She woke to flames. A camp’s fire-pit roared and danced in front of her as she sat slumped against some hard rock, bundled up in coarse patched blankets. Even so, she shivered, turning in against the stone face and bringing the blankets tighter against herself. The rock shifted and a weight lay itself across her back, drawing her in closer. She recognised the inwards and outwards movement below her head, the movement of someone breathing. It was not stone! She sat up, seeing Orrin next to her in the darkness, looking at her with curious and somewhat gleeful eyes. She tried to sneakily wipe some wetness from the corner of her mouth with the back of her hand as she turned her head away a little.
“You certainly have funny way of going about proving a man wrong, Eris Atta-Sutith.” He said crisply, as though the words were well planned in advance.
“What do you mean?!”
“I get thoroughly told off for even suggesting that you might heal the Attavine… and then you go and do it anyways!”
She looked about. The camp was quiet in the night. Quiet. No moaning, no wailing children. “They are well?”
Orrin looked serious for a moment. “Almost all.”
She ran fingers through her loose hair, looked down at herself under the blanket. At the simple tunic and soft knitted leggings “Where are my leathers?!”
“We had to get you out of them-” He sped up his answer as he saw her glare in the slight light of the moon. “Women! Women of the Attavine got you out of them and redressed you! You went as cold and as white as ice in the water so Pierson and I pulled you out, then a couple Attavine ladies stripped you while you were still unconscious. The men, myself included, were well away from you then!”
“And then I slept on… you?”
“Oh that was just my honour for the past three hours. Pierson for about the same. Nem too. The boy… Jack, insisted on sitting here for an hour or so more than that before he’d let me take over.”
“It’s ‘Jayk’, and you know that Orrin.” She said bluntly, ignoring his shrug. “So I slept on you, all of you, for over a half day? And the Attavine are healed?”
“Most of them.” Orrin looked uncomfortable. “But no one could have expected more from you… no one could have done as much as you-”
“Who was not healed?!”
Orrin looked deep into the flames. “Some who were already too close to gone for it to help. And… when we passed the water about… he wouldn’t take any. First he said the children should drink before him. Then he said his men and women. By the time he would take any… he was passing. It wasn’t enough to stop it.”
Eris joined him in staring into the flames. Sorrow flaring within her. “The leader of the Attavine. I did not even ask his name.”
“Redval. Redval Attavine. A good man. The bastard gods will know him and he has been buried with his people in the woods. His son, Redril, leads now and has sent scouts to bring Sarai and Callia here with the boys. He wants to feast us all.”
“Feast us?! We failed his father!”
“Eris! You saved his people!”
“If I’d healed Redval straight away, as soon as we came across him then I would have saved him too!”
“And how many other would have passed if you hadn’t been able to give your healing to the water?!” Orrin smiled slightly at her. “Don’t make me spin words of reverence and wonder at you again Eris, but you did something remarkable!”
She held in a sniff, feeling tears prickling her eyes and tightening her throat. “Where are Pierson, Nem, and Jayk now?”
“Asleep I think. Being slept on and drooled on is hard work!”
She pushed at him with both hands, but he just laughed. It died on his lips when a figure approached them, emerging from the darkness between tents. Redril Attavine.
“Eris Atta-Sutith.” He said nodding at her. “Orrin City-voln.”
“Some call me Orrin Storyteller.” He said smartly.
“Perhaps when we feast the Sutith and her people you can share one of those stories you claim.” Redril sat nearby. Even in the dancing joyous light of the campfire he looked aged, the sudden weight of leadership weighing upon him. As he thought he rubbed at the stubble on his head, running fingers over the twisting vines of the Attavine plant tattooed there.
“Eris. Do you recall what you found in the river? What you realised?”
“That woods-voln helped the button men poison the Attavine? Yes, I remember.” Anger flared in her again, and she felt the bitter taste in her mouth again. Atta. This time she did spit, ignoring Orrin’s city-voln reaction. “Do you have enemies? A nearby greening wanting your lands?”
Redril nodded. “Might be the Ireblade to the south. Might be the Clomithex to the west. Either is closer to a king’s road than we are. We’ve not had clashes with either for a while though. Our borders are fluid, land is given and taken regularly. Nothing that would lead to this kind of unnaturalness.”
She could feel Orrin’s confusion next to her. “Woods-voln fight. Arrows fly and pierce, and woods-voln fall to the greenings. But we always know who was behind the arrow. Because of the signs.”
“Sewer-pox from a city-voln corpse dropped in a hidden way isn’t the right way of things. I see.” Said Orrin thoughtfully. “And Gyreblack would be wrong too…”
“What?” Asked Redril. “Why do you say that name?”
“I know of Gyreblack, the greening without signs. It was on a list-”
“There is no such thing as a greening without a sign.” Said Redril firmly. “The Gyreblacks are a myth, a story.”
“Well, I enjoy stories.” Said Orrin, “Tell me more.”
“I’ll tell you what my… father told me.” There was pain in his voice at remembering him. “In the stories the Gyreblacks were not simply bandits as you might have heard. Yes, we were told as children that they were as likely to hunt city-voln on the king’s roads as they were to hunt deer in the woods. But in our stories they were made out to be more than that. The bandit Kur Gyreblack is the best known of their number, but what the Attavine tell in their stories is that Kur was a king.”
“A king? But there’s only one king. There has only ever been one king. Lios.” Said Eris, confused.
“There are those who tell the tale of Kur Gyreblack, bandit and king.” Redril said, smiling a little at the idea. “The Attavine tell that story. Some others recall it too, but not many I think. As children we are told that he led more than just his greening, the Gyreblacks. He led woods-voln. Many families, many greenings. Nonsense of course. The greenings have never worked together, would never follow together. My father enjoyed the stories though. Even of how Gyreblack met his end, hanged from the cankernut tree. He used to say that kings should die.” Redril looked away, pain bursting afresh in him. “All leaders should die he used to say, so that others might take their place and lead onwards with fresh eyes and a new fire inside. I was a child the first time he said that to me and I begged him to take it back. He never would.”
Eris placed her hand on his shoulder. “I’m sorry I didn’t save him.”
Redril looked down at her. His face was sharp like many woods-voln, but creased a little by age and now by new concerns. “I want to find who did this to my people, Eris Atta-Sutith.”
“Of course.” She knew what he was waiting for. “And we will help you.”
Orrin went to speak, but she quietened him with a look.
“Your people are tired and weakened. My people are…” Eris continued.
“Young or city-voln. Or both.” Said Orrin for her. “We can help as much as we can. But we aren’t Attavine.”
Redril nodded. “No Orrin Storyteller, you are not. You are something new. And perhaps you have fresh eyes and a new fire too. Rest Eris Atta-Sutith. In the morning we will hunt so that we can greet your people with fresh meat when they arrive.”
He stood, and left them.
“Good chap. A little serious. But at least he stopped calling me ‘Orrin City-voln…”
“Orrin, don’t you think you should sleep?” Eris said pointedly.
“Certainly, but I don’t know if I can lean against you without you being pushed ove-”
“I meant for you to find a place elsewhere.” She said curtly, hating herself for the sharpness in her voice, but she needed some time to think without him nearby.
“Of course.” He stood and bowed a little towards her. “A very good night to you, mi’lady.” And then he left her alone with her thoughts. Eventually she found a softer spot by the campfire and returned to sleep while on the ground, her blankets still wrapped tight about her. The rest of the night passed in a dreamless but sad greyness that she was glad to leave when familiar voices reached her ears.
“You let her exhaust herself?!”
“I never let her do anything, my love.”
She opened her eyes, and looked up from where she lay on the soft floor of the clearing. Pierson stood with Callia and Sarai, both women looking at him angrily. Now that she knew she could see something a little different about both woods-voln women. It was almost as if in their carrying they were reaching out towards each other. Sarai, usually stern and fierce, looked a little softer, warmer, as thought something inside her was becoming gentler, like Callia. Callia, sweet and soft spoken Callia, was hawk-like, her tumbling hair held back in a more severe, tight, braid, as she berated Pierson in a quiet voice, sounding more like Sarai.
“She’s a child Pierson, you should not have allowed her-”
“Calling Eris Atta-Sutith a child might be a mistake.” That was another voice she knew. Redril. “She is more than that.”
“As I have often said!” Orrin now, nearby as well. She sat up and saw all of them in a circle of conference the other side of the embers of the fire pit. The two women came to her as soon as they saw her wake.
“You should not have slept on the ground!” Callia said quickly. “Here, wrap this closer.”
“These men are simple if they think this is how to look after you.” Said Sarai.
“Please, I am well, I am well!” She gently batted away their hands. “Keep your mothering for your own babes!”
Two sets of angry eyes flared at Pierson. “You told her?!” Snapped Callia.
“As if a birthing woman would have missed it for long.” He smiled at the two women. “And I was pleased with the news and wanted to share. Well pleased.”
That softened them both. They helped Eris to stand; she was still weak, even now. “At least find her leathers, these clothes wouldn’t keep a practice arrow out.” Said Sarai.
They were fetched from where an Attavine woman had been tending them, making sure the buckles and seams were in good order. Eris found an empty tent within which to slip them on again, stretching and flexing her wyrd foot as she passed it into the leg of the leather trousers. She took a moment before returning to the outside of the tent, a moment before returning to the scrutiny of Callia, Sarai and whoever else who was about and wanted a say in her health!
However, their reaction upon her return was different. Perhaps they could take her more seriously as a woods-voln in woods-voln armour than they could as a half drowned and frozen girl in a bundle of blankets by the fire. But on her return they made a space in their circle for her, and actually listened when she spoke. Even Orrin kept his mocking tongue still.
Redril was talking now. “We lost many. Some before you even came to help us Eris Atta-Sutith. Some who were already frail, or… young. We are less than half than we were.”
“Jayk has led the boys into the woods to find food to help you.” Said Sarai. “They are adequate hunters, but they can gather simpler foods too. Berries, roots. Whatever you need.”
“Thank you.” Redril nodded to acknowledge their help. “We are grateful to you. I had thought we could feast you Eris Atta-Sutith, however…”
“We don’t need feasting. We need to see your family back on its feet. Between the boys hunting and what I can do to help any remaining sick or weak, is there anything else you need?” Eris asked, looking up into the man’s serious green eyes.
“I think you know what we need, but we cannot ask it of you.”
“You want to find the greening that did this, but more than that. You want us to help you punish them.” Eris said with sickening suspicion. “I will not send green city-voln boys to attack woods-voln men. I will not.”
“Of course. We would never ask that of you.”
“You are more than a few city-voln boys. You have a mountain-voln with a fierce sword. A pair of deadly woods-voln women, if I am right. A city-voln who has remained alive in the woods all this time. Another city-voln who might still prove himself more than just a quick tongue too.” Redril paused, looking right at her. “And a healer of great power. Who knows what else you might be able to do. She who once healed was a bastard god. Sutith. Perhaps…”
“I am no bastard god!” She sighed. But I will speak with my people. Time will be taken, for resting and healing. And then we shall see.”
Redril nodded and left them. In the circle with her friends Eris felt strong again.
“What do you think Pierson?”
He looked at her with calm grey eyes. “I think you already know what you think we should do.”
“This is not out fight.” She said simply.
“No. No it is not. But you are angry.”
The taste of Atta flared in her mouth again.
“Anger is not always the best motivation.” Said Orrin with caution.
“No. But it can be a strong one. We can take time. The lads are out hunting. We’ll eat… something… tonight at least. And then we shall see.” Said Eris.
The circle disbanded. She found herself walking alone among the tents of the camp. Perhaps Orrin or Nem had gone to follow, but then had thought better of it. Or been told not to by Sarai or Pierson. But either way she was glad of the moment’s peace. A few tired looking Attavine were tending to tents that had been left neglected for too long. They had the scars of the sewer-pox, just like Jayk, and she was sorry for it. But they were moving with determination. She was stopped by one woman, a small girl of three or four by her side, hiding behind her but still her hand drifted near the dagger strapped to her mother’s leather clad thigh. Wary of the stranger.
“Atta-Sutith.” Said the woman with fresh scars, reverently. “Thank you. Thank you!”
“I don’t want… please, don’t.”
She nodded and held the girl forward as Eris tried to walk on. Her own scars were just as bad. “You saved her, you saved my child!”
She walked on. The temptation to walk into the woods and to disappear grew, but instead she found herself sitting on a fallen bough; lying both half in and half out of the Attavine camp. “You certainly have funny way of going about proving someone wrong, Eris Atta-Sutith” she muttered to herself as she looked back towards the slow bustle of the camp. She could see Pierson standing close by Sarai and Callia. Nemnir walking with a couple of Attavine’s, but at least a head taller than either of the hunters. Orrin sitting on another fallen branch in the centre, looking about for something or someone.
“Oh mother.” She whispered. “You healed. Was it always like this? Like you were different from everyone else in the entire world? Like they always saw you as something different?”
The slight noises of the camp merged with the sounds of the woods about her. The rustle of leaves in the breeze, the call of forest birds, a shuffling as something small rooted about in the undergrowth. Eris closed her eyes, focusing on the normal sounds about her, sounds she’d been listening to since she was born. The world going on about its business no matter what she did. She felt her hands drop into her lap, limp and relaxed. Her breathing slowed.
She felt and heard the footsteps coming towards her.
She lazily opened her eyes to see Nemnir sitting down, dwarfing her as he took a place beside her.
“Nem.” She said warmly. “At least you don’t nod and bow as I pass. I’m not what they think I am. Especially not what Orrin thinks of me.”
A low chuckle.
“You disagree?” Eris said confused. “But you’ve never treated me as anything but a friend?”
He put one of his large hands out just in front of himself and clasped it with the other. Two things coming together.
“You think I am both. Friend and… different?”
A low sound of affirmation.
“Can I be both for everyone though? Orrin-”
Nem put a hand on her shoulder silencing her. She looked up into his warm brown eyes, as she had done before Redril had found them, when she had intended to…
She could do it. She knew she could. The peace that had crept into her as she’d sat listening to the woods became a steel-like determination. She brought her hand to his cheek as he had gently made her do before.
“Sutith” She whispered, letting the deep brown of his eyes expand until it was all that she could see. “Be healed, Nemnir. Be healed.” She let herself cry.