The crutches made her something to stare at and she hated them. But she also loved them because Nem had carved them himself, showing off the small talent that had made Pierson his small wooden statue of She Who Once Healed, the Crowned One. The crutches were finely shaped to fit comfortably under her arms, a spur of carved smooth branch on each to grasp in her hands at just the right level. They could only have been better made if Nemnir had been a master crafter in one of the large cities her mother had told her about. As the making of a traveller using only a few old and rough tools they were perfect. But still, she hated them.
Walking… no, it wasn’t even remotely akin to walking when she used the crutches. Hobbling across the main clearing of the Diarnilys’ temporary camp she saw face after face of the woods-voln turn to look after her, turning from the setting and repairing of their tents. Turning from their older-head discussions of these strangers to actively stare upon one of the three. Turning from their goggle-eyed watching of Nem cutting logs for the fire pit.
She caught the giggle of one of the young girls to her friend as both watched – from strategic hiding positions about the trees – the bare chested mountain-voln at his chores. Eris groaned inside. All three of them were bound to cause staring but did Nem have to go about the work that they had been given with such seeming blindness to what he was causing?
“Good day, Atta-Sutith.”
Eris wobbled to a halt on her path. “Good day, Diarnilys.” It was one of the older-heads, Verla Diarnilys, the woman who had spoken up on the behalf of the three travellers when they staggered, near enough half dead from road-weariness, into the Diarnilys lands and begged an audience with their elders. Verla had proposed that the Diarnilys let the woods-voln, the city-voln and the mountain-voln stay until the birthing of her grand-daughter’s first babe. The Diarnilys had women experienced in birthing a-plenty, but Verla had claimed to recall her own mother’s account of how Verla’s difficult birth had been made easier by an Atta-Sutith. Some mother to her own mother’s mother, or her mother’s mother’s mother had passed through her before. The generations were a confusion in Eris’ head, but she had been glad that she, Pierson and Nemnir had been given leave to stay for a while, and to someday soon hunt fat rich city-voln on the king’s roads.
“I wanted a word Atta-Sutith.”
Eris wobbled a little on the crutches, and Verla gestured to a tree stump, one freshly hewn by Nemnir as one of the tasks he could do for this temporary camping of the Diarnilys. Eris took the seat, even as the much older woman remained standing. A flock of young woods-voln rushed past in a flurry of chatter and noise, their poison greened arrows rattling in their quivers. Off to hunt, Eris thought, wishing she could run with them. She put down her crutches and then turned her attention back to Verla.
“Are you going to ask us to move on?”
There was a good fifty or so years between them in age, but as Verla squirmed and looked uncomfortable, her eyes darting to the shirtless and sweating Nemnir and his hidden female admirers, Eris felt like she was the adult and Verla the child.
“Not quite.” She paused, thinking on how to begin. “There are things perhaps you are too young to know about yet, even though you are Atta-Sutith.”
“Ah.” Said Eris, a suspicion dawning. “You mean about Pierson. And the widows.”
Verla was grey of hair and pale of skin in her advanced years, but suddenly she blushed almost like one of the giggling females stalking Nem. “And the way the young girls watch Nemnir Mountain-Voln.” She said, choosing a family name for him.
“I have no control over the madness of young woods-voln girls. Nor can I control widows who seem to like Pierson’s words, even though they know he is bound to leave.” She held out her hands, open in a symbol of powerlessness.
“True. I am an elder, and I also certainly do not have that power. But you could speak with Nemnir and Pierson…”
“As you say Verla Diarnilys, there are some things that perhaps I am too young to know about. Even if my mother taught me of men and women… and sometimes of men and men, and of women and women…” Verla looked even more uncomfortable. “So tell me, how am I supposed to speak with Pierson and Nem about this, when I am just a child who makes adults blush when I know the things I am too young to know?”
Verla laughed. “Oh, if it was not for your companions Eris Atta-Sutith, I… no, the entire family, would ask you to stay indefinitely.”
“Yes, but they are my companions, Verla Diarnilys.” She struggled to her feet, pulling up the damned crutches. “Should I check on Vervain? Since two of my companions are paying their way today.”
Verla looked to Nem and then looked about for Pierson, confused. “Two of them…?”
“Pierson is probably with one or the other of the widows, right?”
“I heard he was entertaining both togeth-” Verla halted her words as she remembered Eris’ age. Again. “No. Eyes in the woods tell me that he headed out early this morning, stomping about in the woods as city-voln will do, scouting along the king’s road that tears through our lands, looking for ambush points. His daggers are itching to cut away some road-walker’s coin purse.” Verla looked over Eris. “I think you are eager for something alike to that. I see your frown Eris Atta-Sutith. But don’t forget I have had five daughters, and seven granddaughters. Even if I can’t prevent them staring after a mountain-voln like a love-sick vixen, I can still read when they are moon-angry or when they are burying some other rage that wants to burst from them like a poison greened arrow from a bow. Your missing foot-”
“I don’t want to talk about that.” She clamped her lips together, tight and thin.
“No. I don’t imagine you do. And I don’t want a mountain-voln and city-voln stirring up the women of my camp.”
Rage bubbled up inside Eris. “They might not be woods-voln, but they are good men! So what if the girls and the widows like them! They’re still men, even if they aren’t sharp enough of bone and wits for you, Verla Diarnilys!”
The older-head and the Atta-Sutith faced off in silence then, milky green eyes staring into fierce bright emerald ones. Verla backed down first, a rueful smile on her face. “Eris Atta-Sutith, the bastard gods help us if you ever have your own daughters and sons.”
“What’s that?” A man asked casually. The grey woman and the girl turned to where Pierson was standing, looking curious but knowing nothing about their disagreement.
“I was talking to Eris about some matters of the camp. Nothing of importance.”
“Can I steal her away?”
“Of course city-voln.” Verla nodded to both of them and then walked away.
“Was she stirring the shit?”
Eris looked confused.
“Sorry, a city-voln saying. Was she making a noise about us being here?”
“More or less.” Eris could not bring herself to raise the widows with him. That was territory she was not sure how to scout. “But she also said you were looking for ambush sites this morning.”
Pierson smiled darkly. “And I found a beauty.” He looked about for Nem, seeing him still hard at work on the logs. “Oh by the bastard gods, why did he take his shirt off?”
“He was getting hot?” Eris said as diplomatically as she could, but Pierson saw through it.
“Ah, so Verla mentioned that too.” He was looking at Eris closely, and she fought the rush of redness on her own cheeks. “Oh, I bet she did. Couldn’t wait to talk to the one member of our little firm, who has been no bloody trouble at all, about her reprobate companions. But there ain’t no law against it, certainly not in the woods. If a voln wants another voln, it don’t matter where they come from…” She didn’t think that he was talking about Nem anymore, and she groaned.
“Pierson! I don’t want to know!” She would have put her hands over her ears, if not for the bloody crutches.
“Right. Yes lass. I forget you’re a child sometimes.”
“You’re making it worse for yourself Pierson!” She near enough growled, surprised to find a dark rich current of real rage underneath her mock anger. Was Verla right? “Tell me about this ambush spot?”
“It’s perfect. On the bend of the road. There’s also a high tree bough where a careful archer might fire a few arrows in the right direction at the right time… if you’re interested?”
“Me?” Eris’ eyes opened wide.
“Nem can lift you up there, and then your… you won’t need to walk. We’ll take the sides of the road and pick upon the first fat city-voln to make his way to us. Like stealing pastries from an orphan. Um, well, you know what I mean.”
He looked over towards Nem and his ever increasing pile of logs. “Now all we need is our muscle, if we can get him away without these wood ladies rioting.”
Eris followed Pierson towards the mountain-voln, who was just about to begin work on another thick trunk, settling it down in front of him and limbering up for the swing. She kept up with Pierson, but only just, and the dark haired man made no concession for her crutches. Even going those twenty or so feet at such a quick pace tired her, but she tried to hold her breath steady.
“Nem. Time to stop.”
Nemnir turned mid swing, and then rested his borrowed axe on a nearby stump. Eris saw some shadows among the trees flit away as their entertainment for the afternoon finally came to an end.
“I found a good spot. You’ll need to carry Eris there. She’s tired out just getting to you across the clearing.”
Red colour bloomed on her face. She’d thought she’d hid it well enough, but Pierson still knew!
“I can do it!”
“Lass, even if it weren’t exhausting for you, crutches aint going to make sneaking through between the trees easy.”
“And being carried by a mountain-voln is such a subtle way of travelling!” Eris fumed. “I’m tired of being carried like a child!”
She regretted her sharp tone as soon as the words came from her mouth, but that rich vein of anger was still there, under everything, just dying to be tapped into.
“You’re one of our firm. We help our own. It ain’t pity. And we need you. We need your eyes, and we need whatever skill you got with the bow.”
“I don’t know if I can heal again, Pierson… not the way I did with Nem and the ghostblight greening.”
“We’d best not get hurt then.” He smiled. “You still have more experience with herbs and balms than most. Eris, letting Nem carry you ain’t no slight, you too proud bloody woods-voln idiot!” He smiled as he insulted her and Eris nodded.
“Very well. I’ll need a bow then. The Diarnilys will lend me one, but they’ll only let me have naked arrows, not greened. They won’t share their greening.”
“We won’t need poison. All going well, we’ll not need to hurt anyone. Just relieve them of some weighty and burdensome coin, to make their long journey on the king’s road between Bara and Tralis that much easier.” Pierson smiled again, and it was wicked. And it made Eris laugh.
After a bit of negotiating with another of the older-heads of the family, Eris had gotten her bow, as well as some young woods-voln’s leathers. She felt sad stripping away her dress and apron in the tent they’d lent her, but they were near beyond patching already. She then debated with herself about letting the one leg of the trousers hang empty from her stump, but decided instead to sew it closed, using a wickedly pointed leather needle and some thick black twine. Before she did though, she sat on the furs of her bed and thoroughly looked over her stump, bending her knee to bring it closer. It wasn’t pretty, it never would be, but it had healed together in a way that shouldn’t have happened without more needles, thread, balm, and time.
And there, beginning to spiral up from within its creases was the same patch of dark cracked skin that had once curled about her foot and ankle. A birthmark, her mother had told her every time she’d asked about it, showing her the same twisting, thickening, and thinning line of skin that circled her own upper arm. A birthmark, her mother’s mother had said, lifting her white hair and showing where her own mark spiralled into her scalp. But her foot was gone now, and the ‘birthmark’ was coming back.
“Are you bloody coming, scout?!” Pierson barked from inside. He’d insisted on the separate tents, they weren’t in a cave now, and neither he nor Nem ever came to see her when she was inside on her own. Although the two of them however still shared one, which had had Eris in near giggles at the thought of Pierson being squashed all the way to one side by Nem. But it had turned out that Pierson had found himself other tents to sleep in, away from the mountain-voln and the potential of being crushed if Nemnir rolled in his sleep.
“Coming, boss!” She snapped back, while jiggling herself into the leathers, quickly fastening with suddenly quivering fingers the buckles and laces of the woods-voln gear. Her mother, and her mother’s mother never wore woods-voln leathers. They’d said it showed the different families that watched them enter their territories that they weren’t trying to defend themselves from their arrows, so they’d know that these woods-voln were something different. Leather couldn’t turn away an arrow of course, but her sharp mother had known that sometimes roughspun cotton could.
She crawled out of the flap and let Nemnir pull her up into his arms instead of struggling to stand and trying to fetch her crutches that rested on the floor. He’d put on his massive shirt and patched coat, and the sword and shield was re-strapped to his back, although now alongside a girl’s bow and a Diarnilys quiver of arrows. She was relieved not to be being hugged close to his bare, hairy and sweaty, chest! He even smelled sweet, as though he’d washed down quickly after his chores with some flowered water. She wrapped her arms about him. “Thank you Nem.”
He grunted in response.
“Nem says we ought to be bloody going now.” Pierson snapped back. He was just as he had been dressed before, although she noticed a small white Diarnilys flower pinned to his coat. Which of the widows was giving him charms to protect him she wondered?
Nem grunted again, more crossly.
“No he didn’t say that! He said it was his honour to carry me, and that I weigh no more than the snowbird that greeted his steppes home every morning with the prettiest of songs.”
Pierson smiled. “So now you can translate for him, is that so? Learn how to charm the ladies and twirl a dagger or two, girl, and there’ll be no purpose left for me in my life!”
Nem started forward, making a series of low sounds.
“What was that Nem, I’m already more charming than Pierson?” Eris pretended to translate.
“Very funny. Now this path is easy enough, but we’ll keep quiet nearer the king’s road. It’s about an hour away at our pace.” They then plunged into the treeline from the clearing, and Eris began to scour the trees about them. Quickly she spotted three of Nemnir’s admirers, flitting about the trees, following them. Sometime later they peeled away from their pursuit, realising that Nem was sticking with the much more boring task of carrying the weird Atta-Sutith woods-voln and not about to prance about with his shirt off again in the near future. Eris wondered if Pierson had even spotted them, until she heard him muttering under his breath about being stalked by woods-voln ‘nutters’.
Finally, they were within sight of the king’s road. Although, road barely described the rough stone and worn earth path that had once been pushed through the woods-voln lands but which now had nearly returned to its former state. This one led between Bara and the North East to Tralis, some other city where Lios worshippers broke their backs in his name. At least that was how Pierson described it, with contempt on his face. They skirted the edge of it and made their way to a curve in its line, overlooked by a proud oak tree with strong but low boughs. One of which was just the right height to be nearly out of the sight of any on the road, but low enough for Nem to lift Eris up onto.
She settled herself there, and then he passed her the bow and quiver.
Her mother had trained her with the bow, as all woods-voln mothers did their children. But she had been a healer, and they’d only ever hunted for food when they could not exchange her healing skills for goods and shelter from other woods-voln. But as soon as Eris’ left hand grasped the bow about the grip, she felt the finely crafted bow speak to her. Whisperings of how much to draw it, how much to aim slightly above her target. It was instinct older than even her mother’s mother’s mother. It was the gift of the Pierced One to the woods-voln, the bastard god who had three arrows in his shape. One above his head, one through his neck and one bisecting his body.
“Are you set?” Pierson was looking up at her through the leaves. “We’ll take positions there and there.” He pointed into the trees at the sides of the road. “Fire a warning shot to the feet of anyone who looks likely. No farm-voln with a few potatoes in a hand cart. Look for fat city-voln. If they have guards, don’t fire. If I make the sound of a dying owl – yes, it’s the best I can do – then don’t fire!”
Pierson moved closer to the base of the tree. “And if you don’t want to do this, lass. You don’t have to. Nem can get you down and take you somewhere out of the way in the trees until we’re done-”
“I’m in this firm, aint I?” She put a rough city-voln tone on the words, and was granted a broad smile from Pierson.
“That you are lass, that you are.” Pierson melted away into the shadows of the trees nearby, and Nemnir smiled his own smile up at her before walking across the road to his own post. Then there was the waiting. Eris was glad she found time to sneak away to make her toilet before they’d left, given how long it was before the first body made its way towards her up the road. She slid an arrow from the quiver, but she could quite quickly see it was just a female farm-voln, walking her donkey up the road, laden with apples. Later came a pig herder. And then a shepherd. And then a milkmaid. All were female, and all were farm-voln. She shifted her weight, her behind beginning to numb. And then she heard the jingle of reins. A cart came into view. For a moment she was about to lower her bow again, and then her sharp eyes caught a glint of gold material underneath the misshapen grey woollen sack the man was wearing as a cloak. In fact, the shape of it was perhaps less made by the sagging material and more likely made by the figure’s sagging belly.
She let her arrow fly, having it whistle to embed itself into the earth in front of the surprisingly fat cart pony’s hooves.
Pierson emerged from the treeline, with Nemnir silently walking up behind the cart. The man spun about seeing first the city-voln and then the mountain-voln both of whom were smiling. The woollen sack cloth he was wearing fell further apart, revealing rich golden robes below it.
“Your money or your life?” Pierson stated, spinning a vicious dagger in one hand. The man sighed and stood, dropping the sack and revealing his opulent robes.
“I am a man of Lios. You will let me pass!”
Pierson laughed. “A priest? A bloody priest!”
“If you do not let me pass I will commune with Lios and he will turn his blessings from you!” The man’s double chins were wobbling as he barked at Pierson.
“Oh no! Will I become a restless spirit when I die? Oh no!” Sarcasm dripped from Pierson and Nemnir laughed his strange broken laugh. “Aint no Lios in these woods, priest. Lios is in the city, and he’s on the Front. But these woods belong to the woods-voln.”
“So why is a city-voln and a mountain-voln terrorising honest travellers on their lands?!” The divinely blessed ‘Chins’ was turning redder and redder.
“Honest? A likely story, aint you a priest of Lios? Check the cart!”
Nemnir nodded and moved forward, grasping the wood of the apparently empty but rather tall cart and pulling at it until it split apart. He pulled a golden and bejewelled chest from inside.
“That belongs to Lios!” ‘Chins’ was fuming. “That is the repentance of the good men and women of Bara. That belongs to Lios!!”
“Hmmm repentance looks a lot like gold coins and fine jewellery to me. Wait. Aint there a large number of priests in Bara, all as fat and gross as you, all living among the silks in that fancy temple? Why aint the coin there with them? If it was going anywhere, wouldn’t it be going to Liosinium and to the god-king’s treasury?”
The priest paled. “There is important work for me in Tralis! I need the monies for Lios’ Will there.”
“Liar!” Eris called down.
“By Lios, how many of you are there?!”
“That’s our truth-stealer. It’s an old woods-voln gift. She can always smell out a stinking lie. You’re a thief!” Pierson smiled. “Which I kind of admire, I have to say. But you stole from thieves, and now thieves will steal from you!”
‘Chins’ went to get up from the cart and Nem pushed him back down, one large hand on his shoulder. Nem’s other hand now held his immense sword, the box secreted away somewhere safe.
“Those robes, did they cost you much? Strip!”
The man shook off Nem’s hand and reluctantly drew off his thick gold robe, revealing a stained and baggy white vest and long greying trousers beneath. “Lios know of this. He sees all!”
Nemnir pulled a golden chain out from under ‘Chins’ vest and revealed a golden eye pendant of Lios. That too was tucked away for later by the thief.
“Well, it looks like he’s blind now.” Pierson said smugly.
Eris was enjoying seeing the fat man stripped of his hidden gold. So much so that it was a moment too late that she heard the pounding of horse’s hooves on the road behind him, heading towards them at great speed. Someone from Bara had sent the Button men to find the thief, and they were going to get three more thieves for their efforts!
“Riders! Button men!!” Screamed Eris, her voice breaking.
Pierson and Nemnir abandoned their threatening poses over the cowering priest and ran for the tree line. Pierson showed remarkable woods-voln-ness and merged into the shadows quietly, while Nem barrelled through, leaving a trail of bushes with broken branches behind him as he pushed through them with his round shield.
Panicking, Eris thought about notching another arrow, but it was near pointless against Button men with roarers. Instead, she began to flatten her body along the bough, bringing her legs up and further into the shadows.
As she lay there she watched four riders reach the near hyperventilating priest, his chubby hands as far above his head as they could go. They surrounded him and sighted their weapons on him, their gold buttons flashing as they drew their lion headed roarers out from under rich dark blue coats. Tin buttons, Eris thought vindictively, they’re mostly tin underneath all that fake golden shine.
“Dunnell, once of Lios?” One, a Captain perhaps, asked of the priest, his voice a whip cracking out on the silent road.
Eris shivered. Each of these men were alike to the one who had commanded the boy to take her foot. The same sneer under elaborately shaped facial hair. Some had goatees as well as the moustache, or oiled hair rather than flowing locks. But it was still as though her nightmare was made into four and was come a-riding to find her.
“There’s been a mistake! I was merely bringing the repentances to Tralis! For the temple there! And… and… there are bandits in the woods! You should be dealing with the real criminals. In Lios’s name!” He made the symbol for Lios with his left hand. “There are things you should be doing in Lios’ name, not terrorising his own priests. There are bandits in the woods!!”
“There are always bandits in the woods. But rarely does our blessed god-king write a writ for their hearts.” The Captain brought out a sealed document and waved it towards the cowering priest. “You have won his particular ire with your thievery Dunnell, cursed of Lios.”
“But he is in Liosinium?! How could he know…”
“Have you fallen so far that you forget your faith? Lios sees all! Even if you no longer wear his holy eye!”
The fat man’s hand went to where his holy symbol should have been, the symbol that was now with Nemnir.
“Thieves, bandits, cut throats!” He pointed wildly to her hiding place, and Eris began to shake. “There in the tree! Two others went into the woods!”
The Captain nodded at one of his men and he began to walk his horse slowly towards Eris’ hiding place.
“He has a bow!”
“We’re on the king’s road, and surrounded by woods-voln. I’d expect nothing else.” The Captain mocked.
“Your man will die!”
“Worry more for your own skin, apostate!” The Captain swung down from his horse and stood over the priest, muttering something Eris couldn’t make out as she struggled to get to a crawling position on the bough. The other Button man was getting closer, and soon he would be able to look up the tree and see her. She abandoned the bow to give herself two free hands, flinging it deeper into the woods away from the road. The movement was a risk, but falling because she had only one hand to grasp with would have been worse.
She looked about desperately. Going up was no option at all, he’d still see her when he reached the foot of the tree, and he had a roarer to fire up at her. Going down would mean reaching out with legs stretched to their limit as she hung from the bough, her absent foot throwing off her landing even if he didn’t see her hanging there like some kind of ridiculous woods-voln shaped fruit! The only path was across, to where another tree was perhaps just close enough, and from there across other branches and trees until she was far enough from the road to drop somewhere soft. But that meant climbing through trees without one foot to reach out with. Even crawling up to the trunk of this tree she felt off balance as her remaining foot naturally curved around the bough to give her some kind of anchor, and the other did not.
It was impossible. She managed to drag herself to her foot, hugging the trunk, but she simply could not circle herself about the body of the tree without a left foot to put down on a bough on the other side! It was impossible!
Tears of frustration began to well up in her eyes. There had to be a way!!
Tentatively she began to reach out with her left leg, preparing herself for the disturbing jolt as her leg failed to compensate for her missing foot and ankle and her body moved further than it was expecting.
But she made it without the sudden fall.
Through the stitched up leathers her stump make contact with the opposite bough as sweat began falling into her eyes and stinging. Oddly, it didn’t hurt. It was however strange and disconcerting to put her full weight on it and to pull herself about the trunk. Crouching down on the other side, she half expected the bang of the roarer in her ears, but looking back through the veil of leaves she saw that the man was still approaching, the Captain was still whispering to the priest. She had been certain that hours had passed, but it was near enough no time at all.
She released the trunk and cautiously turned, keeping her hands touching the bark behind her to steady her, pivoting on her one foot before dropping to her knees and crawling to where the next tree began to interlace its branches with hers. But the nearest was just a measure too high to reach and pull herself to without standing and stretching up on tip toes. Should she drop to the wood’s floor and hope that the shadows caught her and covered her over with the man just feet away? Or should she risk standing on one perilous foot to reach up and grab at it and make her way further away?
She was debating it still when she heard the priest’s scream.
Lios had written a writ for his heart the Captain had said. And he’d claimed it too, it seemed.
Ice flashed through her veins and spurred her into movement, moving from her crouch to balance on the branch, arms out stretched, on one leg like a crane. She wobbled, seconds from falling.
“Atta-Sutith!” She whispered to herself in panic.
Her left leg instinctively moving forward to stabilise her. And then there was the jolt she’d been expecting earlier, as it went further than her instinctive memory remembered, even if her rational mind knew there was no foot there anymore.
She fell forwards and caught her weight on her palms, scrapping them, then feeling the air pushed from her lungs with her impact with the bark. If it’d been a younger tree, a thinner bough, it would have shaken, but it just absorbed the blow and kept her secret.
Eris wanted to lie there and just rest, but there was no time for that. Come on! Come on Atta-Sutith! She pushed herself. You have to move, you have to go! Atta-Sutith!
She felt icy-fire coursing through her veins, burning her muscles at the same time as tensing them. The hairs on her arms rose and her scalp prickled as energy skated across her skin. Then it was pooling in her legs, reading them to try again. She got to a crouch and closed her eyes, urging it to work this time, urging her body to get her up and reaching.
There was a sudden burst of pain from her stump, and a flash of black across her vision as her breath caught in her throat.
“Come on!” She screamed in her head.
Eris moved, lifting her good leg to push up to stand. As she did she suddenly felt something flapping and move against her right calf. Looking down she saw the ragged ends of her leathers being pushed about by thin tendrils of black that looked like growing vines. They crossed and twisted about each other, coming to settle in a mesh of dark lattice, arcing around her stump, and flowing down. They bent at the point where her ankle would have been and drew together into a flattened end as though her toes had returned.
Her head spun and she nearly vomited over the edge of the bough.
A disturbance just behind and below her brought her back to the moment. He was under the tree. If he looked up and to the left he would spot her standing, staring in amazement at the black twisting shape that was emerging from her stump.
“Move. Atta-Sutith, move!” She whispered to herself again, daring to put her weight on both her good foot and… whatever it was that had stopped moving and was keeping an ankle and foot shape.
She reached above her, moving as slowly as she dared, reaching up and then reaching further. Her good foot and the black lattice were working together, raising her up on to tip toes on both to get her in range of the branch. She hooked her arms over it, and swung her left leg up. The thing on her leg worked as a foot might, or near enough, allowing her to twist it as she got her up leg up, helping to grip there for a moment and then, with her left knee, to work around the new bough to bring the rest of her up onto it.
She paused, panting. She could just see him, a dark shape looking about but not looking with much perseverance. The Captain shouted to him as he aimlessly examined the bushes about her first hiding place.
“Soldier, the woods-voln aint going to be still here. Not with Button men on the king’s road. We got the heart, lets head back. There’s a whore in Bara I want to see.”
“The red head again sir?” the useless scout below her asked, a sly grin in his voice.
“Yeah. The woods-voln bitch. But unlike her voln she’s not disappearing into the woods like some fucking coward when she hears me coming, sure as blood is blood! She’s got a warm welcome ready for me between her legs!”
The Button man below laughed and went back to the road and his horse. Before long she heard the curt clip clop of the four horses’ hooves, heading back the way that they had come.
Eris let out the breath she hadn’t realised she’d been holding while they spoke. She’d have to get down, and then think about… the thing that’d grown where her foot had been. She’d have to find Pierson and Nemnir. And they’d want to know what had happened. And what it was. And the Diarnilys would stare even more than they had at her crutches. They’d all stare.
Hot tears again on her cheeks. She ignored the stinging grazes on her palms as she made fists and pushed them away from her eyes.
A whickering noise caught her ear. The priest’s fat pony, alone now and confused.
She let her body fall from the bough, holding herself as long as she could, legs and… feet… stretched as far out as they could go, and then she dropped, landing on her feet. Her two feet.
Within seconds she was by the pony, looking over the harnesses that buckled it to the cart. There was a lump she could see out of the corner of her eye, lying on its back in the middle of a shining red pool of liquid, which still spreading outwards from him. She kept to her task, working at the pony’s buckles, until it was free.
She turned to look at Pierson, emerging from the woods. Nem was at his side, ducking to avoid branches.
“Thank the bastard gods… Eris what are you doing?!”
She couldn’t even answer the question. Instead, she swung her left leg over the back of the small horse, the new strange black part of her on the same side as the two men. Quickly she gee’d the beast on, turning it about against its protests to canter back down the road. Towards Bara.
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 after being released from its usual slow plodding. 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 how she dug her heels into its rotund sides. Her two 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 distant horizon as the road’s thin path wound that way through the woods.
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 got off the road and into a march through the trees to the South, very aware that she was surely in a different 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 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 sharp 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 badly.
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, slowly taking in her ripped leathers and the wyrd foot.
“You found me.”
“It weren’t so hard, even for this city-born tracker. You left bigger tracks than Nem would have done.”
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. Had he slept at all?
“You 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 on her face 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!” Pierson laughed, and there was a low noise in agreement from Nem, and a nod. “So, lass. You got a new foot then?”
They both looked down at the wyrd 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 not everything that’s black and, yes, let’s say it, wyrd looking, is 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. Fought every bloody preening lieutenant.”
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. And I’ve 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.