Darkness was her friend as she headed through the woods to dangerous lands, but now she was certain that Siall and Aril were not. Their names came whispering from her lips as she ran, along with a few of the colourful curses she’d been picking up from Pierson and Nem. A decision would be made here… she scoffed at the banal prophecy. Decisions were made all the time. She’d made one in leaving them to head through the ends of the woods towards the flat empty lands of the farm-voln. Another would be made if she met a farm-voln with a blade in her hand. Siall’s way or her way. Aril’s prophecy won either way. More curses and descriptive punishments muttered from her lips as she sprinted her way through the woods.
It was by the high of the moon that she reached the first of the boundary marks. Tumbled down grey stones with the questing roots of trees growing over and through them, they might have once marked a clear separation of the woods and the farmlands. But both lands crept into each other over the years. Farm lands were made with violence and the bloody eviction of woods-voln. Here though, the woods were creeping back, reclaiming some of their lost territory.
She vaulted over a low part of the broken wall, feeling a strange shift in her balance as her wyrd foot landed on the other side on yet more broken stones, ground down into gravel. Another boundary mark that was also shot through with green weeds trying to take the stolen land back. Beyond the gravel was a tall grass growing in abundance that Eris didn’t recognise, waving fat heads and strange whiskers in the night breeze. Pushing through the grass she found the whiskers clinging to her hair and shoulders, and the new plant disturbed her. But worse than that was what lay deep into the rows of tall grass. Large white boulders had been set out in the field, each one taller than her. Yet more boundary markers. The stones sat deep in the ground, making a long line across her path like sentries long ago frozen in place, and each one bore paint marks in reds and blacks. There was the eye mark of Lios repeating over and over again on the white, and lions drawn by a hand that might never have seen one in the flesh. There were also strange angular people with long limbs and fingers. They had weirdly pointed heads. Heads that in some of the pictures had been removed from their bodies and were floating free with blood falling from their necks. Woods-voln. The stones were a warning to the woods-voln; walk not here.
Eris hunkered down by the side of one of the boulders, trying hard not to make any contact with it and its foul marks as she did, and scanned the slowly swaying grass for any signs of trouble.
It took even her sharp woods-voln eyes a few moments to make out the dark shapes lying just beyond the boundary stones. They were near enough black against the black sky of the night, but their presence blocked out just enough stars for Eris to see the shape of them and she could catch the edges of them in the moonlight. And there were several. At least one per boundary stone and they were certainly larger than the boulders. More shadow dancers. Here.
She watched them for a long time, until there was grey on the horizon to the East where Tralis was meant to lie. The shadow dancers ebbed and flowed, moving shadowy parts of themselves out towards each other and then back. Or up towards the night sky and then away. Or making wings and limbs that stretched out with creaking bone and flesh before curling in on themselves. But they did not move forward from their positions just in front of the warning boulders.
Eris pulled her dagger into her hand and crawled through the long stems of the grass towards the nearest shadow dancer. It was like a flame, the edges of it flickering dancing around a more stable heart; a shape that made Eris’s own heart catch in her chest. The centre of the shadow dancer was just a small boy, but with his clothes and hair made up of the shadows that danced about him. In the light of the moon Eris could just make out that he stood facing away from her, away from the boundary stone. It was facing towards a farmstead that she now noticed at the centre of the fields and fields of tall grass. The small island of light in the distance made by the farm house’s torches, seemed to be his focus. And as she peered into the darkness at the other shadow dancers she was certain that they also looked towards the low long house.
Her dagger was already coated in Atta, but still she felt the greening rise in her throat in readiness, burning and stinging there. She wriggled further through the grass between the two nearest shadow dancers, the boy and another that was also human-like at the centre of its flailing limbs, but less well formed than the first.
Part way between them she looked up and saw that both the shadow dancers – the Lios cursed ghosts according to the mad prophet Hui – had shifted about so that they were looking towards her. The boy had eyes at least, the other had a more formless head. But neither made a move towards her, and so she carried on past them and through to the end of the first field and to a low stone wall that marked edges. On the other side of that was another type of grass, but with the shadow dancers now behind her, and with fear prickling at the back of neck at that thought, she felt a greater urgency and she did not stop to look at the strange plant.
Soon enough she was crouched by the corner of a farm building, looking back out across the fields towards the boundary stones and the moving shapes just in front of them. From this angle and with the slope of the fields, she could now tell that there were at least twenty shadow dancers surrounding the farmstead, standing just inside the white stones which warned away the woods-voln with pictures of chopped off heads and lions. Eris almost laughed at the uselessness of them. But the closeness of the main farm house kept her on her guard.
She was curious. In her travels with her mother and her mother’s mother they’d always stuck to the woods and the mountains and never gone to the farms. Farm-voln, she knew from her mother’s tales, were even duller than city-voln, having once been bound and trapped inside the same high city walls. That they had chosen to leave, to live freer lives outside, should have endeared them to the woods-voln. But the farm-voln spent their lives painfully bent over to pull plants from their tilled soil just to trade with the city-voln, so their freedom from the walls of the cities was a mockery of the real freedom of the woods-voln who tilled no soil. Having the piebald Floris bring their caravan to the farms to help heal the voln there would only have ended poorly for Eris and her mother. At best, they woud have been chased off. At worst, they’d have been put to the same soul destroying labour!
Eris worked her way around to where she thought the family would be, a long room on the ground floor of the best building, the length of it marked out by shuttered windows and the most torches set to burn outside. Inside there was the slight gleam of candle still lit, and she could just peer through the slats – a few were wonky and needed work done on them – to make out a large room inside with numerous bodies asleep on low beds and with some in smaller cots. A family.
Concerned flared in her. Beyond this warm and full room there was a farm surrounded by shadow dancers just… watching. Did they know? Or had the creatures arrived just as she had? That seemed like too great a coincidence. So, what…? They’d been here a while? Watching the farm-voln at night? Or were they there during the day as well? Dark flames of horror standing spaced out on the horizon, watched by fearful small child farm-voln as they tried to go about their work or play?
The bitterness of Atta swamped her mouth again, confusing her. Why did she care? The shadow dancers could be violent. One had swallowed Orrin, and there was the one who’d killed Verla… but that had been her hand at work really. And if they’d been here a while and not hurt the farm-voln, then perhaps they did not even intend to.
The East was ever lightening. And with the grey of the dawn came a startling sound, a low booming that shock the marrow of her bones. Looking back to the shadow dancers she couldn’t see any change in them to suggest that they were making the noise. But they weren’t going anywhere either.
As stirring noises began in the long room, Eris made her way to another wooden building to find a vantage point to sit with her bow and… think. From a high balcony, even more full of dried grass than the rest of the building, she found that it would be all too simple to aim between broken planks of wood and to take out the farm-voln one by one. She watched them emerge from their sleep to draw water from a well and to wash their sleep marked faces. There was a mother and five children of ages between her own and babe at the breast. And each of the older ones looked towards the dancers now and again with concern on their faces. They did not go away in the day light and the farm-voln knew of them.
Over the hours she began to suspect that there was yet another farm-voln inside the main house who was not coming out with the others to attend to their animals. She watched a young girl of six perhaps gently collect eggs from various apparently near tame birds who were nested in boxes in a penned off area. She carefully took them into the house held in the folds of her apron and someone inside exclaimed in pleasure. A low voice. A man’s voice? And all the rest of the small family were already outside working at their own tasks. Watching the girl return outside without the eggs, but still wearing that apron that painfully reminded Eris of the one she’d once worn for collecting herbs for her mother’s balms, Eris was convinced that she’d been taking them to someone else inside.
But her then her thoughts were interrupted.
“You’ve still got yer head.”
She turned back to see one of the children, a boy of about eight perhaps, standing at the top of the ladder that had brought her up to this balcony past great groaning beasts of white and black. He was carrying a pail and Eris assumed his duty had been to take care of the uncomfortable creatures. Before he’d spotted her. She cursed herself for not being more careful.
He looked her over, disappointed. “Still got yer head. And you aint that tall.”
Eris unfolded herself from her crouch and the boy looked a little less disappointed. “Yeah, but you should have lost yer head at the Lios stones.”
“I read that as a warning, of what would happen.”
“Oh! You sound just like us.”
Eris smiled ruefully. “How did you think a woods-voln would sound?”
“Dunno. More like an animal m’be. Like… you live in the woods, right? Why would you speak like we do?” He slowly made the final steps on the rungs of the ladder and swung himself onto the straw of the balcony, watching her all the while. “Do you grant wishes?”
“My sis said she saw a woods-voln once. Said he granted her a wish for her beauty.” He looked less and less convinced as he repeated her words.
“And what does a farm-voln boy wish for?”
The boy paused, the space between his brows creasing as he thought hard. “Well, there’s the ghosts in the fields. I’d like them to go. Then maybe my Da could leave the house again. But also, I’d like him to be my real Da and not just a pretend one. Ma says he aint pretend. That I just don’t remember him from before ‘e went to Tralis and the front. But he aint my Da. He’s nice enough and I like Ma smiling again. But my Da had brown hair not dark grey like a city-voln. And my Da had two arms. There’s that too.”
Eris tried hard to follow the quick flutterings of the boy’s mind. “He might have lost an arm at the front. That happens.”
“Maybe. But I seen the scar and its all healed over like it happened a long time ago. And he’s older. Much older than Ma, and that wasn’t always the way.”
“Ebert!” There was a female voice calling for the boy from below them. A girl’s voice, but older than the lad. Perhaps the oldest girl of the family. “Ebert, have you not milked these poor cows yet?!”
“I were just a’fetching more hay for’em Milly!” Ebert winked at her in such an overly theatrical way that the whole side of his face near crumpled up.
“Get to it!”
‘Milly’ seemed to leave and the boy relaxed again. “She’s so bossy. Like Ma, but without the smiles!”
“How long have the ghosts been here, Ebert?”
“Not as long as my new Da has. They came maybe a few months back. At first, he were sure the stones would keep them back. But every night they come closer, By just a small bit. But you can get right up near them and they don’t do nothing but look horrible. Or try to look like you. Da thinks they’re coming for him. He won’t go anywhere near them!” Ebert looked sad. “He aint my Da but I like him. I don’t like him being scared.”
“How long you staying? Don’t you miss yer trees? Did you come here from the West? I suppose so, otherwise you’d have walked over the Garry farms to the South…”
“Shouldn’t you be afraid of me, Ebert?”
He paused. “I’m thinking if you were going to use that bow, you would have done by now. Or are you about stealing eggs? My smaller sis got’em already. But there might be more tomorrow. Some woods-voln like to just come and badger the cows until their milk curdles in the teat. Least that’s what I heard. You’re the first woods-voln I even heard of around here for a long while. Maybe ever. And most of the old stories just say you take little things like food and move on. We aint got any money, if you wondered.”
Eris thought of the Rexakyde in the woods. They were angry at the evil work of the button men and looking for victims. Were they using Eris as a scout for their future hunting plans? Even if she didn’t hunt as they wanted her to, would they be heading here later-on to wipe out this family?
“Ebert. I need you to take me to your Da.”
Ebert’s face paled under the mud stains on his cheeks. “He’ll want to decapidate you. I dunno…”
“He won’t be able to do that. And I might be able to help you with those wishes.”
Ebert smiled, and she could see where he was still waiting for some adult teeth to come in. “’Cause I’m beautiful like me sis?”
“In your own way Ebert, yes.”
She shouldered her bow nodded towards the ladder. “Come on then. I want to meet your Da.”