It took time. And she wasn’t as happy telling stories as Orrin Storyteller was.
She half expected Orrin to interrupt, to add more florid details to her account of her journey so far with their firm and then the Atta. But he was silent, watching the man’s reactions as she recounted her wounding at the hands of the boy… at the command of a button man. She told him of their firm’s stay with the Diarnilys, the street-voln who’d been sold to the castle, their firm’s venture into Bara, the poisoning of the Attavine by the Ireblade, and the forming of the Atta and their year or more together. And she spoke of more recent things. The so-called ghosts; the children from the castle made into ‘things’ by Lios’ will and how they were roaming the lands of the volnen. The Lastleaf who’d been wiped out by the pox. The Rexakyde who’d wanted her to end the farm-voln family, and how she had refused. And she laid out how Lios was the thread connecting them all. That Lios had been behind the dark changes on the land, that he had put woods-voln against woods-voln. Voln against voln.
Beloved looked at her all the while. Not interrupting with his own opinions on where the ghosts had come from. Not even looking down at her wyrd foot when she explained that she had been wounded and then healed herself. But when she finished speaking, knowing that there was still more that she could have said but that she was drained by the retelling, he locked her green eyes with his brown and nodded.
He said nothing, and Eris was convinced that she had failed. The stories of Lios were older and stronger for him. Telling him that Lios was a monster had had no effect at all.
She wasn’t wrong.
“A story for a story seems a fair trade.” Beloved said, still holding her eyes with his. “Let me tell you of how a farm-voln becomes a beloved of Lios. The temples are all in the cities and the farm-voln work the reclaimed land saved from the woods-voln. So how could a voln formed of soil and cow shit ever learnt the divine words of Lios? Oh, there’s always a copy of the Light of Lios about. There’s always some travelling priest collecting repentances and sharing the words of our god-king. But what makes a farm-voln leave his hoe and his scythe to walk south through the dread black gates of Garre and onwards to humble himself in Liosinium, where every city-voln spits at him and every priest derides him for getting dung on the holy words?” He did turn to Orrin then, with a black look upon his face, “You, city-voln, would you have welcomed a farm-voln within your walls seeking knowledge and not just dropping off turnips and tubers?”
“At the temple…” He paused, obviously not sure that he should reveal that he’d once been a beloved in training too, “True, in the cities farm-voln were not welcomed warmly.”
Beloved laughed, “Aye, even in that sliding city Emphon, where the sea-voln and the city-voln live side by side, I would have been told to get gone.” He sneered. “A soulless place I’ve heard. May Lios raze it to the ground as he did with Bridge! So why does a farm-voln dare to get all the way to Liosinium to stand before the golden statue of Lios and wait for the sounding that will tell the world that he’s beloved?”
Eris remembered Orrin telling her of the grand and gold statue in Liosinium that the ‘Lios-lovers’ believed Lios could see through, looking down at all the new novices and deciding who was accepted and who was… disappeared.
“Why?” She asked.
“Because I have seen what Lios saves us from! Before Liosinium I was on the Front, just another mud born soldier under city-voln command. I saw the foul creatures that we are at war with there in Lios’ eternal battle. The ghosts are a warning of what happens when we fail Lios. The nightmares of the war are what happens when all the volnen fail. If we serve Lios, really serve him, we will be safe in the lands of the volnen!”
Eris looked at Orrin. “Has Pierson ever spoken of-”
She was cut off by the Beloved leaping up from where he sat and pushing her to the ground. It was a rash move, he had no weapons, and nowhere to run here in the woods. But the mad fervour in his eyes as his stale breath washed over her face told her that he didn’t care.
Both Orrin and the ‘Harl’ thing yanked him away from her. But the smaller woods-voln lad then wrenched the man away from the storyteller and slammed him into a tree, a sickening crunching sound telling Eris that a serious injury had been done to the now crumpled figure in the brown and gold robe.
She ran to his side as Orrin gently encouraged the lad to step away.
“Lios save me, Lios save me…” Beloved was muttering over and over again, the blood draining from his face, but leaving two high bright spots of colour under his eyes.
Eris slipped a careful hand behind the man, but the angle his body was at told her what she needed to know. His back was broken.
“By the bastard gods!” She swore.
“You are… damned… woods-voln…” He muttered through chattering teeth.
“Maybe. Maybe…” She muttered, and put her hands to his face. There was blood at the corner of his mouth with bubbles of spit. He was bleeding from inside as well. “But not today.”
She placed her forehead to his and let Sutith flow between them. All that she could manage. The man groaned and shifted his shoulders and hips as the bones knit themselves back together. His legs straightened from their jumble and his panicked breathing slowed as she fell away from him, breathing heavily herself as she leant over the rich soil of the woods.
“Why did you help him?”, asked ‘Harl’. “He was hurting you.”
She looked up at the shadow dancer. In Bara she’d set Jerekyn on the Gyreblack boy for what he’d done to her. But now she was protecting, healing, the man who’d wanted to hurt her. To hurt Thoma and his family for helping the Atta. For being impure.
She had no answer for the creature, her eye lids drooping as the effect of so much healing. She felt Orrin help her to stand, gentle hands bringing up her up as her head spun. A waterskin was placed to her lips, and she felt the burn of something… not water… flow over her tongue. She held in the cough that would have followed, not wanting to give Orrin the opportunity to laugh at her youth. A warm feeling, not unlike the feeling of Sutith in her veins, washed over her.
She looked at Beloved again. He was whole but defiant.
“What now?” Asked Orrin, looking at her with concern, “We cou-”
His words were stolen as ‘Harl’ fell apart, flowing into smoke and shadows and then whistling past them – through them – and sweeping up Beloved into his self. The priest barely got the few sounds of a scream out of his mouth before he was silenced by the mass of the shadow dancer flowing over him. Eris screamed for him, expecting to see his bones emerging from dissolved clothes and flesh as Verla’s had done. But the shadow dancer took up Beloved whole so that he drifted in the middle of the creature’s water like body. Great leathery wings shot out from the ghost’s back. A back that undulated and stretched into a snake like form, the priest still floating at the heart of the beast as it leapt using new scaled legs to through itself into the sky in a jumble of moving and transforming parts. It took the priest with it as its massive wingspan made it past the outstretched limbs of the trees and unfurled wider to soar off into the sky, dropping leaves and branches behind it.
“No!” Eris screamed again, “Come back!”
But the ghost was already far beyond hearing.
“Damn you! By the bastard gods, damn you!” She swore, spitting out her anger and not even noticing when flecks of her spit landed on nearby plants and burnt their way through them. Orrin tightened his hold on her as her legs weakened.
“Sit, you’re tired.”
“We have to follow!”
“We cannot track the… that thing!”
“What will it do with the priest? What if it leaves him somewhere, and he gets to a city and… what of the farm-voln Orrin!”
“I doubt it means to take him to a city.”
“Will it kill him?!” Eris looked upwards to the darkening sky through the hold punctured through the woods canopy by the beast. “It could have done that straight away, as the other did with Verla.” A memory of the floating bones in the other shadow dancer struck her and she heaved over a few low plants. It was white bracken, like the thick bushes she and the Gyreblack boy had rolled into as they had struggled against each other. She remember blood in her mouth from his palm, from where she’d bitten hard and deep into his hand as they’d struggled. She vomited, and what came out was meagre rations stained dark violet with a foul smelling poison. Around the mess the plants curled and died.
“Oh gods, Eris!” Orrin was at her side. “Are you sick?”
“I don’t think so… I remember. The boy, the Gyreblack boy.” She mumbled, forming words around the acid in her mouth. Orrin passed her his wineskin again and she drank deeply this time, letting the warmth flow into her blood. To drive out the poison there.
She looked up at Orrin, seeing the fear in his city-voln grey eyes, and smiled weakly. “I am well.”
“You might be, but what about the plants at your feet?” He joked, even as the concern was apparent in the lines of his brow and the set of his mouth.
“Where do you think it took him?” She asked, standing straighter and resting her hand on the sword’s pommel. It was comforting in a way she didn’t entirely understand, especially with the mark of Lios there.
“The bastard gods only know. Couldn’t see which way it turned through the whirlwind of dirt and leaves.”
“Damn.” Eris snapped.
“Look, it’s unlikely that it’ll will take him off to the ‘safety’ of a city. The button men will never know that there is a city-voln with a farm-voln on the lands towards Tralis. They’ll never learn the Atta fought shadow dancers by the boundary stones. You’ve done what you wanted to do!”
Eris stared upwards to the broken limbs of the trees. “You’re right.”
“Well, it had to happen one day.”
She smiled back at him wanly. “Thank you, storyteller.”
“And now…?” He asked expectantly, “Back to the Atta? Back to a furious Pierson and a near murderous Sarai and Callia? Or maybe I’ll be lucky enough to be stomped on by Nem and it will be over quickly.”
“What do you mean?”
“Oh, I mean, imagine the trouble I am in for letting you race off on the back of some horrific beast?”
“Letting me? I don’t remember it like that.” Eris smiled.
“But that’ll be how Pierson and the rest will see it.”
“I promise you, I’ll let no one hurt my priest.” She joked.
“You haven’t called me that for a little while.”
“The word sits badly on my tongue.”
“It didn’t when you commanded me to care for the unconscious prophet, Aril.”
“Well… sometimes you only listen to me when I do!” Eris frowned.
“I always listen to you.” He said, oddly quiet for a moment.
She snorted in dismissal and walked the edge of the clearing. “This way takes us back towards the king’s road.”
“West and North to the Atta I suppose… or East.”
“East? There’s only more farm-voln lands and…” He looked confused and then he seemed to realise what she meant. “Tralis. Tralis on the Front?!”
She held out her hands in the symbol for peace.
“You can’t be serious!”
“I want to see if the Beloved was right. I want to see the monsters Lios faces on the Eastern edge of the volnen lands.”
“Gods damn it! There is nothing but death in Tralis!”
“You don’t have to come with me…”
“Oh, yes, can you imagine me returning without you!” Orrin sighed, and rubbed his hand over the growing stubble of his cheeks. “I’d rather not face the wrath of the entire bloody Atta! But, by the bastard gods, if we die in Tralis I’m going to find a way to haunt your Lios-cursed ghost!”