They stumbled about in the dark until Eris tripped over the stones of a tumbled down wall. Beyond it was what they at first thought was just another room of the basement but it soon became clear that, as they had to step up and onto it, it was actually the lower floor of another house that had merged in with its neighbour over the years. Being that much higher up mean it felt much drier, even if the space was just as pitch black. At least they no longer found themselves suddenly wading through puddles of brackish water as they crossed the room. Orrin tripped over the corner of an unlocked storage trunk in which their seeking fingers found rough hemp sacks which they gladly wrapped about themselves.
“Ah, luxury.” Muttered Orrin as they blindly shared out what was left of their supplies, just tough bread, dried meats, and the warm stale water held in their skins. “You can keep the fine feasts of the temple, this is the life!”
“You never talk much about the temple, for all the stories that you do tell.” Eris stared into the dark, unable to find his eyes in the echoing blind stillness of the basement space.
“But how can a story of a rich man’s boy passed on to the temple to deal with compare at all with the great loves and adventures of the bastard gods?” his voice came back from a void next to her.
“Your family gave you to the temple?”
“Much like Pierson, I was not the immediate heir to my father, so I was a gift that could be given in service to Lios.” Orrin sighed. “It’s not a bad life, once you get past the first few years of pretty muh just being an indentured servant. Even then there were clean sheets and good dinners. There were the hours and hours of learning Lios’ will, of course. Rows and rows of us set to the task of writing hundreds of copies of the Light of Lios that were then sent out with the travelling priests and the repentance takers. My hand got cramp but my belly was never empty. And there are plenty in Bara who have it worse than the priest-boys. I finally saw that once I started sneaking out to the Light of Lios tavern in the night.”
“How long was it before they let you stay there after the bell had been wrung? How long before they trusted you?”
A warm laugh came from the dark space from where Orrin sat close by. “Oh, a long time. They’re cautious, and rightly so. Heathens and the impure are strung up by their necks by the temple, their gizzards all torn out by hooked knives, left as a warning that’s well worth listening to. But Estille vouched for me, after…”
He paused and quickly moved over what had happened between him and Jerekyn’s blade-woman, “Well, after she was convince that my faith in the bastard gods was true, priest-novice of Lios or not.”
Eris nodded in the dark. She could guess what had happened to convince Estille. Pillow talk, she thought, remembering the elegant woman and her barbed comments to Pierson, another one who had once shared her bed.
“Are you warm enough?” He asked, and she heard him shifting about in the dark. They were sat in a corner of the room, hemp bags over their damp clothes as the chill of the stone floor worked through them. “Move closer if you aren’t.”
She shuffled a bit closer to him, feeling her bare arm touch his. “In the stories, could the bastard gods ever make fire from damp tinder?”
“Not that I have heard. But they could do many great things. Perhaps they could even spray living fire from their hands without tinder!”
She held out her hands and focussed on the thought of fire but nothing happened. “I didn’t really think that would work.” She laughed self-consciously.
“Your powers seem to be more about the… body. You heal and you harm through touch or by making a greening within yourself. Fire might not be possible as it’s not a part of what we are.”
She thought about his words. “I suppose in that case I could maybe make a fever in your bones, but you would suffer from it.”
“If we do not find somewhere warm and dry soon, along with fresh clothes and a good meal, perhaps the fever will come anyway.” He sounded tired, and she let her head drop down on to his shoulder, stopping fighting their closeness. Just for a moment.
The next thing that she was aware of was a bright light dancing over her closed eye lids. Waking slowly she found herself squinting into the grey light of the morning sun. Above and across from them one of the corners of their basement room was broken open to the sky, letting in a narrow beam of the distant sun to where they lay together, and allowing her see the rest of the shadowed space about them.
This had once been the basement of some store house. Along with the tattered sacks they’d draped over themselves there were numerous others stacked up on each other or toppled over. Once full of some kind of white powder, they had been gnawed upon and their contents eaten or spread about the stone floor. In the dust she could see their blind wanderings in a weaving of many footsteps, and as she looked down at their feet she could see the white stuff caked to their wet boots and her wyrd foot like Aril Rexakyde’s bone paste. They were covered. Orrin even had it in his hair and beard. She stifled a giggle. He looked like an older version of himself; his hair faded in streaks. Her small laugh woke him up.
“The dust, it has aged you in the night!”
He stretched with a yawn and then flapped at his arms and hair, sending a cloud out and about them. “It’s flour. Very cheap stuff, whitened with chalk.”
“Ah, my mother used to make her bread with brown flour, milled from wild wheat in the woods.” She looked at the white stuff on her hands, “With chalk? Ugh.”
“And yet, I would take a loaf of cheap Bara bread right now, baked with chalk or not.” He looked about their hiding place. “The day is early still. I can sneak out and see what food I can hunt down for us. I’ll just about pass for a common city-voln, if not a priest or a button man.”
“You are city-voln.”
He stood, slowly, aching from their awkward resting place and stretching out his arms and legs as he laughed, “I’ve spent too much time with your Atta, sometimes I forget.” He offered her a hand to help stand and she took it gladly. But worry gnawed at her along with her hunger.
“I do not like you going alone. Your leathers will mark you out.”
“I’ll stick to the shadows.”
“I’ll not be able to help you if you get into trouble!”
“This is an army base as well as a city. I doubt there being two of us will help all that much. If I don’t return by dark then you can retrace our steps and head back to the others-”
She stopped him by grabbing at his hand and putting as much of her strength into him as she could. Was it a kind of healing? Was it Sutith that flowed between them? She wasn’t sure. All she knew was that she felt drained and weak after and that he stood straighter and stronger than before.
“Good gods, Eris!” He caught her as she stumbled towards him.
“You’d better come back now, I can’t get back there on my own.” She said, her words as faint as she was. He helped her to lie back down in their corner, and settled rolled up sacks beneath her head.
“I’ll be back as soon as I can!”
Her eyes closed as he ran off, his feet splashing through the dank water in the lower level of their den, and she fell into a dreamless sleep. The second time she woke that day the room was darker, the sun had moved its face away from the broken corner and she was chilled even in the oppressive humidity of Tralis. She tried to get to her feet and found herself instead sliding down the rough bricks of the cellar’s wall, letting out an oomph at the effort. All her plans to get to Tralis, to see the Front and to rescue Jayk felt like flimsy ashes and floating cinders on a breeze. She let her slide take her back down to the floor and into sleep again.
The next time she awoke it was darker still and her heart leapt into her throat. How long had Orrin been gone? Had he been caught and his lies seen through by some button man with a roarer ready at hand?! Panic drove her to her feet and got her walking, her weary bones complaining the whole way back down into the lower level and to the small warped window they’d made their way through the night before. Climbing up and getting through it cost her more than she had to give, but she did it anyway, pulling herself through to the stones of the alley, slick with swamp water and green with slime.
But where to go from there? Following the alley and keeping to its sides, she found herself at junction with five options, the paths between the crumpled and sinking buildings forming a maze. How by the bastard gods was she going to find Orrin?!
Just as she was considering returning to their dark den, the sound of marching feet drove her into the doorway of a grey faced building rising several floor above her. She watched as a group of soldiers and their button men leaders strode by. She waited a hundred breaths before moving on after the last one had departed, but in her haste to get away forgot which of the paths she’d taken and soon found herself confused and alone surrounded by similar looking buildings.
“By the bastard gods!” She hissed between her teeth as she took another turning and came upon another featureless street or alleyway. Between the constant heat and dampness of the city and the ugly grey buildings she felt angry and annoyed. In Bara they’d had Pierson to guide them quickly to the Light of Lios. Here she was on her own, tired and hungry. Angry tears prickled at her eyes and she dashed them away.
“Eh, what’s this?”
A man’s voice spun her around. His clothes were tattered, but he had the dark blue of the soldiers in his coat and a bandage wrapped about his face over one eye. She started to back away as the other grey eye looked her over. He jabbed at her with the pot of ale held in his right hand, his words slurred by the drink.
“Girl, what are yer wearing?! Is that Lios-damned leather armour?! Guards! Guards!”
She was off on her heels as soon as he’d said leather, running with what energy she’d regained since giving most of it to Orrin. Her hair, falling out from her braid, stuck to her forehead again as she sweated from the heat and the effort of getting her legs moving. Everything ached, everything hurt.
She ran about a corner into an alley way and straight into another man, the air pushing from her lungs as the solidness of him stopped just as though she’d run into a wall. His hand clamped onto her mouth and blocked the yell that was about to come from her as he pulled her into shadows.
“Eris, shhh, shhhh!” Orrin insisted. She looked up and locked her green eyes with his grey and nodded. He released her. “You were meant to stay put!”
“You were meant to be coming back,” She said faintly.
“I was!” He gestured to the flour sack that he had dropped as he’d grabbed her, left on the ground in the middle of the alley way and spilling scraps of bread from its insides. “I gathered what I could, where I could. There’s a market further into Tralis and I’ve been thieving from it all day-”
Running steps interrupted him and they turned to see the drunk staggering down the alley and going straight for the sack with Orrin’s ‘findings’ in it with a triumphant ‘a ha!’
“No!” Shouted Orrin and barrelled into the man, making him stagger and trying to rip the bag from his shaking hands.
“S’mine!” Shouted the other city-voln, spitting into Orrin’s face. Eris ran over as well, beating at the soldier’s back with her exhausted fists, to no avail. The two men were scrapping and wrestling with little real energy. Whatever she had managed to pass to Orrin in the morning seemed to have worn off and he was weak against the man’s drunken, mad, strength.
Just as Orrin was given a bloodied lip by the drunk, laughter began drifting down from above them. Eris looked up to a high window, where a small balcony had allowed women to watch the bought and to pick their favourite. They were all in revealing silks and satins that were stained by sweat but still jewel like in comparison to the oppressive greyness of Tralis.
“Take him down soldier boy!” One yelled down as the other giggled and whooped.
“No! The other one is far better looking. You win for Lillis, lover-boy and she’ll give you a kiss for free!”
“How can you even tell, the soldier has a bandage on his face?”
“And what ugly visage is going to be under that?!”
Eris had to jump back as one of the women poured a piss pot out of the window, dumping most of the contents on the drunk but catching Orrin as well.
“Cool down!” the woman shouted, and something about her voice caught Eris’ sharp ears. She looked up, trying to make out the pourer’s face. She wore grey and blue silks, her bust pushed up for attention, and the face above her long neck was coloured with pastes and powders that were far more vibrant than any she’d worn in Bara. It was Estille.
The woman caught sight of the girl watching her. “I have no more to pour on you bitch-girl, so be off with you!”
Eris continued to stare at her, unsure of whether meeting Estille here would help or hinder them. She knew that she was in part responsible for the end of Jerekyn and maybe even the firm that had once given Estille a position and a purpose in Bara. If Estille was here, and whoring by the looks of it, things had gone very wrong after that night in the Light of Lios tavern. The night they’d first met Orrin. How could she not recognise him or Eris? Of course there was the dirt and their leathers, and Orrin’s neatly trimmed beard had grown wild…
“The bitch-girl looks like she wants a fight too, Trienne!” Gasped one of the other women to Estille who was still staring at her. Meanwhile Orrin and the drunk had taken their scrapping to the ground, with the drunk snapping his teeth at her priest. Eris shook herself out of her surprise and grabbed the drunk’s collar to try and drag him away from Orrin.
A door opened near them and a large woman in far plainer more practical clothes yelled at them. “Stop yer fighting and get in the damned house!”
Eris was about to shout back profanities at the strange woman, but then Estille shouted down as well, “Get in the house! I have no damned bell to summon you in!”
Orrin pushed the drunk away and grabbed Eris’ hand to pull her in after him. The drunk tried to follow but the woman at the door shoved him back with the handle of a broom. “Get!” She shouted and he amble back, cussing and spitting.
The door was closed behind them and the woman looked them over, wrinkling her nose at the smell of them. “Good Lios, you cannot come upstairs like that! Marchan will have a damned fit! Come this way!”
She drew them onwards into the house, and they followed her up and down small staircases and through many doors that joined the rabbit warren of the houses together. Eventually they came to a rear courtyard with a water pump and she made them take turns in washing themselves beneath it, not caring that one was a man and the other a young girl. Eris bared her arms and washed what parts she could without taking off more clothing. Orrin obviously felt freer to strip off his shirt and leathers, and seemed not to care that the woman watched him with interest in her eyes.
“Yer skinny now but yer’ve been muscled. Soldier?”
“I can not say.”
“Can not say?! Good Lios, you have a tongue man. Are you a soldier?”
Eris was reminded of Nem but kept her silence as Orrin made a dismissive shrug. “Maybe. What’s it to you?”
“Trienne tells me to fetch you, so I fetched you. But I work for Marchan not that bloody woman, so I want to know.”
“Not a soldier. Priest once. Not now.” He said, pulling his soiled shirt back on.
“Good Lios, no! You can’t be wearing that with all the street-shit and blood on it! Wait here!”
The two of them stood alone for a moment, Eris sizing up the height of the walls of the yard and working out where they might take them even if they managed to get over them. She met Orrin’s eyes with her own, and saw his exhaustion writ clearly on his face and in his sagging stance. They were going nowhere. For now.