But as soon as she stepped forward she felt the boy’s attitude change. One moment he was full of light-hearted curiosity, edged with maybe just a little sensible caution. The next he was a tightening mess of fear and nerves, his face paling as his eyes stared at her wyrd foot.
“What… what..?” He stuttered, stepping back towards the edge of the balcony, his hand grasping out for the top of the ladder. “What kinda woods-voln are yer?”
She held her hands out, low and wide, letting her bow fall down onto the soft dried grasses. “I mean no harm”
But his wide eyes were still on the strange flexing of the black lattice at the end of her left leg. He took another step back and then fell.
She grabbed forwards for him, but the boy tumbled back and disappeared with a brief squawk of a scream. She rushed to the edge to see where he’d landed safely on a bale of the dead grass and was rolling over through its remains to get to his feet and to race to make a warning.
Then there was the sound of running feet as he screamed blue murder and someone came. The oldest girl, Milly, was back, drawing the shocked boy to her and brushing away the yellow stalks of grass from him as he shook and babbled at her.
“Go get Ma!” The girl screamed at him and then grabbed a metal pole out of a nearby pile of grass, revealing three wicked prongs at its end. These she held up towards Eris as she looked down from the balcony. The cow creatures were disturbed by the chaos and a few were butting their horns against their enclosures, making a great din as the two girls faced off against each other in silence.
“You come here to steal or t’bother?”
“To. Bother.” The girl spoke out the words slowly and deliberately as though Eris were dumb. “To come and cause problems for good honest voln? Woods-voln a’times come to curdle the milk, or-”
Eris couldn’t help herself and spoke flippantly. “Or give wishes to pretty farm-voln lasses? Might be that I’m here for that.”
Milly held the large metal fork tighter. “Don’mock me!”
Just then their mother came in, still cradling the babe to her chest. “What’s this nonsense you and Ebert have cooked up-” She stopped as her eyes followed Milly’s to where Eris stood above them. She took in her leathers, her green eyes, and then finally, her foot.
“By Lios.” She muttered before passing the babe to Ebert who followed her in. ‘Ma’ yanked the metal fork from Milly’s hands and held it herself. “Come down from there!”
Eris widened her open hands. “I’ve dropped my bow. I mean no harm.”
“Get down here!” The woman shouted. She was Milly in a few more years; the same sweet looks but maybe tempered by the disappointments that had come her way in life. Fine lines were already creeping their way onto her face although she was no more than her thirtieth year if Eris was guessing right. A husband had gone to the front and another had returned. And made her happy, if Ebert was right. But something worried her still.
Eris nodded and slowly climbed down the ladder, aware of the sharp farm implement waiting for her back when she got to the bottom. ‘Ma’ didn’t get any closer, but she did watch her foot the whole time Eris was clambering down, seeing the gaps in the lattice and the strange black material that had made her whole again. Eris stood in front of the woman and her three children and waited.
“By Lios”, the woman breathed again. “A woods-voln.”
“She’s got dark hair,” Milly whispered. “Thought they had red.”
“And a funny foot. You see that, Ma?” Ebert whispered as well. “It looks like when creepers get all knotted together-”
“Shush now, I gotta think.”
“She wanted to see Da.” Ebert carried on anyway, rocking the babe in his arms as he did. “Said she might be able to help with the things in the fields-”
“Ebert!” Milly shouted. “Don’t even think about them, they’ll hear!”
“Shush!” Ma shouted, silencing them. She was sweating, her hair starting to stick itself to her forehead. “What do you know about the cursed ones, woods-voln?”
“I know they are stalking your land and Ebert’s Da wont leave the house. I know that the markers you’ve placed to keep out woods-voln aint stopping them. And I know what happens when one of the ‘cursed ones’ gets you. I’ve seen that. Seen it right up close.”
Ma lost some of her anger then, and Eris saw the end of the large fork shaking a little as her body quaked. “They’re coming for him. And they’re going to… they’re going to…”
“It doesn’t have to end that way.” Eris hadn’t known what she was going to do until that moment. And then, Aril be damned, she made a decision.
“Lios’ sign didn’t keep them out!”
“I want to talk to your ‘Da’. I asked Ebert first, but I think my foot worried him.”
“It worries me too! What are you woods-voln? Are you impure? We have the priests through here once a moon or so to take our repentances. And they read from the Light of Lios about what the god-king did to drive the darkness away. And how it comes back sometimes. As an impure thing. And if it looks like anything I think it looks like… that.” She gestured with the fork.
“I am not impure. I am Eris Atta-Sutith and I am a healer.” She said indignantly. “And the ghosts that haunt your land can be killed.” She remembered the shape of a boy in one of the ones just past the boundary stones. “Or turned back.”
Ma made a decision as well. “I’ll take you to my husband, woods-voln. Milly, Ebert… get the others and get down into the storm cellar until I tell you to come out.” Ebert went to protest, but he nodded as the babe occupied itself with grabbing his finger to put it in its mouth.
Eris followed Ma across the courtyard of the farmstead, watching as the children were ushered into a space under the main house by Milly. The girl farm-voln glared at her as she closed up its thick metal doors behind them. Ma took her in through the main doors of the largest building, where Eris had thought the shared room was, and made her stand for a moment in a doorway scratched all over with Lios signs.
“Nothing. Nothing at all.” Ma said crossly.
“Are they meant to harm me?”
“Meant to keep you and your voln at bay. My husband, Thoma, thought it was foolishness when I redid them the day after the ghosts came. Seems he were right.” She looped a hand around Eris’ wrist and pulled her insistently down a short corridor to the way into the communal room. Eris let her, saving any fight in her blood for later when she might really need it. Inside the long room it was dark, and not too pleasant smelling. There were scents here that Eris didn’t recognize, but the mustiness and the shuttered windows made her think of fear. Thoma was hiding here, sat in a high backed chair by an ash clogged fireplace and staring into the darkness of the grate.
“Thoma? Thoma… a woods-voln came to the farm.”
“Kill it,” Thoma said without looking from the darkness his eyes were resting. “Kill it and be done.”
“Thoma…” Ma sighed. “You weren’t like this when you came back to me. Come back to me again, please.”
Eris felt embarrassed at hearing the woman’s heartfelt plea, and her sharp eyes searched the room to find something else to focus on. In the dark little was clear.
“The woods-voln says that the ghosts can be killed, or turned away-”
“Let them come. Step by step, let them come.” Thoma said quietly, and Ma moaned in fear and sadness, before moving to kneel at his feet and taking his remaining hand in hers.
“No Thoma… no, please!”
Eris looked closely at the man in the chair. Older than Ma, as Ebert had said. One armed. Haggard. Thin in his simple farm-voln shirt, braces and hard wearing trousers. His hair was grey and speckled with white. His face was lined with old pains and fears.
“When he first came back he was… alive. Joyous.” Ma said as she moved his limp hand to her lips, kissing and weeping against the pallid skin of his palm. “He was hurt in the war, but all that was forgotten when he found his land again. Found us again. And he struggled to get back into the ways of the farm. Like the war had taken the memories of them from him. But he learnt again… we learnt to be together again as well.”
Eris watched the man pull his hand from his wife’s mouth and place it back on the arm of the chair again. Thoma’s eyes met hers. His dull grey eyes. Grey hair and grey eyes. Like a city-voln, Ebert had said. Because he was a city-voln.
Thoma saw the recognition in her eyes, and pulled up at his wife’s arms, making her stand again. She straightened her apron and rubbed away her tears.
“Go to the children, Lissy. I want to know what the woods-voln wants with us.”
‘Ma’, Lissy, nodded reluctantly and made her way from the room.
“What happened to Thoma?” Eris asked.
“He fell in the god-king’s bloody eternal war no doubt. He went towards Tralis on the front and was never heard from again.”
“And you pretended to be him?”
“Not in the beginning. Lissy… she’s suffered a lot. And not just the loss of Thoma. Her mind is… sometimes she knows who I am and then other times she just sees Thoma.” He stood slowly, as though his back pained him, and lit a small candle on the mantelpiece with a stick from a tinder box struck on the bricks by the fireplace, a move that he managed even with just one hand. Opening the shutters would have brought more light into the room, but perhaps he was worried about who… what… could then see in. In the flickering candlelight her suspicion was confirmed. He had the softer face of a city-voln, the grey hair, the grey eyes. And he was easily twenty years older than Lissy.
“Who are you?”
The man sighed. “I’m no one. I’m no one now, and I haven’t been anyone for many years. Maybe once I was a lad on the streets of Tralis. A petty thief and chancer. Then I was taken to a castle by the sea and became no one.”
Eris felt a chill seep through her veins. The castle by the sea. Where Jayk and the other street-voln had been heading when she and the others had stopped their cart and rescued them from whatever lay there.
“What happened there?”
He looked pained, and then stared down at his absent arm. “There were many of us who were taken there on the carts. Lads from the cities. Farm-voln too. No woods-voln though. But lots of us. And then, over just a day or so, there were so many less. We were put into pitch black cells where there were things. Things that maimed and killed. And if you didn’t die, then something much much worse happened. You became like them. The masters. The ones who put the boys into the rooms.”
“How did you escape?”
“The castle fell. About a year ago now. The things got out from their cells and they tore the evil place down. Some of us survived long enough to get the roads. Some of us died on those roads too. Woods-voln picked us off when we went through their lands, leaving their bloated corpses in the dirt. I was going to go back to Tralis, but the farmlands called me off the road. And I found myself standing in front of a young farm-voln woman who wanted me to be her lost husband. She wanted it to be true so much that it became true.”
Eris frowned, thinking it all through. Was he a bad man? Or was it this castle that had made him bad? And the ghosts… they’d come because of our ‘great sins’ Hui Fives had said. But maybe they were linked to the castle as well. She’d seen them drifting through the woods, but never circling a particular place as though drawn here. Monsters in the dark. In a castle…
“The shadow dancers are the creatures in the cells aren’t they?”
“‘Shadow dancers’? The ghosts? Yes, I think so. They’re here for their revenge. But they’re going to take their time over it. They’ll creep closer and closer, make it last as long as their hours in the cells sometimes lasted. Not everyone died or were attacked straight away. Sometimes there was hours of darkness, some with hope in them, before it finally happened. This is their revenge and I don’t resent them for it.”
“But you’re hiding?”
He laughed darkly. “Aye, everyone wants one more day of living if they can have it. One more day with my family.”
Eris did some adding up in her mind. The baby was young, still a babe in arms. The babe was his, even if the other children weren’t. “This isn’t living, is it? Hiding away in the dark while your family watches the horizon in fear for the sight of the dancers getting closer?”
“True enough. Who are you woods-voln? I look up from my thoughts to find my wife bringing in a heathen to the room and sharing her tears with her. What kind of woods-voln walks into a farm bearing a quiver full of greened arrows and then becomes an ear for the sorrows there?”
Eris smiled ruefully. “What kind of city-voln goes from being a master to a husband?”
“You’ve given Lissy hope too then. You’ve told her you can kill or turn them away. Told me too. But let them come.”
“And if they don’t stop at killing the master when they finally get to him? What if they kill your family too? Including the baby that is yours and not Thoma’s?”
She watched conflicted feelings flash across the man’s face and the truth of her conclusion. “It’s not their fault, what I did at the castle! They should not be punished for my sins!”
“The shadow dancers might not think like us. They might not understand that truth.”
“What will you do, woods-voln? There’s at least twenty ghosts out there! There’s only you.”
Eris thought of the one that she’d destroyed after it had grabbed a hold of Orrin. It was possible, but it was hard. It would require a lot of her. Perhaps more than she had to give. Perhaps more than she should give for some farm-voln that the Rexakyde had already marked for death. But she’d made a decision, as Aril, the bitch, had prophesied. And she would stick to that decision.