Siall Rexakyde led the small hunting party of six towards the East from his greening’s camp, his long stride taking them quickly through the trees of his territory towards its outskirts. Eris forced herself to keep pace with the older man, unwilling to be shown up by him, or even her own two hunters. Sarai and Callia would have happily adjusted their pace for her on any other hunt, but the two women of the Atta knew the importance of showing the Rexakyde that she was as capable as him in the woods of his people. The two hunters he’d brought were a broad woods-voln man wearing a row of golden buttons strung on a stolen gold chain about his neck who had no problem running with his leader. And the prophetess, Aril.
Aril was slower than the other Rexakyde, which was some small mercy. She also stumbled occasionally over roots and holes in the soil of the woods as well, suggesting that her story of leaving Bara, and a life as a whore there, might well be true. Eris had wanted to speak with the woman since their first meeting, but she’d been a shadow in the camp of the Rexakyde; spotted out of the corner of Eris’ eye occasionally, but gone just as quickly. And after all her grand words about wanting to come and meet her at this time and in this place! It was frustrating, but Siall’s suggestion of a hunt in the company of a few hunters of her choosing had given her a chance to get her nearly all alone. Her choice of Sarai and Callia had ruffled feathers amongst her own companions, but she thought her conversation with Siall would go better if he was not casting dagger eyes at the city or street-voln. Orrin and Pierson had been hard to convince of that, of course. And now she was running at a pace that drove air and words out of her even when she could get closer to Aril!
Finally, as the sun was beginning to set, Siall slowed the pace and drank deeply from his own waterskin. The other two Rexakyde followed suit and Eris nodded to Callia and Sarai to do the same. Normally they would have done what they pleased, but she’d seen how the Rexakyde were much more reserved than some of the woods-voln she’d encountered since her journey had begun. They looked to Siall for authority in a way that had surprised when she’d first seen it, but which she’d encouraged her people to imitate while they were with them.
Other greenings had leaders, or councils of leaders… and she was a leader now too, she supposed. But the Rexakyde had very little of the usual enthusiasm and independence of woods-voln. Instead they waited more for orders and direction. Conversations with Siall had given her the impression that he had decided that with so many struck down by the pox a year or so back the greening had to become more reserved, more controlled, to continue. Certainly, the few scarred children she saw about the camp had been hard at work on skins and making arrowheads, but silent and serious in a way that could have been either lingering sadness over the deaths in the camp, or the result of Siall’s change. She had healed their skin as she had done Jayk’s, but the rest was not in her power to fix.
She came to stand by him, nodding to his male hunter, Hunne. “What game do you think we will find?” She said it only to make conversation, and it felt like an awkward question.
Hunne smiled darkly, confusing her, but then Aril walked closer at her words and Eris was distracted by the appearance of her for a moment. The painfully thin woman still carried her long staff of wood, but the pale dusting of white over her face, and in her hair, was lighter than it had been the first time they’d met. Her eyes seemed clearer too, her mind more focussed.
“At the borders of these woods with the farmlands outside of Tralis there is some very fine game.” Siall said in his low, deep, voice. “You’ve hunted on the king’s roads before, haven’t you? I think your city-voln have spoken of it, when the hour was late and they’d shared in our drink…?”
“We’ve hunted the roads before. So, is that where we are headed?”
“Does that concern you?” He smiled again.
“I’ve killed city-voln when I’ve had to, if that’s what you mean? And we’ve taken coin from fat and slow priests, and shot Button men from their horses’ backs.” She was defiant. “If that’s the hunt today, then I’m sure my hunters are more than capable.” Sarai and Callia glared at Siall, and Hunne who’d started smirking too. They’d wanted to make allies of the Rexakyde, but they’d not allow Siall to mock them.
“Aril tells me that something will be decided today when we hunt together. I imagine that it is whether we will join with your greening and follow your cause.”
Eris looked about the woods we’re they’d stopped. Not much marked them as different to the home of the Lastleaf where she’d set fire to a pyre. The same shaped trees, the same small movements of animals in the undergrowth, the same undulating ground underneath their running feet. What had happened there had so nearly happened to the Rexakyde. They had reason enough to hate Lios. But was it reason enough to join their greening to hers? To join Siall’s greening to hers?
“Aril sees what hasn’t happened yet. Can’t she just tell you what is going to be decided?”
Aril smiled but it was an awkward shape on her face and it died quickly. “I see some things; other things are unknown. Only the bastard gods see everything.”
Eris hoped that Orrin would have a chance to discuss the bastard gods with Aril, if he hadn’t already. She might be tottering just on the edge of the real world, and maybe sanity too, but she at least seemed to have the connection and knowledge he’d always wished for. Maybe he’d have argued that walking the woods with his ‘lady’ was a stronger connection than Aril claimed… but Eris didn’t see it like that. She wasn’t exactly what he thought she was. But perhaps she needed to claim to be.
“Shall I tell you what I see, Aril Prophetess?”
Aril smiled wryly and gestured for her to continue.
“I see a time coming when the deaths of woods-voln, their blood and bones feeding the trees only because some Button man made it so, will make the woods themselves rise up and strike down Lios.”
“Do you say that as a new bastard god, Eris Atta-Sutith?” Aril asked.
“Why not smother your face and find out?”
Sarai and Callia were smothering laughter themselves, while a dark cloud passed over the faces of the other two Rexakyde. But Aril was looking at her with searching green eyes.
“When I first came to Bara the only place that would welcome me was the tavern called the Light of Lios. I think you’ve heard of it, since you travel with one of its old patrons. Your boyish-priest who tells tales to woo women into his bed? Well, back then I was a woods-voln among city-voln believers who thought I walked with the bastard gods and knew their ways better than they could. But still… even there I met plenty who’d claim to have heard the bastard gods’ will themselves. Jerekyn claimed it, way back when he was a slightly less old man but no less of a villain. He claimed that it meant that he should lead his firm, because in the future the gods would return and need him. And being the leader of his firm meant putting a young woods-voln to work on the streets.” She paused, quickly pushed down old memories, and continued. “But it was only when I died and then descended into the dark of the ossuary to choose a bone to white my face with that I finally heard them. Really heard them. And they told me your name, Eris Atta-Sutith. You are lying about what you see. It is just your hope, not prophecy from them.”
She reached out for Eris’ hair, curling the end of a braid around her palm. Eris allowed her strange touch, still thinking through some of the things the woman had claimed. Some of it made no sense to her, the parts about an ‘ossuary’ and dying… but if her claims made Siall consider joining with them it was necessary.
“You have dark hair. Unusual for a woods-voln. I’ve only known one other dark haired woods-voln.” Aril said thoughtfully.
“Of a kind. He says that prophecy is mother’s milk stories for the feeble minded. But even he is changing his mind on that score. Are we feeble minded to consider your prophecy of an uprising as a truth?”
Eris remembered the dark-haired woods-voln man who’d been in Bara with the Gyreblack boy, but she decided that she had to concentrate on her goal here; getting Siall and the Rexakyde as a allies. “You’ve seen me heal the Rexakyde of their pox scars. You’ve seen my wyrd foot and heard of the others I have healed-” She tried to make a case for her divinity, hating herself for working herself into this position. Orrin could have done it; sung of her glory and her powers. She felt like a fool.
“Aye.” Siall nodded, but he was dismissive. “Healing. Healing won’t rid us of Lios.”
“I made you Lastleaf. I have made Atta.”
“A bastard god could heal and harm, true. A bastard god could also destroy our enemies.” Siall gestured towards the east. “Tralis lies that way. Before you get there the land has been changed. The woods were stolen and the earth shaped into rows for planting…”
A dark suspicion began to dawn on her and she interrupted him. “You want to hunt farm-voln?” Pierson’s firm had never prayed on farm-voln traders. For one they never had much. But it had never felt right either.
“The bastard gods told me a decision would be made here…” Aril noted again. “Perhaps this is the decision. And whether the Rexakyde join with you is less of a decision and more of an outcome of your own choice.”
Eris looked to Sarai and Callia. The two women were glaring at the prophetess. They’d left behind their daughters to come with the vanguard to find the Rexakyde. They’d left Pierson behind to come on this ‘hunt’. Eris was embarrassed that she asked so much to get so little; just more crazy from Aril and more commands from Siall.
“I will face your enemies. But this is not a hunt, and I do not need my hunters, or yours.”
Callia spoke up first, talking over Sarai. “We won’t let you go into farm-voln lands alone!”
“This is my decision. Call it prophesised or not. I choose to go alone.”
“You want us to go back and tell Pierson we left your side?!” Sarai said in shock. “The man loves us, but there are some limits!”
“How much further through the trees is it before the land changes.” Eris spoke directly to Siall, noting his smug face. Either way this ended he got what he wanted. She could hunt farm-voln and please him, or prove herself a false god and leave his people alone as her own bones fed the raked over soil of the farmlands. If she did return, she would dearly love to find a way to wipe that smugness away…
“Not far. You’d be there by high of the moon. Darkness might be your friend.”
Eris nodded and her hand tightened on the grip of her bow. She would walk there alone.
She embraced Sarai and Callia before she started on her path, whispering in both their ears before kissing their cheeks. “Tell Pierson it was my idea. Tell Nem not to kill Siall. And tell Orrin… tell him… well, remind him that his bastard gods left us too.”