Ghosts’ Prey, Chapter Three, Part Two

The Ireblade had already begun to build a bone cage. The Attavine had wanted there to be a trial by combat, which was just ridiculous for a woman of Verla’s age. Sarai and Callia, being Diarnilys like Verla, preferred a straight forward hanging as that was their way. The city-voln lads wanted to chase her through the woods as they had done Hui. Showing that the woods were working their ways on the boys as much as they were learning the woods’ ways.

Eris held her own tongue and decision until she could speak with the woman. She was also holding in her anger, an anger that would quite easily see Verla Diarnilys strung up, or caged, or hunted… but she needed to speak with the woman first to see what had driven her to this madness.

She walked with Pierson and a woods-voln guard of five from the camp to a barren ground to the East. Something very terrible had happened to the land here a very long time ago; a deep and terraced hole was all that was left after something had ripped out whatever woods had once been there and exposed flat edges of cold hard rock below them. The Ireblade had told the other Atta of this place, and Eris could see more bone cages dotted about the terraces in the distance. Many were old and half fallen down. She had never heard of this form of punishment before, but it made sense to her as a woods-voln. The bone cages were made out of stinking and wretched bones from many hunts that had rotting lumps of animal flesh and sinew still about them. They were then stacked and bound with more sinew to form a cage through which the one to be punished could see but not escape. Bone floors also prevented the prisoner’s feet from even touching the ground. But here in the stony barrens that barely mattered. The Ireblade were being extremely thorough.

Eventually, surrounded by the stinking and impure bones, the prisoner would die. And they would be as far away from the trees and deep dark soil they should end their time among as if they’d died in a stone walled city.

Pierson nodded as he saw the construction of the new bone cage; the Ireblade were working quickly and quietly together to get the lengths of deer and bear bone tightly tied up. Their hunters had a store of long and large bones kept far from their camps. As though they always expected the need of a bone cage at some point.

While they had walked through the woods towards the barren land, which Pierson had called a ‘quarry’, she’d looked him over carefully out of the corner of her eye. Were there more lines about his eyes, more grey in his hair? His mood had been greatly lightened by Nemnir’s healing and the two men had spent near an hour together in Nem’s tent talking and laughing while Eris had sat nearby and carefully watched the other Atta. Verla’s betrayal, even though few knew her well apart from Callia and Sarai, had disturbed many of the woods-voln, and there were concerned whispers flowing through the camp. Eris looked to the well-being of the whole camp, even as the Atta busied themselves in bringing her drinks and food. Especially Orrin. Thankfully, Pierson looked in better spirits when he’d re-emerged from Nem’s tent. But there was still that shadow of anger and disappointment in him as there was in the other Atta.

“What do you think we should do with her?” She’d asked him quietly.

Pierson had sighed, rubbing his hand through his hair. “She’s guilty.”

“I didn’t ask that.”

“It makes a difference to the answer.”

“Was there doubt?”

“None. She was with Hui and Nem when he escaped. When Nem collapsed. She’s not denied it.”

“She’s not crowing about it either?”

“She’s been mostly silent. If she has something to say she’s not sharing it with us. Or she’s saving it for you.” The older man had sighed again. “Why didn’t we see this coming?”

“Verla’s always been… well, she’s not approved of you or Nem. But with me, she seemed to be more…”

“Encouraging.”

“Yes. She was grateful when I helped with the birthing of her granddaughter.”

“Perhaps something changed?”

“She made jokes about me leading a greening of my own one day.”

“Jokes can hide many less… pleasant thoughts.”

“You think she was angry about the joining of the Atta.” Eris had looked deep into the woods then, staring into green shadows as she had tried to fathom the woman’s motives. “Maybe. Sarai and Callia were Diarnilys until they left with us. The Ireblade killed Attavine, and I drew the survivors into a new greening. I don’t know of a time when that’s happened before. But I’m an Atta-Sutith. I never grew up with a whole greening of woods-voln. There was always just me, my mother, and my mother’s mother. Perhaps there’s something I don’t understand about Verla because of that.”

And now, as the two of them walked towards Verla with their own guard of Atta greeting the woods-voln standing about her in a circle, she thought she would find out.

But Verla was silent. They’d not hurt her, but she’d been pushed here and her hair was loose in places from its usual tight braids. A stern face stared at the stony ground, surrounded by wisps of hair. Eris walked right up to her, ignoring the concerns of all the guards.

“Verla Diarnilys”

She did not reply. There was a firm set to her thin mouth.

“The Ireblade would seal you up in a bone cage. The Diarnilys would hang you. The lads want to hunt you. Pierson would likely shoot you with a roarer if I said he might.” She heard Pierson shifting on his feet behind her, no doubt with a hand on his roarer inside his long coat.

“And you, Eris Atta-Sutith, what would you have happen now?” But it wasn’t Verla who spoke. It was an Ireblade woman who stood on guard around the Diarnilys, her bow ready in her hand and aimed at the old woman’s heart, Atta from Eris herself greening the arrowhead.

“I would have… I would have had none of this to have happened in the first place.” She replied truthfully, her heart full of sadness. “What did I do that you would send a mad man after me, Verla?” Eris asked quietly.

Verla said nothing but raised her green eyes to meet hers. She tried again. “I helped to birth your grand-daughter. You even thought that some ancestor of mine had had a hand in your own birth. I am an Atta-Sutith. A healer.”

“You are Atta. Poison.”

Finally, words. Even if they were as full of poison and bile as the Atta itself. “True. I heal and harm. I have never pretended otherwise.”

“No, you are the poison in the woods!” Verla’s eyes were crazed, and for a moment Eris wondered if somehow the mad man Lios had sent on the roads had been infectious, like the pox he’d released among the Ireblade by the hand of his button men. And Verla continued, her words released like arrows to try and hurt Eris. “You are doom to the woods-voln. Your name will be a curse on the lips of the few that are not destroyed because of your pride. You are worse than him!

“Worse than Lios?” Pierson laughed a little behind her. “The god-king is a mass murderer, a mad man…”

“No! Not the god-king. The Gyreblack!”

Eris’ mind recalled the Gyreblack boy. Apart from hearing of how the boy had been ordered to take her foot, did Verla really know much else about him? Enough to hate him like this? She must have looked confused.

“Wretched child!” Verla spat, and the readied bows were pulled tauter about her. “Not the false Gyreblack. The bandit king! Kur Gyreblack!”

A few of the woods-voln sniggered and Verla cast foul looks at them. “Oh yes, just a story now. But he was a man once.”

Pierson stepped forward. “And Gyreblack was the greening without sign. Do you know of it?”

“Your ambitions are pitiful city-voln. Easily distracted by attractive widows and squalling brats.”

Pierson’s hand under his coat moved as he fought the urge to draw his roarer. Eris looked back at him with concern before turning back to Verla. “You think that I am worse than Kur Gyreblack? The bandit-king? Thievery from the city-voln on the road has never bothered the woods-voln greatly-”

Verla laughed. “I was just a small girl when I first heard the tale at my grandmother’s knee. And she had heard it from her’s. it no surprise you are ignorant. None of these dumb ‘Atta’ who follow you like dogs know either!”

“I know that no one makes Gyreblack anymore. That greening died out. So, tell me, Verla Diarnilys, how am I worse than some legendary bandit-king whose stories are even too romantic even for Orrin Storyteller to find them of interest? Am I a terrible bandit as well as poison?!”

“You have heard the words but you have never listened. How many kings are there little Atta-Sutith?” Verla sounded smug.

Eris remembered Redril’s words. Bandit and king. And Redril had said that his father thought that it was right and proper that Kur had died. He used to say that kings should die. She heard Redril’s voice in her head. So, it was as Pierson thought. Verla had been angry about the joining of the different greenings and the city- and mountain-voln in their party.

“You think like Redril’s father. Like Hui Fives did after Lios broke his mind. You think the voln should not mix.”

“It is not our way! You cannot mix the greenings! Add poison to poison and all you get is a greater poison! It will leak from the woods and destroy our entire world! You think the few raids the button men run are bad? You think losing a few husbands or half a greening to the pox is bad? Lios will bring his wars to our woods! When Kur Gyreblack tried to unite the voln the punishment from Lios was so great that entire greenings were wiped from the woods!”

Eris looked closely at Verla. “Including one you descend from?”

Verla smiled and it was not a pleasant sight. “There might be some good thinking in you after all. Yes, some ways back an ancestor of mine came to live with the Diarnilys. Or so I was told.”

“So you’re a Gyreblack.”

“Perhaps. Perhaps my ancestor was of one of the other greenings he doomed. All I know, all I was told, is that it can never happen again. There can never be another Gyreblack.”

Eris took a deep breath. The story of Kur Gyreblack must have come from her mother’s lips at some time. She knew the bare bones of it. At least the way it was told now. A bandit who was hanged from a tree at the centre of a city. Hanging from a hemp rope on one of the few trees that could grow amongst all of that broken stone. He stole from city-voln and he was killed. It wasn’t much of a story, especially when you stripped out all of the flowery nonsense about a beautiful woods-voln love.

“I am an Atta-Sutith, not a Gyreblack.”

“The name doesn’t matter. You would bring voln to voln, and that cannot happen.”

Eris felt Pierson tense behind her, and she knew he could tell what was coming next.

“We cannot allow the birthing of bastard blood. Aye, like your brats Pierson City-Voln. I would have sent Hui after them, but killing Eris would make it all stop.”

The roarer was against her temple before Eris or the guards could react. A heartbeat later and she saw a few of the bows dip as the woods-voln accepted Pierson as the one who would make the final judgement on Verla DIarnilys.

“No.” Said Eris flatly. “Verla. I take it that you confess?”

“I confess that I was doing my duty to my family. To my greening. To the woods.”

Eris nodded. “Pierson. Come with me.”

He reluctantly took his roarer from her head. There was a red round shape on her flesh matching the part of the barrel that had been pressed hard against her skull. But he walked with her.

Eris sat down on a rock fallen from the unnatural walls of the ‘quarry’. To her left was Verla surrounded by Ireblade and Attavine. And to her right was the bone cage.

“It would be justice.” Pierson said, also looking at the bone cage. “Slow. But justice.”

Eris took deep breaths. I lead softly, she thought. I let them make decisions and I approve them. I am no king. I am not a Gyreblack.

The word still brought back painful memories, and as she sat on the rock thinking she flexed her wyrd foot. Where was the Gyreblack boy now? she wondered. Perhaps he had Gyreblack blood after all, if it could turn up in a Diarnilys. Or was Verla not a Gyreblack, but of some other long lost greening that no one now knew the name of? The boy’s sharp face came back to her, the way he’d been happy to talk to her before it’d all changed. Before he’d decided he’d… The pain was in her mind again and she shook her head to send it away.

“You have to make a decision.”

“Me? I’m just a wandering healer, Pierson. Making judgements sounds like the work of a king. Send for Lios. Let him decide.”

“He’d release her and forgive her sins.” Pierson laughed darkly. He sat by her on the rock.

“You were a button man, Pierson. You know how to give orders. You decide.”

“Aye, I sent men to their death in the war. Because someone else told me I ought to. The only time I made a damned decision on my own… well. Nem lost his tongue.”

“But you’d kill her?”

“Do you think if you don’t she’ll stop? I aint woods-voln. But I’ve heard the camp speaking of her. She did something very bad by poisoning Nem. Greened arrows flying in battle is honourable. Even letting arrows loose at some pig-stupid city-voln who march through your woods is right and as it should be. But slipping poison into a cup… she’s done something unforgivable for your people. And why would she not do it again, given the chance?

“She would be dying at my hand. I’ve never…”

“Sorry lass, but your Atta on the Attavine arrows killed the Ireblade. Your own arrows helped take down button men. You have already killed. You heal and harm.”

“Now you sound like Orrin.”

“And if you’d let him come with you, he’d be saying the same thing now.”

She looked from him to three woods-voln that she saw were walking quickly towards them. Eris stood, feeling for a moment the same unevenness as her wyrd foot moved differently on the rock as she put her weight on it. They were not from her guard, nor from Verla’s. They were scouts.

“Atta-Sutith.” They were out of breath. The one who spoke she saw now was not a woods-voln but one of the street-voln, Rog. “We seen another one. Not far from here. Sent word to the camp too, but we think its heading more this way.”

“A shadow dancer? A ghost?”

“Yeah. We thought about using our Atta greened arrows… since you said-”

“Spread the word. I don’t want anyone to take on the ghosts. I poured Atta into the first one, your arrows might not be enough.” She thought for a moment, and then turned to Pierson. “Get Verla’s guard and ours back to the camp.”

“What are you doing?”

“Maybe we can have Lios judge her. Rog, tell the Ireblade to finish the bone cage quickly, and to put her in it.” He ran over to where it was being built.

“You can’t mean to…”

“Hui said that the ghosts are here because we are being judged for our sins. If Verla is right, then the ghost will not harm her. If trying to murder me is worse than mixing the volns then she will die.”

“And you? You’re staying aren’t you!”

“There should be a witness. And the first shadow dancer could not hurt me.”

“You cannot kill her yourself so you’re leaving the decision to a Lios-cursed ghost?!”

“No. This is still a judgement. I am still making a choice about her life.”

“Perhaps you are a mad king after all!” Pierson smiled darkly. “I could still do it quickly with the roarer-”

“Go Pierson. Go.”

She started to walk towards the bone cage as the Ireblade lashed the last bones on. Verla was walked over to it, her hands were bound but her steps were her own.

“So, I am to rot with no chance of my body going back to the woods. This is the Ireblade way I hear. A hanging would be more merciful. And do you still believe that you are not poison to these lands?”

Verla was directed inside, and the last bones were lashed together. Eris told the last of the woods-voln to scatter, to return to the camp or somewhere safe. Then she sat crossed legged before Verla in the cage.

“We shall see Verla Diarnilys. We shall see.”

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