Scouts spotted a ‘snail’ a four day later, creaking its way slowly up the king’s road to Tralis on straining wheels weighed down by a surplus of what appeared to be gold ornamentation. Button men, four of them, rode on horseback alongside the carriage, but Eris’ band of keen eyes in the woods saw how relaxed the men were, how they stared ahead with blank and bored faces.
Pierson was in charge of the job, but the choice of accomplices had been Eris’. She’d stayed to woods-voln, much to Orrin and Nem’s annoyance. Even the city-voln lads had grumbled. But she had this feeling in her gut that this needed to look like an ordinary woods-voln raid. Something was not right, something in the description of the mad priest bothered her, and she wanted this to be simple. Four Button men were no challenge for the Atta, their arrows slicked with poison that would bruise their enemies skin green while killing them. With the element of surprise they’d take them down quickly and then prise the snail from the shell open to see why Lios’s priest was heading to Tralis on the Front.
Hooded woods-voln followed Pierson’s signal and took up positions along the road ahead of the carriage. Pierson’s own hood was deep and dark, enough to cover his dark grey hair and make it harder to see his softer city-voln features. Eris took up a position next to him and notched an arrow. When it happened it was over quickly, Atta greening finding its way into the blood of the Button men and dropping them from their horses who fled away, whinnying in distress. It was so easy Eris began to think about taking out more Button men. Out there, somewhere, was the man who’d ordered the boy to take her foot. She could cut through Lios’ favourite forces to find him and bring her poisonous revenge into his veins…
Her line of vengeful thinking was interrupted by the woods-voln hacking at the carriage door with hand axes. What they’d taken for gold was a flaking yellowy paint that fled to reveal a dull cheap looking wood beneath.
“Stop beedling bothering. Oh my, oh yes.” A voice came from within. “Snicket, snicket. Leave at it.”
Eris nodded at the woods-voln, and they pulled back, but bringing bows up to ready them. Pierson stepped forward.
“Verrily. Leave at it, sky opens.”
The door of the carriage, scarred with axe blows, slowly opened and a crooked figure swept its heavy robes out. Eris could see how, from a distance, he might be mistook for a priest. The golden robes were just as elaborate, but he had none of the well-fed robust health of a priest that later became obesity in the older ones. He was skin and bone, and a ragged shock of near white grey hair and matching stubble also marked him as different to the mirror proud priests. And on his robe were not the usual lions and eyes in complicated and rich patterns, but mouths. Corpulent, thick lipped, mouths picked out in different sizes in gold and red thread.
Eris looked to Pierson and caught his subtle shrug. The former priest was also confused.
The ‘snail’ held up his hands in surrender and Eris saw that the right was devoid of fingers, the scars long ago healed.
“Snicket, oh my, oh yes?”
He had a rapid way of speaking and his eyes floundered from target to target.
“Where are you headed, priest?” Sarai asked, Eris’s grown woods-voln voice for this job.
“Priest? Never. Not. Final days sending. Mouth and breath. Told to go. So I go. Oh my, oh yes.”
What the young woods-voln had told them seemed true. Broken, like the other, somewhere deep inside his head.
“Where are you going?”
“Tra-la-la-la-la” He sang.
“Tralis, we know that. And when there?”
“The streets. But not as before.” He looked to his fingerless hand. “No quick, no take. No coin to make.”
“Hui Fives.” The name was whispered, a moment of sadness.
“Not a thief anymore?”
“No more fingers to smish smash. Five, then four, then three, then two, one. None. Hui Fives. Gone.”
“What are you now, then?”
He spread his hands, the maimed and the whole, down the length of his robe and admired it. “Mouth. Oh my oh yes.”
Eris caught Pierson’s eye again, asking the question. Another shake. He’d not seen anything like Hui Fives before.
“You speaking true, Mouth?” Eris stepped forward and asked the questions now. A hooded woods-voln near her took a step forward as she did, but stopped himself. Eris cursed under her breath. It was Orrin! Nem would have been a foot or more taller, and a woods-voln cloak a near joke on him. But the city-voln had passed for one of the accomplices and her sharp eyes had not even seen!
“True? I speak. I speak.”
Eris nodded. What was wrong with him might be beyond her ability to heal. Her mother had told of her of problems of the mind that her balms could never ease. But there were other ways to calm a fevered mind, bringing it to something like sleep, soothing it as a balm made of white bracken might.
She stepped towards the skin and bones man, taking in his sunken eyes and hollow cheeks. Even just a good meal would help. She reached out to touch her hands to his face. A small knife flashed out at her.
“No!” She shouted back to the woods-voln as their bows strained back. Orrin was next to her, his own dagger held tight against the man’s neck, drawing blood. A small line of blood crossed her own palm. A nothing.
“She was going to help you, you mad son of a bitch!” Yelled Orrin.
“Snicket. Snicket. Twist and tear. Knives and knives and pulling on ropes!” The man was trembling, and Eris saw a patch of dark wetness spreading out from the thick folds of his robe.
“He didn’t know!”
“She was going to help you, to heal you!” Orrin shouted at the man, ignoring Pierson who’d come to hold him back. “She has more power in her than your damned Lios does!”
The man stopped trembling and when he spoke again his voice was flat and dead. Rehearsed or remembered. “Lios is the god-king. His will is complete and perfect. He watches over us. He sends the prophets to help guide the people now that their sins find them out. Now that the ghosts have been released.”
His face crumpled back into confusion once the words were out of him. They were forced words. Words Eris suspected had been drummed into him. With ‘knives and knives and pulling on ropes’. Torture.
“Lios is a fraud and Eris is the only god walking the lands since the bastard gods.”
Hui starting retching, risking slicing his own throat against Orrin’s blade. The storyteller pulled away in disgust as the man actually heaved and spewed up some food. He began to calm and then Orrin spoke again.
“The bastard gods?”
More retching, more food splattered onto the road.
“Stop, Orrin.” Eris stepped to the pitiful man and managed this time to catch a hold of his good hand. She summoned up calming balms through her power and the man relaxed, his hunched shoulders moving down a little, his heaving ceasing. Whatever had been done to him, to train him this way, was far beyond anything she understood. She looked to Pierson, “A ‘prophet’?”
But it was Orrin who answered. “I saw the word in a book once. In the early years of Lios’ travels, as he tamed the mountain-voln and united the world – or so the books would have it – he sent emissaries ahead. Prophets, carrying his word and his message about the future of the voln.”
“Oh yes oh my. Mouth.”
“Mouth of Lios. Bastard gods damn him, the Eyes weren’t enough?!” Pierson snapped.
“Why now? Why again?”
“‘Now the ghosts have been released’” Pierson recalled the man’s words.
Eris could have kicked herself for not picking up on that part of the man’s deranged monologue. Yes, the ghost in the woods. So, there were more, and perhaps for the first time. And Lios’ response was… prophets? Why not soldiers?
Orrin was squaring up to Hui Fives again, “Your god is a liar. He’s no god at all!”
“Your god is bleeding, oh my oh yes.”
Orrin looked to Eris’ hand and then frowned. “Anyway, the bastard gods bled too.”
The effect of Eris’ becalming held, but Hui still looked sickened by the words ‘bastard gods’. “Lios is no blood. Lios golden age. For now. Forever.”
Eris shrugged at Orrin, she had no desire for an argument about her divinity, and Lios was indeed immortal for all they knew. There might have been a falsehood in his story of his journey in the mountains, but that was still a story from hundreds, thousands maybe, of years ago. Lios did not die. The bastard gods died. They loved, and they wept, and they healed, and they died. Somewhere to the south was a pool where a bastard god’s passion still warmed the water, channelled into a stone, but that love had outlived the god him or herself.
“Theological arguments aside, what do we do here?” Asked Pierson, the priest in him showing in the long word he used that Eris did not recognise. “Do we kill the prophet, or send him on his way to Tralis? I doubt he’ll even be able to recall what happened to him here on the road if we decide to.”
Eris thought. They could just send the carriage onwards with a single woods-voln sat up front to spur on the horses. Get him out of their woods and into the city where the ‘Mouth of Lios’ would be better received. Or perhaps Orrin would be better, the city-voln certainly seemed to like appearing where he was not expected, and where better than the front of a golden carriage heading to Tralis on the Front?
“No.” Her voice and her decision surprised her. “I want more time to try and help him. What better way to thwart Lios than to steal one of his own prophets. We’ll bring him to the camp.”
Pierson seemed concerned at first, then smiled as the perverse joy of upsetting Lios took a hold of him. “Very well, let’s get him back to the camp. The carriage we can smash apart for firewood. The horses can go their own way-”
“This can’t be a good idea?!” Orrin near shouted. “He’s a religious fanatic? Whatever’s been done to him, he’s Lios’s man!”
Eris looked over the pitiful Hui for a moment.
Orrin began again. “He’s been made like this Eris, he believes. Truly. More than any of the priests I ever met in the temple-”
She looked up into his grey eyes, shadowed still by his stolen woods-voln hood. She held them with her green.
“I said we’ll bring him to her camp.”
She wasn’t sure, even later, where the steel in her voice had come from. Softly she’d led before, and maybe it was fitting that her first real order was to the man who’d sworn himself to her as her priest. The man who thought she was his god. If he believed, truly, as Hui did in his own god, he would obey.
“As you will it, my lady.” Orrin said, bowing slightly, lowering his stone coloured eyes from her forest green ones.