Eris had expected the cloud of dread that over hung the farm to impact on the evening meal. But when the children came back in from their chores, and after Eris had been dragged into the main room by an eager Ebert who’d overcome his fear of her, the room as a-light with happiness and cheer as most of the family squabbled and loved each other. Eris watched with a half-smile as one of the younger girls played with Ebert; the girl laughing and whooping when she thought she was getting one over her brother in the game of tag. Their mother, Lissy, also seemed to be making sure that the children’s evening was filled with silly stories and games even though their ‘father’ was pre-occupied.
Eris sat not far from the chair where Thoma was sat, sunken and dark, just as when she’d first met him. He stared ahead as into space; accepting a bowl of soup from Lissy but barely grunting out his thanks. The chicken in the soup had had its neck wrung by Lissy earlier, the woman too proud to allow even a woods-voln houseguest to look down on her hospitality. The idea of keeping animals in a pen and picking them out when needing to eat was alien to Eris, but the soup was good. Eris gave Lissy a much louder thank you, trying to shame him for his bad manners.
“It matters not.” Lissy muttered to her, looking back at her husband as she lay down the earthen bowl and wooden spoon by Eris. “He has worries on his heart.”
“And I have said there might be a way to deal with the ghosts.”
“Sorry, but all we know of your kind is thieving and bother. And those things out there in the fields out are… they are unnatural. I’d like to believe you, but I can’t see what one girl barely more into being a woman than my Milly can do against twenty or more of Lios’ own cursed.”
Eris nodded. “You have no reason to believe I can do anything, I see that. But I have faced them before.”
Ebert had edged closer and perched himself up on a chair. There were five children altogether. The babe at the breast now lying in a aged wooden cot. A girl of five. Ebert. Another girl of a few more years than him. And then Milly, oldest and closest in age to Eris. And slowly all of them were coming to sit by her. Wanting the tale.
“Go on.” Said Ebert.
“I’m no storyteller.”
“Woods-voln’s mouths are full of tales.” Thoma said darkly.
“I know a storyteller. A city-voln of Bara. He’d tell a tale far better-” Orrin’s face and charming words sprung to mind. How was he and the rest of her family?
“Oh, but you are here, and he is not!” Ebert urged, interrupting her thoughts of the storyteller who was her priest. Eris smiled, and put her soup to one side.
“The tales I could tell of the shadow dancers might be too scary for small children.”
“I aint small!” Ebert mumbled, puffing himself up. His smaller sister did likewise. Milly looked indignant as well, and for a moment Eris wondered if she really was older than the oldest farm-voln girl. She forgot sometimes that she’d urged her limbs into growing longer to stand alongside the adults of her greening. While Eris was thinking, Lissy nodded and took her own seat.
“If the ghosts can be beat, perhaps it is good to know how. Lios be praised. I aint one for going against his will, but I also don’t want…” Lissy looked to Thoma, seeing what might happen if the ghosts finished their long slow journey towards the once-master of the castle.
Eris thought quickly. She could not tell them of Verla and the bone cage, not least because she did not harm the ghost who’d come to the quarry. All she could do was recount the story of Orrin’s near drowning and perhaps tone down some of the horror of seeing the man struggling to breath within the creature.
“My friend, the city-voln storyteller, would be able to tell this tale with greater skill than I. I’m a poor teller of tales in comparison to him. But I’m smarter than him. For example, I’ve never got myself all et’up by a ghost.”
The youngest girl gasped, and went to sit on her mother’s lap. The other children leaned closer.
“The first I knew that Orrin was in trouble was when I heard him arguing with Nemnir Mountain-Voln.”
“A mountain-voln?! Are they as big as the priests say?!” Ebert gasped. “They tell us of how Lios subbed them-”
“‘Subdued’.” Milly corrected.
“Bigger even. My friend Nem is as tall as your barn. And as strong as your ox on your plough. But he is as gentle as your own ma.” Eris paused, letting them imagine Nemnir. She’d seen Orrin do the very same trick when he’d been telling rapt woods-voln the tales of the bastard gods he’d collected from the few believers in Bara. “And on this one day Nem and Orrin had gotten themselves lost among the trees of the woods in the territory of the Attavine.”
Thoma made a low snorting sound, but it was Lissy who questioned her. “A mountain-voln and a city-voln lost among the trees? Surely this tale ends in poisoned arrows and a painful death!” She looked horrified.
“Ah, but Orrin Storyteller and Nem Mountain-Voln are a part of my family. And the rest of my family are woods-voln, city-voln, street-voln…”
“There’s no such voln!” exclaimed Milly. “The travelling priests says that when Lios divided up the world, making the Volnen, there were the woods-voln, the city-voln, the sea-voln and the mountain-voln. Farm-voln were city-voln once, but he set us to reclaim the woodlands when the woods-voln wouldn’t be subdued like the mountain-voln.”
She hadn’t heard the word ‘Volnen’ before, but Eris gathered that Milly meant all of the voln together. Under Lios’ rule. “Well, as the farm-voln came from the city-voln, so do the street-voln.”
Milly looked confused, but her brother shushed her when she went to speak again and let Eris carry on. Eris reached for the words that Orrin would have used. “So, Nem and Orrin were walking among the trees and arguing about which way to go. And Nem had a special pendant. It was a… a… a beautiful gem on a glistening golden chain. All the colours of the rainbow were within in its edges.”
“Stolen, no doubt.” Thoma muttered.
“And this gem calls to the mountains so that Nemnir always knows were his home is. If he holds it out on its chain it will move towards the great peaks of his birth. But that’s not where Orrin and Nem had been camped with the rest of the Atta.”
“I thought you said Attavine?” Lissy had sharp ears for a farm-voln. Perhaps she was used to catching her children in half-truths.
“The Atta are those who follow the Atta-Sutith. Some were of the Attavine, some were Diarnilys or Ireblade. Some were city-voln, or street-voln.”
“And now they follow you.” Lissy looked directly into her eyes for once. “You introduced yourself as Eris Atta-Sutith?”
She nodded and the woman’s brows knit together. “The Volnen should follow Lios. That is the way of things.”
“Or the basta-” began Milly, only to be silenced by her mother.
“Do not speak of them!”
“But the woods-voln…”
“Are mistaken! They have forgotten how Lios divided the world between the Volnen in the beginning.” Lissy said, red flushing her cheeks.
Thoma seemed to stir from his dark stupor. “Hush love. Let the girl speak.” He looked at Eris. “In the castle everything was at the will of Lios.”
“Hush. Hush…” Lissy urged him, moving the girl off of her lap to go and kneel by her ‘husband’s’ knee. “Do not excite yourself. He has this nightmare,” she began, looking back to Eris, “Where he was locked in a terrible castle by the sea. He thinks sometimes that is where he lost his arm. That the ghosts are the monsters from their cells there. That Lios would want such a horrible thing to happen to small children!”
“In the castle there were stories of what happened to some of the lads.” Thoma was ignoring Lissy’s attempts to quiet him and staring at Eris. “Yes, some were maimed and became masters if they survived. But over the years there were a few that they locked away in a cell all by themselves. After they’d been in the monsters’ rooms. After something in them had changed. I saw your foot, I saw the wyrdness of it. The priests say that the bastard gods were impure. Are you impure, girl?”
Eris stood, and walked about the table towards him. “Aye, it might be that there’s something of the impure in what I can do. I saved Orrin from the ghost when it swallowed him whole in the woods while he was arguing with Nem. I saw the storyteller who calls himself my priest dying in front of my eyes so I walked into the ghost and I opened my mouth and I poured out Atta, poison, into it until it died.”
Lissy grew pale as Eris got closer. “Get back! Get back!” She drew out a short kitchen blade from her apron and waved it towards her, trying to get back to her feet while also protecting Thoma with her own body. Eris was reminded of her own mother. A woods-voln, but she’d never ever worn leathers as far as Eris could remember. Always a plain dress wrapped about with an apron full of herbs, cuttings, and lengths of material for bandages. And she’d dressed Eris the same. Eris had worn her dress and apron until the Diarnilys had taken her, Pierson and Nemnir in. Why had her mother dressed like a farm-voln, or a city-voln servant?
Eris held her palms out in the symbol for peace, leaving herself open to Lissy’s attack. The children were crying and she wanted to calm all of the family. But she noticed that Thoma didn’t look as panicked as the others did. He seemed as resigned to her killing him as he was about the shadow dancers finally catching up with him. He felt the need to pay for all his years in the castle… at their hand or hers. She had to show him that there was another way out of his situation, and her story about killing the ghost had only served to make things worse. She made another decision.
A flash of Lissy’s knife and blood splashed across the flagstones of the warm room. Eris’ blood.
“Mother!” Ebert began, but his sister grabbed him and silenced him.
“Get away from us!” Shouted Lissy.
But Eris did not move away. She held out her palm as she called the Sutith to heal it. It would leave a thin black mark as the new skin closed up the cut, but it was thin enough Lissy might only notice the end of the bleeding.
“I am Eris Atta-Sutith. By Atta I harm… as I did the ghost that held my friend, Orrin. And by Sutith I heal.”
Lissy dropped the knife to the floor, unable to completely understand what she was seeing. “That is not possible.”
“I can help you, but you have to believe me.” Eris kept Lissy’s gaze, but she could see the children out of the corner of her eye, holding on to each other in the darkness of the main room.
Lissy nodded slowly, and thought for a long time before she spoke again, every moment measured in Eris’ beating heart, loud in her ears.
“I believe you. I need to believe in you. I need something more from you.”
“More than getting rid of the ghosts for you?” Eris asked, a knot of worry forming in her stomach as she began to suspect what Lissy had realised that she wanted. She watched the woman, one who she knew now that she should not underestimate just because she was a woods-voln, move behind the high back of her husband’s chair. Lissy placed a gentle hand on Thoma’s shoulder, above where his arm was missing.
“I need you to heal my Thoma. Use that wyrd power that gave you a new foot and give him a new arm. Lios be damned, he’s never given us that for all the promises of hope from his priests who come here, eat our food, and leer at our Milly. Give us that.”
Eris laughed at her audacity. “You want the ghosts gone and a new arm for your husband? Is that all?!”
Lissy nodded, her determination set on her face as Eris struggled to reply to her demands. Thoma was also silent for a long while, and then he spoke again.
“Give us those two things and I will… I will give you something I took with me from the castle by the sea. Something that I hid here on the farm. Something that I think belongs to the bastard gods. Something that maybe belongs to you now.”