Ghosts’ Prey, Chapter Seven, Part Two

They let her have a night’s sleep, expecting, rightly, that she’d be more able to deal with their two enormous requests if she was rested. But instead Eris, lying between Milly and Lissy on one of the threadbare bed rolls they’d shared with her, had everything that she had to do tomorrow rolling about in her mind, around and around. Turning away, or fighting, the ghosts. Returning Thoma’s arm to him. Dealing with the ghosts. Dealing with Thoma’s missing arm. Could she convince the ghost to go? Was bringing back Thoma’s arm like re-growing Nem’s tongue? Or saving Orrin’s life? Or pushing away the poison in Nem? Could she push away the ghost? Would the Atta kill them as it had done the one in the woods before? Would she be able to do it all?!

Eventually, surrounded by the low breathing of the farm-voln family all in the shared family room, she felt sleep claiming her, pulling her under as though she was swimming in the deeper rivers in the woods of her voln.

She began to dream of Orrin running in the night. Bow in hand and a strong, determined, look on his handsome face, he was joined in the race through the woods by Pierson, Nemnir, Sarai, Callia… all those she knew and loved from her greening. No, she whispered, no, don’t come seeking me! The Rexakyde will not allow it! She dreamt of her then, Aril Rexakyde, her face whitened with the paste that covered the skin up to the roots of her braided hair. Skeleton-like, the thin prophetess haunted her dream, watching the progress of the Atta as they raced onwards. No! This time she shouted. No, wait! Wait!

In her dream Orrin began then to slow down, bringing the others to a halt with a gesture. Pierson came to speak with him but his words were lost in a thunderous noise that echoed through the trees and set the birds in their arms to flight. All of her greening looked terrified and hunkered down around the trunks of the trees, scouting for a target and finding none.

The great calamity sounded again, and Orrin looked towards the edge of the woods. The greening was close enough to make out where the trees gave way to the waving green of the farm-voln’s crop, but far enough back not to be seen from the fields. Orrin looked concerned, but also ready to creep forward again.

Wait. She commanded again. Orrin Priest, wait!

The earth shook again at another thundering and Eris woke to her squashed place between Lissy and Milly. Milly was looking around as well, her eyes wide and bright in the darkness of the room.

“You hear them?” She whispered to Eris, who looked blank.

“I thought I was dreaming.” Eris admitted, remembering Orrin and the Atta hiding near the edge of the woods. Had that been real, or just a dream?

The sound came again, and Lissy stirred, the babe held against her beginning to mewl in the dark. “The lions.” She muttered, groggy with sleep. “The great roarers.”

Milly nodded, and slowly crawled her way out of the lines of sleeping bodies, gesturing at Eris to follow her. Eris had been sleeping in her leathers, but her bow and dagger had been taken from her and she felt defenceless. But then, the girl was only dressed in a night shift and seemed unconcerned. Lissy had apparently returned to sleep, shushing the babe and unconcerned that her daughter was sneaking out.

Eris followed Milly out of the family room and then from the house to a porch where Milly slipped on her well-worn boots. Eris put her own single boot on, running after the girl in the dark. They crossed the yard to the barn where she’d hidden before. This time Eris watched as the girl climbed quickly up an outside ladder that Eris hadn’t noticed before, getting to the sloping roof of the wooden building where she found her perch, her boots jammed in a gully at the edge. She reached down and helped Eris take a place next to her, her wyrd foot pushing against the edge of the roof as well.

From their vantage point Eris could make out the boundary stones encircling the farm; right at the edge of their claimed lands, the ghosts milling about just in front of them. Beyond the stones and the ghost there were yet more fields, different shades of green and yellow for different crops and occasionally low stone buildings sat in the far distance like toys. Everything was drenched over with a creeping red light from the horizon. They must have been facing East, the sun must be coming up soon and making everything fire red as it emerged and lengthened the shadows towards them.

“Ma lets me come up here to listen to the great roarers sometimes. At first she didn’t like it. Said I shouldn’t. Said it was scary. But now Da is back, she says we should know about the war. It took his arm and we should know what else it could come for. We’re pretty far from the king’s road, but sometimes the ‘cruiters make it this far. They came for Da. Maybe they’ll come for Ebert one day. I’m going to stab them with the pitchfork if they do though. They’re not feeding him to the great roarers! Ma saw the roarers when they were being rolled from Bara to Tralis. She takes eggs, chuck meat, and wheat all the way to Tralis in the cart when we need to trade. And when we can borrow neighbour Gail’s oxen to pull it. She saw them being rolled up the road pulled by horses. Ten fine horses a piece. I’ve never even seen so many horses, nor had Ma. Gail’s other neighbour had an old cart horse, but these were button men’s horses. Fancy and shiny haired. The horses mostly stay in the south I heard. Anyways, Ma saw this lion, on all fours, gold all over like you hear about in the books. And it’s got its mouth open like a roarer you hold in your hand. It’s like a great roarer, but with a full body. And then that body’s on wheels. And the horses pull it, right? They were heading all the way up the king’s road to Tralis on the Front to blast the enemy. Least that’s what Ma thought.”

Eris was dizzied by the girl’s sudden burst of talking and by all the things she was saying. Roarer’s with legs? Tralis? Horses? Her attempts to catch up with everything the girl said were put aside as another great thundering shook the very air around them. The red in the distance flared for a moment and then died back down.

“Is that the sunrise?” Eris asked.

“Sunrise? Oh, not for a few hours. That red’s the new fires of Tralis. Beyond the city, which you can’t really see any more because of the smoke, there’s now the ever-fire. Where the men are fighting for Lios in his eternal war. Where the roarers are roaring. That’s where my Da was fighting. You really going to fix him?”

She meant his arm, but Eris knew Milly was hoping that she’d be able to fix his sullen gloom as well. Eris had once thought that repairing Jayk’s scarred face might change him. But it was more than the pox that made him feel left out, even among the Atta. What he’d wanted from her, and that she’d not been able to give it to him, had driven him away. But he’d already been starting out on that path before she’d tried to help him, she knew that now.

“I’m going to do what I can.” A stifled yawn. “Do the great roarers thunder all night?”

“Nah. They never fire more than a few. Guess the fire spreads after they hit.”

“I have friends who were in the army, fighting beyond Tralis.” She held back that Pierson had been a button man. “They didn’t mention the fire.”

Milly looked at her like she was confused. “You should definitely get back abed! I just tol’you the fires are new.”

“Yes. Yes.” Eris muttered. She was tired. Her sleep so far had been fitful and full of portents. Orrin, wait!

“Let’s get back down then.”

“Wait. Why did you want me to come with you?”

Milly looked at her, her face serious. “I guess because I wanted to talk with you. To know what you were like. I ne’er met a woods-voln before.”

“Not even one who would grant your wishes.” Eris smiled, remembering Ebert’s tale. “Your brother said-”

“Well, I were joking, that’s all! Only woods-voln who’ve been here have stolen from us. They come in the night and take, and bother.”

“And your Ma still lets you come to watch the ever-fire knowing the Rexa- the woods-voln bother your farm?”

“It aint happened for a time I suppose. Thought maybe it was when Da returned that they stopped, but it’s like… I dunno. Like they were waiting for something.”

Eris thought of Aril. Prophetess. Expecting her. Wanting revenge for the pox released among the Rexakyde. That would have stopped their night-time raids as well.

“Still… you should be careful.”

“You aint so bad.” She smiled a little. “And besides, one lame woods-voln I can take out with my pitchfork.”

“They aren’t all lame. They aren’t all like me.”

“But if you’re like their leader, their Atta-Sutith, and if I could take you out… how bad can the rest of them be?”

Eris smiled at the girl’s confidence. Just one woods-voln, Sarai perhaps, would have been able to gut her before she’d even reached for her blessed pitchfork. But even that wasn’t the woods-volns’ way of things. What the Rexakyde wanted – this hunt she’d refused – was not the way the world worked. The ‘Volnen’ as Lissy had called all of the voln together were in a sort of balance. There were times when the balance failed. When there were raids that led to deaths. Sarai and Callia had lost their first loves that way. Times when the button men scourged the woods and uprooted the trees, letting the farm-voln move on to the land.  But then there were times when harassed farm-voln moved their boundaries back again and the woods reclaimed those lands. But the woods-voln did not hunt the farm-voln. They just ‘bothered’ them. Just as they bothered the city-voln on the king’s roads, taking their trinkets and haranguing their priests. Balance.

Another thunderous roar from one of the golden lions in the distance. The balance had begun to falter with the pox, were these new weapons also going to tilt it into destruction? What came next? Eris was bringing together voln of many kinds, making a rough new greening, and Verla had called her the ‘doom’. ‘The poison in the woods’. Eris wanted to make Lios pay for the deaths he’d wrought with his button men. Was she to blame for tipping that balance too? Was Verla right? But Eris wanted things to be better than that, for all the voln. For the ‘Volnen’. “I wouldn’t be rushing into fighting any woods-voln if I were you. I’m hoping there’s ways we can live side by side without all that.”

Milly shrugged. “Ma says that can’t happen until the woods-voln accept the divinity of Lios. They need to cast aside the bastard gods and join the mountain-voln in the army. I don’t get why she thinks that though. Ma don’t like the war any more than most on the farmlands. The ‘cruiters come for sons and they don’t return. And they used to come for boys as young as Ebert. We used to hide him. Though, I’ve not seen the smaller ‘cruiters’ carts they used to carry the lads away on for a long time. But the ‘cruiters wanting grown men are still about. They got Gail’s grown up boys a six month back.”

Eris followed the quickly changing currents of Milly’s mind and looped back to where she’d begun. “Woods-voln aint going to start worshipping Lios.”

“Sure as blood is blood. But that might be the ‘price of peace’. That’s what Ma says.”

Eris stifled a yawn and Milly nodded. “You need to get back a’bed. Farm-voln are well used to working a proper day, but woods-voln nap all the day up in their trees don’t they?”

Eris laughed a little at the image of woods-voln napping rather than hunting, prepping arrows, maintaining bows, curing leathers, stitching leathers, hunting gold on the king’s road, collecting herbs and flowers to make their greening, preparing that greening, or keeping the camp set right. Or moving on and starting it all again. Even her mother, with her caravan and all the comforts that’d had, would not have spent time sleeping during the day. Obviously the farm-voln girl thought the woods-voln were some kind of woods creature like a squirrel or some kind of wood-cat.

“I am tired.” Eris admitted, “but you don’t have to worry about me napping the day away tomorrow. I’ve made promises I intend to keep.”

Milly leaned closer, and Eris became aware of the milky smell of her. At dinner the farm-voln had drunk milk while she stuck to water. She didn’t trust the white liquid that had come out of the black and white beasts they called ‘cows’. Mother’s milk for the cows’ ‘calves’ it might be, but not for a woods-voln!

“Tell you what Eris Atta-Something, you heal my Da and scare away his ghosts, I’ll start worshipping you. Forget about ruddy Lios and all the priests and their words! Sure as blood is blood I will!” The girl started her way down the ladder before Eris could reply that she wanted no more worshippers, that Orrin was enough. But remembering Orrin stilled her tongue as well. Please let him wait, she wished, let him wait so the Rexakyde do not stop him! Please!

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