Eris let out a breath that she only realised she’d been holding in when it was finally whistling out past her lips. Her breath-out began just after the baby’s first in-breath, the mark of her hand still on his behind as she’d shocked the small thing into a gasp and then the long wail that followed, grey-blue skin starting to flush a healthy pink.
“You have a son Vervain.”
Eris brought the babe to the exhausted mother who was still, almost deliriously muttering the names of the greenings, and gently turned him so that he would lie across her bare swollen breasts, his mouth already puckering for his mother’s milk. The other women in the room seemed to exhale as well, fear turning to admiration. Eris had been surrounded by a hundred years of birthing experience, when they were all added up together, but they’d still deferred to the healed healer, the Atta-Sutith. Verla caught her eye and mouthed her thanks as the room remained near quiet, the woods-voln women enjoying the peace after Vervain’s screaming of the greenings, and then the dreadful silence that had followed the birthing before the child had finally wailed. Eris tried not to frown. She’d done nothing much; no more than her mother had showed her as she got old enough, and certainly nothing like what she’d done with her leg or with the ghostblight greening that had damn near killed Nemnir. Still, respect gleamed in the women’s eyes when they looked at her. She didn’t want it, not at all, it felt like a burden.
“Thank you Eris Atta-Sutith” Vervain murmered, not taking her eyes from the small scrunched up human in her arms. “He shall be named in your honour. Erishan Diarnilys will walk these woods because of you.”
Vervain and the other women inclined their heads towards the child, recognising him and his name. Eris roughly rubbed the blood from her arms with a cloth, ignoring the offered water and made her way quickly from the birthing tent. A man waited outside among other men, far enough away to leave the birthing to the women, but close enough to have heard all of his wife’s wails.
“Please?” He came over, the wood of his bow being rung between his two slender hands.
“You have a son. Erishan Diarnilys will walk these woods.” She snapped out the words, noting how Pierson and Nemnir stood near the woods-voln, but still at a slight distance. They caught up with her as she walked on, her slight limp still making her slower than them.
“The babe is well?”
“Yes, a healthy boy.”
Pierson nodded. “Thank the bastard gods.”
She paused and looked up at him, sensing something unsaid. “But…?”
“Our time here is coming to an end. Verla only promised us a home until the babe was birthed.”
Eris nodded, tiredness finally coming flooding into her blood and bones. The birthing had begun a lifetime ago.
“We need to think about what is next.” He said simply and Eris nodded. “But not until you have had time to rest. And to wash.” He said pointedly.
Eris looked down at the red still staining her arms, and even as she did her eyes un-focussed.
“Nem and I will go offer the new father something to wet the babe’s head with. Come find us again when you are either rested, or we are waking with sore heads,” he put a gentle hand on her shoulder, “you have done well today, Eris.”
“Even if it means we must move on now?”
Nemnir made a low soft noise.
“He says our time was always going to be short here. There are other paths expecting our feet now. Even my wyrd one.” Eris said wryly.
Nem smiled at Eris’ dark humour and let Pierson pull him towards the woods-voln men, already sharing wine skins in celebation. Eris watched after them, waiting to see how they were welcomed. There was still uncertainty in the woods-voln men’s eyes as they greeted the city-voln, and looked up, and up, to meet Nemnir’s eyes. Yes, it was time to move on.
She walked off with the intention of heading first into her tent and then into a deep sleep, when her path was crossed by two woods-voln women in hunting leathers. They carried a gutted deer tied to a stake between them, and like Eris they had blood stained arms from fingertip to elbow. She recognised them as the two widows who had been entertaining Pierson since they joined the Diarnilys camp… or near enough as soon as they had walked in, the honey-tongued city-voln charming his way to an audience with the older-heads straight away. And into the widows’ beds at the same time, as it had turned out.
The taller of the two, who cut her auburn hair to a jagged length just below her jaw and then ran bear fat through it to keep it out of her eyes, was Sarai. Her sharp features gave her a hunter’s look, even as she smiled at Eris when their paths merged. The other was Callia, who was shorter and long of hair, swept to one side in an elaborate braid of light red that came to her waist. She gave fewer smiles, but when she did there was softness in them that Sarai lacked.
“Well met Eris Atta-Sutith,” began Sarai, looking her over. Eris waited for her eyes to make their way to her leg and foot, but they traced over her arms instead, “have those two rogues been getting you to cut the throats of their prizes on the king’s road?”
“No, Vervain has been birthed of a son.”
There was a moment when the two women looked as though they might let the deer carcass fall to the ground, but they recovered. Sarai scouted about the clearing and called over a brace of chattering children to take the creature to the fire pit, freeing up their blood-stained hands.
“Is that so?” Sarai said carefully. “And the men celebrate the birth? Including Pierson?” There was upset in that tone that Eris did not understand entirely.
“He is there with them if you seek him.” Eris said, about to move off.
“Perhaps… perhaps it is you we seek.” Callia began, catching Sarai’s eyes. The taller woman nodded.
“While the men celebrate the birthing you can join us to wash up.” Sarai said plainly.
“I have water in my tent.”
“There is somewhere better than a tent that we go. After a hunt. After… other times.” Callia seemed to flush a little as she spoke, but her deep green eyes twinkled. Eris sighed inside. At some point these Diarnilys might recall that this Atta-Sutith was still not a woman and stop including her in such adult comments!
But even so, she followed the widows, curious to know what was better than a vigorous wash in her tent. She assumed that they might know of a stream or a river, but when they took her to their mysterious place she was impressed. Next to a flowing river, and fed and cleared out by it, was a pool shadowed by bowing willow trees, steam making the air above its water hazy and cloud white.
“What heats the water?” Eris began as the women stripped their leathers.
“They say the bastard gods walked these woods. One, tales vary on which exactly, dove to the bottom of this pool and kissed one of the stones, making it hot with his… or her… passion. A passion that another of the gods could not return. Putting it there was how he, she… they, dealt with it. That passion, the stone, burns under the water still.” Sarai told her as she got down to a loose tunic that lay under her leathers, pulling it up and over her head and revealing fuller breasts than her armour had suggested. Eris looked away as the woman pushed down her trousers.
“You can keep on your under-things… if you have them.” Callia said gently, making Eris look at her accidentally. Her body was lean, her breasts small and high. Callia slowly stretched as she lowered herself into the water, lengthening her body even further. “There, all hidden now. You can look again little healer.”
Eris stubbornly stared at the women then. “I’ve just birthed Vervain’s child. And she weren’t the first I’ve brought into the world. I’ve seen more than just the breasts of women!”
Callia nodded and said soothingly. “Of course Eris Atta-Sutith. Of course.”
Eris began to strip off her own leathers, struggling a little to get them over her unfamiliar ankle and foot. Stepping into the water with that wyrd foot was strange, the water making its way inside through the black weave of it. She was sure the women were staring at it, so she kept her eyes focused on the gently bubbling water, looking out for a stone kissed by a bastard god. What little she could see through the clouded water looked normal enough though. She found a ledge to perch on and fought the urge to pull her knees to her chest to cover what little was there.
“How old are you Eris?” asked Sarai.
Now she did curl in on herself a little, dipping into the water until her own ragged braid floated out in it. “Twelve Summers… I think.”
“You always seem older, it is easy to forget.” Callia smiled. “Twelve years old and already joining the birthing women.”
“My mother, and my mother’s mother, were birthing women. And my small hands were useful for righting wrongly turned babies.”
Sarai flinched at the thought of that. “Bastard gods!”
“You haven’t had children yet?”
Sarai leant back against the rocks, spreading out her arms as she stared up to the sky. “Our husbands left us before we could make babies with them, Eris.”
Eris thought Callia looked sadder about that than Sarai. “Your husbands died…?”
“Button-men came to the woods. Men died.” Sarai was curt.
Callia drifted closer to Sarai. “And until you arrived we hadn’t spoken to each other in years. Thank you.” Eris must have looked confused so she continued. “We were too alike. In each other we saw our own pain. Better to hide from that by not seeing each other. And then… well, we are alike.”
“You were both equally charmed by Pierson.”
“And that tongue is why people forget you are a child, Eris Atta-Sutith!” laughed Sarai.
“Verla has spoken to me about it.”
“Of course she has, the old she-fox!” Snapped Sarai, churning up the water as she moved angrily from her place. “She just couldn’t wait to disprove, could she?”
“Peace, Sarai.” Whispered Callia.
“Oh, she annoys me. They all annoy me! So what if we find comfort with a city-voln?! Or with each other!”
“I think it’s the first that concerns them more.” Callia noted quietly.
“We are woods-voln! We should not be entrapped by the ways of the ‘civilised’… especially when the civilised city-voln are the ones who took our men!”
“Peace. I agree.” Callia lay a soft hand on Sarai’s shoulder, letting her fingertips drift up to play with the ragged ends of Sarai’s hair that were swept behind her ear. Eris looked away again.
“I assume you will leave soon?” Sarai accepted Callia’s familiar touch.
“Verla wants her to stay.” Callia noted softly, murmuring to Sarai.
“She wants her pet healer to stay. Pierson Widow-Seducer and Nemnir Tunic-Less aren’t welcome!” Sarai snapped.
“Well her pet healer doesn’t want to stay.” Eris said, indignant at being reduced to being a ‘pet’.
“What do you want, Eris Atta-Sutith, of twelve years old and already a birthing woman?” Sarai looked at her keenly as Callia drifted even closer to the taller woman’s side. “Eris, the one who grew a new foot when crutches did not please her. I imagine someone who could do that could do whatever they wished, as long as they knew what they wished for?”
“I… there’s a boy.”
Sarai’s face was stone, but disappointment radiated from her.
“There’s a boy I want to find… and kill. The one who took my foot. Until then, I am a part of Pierson and Nem’s firm. But if they try to stop me…” She did not finish her words.
Sarai paused and then nodded. “Then we’ll stop them. If they try to get in your way.”
Eris must have looked confused again.
“You’ll have your revenge, Eris. I swear it by the bastard gods.” Sarai looked to Callia, and Eris saw the apparently gentler woman became steel like as well, looking deeply into Eris’s eyes as she spoke her words clearly.
“We’ll travel with you. And not because of Pierson, however we both feel about him. Because we swear ourselves to your cause. We’ll swear by the bastard god who kissed the stone here. If we have to put our passion aside like he… or she… did, we’ll do it that too.”
Eris nodded, a little dumb founded as both women made their vows in the name of the god who once walked here. When they finally got out and dressed, she saw both take a small stone from the pool and put it away somewhere among their leathers. Then they walked back with her to the camp, the two women holding each other’s hand as they did; the deer and birthing blood washed away from all three of them all.
“Bastard gods.” Pierson said, his head in his hand as he sat on a hewn tree stump in a small hollow away from the main camp.
“You could at least pretend to be pleased.” Said Sarai archly.
“It aint that.” He looked up at her, at all three of them before him, with red bleary eyes. “And I thought Bara-made Vernoush was bad enough.”
“Ah, what was it?”
“Something that smelt of strawberries but tasted of ginger, and left me with a head like I downed a bloody bottle of greening.”
“Haggron.” Callia said lightly. Unlike Sarai she did not have her arms crossed as she looked down at the wretched city-voln. Eris, standing between the two women, fidgeted. One moment she adopted Sarai’s stern way of standing, and in the next moment she took on Callia’s more relaxed attitude. She stood, crossing and uncrossing her arms. Like a fool, she thought of herself, angrily.
“Ugh, that was the poison.” He rubbed his hands over his face. “Bastard gods.”
Callia was trying not to smile at the thick sound of his voice or the rough greenness of his face. She was trying to maintain the same sternness as Sarai, who had held it well since they had told Pierson of their plans and had prepared themselves for his expected response. Eris looked up at the women. And then back at Pierson. Adults! Such bloody fools!
“So,” he began, in a voice dripping with sarcasm, “tell me again. And again, thank you for making this morning so much more interesting than a mere hangover could have made it. The mountain-voln beating at the inside of my head with a club while a woods-voln shoots arrows at the back of my eyes was not nearly enough, you were right.”
“We’re coming with you.” Callia stated in her soft voice. Sarai had announced the news the first time, and perhaps Callia’s gentler way might have been the better introduction to the idea. Especially given Pierson’s apparent delicate condition.
Pierson stared at the ground, trying to gather himself “With me?”
“With you. And Eris and Nemnir.”
“Ugh, he put away twice as much as me. Has anyone seen him?”
“I spotted his booted feet sticking out from his tent a while ago. He was snoring louder than a hurricane.” Sarai said, uncrossing her arms and resting a hand on the hilt of dagger at her side. “So, Pierson, what say you?”
“You going to stab me if I say you can’t, Sarai?” Pierson raised an eyebrow, looking at the two women and Eris. “But maybe it aint up to me. Eris?”
“I’m not much of a scout. Even now, even with…” She gestured down to her foot. “Sarai and Callia are good hunters. But it isn’t a question of what they could bring to the firm is it? Not truly.”
“You’re too smart for your age, Eris Atta-Sutith.” Pierson grumbled. “Perhaps this is a conversation I should be having with these ladies after you’ve gone to your bed?”
Sarai frowned further. “And what would you say then that you can’t now, Pierson City-Voln? That you were always going to be leaving. That it’s all been fun but now, darling, the road is calling?” Sarai snapped.
“Sarai…” Pierson’s voice was faint, and not from his sickness. “Sweet Sarai…”
“Doesn’t matter. Doesn’t matter at all. Callia and I are… well, we’re enough to each other even if you aren’t a part of… this. Of us.” Sarai said, sadness behind her severity. Eris felt her cheeks reddening as the adults spoke about their feelings, looking at her feet, and then looking away when doing that brought her attention to her left ankle and foot. Sarai continued. “We’re not joining you on the road because you want us to. We’re joining because we have something to give, even if you don’t have anything to give us in return!”
Pierson opened his mouth, about to answer, when Nemnir walked through the tree line into the clearing. The mountain-voln was chewing on a hunk of bread as he walked to join them and sat down by Pierson.
“You’re eating? Ugh…” Pierson seemed to turn an even paler shade and then rallied. “Did you know about this?”
Nem looked confused, so Eris helped him out. “Sarai and Callia want to join the firm. And Pierson’s distressed because… well…”
“Because everyone just assumes that Pierson wants to cut and run!” Pierson scowled. Nemnir placed his hand on the smaller man’s shoulder, and made a low rumbling sound that he directed towards Eris and the two women.
“What did he say?” Asked Callia.
“He said we are wrong.” Eris began. “He said Pierson was sad. That he… oh, maybe I should let you all talk on this once I am to-bed.”
“Tell us Eris Atta-Sutith!”
“I’ll tell you.” Said Pierson. “You assume the worst of me because… well, okay I’m a rogue. I’m a thief. I’ll rob you blind and move on as soon as look at you. But even thieves can have things stolen from them.”
Eris looked between the women’s sceptical faces and Pierson’s. “He’s saying he cares!” She felt like battering their heads together.
“Okay, lass, okay. Don’t over egg the pudding. But just because I was always going to have to leave at some time, didn’t mean you didn’t get the better of me. Both of you.”
“Ugh.” Eris said quietly as Nemnir slapped the city-voln on the shoulder, smiling broadly, proudly.
“So the firm grows?” Asked Eris once she’d gotten over the awkwardness of the moment, ignoring the shared smiles between the three of them.
Pierson looked away from Callia and Sarai, and focused on the girl between them. “You tell me, lass?”
“I’m in favour of it, but you’re the boss, Pierson.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t be so sure about that. I think I’m being well mastered by three females at the moment.”
“And two of them will make sweet amends for that at another time, Pierson City-Voln.” Sarai said with a smirk. “But does your plan still hold? You want to live off of fat city-voln? Because I can get behind that, certainly. But how many woods-voln territories will let us stay among them? How many weeks at a time? Eris’ skills will buy us some time. The coin we steal might buy some more. If you don’t waste it all on Varnoush or Haggron, that is…”
“It’s a day at a time, Sarai. It always has been.” Pierson reached inside his coat and threw a coin purse at her, which she caught deftly. “A share of our profits so far. There’s more of course.”
She reached in and brought out a pair of pearl earrings, dangling delicately on silver wire. “Pretty. Too pretty for me.” She passed one to Callia, who immediately threaded it through a piercing in her ear lobe, letting it dangle down by her braided her. The other earring Sarai handed to Eris who looked at the small gift with some bemusement.
“The girl’s ears aren’t yet pierced, Sarai.” Said Callia.
“Easily fixed with a sharp needle and a flame-”
A low growl from Nemnir and a concerned look from Pierson stopped her.
“Hmmm. Perhaps you are right about who is really in charge here. Or at least, who is important.”
Eris shifted awkwardly on her feet. “Sarai, do you really have to say everything that comes to your mind?!”
Callia laughed, and Eris noted the admiration on both Sarai and Pierson’s faces for the slender woods-voln. “She has you fairly tracked and known Sarai, even if she claims she is no scout!”
“True. But perhaps Eris Atta-Sutith you also need to say what you think. Which way are we to go now? The Diarnilys are my people, but you can carry a stem or so of the flower along with you and it’s no weight at all.”
Eris remembered the white flower that had pinned to Pierson’s coat… and then the shapes following them in the woods that she had assumed had been Nemnir’s young admirers. Both women carried arrows greened with diarnilys, a combination of the flower and other herbs that were a secret known only to this family, unique and a sign of the arrows’ origin. Wherever they went next they would be bringing Diarnilys with them. Something like the beginning of a thought whispered through Eris’ mind along with the memory of the Gyreblack boy, his face over cast with shadows as he sneered. But it was there and then gone.
“We go to the road, and we see where it takes us all.” Eris stated, looking from the women to the men. “We live off of the fat city-voln and see where that takes us.”
Sarai nodded, holding Eris’ eyes as she spoke. “Forward or back, you have my help.” The emphasis was light, but Eris remembered the oaths they’d already sworn to her on the bastard gods kissed rock of the pool. Back… back to the boy. If she could find him.
“Forward or back, you have my help.” Echoed Callia.
Pierson turned to Nemnir, who was still ripping into the coarse bread with his teeth. Originally stolen from some farm-voln homestead, thought Eris, as woods-voln were infrequent and poor bakers. Pierson grumbled loudly, falsely, “Are woods-voln always so dramatic? It’s like watching one of those overwrought romances that travelling players in bawdy and motley dress always brought to Liosinium to lighten the dark seasons!”
Callia moved forward and swatted playfully at Pierson, getting grabbed and pulled onto his knee for her efforts. Sarai smiled and stalked forward to join the man and the woman as they stared into each other’s eyes, his hand on her back. At the same moment Nemnir moved towards Eris and turned her fully about, pushing her gently to walk her away from their meeting place. Her mouth opened into an ‘Oh’ as she realised what was about to happen, and she quickened her pace.
They tracked through the trees in silence for a while, Eris enjoying the sense of safety that she always felt with Nem. He was her guardian. Even when he was still chewing away on the loaf of bread like a farm-voln’s cattle. She took the time they were together to look about the woods on their way to the camp and to think more on how their party was growing.
“Do you mind?” She asked finally. “He’s been your friend for longer… and now he has other ‘friends’.”
A warm smile bloomed on Nemnir’s face.
“Maybe that’s something you don’t worry about. It’s not like they’re the same kind of friends. I do understand that, you know. Sometimes people know I know, and sometimes they assume I’m too young to know.” Eris looked off thoughtfully. “But it seems like it’s just been the two of you for a long while. Since being in the army anyways. And then there was… Hobbart. And then me. And now Callia and Sarai. Do you miss it just being the two of you?”
A low mumble.
“No. Maybe not.” She paused, stopping and looking straight up at the mountain-voln. He was less red-eyed and tired seeming than Pierson, his warm brown eyes apparently still clear no matter how many voln might be churning his stomach or battering the inside of his head after last night’s drinking. His face was as calm and friendly as ever. His braids were still clasped at the ends in small twists of metal, but now they were rectangles of silver bent over and stamped with the same animals. Another sharing of their spoils from the city-voln, she supposed. But still he wore his old patched and repaired coat.
“Do you… do you want to be able to speak again?” She whispered the question that had just come to her, and watched the flash of emotions across Nemnir’s face. She knew that somewhere in his head he was now reliving that violent moment again. Just as she would have done if anyone had asked her if she wanted her foot back. She stepped forward quickly and flung her arms about his broad waist, almost making him step back in surprise. She turned her head and rested it against him, barely even coming to his chest. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry, I should never have asked!”
A rumble grew in his chest, right against her ear. The sound was roughly shaped by his mouth, and Eris caught it’s meaning. Just as Pierson had explained, she knew what he meant, because she knew him.
Yes, yes I want to be able to speak again.
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 other 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. And then 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 maybe? 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, most 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; seeking. “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 before the birthing, during the birthing, and also after it.”
“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 to them.
“They are too old for the nomad-fever! It is time that they wed again and hunted for their families!” 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!” She laughed at the thought.
“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 then 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 striding 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 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, finding peace 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. 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 sky-reaching 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.” He was likely 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 before 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’ll 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 have even 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.”
“A week or so, 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 heard it.
“That’s 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 just gone. Pierson eyes searched the trees for their path, but he 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 onwards 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, and peered 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 wore the elaborate hair braids and saddles that they would have expected for the men’s mounts. 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 don’t know, Eris, I’ve 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…” There was a question in his unfinished words.
“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 needed 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 asked quickly but quietly.
“When you put it like that Pierson, how could we refuse?” Callia smiled sweetly, and unslung her bow.
When it finally happened, it happened fast.
They had run through the shadowing 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 almost 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 still 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. 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. After that he’d let the topic go.
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. It 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 it to place 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. The roarer 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 went to Callia’s lips when Eris started to complain to her that she knew how to maintain a bow. Then they both 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 drew his sword and shield from his back and then rolled his shoulders 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. 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. If 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 following after 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 growled smoke and fire as well as a small pellet of metal that tore into one Button man’s chest and flung him from his panicked black horse. The other had barely time to breathe 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. The other four men panicked and threw themselves onto the dirt, trying to use the carts as protection. Three of those four chose the wrong side and were picked off by swift arrows. The final muleteer tried to run, but the lion roared again and the back 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 first. Her arrow had pierced in the side and 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 that was still 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 and 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 even owns you, you bitch!”
“No one owns me!” She reached up and pulled out Nem’s dagger from his belt, 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 West. By the sea. Been there a few times with that bastard woods-voln. Cole. Fucking huge castle. 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 so-called 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 about on his cloth wrapped feet, trying to raise even more courage to speak to the five deadly voln in front of him who were still carrying bows, a great 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, that’s the truth.”
“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 immense trees all about them. He was city-voln through and through, so 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 e’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 then?”
“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. It must be some 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 pulled 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 its nothing good.” Pierson said grimly.