Their passage back across the farm lands and into the familiar shadows of the Rexakyde’s woods was mostly uneventful. It was only when they eventually sat again under the cover of the woods-voln’s trees that anger tore through them all.
Eris had walked ahead with the creature that looked like Harl, urging him to the front of the convoy where all the Atta could see his back. If it tried anything it could be cut down by a blizzard of Atta greened arrow heads, raining down with the light drizzle that was already falling from above them. Nemnir had stuck close to her as well, his great sword out and shining greenly with poison as he eyed the creature that looked like the lad from Bara with suspicion. Pierson had fallen back with Sarai and Callia into the rear guard of archers, and Orrin walked a few steps behind the prophet Aril, keeping as much of an eye on her as the others kept on the ghost’s vulnerable back as she meandered casually along the path and muttered to herself.
“Are you a ghost?” Eris asked, remembering her whispered question of the first shadow dancer that she’d ever seen. “Some say you are Lios cursed ghosts. But I’ve heard the story of the castle. Did you die there and return like this?”
‘Harl’ opened its mouth to answer and a strange keening noise came from it, before he righted his lips and tongue and spoke like a woods-voln. “I don’t think so. I remember pain. And darkness. A cell where there were no windows at all. And boys bringing food on trays. Good food. Better than I had before. But so much darkness.”
The edges of the creature blurred and darkened, shadows moving about it, before it seemed to concentrate and bring them back into itself. It reformed the lines of its leathers and even its paler than woods-voln skin. It was far enough ahead that no one seemed to notice.
The Atta still carefully wove their way into the treeline, and Eris gave a final look back towards the farm where they’d left Thoma and Lissy and the children. She couldn’t see the farmstead’s buildings from here, just the beginnings of the worked land, devoid of trees and parcelled up into so many bordered patches of furrowed earth.
“Farm-voln.” The creature said as they began walking again. It looked at her, “Woods-voln, like me.”
“Perhaps like you.” She’d seen the shapes the shadow dancers could take. Its face, Harl’s face, might be no more permanent than those.
“You are impure like me. I feel it.”
“You mean my foot. Its wyrdness?”
“That, and other things. In your bones.” It looked up at Nemnir, the mountain-voln’s face as stony as his lost mountains as Eris worried what the tall man would think about its comment about her bones. “And the things you’ve done to others.”
Nemnir grunted. “Her healings you mean.”
“Lios won’t like it.”
“Good.” Sneered Nemnir.
“How much do you know about Lios, and the castle, and what he was doing to you?” Eris asked, avoiding looking into the creature’s false emerald eyes. Harl’s eyes.
It was silent for a while before finally speaking. “I remember the measuring. I was told Lios needed to know all about us. And there were so many of us there. Shivering in the cold. And a lot of them died. Or were wounded. But I changed.”
“Into this. Over time. In the dark I felt my body following my will. First, I changed my eyes to see. Then I changed my bones and skin to make me stronger. But I couldn’t change my heart to be brave. Until the smoke sung us awake.”
Eris frowned. It spoke in riddles! She decided on a simpler question. “What is your name?”
It shook its head. “I don’t know.”
“The boy’s face you wear now, do you know his name? Did you know him?”
“I have a memory of him. Did I know him? Everything is confused. Do you know?” It asked her and itself.
“I can’t call you by his name. He was… he was not kind to me. We will have to find your name… your greening.”
The creature walked on in silence, and she noted how deft he was at travelling through the trees, as swift and agile as any of her Atta. He had been born in woods like these, she was certain of it.
Siall Rexakyde drew near, just as silently, dipping his bow in deference and surprising Eris with his humility even as he glared at the wyrd boy. “We are well into Rexakyde lands now. My people want to know if you will halt here and take our hospitality?”
She looked back to her Atta. Even under the canopy of the trees they were getting wet and looked tired from chasing after her into the wounded lands of the farm-voln. “Very well. But allow the Atta to hunt with you, to help.”
Siall nodded and gestured to a few woods-voln to take up their bows and follow him onto their hunters’ trails. Others worked to tie up canvas across open spaces where they could sit out of the relentless rain. Eris took the creature’s hand without thinking, to walk it to one of them set up at the edge of the temporary camp. In the moment that their hands touched she felt a strange spark pass between them, and her hand become damp with sweat. She released its hand as soon as she could, and sat down beside it under the cover, avoiding looking directly at it.
Aril and Orrin came to sit with them, muted anger flashing between them.
“My lady.” Said Orrin, smiling with gritted teeth, holding in his annoyance at Aril.
As though trying to irritate the man Aril took a place on the dirt, kneeling before Eris as Orrin sat down on his pack. But before Eris could speak any complaint about the prophet Aril began to keen. It was a long heart breaking sound, and others came over quickly to see what was wrong and to protect Eris. Orrin was on his feet again, almost as soon as he had sat down, a short dagger blade in his hand.
“What’s wrong with her?!”
Aril was staring at ‘Harl’, the low keening growing as she repeatedly pushed and pulled at the woods’ floor beneath her white stained hands as though it was city-voln dough she was kneading. She wailed like a woman labouring, the white of her face torn by the streams of her tears. Eris watched her as she ripped her gaze from ‘Harl’, before staring at him again and shaking her head, wracked with sobs.
“Is it the ghost?” Eris asked, kneeling down beside the frantic woman and trying to hold her hands still. Along with the white of the bone past on her fingers, and the dark brown of the earth there was now blood as she tore away her fingernails. “Is it because of this shadow dancer?”
Aril pulled her hands from Eris’ hold and reached into a leather pouch at her waist, pulling out more of the white paste that was already slathered on her face and into the braids of her hair. Eris didn’t know whether to stop her or not, and in the time she was deciding what to do Aril had refreshed what was on her skin and her eyes were rolling back in her head. Her body fell to the floor of the woods and she lay still.
Eris crouched by her and felt for her pulse, something she’d seen her mother do enough to know the thudding in the blood meant life. Orrin crouched by her and watched Eris pull at Aril’s eye lids to see her mostly white eyes.
“By the bastard gods.” He muttered, pale and shaken. “She looks just as you did when you collapsed in the tunnels under Bara.”
Eris looked critically at the woman and her splayed limbs. “She went away. Something was bad and she went away into that stuff.” She looked critically at the white that had transferred itself to her fingertips as she’d tried to help Aril.
She looked at the ghost. “Do you know her?” She gestured to the prone woman’s body.
The creature furrowed Harl’s brow in its attempt to recall her. “I don’t know…”
Suddenly, the world swirled and Eris felt the breath pushed from her as everything changed. She found herself standing by Thoma and Lissy’s barn and looking up to where Milly was silhouetted against the setting sun, sitting casually on the roof of the barn and listening to the booming of the giant roarers far in the East.
Eris took a step back and had the oddest feeling that several others stood just behind her, taking a step backwards at just the same moment, as though she had been sliced into a thousand versions, all standing in a line stretching all the way to the edge of the farm land. Raising a hand to call out to Milly she also felt numerous more arms rising up to try to attract the farm-voln girl’s attention. All the others standing with her opened their lips at the same time to cry out a hail but before any sound could emerge from any of them, she could see Milly stand and shout something herself as she pointed towards the rough path that wound towards the farmstead from between their boundary stones. Eris, all the many versions of her, turned to look where she pointed and saw horses racing towards them, men in fine dark blue coats on their backs with golden buttons gleaming like sparks in the sunset. Button men.
All of her watched as Thoma ran from the main building of the farm to speak with them, Lissy at his side. But none of her could do a thing as they beat him bloody, and then bound his hands, both the new and the old, and then tied the other end of the rope to the pommel of one of their horses. Lissy was grabbed and lifted up onto a horse, flailing and screaming soundlessly against the saddle before being knocked out. Then the button men saw Milly and quickly gave up on entreating her down. They pointed roarers at her instead. The other children came out then, as their sister fell from the top of the barn and silently crashed into the dust and dirt of the courtyard in front of them.
Eris turned her head, trying not to see any more. And a hundred forceful hands turned her face back, making sure she would witness the deaths of the other children. So she had to watch Ebert crawl his way to his sister’s body as his heart’s blood left his body.
Eris screamed soundlessly, hands behind her curling about her arms and legs as though to hold her back. But then she felt a gentle pressure from them. Not holding her back, pushing her forward. She took a step forward, her wyrd left foot finding balance against the bare earth of the farm-voln’s land. Another step forward as they pushed her and then she was falling into Orrin’s arms, the city-voln babbling something, his words as gone as the button men’s and Thomas for moment before coming back in a rush of noise in her ears. She wailed and pressed her hands to her ears.
“Eris! Eris! Peace! Eris, please…” Orrin was begging, trying to pull her hands away as she shook and cried.
“No… no… no…” She muttered over and over as the images of the children spun about and murdered by roarer shot assaulted her. Orrin held her tight as though to stop the shaking, but she felt it as if it was the rope about Thoma’s wrists, putting her into captivity.
She shoved him back and sought out Aril. She was still unconscious on the ground, as though only moments had passed.
“What did you see?” It was Siall. He hadn’t been there before. His lip was bloodied as though someone had punched him. Pierson stood near him, a grim look on his face. “You saw things. As she does. From that god’s bone she says she has. Things that will happen.”
“The farm-voln. Button men. Is it really prophecy, like she claims?” Eris looked back the way that they had come. “How long until…?”
“You can’t go back.” said Pierson firmly. “You can’t!”
The ghost flinched as the man raised his voice.
“Beloved must be on his way to Tralis. He must tell the button men about Thoma. About his arm. About me.” Eris said, thinking out-loud. “How far is it to Tralis?”
“Tralis on the front?! You can’t go there!” that was Orrin. More hands she thought were holding her back.
“I could wait for them at the farm. We all could. There weren’t that many button men, not too many to take on.” But as soon as she said it she knew that wouldn’t work. Beloved had seen them all. Button men dying at their hands would only confirm that the woods-voln were massing.
In her mind Ebert was still crawling towards his sister’s broken body.
Orrin saw her eyes, saw her determination.