“Attavine, Nuerveld, Findrop, Blacken, Ghostblight, Vasitegloom, Shanktear.” Her breath came in short hoarse bursts between the names. “Ireblade, Clomithex, Diarnilys, Lastleaf.” White hands raked at the ground in front of her, one knee pushing as they pulled to bring her inches forward. Her memory failed her for a moment. “Gyreblack” she spat. The stuff from her mouth was tinged with red.
“Forlorn. Jesterseed… Baxal.” The spaces between the names was growing. When the birthing women did this, her mother’s mother had told her, they got to their family poison at the point of the crowning and repeated that until the babe came. Finally coming to take the name for itself. But Eris, wasn’t birthing, she was dying. And half her name had been cut away, along with her…prett
She stopped that thought. She’d even tried not to look at it when the fire had finally woken her from her death like sleep. But eventually she could not pull herself away from it any longer and paused, both for a deep painful breath and for a look at the stump of her leg. Beyond the man’s belt and the frayed rope there was an alien part of her, numb and on fire somehow at the same time. And her missing foot was a void that made her head spin. Her eyes followed the trail of blood that lay behind her, tracing back to the bottom of the slope where she’d been when she awoke. After the cursed boy had cut her apart.
“Gyreblack.” That hadn’t been his name, she was pretty sure of that. But it was something for her rage and pain to hold on to. “Gyreblack. Gyreblack. Gyreblack.”
She was going to die, and now the boy’s family name was whispery faint as she breathed it out in her final pain. Even pulling herself this far had brought her to a black cliff, a darkness rising above her that filled her vision, the increasing dark in the already dark woods.
“Atta-Sutith.” She curled in on herself, her leg sticking out like a dead tree limb. “Atta-Sutith. Atta.”
Sutith. It did not translate from the old tongue of the woods-voln very well. Her mother’s mother, and her mother, had used it as a password for moving among other woods-voln. Even the mountain-voln her mother’s mother had tended, before their small family of three had moved southwards, could recognise the word as meaning something like ‘healer’ or ‘helper’. It was more than that though. It meant something closer to ‘once healed’. And not just the healing that her line had done for others, helping even the mountain women to birth their very large babies, not just fixing bones, and mending wounds. It was the healing that her line’d had done to it, centuries past. When the Atta-Sutith poison was made by the first of them. But in her anger at the boy, in her feverish delirium, she felt that the Sutith part had been cut away along with her foot, leaving her a stump. Eris Atta. Atta, a vile tasting substance drawn out over time from the attavine plant, an oily liquid that could kill.
“Atta. Atta.” She found some more anger, festering somewhere deep in her, burning in her youth. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair! The boy had cut her away from her nature and it wasn’t fair!
She was moving again, dragging the dead left behind her and breaking her nails as she pulled herself over the uncaring hard ground. The ground fell further down, but a gentler slope that she barely noticed until a shadow fell over her and she bleary looked up to where a falling of large rocks and boulders had made a shadowy space, dug out further by a creature of some kind. A small cave against the steep bank.
“Atta.” She said as she crawled to the inner dark. “Atta.” She found a way to roll and sit her back against a smooth, cool, interior earthen wall. “Atta” She looked down at the filthiness of her dress and apron. Blood, dirt, leaves, and twigs were all jumbled on the torn material. The flesh of her legs were just as dirty, but one was definitely a dead looking grey as well. “Atta.” Her eyes were closing.
Did she imagine it? Or did she just remember the word as she felt a cold sleep try and grab her again? “It isn’t fair.” She muttered, words slurring. “It isn’t fair. Atta-Sutith. Stop bleeding. Atta-Sutith. Be healed, once healed.”
She carried on muttering. Her name became the dominant repeating word. “Atta-Sutith.” Like a birthing woman she held onto it through the burning pain.
And then it began to ease, to fade slightly, but enough for her fevered mind to feel some relief.
“Atta-Sutith.” She opened her eyes, focussing on the absence of her foot properly. Intensely looking at it, allowing herself to feel the jagged tears of the flesh and the rough-hewn bone there where the boy had butchered her. “Atta-Sutith. Atta-Sutith.”
And then the flesh began to knit around the absence, closing the wound.
“A woods-voln, a city-voln and a mountain-voln walk into a cave”
Eris’ eyes fluttered.
A low growl.
“Nem would like it known that he’s more crawling than walking.”
“It’s a joke Pierson. The beginning of one anyway.”
Eyes opening, aching. Everything aching.
Another low growl.
“Nem isn’t sure a joke is funny if no one is laughing. And he wants us to know that he is wet and cold.”
Rain. She could hear rain now that one of the voices had brought it up. The kind of heavy rain she’d loved hiding from in the warmth of their caravan. No. Stop. Don’t think. Don’t wake up! Don’t remember…
“We’re all wet and cold, Nem.”
Another growl, another tone.
“He doesn’t like being called Nem.”
“You call him that all the time!”
“Sorry, I mistranslated, he doesn’t like you calling him Nem.”
A low laughing noise came then, but strangely jambled. She gave into consciousness and tried to see the men who were speaking. In the dark they were three shapes, one thin, one pretty average and one so large he had to curl himself over to stumble around in the small cave trying to build a small fire.
“Look, I said I was sorry.” That was the joker again. “I was sure that they were Baxal.”
“You only have one job Hobbart. You can’t fight for shit, you’re barely competent with a bow – which for a woods-voln is a bloody Lios be fucked miracle – and you can’t talk your way out of a paper bag! All you can do… all you are meant to do, is guide us through the woods-voln of this region. And you got Blackens mixed up with Baxals and insulted them to their frigging faces.”
“Their greenings do look pretty similar.” He was slouching against the side of the cave in the dark, next to her, above her, but not seeing her.
“How are we going to work here now if you’ve already pissed off the main woods-voln family!?”
“Maybe… a gift?”
‘Nem’ growled again, some great bear of a man who never spoke. Eris shivered and it wasn’t just from the fever still haunting her. Then he was sparking flint against dry tinder wood he must have produced from a pack. A small fire sprang to life and Hobbart sprang away from her.
“Bastard gods!” He gasped. “What the fuck is that?!”
Pierson moved quicker than Eris could follow, and suddenly a roarer was in one of his hands, complemented by a sharp dagger in the other. Nem stood quickly and nearly brained himself of the roof of the cave, shaking dirt free and releasing the roots of a tree that tangled about his face and the long braided red hair surrounding it.
She watched his eyes, watched them trail down to the stump.
“Fuck!” Hobbart again, leaping and shaking. “Thought it was a fucking Lios damned ghost!”
“It’s a girl you fuckwit.” Pierson lowered the gun and the dagger. “A woods-voln girl.” She could see his face now. Old. Maybe as old as her mother. But with grey slate eyes and dark hair. City-voln, although more cunning in his eyes than she expected. A woods-voln, a city-voln and a mountain-voln walked into a cave. She almost laughed but grimaced in pain.
“Look at the blood Pierson. She crawled here.”
Pierson noted it. “There’s pints of her life on the dirt. She should be dead.”
“Please…” Her voice cracked. “Please. Water.”
Nem was there, crawling forward on his hands and knees to bring her a water canteen.
“Nem! We don’t have much.”
He growled, sneering back at the woods-voln man.
“It’s fucking raining outside Hobbart. And call him Nemnir if you don’t want to be toothless in the near future.” Said Pierson, crouching beside her and examining the stump. “This is days old. Its healing. Where are you from lass? What happened to you?”
She swallowed deeply, holding onto the water skin between them. “A boy did it. A woods-voln boy. A Gyreblack.”
Hobbart laughed. “Did he take your maidenhood with that lie too?”
He was on his back before he’d finished laughed, the thick back of Nemnir’s hand walloping him across the face even as the man still crouched in front of her.
“Why’s it fucking funny Hobbart? She lost her foot!” Pierson yelled at him.
“No such thing as Gyreblack anymore. Lios killed them off like a hundred years ago. Boy lied to her. Took her foot and didn’t even give her his real name!”
“There were two others. A Button Man and another woods-voln.”
“Button men? In these woods?!” Pierson looked panicked. Her eyes drifted to his roarer and its golden lion and he saw her looking. “It’s okay lass, I’m not a Button Man.”
“Not anymore at least.” Hobbart nursed his bloody nose and muttered darkly.
“Shut the fuck up!” Pierson sneered at him. “By the bastards, if you can’t start proving your worth Hobbart you are out of this fucking firm.”
“A mute mountain-voln and a wise ass city-voln aint a fucking firm! No matter what deal you try and come up with that’ll please the local woods-voln… wait, wait a minute. Girl, what’s your name?”
She paused and swallowed. “Eris… Eris Attavine.”
“Attavine? That’s it!”
“That’s what?!” Pierson barked at him. Nemnir seemed to be getting something from his pack. Bandages, roughly torn from some fairly clean sheets. More water in a canteen. A herb she recognised as a pain duller. She took it eagerly and chewed on it as she watched thoughts passing through Hobbart’s head like slow clouds.
“She’s an Attavine. They’re Northwards. Gods only know how she got all this way South. But imagine we take her back to them. Imagine how pleased they’ll be. How pleased with our firm.”
Pierson looked at the woods-voln, contempt written on his face even while he thought it through. “You know them? Well enough to know if they’ll let us stay on their land?”
“Gods, I don’t know, but there’s got to be some fucking value in returning their lost girl. Surely?”
Nemnir stood after finishing his bandaging, as best he could. He must have been at least seven feet tall, overshadowing both the much shorter men.
“What do you think Nem? It’ll be a trek with the girl in a litter.”
The mountain-voln looked back down at Eris and mimed carrying something, like you would carry a baby. She frowned at the comparison but he just winked at her.
“The whole way?”
Nemnir shrugged. He was about of an age with Pierson and Hobbart, but the slight lines on his face seemed to be softer than those of Hobbart. The woods-voln joker seemed actually more bitter in the face than either Pierson or Nemnir somehow, even though one could not joke at all and the other had so far seemed as serious and direct as the dagger and roarer he carried.
“Fine. If you want to. Hobbart, what’s the effect of Attavine?”
Hobbart paused, looking studious for a moment. “It’s a bloating poison. Closes the organs.”
Eris bit her tongue, but she felt Pierson’s sharp eyes, for a city-voln, on her. It wasn’t. Attavine was a breathing cracker, flooding the lungs and making the victim spit it out again and again until they couldn’t breathe. This woods-voln was a fool. Eris had learnt all the greenings in the crib from her mother and her mother’s mother and this fake didn’t even know the basics…
“Brother…” She whispered hoarsely to Hobbart. “Brother, might I ask your greening. I see no bow, nor arrows.”
He pulled them forward proudly and she saw the symbols carved into the wood and the coloured glint on the heads of the arrows. “Raronvurt.”
She nodded, eyes heavy again. It was a true greening. A family they’d treated and healed on their travels. Nothing remarkable about them, reasonable archers, hated about as much by Lios as any other woods-voln family. “Thank you Hobbart Raronvurt. Eris Attavine thanks you…” Sleep was coming back: the same dark sleep they’d woken her from. She felt someone gently move her downwards, placing a bundle of clothes beneath her head before finding a seat by the small fire where a bottle was being passed about by the other two smaller men.