Her face was far sterner later that day when the speaking tent was full with Atta, sitting knee to knee on the logs that Nemnir and the larger of the woods-voln had heaved in for gatherings just like this one. To her right was Pierson, taking a rare moment of joyful play with one of his children before yet another Atta took the babe away to feed or to change. Family among the Atta, and among the Attavine, Diarnilys and Ireblade who’d come before them, was a shared activity, and the city-voln had taken some time to adjust to the greening’s amiable sharing of his children. But, as he ‘d admitted to Eris not long after their birth had left him shell-shocked and deeply in love, his only experience of fathering before had been a tall figure that’d summoned him to his study for the first time only when he was five, and then frankly had found him wanting. His two girls, Faeli and Nieris, were his heart, and Eris wondered at the transformation of the rogue into the loving father.
To her left was Nemnir, her rock. He also took some occasional moments to dandle the four month old girls on his knee and make faces to entertain them as they were passed about. Sarai and Callia were to the other side of Pierson and she watched them whispering conspiratorially. The rumour was a few woods-voln ladies had set their cap at Nem, and Sarai and Callia were encouraging it after seeing him with Faeli and Nieris. A frown creased Eris’ forehead. There were far more important things at hand than the making of more babies!
Even so, she looked down to where Redril’s young daughters, six year old Maris and four year old Redri, were sat crossed legged in front of her, their red hair dark in front of the fire at the centre of the talking tent. They sat with straight backs and serious faces, Maris occasionally pinching Redri when she looked distracted. And beyond through the dulled flames them was Verla Diarnilys, the aged woman watching Eris almost as intently as she was watching the other woods-voln in the circle. She’d come to them a month or so back, walking alone through the woods as though afraid of no greening. She’d come to hear about the Atta, to see Eris as leader of her own greening born from Redril’s Attavine, the traitorous Ireblade, a jumble of city-voln boys and men, and the two Diarnilys women who loved a city-voln. What she thought of it all, Eris still didn’t know. For the Diarnilys age brought leadership. For the Attavine and Ireblade it had been blood. And Eris had neither. She sat in a seat she still said she was keeping for Maris and Redri, for when they came of age, and yet… and yet, she led.
The tent quietened. Even Orrin, sitting nearby Verla, stilled his tongue, turning his stone grey eyes to her as a hundred or more green ones also looked at her. Attavine, Ireblade, Diarnilys. And a near dozen city-voln lads as well. More eyes. She swallowed and stepped forward.
“There are ghosts in the woods.”
Chattering started, but Nem dropped the tip of his greatsword onto a hunk of flint stone in front of him and the clang stilled them. She shifted in her battered leathers, taking her weight from her wyrd foot as she remembered the creature. The black wyrd lattice hand…
“Today Orrin Storyteller was attacked by one. A dancing shadow among the trees. There may be others, we don’t know.” She was tempted to allow Orrin to tell the tale, but the hour was late already. No doubt he’d regaled it to a few woods-voln already, either elaborately singing his new god’s praises, or telling them how he’d bravely leapt towards it to fight it on her behalf. Eris frowned, it was hardly fair of her to think of him like that. He was a good man, if fond of tall tales. She concentrated, “We shall double perimeter patrols. Any sign of a shadow dancer I want to know of it. Raise alarm loud and clear. Come and fetch me. Atta greened blades may hurt them, but there is a certain way…” She remembered the feeling of drowning, but pushed aside the panic.
Both Pierson and Nemnir made sounds of disagreement by her. It seemed that that part of the story had been shared by Orrin at least. And he was standing too, disturbing the woman by him who’d been leaning closer and closer to him while they sat in the circle.
“It’s too dangerous!” Orrin shouted.
Nemnir muttered agreement.
“It’s weakness seemed to be the Atta greening. We don’t know if the Atta we can make from a plant source will have the same effect. I won’t risk woods-voln against the creatures when I know I can kill them.”
“Perhaps there was only one of them. Perhaps there will only be one of them.” Maris spoke quietly. As the older of Redril’s two daughters she remembered the duty of her father to provide wisdom and tried in her own small way to do the same.
“I hope you are right.” Eris looked about the circle, catching Orrin and Pierson’s eyes in particular. “City-voln, the stories of those Lios cursed… did they ever say how often it happens? How many there are?”
Pierson looked to Orrin. Both had been priests of Lios, the god-king, albeit reluctant ones. Pierson had been the second son of a fine house of Liosinium, and when his older brother had died his father had commanded him from the temple to the battlefield to regain his family’s honour. Neither had been a great love of his. Orrin had found a secret of Lios in the temple in Bara and lost his faith… finding it again with the bastard gods worshipped by a few city-voln, and then with Eris who he saw as some kind of a bastard god in the flesh.
“If the priests tell true, anyone can be cursed by Lios. And almost all will say they knew someone who knew someone who was. Lios turned his gaze from them, and when they died they returned to haunt the lands. In theory…” Orrin began.
“There could be thousands.” Pierson finished for him.
Eris nodded. “We have to be as prepared as we can. Verla Diarnilys, have you heard of ghosts in the woods before?”
Verla looked up from where she had been gazing into the flames. How come she was still here when she had a greening of her own and young grandchildren? Is she judging me? I never wanted this anyway, thought Eris. She remembered the green dyed leathers Orrin had made for her. Fine leathers for a leader. But she’d never worn them. She’d not even tried them on.
“I am old Eris Atta-Sutith. And I recall nothing of Lios’ ghosts in the woods. I’ve heard the tales of course. Heard the priests squeal about our doom while we gutted them on the king’s road. But no… there’s never been a ghost in the woods before.”
Eris thought about the bow the shadow dancer had been trying to make along with it hand. It had been a woods-voln once, she was certain of it. Even as a ghost it remembered something of that past.
“We will be as keen eyed as we can be, and watch for them.” It wasn’t much in the way of a command as it went, but the many Atta around the fire nodded in agreement. As far as she knew no one had complaint about her leadership. Really, all she did was make a few nudges towards the things the woods-voln would have been doing anyway. There was no point in commanding a hunt when the hunters knew there were empty bellies. There was no point in commanding that they move the camp when the tents were already struck and ready. She led gently and they let her. But if there was danger coming there might be need of a stronger hand. Verla Diarnilys had laughed when Eris had suggested that she might lead an army against Lios; when she’d talked of ‘shadowing the sky with her own poison greened arrows as her people took him out’. But if the Atta were to continue there would be fighting. Lios would not stand for a collaboration between the woods-voln greenings. Not when he could wipe them out as he’d tried with the Attavine through the Ireblade and a pox.
“Eris Atta-Sutith?” It was a quiet voice, unused to sounding out in the speaking tent. Eris looked about the circle of woods-voln and found a young man with strong red hair and bright green eyes. Of course, he was not the Gyreblack boy. But still… for a moment… she thought… no, they were nothing alike! The Gyreblack boy had a sly way about him, a sneakiness that lived up to the city-volns’ normal thinking about the woods-voln. This young man had the sharpness of the woods-voln of course, but it was natural born intelligence, not deceit. She searched her memory for his name, and had Pierson whisper it to her, ever her advisor. “Ryl.”
“Ryl. Speak, thank you.”
“There are other things in the woods. Passing through maybe, on the king’s road.”
Eris smiled. “Many things pass on the king’s road. Or if Pierson has his way, they stop for a short while and hand over their goods and belongings.”
“Aye, and long before our friendly city-voln came to show us how to steal from fat traders and wealthy merchants we woods-voln knew how to skin the road.” There was a mocking tone in his voice and Eris was annoyed at herself for making out the city-voln had been the only rogue about the roads. The woods-voln had picked off merchants since the dawn of time!
“True. Tell me what passes on the king’s road that makes you speak, Ryl?”
He nodded, “At first I thought them to be priests. They have gold a plenty in their clothes and in their carriages. But… I saw one, out of his carriage. Like a snail out of his shell. It was a pitiful creature. Aye, dressed in gold cloth. But priests they are pompous bags of Lios love and gas. This was a broken minded thing. A cart carrying cider, driven by a father and a daughter, no one we would have bothered our arrows with, had broken an axle on the road. The golden carriage stops. A mad man comes out. He’s crazy haired and wild eyed. City-voln, aye, but none like I’ve seen before. Thin and screeching nonsense at the father and daughter. He soon went on his way, button men escorting him onwards to Tralis. But the father and daughter were shaken. She was crying.”
The young man sat down, taking a friendly cuff on the shoulder from Orrin. He’d none of the storyteller’s grand style, but Orrin seemingly respected the attempt.
“Mad men on the road. Should we worry?”
Ryl stood again. “I meant to be clear, there’s been others. I seen three. Geril saw another three.”
“All on the road between Bara and Tralis?”
“Lios could be restocking temples with new priests.” Suggested Pierson. “Sending them on the roads from Liosinium if the temples in the cities aren’t making enough of their own. We know of at least one or two priests and priests in training from the cities who found their paths brought them to the woods instead of endlessly bruised knees from praying.” He smiled at his reference to himself and Orrin.
“True.” The other former priest agreed. “But doesn’t something about this feel different? Six in how many months?” Orrin asked Ryl.
“Six in three weeks.”
Orrin paused. “That is unusual.”
Eris nodded. “We need to stop one. If Lios is up to something its best to know as soon as possible. But we should play it as a robbery. That’s your game, Pierson. No damage to the ‘snail’, but find out where his path is meant to be taking him.”
Pierson nodded, and again Eris was relieved that her orders were already on the tip of the tongues of those she commanded. Even so, she felt tired at being the centre of attention. Maris and Redri were equally flagging, failing to keep their stiff backs and serious faces. The babes had been taken away for sleep a while back and no doubt the family bed was calling Pierson, Sarai and Callia as well. Others among the many woods-voln about the circle were stretching their muscles, or even yawning.
“If there are no other issues?” She took her seat again, and around the room the woods-voln relaxed, bringing out skins of strawberry scented Haggron to share. She saw the woman next to Orrin casually loop her leg over his thigh and Eris recognised her as an Attavine that she’d seen talking with him before. Eris stood and made her way to the pulled-up flaps of the speaking tent. The stars that shone over the fire in the middle of it were clearer once she’d escaped the smokiness inside. She wanted clearness. She needed to think. About shadow dancers and snails. About Lios’s thoughts and the future of a greening she never thought she’d be a part of.
“Its heavy isn’t it?”
It was Verla, the old woman by her side as Eris stood under the stars.
“Being the leader. Thinking about everything.”
“I wasn’t born to it. I’m not old either.”
“Pft.” Verla mocked. “You’re something new and that isn’t bad.”
“So you approve. Will you leave now?”
“Yes. And I will return. With Diarnilys who’ve been the bane of my life since you camped with us.”
Eris must have looked confused.
“An Atta-Sutith walks through the camp and you don’t think a few heads will be turned. I made them promise to stay until I’d checked you out for myself.”
“My mother was an Atta-Sutith. She never got followers. Sometimes a meal, sometimes a softer bed for the night… sometimes a cold welcome and a dagger drawn at her.”
“There’s healing and there’s healing.” Verla looked back into the tent. “What you’ve done for the Attavine, for the Ireblade, for those city-voln boys, and yes, even for my own two wayward Diarnilys… what you’ve done there is more than mending bones and birthing babes.”
Eris remembered the birth of Faeli and Nieris. Sarai had been first to enter the birthing tent, and Callia had begged her for something to bring her own babe along. Now. Now, she’d begged. At first Eris hadn’t understood, but she’d placed her hands about the woman’s huge belly anyway and urged the child to come, calling on her healing to make it happen. And only when they’d been close to the birthing had Sarai and Callia finally admitted what they’d really wanted; for Eris to bring the babes into the world and not to tell them whose was whose. “We’re family” they’d said, all too simply. So Faeli and Nieris had been born with two mothers a piece, and no one knew whose blood was whose. But with their dark grey hair it was clear that Pierson, the city-voln was their father. There was healing, and there was healing. The old woman was right.
Verla shook herself slightly. “Old bones don’t like the cold, so I’ll be off for my bedroll. But think on this Eris Atta-Sutith. Who heals the healer?”
She disappeared into the darkness, a white haired figure already bundled in a blanket.