“Careful now.” The words came to her from down the end of a long and distant dark tunnel. “Watch her head.”
No. Not from a tunnel. Just by her, a breathed whisper from a mouth scarily close to her ear. She jumped and flinched away, strands of dark hair whipping across her face as she flailed out with her hand, pushing the mouth away. The earth came up to crush her, shaping around the base of her spine and across her shoulder blades with greedy hands. The voice floated away and then came back again.
“She’s waking. I think. Hard to say when she’s still fighting like that.” The voice was in pain, and it wasn’t the same as it had been. Another voice?
“Keep back, just in case.”
The second voice listened to the first and fled to the other side of the woods, darting and chasing through the trees, followed in its rush by great stags with black antlers and foxes with skulls instead of heads.
She shook her head and the trees came crashing down around the voice.
“It’s been hours.” The second voice whispered back to the first, coming in through the beams of light that pierced the rows of stretching-upwards trees.
“Gods know what it was. I’ve never bloody well seen anything like this!”
“Me neither and I’ve dabbled in some unusual… substances.”
“And the tunnel never affected you like this?” The first voice was concerned, and aging. Crackling with the years, turning to dust. Dust.
“Don’t you think I would have said by now?” The second voice had turned to an indignant bird and was soaring over the trees, trilling. Eris lifted her arms and joined him in flight.
“Keep her still!” the second voice snapped, making Eris’ wings fold and collapse. She fell to the forest floor and was eaten by the dead leaves and twigs there, a great mound of decaying life. She whimpered.
“Keep her quiet! We’re not out of the bloody woods yet!” The second voice laughed wryly. “Even if that’s where we’re in fact headed!”
A water skin was put to her mouth and she drank, coughing slightly as the liquid flowed down her throat. Her eyes opened and she saw a giant and shrieked. A hand was clamped over her mouth immediately. A man was crouching by her, staring at her intently, concern on his face. Another man was standing nearby, nursing a blood stained arm. Other cuts in his fine tunic and coat were stained dark red.
“Do you think its permanent?” The standing man asked and was hushed by the crouching man.
“Eris. Eris, do you know who we are?”
She shook her head again, and in doing so this time she loosened some memories… somehow. “Wait, yes-”
“Whisper, please, Eris. We’re not far from the king’s road.” Said Pierson in his own low voice.
She knew his name and a small smile crept onto her mouth. “We’re out of Bara, aren’t we Pierson.”
The giant sighed in relief, before sitting down heavily nearby. The standing man smiled too and spoke. “Thank the bastard gods. We thought you’d lost your wits.”
“The walls… the pictures. There’s something on them. Some kind of… greening. But not. I saw…”
“You saw the Gyreblack boy. We know. You screamed his name and attacked ‘him’” Orrin said, looking over his wounds.
“Oh.” Eris said simply, not knowing where to begin with an apology.
“You and I are going to have a serious conversation about him soon, Eris Atta-Sutith” Said Pierson with determination, while also looking over her shoulder, over the top of the bank where they’d lain her down. Eris twisted to look where he was looking and saw that there were in a ditch, a muddy and stinking outflow of a sewer, and above them a little ways off was the king’s road leading out from Bara. Dizziness struck her and Nemnir placed a cautionary hand on her shoulder.
“We got out through the tunnels.”
“Yeah, with you raving and cursing on Nemnir’s shoulder all the while.” Said Orrin. “Am with me bleeding out… okay, I’m okay. Honest!”
Pierson had shot him a warning look, but Eris looked him over. The storyteller was cut in several places, and was nursing his arm in particular.
“Show me.” She put steel in her words, although the poor man had felt enough of her steel already. He crouched as well and offered her his arm. Slices against the outside of his arm criss-crossed each other. She pushed at the tears on his clothes, seeing more jagged cuts. Shame and guilt flashed like fire though her veins.
“I can… I can fix it.”
Orrin gave her a look that was torn between concern and enthusiasm, wanting to see the true healer at work. Nem make a low and disapproving noise.
“We need to get moving. And she’s barely recovered!” snapped Pierson.
Eris snapped back at him. “We’ll move faster if the storyteller isn’t falling behind from lack of blood, isn’t that right?”
Pierson gave a curt nod and went back to scanning the road. “If you can do it, do it quickly.”
Eris nodded. But could she even do it? Her confidence ebbed and flowed.
Orrin went to make a smart remark and thought better of it under Nemnir’s watch. He lay himself against the steep bank next to Eris, who slowly pulled herself up, leaning over him.
“May she who once healed help you.” Orrin said, his faith shining in his grey eyes. Eris nodded and pulled into mind the image of the goddess on the wall of the tunnel, her crown floating just above her featureless face. She tried not to remember the descent into madness that the dust from the walls had brought about, but even so she felt dizziness claiming her again.
“Don’t if it’s too soon.” Orrin whispered.
“It’ll have to be now, Eris. I hear hooves on the road. We need to be ready!”
Eris felt panic rising in her chest, but dampened it down, trying to remember the goddess on the wall. “Sutith” she said under her breath. Before she had pulled upon memories of desperation and distress and her tears had flowed. This time she felt her eyes dry and clear. But her hands wrapped themselves as best they could about the forearm of Orrin, fingers slick in his blood and making the man wince as she moved, and in doing so, pulled the parts of the cuts apart.
“Bastard gods!” He hissed in sharp pain.
“Be healed. Sutith.” She whispered, and waited for heart breaking moments as nothing happened. Then she felt the power move again, rushing to her hands, and through them. Tears did prick her eyes, but only as she felt the flesh binding itself to itself. Orrin groaned and got a desperate hushing from Pierson, who finally looked back to see how her work was going. Eris felt even more tired than she had when she’d healed the child in the Light of Lios. She let herself fall onto the bank, and lay down her head against the grass there.
Orrin was wondering at his arm, his chest, looking through the bloodied and torn clothes to the healed flesh. “By the bastard gods!” he breathed deeply. “I had heard. But to feel it!” His eyes shone brightly as he looked at Eris lying palely on the bank. “I will serve you as I serve them, till my dying breath, if it pleases you, Eris Atta-Sutith.”
Pierson grunted. “You can serve us all by shutting the fuck up, storyteller. There’s soldiers on the bloody road.”
Eris struggled up, pushing away both Orrin’s and Nemnir’s attempts at help, and went to lay next to Pierson, peeking over the bank with him. He was right. Emerging out of the haze of distance were men on horseback, golden buttons clearer than their faces as they came closer and the grey sun caught their shine and glinted it towards the watchers.
“How many?” asked Pierson, trusting her sharper woods-voln eyes.
“I see many rows. Could be forty. Could be more.”
“Coming from the West? Can you see any banners, or shields?”
She squinted. “Shields. They have arrows bunched and crossed on them.”
“Arrows?!” Pierson frowned. “No one has arrows for a symbol!”
“No. Real arrows. Tied into bundles and crossing over something else.” Eris said. “Something golden.”
“Ah. That just means that they’ve pushed through woods-voln lands and-” he paused.
“They’ve killed wood-voln?” Eris said quietly and Pierson nodded.
“Can you see the emblem behind the arrows?”
“A golden lion, crowned.” She said. The ground was beginning to shake with the trotting of the horses and the two of them pulled back a little further from the top of the bank.
“Crowned? Lios’s home guard then. But here?!” Pierson frowned. “And coming from the West? This road doesn’t lead anywhere he’d need to send them. Even Emphon in the West of North is a two horse harbour town more than a city. But…” He looked back and downwards towards Nem. “The boys were heading to a castle in the West, right?”
Nem nodded from where he was crouched now.
“This king’s road… I never thought about it, but it doesn’t go anywhere.” Whispered Orrin. “At least nowhere I knew about. Emphon, I’ve heard that you go north out of Bara and then West. Yes, you could go there along this road, but…”
“It’s a road to the castle. And Lios sent his personal guard, his best men, there.”
“And then to Bara.” Whispered Eris. The nearest button men were closing on their hiding place and now Eris could see their road weary faces and their carefully maintained moustaches. Their dirtied coats showed signs of battle, and some were wounded and bandaged. But all of them reminded her of the man who’d ordered her maiming. She tried to look away, afraid of drawing their gaze, but could not. There were forty-four of them, and every single one reminded her of the button man she loathed. Rage began to build, and her fingers itched for her dagger, long ago taken off her by one of the men as she had raved with madness in the tunnel. The itch continued however, something stirring under her skin. She looked down at her hands, the hands that had just pulled the torn parts of Orrin back together, and she saw dust on her fingertips, just as it had been in the corridor of the bastard gods. She rubbed fingertips together again and watched as a greenish tinge came to the flecks of powder there. Atta, her mind whispered. Atta. The taste of Atta, the greening drawn from the Attavine plant and related to the poison of the Attavine woods-voln, bloomed in her mouth and she fought the urge to spit. Another time, another time and she would bring the greening to the men on the horses. The ones who looked like… Rickarn. The name sprang from traumatised memory and then she did spit, turning away from Pierson next to her who looked at her with deep concern.
It did not take long for the men to pass and proceed to the gates and then to go within with the help of the guards there. Then the four of them could sneak further along the bank, finding cover when they could, and walking quickly away from the sight of any Bara sentries or scouts.
“Why do you think they were heading into Bara?” Eris asked, trying to also secretly wipe the soft powder from her fingertips and onto her leathers as they walked.
“Perhaps searching for the boys. I don’t know.” Pierson was thinking. “It is unlikely that Lios would send his own personal guard just for some orphans and unwanted street-voln. But then I can’t pretend to understand our bloody god-king.”
Eris nodded, still thinking. If they continued the way they were going they would be heading towards this castle in the West. But the boys, and Sarai and Callia, were on the other side of Bara, in the East. She looked ahead, squinting into the distance again, seeing fields of tilled rows of soil appearing on either side of the road. It was too open, too unlike her woods. She remembered flying above them with the voice in her hallucination.
Pierson was watching her. “You want to go home?”
“Where is that though?” She said ruefully.
“Somewhere where you can take off your boot and not have people stare at your foot.” Said Pierson, and Eris was jolted. She’d forgotten, even in her anger over the Gyreblack boy, what the result had actually been of his maiming of her. In her boot she flexed the wyrd foot.
“What’s that? What’s that about her foot?” Asked Orrin, the curiosity of a storyteller in his voice.
“Walk ahead a minute, Orrin. You too Nem. Watch our way as we head South about Bara.”
Orrin sighed and nodded to the mountain-voln, picking up the pace and turning to take a path away from the king’s road heading West.
“You’re angry with me?” Eris said cautiously.
“Angry aint the right word, lass.”
“You definitely aren’t pleased.” Muttered Eris.
“You got the right to hate. Maybe even to kill. But you got to decide if that’s what you want.”
“And if it is?”
Pierson sighed. “I told you, lass, I’ve killed. It weren’t pretty and more than half the time it weren’t right. Told you, I got a code. But it wasn’t always like that. There was a time when I did what I thought I wanted in the moment rather than what I’d thought through on the right or wrongness of it.”
He was struggling, words stumbling over each other.
“I told you, didn’t I, about Nem and the button man who took his tongue. And I told you about how button men give orders and others carry them out. I gave orders once too, lass. Bad orders.”
A cold certainty crept into her veins. “No…” she tried to push away the truth.
“We were in the command tent. Not two miles from the front. Drinking, gambling… aye, and whoring. Some soldier comes in, tells us all that there’s a mountain-voln causing trouble.”
“I didn’t even think about who it was. Who it could be. Forgot all about the man I’d been stood with, shoulder to shoulder. The man who’d saved me. Who’d I’d saved. But even if I had thought about him, what was the difference? I gave an order and someone was going to get hurt. And I gave that order because I was drunk, stupid, and because I was trying to be the big man in front of other men who were really so much smaller and even more scared than I was!”
Eris stopped walking, staring up at Pierson, seeing maybe for the first time bags under his eyes and a grey cast coming to his skin as the years fell away and he remembered what he’d done.
“You lied to me!”
“I just didn’t tell you the whole story, lass.”
“There’s no difference! You hurt Nem!”
“I did. And there’s not a day I don’t hate myself for it. But Nem… he doesn’t hate me. Doesn’t want to kill me.” He left the point of his story hanging in the air and Eris fought against it.
“It’s different! The Gyreblack boy, he-”
“I said it before, your fate is your own, lass. Last time you told me that you’d chosen to find the boy, and I knew it was only for revenge. I hoped otherwise, but I knew. And then you found him, and you set Jerekyn’s men on him. And I saw how you looked at the soldiers on the road. You’re burning with anger-”
“Shouldn’t I be?!”
“You’ve the right. But you’ve also the chance to find where to aim it, like a poison greened arrow.”
He handed her back her dagger.
“Or a dagger.”
It was still stained with blood. Orrin’s blood.
“You have to choose your target. I chose long ago. It could have been myself. I could have punished myself for what I did. But the night I snuck away from the camp with Nemnir I tried to leave him behind, so that I could walk my own path towards the Shadowed One and a slow and bad death. Nem wouldn’t bloody let me, the daft shit. Even after I told him what I’d done.”
Eris thought on what he was saying. “Who did you choose?”
“Who would you guess?”
Eris thought. “The spider at the centre of the web. Lios?”
Pierson laughed darkly. “I like that description far better than bloody ‘Blessed’. Aye, Lios is my target. One day I’m going to cut his tongue for all the wicked lies its told, and for all the boys who became button men and killed in his name.”
“No you’re not.” Eris said with sudden and very exciting realisation. “You’re going to try to poison him. With the greening that has no sign! Gyreblack!”
Pierson smiled, and it was a dark and sly smile. “You’re sharp, woods-voln, very sharp. But that’s a tale still in the telling. Come now, let’s get home. I have ladies a-waiting.”
Eris walked on with him, catching up with Orrin and Nemnir. And as she did the itching in her finger tips returned.