“Are you a ghost?”
She barely whispered the words.
For an hour, it’d felt like, she’d been watching the shadow dancer as it weaved its way about the boughs of the trees near her perch higher up on a steep bank. She’d come to a quick halt when she’d first spotted it, and she had dropped to her knee to watch the black tumbling curiousity. One moment it was like water tumbling. The next it was trying to make solid shapes in itself. Eris had seen it attempt to make a hand out of its black matter several times over, getting the length of the bones and the number of knuckles wrong time and time again. Sometimes the hand was scaled and sometimes as smooth as a river washed pebble. Once she’d seen the curved shape of a bow growing out from its too many fingered grasp. Woods-voln. Whatever it was now, once it’d been a woods-voln.
Lios made ghosts. Everyone knew that. Abandoned in his sight, the dead could return to haunt the lands and the people. Everyone knew that. It could be a woods-voln who’d lost faith in the god-king. That was unusual, but not impossible. The poor creature could have turned his face from Lios and had the god-king turn his everwatching eye from him in return. This black whisper trying to remember what a hand was and how a bow might fit in one could have been a woods-voln in beaten up old leather armour. Just like her.
That reminded her of the armour waiting for her back in the ever-growing camp. The elaborate sewing and the green dye. Orrin’s stupid damned gift. The one he’d had made for her before Jayk had left.
She shook her head to dismiss the last few weeks from memory, and looked back at the shape twisting about the trees. Its darkness was pierced through by the beams of the midday sun’s attempt to get through the trees’ canopy. It was seemingly in no rush to be elsewhere, and if it noticed her at all it gave no sign of it. It seemed wrapped up in its own making and un-making. Hardly the vengeful and tortured revenant she’d been expecting for one of Lios’s cursed ones.
Soon she’d have to think about moving on. The hunt had passed on long ago. Sarai and Callia had lead the charge into the woods and she’d been swept up into their enthusiasm for their first hunt since their birthings. She’d run alongside all the hunting party until something had drawn her away from the Atta to explore another path into the woods. The pack of hunters might come looking for her, come to protect their Atta-Sutith, their healer and leader. But her recent ‘growth spurt’ had gone some way to allay their protectiveness. Well… most of them.
Nemnir Mountain-Voln and Orrin Storyteller. The warrior and the priest. Nothing would stop them from their bloody mother hen clucking over her! Pierson might have been with them too, once. But with two new babies of his own to fret over, he’d left the giant and the silver-tongued storyteller to fuss on their own. Bothering her at all hours to see if she was well and happy.
They both had. Until Jayk had left suddenly. Since the boy had walked his own path out of the woods of the Atta Orrin had barely spoken to her. He blamed her for it obviously.
Oh, Orrin still acted as her ‘priest’; announcing her divinity to any new woods-voln who’d come to the camp, curious about the rumours in the last year and some more time of a new greening born of three others. He still stepped forward and proclaimed her as a new god, no matter how she grimaced and try to step back to disappear among the other Atta. But the times they’d talked together as friends seemed to have ended. Now he walked with Nemnir more than with her, the silver tongue and the new tongue finding words for each other when Orrin seemed not to have any for her any more.
Again she shook her head, but too much this time. The shadow dancer stilled. She felt it looking at her, even with no face.
“Are you a ghost?” She asked again, this time while putting the hilt of her dagger into her palm. But what good would metal be against a ghost?
Whispers on the wind distracted the shadow dancer, and Eris’ keen ears caught them as well. Not whispers. Crossed words through gentle mocking. Two men at odds about something, but good companions; too good to be seriously angry any way.
“It can’t possibly be pointing North you daft git.”
“It does. Stupid city-voln.”
“But if your mountain is more to the north of Emphon or Tralis the stone will point out the west of north or the east of north!”
“The stone knows its mountain”
“‘The stone knows its mountain’ I swear by the Atta-Sutith that if you say that one more time…” a frustrated sigh. “It can only be north if your mountain is dead to the north of where we are now. By the lady, we could be going round in circles!”
Nem and Orrin, Eris was certain. On one of their many long walks and talks no doubt, but now too far from camp and lost. What Nem was saying about a stone she didn’t really understand, but if their voices were getting clearer they were headed this way. Right to where the ghost was swirling around and around in the hollow, among the trees and the columns of sunlight. She stood and took a decisive step towards the poor creature, pulling her dagger out to shine in the light breaking through the leaves.
“Halt!” She commanded, hearing Nem and Orrin’s noises of surprise. Moments later they emerged from among the trees. Nem was holding his stone pendant up as though a talisman ahead of him, and Orrin was still wearing a look of frustration on his face. But that was dashed away as he took in the whispery creature ahead of him, and past it, to where Eris was standing with her weapon drawn.
The creature whipped its self into a swirling tornado of black tattered parts and moved towards the mountain-voln and the storyteller. Nem was reaching over his shoulder for his greatsword, but even if he’d gotten it free in time, Eris was unsure what he could have done to the liquid like spirit that was suddenly flowing around Orrin and swirled him into his depths. A shout died on the man’s mouth as he seemed to drown in the flowing darkness of the ghost, his long hair floating free from its leather thong and floating about his face and terrified eyes. The shadow dancer made a hand again, a perfectly shaped hand standing out from the rest of its tumbling storm. Eris felt a chill as she recognised the black lattice of it. The wyrdness of it.
Her left foot, her own regrown wyrd limb, was the first to move, the black lattice working just like an ankle as she sprang forward. The other normal foot kept up, and her now longer limbs brought her in a few heartbeats to where Orrin was drowning. But she was blocked by Nem, sword now ready, his mountain-voln body a physical wall between her and the man screaming silently in the shadow dancer.
“No!” Eris screamed for Orrin, battering Nem’s thick arm as he held her back. Her priest was looking at her wide and terrified eyes, his face in darkness as though he was now falling into the night and they were still in the day. “Let me pass!” She yelled at Nemnir, roaring up at his face, even now still a foot and some above her own. “I command it!”
She brought the palm of her hand up and slapped it hard against his face, the slender length of her arm shaking with the impact. His head didn’t move at all, he showed no pain, but he stepped aside.
Eris took a deep breath and leapt into the ghost.
Inside the creature was the night. Orrin was floating near her, but between them was the night, devoid of stars. There were other things inside with them. A pulsing heart. The corpse of a rabbit. A milky white eye ball. She reached out for Orrin and it was like swimming against a current, her hand pushed back by the waves and eddies of the creature’s movements around them and between them. Her chest started to ache. She looked to Orrin’s open mouth, and she opened her own.
What rushed in wasn’t water, nor was it shadow. It filled her lungs and kept her alive, but it was a wicked half-life of dizzying nearness to suffocation. It could take her life if it wished. It could take Orrin’s.
She closed her eyes and remembered the Atta. The pure poison she’d spat up from somewhere deep inside her when the rage at what had happened to the Attavine had claimed her. She opened her mouth wider and drew in the shadow dancer. And she breathed it out as poison. Atta.
“Atta” She mouthed silently, catching Orrin’s stone grey eyes with her own, “Atta”
Around her the darkness took a green tinge as the poison flowed from her. And the creature pulled itself from her. But it was too late, even as it drew back like the tide of the great sea Pierson had told her about. She and Orrin were left gasping and retching but the thing was greying and shrinking, falling to an ash that floated about the trees as the ghost had been, but now without intention.
She dragged herself to Orrin and looked the man over. Where his flesh showed from beneath his borrowed woods-voln leathers – his face and his hands – the skin was pink and raw, as though burnt by Brailia, the acidic nettlesthat were an ingredient in some greenings. Even as she watched his skin was beginning to crack and peel. His eyes tightened in pain as the air got to his skin.
Ignoring her own feelings of exhaustion, she took his face in both her hands and leant over him as she poured her healing into him. She didn’t need to cry these days to summon the Sutith from within her, but even so some rogue tears made their way along her nose and fell on the man’s face. As his skin cleared and returned to its more usual pale colour, the colour of a man who’d spent his life more in libraries and taverns than the woods, he smiled ruefully.
“Thank you for your blessing, my lady.” He whispered hoarsely.
She wanted to slap him, as she had Nem just moments before, for his silly flowery language, but she was too grateful that he’d finally spoken to her after his too long silence. He saw the relief on her face, and had the sense of mind to at least look a little guilty. He stumbled up, gently refusing her help and went to stand with Nem, making her worry that it’d been an all too brief return to his usual compliments and charms.
“We’re lost. Bloody glad we found you though. Where’s the rest of the hunt? Can’t believe Sarai and Callia would leave you on your own to deal with… with whatever that was?” He pushed at a pile of grey ash with his boot. Eris remembered the black lattice hand the creature had made as it had swallowed Orrin. A hand with a perfect number of fingers and knuckles. Perfect but wyrd. She rubbed unconsciously at the bone of her forearm. Sometimes they ached, even though she’d not worked on them since Jayk had left. He had realised what she’d been doing over the past year. The others might have done if they’d been watching her as closely as he apparently had been. All young people had growth spurts. But few were so long of limb as she’d become in the past year and a bit. He’d noticed. He’d noticed because he felt gratitude when she’d healed his scars. He’d noticed because… he’d wanted her after that. As men want women. And Eris had rejected him.
Since shaking her memories out of her head had brought her no help at all, she concentrated on Orrin’s questions.
“The hunt passed on. I was distracted. I think I knew that it was here. I don’t know… I think it might have been…” She swallowed the thought, ‘like me’ but Nemnir was looking at her keenly. He still didn’t speak often, even after she’d healed his tongue, and when he did it was usually with wise words.
“Eris. That thing… it weren’t anything like anything we’ve seen before.” She knew he meant her, “We should get back to the camp.”
“That is what we’ve been trying to do you great big lug.” Said Orrin, the harshness of his words softened by his charming smile. “And your little stone’s been no help!”
Nemnir shrugged and drew out his pendant again, holding up the plain grey stone. Eris noticed it wobble and pull slightly to one side. Towards the rest of its mountain?! He’d never brought it out to do that before!
“It knows where the rest of it is. To guide us home.” Nem said simply, leaving Eris to wonder if he’d started to bring the pendant out now because he wanted to return there.
“Well, its been no use in getting us to the camp.” Orrin said flippantly, “But at least we’ve got a woods-voln to aid us now.” He made an elaborate bow towards Eris.
He was trying too hard. Whatever had driven him to silence, Jayk’s departure or not, he was trying too hard to make up for it now. So… he can forgive me for spurning Jayk and him leaving the Atta because I’ve just saved his life?! Thoughts flashed through Eris’ mind, petty thoughts about giving Orrin the silent treatment now. But then she remembered the night she’d made the man her priest, giving him a ‘blessing’ of slight drunkenness to complete the ‘ceremony’ for the city-voln. She hid a small laugh. She’d never be a proper god like he thought she was, but she could at least make her priest happy. And he didn’t have a bad smile… even for a city-voln!
“Very well, I can get you two back to the camp. Just try to keep up!” She smiled and darted off between two trees, her leather boot clad foot and her black wyrd foot both working together to speed her through the twisting pathways that only a woods-voln’s eyes could make out. The two men crashed along behind her, Orrin outpacing Nemnir, and Eris felt her own smile growing on her face.