“Did you have to stick that bloody thing in my side?! What a welcome!”
“You came in here with two slaves! And one of them a young woods-voln girl! You’re lucky you didn’t get the whole length of it straight away!!”
Eris sighed slightly as the pretence the two city-voln had been keeping up for the past few hours was finally put aside. All that cooing and sweet talk had been sickening. Not to mention the fact that she and Nemnir had been left to stand the whole time Pierson and Estille had been focussed on each other. But finally some loud ringing noise had sounded, and most of the patrons had upped and left, gathering up their cloaks while still spouting nonsense about “art”, and “sciences”, and “humours” as they stumbled out onto the night dark streets.
“That was a disguise!”
“How was I to know? Last time I saw you, you were an empty headed once-priest on his way to fame and glory on the battlefield, taking a short detour into my bed on your way. For all I knew, you’d returned to the love of Lios and had fallen into the vile ways of a real priest.” She leant away from him and regarded him with cool eyes, absent-mindedly drawing a pale hand down her long neck as she thought. “You are different now. A little more interesting perhaps.”
Pierson looked uncomfortable, and then got up suddenly “Eris, Nem, sit! Please, you must be exhausted!”
Eris took his place, but there really wasn’t space for the large mountain-voln, even when Estille gracefully stood from her seat and went to stand by Nemnir.
“Interesting travel companions.” Estille’s eyes traced the height and breadth of Nemnir, very slowly, before alighting on Eris again. She gestured and a moment later the barman came over to her side. “Food, drinks. Something heavy for the large man to drink, and something light for the girl.”
The man nodded at her order and went to his task immediately.
“I was about to gut him for you. I still could, if you wanted?” Estille said, locking eyes with Eris. Pierson paled.
“I think he might still be useful, so no thank you.” Eris gave a short bow.
Estille laughed. “Definitely not a slave then.”
“A friend.” Said Pierson firmly. “Nothing more, I swear. She’s free to leave, or stay, as she wishes.”
“Oh, I believe you, sweetling. Good disguise. A little too convincing since I remember back when you really did love Lios. And now you follow the bastard gods too?”
He reached inside the robe to pull out his pendant of the Crowned One, Nemnir’s mountain swinging from where it was wrapped about his wrist as well, the dull grey stone standing out against the vivid gold of the sleeve of Pierson’s robe. “And which gods get your prayers Estille?”
“Oh, so many of them. I have so many needs, Pierson.” She looked at Nemnir from under her lowered eyelashes, and Eris watched the nervous reactions of both men. Estille’s dagger was not her only weapon, Eris realised.
Then food was brought, a fat leg each of goodly seasoned chicken, with soft round savoury puddings floating in its gravy. Eris’s drink was a watery juice, but Nem had a large tankard full of something with a foaming top that he seemed very pleased with. Eris tucked into her food, taking in the arrival of new patrons, coming in dribs and drabs of ones and twos, coats and cloaks over simple dark clothes. One, a young city-voln man with an amiable face, took a seat by the fire and was joined by others who sat about him in a semi-circle, taking the seats which were just hours before filled by raucously laughing and arguing dandies. The young man began to speak in a quiet voice, listened to by the others. Eris looked back to find Estille watching her.
“That’s our storyteller, Orrin.” She explained.
“A storyteller?” Eris looked to Pierson, but he looked bemused too. “What stories does he tell?”
“You never stayed past the bell, now did you Pierson?” Estille said sweetly. “I think I always made sure you left, with me or otherwise.”
“I was just one of the loud-mouthed idiots in fine clothes bought by my father’s money, if you recall.”
“Oh! I do like this new version of you Pierson, the front did you a great service, no matter how hard it was on you.” Estille looked back to Orrin, who was in full flow with his story, gesturing and bringing the story to life. “Orrin is a hunter of stories about the bastard gods. When he captures a fine one, he brings it back here to tell to the rest of us. They are a rare species, but popular here. At least once the bell has rung. But I imagine you came here because you know a little about this fine establishment, the Light of Lios?”
“You work for Jerekyn.” Said Eris.
“That I do. I have since I was even younger than you, sweetling.” Estille swept in to sit by Eris, appraising her. “Dark hair is unusual for a woods-voln, isn’t it? I’ve only seen it a few times before.”
“Yes, red is more common.”
Estille’s long fingers danced around Eris’ face, tucking stray hairs back to where they belonged, and then holding her chin to move her face gently, first one way and then the other. Nemnir took a step forward, but Pierson halted him.
“A rather stern face. But perhaps if you’re travelling with these two rogues, you need to be stern occasionally?” Estille smiled at Pierson. “I’m right, aren’t I? You three have the smell of a serious, and likely criminal, endeavour about you. You’re a small firm in the making.”
“You’re right.” Pierson admitted.
“Of course I am. Jerekyn doesn’t keep me about just for my good looks. Although, in my line of work, they certainly help.” The tavern was filling up, and Estille took a look about at the new patrons. “Half the bodies here are set to doing something the guard don’t like. You’re here, and you came in disguise. You’ve got something underhand in mind.”
“And the other half of the people here, why did they come in after the bell?” Asked Eris.
“They’re here to drink and to worship in their own ways. Ah, excellent timing. See.” She nodded towards where two men were standing, squaring off against each other as other patrons quickly made them space. They were city-voln, but of the thick set kind, broad if not as tall as Nemnir. When the fight began the impact of their punches resounded across the large common room. Grappling and pushing, the men got the cheers of the nearest patrons, the final blow bringing a resounding cheer as one man went down on his back onto the sawdust on the wooden boards. But then the victor helped his opponent up, and they went back to drinking as though good friends.
“Could be. Certainly some of the bastard gods are fighters. But we don’t know. All we have is Orrin and his few collected stories.”
“Does he know about the god who kissed a stone at the bottom of a pool?”
Estille’s eyes widened, but before she could beg for more details the door to the tavern opened again and two men entered, silencing her. One was large, a bulk that carried an implied threat with it. The other was old, bald, and with eyes surrounded by wrinkles above a hooked nose. “Jerekyn” hissed Estille to Pierson, sweeping her skirts up with her as she made her way to the master criminal.
“Here we go, lass.” Pierson whispered to her as Estille brought the two men over.
“What’s this? Have you adopted another stray bloody woods-voln? And a mountain-voln?! And a bloody priest?! By the Shadowed One, Estille!”
“He’s no priest. This is Pierson. An old acquaintance.”
“I see. An acquaintance.” Jerekyn pulled up a stool to sit on, his dark eyes looking them all over, stopping on Nemnir. “That one puts you to shame Barlow.” He said to his man, who merely grunted and walked off for a drink at the bar.
“Thank you for seeing us, Jerekyn-” Began Pierson, before being cut off.
“Don’t thank me yet, might still slit yer throat for wasting my time.” He looked at Eris. “Woods-voln in Bara, eh. You lot get around these days it seems. When I were a snot-nosed lad you were more myth than real. Wild creatures in the woods who’d skin you alive just to make their leathers.” He reached forward to touch Eris’ leather tunic. “Nah, that’s just animal, not human. Trust me, I’d know.”
“We need your help.” Said Pierson.
“Of course you do. I want to hear from the girl though.”
Pierson nodded at her, and she tried to speak in a steady voice. “We need your help-” This time she was cut off by a disturbance at the back of the tavern. She saw Barlow move towards the back where a door led off, perhaps to rooms. Nemnir pulled his sword, but Estille was quickly there, laying a quietening hand on his arm.
“Wait, there are many swords here. Wait, see.”
Soon they did see what it was. A woman was escorted in, carrying something in her arms. She looked about in desperation, until she saw Jerekyn and moved towards him, halted by Barlow and some of the other patrons who’d pulled weapons from hiding places.
“Please! Please! I have to see Jerekyn!”
“What is it, woman?” barked the bald man.
“Please, there wasn’t enough, and the herbalist wouldn’t help. The priests turned us away too. Please, I need coin for my baby! Please, please!”
Eris now saw that the bundle in her arms was a child. More than a baby, but still no more than two years old. Still, pale, and covered in dark marks. Sewer-pox.
“Please, I need coin to pay the herbalist, or the priests. I’ll do anything, m’lord!”
“You brought the sewer-pox here?!” Jerekyn moved away from her, sneering. But the storyteller, Orrin, stood up and came closer instead. The woman looked up at him as he tenderly touched the child’s face, ignoring the pox there.
“The herbalists and the priests can’t do anything. Lios’ healings are many, but no one has ever seen one directly.” He smiled gently. “But the bastard gods… we have stories of their healings…”
Anger spread across the woman’s face. “Then how are they different to bloody Lios? I have no love for the god-king, he let this happen to Bess, but I know nothing of the heathen gods either!”
Pierson gently touched Eris on her arm. “Can you help?” He whispered.
“I have no herbs to even make a soothing balm for the child’s pox.” Eris felt sadness wash through her. “I don’t even know if it can be treated.”
“And… what if you did what you did for Nem? And your foot…?” Pierson left the question hanging and Eris’ sadness turned to sudden panic. She didn’t know how that had worked before, and both times had been so different. And how could she even try that kind of healing with all of Jerekyn’s men about?! Then suddenly a calmness descended on her. Clarity. She remembered the guard at the gates of Bara. Would she have helped him, even if she could? Well, now the question was playing out in front of her, and she had to decide. Her mother had healed the man who’d stumbled onto their camp, pushing life back into him. And he was a stranger.
“I need somewhere quiet. No one can watch.”
Pierson nodded. “Jerekyn” He said speaking up. “My friend here is a trained herbalist, like her mother, and her mother’s mother. She thinks she might be able to help. We’ll need a room though-”
Jerekyn grunted dismissively. “Get it done. Estille, see to them since you’re their new bloody mother hen!”
Estille brought all three of them, and the extremely grateful mother, into a room at the back of the tavern, near where the woman had found her way in off the streets, gaining the ire of Jerekyn. Nemnir and Pierson halted by the door to the room, and took to guarding Eris’ privacy.
“May the Crowned One, she who once healed, help you.” Said Pierson softly, and Eris nodded.
It was a small simple room; a wash basin on a stand, a narrow bed. Little else. Estille led the woman to the bed, making her sit and hold her child out.
Eris stepped closer, but something caught her eye in the corner of the room just as she did. It was a rounded off-white object. Stopping for a moment, she darted over to pick it up. She was surprised to find that it was the skull of a fox. She looked into its empty eyes and took in its sharp canines.
“What is that?!” Shrieked the mother. “Death… oh my, it’s a sign of death!”
“Shush now.” Snapped Estille. “I think that belongs to a friend of mine. I’ll get it to him.” She took it from Eris’ confused hand, and nodded towards the mother and child. Eris moved close, and looked over the girl. Her breathing was slight, and her body was covered in the black pox under her shift dress. She was near the end, her tiny body no longer even trying to fight. Eris took a deep breath and took her from the woman, cradling against her as her mother had cradled the man.
She brought back memories of Nemnir in lap, her acid tears falling down over her lips and onto his skin. She remembered the fierce urgency that had made her create a new foot out of the strange, wyrd, weaving darkness. See it coming out of her wounded stump.
She tried to push all of those feelings towards this one small child.
“Sutith.” She whispered to her. “Sutith.”
Something stirred inside her, a power that was familiar, but also still so new. It moved through her aching heart, now full of memories of pain and sorrow. It found its way to her throat and became a sob that then became tears prickling her eyes. She drew the babe’s ravaged face to hers and kissed her, letting the tears flow as they had done for Nemnir.
“Sutith. Be healed. Sutith.”
The tears made the space where her flesh touched the child’s warm and wet, and when she pulled away, the skin there was changing. The spots, with their blistering black centres, were shrinking to nothing. And then the spots close to them were fading too. Then the ones on her torso. And then rest.
“By the bastard gods!” breathed Estille, and Eris was brought back to the room. They should have kept her outside…
She was interrupted by the child, Bess, waking, stretching, and then crying, letting out a wail at being in the arms of a stranger in stinking, travel marked, leathers. Her mother grabbed her back, still too shocked to speak. Eris took hold of that moment to command her.
“You have to be silent, tell no one about this. No one! I had some herbs. Some special woods-voln secret herbs. You don’t know what I did. Everyone knows the woods-voln can make poisons that can do incredible things. Why not healing balms too? You can’t tell anyone!”
The woman nodded mutely as she jigged the child and calmed her. “I won’t tell. I won’t.”
Estille nodded too, before moving aside for Pierson who’d come in when he heard the child cry. He looked at Eris with concern.
“Are you well?”
She nodded wanely, realising that actually she was very tired. And it wasn’t just the road that had made her so.
“What will you tell Jerekyn?” He asked Estille.
“Woods-voln secrets, that’s all. He won’t be interested anyway. Some child was healed and he didn’t even have to lend the mother the coin to get it done. So there was no risk to him and his gold at all. He won’t care.”
She straightened her skirts, pushing out the creases with her palms, taking a deep breath. “Well, you can’t talk to Jerekyn about your request tonight. The poor girl is simply exhausted! Tomorrow. After a good night’s rest. I have a place you can use. It’s safe and nearby.”
“Couldn’t we just stay here?” Eris looked longingly at the bed the woman and her child were sat on.
“These rooms tend to get a little busy. Now that the bell has been rung.” Estille said with a smirk.
“And that’s another way to worship?” Asked Pierson, flatly. “You do surprise me.”
“Don’t let those priest robes corrupt you, Pierson. Not when you were just becoming interesting.”
But it was Nemnir, looking in from just outside the door, who received Estille’s wink before the woman bustled about organising the grateful woman’s departure to her home, as well as theirs to this ‘place’ they could sleep. Eris almost asked Nemnir to carry her, as they left the warmth of the Light of Lios and followed Estille down winding alleys and through courtyards. But she forced herself to drag one foot after the other until they took finally her to a borrowed night dress and a deeply filled goose feather pillow for her head, all in their flirtatious new friend’s house.