Orrin made a good travelling companion. Of course, as a part of the firm and then the Atta, she had already spent time walking through the woods-voln lands with him. With the help of the Atta he’d gone from a stumbling city-voln to someone who, if not quite the silent shadow of a woods-voln among the trees, at least didn’t snap every single bloody twig beneath his feet. His skills with the bow had improved immeasurably as well. His first fumbles with it had led to bleeding forearms and startled buck-rabbits, but no food for them. Now he could sling an arrow and send it where he intended within moments.
But she’d never travelled alone with him through the woods before, and it seemed that he had learnt from the woods-voln of the Atta when to speak and when to stay silent. When to indicate possible game trails and when to leave them be in order to keep heading onwards. He was cautious, keeping an eye on shadows to try to be wary of the woods’ current greening. Not that she thought he’d catch trace of any woods-voln, but he knew to try to do it.
And he just about kept pace with her. She had the advantage of woods-voln swiftness and long legs that she had… changed. His feet had grown up by running over near flat cobblestones and then walking slowly in temple processions. But he had learnt and he kept up with her swiftness for longer than she’d expected. Eventually though, she slowed for him and they kept to a more meandering pace through the land’s dips and mounds around the base of trees.
“North and East?” He asked.
“You knew that even without Nem’s mountain stone.”
He laughed, “Ah, so you were there for that. Bloody thing, it points to his own mountain, and that’s not always going to be dead north. I think he likes getting lost though.”
“What do you mean?”
“Never met a man so happy to find himself where he is. Maybe it’s a mountain-voln thing, but most city-voln are heading somewhere. Always somewhere next… well something next. The woods-voln move about much more than we do. We stick to our cities mostly. But the city itself is always a moving place.”
Eris picked at the gently rounded flowering heads of a bush as they passed it, avoiding the spikes within the branches. “Heart-sign.”
“Heart-sign.” He repeated. They’d started this game some hours back. This was how she’d learnt the herbs and harmers of the woods as a child, walking alongside her mother and her mother’s mother as they made their own trails through the trees.
“Good for rapid pulses. Crush and add a little water.”
“Is it used in any greening?”
She laughed. Always the same question. “I can’t teach you the greenings.”
“You are teaching me balms. And which leaves to avoid brushing my hands against.”
“Even farm-voln have a few balms of their own, made from the things they call ‘weeds’ on their farmsteads. They don’t work of course. And you’d be no use with red swollen hands from touching Achinsus Ivy. But greenings are woods-voln. The woods-voln are their greenings.”
“And I am Atta.” He said, almost sounding proud.
“And I can tell you how to make Atta.”
He paused, stopping still for a moment. “How?”
“Be born an Atta-Sutith.” She said in a sing-song voice.
He growled for a moment, but then laughed as well. Another thought occurred to him. “Pierson still asks about the Gyreblack, but I have nothing more to tell him than what was written on the parchment. A list of names. And he knows about Verla.”
Her name was a dagger in her heart and a sick feeling in her gut. She chewed the Heart-sign petals absent-mindedly, knowing it would do nothing to ease her guilt.
“Why do you think he’s interested in Gyreblack?”
Eris shrugged, “I don’t know. A greening without sign is like…”
“Woods without trees.” Said Orrin.
She laughed, “Aye. You are Atta.”
They walked on, pushing past more undergrowth. Eris pointed out more ingredients as she spotted them. Bark of Oak, the oily leaves of Durnen, the stems of Voln’s Rainbow, fish smelling ripening Aga fruits, rank plumes of mushroom spoors that dispersed as he stepped through them. She noticed eventually that although Orrin was quick to repeat their names, his attention was drifting. To her. There were lines of concern around his eyes and lips that she caught sight of out of the corner of her eyes.
“What bothers you?” She asked eventually.
“You changed yourself, didn’t you? I had wondered about it. And then you straightened the Beloved’s back and I was suddenly sure of what you’d done. You’ve made yourself taller. Longer legs, longer body and arms. Pretty much in proportion… just about.”
She tried to fight against her reddening cheeks. She knew one day some might realise. That it was Orrin concerned her in a way she wasn’t prepared for.
“What of it?” She went for defiance instead of shame. “I can more than keep pace with you and the other Atta now. I don’t have to be carried.”
“You weren’t carried once you regrew your foot. And you kept pace well enough even then. You grew taller because… because you didn’t think you were taken seriously because of your age.”
“That sounds like the start of a story.”
“Maybe it is. Maybe you’re the One Who Felt too Small?”
She glared at Orrin, who quickly held out his palms in the sign for peace.
“Apologies. I understand why you did it. But weren’t you concerned with changing yourself too much? You’re… well… you’re becoming a woman and could there have been harm in changing your nature at such an age?”
Eris found something in the distance to stare at, a small bush of grey-green heather, in order to avoid looking at him. But still she reddened. “What do you know of my nature?”
“Aye, not much. You can do more than I could imagine. But perhaps you should have spoken with Sarai or Callia before you did it?”
“I’ve been a birthing-woman since I was of an age to know how to twist a babe out with my smaller hands! Of course I know about a woman’s bloods and her changes! I know how to prevent a babe coming or how to stop one that starts!”
“Forgive me. This is something I don’t know much about. That’s why I suggest speaking with Sarai or…”
“You know, until now I had been pleased. I’d been thinking that you’d learnt the woods-voln ways well enough to walk in silence in the woods when it was needed!”
He nodded, and they went back to striding without speaking. But this time it wasn’t good companionable silence. It was a fuming, seething, quietness. At least it was for her. What right did he have?! And what did he know of ‘women’s natures’?! He was a Lios-lover for years, a priest in training, held away from anything like women’s changes. The whores who visited the temples wouldn’t have shared such things. Had he shared them though? A cascade of conflicting thoughts travelled through her mind as they walked. It was a relief then when she spotted something to steady their path again. She grabbed at a plant as they passed, pulling off a long stem topped with a soft rounded halo of white.
“Mane Shorn.” He said quietly, chastisied.
She held the puffball to her lips and gently blew the white which became a thousand drifting seeds carried on the slight breeze by the white feathery canopy above them.
“Dandelion.” He said.
She looked confused. “Dandelion?”
“We have those in the cities. Remember the small park? Under the gaze of the tall houses?”
“Where we entered the tunnel? Through the roots of the tree?”
“Aye. Some wealthier city-voln enclose the green with iron bars. They keep it hacked back and trimmed to some idea of city-voln beauty. But still the small wildernesses creep in. Dandelions. Ivy. Nettles. You find them between the cobblestones sometimes. The city destroys them, with fire and salt, but they come back.” He grabbed a Mane Shorn head from another spot and did as she had done, sending the seeds floating away on his breath. “I always liked Dandelions. There something nicely blasphemous about them.”
She must have looked confused.
“As your name suggests, you are shearing the mane of the Dandelion. Just huff and puff, and the lion’s not so scary anymore.” He threw the remains of the stem away. “Were it so easy with Lios!”
She laughed and kicked a bunch of the white puffballs with her wyrd foot, sending their seeds swirling out to new homes in the soil. Orrin’s laughter returned hers. When a third voice joined in they froze, hands moving to their bows.
“Peace.” Called a man. “This is Nuerveld lands you walk. Seven arrows are trained on you. Peace.”
Orrin nodded at Eris and let her step forward. Sharp woods-voln eyes might have already spotted that he was a city-voln. Eris was their best ambassador.
“Greetings to the Nuerveld. We are passing through.”
“There is no passing through in the direction you are heading. The lands are dead the way you are going.” The voice floated down from ahead and above them.
“What is your greening? You must be far from it not to know that the trees decay in the west, replaced by sinking farm-lands also disappearing into stink and mud.”
“A swamp?” Asked Orrin.
“Aye, that’s the word the city-voln give it. If you’re to head this way you’ll find the end of the woods-voln lands. Northwards is the king’s road and the path the Tralis through the stink. That city lies on unsettled land though too. Heard it’s built up on itself, as the god-shit tries to keep his base for the war.”
“Do you know what they fight?”
“Bastard gods only know. We hear the great roarers often enough so they fight hard enough. But where are you headed with bow, sword and city-voln?”
Eris fist tightened on the wood of her bow’s grip. “Is that your business?”
“You pass through Nuerveld lands. I’d say so.”
“I am Eris Atta-Sutith.” She spoke upwards to the shadows in the trees.
“Atta.” Eris stepped forward. “A new greening, descended from Attavine.”
“She is balm and greening in one.” Said Orrin, risking taking his usual role as her herald.
“The city-voln speaks nonsense.”
“I’ve been known to do that, but not this time.” Orrin took a breath, about to launch into a long list of compliment to her nature. Eris stepped on his foot.
“I’m Eris Atta-Sutith. Born with the healer’s skill. Maker of greenings. Leader of the Atta.”
“Leader?” The man laughed and was echoed by others hidden in the trees. Eris thought she could make out seven or so. He wasn’t lying about the arrows trained at them. “I see no greening with you. Just one city-voln. Driven insane by the woods no doubt. Scary aren’t they, oh lost child of the walls?”
“I’m not afraid of the woods. None of the Atta are. Not the city-voln, street-voln, mountain-voln, nor woods-voln who are all the Atta.”
A hiss from one of the watchers in the trees at the mention of voln mixing.
“Peace. We only want to carry on to Tralis.” Eris said, letting go of her bow and spreading her hand wide. The first arrow thudded into the ground by her wyrd foot. The second slammed into her shoulder and drove her to the ground in pain. Orrin was in front of her immediately, flinging arrows wildly into the green as laughter followed their path back, finding them on the ground to mock.
Her hand shook as she carefully investigated the arrow buried in her. It’d hit thick into the joint of her arm and her chest. Not a killing blow for anything apart from a posion greened arrow. Neurveld.
“You have to pull the arrow.” She said wanly. “I can heal…”
More arrows landed about them. Again, purposefully missing. More laughter rang from the trees. Orrin snarled at their helplessness and turned to yank at the long end of the arrow, grasping it past the pale blue fletching feathers and holding her down with his other hand. Through the grey haze falling over her eyes, Eris could make out dark figures slowly, languidly, dropping from the trees ahead of them. They were beginning to walk to towards Orrin.
Orrin ripped the arrow from her just as the effects of the Nuerveld greening flashed fire across her skin, making her groan more than from the pain of the wound.
“Sutith.” She called, hoarsely whispering as the fire tightened her muscles, contracting around her bones and wringing more groans from her. “Sutith!”
Cooling water flowed through her, pushing back against the Nuerveld and neutralising it. Her whole body shook and then relaxed as the healing balm defeated the greening. It stitched together the hole in her shoulder with yet more wyrd skin, but also gave her the strength to push Orrin aside just as the first dagger was pointed towards him. The Nuerveld wielding it barely got the chance to protest before she was leaping onto him, pushing him away from his allies and channelling the fire that had been trying to crack her bones into him.
“Nuerveld!” She shouted, naming the greening she was returning to him. His skin mottled as the poison claimed him, his breath stopping as his joints popped and twisted with the strange contortions of his muscles.
“How?!” Shouted one of the others, the first speaker maybe.
She gave them long enough to see their companion’s twisting body and then changed fire to balm for him too. Sutith, she called.
“Sutith!” She proclaimed. And his skin began to return to its normal hue.
She stood and turned on the others, her eyes wild and her breathing rapid. They took in her dripping hands, the wyrd black lattice of her foot, and the tear in her leathers that showed a round shape of darker wyrd skin where the arrow had pierced her.
As one they dropped their bows.