With the swamp around the king’s road came a humid heat that had both Eris and Orrin removing leather bracers and vests, leaving undershirts that were stained quickly by their sweat. And if Orrin had felt more comfortable on the familiar stones of the road, by the mid-day he seemed to be looking longingly at the small shade offered by the sinking and stinking woods on the sides of the road. The decision to go back to the shadows was made for them soon after, as a cacophony of noise grew in the south and came towards them as they reached a crossroads. Darting into only slightly cooler places under boughs weighed down with green mosses they waited to see what was approaching from the lands north and west of Tralis.
At the head of the caravan that approached were twenty or more men in ragged robes, naked to the waist, flailing at their bared backs with golden ropes with gold coins knotted into their lengths. The suffering men ranted and foamed at the mouth, and the words that carried on the stilted air towards where Eris and Orrin hid with sweat dripping down into their eyes, were all about Lios and his glorious might. After the deranged creatures came button men in their long coats, and only a few of them had the privilege of horses to carry them through the heat of the lands before Tralis and even they were looking drained by the heat in their high collars. After the button men and the small sparks of light that gleamed off of their golden buttons and saddle decorations, came ten men as large as Nemnir. Each was chained to the ones ahead and behind of them, and there was dejection and submission in their every heavy step. After the captured mountain-voln were more button men and lower soldiers with less gold to their uniform and duller steel in their scabbards. As they passed Eris’s eyes caught on one button man walking with the soldiers at the back and she felt her blood suddenly freeze in her veins. It was Jayk.
Orrin spotted him a moment after, and immediately put a hand to her shoulder, catching her movement forward out of the shadows as soon as it had begun. He put his finger to his lips and tried to urge caution with his eyes. Eris nodded, but looked back to the lost street-voln, taking in the straightness of his back as he marched with the others. There was a growth of moustache on his top lip in the middle of the clearness of his skin on the rest of his face. That healing had been the last thing that she had done for him, to try to help the boy who’d born scars of his past. And now he bore the god-king’s’s uniform and fake golden buttons.
They waited until the entire caravan was past them before they dared to whisper to each other.
“That was Jayk!” Eris said as soon as she could. “I’d swear to it!”
Orrin looked pained. “The path that took him away from the Atta… I never thought that it would take him to the button men.”
“My dream,” She began, images of the lad among other travellers heading south to a city with high black walls. “He was going to Garre, through the black gates. But that was a long time ago. And now he walks from the north with mountain-voln in chains and prophets ranting Lios’ name?” She felt drowned by a sudden flood of sadness. “I never wanted him to leave. I didn’t.”
“I know.” Orrin seemed full of sorrow as well. The two of them, two city-voln with such different backgrounds, had bantered and prickled each other. But there had been a friendship between him and the street born lad.
Certainty replaced her sadness. “We were heading to Tralis anyway-”
“You can’t mean to convince a button man to desert?! To run away from the Front to join a pack of street-voln, city-voln, woods-voln, and mountain-voln in the woods?!”
“Re-join.” Eris corrected him quietly.
“I understand your sadness, I truly do. I wanted better things for Jayk and the other lads too. But I’ve been in the temples, I’ve seen the faith that makes the button men march. And there was no uncertainty or fear on his face!”
Eris paused, staring down the road to where the caravan had turned had headed after turning to the East and Tralis.
“My feet take me that way. I know that you weren’t keen on Tralis to begin with, but now I have something I must do there.” She closed her eyes and remembered how her mother had chosen their path based upon her faith in the One Who Once Healed. Their piebald mare Floris would be stopped at a junction in a trail, a hunter’s path, or a mountain pass, and up in the seat at the front of their caravan she would say that she was listening to a small voice from deep inside herself. The one that knew where her healing would be needed next. And there always was a need, wherever the chosen path took them. Of course, many places needed healers, and it could have been that other roads would have taken them to others in need. But she had always been so sure.
“You sound like you are trying to convince yourself, not me.” Orrin noted.
“You could follow the road back west and find the others…”
“Don’t be daft.” He said, standing again and stretching out joints that had seized up during their time crouched down in the trees’ shadows. “Come on then. Into the mouth of the beast by the Front I suppose.”
They drew to within sight of Tralis after another two days of walking. The woods had continued their sink in the mire and their view of the city was uninterrupted by trees when the king’s road finally brought them close enough. But there was a low mist that clung to their boots and legs and made the buildings of Tralis look like they were afloat on a sickly grey lake. The city was made of square and ugly shapes in that sea of mist, tall block like buildings large enough to obscure the view of the swamp land beyond them and the famous Front. The Front was quiet at least, the occasional thumping of the great guns only occasionally echoing in the heat around them. Black flies bothered them more though, bringing their own persistent noise to fill the void between roars.
“The land here is ugly.” Said Orrin, “And I say that having grown up in Bara. Also, I think I now know where the stink and flies in the summers there originally came from.” He swatted at another black spot on his arm, leaving behind the mark of his fingers as well as a swelling red spot. “Ugh.”
Eris put her hand over the spot almost without thinking and concentrated for a moment as she spoke, taking away the small pain of the bite and quickly soothing the skin back to normal. “This mist might give us cover to get into the city. Can you see the city walls?”
“Thank you.” He smiled down at her as she removed her hand, “Um, Tralis. Tralis has no walls. The war beyond it and the swamp around it are its walls.” Orrin said grimly. “The king’s road will take us towards the life of the city, such as it is, and will gain us unwanted attention if we stay our course on it. But the alternative is leaving its stones and pushing through the stinking bog instead.”
Eris didn’t much like that path either. Her wyrd foot would make the going even harder through the dank water around Tralis. “Pierson got us into Bara by playing the priest and by having Nem and me be his indentured slaves. Could you do the same?”
“I don’t have my vestments… my robes. I left them back in Bara, I truly thought I was done with all that kind of pretence.” He said with a wry smile.
An idea formed in Eris’ mind. “The prophets on the road didn’t have them either. Not the rich robes of a priest.”
“The mad men in the caravan also didn’t have indentured slaves.” Orrin said, swatting away another attacking insect. “What part could you play in our little make believe?”
“A convert? A woods-voln who had heard the glorious word of Lios from your lips and changed her heart?”
“Was I speaking loudly of Lios among the trees without fear of arrows and poison?!”
She had to admit that he was right. Another thought, “Pierson pretended to have stolen me from the woods and to be taking me to the temple in Bara for the priests. What about that?”
Orrin reddened with old angers reawakening. “I had forgotten that.”
“It happens, doesn’t it? There are ‘gifts’ made to the temple?”
“It happens. Never saw it for myself, but there was always word of it. The older priests and their ‘tastes’, no matter what they preached on purity to the rest of us.”
“So, I could be stolen from the woods. For the temple in Tralis. Or maybe for the button men?” Her words were flat and cold. It happens. It happens to others like her.
“But stolen by a prophet?” He sounded uncertain.
“It’s not a perfect plan… but it might be the only one we have.”
“We’d have to leave behind our weapons. We won’t be able to walk freely. They might take you away from me as soon as we enter the outskirts of the city… there’s a hundred ways this could go wrong!”
Eris tried to listen for the small voice her mother’d had within her. For Orrin she was that voice. If she insisted he’d trust her, and she might get them both killed, Sutith or not.
“The swamp. We’ll circle about to the north of the city and come in at night. Shadows will be our only friends in the city. You will have to guide us, you’ll know the tracks of a city better than I do.”
“It’s not Bara. I knew Bara.”
She smiled sweetly, “You’re still more of a city-voln than I will ever be.”
“You’re dark of hair.” He pointed out.
“And green of eye. And sharp of face. Hardly going to pass for some city-lady in these leathers neither.”
“Tralis is full of soldiers, doubt there’s many women that haven’t turned to whoring there.” Orrin said.
Shadows and darkness were decided upon, and eventually the night allowed them cover as they pushed through the thick water about Tralis, helping each other out of patches where their boots sank deep into the fetid water. Eris had been right about her wyrd foot slowing them down, the weeds and water seeping into the lattice and sticking her to one spot as though her foot were full of lead. Orrin used muscles strengthened with the woods-voln and forcefully yanked her out. Both of them were exhausted as they found a cobblestone street emerging out from the muck and heading into mist bound shadows as an alley between two angular buildings. There were few windows on the outside of Tralis; with the mist and the swamp there was maybe little that the city-voln wanted to look out on. Orrin suggested that there’d be even fewer on the eastern side of the city, but that meant further walking in the wretched mud and water, and getting closer to the lines of the Front.
The two bedraggled strangers snuck up the alley way, avoiding the few sources of light and shivering as the swamp water chilled them, even in the humidity of Tralis.
“We need somewhere to rest.” Hissed Orrin, his eyes scouring the other shadows for signs of danger. He jumped a little as somewhere nearby a rowdy chorus began, the lyrics of the song merging together as they echoed around the night streets of Tralis. “Look out for basement windows. I’ve heard the priests say that Tralis is built on layers of itself, some of the rooms below don’t even connect with the ones above them, so that can make them a safe place.”
Orrin was right. Eventually they found a boarded up window just above the round cobblestones, its frame warped by the weight of the floors above it. But there was just enough space left for the two of them to squeeze through and to drop down into a chill dank space where pools of water came up to their ankles in places.
“A charming spot.” Said Orrin, appraising the room as best he could in the dark. Eris reached into her pack and tried to light tinder, but it was damp from the air and the swamp water splattered over their clothes. Orrin stumbled over an old couch, and disturbed a plume of dust and mold that set him to coughing.
“We can’t stay here.” Eris said firmly, towards where she thought he might still be standing. “Could we get up into the floor above?”
“We might be able to, if we can even find a door or hatch, but who will we meet up there?”
They both strained their ears in the dark, trying to listen from movement above. There were sounds, but the buildings were so close to each other they could have come from elsewhere. Eris began to miss the woods. They made sense.
“By the bastard gods, do I miss the damned woods now!” Whispered Orrin, and Eris smiled in the dark, forgetting the cold and damp for a moment.