Eris stood back a-ways with Nemnir and watched the arrows fly. Four hit where they should. But twelve skittered off to one side of the target tree trunks, got caught in low branches, or simply dropped too early. She watched the boy’s reactions to their failures, noting how Jayk’s face hardened in disappointment. Some of the other lads were happy; pointing out where their arrows had got to, seeing their improvements in the short space of time that they’d been learning from Callia and Sarai. The woods-voln women’s two arrows had of course flown true. Pierson’s had done well too, and standing next to Orrin he was holding in a smirk as the younger man noted that his own arrow had hit his target, but low.
“Pick up!” Shouted Eris, and the archers walked forward to collect their arrows. Orrin and Pierson were good-heartedly bantering with each other once again. Eris was glad. There’d been an awkward short time just after the four of them had finally made it back to Sarai, Callia and the street-voln. Even though tired and travel worn, Orrin had still lit up with admiration for the beautiful Callia. But he’d soon realised the love she had for both Sarai and Pierson, and he’d had stepped down the florid compliments he’d begun loosing upon her like arrows seeking a target. Eris wondered if it was because she was young that she found the strict boundaries of that three-way partnership confusing, but it had apparently quickly become clear to Orrin that they weren’t going to grow to accommodate him. Though it seemed that the storyteller had bounced back quickly, and now he and Pierson were as thick as… well, thieves.
Nemnir made a low, deep, sound next to her as the new archers set up on their line again, alerting her to the next round. Sarai and Callia had done excellent work with the boys; not only teaching them how to shoot, but taking them through the ways of making their own bows. The women had finally been the ones to give the lads something of their own, and Eris saw how each of the lads treasured their bows. Many of them had begun personalising them as woods-voln might; dried grasses woven into faded green braids hung from the ends of the bows, shallow carvings of favourite curse words had been made in the light ash, ellimis, or hazel wood of their arcs, and brown purple dyes made from common berries stained their grain.
Their arrows were ready.
“Shoot!” Eris called, shifting her weight on her feet as the arrows flew again.
Since they’d got out of the sight of Bara she’d abandoned her second boot and let herself again feel the muddy ground through her wyrd foot, just as Pierson had suggested. She’d had to deal with Orrin’s curious looks towards it, and eventually she’d had to let him have the story he so desired. Eris fought the urge to sigh. The city-voln man continued to hunt for tales of the bastard gods, politely hanging about Sarai and Callia when he realised that they had them to tell to him too. But now he had another fascination, and Eris had another shadow even when her usual one, Nemnir, wasn’t about. Pierson was no help, he’d found the storyteller’s ‘devotion’ amusing, teasing her that she shouldn’t be so mean to her first priest every time she came to him to complain about her Orrin shadow. At least setting him up with a bow of his own as well had taken up some of his time in practice!
She watched Jayk nodding smugly to Orrin as they compared shots, Jayk’s being far better this round than before. There was another problem brewing light a lightning storm on the horizon! Orrin was popular among the boys for the tales he spun when they all settled down at the end of the day to share in the eating of whatever Sarai and Callia had hunted up for them. But Jayk seemed to have become the younger lads’ hero while she, Pierson and Nem’d been away in Bara. And he didn’t seem to be enjoying the new attention being granted to Orrin who was older, quick witted and charming, and lacking in the scars that Eris saw were stunting Jayk’s confidence.
Eris smiled up at Pierson as he suddenly walked over to her and Nem on the sidelines.
“I see some heavy thinking going on here.”
“I’m just watching the shots.”
“You’re watching the archers. You’re thinking about the people, and how they are. And not just at bow skills.” Pierson smiled wryly. “I’ve seen that weighing look on every commander of men I’ve ever met.”
Eris scoffed. “I’m not in charge here, Pierson!”
Pierson shrugged. “I know my ladies would follow you over me. Nem and Orrin too. And the lads think you are pretty much a goddess in the wild since the storyteller’s been filling their heads with tales of lady bastard gods with green eyes and long dark hair. Oh? You didn’t notice?”
Eris fought back the heat flushing on her cheeks. Nemnir chuckled.
“He means no harm by it.” Said Pierson firmly. “Orrin’s a good man. Inexperienced with women, no matter what he claims. And certainly unsure of how to deal with a young girl who is both a child and something he reveres.”
“I’ve been asking you for help with him!”
“Aye, and that was funny at first.” Pierson smiled at her. “I’ll have a word with him. But he means no harm.” He said again. “He’s not trying to woo you if that’s what you think, he’s smarter than to try that!”
Nemnir made a low, dark, sound as Eris fought the blazing redness of her cheeks. “Of c-c-course he b-bloody isn’t!” she stuttered.
Pierson nodded, before returning to his place on the line, joining in with the next round of shooting, leaving Eris with a jumble of thoughts in her head and needing to be somewhere else suddenly.
“Jayk!” She called and the lad jogged over to her. The lads all still wore the tunics and trousers of city-voln, so it was even weirder to her woods-voln eyes to see the hand crafted bow in his hand. Next they be asking about greenings, she thought, maybe to make their own?
“Eris.” He said, smiling. “You need me?” Was he speaking a little louder than he normally did? Was that for Orrin’s benefit? She fought the urge to sigh.
“Take over calling the shots, I need to take a walk.” There, she saw it, his eyes darting for a moment to her wyrd foot.
Nemnir made a warning noise.
“Can I not just go on my own?!” She asked. “Perhaps I need a moment alone in among the woods?!”
Nemnir shrugged and mimed turning round, as he would if she needed to make water, revealing the large sword on his back as he did.
“Oh very well!” She said sighing, a sigh that almost grew as she saw Orrin walking over as well.
“Might I come with you? These weak and limp librarian’s arms need a rest.” He flexed arms under his shirt. They were hardly weak. He’d already admitted to them, and Callia in particular before that changed, that his muscles had been shaped more by work in the temple gardens as a novice than in the archives of the Bara temple of Lios.
Eris watched Jayk’s eyes darken at Orrin’s act, and wondered if her own had done the same. If they had darkened, Orrin was oblivious. She chose to just start walking rather than to address all three men – or two men and a boy – again. After a few steps she knew only Nemnir and Orrin were following; Jayk staying back to call the shots as she’d asked him to. A small mercy.
The woods they were in were further North of where they’d left the boys before venturing into Bara. After re-joining with them and Sarai and Callia they’d decided to head North; across the king’s road between Tralis and Bara, and closer to the very distant snow topped mountain ranges, blue shadowy giants still leagues away. Here the trees were older, closer together. Woods-voln claimed these lands too of course, but none that they’d seen so far. Eris liked these woods, liked the deep green calm of them. And for now at least Orrin and Nemnir were allowing her to enjoy the peace.
It couldn’t last.
“Does it bother you still, good mountain-voln, the lack of your tongue?” Orrin was asking, whispering, but loud to her woods-voln ears. She frowned at his bluntness. “I think I would rather be dead than no longer able to speak-” he cared on regardless.
“Orrin!” Hissed Eris, but Nemnir held up a placating hand towards her, the spread of his fingers almost wider than both of her two hands put together. He made one or two noises.
“I see.” Said Orrin.
“You don’t understand him.”
“No you don’t!”
“He told me he wishes it was otherwise.”
Eris paused, long enough for Nemnir to nod and to hurt her heart deeply. Back with the Diarnilys she’d realised that he wanted to be able speak again. I’m sorry Nemnir, she thought, You told me and I was too busy with birthing babies to think on it!
She stepped towards him, looking up into his deep warm brown eyes, then staring at his lips, imagining the damage within. “The only thing I have replaced did not… is not… is wrong.”
She looked down at her foot, the lattice of it flexing as she thought about it, like normal toes. But not.
“How can you say that is wrong?!” exclaimed Orrin. “That was a gift. Your power is of the bastard gods!”
“Hush, storyteller!” She hissed. “Could you weave your stories with a tongue made of the same wyrd stuff?! Even if it worked, I could make things worse for him!”
“Worse than silence?!”
She felt tears prickling her eyes. “You don’t understand! I don’t want to hurt him!”
Nemnir laid one of his large hands on the leather at her shoulder, and she lay her head there against it, letting loose hairs from her braid fall across her face.
“You are… you are so much more than you think you are!” Orrin said, amazed at her. “You are something that has not been seen in Lios’ kingdom since the bastard gods!”
“I am just a woods-voln girl. What I can do doesn’t make me a-like to one of the bastard gods!” She turned on Orrin. “You have told so many stories you have begun to believe them!”
“Begun?!” Orrin scoffed. “I have always believed, I just didn’t know until I heard about the bastard gods and found something more real… more human… than Lios! And now I see something very real, very human, in front of me! Eris! You are so-” He stopped, trying to form the right word. “Needed!”
She shook her head, tears springing forth.
“You are.” Orrin said in a softer voice.
“Nem. Should I try?” she whispered hoarsely.
He reached for her hand and brought it, so small within his, up towards his cheek. But before she could touch him he stopped and looked deep into the woods. Eris’ sharp ears were a moment behind his, the sharpness of her eyes blurred by tears. Movement. Shapes in the woods. Woods-voln!
“Orrin, notch an arrow.” She told the storyteller, her voice still cracking, the back of her hand pushing away tears quickly. “You might need to be hitting something more than a tree trunk soon!”
Nemnir drew out his great sword, and Eris cursed herself for her own lack of a bow. She brought daggers to her hands from the sheaths at her hips. Orrin stumbled a little at the task, but eventually got his black and white fletched arrow to the string, scanning the trees for the disturbance. Eris saw them now, woods-voln leathers and stealthy movements. But no bows to hand. She put away a dagger and then quickly lay a gentle hand on Orrin’s bow and had him slowly let his draw down. “They are not attacking.”
She stepped forward. “I am Eris Atta-Sutith. I welcome you woods-voln brothers and sisters” She said as boldly as she could.
A voice came back from within the twists of tree limbs and branches. “We see a city-voln playing at being one of us, and a mountain-voln with a useless sword. Might we approach without these strangelings in the woods attacking us?”
Eris nodded at Nem, who swung his sword back up and into its sheath on his back as a man emerged from between the trees, other figures waiting back behind him. He was about Pierson’s age, with a shaved head showing off tattoos of plants familiar to Eris on his scalp. He unslung his bow and drew an arrow, slowly. Even so Eris had to stop Orrin from bringing his own back up again. The man rested the bow and the arrow crossways on open palms and help them towards her. She saw the markings and her suspicions were confirmed.
“Yes, little sister.”
“The lines between my family and your greening are ages old.” She said warily.
“True. But you called us brother and sister first.” He smiled, placing his bow and the arrow on the leaf covered floor. “And Eris Atta-Sutith, we need your help.”
“You know of her?” Asked Orrin.
The man held in a sneer for Orrin. “The trees told us of the healer in their midst. The one who had regrown herself. As they can.” He stared at her foot.
“Nonsense.” She said bluntly. “The trees don’t speak. You met with a Diarnilys. And you think fancy lies will flatter me. I prefer the truth.”
“You are sharp. Even for a woods-voln. Verla Diarnilys said as much. We have word from her on occasion, sent on running feet and by whispering mouth.”
“Your name, stranger.” Eris said, pushing the sharpness he praised her for into her tongue.
“Redril Attavine. I am sent to find you Eris Atta-Sutith.”
“There is a pox on our people. And you might be the only one who can help us.”