Redril Attavine led the way. His men and women fanned out into the deep woods about them, keeping watch as they went through land already claimed by another greening. Eris had chosen to walk side by side with Pierson, preferring his calmer, if sarcastic, presence at this moment. Nem, Orrin, and Jayk, were just a-ways behind them, hands ready to seize weapons even though Eris was confident in the Attavine warriors’ abilities to protect them.
“Tell me I did the right thing.” Pierson whispered to her. “My ladies might never speak to me again.”
“I’m certain Sarai was only mocking when she shouted at you for making her a minder of children again.”
Pierson laughed slightly. “She was incandescent.”
“That wasn’t what she was really angry about. She didn’t want you to come with me. She’s right to be afraid. The woods-voln don’t suffer poxes often. My mother, and my mother’s mother, taught me of the city diseases, but they never knew of a case among the trees. Whatever it is, it might be new and even more dangerous. It might be something I cannot stop!”
Pierson nodded, looking down at her with serious eyes. “There was another reason I did not want Callia and Sarai coming with us. Do you already know why?”
Eris thought carefully. Diarnilys seemed to have friendly contact with the Attavine, so it couldn’t be because Pierson was worried about their diplomacy with another greening. He could of course be afraid that the women would catch whatever it was… or…
She thought back to the greeting Pierson’d had from the two women when they’d returned from Bara. She’d been watching Orrin mostly, to see how the city-voln boys reacted to the arrival of a man who’d once served Lios and who sometimes spoke before he thought. But then she remembered Sarai and Callia pulling Pierson to one side for further wrds. She’d assumed it had been for romantic reunions or something of that like that people in love might want. But now she thought more on the looks on Sarai and Callia’s faces back then. The worry and expectation. Expectation?
“They’re both with child?!”
“A birthing woman should have noticed earlier.” He gentled ribbed her.
“They are neither bright with joy nor sick. It’s very early.” Eris frowned “Wait, they were both taking the powder I showed them how to make-”
“They stopped. We all agreed that they would stop.”
Eris nodded. “You wanted children?”
Pierson sighed. “I never thought I would. Thought that I was too much of a Lios-damned rogue to ever want squalling babies. But then love changes you, Eris. One day you might know how that goes too.”
Eris thought before speaking again, but there was no simple, easy, way to say what had to be said. “The children’ll be neither woods, nor city, voln. Their lives will be hard.”
“Nonsense.” He said, using her own favourite word against her. “The world is hard; their lives will change that.”
He reached over quickly and flicked at the end of her messy braid with a finger before she would have time to protest. “And even woods-voln can have dark hair. We’re not so different, are we Eris Atta-Sutith?”
“I suppose not, Pierson Rogue-Father-Voln.”
He laughed, louder than he ought to, and drew the attention of Redril who shot them a stern look before turning back to his scouting. It inspired Orrin and Jayk to draw level with them, leaving Nemnir behind them still.
“What revelries happen here when we’re about such a serious task?” Asked Orrin.
“Probably none of your business.” Jayk said, a frown creasing his scarred face.
“Peace lads.” Said Pierson. “Just speaking with my good friend here. We’re all friends here, are we not?” He said pointedly to the two other city-voln.
“Perhaps. Although, I’m not convinced our new ‘friend’ Redril thinks much of those that follow his healer.” Said Orrin in a whisper.
Jayk glared at the Attavine’s back ahead of them. “Because we’re city-voln. Aint no other reason.”
“For some woods-voln that’s reason enough, given the button men’s killing raids; coming in quickly from the roads to try to reclaim lands to plant farm-voln where trees ought to be.” Said Eris seriously. “Sometimes there is reason enough.”
Jayk withdrew a little at her brief lesson, staring glumly at the floor of the woods as they walked. But Eris had no will to bring him back, and just let him sulk.
“What could this pox be? In you travels have you encountered such a thing?” Asked Orrin, drawing stories from her again.
“Poxes come from the cities. Normally. It’s rare for woods-voln to have much contact with city-voln to share with them a word let alone a pox.” She looked at Pierson, father-to-be two times over with two woods-voln ladies, and snuck him a sharp smile. “But it happens. If its sewer-pox or retch-fever I know some herbs that will help ease the symptoms-”
“But you’ll just heal them, won’t you?!” said Orrin in surprise. “Why use balms when you can just…” He waved his hands about in some gesture that must have meant ‘healing’ to him.
“Orrin.” Said Pierson with caution in his voice. “She’s only one healer, a child at that. There might be scores afflicted.”
“She’s not just a child! She’s Chosen!”
Redril looked back again. “You are lucky we have just entered Attavine territory, and you have not just brought a horde of angry Ireblade upon us with your blatherings city-voln!”
Orrin was rebuked and went back to whispering. “But you could save them all, bring them to knowledge of you-”
Pierson went to hush him again, but Eris stepped in front of Orrin and silenced him herself.
“Chosen am I?! Revered? Some bastard god made flesh again so that people can know me?! Nonsense! You see this wyrd bloody foot and see magic. I see what was lost. I see a boy hacking at my flesh and bone with a dull edged sword while I screamed. I see my mother killed in a thousand different ways while I wasn’t there to save her! I see my home taken from me! Yes, I can heal, and I will if it will work for me! But I am not a god! I am not some ‘blessed’ golden fuckwit on a throne demanding worship and repentances for coin. I don’t need followers! I don’t want them! I piss and I shit, and I am human! And you, Orrin Storyteller, you are the dumbest bloody city-voln I have ever met if you haven’t realised that healing is hard and healing lots is harder yet!”
She cursed the tears that threatened to burst from her eyes, but she stood there defiant, looking up at Orrin’s shocked face.
“Redril Attavine.” She called, not taking her fiercely blazing green eyes from Orrin’s grey. “Lead me to your people. I will follow you.”
She turned and walked towards him, ignoring whatever Orrin, or Jayk, or Pierson might be saying or doing in reaction to her outburst. But then she heard a heavy step following her and the Attavine, and was pleased when Nemnir came to her side as they finally walked into the Attavines’ current camp. It was a place of despair. Listless bodies slumped and lay just where they had emerged from foul smelling tents; small groups of huddled woods-voln covering themselves in blankets; a child made wretched noises somewhere, apparently unheeded. Eris walked swiftly from Redril’s side and went to the nearest of the sick, not caring for her own safety as she lifted a blanket from a man who had once been a fit and healthy hunter. Lifting the blanket released a foul cloud of stench from his body, and she clearly saw black marks poxing his face and hands. The child in Bara had had these marks, but all over as her small body had not pushed the illness to her extremities. It was sewer-pox. And it should not be here.
“Please, come.” Redril gestured towards the largest tent; a long structure of stretched hides and long wooden poles that had space for twenty or so inside. “Our leader is within.”
Eris nodded and followed, very aware of the slow caution of the men who’d come with her. Jayk was the only one who seemed to have no fear. Because he recognised what this was and knew he was immune.
“Jayk. By my side. Pierson, Nem, Orrin… join the others among the trees for now.”
“No.” Said Pierson. “We stay with you.”
Orrin, still shame faced, nodded. “We want to help.”
“Help by finding out what you can from the living. When this started. Who was sick first. What they ate and drank.”
They took her commands and she let Redril lead her into the long tent. All the while she had to try to ignore Jayk’s smugness at being singled out. At some point Pierson would have to have words with the boy. Or maybe she should…
Inside the dark tent more of the same stench assailed her. The child in Bara had not smelt so bad, but had been closer to death than some of these Attavine. Was something different here? She was led past others who were ailing to where an aged Attavine lay on a frame stretched over with leather strips and pelts. His flesh was similarly poxed with the black blisters of sewer-pox. But even though he was seriously sick she still recognised a quick defiance flare in his deep green and wrinkled eyes as he spotted Jayk. That was however quickly replaced by something like hope when he saw Eris and glanced down to her wyrd foot.
“Atta-Sutith.” He nodded. “Forgive me for not welcoming you with more respect.” He gestured at the furs barely covering his naked and emaciated frame. “The last time we met with one of our distant cousins part named for Attavine we feasted them for six days and nights on the best of the hunt.”
Eris frowned. “You have met an Atta-Sutith before?”
“Not your mother I am thinking, given the number of years that have flown by since I met with her. But she had your features. A certain severe-ness of look that stopped her just short of beautiful, and led her full on into formidable.” He coughed and then smiled. “I rather liked her. I certainly liked how she healed me from a foolish mistake made when I was an even more foolish boy-man. And now here we are again. The seasons shift, and yet again we find we are back dancing the same dance again. Except now I am old.” He held up his hands and looked at the prominent veins and sagging skin underneath the pox marks. “How did that happen?”
“It happens to us all I hear.” Eris said bluntly, crouching down to look more closely at him. “How long since the first pox among your people?”
“A ten days perhaps, not much more. It moved fast. Too fast.”
Eris nodded. “It is a city-voln problem. We woods-voln are not familiar with it.”
“And before your arrival with not one city-voln but three… I had never even seen one with my own eyes.” He looked at Jayk again. “This one is scarred. He has survived a pox?”
“If I am right, he has survived the same pox. Sewer-pox.”
“You were young when you caught it, am I right? Yes, I am right. And you survived. But I am not young. I will die soon and go into the ground.” He nodded. “Perhaps I will see your grandmother, or your great grandmother, again while I die. I should like that. She was a fierce woman. Strong. Defiant. Loving.”
Eris looked away, uncomfortable.
“Child, do not ignore the passions. You are young yet, but…” He started to cough again. When he could speak again, he did. “If you can take any advice from a man not only old enough to be your grandfather, but who might have had the honour of actually being him… take that piece. Do not shut off your heart. The Atta-Sutith who once walked with us… she did, and I never saw her again after we loved and parted.” He captured Eris’s eyes with his own aged ones, and for a moment she saw the young man, barely a man, who’d so admired her ancestor. Had it been her mother’s mother? She was perhaps not so surprised. Her mother’s mother had talked bluntly about loving on her travels…
Eris’s thoughts were interrupted as Pierson entered the tent with Orrin and Nemnir. “Eris. How can we help?”
She looked about the tent. Other shapes stirred occasionally under their pelts and blankets, moaning or coughing. There were many sick. Too many.
“Tell me Attavine, do you have a cesspit?”
Their leader frowned. “Of course not. We make water and waste in the woods, as is right.”
She nodded, ignoring Jayk’s smirking noise near her. She was well aware of the city-voln joke about woods-voln shitting in the woods, and it was a joke in which the woods-voln came off ill. She was pleased to hear Nem gently cuff the lad about the ear.
“And your water, where do you fetch that from?” She looked to were a horn cup, half empty, had been placed within his reach.
“The great river that bends into the city-voln’s walled home and then on to the sea to the west passes by, north of here. A smaller branch is closer still. We draw from that.”
“It flows into Bara?”
“From the mountains. And the branch ends in these lands, making a small wooded fen to the south west.”
Eris nodded. The sickness wasn’t flowing out from Bara, which might have been a logical source. Especially now she’d seen some of its filth for herself. “I need to see where you have been collecting your water. Sewer-pox rises in the city from places where the water flows. Where the city-voln throw away their waste. All their waste.”
The Attavine wrinkled his marked face in disgust. “They put their waste into the water?!” He glared at Orrin, Jayk, and Pierson. “And we woods-voln are the savages! Redril, take her to the stream.”
Redril nodded, and all of them followed him out. As she passed the sick again Eris felt determined. Each one of them was in need, but if she could find what had caused this and fix that, perhaps she could help them all. The image of Orrin casually waving his hands as he talked about her healing them all played again in her mind, and she fought the urge to send him back to the camp away from her as she followed Redril to the water’s edge. But she let him come too.
Near the camp, a slow flowing tributary of the river that bent its way into Bara was crystal clear and temptingly fresh looking. Her sharp eyes scoured the banks on both side, focussing mainly on the upstream.
“Eris?” Pierson sought her attention after a while. “What do you think?”
“I think the pox was brought here. I just don’t know how-” She stopped, something finally catching her eye. Further up, just below a high bank on the other side, a bush dipped low into the water, a large mess of tangled branches. Nothing unusual in its self. But the black sole of a boot just peeking out from under it caught her eye. That was certainly unusual! Without even waiting to tell the others, she splashed through the water towards it, pushing onwards until she could pull at the boot and the body lying under there as well, dragging both out into the water near her.
“Eris!” A yell from behind her. Orrin? Perhaps, but she was focussed on the dead body. Sewer-pox riddled and bloated from the water, but even so the dark grey hair, simple tunic, cotton trousers, and thick soled boots spoke to her of the city. But so very far from home, so very far! She looked about the bank, scouring the soft earth for foot prints and found them, her heart sinking.
He was with her, up to his waist in water as well. “This is the source?”
She nodded. “Tell me about button men and what they do to woods-voln.”
She sighed. She needed to be sure, and it was quicker not to explain why she needed to know. “When they raid the woods, tell me of that.”
“When button men are sent into the woods… they hit hard and fast. Pushing in from the king’s roads.” He paused and then continued. “As they did when they killed Sarai and Callia’s men. They kill, brutally, to clear the woods if they can. Making space for logging, and then for farm-voln to deal with the land…”
“We are deep in the woods now, aren’t we? Could they have come here?”
“This deep? No. They’d not make it in the deeper woods. They’d not survive long. Even I and Nem have struggled.”
“You knew that though. You suspected…”
“Tell me about your boots Pierson. Your button man boots.”
He chose instead to lift a sodden foot out of the stream and show her. They were similar to those of the dead man in the stream. Heavy. Thick soles. Good for city streets and long marches. Not like the leather boots of woods-voln. They were light and soft and had thin treads so that they might walk along the boughs of a tree, or tread lightly, quietly, in the hunt. Eris tried to keep the concern from her face, knowing that she was watched by Redril and other Attavine hidden among the trees.
“Do you see the foot prints here, Pierson. Do you see who carried this body here and left it to sicken the Attavine?” She whispered, glancing towards the marks on the bank near the bush. The shallow marks of soft leather boots; the boots of wood-voln.
Pierson held in a curse word, but only just. “You think this was done by a rival greening?”
Eris shook her head sadly. “No. No I do not. Not entirely.”
Pierson looked confused, and Eris looked past him to where Nemnir, Orrin, and Jayk stood on the river bank watching their quiet conference. She felt a mounting sense of dread, a cold hand on her heart that shared space in her chest with the burning fire of anger. She could see now what had happened, as clearly as if Orrin had told the tale to her over a campfire. More than that, part of her feared that she could also see true what was still to come. And how it might affect her friends. How it might affect them all.
“I can heal them all Pierson. I know now for certain that I can… because I am so angry.” She looked up at him with blazing green eyes. “Because somewhere in amongst all the trees of my birth there is a greening that has helped button men to bring sickness to the Attavine. They carried the body to this stream, but the button men had to have brought it to them from a king’s road. Somewhere out in these woods, there is a greening that is doing Lios’s bidding. And that cannot be allowed.”
Pierson went to speak again but the look on her face silenced him; the rage and the sadness. The tears that were beginning to run down her cheeks. He watched as she slowly lowered herself into the water; her leathers soaking up the soft flow of the water, her braid floating by her head as she lay down and let the water support her.
And she healed the stream.
Pierson yelled back to where Jayk, Orrin, and Nem stood; the two city-voln silenced by her find. He shouted back to where Redril and the few standing Attavine watched the Atta-Sutith submerging herself in the water.
“Make the sick drink the water! Make them drink!”