Eris tried to attend to her own task and not grimace at every heavy step or every snapped branch. True, they were only scrubbing pots, or clothes, or gathering fresh water, but did they have to make so much Lios-be-damned noise?!
She glared up from her red raw hands and the tunic in them. One of the lads’ by the size of it. It was certainly not Nem’s, who stood nearby the stream and towered over the scurrying boys. She slapped the tunic down on a rock as she watched them all at work, noticing Jayk also watching the lads as he crouched by the water with his own pile of clothes to be dealing with.
“They’ll get better at the woods ways.” He said, noticing her frown.
Eris tried not to mutter small curses. Between Pierson, Sarai and Callia they should have learnt at least some of the ways by now. But still there were twenty-four extra feet with them on their path, twenty-four extra chances to make noise. It probably irked Eris more than the adults, being both nearer to their age, and still quieter than them even with her wyrd foot making her step clumsier than before. Unconsciously she shifted in her crouch, flexing the ankle of her left foot, feeling but not feeling the lattice pushing against the thick mud by the water.
She felt Jayk’s eyes on her again. On her foot. She fiercely met his dull grey eyes with her own sharp green ones, and he looked away. She stared on, making him feel uncomfortable this time. He was older than her, like the Gyreblack boy. Maybe a two or three years more as well. But his face was pockmarked with scars under a long grey shag of hair. The hair was common amongst all the lads they’d saved from the road, but the scars weren’t. Bluntly Eris asked about them. “Was that from the retch-fever?”
He reddened, the scars becoming more apparent. “No. Retch-fever don’t pox the skin. Thought you were a healer?”
“I am. And I know what retch-fever does. Wanted to know if you did too.”
“Think I’m lying?? You think this is a lie?!” He pointed to the scars, his raised voice catching Nemnir’s ear. The big man looked over to the two of them, but he didn’t come closer. Yet.
Jayk then spoke slowly, softly “It was sewer-pox. Got it a year or so before the retch-fever hit the streets. You get the one, and live, you don’t get the other. My mother and sister got the retch-fever… I didn’t.”
Eris nodded, that she’d heard from her mother. She’d dealt with both sicknesses when they’d found their way out of the cities on breath and blood of soldiers, making it to both woods-voln and mountain-voln. There wasn’t much you could do for either; the sufferers either made it, or they didn’t. The only blessing was that surviving the one meant you were immune to the other, and to another bout of the same. Some blessing though when those around you were dying.
Jayk shrugged, and then looked to where two lads were fetching water under Nemnir’s supervision. He gathered his thoughts. Or maybe his courage. “Sarai said you are a true healer.” He unconsciously rubbed at his scarred cheek as he spoke.
“Sarai? What would Sarai know?”
“Pillowtalk from Pierson I suppose. Aint going to be from Nem is it?! I mean… um… well… because he don’t talk, not because they share a pillow. Or they don’t. They might I suppose…” Jayk was redder still, and she watched him digging his own stuttering grave with a cool look.
“Sarai said that. Is that so?”
“Yeah, she said you brought Nem back from the dead.” He looked at her then, hope rising in his eyes. “And then there’s your foot too-”
“I can’t do nothing, don’t think on it.” She said sharply.
He nodded, thoughtful, rubbing his cheek again. “Do you remember I told you about the priest who said he could heal my mother and my sister?”
“In Tralis. I remember.”
“I’m going to kill him one day.”
“Is that so?” She said again, intent and focussed on squeezing out the tunic as though they were merely two old heads discussing their grandchildren. “I’m going to kill someone too.”
“The one who took your foot?”
“Sarai tol’you that too?”
“Just makes sense. Someone did that to you, and if I was you I’d want to kill them.” He nodded grimly. “I want the man who bought me from the workhouse too. And who ever he works for. I’ll slit both their throats.”
“Why not add Lios to the list while its growing?!”
Jayk was quiet, going back to his washing before whispering, “why not?”
Eris held in her laughter. “Because he’s a god!” But then she remembered her joke to Verla, of how she would start her own army, to shadow the sky with her own poison greened arrows as her people took out Lios. “He can’t die.” She shook her head at the thought.
Jayk shrugged “That’s what the priests told us when they came to the workhouse. Droning on and on about how Lios was immortal, and how obeying him could bring us peace after the grave. Same priests at the temple taking coin for healings in his fucking name. And they weren’t bloody true, so maybe him being immortal aint either.”
Eris looked at Nemnir. Silent Nem who’d lost his tongue at the hand of a Button man. And behind the Button man, up a long chain of city-voln given command and power, right at the top of that pile of excrement, was Lios. Even the boy who’d taken her foot was a part of a chain reaching back to Lios, starting with that Button man who’d ordered him to cut her! She laughed self-depreciatingly. “I don’t have an army though do I?! And there’s been a bloody army fighting Lios for years on the front and even they aint even got close to him yet!”
“But they’re just fighting men. You know Lios is actually in the centre of the world, in Liosinium.”
“Oh yeah, so there’s no need for a bloody army then? To get into the most fortified city in the world?!”
He smiled ruefully and splashed her with some of the water in his hands. “Sharp tongue!”
She laughed and she caught Nem watching them, concern written clearly on his face. By the bastard gods, what else had Sarai been blabbing about?! She hadn’t told Pierson and Nem about her bloods had she?! Eris had gone to both the older woods-voln women when she’d first found the stain on her under-things, knowing exactly what it was and what to do about it, but not being able to scout for the plants she needed on her own without raising her male companions’ curiosity. Had Sarai gone ahead and told them anyway?! Even after Eris had shared with them her mother’s recipe for the powder that stopped them and did away with the need for the wads of cloth the two women had made do with for years? More than that, it stopped babies from coming and she’d have thought that would have bought their silence, if nothing else did! Eris was still fuming so she didn’t hear Jayk speaking for a moment. “What?”
“I said, Nem’s very protective of you.” He was whispering, not wanting the large man to hear.
That made her stop in her internal raging. If Nem was concerned it was because he wanted to protect her… not because he was worried she’d be stupid now she was… well, not quite a woman, but still, surrounded by lads near enough her age. She’d helped out with enough birthings to know how that worked between men and women. Knew enough not to seek it out. Not yet. So, she sent a quick, bright, smile to Nem, and got one in return. “He is.”
“S’pose it’s because you healed him. Chances are he’ll need that again soon-”
“I think I need to get back to the camp and make a start on hanging these out.” She stood, always finding it strange as her two ankles moved in just slightly different ways to each other. “I want to talk with Pierson too.”
“Of course.” Jayk smiled, and there was genuine warmth there. Eris did her best to return it, feeling a strange disquiet at being around the boy.
Leaving the stream, she walked past the other lads with her bundle of clothes dripping from her arms. They were still at work at the many chores Pierson had given them. To be fair, she’d never heard whisper of complaint from them. She thought it was likely that their ‘workhouses’ had put them to far harder tasks, and even if they weren’t woods-wise, at all, they were at least grateful for Pierson and his firm’s efforts in trying to help them. So why was she on edge after speaking with Jayk? He was not appealing to her, as her mother had explained some men might be to her one day. He wasn’t horrible either. Even if he thought his scars made him so. It wasn’t even his confession that he wanted to kill the priest. She just didn’t know what it was that made her uncomfortable about him. But before she could think on it more, she was back to the camp, where Pierson, Sarai, and Callia were at their own work, sitting in a rough circle and tending to a roarer, two bows and several arrows. Pierson greeted her with a silent nod, still deep into something tense with the two women, who were looking at him with furious faces. Even the usually gentle Callia was flushed with anger.
Eris took a seat on the flattened woods-rushes near them, picking at the ears of it, pretending like she wasn’t burning to know more about the tension between them.
“Don’t you dare think it’s decided just because Eris is here, and you don’t want us… discussing it any further in front of her.” Sarai began.
Pierson smiled. “If I don’t want to argue in front of Eris, it’s only because she will agree with me, and I don’t want you lovely ladies to feel ganged up on.”
“That’s two still two versus two! Or maybe even one and a half versus two.”
“Sharp tongue.” Eris chided Sarai with Jayk’s insult. She spoke almost under her breath, but just loud enough to make Sarai’s lips thin quickly and for Callia to hold in a laugh. Pierson let his own laugh out.
“And that’s exactly why Eris outnumbers you, most beautiful Sarai.”
“Don’t forget me, Pierson.” Callia said lightly, but in a voice that made Eris think of the sound a blade makes when it is drawn from its sheath.
“How could I forget you, oh gentle light of my mornings?!”
“Ugh, spare us any Liosinium charm and compliments!” Sarai sneered.
He made a gesture of surrender. “Ladies, please. You know this is the only way.”
“Doesn’t mean we have to like it.” Callia’s voice was dagger sharp again.
“Like what?” Asked Eris.
The women sighed almost as one and nodded at Pierson, who gave in and told her himself.
“They don’t like that they are to stay with the boys in the woods while you, me, and Nemnir head into Bara.”
“And of course there’s a bloody brilliant reason or two for it being that way round!” Sniped Sarai, while angrily twisting a new arrowhead onto the shaft of an arrow.
“I’ve got to speak with Jerekyn, or someone of his type, to arrange passage into Bara for the lads. Through some dark underground path that they control, I’m certain. No way we’re just walking straight in through the gates with twelve city-voln orphans at our heels!”
“And it has to be you, me and Nem?” Asked Eris, excitement bubbling in her belly, she’d never been in a city before.
“Woods-voln are bloody rare in the cities. You might get one or two selling themselves on the streets. But they don’t move about much, and certainly not alongside a mountain-voln and a priest.”
“A priest?!” Eris said in surprise.
Pierson sighed deeply, and reached for his pack to pull something out from deep inside. He unfurled a length of shining gold and silver material with embroidered lions roaring on it, their manes and tails trailing down the length of it. Eris’ eyes widened even further. It was a priest’s robe!
“You should see how gaudy the thing is they make you were if you live long enough to make it into the ‘Eye of Lios’… the master council of priests. This is fucking dull in comparison.” Pierson grimaced as he looked the robe over.
“That’s not the fat priest’s.”
“No, Eris. Its mine.”
“You were a priest?!”
“For a sickening heartbeat. Well, a thirteen month, perhaps. After sixteen years of training, I was ordained and served in the temple of Lios in Liosinium, the very heart of the centre of the world.”
“You… you believed?!”
Pierson paused. “Yes, I did. Very much so.”
“But… but you were a Button man, not a priest?!”
Pierson sighed, and Eris got the impression as he reluctantly spoke the words that he’d already told this story recently. To Sarai and Callia just now, maybe? “My older brother died not long after I was ordained. My father decided that it would serve my family better if we kept a commanding presence in the army. I don’t know if he had even thought on me before that, I was a child when I was sent to the temple. But suddenly I was needed.” He laughed bitterly. “After all those years of praying to Lios to bring his light, to illuminate the darkness, and to allow me to see clearly… it was in the army that I finally saw His world the way it really was. And that was where I met Nemnir. And the bastard gods.”
He coughed, breaking the growing tightness in his voice and pretending like it had never been there. “With this robe, and the eye pendant that Nem ‘acquired’ from the fat priest on the road, we can gain entrance to Bara.”
“But if woods-voln are rare in cities, how are you going to get me in? And what about Nem?! Are there mountain-voln in the cities?”
“Nem’s easy enough. Mountain-voln serve in the army, like he did. Voluntarily or not. And mountain-voln in the army convert. Again, voluntarily or not. And converts have to pay for their repentances just as much as city-voln do. More so in fact, as the priests weigh the scales heavier for the other volns. Nemnir will be a repenter who couldn’t afford his sins and now pays his debt as my indentured servant.”
Pierson looked uncomfortable. “You’re young enough to have been stolen.”
“A grown woods-voln woman is hard to take alive,” Sarai began softly, sadly, “but children…”
Eris felt anger flood her veins, red hot and bubbling in her chest. “Your priests do… that?!”
“They pay for that. Other men get them for them. That’s what I thought the lads were for at first. But the priests also like woods-voln as their… look, it don’t bear thinking about!”
Eris nodded, but the anger was still a burning pyre in her chest, “You were a priest Pierson. And you’re a good man,” she ignored his dismissive gesture, “yes, you are. Were there others like you?”
Pierson thought. “Some. Some that believed and used that belief for good. But you have to remember… or learn, because you weren’t brought up to serve Him, thank the bastard gods… Lios commands a great many things and he is to be obeyed. It’s all we know. His words ring out from Liosinium every day with yet more orders and doctrines, and we obey. But none of those words are for anyone’s good but His own! Repentances fill his coffers with gold. His people die in a war that has raged for more years than I know. He hates the volns that don’t serve him. He brings nothing but darkness and hate, and calls himself the Light!”
By the end of his words Pierson looked exhausted, his usually twinkling grey eyes flat like a dull city-voln’s. But Eris thought with a start, that was exactly what he was. She’d gotten used to thinking of him as Pierson, sneaky and sly and good, but he was a city-voln. His life had been greatly different to the wandering she’d done with her mother and her mother’s mother. Hers had been a life of new horizons and love. His had been a life of pitiless study, doctrine, and fear. And all because of Lios.
“You hate that I need to pretend to be… stolen. But you don’t want to leave me here with Sarai and Callia. And the lads.”
“No. No, I don’t.”
“They told you!” She tried to keep her voice calm but she failed.
Pierson looked confused, and she realised from Sarai and Callia’s faces that they had not told him about her bloods. But even so… “You are worried about leaving me with a bunch of lads! Like I’m some kind of simpering fool who’ll do… whatever?!”
Pierson smiled softly. “Lass. No. I’m worried about you. I want you where I can see you and look after you. Likewise, Nem’s never going to focus on the job we have to do if he’s worried about you all the way back here in the woods.”
“She’d be safer with us!” Sarai snapped.
“No one in Bara is going to touch even a single hair on the head of a priest’s favourite.” His voice changed, and she realised that he was quoting someone, someone who he’d hated, someone with an older, cracking, voice. “‘The eye of Lios see everything. And punishment is the prize the sinner wins. Both in this life and beyond the grave.’”
“Ugh, don’t do that.” Eris said, fighting the urge to spit. Hearing priest’s words out of the mouth of Pierson was just wrong. “When do we go?”
“Tomorrow morning. Bara is less than half day away if we take the king’s road, as any proper priest would do. Arriving on foot will be unusual, but there’s always a reason that a guard will buy if it comes with coin enough. Although…” He paused. “Do you still have the partner to that boot you wear, Eris?”
She looked down at her feet, the booted and the wyrd. She had the other boot in her pack, holding onto it in case… well, she didn’t know why really. It fit over the lattice, but some stubborn part of herself had put it aside and let the wyrd foot be seen by the others. She was almost proud of it. I made that. I made that. “I have it.”
“And your leathers will be fine for going into Bara.”
“You mean, if I’m a recent stealing.” There was that burning inside her again. And its target was not just the priests, but Lios behind them. The spider at the centre of the web, no matter how many bloody lions he embroidered onto his priests’ robes!
Pierson nodded. “So it’s set.”
“You think you’ve convinced us that taking her into that pit is a good idea?!” Said Callia.
“He isn’t even thinking about how Nemnir’s going to react.” Said Sarai, slightly smugly.
Pierson grimaced. “Oh fuck.” He said simply.
Nemnir had not been happy. And he was even less pleased about having to pass Pierson his mountain on its length of leather so that the ‘priest’ could wear it about his wrist like a trophy, its dullness standing out against the shine of the long sleeves of the crumpled robe. Instead of the hanging pendant, which had long nestled safe against his chest, Nem had to make do with a ripped sliver of the material of the robe taken from somewhere underneath. Tied tight around his throat it also marked his slave status with shining thread. Eris had to have one too, and she was constantly fighting the urge to pull at it and yank it off.
But the two golden chokers made the guards’ eyes at the gate to Bara flow over them and focus instead on Pierson’s confident performance as a priest of Lios.
“Good day, be blessed.” He began as they walked the final steps towards under the guards’ gaze to the narrow but tall double doors. It was a minor entrance, one used more by the wealthy and the discrete according to Pierson.
“Greetings, Blessed of Lios. What business have you in Bara?” Asked the older of the two guards, a man who was working on a moustache, but was slightly let down by the threads of silver in it and on his head.
“A visit to the temple in your fine city, bearing greetings and gifts from Tralis.”
“Fine? Sounds like you haven’t been here befo-” began the younger guard, but he was cut off.
“On foot? All the way from Tralis?” asked the more experienced man.
“We detoured. Our horses did not make it past an encounter with some heathen woods-voln. Had it not been for my shield here, neither would have I!” Pierson gestured at Nem without looking and the large man, who was apparently channelling his anger about Eris being a fake captive into the very convincing glare of an indentured man.
“Thanks be to Lios. Looks like you had them hand over a treasure for their insolence though.” The older man looked directly at Eris, his eyes burrowing under her leathers. She turned her disgust into the burst of action that they’d agreed on earlier, darting suddenly away from the two men, but letting herself be caught up to by Nem who grabbed her easily and flung her over his shoulder, her muddied boots kicking against his chest, and her yells deafening him.
“Your ‘guest’ is still wild then?!”
“She will be obedient once she learns the full power and might of Lios.” Pierson said, putting a hideous dark edge into his voice, making a threat. Eris took the cue and calmed her kicking, but stayed on Nem’s shoulder. They’d agreed that a display of his strength couldn’t hurt their cause, and it kept her face mostly away from the guards. Although, Pierson had admitted that one woods-voln looked pretty much like another to many city-voln.
“Still wearing those wretched leathers is she? Not for long I imagine… the charity of the temple will bathe and clothe her.” This guard was sly, his words had double meanings, and Eris’ hands itched for her dagger, currently hidden among the golden layers of Pierson’s robe.
“And the temple of Tralis has charity enough for hard working guards as well, of course.” Pierson moved forward, bringing out a small handful of coins for the guards from his purse. The older man accepted his without comment, but when Pierson went to trail a few silver onto the younger man’s palm he demurred.
“Please, Blessed of Lios. Would you…? My wife and I have been married for near three years and still we have not borne children. A blessing please? Instead of coin?”
Pierson stopped, stumped it seemed. “Coin can be exchanged for the blessings of Lios at the temple…”
“The lines of people waiting to repent are long. We have submitted a request for an assigned audience, but there has been no response. For many months now. Please, Blessed of Lios?” He sounded desperate, and Eris peered about Nem’s broad shoulder as much as she might to see the earnestness of his young hairless face. Her mother had told her about the possible causes of childlessness, explained how she had healed a man of his failure to sire children through several tinctures and… and she had said something that Eris had not really noted when she had been a younger child, but Eris suspected that she now understood what her mother had really meant. I was so, so sad for him. He so desperately wanted children, but something inside him was broken. And I helped him, as She who once healed helped us. More and more she was certain that her mother had been a true healer, just as she had healed Nemnir by wanting it so greatly. Could she help this man… and would she want to?
“Very well.” Pierson palmed the coins, taking the man’s hand in his instead. Eris felt a growing fear that they would be found out now, but then she remembered that Pierson had once actually been a priest. This at least was not a lie, even if Pierson now truly followed the Crowned One, ‘She who once healed’ by another name. “Lios, rest your endless tasks as centre of the centre of the world, I beg of you. Turn your gaze upon this faithful servant and his wife’s womb. Fill their lives with your light. Bring them a child to rear in your service. This I pray.”
“This I pray.” Both the guards repeated, the older man just as fervently as the younger, whose eyes were welling with tears.
“Thank you Blessed! Thank you!”
Pierson released his hand and patted his shoulder. “Best you be heading home right smart this evening. Go to your wife as soon as your duty allows.”
“Of course! Yes!” The older guard began to open one of the gates for them, and the younger guard ran to the other to follow suit. Pierson had explained that there were greater gates at the walls of Bara for the admittance of carts and traders, but that these thick wooden portals would lead them into a fine area where they would be less observed. Eris did not know what to expect, even though Pierson had described some of the things that made a city, trying to steady in her what he had confused for nerves on the road. It had been excitement.
Inside the way opened up into a courtyard formed by three storey buildings leering over any arrivals. More guardsmen were about, sharpening swords as they sat and talked together, or going about other business in the near buildings which must have housed them. The courtyard led onto a street of closely placed townhouses, their numerous windows jostling for space. Here there were a few walkers in the streets, the first city-voln women that Eris had ever seen, with the rounder faces and dull coloured hair of men like Pierson, but displaying their arms and hair bound by bands of gold, both material and the metal. She was surprised to see that they wore long dresses not unlike her mother’s old homespun ones, but elegantly draped with cloth she did not recognise. They shone not unlike Pierson in his robe, but muted somehow, the gold and silver overlaying other colours in intricate patterns but not making up the entire outfit like the priest’s glorious robe. None wore weapons either. Not even the favoured small dagger or her mother, or her mother’s mother’s long sword. And they had such superior looks upon their faces, especially when they noticed her hanging over Nem’s back, taking in her dark ragged braid and her old leathers.
“Might I walk now?” she asked Pierson who strutted along below her in his priest guise.
They passed by a fine house with a golden mirror-like door, and she grimaced, seeing herself slung over Nem’s shoulder, her rear in the air and her hair loosening itself even more. It was the clearest she’d seen herself since the day the boy had… since leaving the caravan where her mother had had a small polished copper hand mirror. Her eyes darted to her left foot, but in the boot it looked identical to its mate.
“Let her down Nem.” Whispered Pierson, smiling amiably to two nearing women with strange spreading contraptions held about their heads, shadowing their faces. They looked very concerned at seeing a wild woods-voln “Now, you won’t try to escape again, will you?” He said loudly, and the women clutched more at the strange shelters they were carrying and scurried past.
“Hope they slip and stick those parasols where Lios’ light don’t shine.” He muttered once they were well away. “I’d forgotten quite how it is in the cities.”
“They hate and fear you sweetling.” He eased the frown on his head, seeing other people about. “But they love me because I wear these damned robes. Even if I’m the very soul of evil for having captured you.”
Eris walked on in thought, still taking in the babbling noises and perfumes of this part of the city, but also thinking something through. “Were you always like this, Pierson?”
“Dashingly handsome and a great wit?”
Nemnir chuckled briefly and then hid it, maintaining his shield-slave persona.
“I mean… you’re city-voln. You must have thought as they do… once?”
“I did. It’s even worse in the centre of the world, in Liosinium. You’d not have made it past the gate, but be strung up for torture, even if you were my pet.”
“And seeing Nem… what happened to Nem, that’s what changed you?”
“Aye.” He was quiet, even more quiet than he needed to be to escape prying eyes.
“But Lios must have sent hundreds of thousands to the front for the endless war. They probably saw things like you did. And worse maybe. Why aren’t they like you?”
Pierson paused, stopping rock still. He began to walk again as he saw people noticing them standing still. “There must be some others, you’re right. S’pose some you’ll meet at the Light of Lios are somewhat like me. Not as clever perhaps, but they think different to most city-voln.” He stopped and suddenly pulled her close by her leathers to lean down and kiss her cheek, and whispered in her ear. “They worship different to most city-voln”
Eris realised the kiss was a cover for his blasphemous and risky words, but still felt strange about it. In this game of disguises the ‘priest’ was kissing her because she was his. Other priests, on other days, had walked other streets with other young girls and done the same to them, and gotten just as little attention as they did now. She felt that rage bubbling in her again, and focussed it on Pierson, striking out with a kick that connected with his shin through even the layers of the robe.
“Argh!” Yelled Pierson genuinely, before quickly recovering as other city-voln turned to look. “You little bitch! Wait till I get you to the temple!”
He grabbed her roughly and dragged her along with him, Nemnir storming after them, until they’d turned several corners and left those prying eyes behind.
“Eris!” he hissed. “Don’t do that again! Someone will call on the city-guard or some passing Button man and then-”
She covered her eyes as she felt hot tears begin to fall, sobs just held in. Nemnir moved closer but resisted holding her.
“Shush, girl, shush. I know. I know. This place is hell, and its thrice damned for a woods-voln. We’re a quick march away from the Light of Lios, we’ll get there and throw these masks away for a while. How’s that? I’ll even spend some of Nemnir’s coin on a warming drink for you, lass.”
Her tears turned into a half smile as Nemnir play-acted grumbling over Pierson’s promise to use his money. They took to walking again, the redness of her eyes working in their favour, even as they found the tavern and went in. Curious faces turning at their arrival looked away when they recognised the new arrivals as a priest with his muscle and a tearful property. Eris kept her head down anyway, only stealing the occasional glance at the patrons in their fine clothes toasting and reciting lines of what they must have thought was great poetry at each other.
Pierson ushered them in further and looked about. “Damn. We’re too early in the day. Just dumb city-voln heirs and heiresses.” He whispered, before straightening with a smile as a woman in a satin dress approached them.
“A table, Blessed?”
Eris snuck a look, taking in her rather obvious bosom and the flowing grey of her hair. Beautiful, but she lacked something when she smiled.
“Estille?” Pierson said, following her to where there was a space in a corner; a bench with soft cushions sat against the wall. “Don’t you remember me?! I wrote you so many lines of love from the front!”
Other patrons sniggered, turning to gossip as he pouted.
Eris was bemused at Pierson’s petulant behaviour until she realised that this was just another mask, that hidden beneath the anonymous priest was Pierson the city-voln heir. He must have known her from before and was covering for it with the other patrons and with her.
“Of course I remember, sweetling. I enjoyed every single word and prayed daily for your return in good health. After doing your duty to Lios of course!” She sidled up to him and ran fingertips over the embroidery of the robe as they sat together, with Eris and Nemnir left to stand awkwardly by them with no leave to sit. “You’re wearing the gold again my dearest.”
“Father recognised one of his many bastards once he realised I was a dreadful captain, and likely to cause more dishonour on the front than honour. He sent him to the war instead. Now I’m free to return to the service of Lios.”
“Blessed be!” She smiled, her grey eyes sparkling. “Good news indeed. And you have companions?”
She looked to Nemnir and Eris. Her eyes were calculating behind their long lashes and black outlines. “Two new pets?”
Pierson made a dismissive gesture. “The hulking one owed repentances and I needed a guard on the road. The girl… well.”
Estille nodded. Then there was a strange shifting happening between the two of them on the bench in the corner, and Eris was surprised to see Pierson bring his hand up to fondle the woman’s breast through her dress as they got ever closer behind the wooden table. They fiercely locked lips, and kissed each other’s faces and bit upon each other. Eris frowned, anger rising on behalf of Sarai and Callia, until she saw that between kisses they were also whispering to each other.
I’m going to lie. And cheat. And do things that I won’t have time to explain. All of this I do to help the boys, and you. I do all of these things with love in my heart for those two wonderful and infuriating women. All of this you must know now and you must be ready for.
Pierson had spoken those words on the king’s road and now she finally understood.
The reunited lovers pulled away from each other, and for a moment Eris caught a glint of metal in the woman’s hand, something sharp that had been held until then hard against Pierson’s side. It was there one second and then deftly put away as Estille turned a smile onto Eris, now with some real warmth in it as Pierson continued to coo and fawn over her like a fool. A bar man brought two metal goblets and moments after he left them alone the woman dipped a long finger into hers. She quickly traced a shape in the red onto the table that she drew Eris’ eyes to with her own, before she wiped it away with her fine sleeve. It had been the outline of a person’s arms, shoulders, and head. The simple form of a bastard god.
Eris looked deep into the woman’s smiling eyes, and gave her a slight nod back.
“Wonderful! It’s wonderful that you are back, my love!.” Estille gushed, ignoring a passing man who grunted mockingly.
“That’s what she said to me last week.” He drunkenly weaved away before she could even reply, an indignant pout on her lips.
“Now, let’s eat and drink our full and speak of many things! Its hours until the tavern bell rings and all goodly pure servants of Lios must return a’bed.” There was a double meaning in her words, she was certain, but it escaped Eris for now. The thought of a meal and a proper bed was more attention taking. Even a seat to sit in would be nice after being on the road and being left to stand while Pierson and this woman were conspiring. She found herself fighting the urge to yawn.
“Later I might even introduce you to a good friend of mine. Jerekyn.”
Eris was instantly alert again.
“Did you have to stick that bloody thing in my side?! What a welcome!”
“You came in here with two slaves! And one of them a young woods-voln girl! You’re lucky you didn’t get the whole bloody length of it straight away!!”
Eris sighed slightly as the pretence the two city-voln had been keeping up for the past few hours was finally put aside. All that cooing and sweet talk had been sickening. Not to mention the fact that she and Nemnir had been left to stand the whole time that Pierson and Estille had been focussed on each other. But finally some loud ringing noise had sounded, and most of the patrons had upped and left, gathering up their cloaks while still spouting nonsense words like “art”, and “sciences”, and “humours” as they stumbled out onto the night dark streets.
“That was a disguise!”
“How was I to know? Last time I saw you, you were an empty headed once-priest on his way to fame and glory on the battlefield, taking a short detour into my bed on your way. For all I knew, you’d returned to the love of Lios and had fallen into the vile ways of a real priest.” She leant away from him and regarded him with cool eyes, absent-mindedly drawing a pale hand down her long neck as she thought. “You are different now. A little more interesting perhaps.”
Pierson looked uncomfortable, and then got up suddenly “Eris, Nem, sit! Please, you must be exhausted!”
Eris took his place, but there really wasn’t space for the large mountain-voln, even when Estille gracefully stood from her own seat and went to stand by Nemnir.
“Interesting travel companions.” Estille’s eyes traced the height and breadth of Nemnir, very slowly, before alighting on Eris again. She gestured and a moment later the barman came over to her side. “Food, drinks. Something heavy for the large man to drink, and something light for the girl.”
The man nodded at her order and went to his task immediately.
“Girl, I was about to gut him for you. I still could, if you wanted?” Estille said, locking eyes again with Eris. Pierson paled.
“I think he might still be useful, so no thank you.” Eris gave the lady a short bow.
Estille laughed. “Definitely not a slave then.”
“A friend.” Said Pierson firmly. “Nothing more, I swear. She’s free to leave, or stay, as she wishes.”
“Oh, I believe you, sweetling. Good disguise. A little too convincing since I remember back when you really did love Lios. And now you follow the bastard gods too?”
He reached inside the robe to pull out his pendant of the Crowned One, Nemnir’s mountain swinging from where it was wrapped about his wrist as well, the dull grey stone standing out against the vivid gold of the sleeve of Pierson’s robe. “And which gods get your prayers Estille?”
“Oh, so many of them. I have so many needs, Pierson.” But she was looking at Nemnir from under her lowered eyelashes, and Eris watched the nervous reactions of both men. Estille’s dagger was not her only weapon, Eris realised.
Then food was brought, a fat leg each of goodly seasoned chicken, with soft round savoury puddings floating in its gravy. Eris’s drink was a watery juice, but Nem had a large tankard full of something with a foaming top that he seemed very pleased with. Eris tucked into her food, taking in the arrival of new patrons, coming in dribs and drabs of ones and twos, coats and cloaks over simple dark clothes. One, a handsome young city-voln man with an amiable face and a neatly trimmed beard, took a seat by the fire and was joined by others who sat about him in a semi-circle, taking the seats which were just hours before filled by raucously laughing and arguing dandies. The young man began to speak in a quiet voice, listened to by the others as he drew them into his words. Eris looked back to find Estille watching her.
“That’s our storyteller, Orrin.” She explained.
“A storyteller?” Eris looked to Pierson, but he looked bemused too. “What stories does he tell?”
“You never stayed past the bell, not even once, did you Pierson?” Estille said sweetly. “I think I always made sure you left, with me or otherwise.”
“I was just one of the loud-mouthed idiots in fine clothes bought by my father’s money, if you recall.”
“Oh! I do like this new version of you Pierson, the Front did you a great service, no matter how hard it was on you.” Estille looked back to Orrin, who was in full flow with his story, smiling as he weaved his words and brought the story he was telling to life. “Orrin is a hunter of stories about the bastard gods. When he captures a fine one, he brings it back here to tell to the rest of us. They are a rare species, but very popular here. At least once the bell has rung. But I imagine you all came here because you already know a little about this fine establishment, the Light of Lios?”
“You work for Jerekyn.” Said Eris.
“That I do. I have since I was even younger than you, sweetling.” Estille swept in to sit by Eris, appraising her. “Dark hair is unusual for a woods-voln, isn’t it? I’ve only seen it once before.”
“Yes, red is much more common.”
Estille’s long fingers danced around Eris’ face, tucking stray hairs back to where they belonged, and then holding her chin to move her face gently, first one way and then the other. Nemnir took a step forward, but Pierson halted him.
“A rather stern face. But perhaps if you’re travelling with these two rogues, you need to be stern occasionally?” Estille smiled at Pierson. “I’m right, aren’t I? You three have the smell of a serious, and likely criminal, endeavour about you. You’re a small firm in the making.”
“You’re right.” Pierson admitted.
“Of course I am. Jerekyn doesn’t keep me about just for my good looks. Although, in my line of work, they certainly help.” The tavern was filling up, and Estille took a look about at the new patrons. “Half the bodies here are set to doing something the guard don’t like. You’re here, and you came in disguise. You’ve got something underhand in mind.”
“And the other half of the people here, why did they come in after the bell?” Asked Eris.
“They’re here to drink and to worship in their own ways. Ah, excellent timing. See.” She nodded towards where two men were standing, squaring off against each other as other patrons quickly made them space. They were city-voln, but of the thick set kind, broad if not as tall as Nemnir. When the fight began the impact of their punches resounded across the large common room. Grappling and pushing, the men got the cheers of the nearest patrons, the final blow bringing a resounding cheer as one man went down on his back onto the sawdust on the wooden boards. But then the victor helped his opponent up, and they went back to drinking as though good friends.
“Could be. Certainly some of the bastard gods are fighters. But we don’t know. All we have is Orrin and his few collected stories.”
“Does he know about the god who kissed a stone at the bottom of a pool?”
Estille’s eyes widened, but before she could beg for more details the door to the tavern opened again and two men entered, silencing her. One was large, a bulk that carried an implied threat with it. The other was old, bald, and with eyes surrounded by wrinkles above a hooked nose. “Jerekyn” hissed Estille to Pierson, sweeping her skirts up with her as she made her way to the master criminal.
“Here we go, lass.” Pierson whispered to her as Estille brought the two men over.
“What’s this? Have you adopted another stray bloody woods-voln? And a mountain-voln?! And a bloody priest?! By the Shadowed One, Estille!”
“He’s no priest. This is Pierson. An old acquaintance.”
“I see. An acquaintance.” Jerekyn pulled up a stool to sit on, his dark eyes looking them all over, stopping on Nemnir. “That one puts you to shame Barlow.” He said to his man, who merely grunted and walked off for a drink at the bar.
“Thank you for seeing us, Jerekyn-” Began Pierson, before being cut off.
“Don’t thank me yet, might still slit yer throat for wasting my time.” He looked at Eris. “Woods-voln in Bara, eh. You lot get around these days it seems. When I were a snot-nosed lad you were more myth than real. Wild creatures in the woods who’d skin you alive just to make their leathers.” He reached forward to touch Eris’ leather tunic. “Nah, that’s just animal, not human. Trust me, I’d know.”
“We need your help.” Said Pierson.
“Of course you do. I want to hear from the girl though.”
Pierson nodded at her, and she tried to speak in a steady voice. “We need your help-” This time she was cut off by a disturbance at the back of the tavern. She saw Barlow move towards the back where a door led off, perhaps to rooms. Nemnir pulled out his sword, but Estille was quickly there, laying a quietening hand on his arm.
“Wait, there are many swords here sweetling. Wait, see.”
Soon they did see what it was. A woman was escorted in, carrying something in her arms. She looked about in desperation, until she saw Jerekyn and moved towards him, halted by Barlow and some of the other patrons who’d pulled weapons from hiding places.
“Please! Please! I have to see Jerekyn!”
“What is it, woman?” barked the bald man.
“Please, there wasn’t enough, and the apothecary wouldn’t help. The priests turned us away too. Please, I need coin for my baby! Please, please!”
Eris now saw that the bundle in her arms was a child. More than a baby, but still no more than two years old. Still, pale, and covered in dark marks. Sewer-pox.
“Please, I need coin to pay the apothecary, or the priests. I’ll do anything, m’lord!”
“You brought the sewer-pox here?!” Jerekyn moved away from her, sneering. But the storyteller, Orrin, stood up and came closer instead. The woman looked up at him as he tenderly touched the child’s face, seemingly not caring about the pox there.
“The herbalists and the priests can’t do anything. Lios’ healings are many, but no one has ever seen one directly.” He smiled gently. “But the bastard gods… we also have stories of their healings…”
Anger spread across the woman’s face. “Then how are they different to bloody Lios? I have no love for the god-king, he let this happen to Bess, but I know nothing of your impure gods either!”
Pierson gently touched Eris on her arm. “Can you help?” He whispered to her.
“I have no herbs to even make a soothing balm for the child’s pox.” Eris felt sadness wash through her. “I don’t even know if it can be treated when it has gotten so bad.”
“And… what if you did what you did for Nem? And your foot…?” Pierson left the question hanging and Eris’ sadness turned to sudden panic. She didn’t know how that had worked before, and both times had been so different. And how could she even try that kind of healing with all of Jerekyn’s men about?! She tried to focus through the woman’s fretting and muttering. However, words like “savage” and “impure” still made it to her ears. Then suddenly a calmness descended on her. Clarity. She remembered the guard at the gates of Bara. Would she have helped him, even if she could? Well, now the question was playing out in front of her again, and she had to decide. Her mother had healed the man who’d stumbled onto their camp, pushing life back into him. And he was a stranger.
“I need somewhere quiet. No one can watch.”
Pierson nodded. “Jerekyn” He said speaking up. “My friend here is a trained herbalist, like her mother, and her mother’s mother. She thinks she might be able to help. But we’ll need a room. Somewhere private. Quiet.”
Jerekyn grunted dismissively. “Get it done. Estille, see to them since you’re their new bloody mother hen!”
Estille brought all three of them and the concerned mother into a room at the back of the tavern, near where the woman had found her way in off the streets, gaining the ire of Jerekyn. Nemnir and Pierson halted by the door to the room, and took to guarding Eris’ privacy.
“May the Crowned One, she who once healed, help you.” Said Pierson softly, and Eris nodded.
It was a small simple room; a wash basin on a stand, a narrow bed. Little else. Estille led the woman to the bed, making her sit and hold her child out.
Eris stepped closer, but something caught her eye in the corner of the room just as she did. It was a rounded off-white object. She darted over to pick it up and was surprised to find that it was the skull of a fox. She looked into its empty eyes and took in its sharp canines.
“What is that?!” Shrieked the mother. “Death… oh my, it’s a sign of death!”
“Shush now.” Snapped Estille. “I think that belongs to a friend of mine. I’ll get it to him.” She took it from Eris’ confused hand, and nodded towards the mother and child. Eris moved close, and looked over the girl. Her breathing was slight, and her body was covered in the black pox under her thin shift dress. She was near the end, her tiny body no longer even trying to fight. Eris took a deep breath and took her from the woman, cradling against her as her mother had once cradled the strange man. Instead, she brought back memories of Nemnir in lap, her acid tears falling down over her lips and onto his skin. She remembered the fierce urgency that had made her create a new foot out of the strange, wyrd, weaving darkness that had made it come out of her wounded stump like a growing root. She tried to push all of those feelings towards this one small child.
“Sutith.” She whispered to her. “Sutith.”
Something stirred inside her, a power that was familiar, but also still so new. It moved through her aching heart, now full of memories of pain and sorrow. It found its way to her throat and became a sob that then became tears prickling her eyes. She drew the babe’s ravaged face to hers and kissed her, letting the tears flow as they had done for Nemnir.
“Sutith. Be healed. Sutith.”
The tears made the space where her flesh touched the child’s warm and wet, and when she pulled away, the skin there was changing. The spots, with their blistering black centres, were shrinking to nothing. And then the spots close to them were fading too. Then the ones on her torso. And then the rest.
“By the bastard gods!” breathed Estille, and Eris was brought back to the room. They should have kept her outside…
She was interrupted by the child, Bess, waking, stretching, and then crying, letting out a wail at being in the arms of a strange girl in stinking, travel marked, leathers. Her mother grabbed her back from Eris, still too shocked to speak. Eris took hold of that moment to command her.
“You have to be silent, tell no one about this. No one! I had some herbs. Some special woods-voln secret herbs. You don’t know what I did. Everyone knows the woods-voln can make poisons that can do incredible things. Why not healing balms too? You can’t tell anyone!”
The woman nodded mutely as she jigged the child and calmed her. “I won’t tell. I won’t!”
Estille nodded too, before moving aside for Pierson who’d come in when he’d heard the child cry. He looked at Eris with concern.
“Are you well?”
She nodded wanely, realising that she was actually very tired. And it wasn’t just the road that had made her so.
“What will you tell Jerekyn?” He asked Estille.
“Woods-voln secrets, that’s all. He won’t be interested anyway. Some child was healed and he didn’t even have to lend the mother the coin to get it done. So there was no risk to him and his gold at all. He won’t care.”
She straightened her skirts, pushing out the creases with her palms, taking a deep breath. “Well, you can’t talk to Jerekyn about your request tonight. This poor girl is simply exhausted! Tomorrow. After a good night’s rest. I have a place you can use. It’s safe and nearby.”
“Couldn’t we just stay here?” Eris looked longingly at the bed the woman and her child were sat on.
“These rooms tend to get a little busy. Now that the bell has been rung.” Estille said with a smirk.
“And that’s another way to worship?” Asked Pierson, flatly. “You do surprise me.”
“Don’t let those priest robes corrupt you, Pierson. Not when you were just becoming interesting.”
But it was Nemnir, looking in from just outside the door, who received Estille’s wink before the woman bustled about organising the grateful woman’s departure to her home, as well as theirs to this ‘place’ where they could finally sleep. Eris almost asked Nemnir to carry her, as they left the warmth of the Light of Lios and followed Estille down winding alleys and through courtyards. But she forced herself to drag one foot after the other until they took her to a borrowed night dress and a deeply filled goose feather pillow for her head, and then to sleep in their flirtatious new friend’s house.