As he carried her, Nemnir’s large boots crunched down on fragile fish bones, grinding them into the yellow brown earth of the dried up river bed. Their thin cracking was loud in the stillness of the woods, and Eris looked down at them from where she lay in his arms every time it happened. Crack, another few fish skeletons went to powder. There were so many they were impossible to avoid if they were to keep on this north by east path. Pierson looked back from where he walked above them, his face stern, before suddenly darting up the steep bank to weave in between the shadows and head forwards to where Hobbart was somewhere ahead of them, scouting the way.
Eris thought about the poor river. Its death had to have happened very quickly to have killed so many of its fish. It was most likely the work of some city-voln beyond these woods, working in Lios’ name, to dam and reroute this ancient waterway to somewhere more useful for him. The bankside trees, their long roots bringing up water from deep within the soil, still lived. But they seem to arch sadly over the dry bed as the four of them walked, shadowing the dead river with weeping willow fronds and thick branches that were cracked and flaking.
She realised Nemnir was looking at her. Was it concern? He had been watching her over the last days of their journey to the Attavine woodlands, checking up on her. Did he know what she had been trying to do? Trying but failing.
Her stump was no worse, only steadily, slowly better. But that had not been enough. She had called on Sutith in the whispers of her mind, bringing back like bile in her throat that same raw anger at what had been done to her by the Gyreblack boy. The same youthful rage that it just wasn’t fair! She urged her body to channel that fire and hate into healing again, to bring about a larger change in her body. Make me strong, make me heal. Sutith. Sutith. Help me, help me walk again. She whispered all the while Nem carried her, all the while she was pretending she was sleeping or merely watching the passing of the trees. She still smiled when they stopped to make camp, helped with their chores as best she could, but all the time her anger was pushed into the torn parts of her, pushing and pushing.
But nothing was different.
“I am well. Just thinking.” She whispered.
His deep brown eyes looked away from her then and he faced back towards the path. She sneaked curious peeks at the braids in his long straight hair, the intricate plaits and knots a marvel given his huge hands. Small pieces of soft metal were curled and pressed around the ends, trapping them together. Each one had an embossing on it; a bear, an owl, other creatures still found in the mountains. They were fine and delicate works. Nem’s face was less carefully maintained however, a rough scrub of dark brown beard, much thicker than Pierson’s own scruff, spread across his cheeks and chin. Sometimes she felt it tickling her forehead, teasing out a tiny laugh. But still, she was silently raging. Pushing and pushing…
Pierson was back. He moved almost as sleekly and silently as a woods-voln. Almost… she wouldn’t dare have told him that he was leaving marks of his passage that a woods-voln would spot, but in his black coat he was almost invisible in the dark shadows under the treeline. Sometimes the only sign of him was a glint of light of off his dagger or his roarer. This was a man used to being in the shadows, but in a big city of grey unchanging stone and not the constantly changing story of branches and shapes that were the woods of her birth.
“Hobbart says he saw two in the trees. One on either side. What say you, lass?”
She started at his words. She had been thinking about the woods, but hadn’t been watching out closely, leaving that to the men. But instantly her eyes scoured the bending trees, piercing beyond them to the dark shadows. Movements. So slight she was not surprised that Hobbart had failed to see the third of their watchers. The woods told her their story.
“Three. Two on the ground, and a slighter one up in the trees. Smaller, lighter. Female?”
Pierson looked himself, but she could see his city-voln eyes straining for something he wouldn’t be able to catch.
“I can’t tell without seeing their marks. But Hobbart said we were still in their territory, didn’t he?”
“Hobbart says many bloody things. If they’re Blackens then they’re most like just escorting us to the edge of their land, making sure we leave. And if they’re not…”
“Then we’re in some other territory.”
“And then Hobbart’s a fucking fool.” Pierson grimaced, and then spoke surprisingly loud, the sound breaking the silence of the dead river. “Greetings! We are mere travellers, aiding this Attavine girl back to her people. We pass in peace!”
Silence. And then a curious whistle. Suddenly Eris saw an arrow trembling where it was now embedded in the ground. She read its markings quickly and turned to Pierson. “They’re not Blackens.”
He swore more elaborately and passionately than he ever had before and raised his roarer.
Eris found herself abruptly on the ground, Nem’s usual gentleness absent as he rushed to pull his burnt hide shield and immense sword from their bindings on his back. He moved to stand protectively over her, his tree trunk legs blocking her view of the woods on their right. She twisted on her hip and looked over her shoulder to the treeline behind her. That first shot was an announcement of who their shadows were, but that they were not coming out to talk meant that they might just be playing with them. Some woods-voln had a liking for tormenting their targets first.
“Atta-Sutith!” She shouted suddenly, pushing with her near useless leg to get closer to the bank. “Atta-Sutith!”
More movement. There were two ahead of her, somewhere in the dark.
Another slight whistle and a further arrow planted itself in the dark yellow river bed. And then another, but that third arrow made no sound. They were showing how they could kill them silently if they wished, the whistling had been intentional, to get their attention. They had it.
A voice, coming back on the breeze. “We don’t need your help.”
Pierson stepped towards it, the hands holding his weapons dropping to his side in a gesture of peace. Nem turned also, spotting that Eris had dragged herself away from him and taking guard over her again.
“We simply want to pass…” Pierson began.
“We don’t need help, but you might.” Eris’s sharp ears caught something that made her blood freeze. This sneering male voice was young. Perhaps no older than the Gyreblack boy who’d taken her foot. If they were all young… perhaps this wasn’t a sanctioned hunt! They might not be here under the orders of their family’s elders; they might be simply ranging through the woods looking for some fun!
“Pierson-” She began, fear apparent on her face. Seconds after she began the word she saw the arrow tear through Nem’s coat sleeve and carry onto to dash itself to bits against a tree behind him on the other bank. He growled, shook of the gnat’s sting, and beat his sword against his shield, the sound deafening Eris on the ground, who held her hands to her ears.
“Fuck!” Yelled Pierson, dropping his weapons and running towards Nemnir as the large man’s face suddenly slackened and he started to fall to the ground. There was cold laughter in the woods.
Eris pulled herself towards the large man, cursing her leg into action, pushing with her knees until she was there by him. His face was paling, the blood draining from it as his eyes fluttered.
“Hobbart! Hobbart!” Pierson was shouting. He aimed his roarer blindly into the woods and shot it, a loud bang and plume of smoke following after.
Eris, ears ringing, pushed herself on past Nem, dragging herself to where the other arrows were buried in the hard ground. She fully expected another one to sprout out from her back at any moment. But she managed to pull one from the ground. Her eyes ranged over the markings on it. They gave her a rough idea, but she made certain by dabbing the wicked point of the arrowhead onto the very tip of her tongue. The greening was almost sweet, and she fought the sudden urge that arose to do it again. Sweet and addicting, with a low taste of smoke. Ghostblight.
She stifled a sob, and looked up at Pierson with despairing eyes.
He was trembling “No! There must be something. Some balm. Something. Hobbart!!”
The missing woods-voln ran to them then, his footfall echoed by the laughter of some female woods-voln in the woods. Another few arrows peppered the ground about him, but he dodged them lithely. He skidded down next to Eris as Pierson grabbed the arrow from her and brought it to him, near jabbing it in his face.
“Ghostblight. She says its Ghostblight.”
Nem was struggling to breath now and Eris crawled over to cradle his head.
“Yes. I think so. Yes.” Hobbart was mumbling as he looked at the arrowhead just in front of his face.
“She tasted it.”
“She could have poisoned herself. I could poison myself-”
The arrow head was dangerously close to his eye. “If he dies Hobbart, you will too! Is there a balm?”
“There isn’t. There just isn’t.”
Eris let a sob escape. “There’s an herb, but it only grows in the far north. Mountains-voln lands.”
Another arrow thunked into the earth by them, and then Pierson was running into the woods, reloading his roarer on the run and tearing into the undergrowth, raging with nonsense words. The woods told her that the Ghostblights were leaving, moving away to enjoy their work at a distance. They could have taken all four of them out from a greater range, but she suspected that they were enjoying the travellers’ anger, sadness, and frustration more.
Her tears were flowing as she looked down at the large man in her lap, dripping into his face and her hands as she carefully brushed his long strands of hair away from his face. He looked almost peaceful, his lungs only occasionally rasping air into them.
She whispered the word, surprising herself even as she shaped the sounds.
“Sutith.” She was beseeching. “Help me. Help him. I want to help him.”
More of her tears fell, silently.
Then some made it to her lips before they passed onwards onto the mountain-voln’s ghost white face. Sour. Her tears were now sour. Not salt-like, but acrid.
Then, where they landed, she saw colour appearing. Spots of Nem’s normal healthy colour being rained onto his skin. She spread the wetness of her tears on his face and where her fingertips touched him, colour returned. She spread her hands down about his neck and his breathing eased with the return of the colour there as well. She pushed, not with childlike anger, but with intense hope.
“Sutith. Sutith.” She whispered over and over again as the large man’s chest rose and fell steadily. Finally, when he seemed to be peacefully sleeping instead of corpse like and still, she looked up with red raw eyes to Hobbart, standing above her with his bow in his hand and a gormless look on his angular face.
“Healer.” He said simply. “Healer.”
She nodded, looking back at the sleeping mountain-voln.
Pierson burst back between the trees then and jumped down the bank, his unsheathed dagger still bloodless. He charged to Nemnir, pausing as he saw the mountain-voln bring himself groggily to a sitting position.
Eris went to answer but Hobbart stepped on her words, pulling out a bag of herbs from his pack. “We found something that worked, a southern version of the herb.”
“But there was no time to make a balm?!” Pierson was confused, but no expert in woods-voln medicine.
Hobbart nodded. “I chewed it and spat it in his mouth, it was enough to stop the poison.”
Eris let the lie go, she was too emotionally drained to care much about it. Tired, she was tired, as though something of her had been taken and given to Nemnir.
Pierson seemed about to speak more when Nem lifted his hand towards him. Pierson clasped his arm, forearm to forearm, relief and his own tears springing up on his usually more controlled face. “Brother. Oh thank the bastard gods, brother. You are alive.” Pierson held tightly onto the larger man’s arm, before kneeling to embrace him. Nemnir nodded, but there were questions in his eyes when he looked over Pierson’s shoulder at Eris. Questions she didn’t yet know how to answer, even to herself.