“Attavine, Nuerveld, Findrop, Blacken, Ghostblight, Vasitegloom, Shanktear.” Her breath came in short hoarse bursts between the names. “Ireblade… Clomithex… Diarnilys… Lastleaf.” Pale white hands raked at the ground in front of her, one knee pushing as they pulled to bring her just bare inches forward. Her memory failed her for a moment and then another name came to her. “Gyreblack” she spat. The stuff from her mouth was tinged with red.
“Forlorn. Jesterseed… Baxal.” The spaces between the names was growing. When the birthing women did this, her mother’s mother had told her, they got to their family poison at the point of the crowning and repeated that until the babe came. Finally coming to take the name for itself. But Eris, wasn’t birthing, she was dying. And she felt like half her name had been cut away, along with her…
She stopped that thought. She’d even tried not to look at it when the fire had finally woken her from her death like sleep. But eventually she could not pull herself away from it any longer and paused, both for a deep painful breath and for a look at the stump of her leg. Beyond the man’s belt and the frayed rope there was an alien part of her, numb and on fire somehow at the same time. And her missing foot was a void that made her head spin. Her eyes followed the trail of blood that lay behind her, tracing back to the bottom of the slope where she’d been when she woke up. After the cursed boy had cut her apart.
“Gyreblack!” That hadn’t been his name, she was pretty sure of that. But it was something for her rage and pain to hold on to. “Gyreblack. Gyreblack. Gyreblack!”
She was going to die, and now the boy’s family name was whispery faint as she breathed it out in her final pain. Even pulling herself this far had brought her to a black cliff, a darkness rising above her that filled her vision, an increasing dark in the already dark woods.
“Atta-Sutith.” She curled in on herself, her leg sticking out like a dead tree limb. “Atta-Sutith. Atta.”
Sutith. It did not translate from the old tongue of the woods-voln very well. Her mother’s mother, and her mother, had used it as a password for moving among other woods-voln. Even the mountain-voln her mother’s mother had tended, before their small family of three had moved on southwards, could recognise the word as meaning something like ‘healer’ or ‘helper’. It was more than that though. It meant something closer to ‘once healed’. And not just the healing that her line had done for others, not just helping the mountain women to birth their very large babies, not just fixing bones, and mending wounds. It was the healing that her line’d had done to it, centuries past. When the Atta-Sutith poison was made by the first of them. But in her anger at the boy, in her feverish delirium, she felt that the Sutith part had been cut away along with her foot, leaving her a stump. Eris Atta. Atta, a vile tasting substance drawn out over time from the attavine plant, an oily liquid that could kill.
“Atta. Atta.” She found some more anger, some that had been festering somewhere deep in her and brought it out, fierce as her she rebelled, stubborn in her youth. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair! The boy had cut her away from her nature and it wasn’t fair!
She was moving again, dragging her dead leg behind her and tearing her nails as she pulled herself over the uncaring hard ground. The mulch and loose soil fell further down, but a gentler slope that she barely noticed until a shadow fell over her and she bleary looked up to where a collapse of large rocks and boulders had made a shadowy space. It had been dug out further by a creature of some kind, making a small cave nestled in a steep bank.
“Atta.” She cried as she crawled to the inner dark. “Atta.” She found a way to roll over and to sit her back against the smooth, cool, interior earthen wall. “Atta” She looked down at the filthiness of her dress and apron. Blood, dirt, leaves, and twigs were all jumbled on the torn material. The flesh of her legs was just as dirty, but one was definitely a dead looking grey as well, above the belts. “Atta.” Her eyes were closing and she didn’t even think on the belts and what they might mean. What the boy might have tried to do. Darkness came for her.
Did she imagine it? Or did she just remember the word as she felt a cold sleep try and grab her again? “It isn’t fair.” She muttered, words slurring. “It isn’t fair. Atta-Sutith. Stop bleeding. Atta-Sutith. Be healed, once healed.”
She carried on muttering. Her name became the dominant repeating word. “Atta-Sutith.” Like a birthing woman she held onto it through the killing pain.
And then it began to ease, to fade slightly, but enough for even her fevered mind to feel some relief.
“Atta-Sutith.” She opened her eyes, focussing on the absence of her foot properly. Intensely looking at it, allowing herself to feel the jagged tears of the flesh and the rough-hewn bone there where the boy had butchered her. “Atta-Sutith. Atta-Sutith.”
And then the flesh began to knit around the absence, closing the wound.
“So, a woods-voln, a city-voln and a mountain-voln walk into a cave.”
Eris’ eyes fluttered open as a low growl seemed to come in response.
“Nem would like it known that he’s more crawling than walking.”
“It’s a joke, Pierson. The beginning of one anyway.”
Eyes opening, aching. Everything aching. Another low growl.
“Nem isn’t sure a joke is funny if no one is laughing. And he wants us to know that he is wet and cold.”
Rain. She could hear rain now that one of the voices had brought it up. The kind of heavy rain she’d loved hiding from in the warmth of their caravan. No. Stop. Don’t think. Don’t wake up! Don’t remember…
“We’re all wet and cold, Nem.”
Another growl, a different, unhappy, tone.
“He doesn’t like being called Nem.”
“But you call him that all the time!”
“Sorry, I mistranslated. He said that he doesn’t like you calling him Nem.”
A low laughing noise came then, but strangely jumbled. She finally gave into consciousness and tried to see the men who were speaking. In the dark they were three shapes, one thin, one pretty average and one so large he had to curl himself over to stumble around in the small cave trying to build a small fire.
“Look, I said I was sorry.” That was the joker again. “I was sure that they were Baxal.”
“You only have one job, Hobbart. You can’t fight for shit. You’re barely competent with a bow, which for a woods-voln is a bloody Lios be fucked miracle! And you couldn’t talk your way out of a whore house after you’ve spent all your coin and your seed! All you can do… all you are meant to do, is guide us through the woods-voln of this region. And you got Blackens mixed up with Baxals and insulted them to their frigging faces.”
“Their greenings and marks do look pretty similar, Pierson.” He whined as was slouching against the side of the cave in the dark, standing right next to her, but not seeing her slumped beneath him.
“How are we going to work here now if you’ve already pissed off the main woods-voln family!?”
“Maybe… a gift?”
‘Nem’ growled again, some great bear of a man who never spoke. Eris shivered and it wasn’t just from the fever still haunting her. Then he was sparking flint against dry tinder wood that he must have produced from a pack. A small fire sprang to life in the middle of the cave and Hobbart sprang away from her as the firelight hit her.
“Bastard gods!” He gasped. “What the fuck is that?!”
The one who she thought was called ‘Pierson’ moved quicker than Eris could follow, and suddenly a roarer was in one of his hands, complemented by a sharp dagger in the other. Nem stood quickly and nearly brained himself of the roof of the cave, shaking dirt free and releasing the roots of a tree that tangled about his face and the long braided brown hair surrounding it.
She watched his eyes, watched them trail down to the stump of her leg and stay there.
“Fuck!” Hobbart again, leaping and shaking. “Thought it was a fucking Lios damned ghost!”
“It’s a girl, you fuckwit.” Pierson lowered the gun and the dagger. “A woods-voln girl.” She could see his face now. Old. Maybe as old as her mother. But unlike her he had grey slate eyes and dark hair. City-voln. Although, with more cunning in his eyes than she expected. A woods-voln, a city-voln and a mountain-voln walked into a cave. She almost laughed, but grimaced in pain instead.
“Look at the path of the blood Pierson. She crawled here.”
Pierson noted it. “There’s pints of her life on the dirt. She should be dead.”
“Please…” Her voice cracked. “Please. Water.”
Nem was there, crawling forward on his hands and knees to bring her a water canteen.
“Nem! We don’t have much.” Hobbart hissed. Nem growled, sneering back at the woods-voln man.
“It’s fucking raining outside Hobbart. And call him Nemnir if you don’t want to be disembowelled sometime soon.” Said Pierson, crouching beside her and examining the stump. “This is old. Its healing. So why the blood…? Where are you from lass? What happened to you?”
She swallowed deeply, holding onto the water skin between them. “A boy did it. A woods-voln boy. A Gyreblack.”
Hobbart laughed. “Did he take your maidenhood with that lie too?”
He was on his back before he’d finished laughed, the thick back of Nemnir’s hand walloping him across the face even as the man still crouched down in front of her.
“Why’s that so fucking funny Hobbart? She lost her damned foot!” Pierson yelled at him.
“No such thing as Gyreblack anymore. Lios killed them off like a hundred years ago. Boy lied to her. He took her foot and didn’t even give her his real name!”
“There were two others. A Button man and another woods-voln.”
“Button men? In these woods?!” Pierson looked panicked. Her eyes drifted to his roarer and its golden lion and he saw her looking. “It’s okay lass, I’m not a Button man.”
“Not anymore at least.” Hobbart nursed his bloody nose and muttered darkly.
“Shut the fuck up!” Pierson sneered at him. “By the bastards, if you can’t start proving your worth soon Hobbart, you are out of this fucking firm.”
“A mute mountain-voln and a wise ass city-voln aint a fucking firm, Pierson! No matter what deal you try and come up with that’ll please the local woods-voln… wait, wait a minute. Girl, what’s your name?”
She paused and swallowed, forming the lie. “Eris… Eris Attavine.”
“Attavine? That’s it!”
“That’s what?!” Pierson barked at him. Nemnir seemed to be getting something from his pack. Bandages, roughly torn from some fairly clean sheets at some point. More water in a skin. A long root that she recognised as a pain duller. She took it eagerly and chewed on it as she watched the thoughts passing through Hobbart’s head like slow clouds.
“She’s an Attavine. They’re East and Northwards. Gods only know how she got all this way South. But imagine we take her back to them. Imagine how pleased they’ll be. How pleased with our firm.”
Pierson looked at the woods-voln, contempt written on his face even while he thought Hobbart’s idea through. “You know them? Well enough to know if they’ll let us stay on their land?”
“Gods, I don’t know, but there’s got to be some fucking value in returning their lost girl. Surely?”
Nemnir stood after finishing his bandaging, as best he could. He must have been at least seven feet tall, overshadowing both the other two men.
“What do you think Nem? It’ll be a trek with the girl in a litter.”
The mountain-voln looked back down at Eris and mimed carrying something, like you would carry a baby. She frowned at the comparison but he just winked at her.
“The whole way?”
Nemnir shrugged. He was a little older than Pierson and Hobbart, but the slight lines on his face seemed to be softer than those of Hobbart. The woods-voln joker seemed more bitter in the face than either Pierson or Nemnir somehow, even though one of the two could not joke at all, and the other had so far seemed as serious and direct as the dagger and roarer he carried.
“Fine. If you want to. Hobbart, what’s the effect of Attavine?”
Hobbart paused, looking studious for a moment. “It’s a bloating poison. Closes the organs.”
Eris bit her tongue, but she felt Pierson’s oddly sharp eyes, for a city-voln, on her. It wasn’t. Attavine was a breathing cracker, flooding the lungs and making the victim spit it out again and again until they couldn’t breathe. This woods-voln was a fool. Eris had learnt all the greenings in the crib from her mother and her mother’s mother and this fake didn’t even know the basics…
“Brother…” She whispered hoarsely to Hobbart. “Brother, might I ask your greening? I cannot see your bow, nor your arrows.”
He proudly pulled the long sweep of his bow forward so she could see, and she recognised the symbols carved into the wood and the coloured glint on the heads of the arrows. “Raronvurt.” He told her anyway.
She nodded, eyes heavy again. It was a true greening. A family they’d treated and healed on their travels. Nothing remarkable about them, reasonable archers, hated about as much by Lios as any other woods-voln family. “Thank you Hobbart Raronvurt. Eris Attavine thanks you…” Sleep was coming back: the same dark sleep they’d woken her from. She felt someone gently move her downwards, placing a bundle of clothes beneath her head before they took a seat by the small fire where a bottle was being passed about by the other two much smaller men.
She woke and reached for her mother’s hand across the caravan, bridging the space between their cabin beds. “I’ll make the fire this morning, mama.” Eris mumbled. Her hand dropped down to the cold ground, running fingertips over loose stones as she started to remember.
She whimpered. Then Nemnir was there, a huge shadow blocking out the dwindled campfire, concern in his eyes as he offered her more of the numbing herb. Eris chewed on the green stalks as he crouched next to her looking her, and her bandaged stump, over. She also looked keenly at the large man, taking in his braids, the fraying white shirt that would have fit two smaller men, and his many times patched dark coat. She watched his eyes as he considered her bandages. Dark, earth brown. Kind of sad she thought. He was a long a-ways from where the mountain-voln claimed their lands; they had great terraces of hide tents, clinging on to the steep places where Lios couldn’t build his cities and roads.
“Mother and mother’s mother used to tend to mountain-voln near the Delvenight pass. Do you know it?” He shook his head, still looking down at her bandages. “I used to boil the water for the birthings. I even caught a baba or two when they needed twisting the right way.” She held up her hands, still chewing away like a cow or a rabbit. “Small hands. Small hands can be helpful.” She was talking through the pain, and trying to keep from thinking on what had happened to her and her family. She was surprised when Nemnir held up his own right hand, placing it palm to palm with hers to show her the difference. The palm was soft and warm, but calloused. He’d wielded weapons before. Many times before. She babbled on. “Mountain-voln babies are loud. Their mothers are louder, when the babies come, of course. The bigguns don’t stop shouting either. But you’re quiet.”
There was a groan and shift in one of the shapes lying down, swaddled in his coat, on the other side of the fire from them. Then Pierson sat up, and rubbed his face wearily. “Wish you were quiet, lass.”
Nem chuckled in that weird broken way he did and spread out his arms to her, scooping her up, and bringing her carefully to the fire where Pierson was just sitting down.
“Looks like I aint sleeping any more this night anyways.” A low noise from Nemnir. “Okay, yes. I’ll join the conversation… so there can be a conversation!” He looked over to where Hobbart was still jumble of clothes and limbs, sleeping on. “Lucky bastard.”
“How do you know what he means? Why can’t he talk anyway? Who are you both-”
Nem laughed brokenly again. And Pierson just held up his hands in surrender.
“Lass, please.” Then he rubbed at his face again, disturbing the dark length of his hair but bringing some sharpness back into his slate grey eyes. “You gotta know I aint going to answer all your questions? Right. You get that don’t you?”
She looked at him over the embers of the fire. Looked at Nemnir, at Hobbart. Three men. Three kinds of voln. Talking about deals and firms. She wasn’t city-voln but she could guess at the shifting shades of their enterprise.
Pierson spelt it out. “I’m saying that we’re thieves lass. Plain and simple.” She nodded, and he went on. “That being said, we ain’t bad men.” Nem made a cautious noise, and Eris watched Pierson look at Hobbart again. “We aint going to hurt you at least. Don’t suppose my word means much to you yet, but you can have it on that.”
She nodded again, shifting her weight around the deadness of her leg. “Why can’t he speak?”
Pierson paused, and reached into the deep pocket of his coat. Eris made her panic hold itself, made her body not jerk away at the thought of a roarer or a dagger hiding in there. He’d given his word. It was a golden button that he brought out. Or at least… partially golden. Her keen woods-voln sight picked out where a dull grey was showing through the filigree. Pierson scratched at it some more with a fingernail, barely aware he was doing it.
“Button men?” She asked quietly.
“Kind of. Once. Dunno what you know about Lios’ thrice damned army-”
“When the boy took my foot… it was a Button man what made him do it. Or he was going to do it anyway, I don’t really know.” She drifted into uncertainty and Pierson nodded.
“Button men give orders. True. And they mete out punishments. One took Nem’s tongue when he broke too many of the bastard’s riding crops with his back.” Nem’s face was stone still as Pierson talked for him. “We snuck out of the camp once he was healed enough up to travel again.”
She looked him over. “You were one? A Button man? Or did you steal the button?”
He smiled grimly “I was one, lass. I got nineteen other pieces of false gold in my pocket. Underneath its only tin you know. Not even good tin at that. Doubt Lios has got more than a handful of real bloody gold in his treasury these days.”
“And you were Nem’s friend?”
“Didn’t start like that. But yeah, we traded stupid damn rescues for a while on the frontline. Still not sure who’s ahead on owing their life to the other, or not. And now we’re friends. Mountain-voln don’t care much for city-voln ordinarily, and the feeling’s mutual. But some stupid Liosinium born lad with damned loyalty to Lios drummed into him from birth got posted to oversee a mountain-voln squad, and he then learnt a lot more about his own people than he bargained for.”
Nem chuckled darkly and threw over a wine skin to Pierson who caught it easily and gulped some down. He went to pass it to her and Nem stopped him, murmuring in his low almost voice.
“Oh. Right. The numbing root.”
“You understand him? How?!”
Pierson paused. “I know him. Like, now I know that if he stops me from passing you the wine it ain’t because he’s selfish and doesn’t want to share. I know it’s because there’s a reason he wants to help you, or stop you being harmed. And then I just think it through and realise what he means.” Pierson drank again. “And sometimes I just make it up and get a laugh out of him for what I’ve said he said.”
Nem laughed then, and Eris saw how the larger man had gotten the soft laughter lines. The lines on Pierson’s face were more serious. How had a man who’d lost his tongue got more reason to laugh than a city-voln Button man? Command came with money, she’d heard that about the Button men. There was also no conscription for them, Pierson must have volunteered out of that loyalty to Lios he mentioned. But they were both thieves now, wherever they had started from she supposed. She looked over at the sleeping form of Hobbart.
“He’s wrong you know.”
“What’s that, lass?”
“Hobbart. He’s wrong about Attavine. It’s not a bloater, it’s a breathing cracker.”
Pierson looked at her with steady eyes.
“But you must have known he was wrong.” She said after thinking for a moment.
“Because… you know he’s wrong about most things. You’re smart. You know when someone’s spinning you a tale. Smart for a city-voln anyway.” She tried a smile out on her face. It felt false there, after her foot and her mother- she clamped down quickly on that thought, and looked instead to Pierson’s reaction. He was smiling too.
“Yes, I’m fairly smart ‘for a city-voln’. And I knew he was lying. I was just wondering when you were going to correct him. You could have done it in front of him. But you didn’t.”
She shrugged. “Other things seemed more important at the time. Like not dying.”
Nem laughed again, and Pierson joined in this time. “Sharp tongue, woods-voln. You know your poisons though?”
“Learnt them well, from my mother, and my mother’s mother.” She said proudly.
“Ever come across one that had no effect?” Pierson’s eyes narrowed, serious again. Eris paused. Confused.
“One that kills, and kills fast. But gives no sign that a poison was used?”
She felt even more confused. “What would be the point of a greening that left no sign? How would your enemies know who had dispatched one of their number?”
Pierson nodded. “I asked Hobbart the same question and he said fairly enough the same thing. Woods-bloody-voln.” He sighed the words. “I might as well have asked a mountain-voln how they leave their mountain.”
Eris must have looked even more confused as Nemnir then pulled at a leather strap at his neck, bringing out a lump of grey, rather ordinary rock from inside his shirt that was attached to the simple thong.
“Mountain-voln carry their mountains with them. No matter if you and I would say that it’s a lot smaller than we expected it to be-”
Nem growled deeply, a note of caution in the sound.
“I’ve never seen one of those before, and I’ve played among the mountain-voln.”
“On their lands, yes? But this is how they bring the lands with them.” Pierson paused, thinking, and then pulled at a similar strap from within his own shirt and brought out a small wooden carving. A bastard god. Eris recognised the carefully carved crown lying about the basic human form’s head.
“She who once healed?”
“Is that how you name her? I lean towards ‘the crowned one’.”
“Not Lios? But you are city-voln?!”
“Fuck Lios. Fuck him right in his blessed arse.”
Eris laughed, and Nem and Pierson joined in. They stopped as Hobbart snorted in his deep sleep and rolled over. But still, for that brief moment, Eris had felt… better.
An hour or so later Hobbart grunted in his sleep, and stirred enough to look over at the three of them sitting around the fire. A sour look flashed aross his face, replaced a moment later by a sly smile. “Maybe the girl knows how to cook better than you Pierson. I’m sick of Army Boot Soup and tooth cracking Captain’s Dumplings.”
“I’d tell you to go fuck yourself Hobbart, but we all know you’d enjoy that far too much.” Pierson stopped, concern on his face as he turned to Eris. “Um, sorry, lass. We aint had female company for a while.”
“Hence the god’s awful Boot Soup. You can cook can’t you girl?” Hobbart was running his fingers through his straggling hair, smartening himself as best he could.
“I know some things. I’m better at the knowing of greenings and balms though.” She looked pointedly at Hobbart who made himself busy tidying away his bedroll and digging through his pack for some scraps of cloth, which he took with him out of the cave.
“Great. I wanted to be going soon.” Pierson sighed and set to work on his own things, Eris’ sharp ears catching the tiny clank of buttons in his coat pockets as he swept it about his shoulders. From his pack he brought out a small bag of oats and some fatty bacon wrapped in thick green leaves. “You don’t have to cook, lass. I’m happy enough keeping to that duty.”
The men fell into their domestic routine then. It was familiar and strange all at the same time. Pierson cooked just as she and her mother, and her mother’s mother, had cooked, by stirring a pot above the fire and frying bacon in a pan. Nemnir walked out to fetch more water just as they had done, walking from where the caravan was halted to a nearby stream or river, letting their piebald great horse, Floris, loose to graze and drink too. Hobbart reappeared from his own toilet, and Nemnir helped Eris to a dense patch of bushes, and politely looked away as she held onto his arm and did what needed to be done; her one leg jutting out, useless, rather than supporting her. All these things had been done before, day after day, with her mother. But when they’d snuggled down into their cabin beds at night and her mother, Arlayne, had told her stories of the bold and often rogue-ish woods-voln and their daring raids against the city-voln she had never mentioned those same thieves bickering over whose turn it was to take porridge crusted bowls to the river to wash, or who needed to cook the next meal.
Finally the morning’s work was done, and Nemnir and Hobbart appeared to wait on Pierson’s decision. He sat contemplating her for a moment.
“Eris. Your people. Why aren’t you with them.”
She’d had time to think about this question. She had thought about giving him back his own words, You gotta know I aint going to answer all your questions? Right. You get that don’t you?, but there was a bitterness in making that response that she didn’t think Pierson deserved. There was an answer that worked, if he knew about woods-voln.
“I got the nomad-fever. Went a wandering.”
Pierson looked at her intently, but Hobbart laughed. “You’re a bit young for that, girl.”
“It doesn’t always mean you’re looking for a mate, Hobbart Raronvurt!” She snapped at him, using his full name as her mother, and her mother’s mother, had sometimes done when she’d gotten into something she shouldn’t have gotten into. Her mother’s supplies of sweet and tart Everberries once, red staining her lips and her apron.
“Still, it was a long bloody ways to wander.”
“How long… how far to Attavine woods Hobbart?” Pierson’s grey eyes were sharp, reminding Eris of a woods-voln. No wonder he’d found the army not for him. That sharpness, and Nemnir’s punishment, she guessed.
“Hmmm, at a slower pace, through the woods and avoiding the King’s roads? We’re looking at a ten-day or a twelve-day.”
“And you know the way Hobbart?” Pierson steepled his fingertips. “You know the way.”
“Sure. We’ll have to come within spitting distance of Bara to make it quicker. Or we can think about horses and taking the King’s roads. Though, ‘a woods-voln, a city-voln and a mountain-voln ride the King’s roads to their execution’. Doesn’t sound like much fun Pierson.”
“We could disguise-”
“The fact that Nem’s built like seven-foot tall fucking bull?”
Pierson held his hands out, placating him. “There might be a way, Hobbart. And your people, Eris, are they going to want you back?” Those fierce grey eyes were boring into her own forest green ones. “You didn’t run away for some other reason than nomad-fever? Maybe you were in trouble? Maybe you did something you feel bad for now?”
“No. That aint the case.” She instinctively picked up his own ways of speaking. “And even if it were, wouldn’t they want me back for punishing? That’s good for your firm too, right?”
Pierson scowled. “But not good for you.”
“I promise Pierson, I only went a wandering. I wasn’t running. They’ll want me safe and back in my own lands.” Her stomach twisted, what was she going to do when they met with the Attavine and they didn’t claim her? But that was a ten or twelve day away. She had time to think. She had time to… heal. Something had happened that first night and she needed to figure out what had saved her.
A sudden memory. A man, crawling to their fire in the night, mother standing quickly in front of her and drawing her dagger. The man had begged for help, close to death, blood all across his face, in his beard and hair turning them a dark red even in the firelight. So close to death that his lips were near blue. And her mother… her mother forcing life back into him, holding onto him and healing him without herbs or balms. He’d stayed a bit after, watching both of them so intently that Eris’d avoided looking his way and just got on with her chores under his gaze…
But there had been something else in her mother’s gentle touch that night. Something that had visited her when she was bleeding her own life away after the wretched Gyreblack boy had hacked her foot off. Sutith. The Healer. The Helper. Sutith had come to her tongue and stopped her dying. Could she do that again? Could she even… get stronger? With Pierson, Nemnir and Hobbart helping her she had time now to try.
Eris blinked her eyes, coming back to the cave. Pierson was nodding, accepting her story, already planning the words to present their poor lost girl and to work out a deal so that they could stay on their lands.
“You want to raid the King’s roads from the woods-voln lands. As they do.”
Pierson nodded. “No place for us in the cities. Too many city-voln firms in competition. Too many who’d notice a city-voln and a mountain-voln together. But woods-voln care less about robbing city-voln, they do it mostly for sport, not to live. There’s plenty coin to go about. But they need to let us stay on their land, or we’ll be facing down greened arrows every moment of every day.”
Eris nodded. It was a fair plan. Not the kind of plan that leads to a long life and good retirement. But it wasn’t too different to the life she and her mother, and her mother’s mother had lived. Moving about, off of the King’s roads as much as possible, meeting with the woods-voln of a place and showing what benefit they could bring in return for somewhere to stay, and for silent, undrawn bows. Eventually they’d moved on, even when they’d stayed among the mountain-voln who’d often offered them a place in their hide tent villages in the place of their caravan and Floris. A home. But staying was not their way. Eris nodded and looked to Nemnir. “Can you really carry me the whole way?”
A low chuckle. She looked to Pierson who explained for Nem. “He says you weigh less than the first dancing snow on the low steps of his mountain, lass. He can do it.”
She nodded and raised her arms towards Nem, who came over and picked her up, letting her loop her arms about his thick shoulders and rest her legs over his right arm. What remained of them.
“We’d best bloody well not be ambushed! Nem’s our best fighter. And she’s gonna have his arms all occupied.” Hobbart grumbled.
“He says you better bloody use those sharp woods-voln eyes you are fucking meant to have,
and keep a look out for them!” Pierson snapped back.
Eris pretended to snuggle further into Nem’s protective arms, to hide the smile that was spreading on her face in his wide chest.
As he carried her, Nemnir’s large boots crunched down on fragile fish bones, grinding them into the yellow brown earth of the dried up river bed. Their thin cracking was loud in the stillness of the woods, and Eris looked down at them from where she lay in his arms every time it happened. Crack, another few fish skeletons went to powder. There were so many they were impossible to avoid if they were to keep on this north by east path. Pierson looked back from where he was walking ahead of them, his face stern, before suddenly darting up the steep bank to weave in between the shadows and head forwards to where Hobbart was somewhere even further ahead of them, scouting the way.
Eris thought about the poor river. Its death had to have happened very quickly to have killed so many of its fish. It was most likely the work of some city-voln beyond these woods, working in Lios’ name, to dam and reroute this ancient waterway to somewhere more useful for him. The bankside trees, their long roots bringing up water from deep within the soil, still lived. But they seem to arch sadly over the dry bed as the four of them walked, shadowing the dead river with weeping willow fronds and thick branches that were cracked and flaking.
She realised Nemnir was looking at her. Was it concern? He had been watching her over the last days of their journey to the Attavine woodlands, checking up on her. Did he know what she had been trying to do? Trying but failing.
Her stump was no worse, only steadily, slowly better. But that had not been enough. She had called on Sutith in the whispers of her mind, bringing back like bile in her throat that same raw anger at what had been done to her by the Gyreblack boy. The same youthful rage that it just wasn’t fair! She urged her body to channel that fire and hate into healing again, to bring about a larger change in her body. Make me strong, make me heal. Sutith. Sutith. Help me, help me walk again. She whispered it in her mind all the while Nem carried her, all the while she was pretending she was sleeping or merely watching the passing of the trees. She still smiled when they stopped to make camp. She still helped with their chores as best she could, but all the time her anger was pushed into the torn parts of her, pushing and pushing.
But, nothing was different.
“I am well. Just thinking.” She whispered up to him.
His deep brown eyes looked away from her then and he faced back towards the path. She sneaked curious peeks at the braids in his long straight hair, the intricate plaits and knots a marvel given his huge hands. Small pieces of soft metal were curled and pressed around the ends, trapping them together. Each one had an embossing on it; a bear, an owl, other creatures still found in the mountains. They were fine and delicate works. Nem’s face was less carefully maintained however, a rough scrub of dark brown beard, much thicker than Pierson’s own scruff, spread across his cheeks and chin. Sometimes she felt it tickling her forehead, teasing out a tiny laugh. But still, she was silently raging. Pushing and pushing…
Pierson was back. He moved almost as sleekly and silently as a woods-voln. Almost… she wouldn’t dare have told him that he was leaving marks of his passage that only a woods-voln would spot. True, but in his black coat he was almost invisible in the dark shadows under the treeline. Sometimes the only sign of him was a glint of light of off his dagger or his roarer. This was a man used to being in the shadows, but in a big city of grey unchanging stone and not in the constantly changing story of branches and shapes that were the woods of her birth.
“Hobbart says he saw two in the trees. One on either side. What say you, lass?”
She started at his words. She had been thinking about the woods, but hadn’t been watching out closely, leaving that to the men. But instantly her eyes scoured the bending trees, piercing beyond them to the dark shadows. Movements. So slight she was not surprised that Hobbart had failed to see the third of their watchers. The woods told her their story.
“Three. Two on the ground, and a slighter one up in the trees. Smaller, lighter. Female?”
Pierson looked himself, but she could see his city-voln eyes straining for something he wouldn’t be able to catch.
“I can’t tell without seeing their marks. But Hobbart said we were still in their territory, didn’t he?”
“Hobbart says many bloody things. If they’re Blackens then they’re most like just escorting us to the edge of their land, making sure we leave. And if they’re not…”
“Then we’re in some other territory.”
“And then Hobbart’s a fucking fool.” Pierson grimaced, and then spoke surprisingly loud, the sound breaking the silence of the dead river. “Greetings! We are mere travellers, aiding this Attavine girl back to her people. We pass in peace!”
Silence. And then a curious whistle. Suddenly Eris saw an arrow trembling where it was now embedded in the ground. She read its markings quickly and turned to Pierson. “They’re not Blackens.”
He swore more elaborately and passionately than he ever had before and raised his roarer.
Eris found herself abruptly dumped onto the ground, Nem’s usual gentleness absent as he rushed to pull his burnt hide shield and immense sword from their bindings on his back. He moved to stand protectively over her, his tree trunk legs blocking her view of the woods on their right. She twisted on her hip and looked over her shoulder to the treeline behind her. That first shot was an announcement of who their shadows were, but that they were not coming out to talk might mean that they might just be playing with them. Some woods-voln had a liking for tormenting their targets first.
“Atta-Sutith!” She shouted suddenly, pushing with her near useless leg to get closer to the bank. “Atta-Sutith!”
More movement. There were two ahead of her, somewhere in the dark.
Another slight whistle and a further arrow planted itself in the dark yellow river bed. And then another, but that third arrow made no sound. They were showing how they could kill them silently if they wished, the whistling had been intentional, to get their attention. They had it.
A voice, coming back on the breeze. “We don’t need healing.”
Pierson stepped towards it, the hands holding his weapons dropping to his side in a gesture of peace. Nem turned also, spotting that Eris had dragged herself away from him and taking guard over her again.
“We simply want to pass…” Pierson began.
“We don’t need healing, but you might.” Eris’s sharp ears caught something that made her blood freeze. This sneering male voice was young. Perhaps no older than the Gyreblack boy who’d taken her foot. If they were all young… perhaps this wasn’t a sanctioned hunt! They might not be here under the orders of their family’s elders; they might be simply ranging through the woods looking for some fun!
“Pierson-” She began, fear apparent on her face. Seconds after she began the word she saw the arrow tear through Nem’s coat sleeve and carry onto to dash itself to bits against a tree behind him on the other bank. He growled, shook off the gnat’s sting, and beat his sword against his shield, the sound deafening Eris on the ground, who held her hands to her ears.
“Fuck!” Yelled Pierson, dropping his weapons and running towards Nemnir as the large man’s face suddenly slackened and he started to fall to the ground. There was cold laughter in the woods.
Eris pulled herself towards the large man, cursing her leg into action, pushing with her knees until she was there by him. His face was paling, the blood draining from it as his eyes fluttered.
“Hobbart! Hobbart!” Pierson was shouting. He aimed his roarer blindly into the woods and shot it, a loud bang and plume of smoke following after.
Eris, ears ringing, pushed herself on past Nem, dragging herself to where the other arrows were buried in the hard ground. She fully expected another one to sprout out from her back at any moment. But she managed to pull one from the ground. Her eyes ranged over the markings on it. They gave her a rough idea, but she made certain by dabbing the wicked point of the arrowhead onto the very tip of her tongue. The greening was almost sweet, and she fought the sudden urge that arose to taste it again. Sweet and addicting, with a low hint of smoke. Ghostblight.
She stifled a sob, and looked up at Pierson with despairing eyes. He was trembling “No! There must be something. Some balm. Something. Hobbart!!”
The missing woods-voln ran to them then, his footfall echoed by the laughter of some female woods-voln in the woods. Another few arrows peppered the ground about him, but he dodged them lithely. He skidded down next to Eris as Pierson grabbed the arrow from her and brought it to him, near jabbing it in his face.
“Ghostblight. She says its Ghostblight!”
Nem was struggling to breath now and Eris crawled over to cradle his head.
“Yes. I think so. Yes.” Hobbart was mumbling as he looked at the arrowhead just in front of his face.
“She tasted it!”
“She could have poisoned herself. I could poison myself-”
The arrow head was dangerously close to his eye. “If he dies Hobbart, you will too! Is there a balm?”
“There isn’t. There just isn’t.”
Eris let a sob escape. “There’s a herb, but it only grows in the far north. Mountains-voln lands.”
Another arrow thunked had into the earth by them, and then Pierson was off, running into the woods, reloading his roarer on the move and tearing into the undergrowth, raging with nonsense words. The woods told her that the Ghostblights were leaving, moving away to enjoy their work at a distance. They could have taken all four of them out from a greater range, but she suspected that they were enjoying the travellers’ anger, sadness, and frustration much more.
Her tears were flowing as she looked down at the large man in her lap, dripping onto his face and her hands as she carefully brushed his long strands of hair away from his face. He looked almost peaceful, his lungs only occasionally rasping air into them, his lips bluing.
“Sutith.” She whispered the word, surprising herself even as she shaped the sounds. “Sutith.” She was beseeching. “Help me. Help him. I want to help him.”
More of her tears fell, silently.
Then some made it to her lips before they passed onwards onto the mountain-voln’s ghost white face. Sour. Her tears were now sour. Not salt-like, but acrid.
Then, where they landed, she saw colour appearing. Spots of Nem’s normal healthy colour being rained onto his skin in damp spots. She spread the wetness of her tears on his face and where her fingertips touched him, colour returned. She spread her hands down about his neck and his breathing eased with the return of the colour there as well. She pushed, not with childlike anger, but with intense hope.
“Sutith. Sutith.” She whispered over and over again as the large man’s chest rose and fell steadily. Finally, when he seemed to be peacefully sleeping instead of corpse like and still, she looked up with red raw eyes to Hobbart, standing above her with his bow in his hand and a gormless look on his angular face.
“Healer.” He said simply. “Healer.”
She nodded, exhausted and looked back down at the sleeping mountain-voln.
Pierson burst back between the trees then and jumped down the bank, his unsheathed dagger still bloodless. He charged to Nemnir, pausing as he saw the mountain-voln bring himself groggily to a sitting position.
Eris went to answer but Hobbart stepped on her words, pulling out a bag of herbs from his pack. “We found something in Nem’s pack that worked, a southern version of the herb.”
“But there was no time to make a balm?!” Pierson was confused, likely hearing the falsehood, but also no expert in woods-voln medicine.
Hobbart nodded. “I chewed it and spat it in his mouth, it was enough to stop the poison.”
Eris let the lie go, she was too drained to care much about it. Tired, she was tired, as though something of her had been taken and given to Nemnir.
Pierson seemed about to speak more when Nem lifted his hand towards him. Pierson clasped his arm, forearm to forearm, relief and his own tears springing up on his usually more controlled face. “Brother. Oh thank the bastard gods, brother. You are alive.” Pierson held tightly onto the larger man’s arm, before kneeling to embrace him. Nemnir nodded, but there were questions in his eyes when he looked over Pierson’s shoulder at Eris. Questions she didn’t yet know how to answer, even to herself.
The large man struggled up, leaning on the shorter city-voln for support. Pierson took the weight of him as best he could. He was shorter than Hobbart, who was between the two in height, but he had the stockier, muscled, build of the city-voln. Hobbart dithered selfishly for a moment, and then finally helped Eris to stand when Pierson snapped the order at him to do it, pulling her against him roughly, and taking the weight off of her left side with its stump.
“We’ve got to get moving.” Pierson said, the strain of supporting Nem in his words and in how his lungs already grabbed for breath. “The Ghostblight woods-voln might come back to finish the bloody job. Can you walk Nem?”
The mountain-voln nodded, but there was sweat beading across his brow and making his hair mat thickly against his face. Whatever Eris had done had been enough to bring him back, but he was still fighting against the effects of the Ghostblight greening. So, the four of them hobbled onwards along the riverbed, two pairs of mismatched partners, two leaning on the other two. Pierson was suffering the worst, Eris judged. Hobbart was woods-voln sleight but she was not yet full grown. The awkwardness was only in the difference of their height and in the strength of his grip upon her. She was sure that she would look at her waist and ribs later on, and see his fingers still marking her there.
Even so they made their awlward way onwards, hoping for some sign that they were at least out of Ghostblight territory. Of course that would mean entering the woods of some other family, but they might have better chance of talking their way into their passage with them. Eris was ready to claim her full name again, the words already at the front of her mouth with every shake of every bush or tree in the early evening breeze. Hobbart was regularly being quizzed by an increasingly stern Pierson about what territory might be next, but he was non-committal, muttering about needing to wait for woods-voln sign to be certain. But Eris’ keen eyes hunted for it as well, and saw no sign, even as the sun went down and the fat moon came up, bringing with him his lovers, the star-voln, twinkling above them as the exhausted travellers finally conceded defeat and looked for places to camp.
They stumbled together up the banks of the dead river, and settled on a small dip just feet from the arching trees. It was no cave, but it took them slightly lower than the edges of the river, and would just about cover them from sight. Nem would most likely have to lie down to avoid being seen, but that seemed to be something he was keen on. Before a meal was even prepared he was gently snoring. Not before he’d given Eris a curious, but silent, look. Her stomach churned with worry about what he was thinking, even while he slept.
But Pierson threw together oats and chicken bones to make a watery soup, and then also fell into his own exhausted sleep, an arm thrown over his forehead as he lay under his button-less coat.
That left Eris and Hobbart for first watch.
Eris often took first watch. She wasn’t walking during the day, and was never as tired as the men when nightfall came. She also liked to see them all settled and peaceful. She could then also be alone with her thoughts and memories before Pierson or Nemnir relieved her, hoping to sleep with them out of the way for the day. Hobbart always preferred the last watch, getting in his sleep first and hoping that Nem or Pierson would leave the start of his watch until a little later when they were in their cups, or chatting in their one-sided way. But this time he stayed awake, watching her across the small campfire as he still slurped his soup. Eris refused to speak first and busied herself with patching some trousers of Nem’s, remembering the flash of her mother’s needles in their clothes, and sometimes in the flesh of those brought to her to heal. Had her mother… had her mother been able to heal as Eris had with Nem just hours before? When she had held onto that man in the dark, had she been pushing life into him as Eris had done for Nem? Had her mother’s mother known about this? They were all Atta-Sutith. Had she known?
“A copper Lios for your thoughts, girl?”
Hobbart put the bowl to one side and looked at her, his face illuminated by the flickering flames. She didn’t care for his eyes, they were a watered down green, but more than that, they were assessing her. She’d never taken much notice of him before, but now she compared him to Nem and Pierson. All had beards, of varying fullness, but now she noticed how ill Hobbart’s actually suited him, and how he had shaped it with more care than the other men bothered with. There were also angry red spots where he had roughly shaved at it, bringing it to this shape.
“I was thinking on…” She was about to say ‘my mother’ but bit her tongue. “On why you lied to Pierson.”
Hobbart’s eyes flicked cautiously to Pierson’s sleeping shape, noting the steady rise and fall of his chest. “Careful girl. Pierson is many things, but a deep sleeper he is not.
“You lied.” She said carefully. “Why?”
Hobbart took a whistling intake of breath, leaning back as he considered her. “They aren’t like us, girl. They aren’t our kind.” He picked at a tooth with a sharp nail. “Atta-Sutith. Heard you say it. The ‘once healed’, is it? I remember something about travelling healers. Didn’t know it meant woods-voln who could cry away a Ghostblight poison.”
A sharp edge entered her voice, something that surprised even her. “Seems there’s lots you don’t know, Hobbart.”
“True enough. But Pierson… he’s a city-voln who thinks he can sweet talk woods-voln into some kind of truce. Thinks his tongue’s made of gold because he grew up with shiny coins a plenty in a past life. And Nem…”
Eris frowned deeply, but the man was oblivious.
“He has no tongue, and likely half a brain. Good fighter, when a tiny nick from a gods damned arrow don’t take him down. But you and me girl. We’re the same.”
“That the way it is, Hobbary Raronvurt?” She emphasised his full name, and he put up his hands.
“Sure. I aint no Atta-Sutith. And maybe I don’t know my greenings as good as you…”
“Or how to scout. Three woods-voln! Three, Hobbart!”
He paused, and a sickening smile spread across his face. “I knew they were coming, girl. I knew.”
She quickly pushed herself up from her seat on the bank, knowing she couldn’t get far, but feeling the instinct to run and going with it. Even as she crashed to the ground straight away, stumbling over her absent foot, she kept moving, crawling in the banks of leaves.
“You stupid, fucking-” Hobbart hissed, stumbling after her and landing on her. They must have been making enough noise to wake the Lios damned, but neither Pierson or Nemnir seemed to be coming for her as Hobbart jammed his hand, stinking of the weak soup, into her mouth. It was the Gyreblack boy on top of her then, the short sword shining in his hand as he reached back to…
“Shut up! Shut up!” Hobbart hissed right into her ear. “Be still and I won’t cut you.” It hadn’t been the boy’s short sword she’d seen. It was Hobbart’s dagger, a cruelly hooked thing, glinting in the moon light. She stilled herself, her heart pounding in her ears.
“I won’t hurt you. I won’t hurt you. But we’re going. Together.” Hobbart’s eyes were feverish, glinting in the night. “A healer. A fucking proper healer, and they’re taking you back to your people in the East and North?? Fuck that. You and me girl, we’ll wander together for a bit, do some good work. You do want to help people don’t you? A few coin in exchange isn’t much to ask is it? A bit more respect from my own kin too, maybe. Once they see what I’ve brought them. Once you’re a Raronvurt. Or a Raron-Sutith maybe. Whatever you prefer. You’re a few years off of bedding, but I’ll look after you and your gift until then. We’re the same, girl. You’ll see, we’re the same.”
She started fighting again, drumming her one heel into the soil as she had down under the slighter weight and shape of the Gyreblack boy.
Then Pierson was there, a whirling shadow of anger and violence, daggers flashing in both his hands this time as he ripped Hobbart from her and threw him up against the crumbling bark of a tree. The daggers were at Hobbart’s spotted throat and Pierson was snarling into the terrified woods-voln’s face.
“Tell me why I shouldn’t gut you right now, Hobbart? Sure as blood is blood I damn well want to!”
“It was just a chat Pierson, just a chat! The girl had the nomad-fever, wanted to leave us and try and make her own way alone! I was just talking her down when she tried to run-”
One blade sliced across his throat and blood sprang from the thin line. Not enough to kill, but enough to mark.
“If Nem was awake this tree would be wearing your guts by now.”
“Yeah, Pierson, we know how you love to talk.” Hobbart’s pretence about nomad-fever and helping her was completely gone with the cutting. “You’ll still be sweet talking as the Attavine pour their poison right into your throat instead of offering you the fucking home you want!” He laughed then, even with the point of Pierson’s other dagger right at his throat. “She isn’t even an Atta-”
He got no further. Pierson had already begun pressing and moving his blade against the man’s throat. He gurgled, blood coming from the widening tear in his throat. Pierson let him drop, watched as he tried to hold the two halves of it back together. But his life’s blood was draining onto his chest and the tree’s bark as he slid down it, his face white in the moonlight.
Pierson wiped his daggers on the man’s tunic and then re-sheathed them, his breath both laboured and fast at the same time. “I thought… I thought we would just part ways along the road Hobbart. I never thought-”
“He lied. About what happened to Nem.” Eris was struggling to sit up and Pierson crouched down to help her. “Pierson…”
“I know, lass. I didn’t know what happened exactly, but I knew Hobbart was lying. Because that’s what he does with every breath. What he did.” Pierson’s eyes were heavily shadowed in the dark, the usual grey made almost black. “I heard some of that. Some of what he was promising. And threatening.”
She nodded. “He said you and Nem were too different from us. Him and me. He said he wanted to make money from me. To bed me.” She looked away, embarrassed at saying the last part.
Pierson cursed under his breath. “I’m sorry lass. I told you we weren’t bad men, and seems I was lying too.”
“No.” She said firmly.
“We are thieves. Best we get you back to your people sooner rather than later.”
“No. They aren’t my people.” She swallowed and braced herself. “I’m not an Attavine. My people… my mother, and my mother’s mother, were Atta-Sutith.” She took in his confused face. “It isn’t a family as such. It was always just the three of us. And then the two of us. Travellers. Helping where we could for a few bits of traded food and a safe place to stop”
“I know that much, lass. I heard you talking with Nem in the cave…”
“But you don’t know how I healed him. Without herbs, without balm. Just with… needing to. Needing to so much that my tears stopped the Ghostblight.”
The city-voln was silent, looking at her intently, breathing calmly now. “I’m just a common city-voln rogue, lass. I don’t know anything about that.” He moved as though to straighten her hair, her clothes, to brush away a leaf or two. He stopped himself. “But I do know that we need a scout. I do know that we need someone who knows their greenings and the territories. Someone who might not know the path, but might have an idea about how to walk it. Do you know anyone like that?”
“But I can’t walk, Pierson.”
“And Nem can’t talk. And I can’t… well, there’s little I can’t do.” He smiled at her. “But maybe I need some help sweet talking these sharp minded woods-voln into letting some dumb old city voln and a clumsy old mountain-voln stay on their land.”
“Well, I aint Hobbart, aint going to try and bed-” He stopped himself, frowning that he’d even started that insensitive flippant comment. “Your fate is your own, lass. What do you want to do?”
She thought about it, looking deep into his eyes, until it was like looking up at the night sky. Seeing the moon and the star-voln there as well.
“There’s someone I want to find. The boy. The Gyreblack boy.”