“This is madness!”
She stayed silent, forcing herself to hold the creature’s gaze with her own. ‘Harl’ looked back at her with curiosity, but then Orrin pulled her around to face him instead. He released her almost immediately as he realised how rough he had been. He looked apologetic, but he repeated his words. “This is madness, Eris.”
“You didn’t see what I saw. They kill the children. Milly… she’s no older than I am. Ebert… he’s just a boy. And there’s younger ones…”
She turned fierce eyes on him then. “And you’re ‘just’ city-voln. And I would do no less for you!”
“That’s different! We’re… companions.” He looked uncomfortable as he chose the word. “We are your Atta.”
“I cannot be what you think I am if I don’t help them. If I don’t then I will be more a’kin to Lios, as Aril said.” With the memory of Aril’s words in head, as well as older bitter words from Verla Diarnilys twining with them, she tried to focus on the shadow dancer in front of them again. She’d asked to be left alone with ‘Harl’ after making her decision, and most of the others had moved away, leaving the two of them by a dying tree strangled by purple green ample-vine. Only Orrin had disobeyed, even when she’d told him forcefully to check on the still unconscious Aril. Even when she had commanded him as god to his priest. The man was infuriating!
She took a deep breath. “You can change shape. Can you be anything you wish?”
‘Harl’ looked back into her eyes. Green meeting green. “You want me to stop looking like the woods-voln you know?”
“Yes, yes I do… but more than that. I need you to be like something specific. A horse.”
“Eris!” Orrin began but she stopped him by grabbing his wrist. Something sharp and angry passed from her to him, skin to skin, and he paled quickly.
“What is a horse?”
Born a woods-voln, the shadow dancer may not ever have seen one. Her and her mother’d had Floris, the piebald great horse that pulled their caravan, but other than that she’d only seen them under button men when in trouble with them. In the south and on the front they were said to be more numerous, but the creature had not been there either.
“Imagine a deer… do you remember your parents hunting in the woods? Imagine a deer and make it larger and stronger, with hooves better able to race on the king’s roads. And a back broad enough for someone of my size to sit astride. And dark of fur, to be able to race at night when most eyes are closed but some might still watch. Can you be that?”
Behind its still face, ‘Harl’ did seem to be thinking about her request.
“It has to be strong enough to carry two.” Orrin said in a quiet voice, as though whatever reprimand she’d made to him had left him shaken. He rubbed at his wrist as though it itched. “I will come too.”
She began to disagree with him, and then changed her mind when she saw his determination. An extra bow was not a bad idea either. “Can you be that thing I described?”
‘Harl’ nodded, his body already beginning to dissolve into whispery shadow and reforming into something large and black. It truly had never seen a horse before. The creature now standing by the dying tree was something from nightmares. Muscular and bulging under slick black fur, it had angular legs with joints going the wrong way and two ebony sets of sharp bone prongs coming from its head. Its eyes remained the emerald green it had made them in trying to be more like the other woods-voln, and they seemed to glow in the growing darkness of the night. Hooves wider than a horse’s pawed at the earth at the end of its thin but powerful legs. It dipped its self in front of them, offering its back to them.
“By the bastard gods. You mean to ride that?!” Orrin breathed at last.
“Apparently you mean to ride it with me.” She heard the murmur of Atta voices as the apparition was spotted by the others. Before they could come over and interrupt her plan, she swung her bow upon her back and mounted the creature. Where her wyrd foot made contact with the beast’s side she felt a connection form with the ‘horse’, a closer connection of thought and intention than she’d ever felt on the back of Floris. It also anchored her to the creatures. She reached out a hand for Orrin. “Come if you are coming.”
He settled his sword further to one side on its belt, and hoisted his own bow and pack to his back before taking her hand and leaping up behind her. He might have thought to take control of the horse from her sitting there and being larger than her, but there was no bridle. There was only that connection between her and the beast where they touched. She urged it on, and the two of them found ways to hold on; Eris getting a hand full of hair that was thick and undulating like willow tree fronds, and Orrin holding on to her, his arms wrapping about her torso and finding purchase on her leathers. She thought she heard a quick apology from him for the close contact, but the words were pulled from his mouth as the horse leapt forward at her mental command and sprinted off through the woods.
Drawing its inspiration from the deer of the woods, the creature had made itself perfectly adept at racing between trees and up and down the wood’s mossy or broken floor. Eris and Orrin had some terrifying moments before they found ways to adjust to its pace and to cling on as the trees and the darkening shadows between them raced past. They soon burst through the boundary of the tree line and raced across the broken earth at the edge of Thoma and Lissy’s fields. The creature stumbled a bit as its feet found the change difficult, but it warped itself again to suit charging across the large clods of soil. In blackness of the early night the creature was a shadow among other shadows, the two figures clinging on its back in their dark leathers only slightly more visible. They turned after passing a large white boundary stone and the sound of the creature’s hooves on the ground changed as they joined the rough stone road towards the king’s road. Other farmsteads beyond the boundary stones marking the edge of that way, and Eris could see flickering dots of light where other families took their rest. They raced south past darkened fields, very few of which bowed with tall crops blown by the night wind.
Hours passed and the creature did not tire. But Eris and Orrin began to feel themselves slumping forward. He pulled at her leathers to direct her attention to a low collection of buildings to down to their right, lying far too close to tree line. Her sharp eyes made out the brokenness of the walls about the place, the gaping hole in the thatched roof and the lack of nightlights or torches. She steered the creature that way and as they raced over abandoned fields she was certain that it was empty. They arrived as a great cracking of thunder rent the sky. But it was the great roarers of Tralis again, creating a hollow red and orange light in the sky to the east behind them.
The two of them got down from the creature with aching limbs and tired bones. Without command, Orrin set to work finding a clear space inside the main building for a small fire to heat up pack supplies. Dried meats and berries emerged from his pack as well as a bed roll they could both sit on. Eris hesitated outside the broken frame of the door, looking back at the creature standing stock still outside, a black statue against the orange sky.
“Come in with us.” She said. “On two legs.”
They both watched with morbid fascination as the creature broke and dissolved four long legs and the long neck of the ‘horse’ and reformed itself as a woods-voln again. Still the face was Harl’s, but seeing it change and melt into shadows had driven away much of the feeling that it was identical. There was a calmness, almost a blankness, to the features as well, that pushed away her disturbance at speaking with ‘Harl’. It joined them, sitting crossed legged beside the small fire, but did not eat until bidden.
“You do eat then?” Said Orrin, breaking the thick silence.
“They always brought us food.”
“In the castle. You must have some stories of that place?” Orrin was lying out on the roll, Eris sitting by his feet, but every muscle in his body seemed tense for all that he was trying to give the impression of being relaxed. Eris noticed his dagger was absent from its leather scabbard.
“Dark. Alone. Pain. Change.” It said in a brief staccato of words.
“Did you ever see anything of the bastard gods there?” Eris asked, her thumb running over the pommel of her sword, her skin feeling the mark of Lios and the bastard gods there.
It shook its head, Harl’s long hair falling over its eyes in a very human gesture. “Only Lios. Saw the coins with his mark that paid the muleteers that brought us there. Saw the books with his eye on their spine. The measuring books. Saw the masters beat the lads in his name.”
He flinched as though being beaten again. “I remember and I don’t want to.” It stood, and suddenly Orrin’s hand held steel. But the strange boy held out his hands in the sign for peace. “I don’t need to sleep. I will circle the farm to watch for trouble.”
His form shifted before they could agree or disagree, and it flowed into the chaos of the shadow dancers, limbs and shapes forming and disappearing as a part of a larger flowing shadow. It moved out from the broken building and into the night, its blackness blocking out stars for a moment and then gone.
Orrin put away his dagger in its sheath under Eris’ stern gaze. “He’d likely have gone anyway. Even if I hadn’t asked for stories. But I’ll sleep with one eye open this night, with him on guard…”
She shoved his shoulder. “He cannot help what he is.”
Orrin paused. “You’ve started calling it a ‘him’.”
“So have you.” Eris said pointedly.
“What will you do when we catch up with the Beloved?” Orrin said, swiftly trying to change the subject. “You know I have no love for the priests of Lios – having been one myself – but is it to be an arrow at distance and a shallow grave? It would be good to know how I can help…?”
She began the process of untying her braids as she thought through her answer. She barely ever gave her hair much thought beyond tying it back for the day and releasing it at night, but somehow the physical work of pushing out the plaits helped at that moment to focus her. “He can’t tell the button men about Thoma and Milly. They can’t suffer for knowing that the Atta are massing-”
“And that’s what we’re doing?” He still lay there on the bedroll, propping his head up with his arm like a priest upon a golden couch, but the question was asked with seriousness. “‘Massing’. You need an army to face up to Lios, but an army is more than a just mass of people.”
She remembered her dream of Jayk wearing the long coat of a button man, walking with a mass of people in the stone dessert. Surrounded by lions. She’d not dreamt of him since that. Had he joined the army of Lios? Did that mean that he believed again? Or was he just a part of a mass, like a leaf on a stream, washed along with others? Harl… Harl had been ordered to hurt her by the button man. And she had commanded the new ‘Harl’ to help them.
“Orrin, you disobeyed my orders to leave me be with the ghost. Back at the Rexakyde camp.”
“Never been that good at taking orders. Just ask the head librarian in Bara.” He smiled warmly. “Besides, a good storyteller is a useful companion on the king’s road.”
“How is that?” She returned his smile. “Stories aren’t arrows and they aren’t shields.”
“Really? Because I know a tale that could puncture the puffed out chest of a certain priest in Bara… and if you let me I could tell you a tale to lull you to sleep and have you ready for any battle tomorrow… a shield if you like.”
She laughed. “That’s a stretch, but one I would expect of you.”
He shuffled a bit on the bed roll and made a space for her to lie down.
She hesitated. “You’re on the cold floor.”
“It doesn’t bother me.”
She lay down beside him, turning her face away. She’d healed him before, closer than this to him with his flesh exposed and yet this felt more than that. Something more that she didn’t understand. But he didn’t touch her, merely lay back and closed his own eyes as he began the tale of bastard god known as The One Who Walked the Borders, a story he’d picked up from the Rexakyde. A solitary soul who’d wanted to know all the lands of the volnen, The One Who Walked the Borders had found invisible lines of thought between the voln of the cities, woods, mountains and seas. Along their way they’d stopped to rest for moments, eyes heavy and limbs aching as hers did now. And in their pausing great gates had been born out of the stone under the earth. Markers of where the lands met and where the Walking One had closed their eyes to dream. And anyone who slept under the arch of those stone gates would dream like the bastard god whose sweet sleep mutterings had been made into arches. Some just laid down their heads there, wherever they found a new gate. Others left offerings, having to return to day light and the waking day of work. They crafted small statues of themselves, so that at least part of them would be a part of the god’s dream.
Eris woke to grey silence. And then she made out Orrin’s slow breathing. She had drifted off into her own dreams during the man’s storytelling; his melodious voice lulling her into sleep. Carefully, she sat up, hoping not to wake him. He was still deep asleep, his eyes moving under his eye lids as she watched him, a hand laying across his chest as he slept on his back. Her eyes scanned over his hair, dark but with hints of greyness as with other city-voln. His beard was fighting a losing battle with untidiness as he lived a woods-voln life, and stubble had crept back again, marking his cheeks. He wasn’t quite as old as Pierson, but she could see where laughter lines were beginning to grow at the corner of his eyes. He was always smiling, always getting others to laugh.
She shook herself out of her consideration of him, and looked about for the shadow dancer. Had he watched over their farm building all night?
She slowly moved away from Orrin and used as much of her voln’s stealth as possible to make her way out to the broken door of the farm building. In the day light she could see better the remains of the belongings of the family that had once lived her. What had happened to them?
Outside, the sun was still low and the sky grey as she found a stone to perch on as she re-braided her hair. It helped to calm her as she felt herself getting more and more desperate looking about for the shadow dancer. Where was he?!
Suddenly some movement caught her eye in the distance and she saw the ‘horse’ racing across the fields, its strange black mane and tail flowing as it seemed to enjoy the feel of the speed. It veered and came charging towards her, skidding to a halt in front of her and spraying her feet with small stones. She squealed, and then found herself laughing.
“What?! Eris!” Orrin shouted from inside, and came barrelling out from the shadows of the broken house, his bow in one hand and a boot in the other. Seeing Eris staring up at the strange horse in front of her he dropped the boot and went to draw his bow.
“Peace! Peace!” Eris held her laughter in, seeing Orrin’s fear. “Nothing is wrong.”
The ‘horse’ lowered its head and she found herself running a hand over its nose. The flesh was harder than she remembered of Floris’ soft snout, and there was that same feeling of connection again, like a line running from her to the ghost and back again. “We need to be going.” She whispered, more for the shadow dancer’s ears than Orrin’s, although the man gathered his things without complaint. Soon he was behind her again on the beast’s back and they were trotting away from the run down farm house.
Beloved had been travelling by cart when she’d first seen him, and Eris assumed that he’d be back aboard the wooden vehicle, being pulled along at that steady but slow pace by the horned creature. With that in mind she was certain that they would catch up with him well before Tralis, even with his head start. But racing along the king’s road in the daylight was a hazard. When they reached the junction of the farm road with the king’s road and the ghost halted to check which way she wanted to guide it, she held her breath as they stepped out onto the small stones that could take them into the mouth of Tralis and Lios’ war.
“It’s the same king’s road you, Pierson, and Nemnir raided from the Diarnilys lands.” Pointed out Orrin. “Just further to the east. Did you fear it before?”
“I’m not afraid.” She said defiantly in response to the voice coming from behind her.
“You tensed so quickly that if you were the one with your arms about me, I think I would have a broken rib by now…”
“The roads are always dangerous. You’ve travelled them with us too.”
“Aye. But we were more in number then, and with a path ahead of us into the green woods of your people. To be fair, I maybe feared the trees more than the stones of the roads! At least button men wear coloured long coats you can see for miles, and they put their roarers to your face rather than shoot arrows at from the dark!” Laughter came from behind her and she felt her muscles ease a little more.
“To Tralis then, and to roarer’s going off in our faces!”
The king’s road made their going even quicker, hooves, even weird ones, finding easier grip on the small stones than the plowed fields. They raced away from the sun as it rose from amid the fire of Tralis on the horizon ahead of them, crested, and began to set again behind them. Shadows lengthened about them, and it took Eris’ sharp eyes watching the road ahead to notice the convoy they were approaching. She halted the shadow dancer with a thought, and they made their way off of the road onto rough ground spaced with corpse roses, low bushes full of thorns. Avoiding being punctured, they crept a little closer and saw that the convoy was slow moving and they would have easily caught up with it had they not stopped. Eris made out two lines of men and women walking, two men on horses, and at the very back, a cart drawn by a horned beast.
“It’s Beloved… maybe. Men and Women walking in lines. Two button men, perhaps.” She reported back to Orrin. “I could get closer and see-”
She was cut off by the ghost dissolving into a smaller shape, the shadows of it running over their skin and raising the hairs there as it swirled and shrank. A black fox sat there instead, its eyes dead and flat as it looked up at them. With a leaping motion, it jumped away and became a black dart racing alongside the road, moving among the rose bushes, and getting closer to the convoy.
“By the bastard gods!” Breathed out Orrin. “Did you feel that chill as it touched us?”
She nodded, but her eyes were on the dark speck getting closer to the city-voln. It vanished out of sight eventually, and she counted heart beats until it returned. ‘Harl’ was there a moment later, more shadow and smoke swirling about them and giving them that uncanny feeling until he was whole again. She was relieved to see him, even if he wore the Gyreblack boy’s face again.
“What did you see, la- lad?” Orrin asked, falling into his pattern of speech with the street-voln of the Atta.
“A man wearing the golden thread and long dress of the lord-master, two men with blue coats and golden buttons. And twelve men and four women with gold about their necks and long tools.”
Eris frowned and Orrin looked grim as he explained. “Gold, like the cloth that you and Nemnir wore about your necks in Bara to show that you were indentured to ‘Pierson the priest’. They are slaves. Likely to the priest in the ‘golden thread and long dress’. It’s unlikely this is the Beloved we seek, but another who is walking his slaves to Tralis.”
“To serve in the army?”
“Briefly.” Said Orrin grimly. “Or they have some task before then. I’ve seen slaves in Bara tending to the streets with long poles to push about gravel or to clear the drains. They might be working on the king’s road. We can go about them and head on after the Beloved we seek.”
Eris looked onwards to the workers, just small blobs on the road ahead of them, the red fire of Tralis beyond them, a second sunset made out of endless fighting.
“Or we free them. As we freed the street-voln from the carts.” She looked to ‘Harl’ as she said the last. But his face stayed still and impassive.
“I don’t know if you can save these city-voln and the farm-voln family.”
Eris withdrew an arrow from her quiver and spat Atta onto it, the greening sticking to the sharp arrowhead and coating it. She looked at ‘Harl’ and then Orrin.
“I have to try.”
Before either could reply she was darting through the bushes just as the ghost had done moments before. She thought she caught a curse coming from Orrin behind her, but then came the louder step of his feet as he tried to be as stealthy as her. The ghost in its chaotic form rolled past her as she ran, and stopped just before the convoy’s end. Catching up to it she could see that Orrin had been right. The slaves were working as they were led towards Tralis; each was scouring the edge of the road and finding stones that had been pushed off of the main path and returning them to the king’s road with long handled wooden tools. It was back breaking and repetitive work, but not a single one of them was complaining, the lash held in the hand of button man astride a horse made sure of that. But Orrin had been wrong. The priest with them was the Beloved that they sought. He had obviously caught up with the convoy and sought the safety of their company on the road. But he was desperately trying to convince the two low ranking button men to abandon their charge and escort him to Tralis on an urgent mission for the sake of Lios’ kingdom.
“I tell you the woods-voln-”
“With all respect due Beloved, it’s our hide if we stop these works. The great roarers come up here from Garre, passing through Bara. Now if our part of the world’s roads aint as good as the Garre to Bara way then we’ll be strapped to the front of those blessed lion’s when they next fire!”
“You must see that if there is impurity among the woods-voln-”
“Don’t know anything about impurity or woods-voln not acting like woods-voln. All I know is we got orders from Most Beloved Renvis of the Tralis temple to take his indentured men and women and work the roads from Bara to Tralis. Are you a most beloved of a temple like him? Are your robes made of best gold thread?”
The other button man sniggered as he sat on his own horse nearby, and Eris’ sharp ears caught him say something like ‘mud-priest’.
Beloved’s face reddened even further. “I may be farm-voln, but I am a full priest of-”
“Then I can’t be going against his orders, now can I?” The button man smiled smugly under his moustache as he carried on, ignoring Beloved.
An arrow flew from the shadows that they were sitting in, and ripped through the throat of the smug man. Eris followed it with another that thudded into the other button man’s shoulder. Orrin let his fly into the man’s chest to confirm the kill. Beloved, shocked by the sudden deaths of the two men, stumbled down from his cart and scrabbled in the stones just returned to the road by the slaves. A few, realising what had happened, turned on him and pushed at him with their long wooden poles, bruising him and urging indignant yells from him.
Eris and Orrin walked forward, as the ghost stayed back in the shadows at Eris’s quick whispered command.
Beloved, his hands held up to protect himself from the battering he was getting at the hands of the slaves, squinted at the two figures approaching, and finally recognised Eris just as a solid whack to his head knocked him out.