“What made you think this was linked to the bastard gods?” Eris said when she finally felt the world righting itself. The sword was still clenched by its hilt in her right hand, and her fingers were white from the tightness of her grip on it.
“The outline… The priests warn us to look for that mark-”
“No! This is of Lios!” She was angry. The combination of the bastard god’s outline and Lios’ name on it felt… blasphemous. With no clear attributes, the outline could be She Who Once Healed lying there, Lios’ name carved into her like a wounding. The lines scratched, scored, deep into her. Eris placed the sword on the table carelessly, getting it away from her.
“Tell me again where you found it? Tell me everything about it!” She needed to know more, to explain away this rage burning in her. Absent of the hilt of the sword, her fingernails were digging into her palm as her hand still tightened.
“At the castle. In a large chamber. There was little else in it though. There might have been windows once, but the torch I carried showed bricked up spaces in their place. There were columns, some had fallen down and others were upright but cracked and blackened. Rats scampered in the shadows. The sword itself was at the base of some steps that led to a raised part of the room. Up there was nothing.” Thoma shrugged. “I don’t know why the room was abandoned, but it wasn’t the only one in the castle. The castle was a labyrinth of lost rooms and corridors.”
Eris’ hand reached out for the sword again. She stopped herself as she realised what she was doing.
“You don’t like it. That’s clear enough from your face.” Lissy said.
“Seeing that name… and it reminds me of another blade from long ago. That was of Lios too.” Would they even understand? They were farm-voln and Lios worshippers. She shook her head, almost to herself.
“I can bury it away again-” Thoma began, but Eris interrupted him again.
“I want it. It means something and I want to know what that is.” She did pick up the sword then.
Few woods-voln bothered with swords. They made none of their own, and a bow was a far more effective weapon against whatever they wanted to hunt; animal or fat gold carrying city-voln. So she did not even have a belt that she could slip it through, to hold it against her leathers.
“Here” said Lissy, and grabbed a loop of hemp rope from where it had been curled around a hook high up on the wall. She fashioned Eris a rough belt, tying it about her waist and cutting it with a small curved knife from her apron.
Now that it was bound to her, Eris could straight look down and see the ugly scratches on the top of the pommel. Her thumb rubbed over them. A bastard god. Lios. Together.
Lissy was standing again, her arms around Thoma. And then he put both his arms about her; an uncertain action still, but one he was going to get better at. Suddenly Eris wanted to be elsewhere.
So she left them alone, walking out across the courtyard, gathering the farm children about her as they looked over her new weapon with interest, clucking about her like the hen-birds they kept here on the farm. But she wanted time alone so she could think more about the sword, as well as time to rest up from healing Thoma. She kept walking without speaking until they finally bored of the sword and the silent guest, and peeled away from her racing to other games and chores.
Then she was walking alone across one of the fields to the South. The familiar line of boundary stones gleamed whitely in the distance as she shaded her eyes to look for the shadows in front of them. She did not want to go that far, but her path took her to where two parallel lines scored in the grass marked a rough path winding between two boulders and then even further onwards to where the king’s road must lie to the South.
Eris stopped and sat crossed legged on the thick grass by one of the lines. The boundary stones loomed far to her left where the creatures swirled darkly in front of them but coming no closer. She took the sword into her lap and looked it over. Hours must have passed, for the next time she looked up the stones to the south were a darker grey and no longer gleaming. Her leathers kept any chill from her, but she knew she should head back to the farm, visible to her right because of the plume of smoke coming from the chimney of the main house. But it had been a noise that had made her look up, even if she had not realised it at first. A cart was coming towards her down the rough road, aiming to pass right between the boundary stones and then carry on to the farm. There was no hiding place for Eris, and even though it was still some ways off there was no way that she had not already been spotted by the driver.
Her hand reached to her shoulder for her absent bow and she muttered a curse. She had to settle for the sword in her lap instead, standing quickly to hold it in front of her, trying quickly to remember how Nem and Pierson had wielded blades before.
The rider in the cart yanked at the reins long before he reached her and the creature pulling him halted. It was larger than the pony the thieving priest’d had driving his cart on the king’s road, but with its broad horns and muscled body it was more like the cows in the shed than a horse.
“Ho, there!” The driver called. It was a man in a dark brown coat with some yellow gold colouring around the collar. He seemed unconcerned by the ghosts barely twenty yards from him, but he was staring at her intently. She raised the sword.
“Ho.” She repeated back, the tip of the sword weaving a little as she looked over the new arrival.
“Peace.” He said and let go of the beast’s reins for a moment to spread his hands wide. “Peace, woods-voln, peace.”
She nodded and dipped the end of the sword a little. He was a good enough way away that she’d have to run a ways before sticking it in him anyway.
“What business do you have here, woods-voln? If I go on a ways, am I to find Thoma and Lissy and all their lasses and lads with their throats cut?!”
She peered at the man, her sharp eyes letting her see further than most. A brown beard speckled with grey hairs told her that he was near enough of an age with Thoma. But he was heavier set than the city-voln, soft with finer meals and more of them.
“No.” She said bluntly. “But my business is none of yours.”
He shrugged and picked up the reins again, shucking with them and his tongue to make the beast walk on. As he came closer she could see him better. Farm-voln. Maybe older than Thoma in fact. Tall. But no weapons.
“Lios be with you” He said as they drew level, making the symbol of Lios with his left hand. Eris spat into the dust, but her disgust was ignored by the man as the cart rumbled on. She turned and walked after him, returning the sword to its place in her rough belt and marching sullenly in the carts shadow.
Lissy came out to greet the guest, concern on her face as Eris arrived moments after him.
“Beloved, we did not expect you.” She looked past him to Eris, panic on her face.
“So it seems.” He looked back at Eris skulking by his cart. “A woods-voln, Lissy?”
Lissy drew herself up. “What of it? She’s done no harm.”
“She came from the woods to the West?”
“Where else would she have come from, Beloved?”
“Careful Lissy. A woods-voln on your land plus a sharp tongue in your head… the scales will shift.” He got down from the cart and stood before her, his greater height and weight making him seem more threatening. Eris took another step forward.
“You’re here to collect our repentances?!” Lissy sounded shocked, and also perhaps a little angry. “Your companion from Tralis was here a fourteen day back!”
“I’ve not been sent by the Tralis temple. Your neighbours asked that I visit.”
Lissy’s face reddened. “They… asked you? Who? Gail? Edmont? That weasel Flingal?!”
“They are concerned by the ghosts. They fear that you have some hidden sin that Lios alone sees, and that you have not yet made your repentance for. A woman on her own for so long might have strayed from the path set for us by Lios.”
Eris realised why he was being called Beloved by Lissy. Beloved of Lios. He was a priest! He did not wear the usual heavy robes, but there had been the glint of gold about his collar and now Eris squinted to see the gold thread embroidered there in small shapes of lions and watching eyes.
“And I find a woods-voln walking on your land.”
“There’s no sin in that!” That was Milly, speaking out before her mother could hush her.
“Are you a priest Milly?”
“No.” She said sullenly.
“No. Of course not. Nor are you the golden scales themselves. Your mother must have her actions weighed and her repentances paid. And your father as well. And you are old enough now as well.”
“She is a child!” exclaimed Lissy.
“The age of maturity has been brought down since last I visited.”
“We do not have coin for repentances for three adults! And so soon after last visit!!”
The priest put his hands out in the same gesture for peace that he’d made on the cart, but this time it seemed more like him admitting there was nothing he could do. Eris could though.
She walked forward, gripping the sword. “They do not have enough to give you, priest.”
“Stay your sharp tongue woods-voln.” He paused, looking her over. “Or are you woods-voln, indeed? Dark hair, not red. And you walk the lands of the farm-voln and live. Perhaps others in the past did as well. Is that your sin, Lissy, bedding down with woods-voln men in the barn and bearing this child?” His face was lascivious as he described the imagined sin, making Lissy gasp in horror.
Eris could hold back no more. She charged the man, the sword swinging high and down upon the arm he raised to stop her. The old sword was blunt with age, but even so it should have cleaved into his arm. Instead it bit through the brown sleeve of his robe and crunched against metal. Eris withdrew a step to try again.
It was Thoma, charging from the house as the priest staggered back from the blow. The sleeve of his robe flapped where she’d hacked at him and underneath the grey of mail armour showed through. A priest in armour!?
“Hold! Thoma shouted again, and got himself between Eris and the priest as the man was turning on her in rage and disgust.
“I will not hold! That bitch tried to kill me!”
“I’ll do better next time!”
The ‘Beloved’ was about to respond when he realised that Thoma was holding up both his hands in his attempt to keep them apart. “What’s this?! What’s happened!?”
The city-voln moved away from the priest but still kept an eye on Eris. Lissy pushed the children to the barn, and barred them all in there against their protests.
“I have been healed.” Thoma said simply and held out both his normal looking arms to the priest.
‘Beloved’ hissed and took a step back. “First the ghosts and now this impure magic! What are you caught up in Thoma? I looked away when you first returned and I heard stories that you were changed. That was my weakness and my sin, and I have repented for it. But then the ghosts came and I thought you would finally pay for the sin of all the lies you were telling. But this?! This is beyond the pale! This is impurity of the very worst kind!”
“I am whole, and that is not due to Lios!” Thoma barked back at him. “Let the ghosts come! Just as she restored my arm, she will turn back the ghosts!”
Beloved looked at Eris again. “This thing? This is the foul creature of impure magic?!”
Atta flooded her mouth as her anger rose, like bile churning up from her stomach. She swallowed in back down and sneered at the priest in brown and mail.
“I am Eris Atta-Sutith, and what I can do is not impure. Lios is the impure one, the one who demands coins for imagined sins and poisons rivers so that children die!”
Beloved snarled at her, before suddenly turning on his feet to run across the courtyard and to the fields beyond it, heading determinedly towards the boundary stones and the slow moving ghosts in front of them. He quickly became a dark brown spot amidst the waving greens and yellows of the farm-volns crops.
Eris looked to Thoma and Lissy. “You cannot let him tell others that your healing was impure magic. Your neighbours already suspect some bad deeds on this farmstead.” She let her words sink in. “Fetch me my bow, and I can stop him.”
Lissy paled, but Thoma nodded and ran to where it had been hidden from her. With its familiar wooden touch against her palm again she felt stronger. She nodded to the two farm-voln and began to run after the priest.
She was faster than him across the fields, even while still feeling drained after the healing, and soon the small speck that was the man in brown became a larger figure scrambling and charging through the crops towards the nearest boundary stone and its ghost. The large shadow dancer swirled above the man as he came to a breathless halt.
“Hear me!” Beloved began, his voice loud across the flat fields. “Hear me spirit of vengeance. You have tarried too long. Your prey is there, below us, in the house. You must fulfil your duty and punish him and his family for their sins!”
The creature continued to swirl above him for a moment. Then shapes became more defined within it. Arms. Legs. A body. Stepping down out of the smoke and shadows came a young boy made of dark, the edges of him still flowing back into the rest of the creature.
“Stop!” Yelled Eris, but the priest was smiling.
“Yes! Yes, walk on wards to the farm and take Lios’s revenge on them all!”
The boy lifted up his featureless face to ‘look’ at the priest. Skin shifted on his face, rippling, cracking, making leathery skin that opened into a too large mouth. A word bubbled through it, a too long tongue shaping them badly. “Lios?”
“Your god commands you!” Beloved ranted, spit flinging from his lips.
Eris drew closer, nocked an arrow and aimed at the man. “Stop this!”
The shadow dancer tilted its head at too big an angle to look at her. Then its gaze was torn away by the arrow that thudded into the grass about the boundary stone, just in front of it. It wasn’t Eris’.
She turned to follow its likely path and saw a large pack of her Atta charging towards them. Sarai was near the front, her hand returning to her quiver for another arrow as Nem released his great sword from its scabbard and Pierson readied his roarer. Orrin was running nimbly with his own bow ready, surrounded by woods-voln, city-voln, and street-voln. Even Aril was there, her eyes ablaze with madness under her white caked braids as she ran forward, a gnarled staff in her rising hands.
Eris stepped between the charging army of her people and the scene at the boundary stone. She dropped her bow to spread out her hands as she shouted out warnings, desperate to make them stop.