Eris finally let out a breath that she only realised she’d been holding once it was whistling past her lips. Her breath-out began just after the baby’s first in-breath, the mark of her hand still on his behind as she’d shocked the small thing into a gasp and then the long wail that followed, grey-blue skin starting to flush a healthy pink.
“You have a son Vervain.”
Eris brought the babe to the exhausted mother and gently turned him so that he would lie across her bare swollen breasts, his mouth already puckering for his mother’s milk. The other women in the room seemed to exhale as well, fear turning to admiration. Eris had been surrounded by a hundred years of birthing experience, all added up together, but they’d still deferred to the healed healer, the Atta-Sutith. Verla caught her eye and mouthed her thanks as the room remained near quiet, the woods-voln women enjoying the calm after Vervain’s screams and then the dreadful silence that had followed the birthing before the child had finally wailed. Eris tried not to frown. She’d done nothing much, no more than her mother had showed her as she got old enough, and certainly nothing like she’d done with her leg or with the ghostblight greening that had near killed Nemnir. But still, respect gleamed in the women’s eyes when they looked at her. She didn’t want it, not at all, it felt like a burden.
“Thank you Eris Atta-Sutith” Vervain murmered, not taking her eyes from the small scrunched up human in her arms. “He shall be named in your honour. Erishan Diarnilys will walk these woods because of you.”
Vervain and the other women inclined their heads towards the child, recognising him and his name. Eris roughly rubbed the blood from her arms, ignoring the offered water and made her way quickly from the birthing tent. A man waited outside among other men, far enough away to leave the birthing to the women, but close enough to have heard all of his wife’s wails.
“Please?” He came, the wood of his bow being rung between his two slender hands.
“You have a son. Erishan Diarnilys will walk these woods.” She snapped out the words, noting how Pierson and Nemnir stood nearby the woods-voln, but still at a slight distance. They caught up with her as she walked, her slight limp still making her slower than them.
“The babe is well?”
“Yes, a healthy boy.”
Pierson nodded. “Thank the bastard gods.”
She paused and looked up at him. “But…?”
“Our time here is coming to an end. Verla only promised us a home until the babe was birthed.”
Eris nodded, tiredness coming flooding into her finally. The birthing had started a lifetime ago.
“We need to think about what is next.” He said simply and Eris nodded. “But not until you have had time to rest. And to wash.” He said pointedly.
Eris looked down at the red staining still on her arms, and even as she did her eyes un-focussed.
“Nem and I will go offer the new father something to wet the babe’s head with. Come find us again when you are either rested, or we are waking with sore heads.” He put a gentle hand on her shoulder. “You have done well today Eris.”
“Even if it means we must move on now?”
Nemnir made a low soft noise.
“He says our time was always going to be short here. There are other paths expecting our feet now. Even my wyrd one.” Eris said wryly.
Nem smiled at Eris’ dark humour and let the smaller Pierson pull him towards the already celebrating woods-voln men.
Eris watched after them, waiting to see how they were welcomed. There was still uncertainty in the woods-voln men’s eyes as they greeted the city-voln, and looked up, and up, to meet Nemnir’s eyes. Yes, it was time to move on.
She walked off with the intention of heading into her tent and into a deep sleep, when her path was crossed by two woods-voln women in hunting leathers. They carried a gutted deer tied to a stake between them, and shared with Eris blood stained arms from fingertip to elbow. She recognised them as the two widows who had been entertaining Pierson since they joined the Diarnilys camp… or near enough as soon as they had walked in, the honey-tongued city-voln charming his way to an audience with the older-heads straight away. And to the widows’ beds, as it turned out.
The taller of the two, who cut her auburn hair to a jagged length just below her jaw and then ran bear fat through it to keep it out of her eyes, was Sarai. Her sharp features gave her a hunter’s look, even as she smiled at Eris when their paths merged. The other was Callia, who was shorter and long of hair, swept to one side in an elaborate braid of light red that came to her waist. She gave fewer smiles, but when she did there was softness in them that Sarai lacked.
“Well met Eris Atta-Sutith” Began Sarai, looking her over. Eris waited for her eyes to make their way to her leg and foot, but they traced over her arms instead. “Have those two rogues been getting you to cut the throats of their prizes on the king’s road?”
“No, Vervain has been birthed of a son.”
There was a moment when the two women looked as though they might let the deer carcass fall to the ground, but they recovered. Sarai scouted about the clearing and called over a brace of chattering children to take the creature to the fire pit, freeing up their blood stained hands.
“Is that so?” Sarai said carefully. “And the men celebrate the birth? Including Pierson?” There was upset in that tone that Eris did not understand entirely.
“He is there with them if you seek him.” Eris said, about to move off.
“Perhaps… perhaps it is you we seek.” Callia began, catching Sarai’s eyes. The taller woman nodded. “While the men celebrate the birthing perhaps you will join us to wash up?”
“I have water in my tent.”
“There is somewhere better than a tent that we go. After a hunt. After… other times.” Callia seemed to flush a little, but her deep green eyes twinkled. Eris sighed inside. At some point these Diarnilys might recall that this Atta-Sutith was still not a woman and stop including her in such comments!
But she followed the widows, curious to know what was better than a vigorous wash in her tent. She assumed that they might know of a stream or a river, but when they took her to their mysterious place she was impressed. Next to a flowing river, and fed and cleared out by it, was a pool shadowed by bowing willow trees, steam making the air above its water hazy and cloud white.
“What heats the water?” Eris began as the women stripped their leathers.
“They say the bastard gods walked these woods. One, tales vary on which exactly, dove to the bottom of this pool and kissed one of the stones, making it hot with his… or her… passion. A passion that another of the gods could not return. Putting it there was how he, she… they, dealt with it. That passion, the stone, burns under the water still.” Sarai told her as she got down to a loose tunic that lay under her leathers, pulling it up and over her head and revealing fuller breasts than her armour had suggested. Eris looked away as the woman pushed down her trousers.
“You can keep on your under-things… if you have them.” Callia said gently, making Eris look at her accidentally. Her body was lean, her breasts small and high. Callia slowly stretching as she lowered herself into the water, lengthening her body even further. “There, all hidden now. You can look again little healer.”
Eris stubbornly stared at the women then. “I’ve just birthed Vervain’s child. And she weren’t the first. I’ve seen more than the breasts of women!”
Callia nodded and said soothingly. “Of course Eris Atta-Sutith. Of course.”
Eris began to strip off her own leathers, struggling a little to get them over her unfamiliar ankle and foot. Stepping into the water with that wyrd foot was strange, the water making its way inside through the black weave of it. She was sure the women were staring at it, so she kept her eyes focused on the gently bubbling water, looking out for a stone kissed by a bastard god. What little she could see through the water looked normal enough though. She found a ledge to perch on and fought the urge to pull her knees to her chest to cover what little was there.
“How old are you Eris?” asked Sarai.
Now she did curl in on herself a little, dipping into the water until her own ragged braid floated out in it. “Eleven Summers… I think.”
“You always seem older, it is easy to forget.” Callia smiled. “Eleven years old and already joining the birthing women.”
“My mother, and my mother’s mother, were birthing women. And my small hands were useful for righting wrongly turned babies.”
Sarai flinched at the thought of that. “Bastard gods!”
“You haven’t had children?”
Sarai leant back against the rocks, spreading out her arms as she stared to the sky. “Our husbands left us before we could make babies with them, Eris.”
Eris thought Callia looked sadder about that than Sarai. “Your husbands died…?”
“Button-men came to the woods. Men died.” Sarai was curt.
Callia drifted closer to Sarai. “And until you arrived we hadn’t spoken to each other in years. Thank you.” Eris must have looked confused so she continued. “We were too alike. In each other we saw our own pain. Better to hide from that by not seeing each other. And then… well, we are alike.”
“You were both equally charmed by Pierson.”
“And that tongue is why people forget you are a child, Eris Atta-Sutith!” laughed Sarai.
“Verla has spoken to me about it.”
“Of course she has, the old she-fox!” Snapped Sarai, churning up the water as she moved angrily from her place. “Couldn’t wait to disprove, could she?”
“Peace, Sarai.” Whispered Callia.
“Oh, she annoys me. They all annoy me! So what if we find comfort with a city-voln?! Or with each other!”
“I think it’s the first that concerns them more.” Callia noted quietly.
“We are woods-voln! We should not be entrapped by the ways of the ‘civilised’… especially when the civilised city-voln are the ones who took our men!”
“Peace. I agree.” Callia lay a soft hand on Sarai’s shoulder, letting her fingertips drift up to play with the ragged ends of Sarai’s hair that were swept behind her ear. Eris looked away again.
“I assume you will leave soon?” Sarai ignored Callia’s touch.
“Verla wants her to stay.”
“She wants her pet healer to stay. Pierson Widow-Seducer and Nemnir Tunic-Less aren’t welcome.” Sarai snapped.
“Well her pet healer doesn’t want to stay.” Eris said, indignant at being reduced to being a ‘pet’.
“What do you want, Eris Atta-Sutith, of eleven years old and already a birthing woman?” Sarai looked at her keenly as Callia drifted even closer to the taller woman’s side. “Eris, the one who grew a new foot when crutches did not please her. I imagine someone who could do that could do whatever they wished, as long as they knew what they wished for?”
“I… there’s a boy.”
Sarai’s face was stone, but disappointment radiated from her.
“There’s a boy I want to find… and kill. The one who took my foot. Until then, I am a part of Pierson and Nem’s firm. But if they try to stop me…”
Sarai paused and then nodded. “Then we’ll stop them. If they try to get in your way.”
Eris must have looked confused again.
“You’ll have your revenge, Eris. I swear it by the bastard gods.” Sarai looked to Callia, and Eris saw the apparently gentler woman became steel like as well, looking deeply into Eris’s eyes as she spoke her words clearly.
“We’ll travel with you. And not because of Pierson, however we both feel about him. Because we swear ourselves to your cause. We’ll swear by the bastard god who kissed the stone here. If we have to put our passion aside like he… or she… did, we’ll do it.”
Eris nodded, a little dumb founded as both women made their vows in the name of the god who once walked here. When they finally got out and dressed, she saw both take a small stone from the pool and put it away somewhere among their leathers. Then they walked back with her to the camp, the two women holding each other’s hand as they did; the deer and birthing blood washed from all three of them all.