Orrin was Hui’s most fervent watchdog, barely leaving the man’s side at the main camp until Callia insisted he take a break and eat something. Even then he sat on a tree trunk just across the way, quickly supping on his stew as he glowered. Eris stayed with Hui too, becalming him when his mental state het him up too much and trying to fix him. Nothing worked, whatever had been done to Hui to make him into a good prophet was more than physical, more than could be healed with the Sutith she could make. But moments of clarity leaked through and she learnt about his life on the streets of Liosinium, which was far less of a golden city than she’d heard. Caught for thievery many times, his fingers had been taken, but eventually someone had thought to put him to another use. His love of Lios was manufactured, forced upon him through torture. Including, she learnt to her disgust, the feeding of human waste to him as someone intoned the words ‘bastard gods’. What this was meant to prove to his future audiences in the cities, she was unsure. Perhaps retching in response to the words was thought to be proof of the bastard gods’ impurity? It was horrific. And Lios should pay.
“You need to eat too.” It was Orrin, returned as quickly as he could and standing over her as she knelt before the muttering Hui, holding his maimed hands to becalm him occasionally.
“Your god is on her knees” Hui chuckled, atlhough his eyes were looking about wildly as though he was blind.
“Bastar-” Orrin began maliciously, but Eris stopped him with a glare. She had no desire to see Hui vomit again.
“Perhaps you should find another task to occupy yourself. There are plenty about who can keep watch.” And indeed she had noticed the number of eyes, woods-voln, city-voln and mountain-voln alike. She was not without aid if she needed it.
Orrin turned and walked away. Eris was sad that this new disagreement had come so quickly after the long silence between them had ended. But the priest and the prophet were flame and oil together. She thought of Jayk, who had always bantered with the older city-voln, but in a kind-hearted way. She missed him. Just not as he might have hoped her to. She missed him as a part of her greening. The other city-voln lads had seemed embarrassed by his sudden departure, and perhaps he’d asked some to come with him and they’d also refused him. Had he asked Orrin the same? Was that a part of the reason for his silence with her?
“Your priest is a fool.” Hui said simply. They’d just given him some stew to eat as well, and it was smeared across the stubble on his face. She wiped at it with a linen from the healers kit she’d brought over with her in the vain hope that some idea might come to her from its presence that would help mend his broken mind.
“Hush.” She said quietly, quickly finishing a bowl of her own.
“The priests of Lios are great men. His prophets are singular among all the stars in the sky.”
“It’s true that I’ve never met anyone like you before.” She admitted, but it was not a compliment.
“We will bring his word to all the cities, and the sins that summoned the ghosts will end. The unsanctioned unions! The heretical worshipping! And the mixing of the volns, which is an especial abomination unto Lios!”
Eris’ eyes sort out Faeli and Nieris but could not see them being carried amidst the bustle of the camp. As dark haired woods-voln they might not be obvious as mixed-born, but best to keep them from Hui’s sight. But he’d not really noticed the city-voln among their number, so perhaps his shattered mind prevented him from noticing anyway.
“When your mouth makes your god’s words you are far clearer, Hui Fives. Because you were taught them by rote?”
Hui shook his head violently until she gently stopped him by holding her hands to his head and sending another becalming. “I am a true believer. Oh yes, oh my!”
“What happened to you was cruel.” She said and released him from her touch.
“Lios is light.” He said, but the words were flat and hollow.
“Tell me about your life? From before you were a prophet? Did you have friends? Family?”
“Empty barrel. Echo streets.” He shrugged. “Snicket sometimes. Very dark blood. Marble stained. Saw a man with a horse on him once. Saw the lady with the keys once. That was a thing. The lady has all the keys. Some would say she was plain. Now that’s a nonsense! Goodly kind. Beauty.”
Eris was lost but she nodded as though she understood. Pierson knew Liosinium, maybe some of this might make sense to him if she repeated it later. She tried to remember Hui’s spiralling words. A lady with all the keys? A man with a horse on him? A trampling? A memory of some horror he’d seen perhaps.
“Green eyes.” He nodded towards her.
“Yes, I have green eyes.”
“I’ve seen green before. Grey and brown too. Gold skins. Sold for gold coins.”
Slaves? Perhaps. It was more likely that a woods-voln would be strung up in the cities than trusted for even slave work. Or did he just mean the ‘gold skins’?
“Lios has slaves?”
“All, from the mountain to the sea, break backs for Lios.”
“We’re all his slaves? Well, some might see it like that. I do not.” Her woods-voln pride rankled at the suggestion. She was born free, would die that way too if she could.
He looked at her, boldly. “Are you a god, little bimble?”
“Good. Snicket snicket.” He drew his thumb across his neck.
Snicket is… what? Murder? The sound of a blade in a belly or across a throat? ‘Snicket sometimes’ he’d said of his life on the streets of Liosinium. Sometimes there is death. Killing… not hugely surprising.
“What will I do with you Hui Fives?” She said more to herself than him. She did not want to see him cast out onto the road with his mind as fragile as it was. But the carriage was gone, and it was a long way to Tralis. Should she send some to escort him, or should she try to stop Lios’ passage of prophets?
“Ups and downs. This path or t’other. Could be, could be not.” Hui shrugged.
Eris was about to answer when she felt a gentle hand on her shoulder. She looked up to see Verla there, the shadow of Nemnir over the old woman as well.
“You’ve been at this for hours, girl. I’ve some experience with the sick of mind. And Nemnir Mountain-Voln here will make sure the man doesn’t gut me. Go. Sleep.”
Weariness made its presence known and Eris nodded. She was on her feet and back to her tent before her mind really knew it. Sleep was a good friend that came to her side quickly, once she’d shucked off her leathers and found her way beneath the skins that lay on her bedroll. The sound of some man snoring nearby also helped to lull her to sleep. Her place was in the midst of randomly placed tents, Atta all about her. It was safe and reassuring.
Until the dream began. She’d had one like this before, soon after Jayk had left. She’d dismissed it for some trace of guilt, but this dream was even more vivid than before. Jayk was walking a long road in the dark of night, a path more dust than stone. Either side of him stretched sand dunes, and a caravan of people were with him. Traders, merchants, men riding great beasts with legs longer than horses and with great humps on their backs. Shapes prowled on either side of the procession. Skinny four legged beasts with ragged hair about their heads and their ribs showing through their sand coloured flesh. Lions like she’d seen on the clothes of priests. And Jayk was staggering with the others, his lips cracked and his skin scoured by pale dust that wiped into his eyes. His face no longer bore the marks of the sewer-pox but there was a new cut beneath his left eye. But that was not the thing that made her tremble in her dream. Her heart quailed when she saw the long coat he wore. It bore shining gold buttons. And then, as she swam towards waking his face changed and became that of the Gyreblack boy.
She woke with a gasp, and found it hard to get her breath. Something was heavy on her chest, squeezing the air from it. Then a sudden punch pushed her back into the bedroll. The weight eased, but still breath was hard to pull into her lungs. A wheeze came out, blood flying with it and splattering across her lips. A dark shape moved in the tent, a crooked and thin shape, holding a dagger awkwardly in its wrong hand. Hui Fives.
With desperate eyes she looked towards the low glow of the fires of the camp that dimly light the tent from outside. Too far away. Even her nearest neighbour couldn’t be reached if she could not breath to scream. Sutith. She tried to call out for it, but nothing came.
“Snicket. Snicket.” Hui was saying and weeping a little. “Empty barrel. Filled with shit. Filled with shit!” He would not stop and it was his madness that saved her, the cries he made bringing other dark figures to the tent to drag him out and to push cloth against her wound. Faces appeared that she knew, and they carried her gently to somewhere with space and light, her arms falling down as more than one man raised her above them. Blood ran down her naked arm and spattered on the floor of the woods.