Eris gently ran her fingertips along the loop of golden cloth. It was tight to the woman’s neck without much slack and she didn’t wish to hurt her by pulling it tight in order to test its give. Grey eyes surrounded by dark bruises watched her with suspicion, but the woman’s glances towards the fellow city-voln Orrin seemed to reassure her. Eris saw that the material itself was gold spun but plain, without Lios markings like the eye or the lion. However, the colour declared its purpose as much as the scraps they’d improvised to tie about Nem’s neck and hers as they ventured into Bara as Pierson’s indentured slaves.
“Woods-voln?” The woman asked, but not of her. She looked towards Orrin. “Woods-voln?”
“Aye. But it matters not.” Said Orrin.
“Says you.” Said another man under his breath. “The Beloved knocked out and two button men dead, and he says it matters not.”
“Shhh.” Whispered another man who was leaning against his long wooden pole as though it was keeping his thin frame standing upright. “’e said he was a priest.”
“A priest travelling with a woods-voln whor-” the man stopped himself, seeing Orrin’s sudden anger flash on his face. “-a woods-voln with a bow and a quiver full of arrows. What kinda priest is that, I ask yer?!”
“He said, didn’t he? That he’s a near-Beloved of Lios, a priest in training and library help-mate. He’s Orine of the temple of Bara-”
“Orrin” Said Orrin, correcting him. “It’s ‘Orrin’.”
“He’s a city-voln wearing woods-voln leathers is all I bloody well know.” Said the grumbling man.
Eris put their talk from her ears. The material around the trembling woman’s neck was fine and could very easily be cut away. She reached for her dagger.
“Hold!” Said Orrin as several of the other slaves reacted as well. “You can’t cut it!”
“It is her penance… for not paying for her sins.” Orrin explained, his voice fading as he realised what he was saying. “I mean, at least that’s what the church teaches.”
“It’s just a bit of cloth. I take it away and who is to know that she’s not just another city-voln? She, and the others could walk onwards to lives in Bara or back to Tralis, and who would know otherwise?”
“It’s the will of Lios!” The woman said in a hoarse voice. She was in her fourth or fifth decade, but she had been aged further by a hard life of either labour and punishment, or great sadness. Or all of them. The grey in her hair was more prominent that of the other female city-voln Eris had seen, it was so unlike that of the purring Estille who’d given them beds to sleep in in Bara and had had lustrous tumbling masses of hair. “Leave it be, woods-voln. I let you touch it because the priest said you could look closer, but take a blade to the cloth and I’ll kill you!”
Eris backed away from the woman, holding out her palms in the gesture for peace, all the while keeping hold of the woman’s feverish eyes that looked back at her with a deranged fury. Eris went to stand by Orrin.
“She does not want freedom.”
Another man, as thin as the others, and with a long wispy beard that made him seem even older than his young face should have told them, laughed, showing gaps between his teeth. “You don’t offer her freedom, woods-voln! You offer her eternal suffering! She’d be a Lios cursed ghost upon her death if her penance fails. Have you seen the ghosts? Sure as blood is blood, they walk all the volnen lands now! How you woods-voln can still doubt the god-king’s power now, I don’t bloody well know!”
Eris looked back towards the shadows between the trees for a moment. The Harl creature was back there, a darker twisting shadow hidden among those of the trees in the twilight. He wasn’t a Lios cursed ghost. Except in the sense that Lios was behind his doom. Their fears were… wrong.
“I wear this with pride!” Snapped the woman as well, gesturing to the cloth at her neck. “I serve and I will live as the god-king decrees, a soul adorned with the gold of his glory!”
Orrin sighed and then whispered to Eris. “You’ll not free them. This is the story city-voln like us have been told from birth.”
“But you fell away from Lios, found the bastard gods…?”
“I saw behind the golden throne, Eris. By working at the temple I saw the greed and lust of the priests. The city-voln don’t see all that. They only know that some are raised up by Lios and they want that for themselves. Penance, the paying of repentances, it’s all based on the assumption that they get more than they give by being in Lios’ favour.”
“Can we help them at all?”
Orrin looked grim. He looked about the loose circle of slaves. Under his gaze they lowered their own eyes, one or two moving their tools about to relocate stones onto the road. Starting to work again.
“We might have to leave them.” He said finally. “These are not the street-voln that we rescued from the castle’s path, not quite adults and servants to Lios. They want to serve him. They’d not have listened to me at all if it were not so. They respect the priesthood, even if at the moment it looks as strange as me!”
Eris looked down at the unconscious Beloved on the ground. “Do they respect you enough to let us take him though?”
“Here’s hoping.” He whispered before raising his voice for them all to hear, “This Beloved will come with us. Lios commands it, in the name of the temple of Bara. He has sins of his own to pay for, and Lios has sent us to find him.”
The grey haired woman spat onto the stones. “Has he? You travel with a woods-voln vixen and wear their impure leathers! Call yourself priest in training, but you ain’t like the priests we know. ‘Near-Beloved’, my arse!”
Some of the other slaves nodded at her anger, moving themselves to stand between the Beloved on the ground and Eris and Orrin, handling their long pole tools into a more defensive stance.
However, they dropped them to the ground as one as a golden shape slunk from the treeline. Most had only seen lions in the Light of Lios, simple line sketches in black and yellow rather than gold. The pictures were also often poor caricatures of the beasts that roamed the southern lands about Liosinium, doing no justice to the length or sharpness of their teeth, the flow of their muscles or the fierce mane that Eris now saw with widening eyes. The creature padded from the trees to stand just to the side of Orrin.
As one the slaves fell to their knees, pressing their foreheads hard into the small sharp stones of the road as they trembled in the presence in the symbol of their god-king.
Eris looked at the creature, seeing its woods-voln green eyes shine brightly as it locked gaze with her.
“We will take the priest, and you will not follow us. You wish to spend your days working the road, and you may. No doubt button men will pass this way some-day soon and you can tell them that Lios has claimed his own.” Orrin said, projecting his voice over his own fear of the creature standing just by his leg. But the slaves didn’t respond, they meekly kept their prostrated poses as Eris and Orrin nodded to each other, and then worked together to drag the Beloved away from the road, followed by the lion padding after them.
They carried him between them, moving deeper into the trees, leaving sight and sound of the king’s road far behind them. It was hard work, even sharing the carrying of the Beloved between them, and Eris was glad to final dump the farm-voln to the dirt when they first felt that they had the chance. The lion came to sit by the man’s head, considering him with vivid green eyes.
“How… how did you know how to shape the lion?” Eris said, crouching by the creature’s side. It warped and shifted, becoming the boy with the oddly unemotional face again. Harl’s face. Eris now found herself to be too close to him, and stood quickly to take a step back. Her hand also went instinctively to the pommel of the sword from the castle.
“I remember lions.” He said, either not noticing her step away from him, or not caring. “I think I remember lions.”
“Were you from the south?” Asked Orrin. “From near the dry lands? Woods-voln rarely go there, for the lack of trees.”
“I don’t know.”
“But you must have seen on up close to make it so… right.” Orrin continued. “I’ve seen some of the better renditions in the older copies of the Light of Lios. The newer volumes are not as good. Sometimes the lions look more akin to dogs than lions!”
“I don’t know.” The Harl-creature said again.
“Well, thank you for your interruption at least.” Said Eris, turning her attention to the Beloved. He was pale but breathing steadily, even if the welt on his forehead from her new sword’s pommel seemed to have some of the lines of the Lios and bastard god marks shaped into it from the blow. “What do we do with him now?”
“Well, it’s not been an arrow from a distance, but it could it could still be a shallow grave.” Orrin looked at the priest with a calculating look. “I think we know that letting him live means letting him tell the button men in Tralis about what happened at the farm. And then your vision of their doom comes true.”
Eris shivered, feeling the hairs on her scalp prickling. It couldn’t be allowed to happen. But then… could she really kill this man in cold blood? Button men had fallen to her arrows today after all? But that had felt like the child of a sudden decision in response to hunting the priest. And this felt slow… cold. Murder. It was murder.
“What are you thinking?”
“I’m thinking about the arrows I’ve let fly and where they’ve landed.” She half meant the arrows themselves and half the consequences of her actions. “Do arrows always follow on from each other?”
Orrin look grim. “You could leave him out here for some other woods-voln greening to take the kill. We’re well enough into the woods now. He’d likely not find his way back to the king’s road from here, and the punishment for wandering into the woods is often severe.”
“Or some passing ghost will slay him. As it happened with Verla.” Eris shifted her weight uncomfortably between her feet, the normal and the wyrd, feeling sick in her stomach.
“That was justice.” Orring said firmly.
“Was it? And even if it was, what is this? He’s done nothing yet but threaten to reveal our new farm-voln friends. Does that mean his death? And leaving him here is as much a death sentence as locking him in a cage of bones and letting a ghost devour him. There’ll be no mercy for a Beloved from the woods-voln. Unless… unless that woods-voln is me.”
“Mercy?” Asked the Harl-creature.
“I don’t know. I really don’t know! Does taking on Lios mean taking out his priests, one by one? Face to face like this as they lie unconscious? Is this really what war is?!”
Orrin placed a steadying hand on her shoulder. “Neither of us have seen war. But what I’ve heard of the Front it means slaughter. The blood of thousands upon thousands stains the soil there. Those who are sent to the Front don’t return. You’ve heard the great roarers… there are larger and larger weapons being brought to wage Lios’ war. At some point he will turn from the enemy outside of Tralis and bring those weapons about to face the woods-voln! Or he’ll poison more of them with pox as he did the Attavine and the Lastleaf!”
She slowly knelt down again by the Beloved. It could be so easy, she realised when she let herself think about it. She didn’t even need to draw blood, she could just push poison into him by touch. Let Atta flood his veins and he’d never even wake up to tell tales of the woods-voln massing in the East. He’d never bring the sword and the firing roarer to the farm-voln who’d helped them. Just a touch and he’d be gone, a problem solved. A vision of evil denied.
“No.” She spoke softly. “No. The slaves wouldn’t free themselves. All because of the stories they’ve been told. The same stories you were told as a young city-voln, Orrin. You were a priest too, and for a long time you would have seen it as your duty to tell the church about what happens after the bell at the Light of Lios. But then you changed. You heard other stories…”
“I’m not worried about what stories he’s heard, I’m worried about stories he will tell!” Orrin said rapidly, crouching by her and placing a hand on her shoulder. “He’ll bring down the button men on you! The farm-voln will only be the beginning. Lios will turn his roarers to you!”
Eris nodded, holding Orrin’s eyes with her own. “That is war. That’s how it’s going to go. Now, or soon enough.” She reached for the Beloved’s hands before Orrin could stop her and pushed Sutith into him, bringing him from his unconsciousness as quickly as she could.
The priest came to with a start, sitting up and staring about at the trees above them, squinting in the dappling sunlight as he finally made out the two in leathers and the boy in city-voln garb leaning over him. “Wha-what?”
Eris drew his attention to her, pulling his face to look at hers. “I want to tell you a story.”