They ran together, still holding hands as they ignored the stunned looks they got from the few denizens of Tralis that they encountered. Night was turning back to day, and a growing amber light eastwards highlighted the dull edges of the buildings as they raced in that direction. Behind them the clattering sound of soldiers died away as the fugitives lost them in the maze of the stinking city. Eventually Orrin pulled her back into a doorway as the street ahead of them opened out to the expanse of the fens and swamps beyond.
“You see it?” He asked, breathless as they took cover in shadows. “Out there.”
She peered about the corner and her sharp eyes caught exactly what he was talking about. A grey line on the horizon, stained dull orange by the rising son. The Front.
She looked back at him, locking his grey eyes with her green.
“No. We can’t go east.” He hissed, keeping his voice low. “That’s insane.”
“What’s out there?” She asked.
“But you’ve never been there have you?”
“I was a priest in training so all I know of the Front is that Lios returned from the mountains with the loyalty of the mountain-voln in his hands, and then he drew together all his armies to battle the enemy to the east of Tralis.”
“How do you know that’s what really happened? You have the scroll, you know things might have been otherwise than he said.”
Orrin sighed, pushing his hair back with his hands. “You’re right, I don’t know. I made seven hundred-fold copies of the Light of Lios while in training at the temple in Bara, so I’ve read that story a lot-”
Orrin smirked, “And I then I went out and told as many stories of the bastard gods as I could!”
She smiled back at him and then had a thought, “Did any of them mention the bastard gods in the east? Or at the Front?”
He shrugged sadly, “None that I know of. Come, we’ve done all that we can to find Jayk! Our path needs to take us back to the others. To Pierson, to Nem, to Sarai, to-”
She closed her eyes as he spoke their names. They were there, still with her, wherever she journeyed. She opened her eyes again as she felt Orrin’s gentle hand on her shoulder.
“We could skirt the edges of the city again, return to the king’s road… we could be back among them in no time-”
“No. I can’t.”
“You’re still going looking for Jayk?” There was a firmer set to his jaw as he finished the words.
“I don’t believe Sigdre sent for him. He’s still out there somewhere. But there are other reasons to go east.”
How to explain the curiousity the grey line of the Front had awoken in her? She wanted to know what it was. She wanted to know what Lios had been doing for so many centuries. She wanted to know why men like Pierson and Nem had been sent there. Why Jayk had found his way there.
“Well, I know better than to argue with you.” Orrin smiled at her. “But my lady there’s a damned-be-Lios swamp between here and the camps!”
“Worried about getting your smart new clothes all muddy, Orrin Story-teller?”
He looked pointedly at her fine silks. “One of us is certainly not dressed for a march across the muck!”
“True. But I fear there are few places in Tralis where we can purchase woods-voln leathers for the invisible Lios coin we carry!”
She watched him thinking, his city-voln eyes looking about the streets near them, assessing them. But Tralis was different to Bara, the city of his birth. Tralis was a military city from what she could see, and its houses and businesses had grown around the barracks like the shell on a snail. Bara was a merchants’ city, full of gaudily dressed city-voln showing off their wealth and tricking each other out of it time after time. Tralis held its money behind doors, collecting it avaricely from the button men when it could and keeping it hidden. Marchan had done well here by tapping into the soldiers’ needs. But no soldier needed study woods-voln leathers. And no merchant would sell plainer travelling clothes to a woods-voln and a city-voln.
“Peace.” She spoke softly. “The longer we stay here, the more danger we are in. The sun is coming up, and we don’t want to be seen leaving by the city-guard-”
“I’ve not seen any, have you? Perhaps they know Tralis is a fetid dump and no one will try to sneak in or out.”
He was right. Perhaps they could simply walk out of Tralis and head east? Her hand found itself in his again, and she nodded. Now was the time to go.
It wasn’t far from their hiding place that they noticed the buildings beginning to slouch into the ground around them. They knew from hiding in the water-logged basement that Tralis was sinking, but seeing the tumbling buildings claimed again by the hungry earth made it obvious. Soon their feet were walking on mud rather than cobblestones, and the boundary between Tralis and the rest of the land was hard to mark, as the city seemed to blend into the swamp.
“You okay?” Asked Orrin, noting her fancy boots with their ridiculous block heels sticking more and more into the slippy ooze. Her skirts were dragging again the mud too, becoming more and more wretched with mud. They still held hands, and he was helping her as much as he could. But the swamp was greedy.
“Mind yourself, Orrin Story-teller.” She smiled, looking at the creeping muck on his boots that was evening reaching beyond their leather to his britches. “You aren’t looking as fine as you once did either.”
They carried on, focussing on their slow movement through the swamp. In places the water deepened into actual pools, and in them they began to see abandoned possessions of soldiers who’d passed this way either in a charge or a retreat. Shining gold coins bearing Lios’ face. Lead roarer pellets. Buttons with their golden paint peeling off in the damp. And onwards, ahead of them, was the Front where all these things had immediately become less important.
From Tralis it had looked like a line, but with every step it looked more and more like a large bank of clouds, hanging low in the sky, just above the horizon. Parts of it had floated towards Tralis, she could see great flowing rivers of the mist flowing and retreating with the wind. It had brought anger and fear, she thought, is that what awaits us there too?
By the time the sun was high above them they could make out camps ahead of them. There were rows and rows of red tents, and flagpoles flapping with ragged pennants showing the eye of Lios or his damned lion. In the camps they could see figures moving about. Some were larger than others, and for a second Eris’ heart skipped a beat thinking Nemnir might be there, among the other mountain-voln. But he had left years back after a careless order from Pierson had taken his tongue and before they had escaped together.
Some of the camps were further off, hazy shapes just barely visible through the mist. But dead ahead of them was a camp overshadowed by the increasingly close and oppressive grey shape of the Front. Their walk had been interrupted many times already by the booming shouting of the great roarers, and here she could see a few of them being worked on by figures in the distance, the sun shining off their golden lion mouths.
“What do you see?” Orrin asked, squinting ahead of them, “Will we be seen by the camp?”
“If they were looking this way we’d already have been spotted.”
“Sentry duty must be a dull task on this side of the camps. They’ll be looking out to the east. We can probably circle around-” he stopped himself. “What am I saying… we’re not going to the Front itself!”
Eris was quiet for a moment, leaving Orrin time to curse and bless the bastard gods under his breath. She heard him mutter her own name too.
“Is it more than just curiousity?” She watched his eyes drift down to where her wyrd foot was encased in fine city-voln leather. “Is it more than just Jayk you are looking for?”
She continued to look at the large bank of mist ahead of them. Something in there called to her. She’d been feeling it since they’d stepped out onto the mud again. Finding Jayk had been her first thought, but now all thoughts were about walking into that great mist and knowing what was there. That meant getting past the red camp, but that didn’t seem so hard-
Suddenly Orrin grabbed her and held her by her upper arms. “What are you thinking?!”
“Orrin-” she began, not afraid but seeing fear in his eyes that she needed to help him with. “Something is there in the Front. Something I have to see. I think I’ve known it since we were in the barracks. Maybe even before that.”
Orrin’s brow furrowed, and she felt his fingers tighten against her skin. He wasn’t hurting her yet, and even if he did the cut of her sleeves meant that he was touching her flesh, so that, if she wanted to, she could poison him in seconds. But she didn’t want to.
“I can’t… I can’t let you go in there!” Orrin looked panicked and she pushed a little of a calming balm into him. Not quite Sutith, but something she remembered from her childhood and the occasional fevers she had had. It had tasted like aniseed on her tongue, and that’s what she put into Orrin’s flesh and blood now. His fingers relaxed a little. He even stepped back from her, and as he did she realised that swirling about their feet was one of the eddies of mist that was flowing about the land by the Front itself. Orrin must have been affected by the mist as the soldiers of Tralis had been! Sigdre had been wrong, it wasn’t the fear of the Front that drove them to panic and violence, it was the Front itself!
“Orrin, how do you feel?”
“I’m just worried for you.” She could see beads of sweat forming on his forehead under the length of his hair and she was certain it wasn’t just from the damp heat of the swamp. He was fighting back, and she could help him as much as she could. Another balm from her had him breathing more calmly. “Eris…”
The wind moved sluggishly about them, and she saw the mist swirling about their feet getting thicker. “Careful Orrin. I think the mist makes men mad.” She examined her own feelings and found herself as calm as she ever was. But now, more than ever, she knew that she wasn’t like other voln. The mist was calling to her.
She felt Orrin remove his hands from her upper arms and she looked at him with curiousity, seeking signs of the mist in his behaviour. His face blurred and softened as a whisp of the mist came between them.
“Eris…” he began again, but his voice sounded as though it was coming from a great distance, “We need to leave this place.”
She reached out a hand to hold onto him this time and felt only empty air for a moment. Then his fingers entwined with hers, and he pulled her closer.
“I thought I had lost you!” He said, panic creeping into his voice again. This time however, it felt… genuine. She drew closer to him as the mist thickened and his face grew indistinct. Closer… she was within the protection of his arms and found herself laying her head against his shoulder.
“Orrin.” She whispered, touching his face with her hand. It took her less than a heartbeat to then bring her lips to his. The touch of him was faint against her own lips, and lasted only a heartbeat more.
The mist finally claimed her. She let herself go, pulling away from Orrin as he stood there with his eyes closed. The memory of his lips would stay with her for as long as she was gone.
She walked alone into the Front, disappearing from sight in the grey billowing clouds. Gone.