking useless weapons if you ask me…” Sarai grinned.
“Perhaps. Sarai, Callia and you, Eris, you pick off the button men first. I’ll aim for the one on the dark horse first. Bring them down as fast as you can, then go for the muleteers. We’ll set up at staggered points along the side of the road. Try not to hit the boys!”
“I only hit what I aim for, Pierson.” Said Callia quietly, and he nodded.
“What do we do with them after? Have you thought that through?” whispered Sarai.
Pierson nodded. “Can’t leave them on the roads. We’ll escort them towards Bara. After that they can head back to Tralis by hitching a ride, or they can stay there and make a new life.”
“Why not Tralis?” Asked Eris quietly. “That’s where they are from?”
“And someone there was sending them away for a reason. Best not to give them the chance to find them again. Not all together, returning in one go. I’ll give them some names might help them in Bara. The Light of Lios might be a good starting point?”
Eris looked confused “Is that a temple of Lios? Its sounds… holy.
“More like unholy. It’s a very fancy public house with a fine reputation among pilgrims to the sites of Lios in Bara…” He smiled “Except in the small hours of morning when it’s very much a member’s club for those of a rogue-ish persuasion. And for those who bless and curse the bastard gods. Man called Jerekyn runs a firm out of there with a few smaller firms also allowed to use it as a meeting place. The boys get to there, then they can pick up work so they can pay their way to Tralis, or wherever they please.” He whispered quickly.
“Some of them are a bit small to be working for a firm…” She said looking back towards the road.
“So do you, sweetling, so do you.”
She blushed at Pierson’s naming of her, and Sarai laughed at the redness of her cheeks. But then Pierson was taught like a bow, staring back to the approaching carts and gesturing at the women onwards to their positions by the road. Eris snuck behind Sarai, with Callia behind her. From where she stopped, behind a large haggron flower bush softly scenting the air, she could see the bare stretch of road under the grey trees. It was a damp and dark day, and puddles lay in the uneven surface of the pebbled road. She watched as the carts rolled through them. Then Eris unslung her bow.
When it finally happened, it happened quickly.
Pierson’s roarer lived up to its name and spat smoke and fire as well as the small round of metal that tore into one button man’s chest and flung him from his panicked black horse. The other had barely time to breath out his last breath before two poison greened arrows slammed into his back and one naked arrow found a home in his thigh by his saddle. He fell to the road.
Six men cried out in surprise, standing up from their wooden seats on the carts. Two more went down, one with a poisoned arrow in his throat. The other fell from the cart with Eris’ arrow in his side. Four men panicked and threw themselves onto the dirt, trying to use the carts as protection. Three of them chose the wrong side and were picked off by swift arrows. The final muleteer tried to run, but the lion roared again and a part of his head exploded, his body collapsing to its knees in shock before his face slammed into the road, his dingy cloak falling forward to cover him in death.
All the while the boys were near silent, huddled together as the bodies fell about them, wide eyed in terror. Trembling, they looked to Pierson as he emerged from the treeline and walked towards the carts, like a Lios-cursed ghost in his long black coat and with a smoking roarer in hand. He went body to body, and Eris, Nemnir, and the widows joined him as he got to the man her arrow had pierced in the side. There was a wretched smell about him, an acidic stench.
“Stomach’s pierced. His body’s going to drown in blood and poison itself at the same time.” Said Eris coldly.
“Fuck you, you woods-voln whore-demon!” The man growled up at her and Pierson had to put a hand to Nem’s arm to stop him lopping off the man’s head with the unbloodied sword in his hand.
Pierson crouched by him.
“Blood traitor!” Spat the muleteer, recognising Pierson’s softer face and grey eyes as city-voln.
“What are you doing with these lads, friend?” Pierson put a deadly emphasis on the last word. The man clamped his lips shut.
“They bought us.” A boy had stepped down from the nearest cart. He was older than Eris, city-voln and whisper thin from lack of good feeding. Pierson’s face darkened.
“That aint none of your fucking business blood traitor.” The man coughed and his own blood betrayed him, coming up out of his mouth in a spray and then dripping from his flabby lips.
“Where. Were. You. Taking. Them?” Pierson broke each word onto the man like more bullets from his roarer.
“I’ve served Lios’s will. I’ll live forever.” More blood seeped from him.
“It doesn’t look like it to me.” Eris said, ignoring the boys watching her and kneeling beside the dying man. “Looks to me like your insides are on fire and soon we’ll be burying you deep in woods-voln lands. Will Lios find you there, or will you walk as a ghost I wonder?”
“Lios owns all these lands!” He sneered. “He own these boys. He owns you, you bitch!”
“No one owns me!” She reached up and pulled out Nem’s dagger, woods-voln quick, before he could react, and brought the edge of it to the man’s throat. “Pierson asked you a question. You aint dead yet, and there’s still a fair few things I can do to you before you go!”
“You should listen to her. She’s a healer. She knows all the places you can hurt. And hurt bad.” Pierson said coolly.
The man’s eyes flickered, consciousness leaving him. “Castle. In the East. By the sea. Been there a few times with that bastard woods-voln, Cole. Fucking huge. They buy the boys. Dunno what they do there, but its Lios’ will. It’s all by Lios’ will…” He faded, his breath slowly ceasing, as his mouth was still shaping the word ‘Lios’.
Eris passed the dagger back to Nem, ignoring his stern face for the moment.
Sarai looked to Pierson.
“You’re from Liosinium. The Centre of the World. Lios’s great city in the South. Did you ever hear anything about this castle?”
“Nothing. Nothing at all.” Eris thought that he looked worried about that, as though he should have known something.
The boy who’d braved speaking to them was shifting on his wrapped feet, trying to raise more courage to speak to the five deadly voln in front of him who were still carrying bows, a sword, and a roarer.
“Sirs. Ladies. Please.”
Pierson looked up at him, and stood. “I counted twelve of you, that right? Know each other?”
“No sir. Not before I were sold by the workhouse. But we’re all street-voln.”
Pierson’s eyebrows raised a little. “That a voln now, is it?”
“Might as well be. We aint the same as the city-voln who got their own soft beds to sleep in, that’s true. As sure as blood is blood.”
“What’s your name lad?” Pierson asked as the other boys stirred themselves from their afearing minds, and also made to leave the carts.
“You ever walked the woods, Jayk?”
Jayk looked about, his dark grey eyes taking in the tall trees all about them. He was city-voln, he’d never been among them, Eris was sure of it. “I’m sure I can learn the way of it, sir.”
“Call me Pierson. This here’s Nemnir. The ladies are Callia and Sarai Diarnilys. And this is Eris Atta-Sutith.”
Jayk and the other lads looked from one of them to the other, learning their names, noting their weapons. “She the healer, like the lady woods-voln said?”
“My mother went to a healer at the temple of Lios in Tralis, for my little sister. Said he could heal her retch-fever in the name of Lios. Didn’t work. Didn’t work when my mother went back for herself a week later, either. Whose name does she heal in?”
“My own.” Said Eris, sternly. “Not fucking Lios’”.
There was muttering in agreement from among the boys, and Eris thought she caught ear of one of them say the word “douche” under his breath, but she didn’t know what that word meant. Must be a city-voln thing.
Pierson smiled darkly. “You seem a sensible bunch of lads. Keep up with us, help out with what you can, and we’ll get you to Bara and a new life. Tralis aint a good place to be for now if your sellers are about there.”
“We can come with you?” Jayk asked, surprised. “You aint leaving us on the road?”
“Don’t be too pleased. First thing we got to get you helping with is burying these sods. Deep down in the earth where no other button men will find them. Nem here’ll move the soil alongside you, that’ll speed things up a treat.”
Jayk looked up at Nemnir, eyes widening at the size of the mountain-voln. “Of course, sir- Pierson. We’ll do that. Won’t we lads?”
There was a muttering of agreement, and they all set to dragging the bodies off of the road, Nemnir walking after them, and dragging the last muleteer’s body on his own, just by his arm. Sarai and Callia worked quickly to retrieve arrows for mending later, before releasing the mules and sending them on their way with the horses with a sharp whack to their hind quarters.
“‘Street-voln’, is it?” Pierson asked to the air. “Oh, Lios aint going to like that. Not at all.”
“What do you think he’s doing with these boys?” Eris asked, looking up at him.
“Nothing good. Sure as blood is blood.” Pierson said grimly.