The crutches made her something to stare at and she hated them. But she also loved them because Nem had carved them himself, showing off the small talent that had made Pierson his small wooden statue of She Who Once Healed, the Crowned One. The crutches were finely shaped to fit comfortably under her arms, a spur of carved smooth branch on each to grasp in her hands at just the right level. They could only have been better made if Nemnir had been a master crafter in one of the large cities her mother had told her about. As the making of a traveller using only a few old and rough tools they were perfect. But still she hated them.
Walking… no, it wasn’t even remotely akin to walking when she used the crutches. Hobbling across the main clearing of the Diarnilys’ temporary campe she saw face after face of the woods-voln turn to look after her, turning from the setting and repairing of their tents. Turning from their older-head discussions of these strangers to actively stare upon one of the three. Turning from their goggle-eyed watching of Nem cutting logs for the fire pit.
She caught the giggle of one of the goggling young girls to her friend as both watched – from strategic hiding positions about the trees – the bare chested mountain-voln at his chores. Eris groaned inside. All three of them were bound to cause staring but did Nem have to go about the work that they had been given with such seeming blindness to what he was causing?
“Good day, Atta-Sutith.”
Eris wobbled to a halt on her path. “Good day, Diarnilys.” It was one of the older-heads, Verla Diarnilys, the woman who had spoken up on the behalf of the three travellers when they staggered, near enough half dead from road-weariness, into the Diarnilys lands and begged an audience with their elders. Verla had proposed that the Diarnilys let the woods-voln, the city-voln and the mountain-voln stay until the birthing of her grand-daughter’s first babe. The Diarnilys had women experienced in birthing a-plenty, but Verla had claimed to recall her own mother’s account of how Verla’s difficult birth had been made easier by an Atta-Sutith. Some mother to her own mother’s mother, or her mother’s mother’s mother had passed through her before. The generations were a confusion in Eris’ head, but she had been glad that she, Pierson and Nemnir had been given leave to stay for a while, and to someday soon hunt fat rich city-voln on the king’s roads.
“I wanted a word Atta-Sutith.”
Eris wobbled a little on the crutches, and Verla gestured to a tree stump, one freshly hewn by Nemnir as one of the tasks he could do for this temporary camping of the Diarnilys. Eris took the seat, even as the much older woman remained standing. A flock of young woods-voln rushed past in a flurry of chatter and noise, their poison greened arrows rattling in their quivers. Off to hunt, Eris thought, wishing she could run with them. She put down her crutches and then turned her attention back to Verla.
“Are you going to ask us to move on?”
There was a good fifty or so years between them in age, but as Verla squirmed and looked uncomfortable, her eyes darting to the shirtless and sweating Nemnir and his hidden female admirers, Eris felt like she was the adult and Verla the child.
“Not quite.” She paused, thinking on how to begin. “There are things perhaps you are too young to know about yet, even though you are Atta-Sutith.”
“Ah.” Said Eris, a suspicion dawning. “You mean about Pierson. And the widows.”
Verla was grey of hair and pale of skin in her advanced years, but suddenly she blushed almost like one of the giggling females stalking Nem. “And the way the young girls watch Nemnir Mountain-Voln.” She said, chosing a family name for him.
“I have no control over the madness of young woods-voln girls. Nor can I control widows who seem to like Pierson’s words, even though they know he is bound to leave.” She held out her hands, open in a symbol of powerlessness.
“True. I am an elder, and I also certainly do not have that power. But you could speak with Nemnir and Pierson…”
“As you say Verla Diarnilys, there are some things that perhaps I am too young to know about. Even if my mother taught me of men and women… and sometimes of men and men, and of women and women…” Verla looked even more uncomfortable. “So tell me, how am I supposed to speak with Pierson and Nem about this, when I am just a child who makes adults blush when I know the things I am too young to know?”
Verla laughed. “Oh, if it was not for your companions Eris Atta-Sutith, I… no, the entire family, would ask you to stay indefinitely.”
“Yes, but they are my companions, Verla Diarnilys.” She struggled to her feet, pulling up the damned crutches. “Should I check on Vervain? Since two of my companions are paying their way today.”
Verla looked to Nem and then looked about for Pierson. “Two of them…?”
“Pierson is probably with one or the other of the widows, right?”
“I heard he was entertaining both togeth-” Verla halted her words as she remembered Eris’ age. Again. “No. Eyes in the woods tell me that he headed out early this morning, stomping about in the woods as city-voln will do, scouting along the king’s road that tears through our lands, looking for ambush points. His daggers are itching to cut away some road-walker’s coin purse.” Verla looked over Eris. “I think you are eager for something alike to that. I see your frown Eris Atta-Sutith. But don’t forget I have had five daughters, and seven granddaughters. Even if I can’t prevent them staring after a mountain-voln like a love-sick vixen, I can still read when they are moon-angry or when they are burying some other rage that wants to burst from them like a poison greened arrow from a bow. Your missing foot-”
“I don’t want to talk about that.” She clamped her lips together, tight and thin.
“No. I don’t imagine you do. And I don’t want a mountain-voln and city-voln stirring up the women of my camp.”
Rage bubbled up inside Eris. “They might not be woods-voln, but they are good men! So what if the girls and the widows like them! They’re still men, even if they aren’t sharp enough of bone and wits for you, Verla Diarnilys!”
The older-head and the Atta-Sutith faced off in silence then, milky green eyes staring into fierce bright emerald ones.
Verla backed down first, a rueful smile on her face. “Eris Atta-Sutith. The bastard gods help us if you ever have your own daughters and sons.”
“What’s that?” A man asked casually. The grey woman and the girl turned to where Pierson was standing, looking curious but knowing nothing about their disagreement.
“I was talking to Eris about some matters of the camp. Nothing of importance.”
“Can I steal her away?”
“Of course city-voln.” Verla nodded to both of them and then walked away.
“Was she stirring the shit?”
Eris looked confused.
“Sorry, a city-voln saying. Was she making a noise about us being here?”
“More or less.” Eris could not bring herself to raise the widows. That was territory she was not sure how to scout. “But she also said you were looking for ambush sites this morning.”
Pierson smiled darkly. “And I found a beauty.” He looked about for Nem, seeing him still hard at work on the logs. “Oh by the bastard gods, why did he take his shirt off?”
“He was hot?” Eris said as diplomatically as she could, but Pierson saw through it.
“Ah, so Verla mentioned that too.” He was looking at Eris closely, and she fought the rush of redness on her own cheeks. “Oh, I bet she did. Couldn’t wait to talk to the one member of our little firm who has been no bloody trouble at all about her reprobate companions. But there ain’t no law against it, certainly not in the woods. If a voln wants another voln, it don’t matter where they come from…” She didn’t think that he was talking about Nem anymore, and she groaned.
“Pierson! I don’t want to know!” She would have put her hands over her ears, if not for the bloody crutches.
“Right. Yes lass. I forget you’re a child sometimes.”
“You’re making it worse for yourself Pierson!” She near enough growled, surprised to find a dark rich current of real rage underneath her mock anger. Was Verla right? “Tell me about this ambush spot?”
“It’s perfect. On the bend of the road. There’s also a high tree bough where a careful archer might fire a few arrows in the right direction at the right time… if you’re interested?”
“Me?” Eris’ eyes opened wide.
“Nem can lift you up there, and then your… you won’t need to walk. We’ll take the sides of the road and pick upon the first fat city-voln to make his way to us. Like stealing pastries from an orphan. Um, well, you know what I mean.”
He looked over towards Nem and his ever increasing pile of logs. “Now all we need is our muscle, if we can get him away without these wood ladies rioting.”