Ghosts’ Prey, Chapter Three, Part Four

Who heals the healer?

Verla had asked her, and Eris had not thought much of it. Now, walking alone through the woods to the north of the Atta camp and beyond the quarry, she found the dead woman’s words echoing evilly in her mind’s ear. Verla had sounded concerned, perhaps even proud of Eris bringing the voln together, but then what had come after that had wiped that all away. Hui Fives and his knife. Nem’s poisoning.

Verla was dead and Eris felt sicker and more wretched than she had when she’d been trying to make the right decisions in the speaking tent. Verla had spoken of bringing other woods-voln to join them, but underneath those words was a secret poison all of her own. She’d had absolutely no intention of telling the Diarnilys to come and join them if they wished. Her smiles had been false, her friendship falser.

“Who poisons the poisoner?” Eris spoke out-loud to herself. Only silence answered.

Eris was coming up to a ridge and she paused as she got to its edge, crouching down to rest as she took in the setting sun in the Western sky. Orange and pink fire blazed across the grey as she looked over the trees below and ahead. To her right were the great blue grey mountains of Nem’s birth. She was certain the end of the Attavine lands was either here or close by. She should turn back to return to camp. But her head was still fogged with the lies of Verla and with how she’d met her end. Eris couldn’t go back yet to Pierson’s reasonable words, Nem’s quiet reassurance, or Orrin’s praise. Even the thought of Sarai and Callia filling her arms with their children to distract her was too much. She didn’t deserve any of it. Not now.

She stepped onwards down the slope and walked casually in and out of the shadows; paying no mind to hiding. There would be other woods-voln here and she might soon find out who poisons the poisoner, but she was too numb to feel fear. Calling out the name of Atta-Sutith might have no meaning here for all she knew, but she didn’t care. She just walked.

Eventually she knew that she was being followed, and some small spark of self-preservation re-ignited. At least if they were following her she was not dead yet. And she was wearing her leathers and carrying her bow slung over her shoulder. She’d not be mistaken for a button man or a lost city-voln, at least. Her sharp eyes sought them out amid the trees and caught sight of what could be either the sun warming the trunks of trees or red auburn hair sitting in the dark between tree and undergrowth.

She meant to walk on in defiance of the eyes watching her, but she came to a clearing and found her feet stopping as a perfect view of the mountains rose above her through the canopy. Her mother had taken them to mountain-voln lands before, but it had been a long time since she’d paid any real attention to them. Woods-voln generally had little interest in them. Like the quarry, the mountains were considered barren, even if a few like her mother had spent the time getting to the mountain-voln terraces and seen the verdant life that the large people managed to grow there. The city-voln only bothered with the mountains long enough to bring the mountain-voln down from them for Lios’ army. Somewhere among the long ridge of stone Nem had a home that he’d left when the button men had decreed it. Bigger and stronger they might be, but Lios had tamed them hundreds of years before. Or so the stories told them.

She sensed the eyes pausing as she did. What were they making of the lone woods-voln staring up at the mountains they mostly ignored? Did they think she had nomad-fever? She was tall for her age… now at least. They might greet her as an adult and bring her into their camp. She might be needed to heal. Or… if their intentions were bad, she might have to bring forth poison to green her arrows.

Nothing happened, and she grew bored of silence.

“I am Eris Atta-Sutith.”

More silence, broken only by the normal sounds of the living forest. She nodded in acceptance and walked on.

A day and a night passed as she travelled through this new territory. Eris caught herself small beasts to roast at her campfire, trapping them with snares and breaking their necks quickly. She even caught more than she needed in case the eyes in the dark decided to join her at her fire. But they didn’t. More days passed and she found what she thought was the other side of the territory. A river flowed beneath the ever larger mountains growing ahead of her behind the trees. The eyes vanished after she found a narrow part to wade through, holding her pack and her bow and quiver above her head as the water swirled around her leathers and her through her wyrd foot.

Shivering on the other side she started another fire, not caring that she was now in a new territory and should have been on her guard. But no new eyes joined her aimless walk. A day or two into the new lands the game dried up, and even foraging for mushrooms and berries was becoming harder. She should return now, and re-join her people. But something kept her walking onwards. And she did not know what it was until she came across the dead camp.

Whatever had happened here had happened a long time ago. Perhaps even about the time the Attavine were stricken as well. From the contorted and pitted skeletons lying about the deserted tents and blackened fire pit Eris was certain that the pox had also been brought here by the button men. She nearly wept as she saw smaller skeletons lying with the adult sized ones. An entire greening was gone.

She searched through the remains of the camp, moving the remains as carefully as she could, and peering into the tents to look for clues. She kept hoping that she was wrong. But the more bones she found the more she was certain that the pox had been here. The dead were under blankets and embraced, forever comforting each other. In her search she eventually found arrows and bows stored in tents and on racks. Both were marked with sign for the Lastleaf greening. As soon as she tasted the greened arrow heads against her tongue she felt the tears released from within her. An entire greening gone to the pox.

“Bastard gods damn you.” She said, aiming her bile at Lios all the way in Liosinium and feeling it rising up in her throat as burning Atta. She blinked back the tears that smarted on her cheeks and remembered Verla’s words. That she was poison. That she would bring death to the woods-voln.

“No. No.

She concentrated. She’d touched the tip of her tongue to a Lastleaf greened arrow and she brought back the memory of the taste of it. Atta turned to a duller taste, a red-brown musky taste against the roof of her mouth, and she spat out Lastleaf, looking down at the dull green that dripped over the edge of the flat stones of the Lastleafs’ dead campfire.

It took her another day to move the bones. She did not have the strength to dig and bury them all in a pit, so she brought them together in a great pile, finishing the task when the moon was high and round among his admiring star-voln. For the Ireblade it might look like a bone cage. But without Lios to put inside, to punish, Eris thought it looked unfinished. Pointless. Still, she needed to bring the bones of the Lastleaf to rest. She counted thirty seven skeletons, adults and children alike. Thirty seven dead that Lios had to be held accountable for. When she set the fire around the base, she brought back Lastleaf to her mouth and hands to drip onto the soil about the pyre. She risked burning herself to get it unto the flames. They turned a duller red and wafts of choking smoke floated South and West. Towards Liosinium.

Another day passed with her sitting by the pyre, wrapped in a blanket she found in among the Lastleaf tents, staring at the last embers and ash. When it was finally done she buried what was left in the soil by the the trees.

That night she dreamt of the Gyreblack boy cutting her again. The button man was there, and the older woods-voln. But this time the boy was struggling to speak calming words through all the greening that was coming bubbling from his mouth and dripping down his chin. Dull green like Lastleaf. It tasted like it too as he pinned her down and kissed her before cutting her anyway.

Eris woke with a start the next morning, finding herself still among the dead camp and not at the bottom of a slope with blood gushing from her severed foot.  She rubbed at her stiff arms and legs; she’d slept outside of the tents which still smelt of death and rested instead on the one thin bedroll she’d found without a skeleton lying on it. It had not rained for days at least and a few nights out under the stars were hardly hardship. The lack of supplies or of anything to hunt or trap was a far greater concern. But another day passed and the hunger became a sharp leanness, and a fierce certainty fell upon her. All distractions fell away as hunger became fasting, and she now knew with dark clarity the path she would take to Liosinium.

It was another two days before she made it back from Lastleaf territory to the land of the watching eyes. By then the sharp edge of her will had dulled into a rambling stumbling as fasting had become starving. Water from the river had sustained her, but passing across it she had been so light as to almost be swept away by its current. On the other side, once she’d dragged herself weakly ashore, was better hunting. But even so she survived only on the few berries and nuts that her path to the South took her near, too weak to even set traps. The eyes were no help, remaining at a distance where she could only just make out their dark silhouettes. But Atta found her eventually; scouts who’d been ranging as far north as they dared in case the Atta-Sutith was still out there.

They brought her back to the camp and her own tent, but part of her floated free from her body, staying with the Lastleaf and the hidden eyes as though the path back to her people was endless. Water and a paste of ground acorns helped to re-tether her mind to her body and this place, but it also awakened the taste of Lastleaf in her mouth and the memory of flames turned dark. Ash and bone. The small skeletons.

Sarai was helping her to eat when she asked Sarai to call for Pierson, Nem, Orrin, and Rog. Woods-voln, city-voln, mountain-voln, priest, and street-voln. They waited outside as Sarai helped her to walk. Again, so soono after her wounding, she was weak and needing help. But by the time she reached the others waiting in a loose group she found the strength to stand tall.

So far she had led them gently, and they’d let her. But there were bones turned to ash she could never forget. Now she commanded.

“We will kill Lios.”

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