Ghosts’ Prey, Chapter Eleven, Part Four

The Nuerveld were only just willing to escort them through their woods and towards the road leading to Tralis, and they remained extremely wary of Eris and Orrin. Her harming and healing of the Nuerveld man who’d threatened Orrin had shaken them and they threw concerned glances at their kinsman, staring at where two perfect prints of her hands marred his cheeks. The redness of the marks did not change over the hours that they walked together in silent, if not amiable, companionship. His name was Hunar Nuerveld, but in time Eris’s sharp ears heard the others whispering a new name for him. ‘Marked’.

Orrin did his best to explain who they were and where they were headed, pointing to the evidence of Eris’ powers still laying on Marked’s cheeks, but no matter how they’d been surprised by the harming and the healing the Nuerveld were not as taken with Eris as the storyteller was or the Atta had become.

The Nuerweld were a greening close to the edges of the volnen lands. The trees of their lands died out before the edges of the Front to the East but they were still very aware of the manoeuvres of the armies of Lios. They encountered button men frequently on their lands; either trying to clear them of woods-voln in the name of Lios or running westwards in trouser staining fear, fleeing from the battle. In these woods, the boom of the great roarers frequently startled the birds from the trees, their loud earth shaking bellows echoed in the smaller bangs and cracks of the hand held roarers of the button men themselves. The sounds from the front were a constant background music to the usual sounds of the woodlands. And the Nuerveld, wearing numerous trophies of their skirmishes with the button men, seemed to find Orrin’s claim about her divinity as unimpressive as Lios’s posturing at the front.

“She healed him! You all saw it!” Orrin was insisting to a Nuerveld wearing an array of scratched and pitted ‘gold’ buttons on a chain about his waist. “And still you doubt?!”

“Found a raving mad men in the woods by the king’s road not so long ago. He claimed to work feats of wonder too, but his were done in the bloody name of Lios. He had a sleeve full of scraps of cloth and a pigeon under his hat. Called himself a prophet, but he didn’t know that in the near future our greening was going to dry up his veins. You say she has power?” He jabbed at Eris with his thumb, “I say she’s another trickster. She just doesn’t wear golden robes like a Lios-loving prophet.”

“But your companion bears marks of her harming and healing!”

“‘Marked’ he may be. But it could wash off in time. Could be something a-like to Eld-berry juice.”

“It feels like more than that.” Grumbled ‘Marked’.

“See!” Exclaimed Orrin triumphantly.

“Could be he’s mistaken. Or addled in the head.”

Orrin muttered under his breath as Marked shoved his companion for his comments.

“Orrin, it doesn’t matter.” Eris said flatly. “You don’t have to change their minds-”

“You worship the bastard gods though?” He carried on anyway.

“Aye, they get our prayers and curses. They walked these lands once, just as we do now.” The Nuerveld about them nodded.

“We often draw the sign of the One Who Was Still There. The Lone One.” Said another Nuerveld with proud fierceness.

“Could they not walk the lands again?” Asked Orrin.

“The days of gods are over. Down in Liosinium the god-king Lios clings on like a fungus on a tree’s bark, but here by the Front there are no gods walking over the moss and bracken.” Another Nuerveld, one of the few women, said while gesturing at the trees above them and the undergrowth beneath them. But, in doing so she looked to their feet, and stared as though noticing for the first time that Eris’ left foot was enclosed not in dark leather as she had thought, but was in fact weaved of a dark wyrdness that moved alike to her other foot as she walked through the Nuerveld lands. “By the bastard gods…”

Others noticed her staring and looked as well.

“What… is she impure?!”

Orrin stepped in front of Eris. “She is blessed!”

“That does not look like a blessing!” Said Marked, touching his hands to the hand prints on his cheeks, as though afraid of having caught something, as if it was like a pox that was transferred person to person.

“I don’t know if I’m blessed… but I lost my foot and made another grow there. That was my healing-”

“As I said! She can harm and heal! She is the One Who Harmed and Healed, the One Who Walks the Lands, a bastard god returned, and she is heading to face Lios!”

The Nuerveld, who’d been listening with growing concern and maybe horror up until that moment, then looked to each other and a low cynical laughter sprang between them.

“She’ll face Lios?!”

“This sapling?!”

“She’s near enough of a head with you, but she looks un-blooded! Could she even kill a man?!”

“Can she even hunt?!”

Eris glowered at Orrin. “I told you-”

“Tell me, little girl, what will you do when you face the immortal Lios?” Marked laughed, “Will you paint his face with your hands as you did me? Will you fight him to kill him?”

Eris straightened her shoulders, “If it comes to that.”

“You cannot kill a god! Even Lios could not destroy the bastard gods, he could only push them from their old places and have them be forgotten! And you will not even get to see him face to face to bring your blade to his neck. No woods-voln has even seen the god-king since Kur Gyreblack himself!”

Eris jumped slightly at the infamous name, remembering Harl’s sly face as he claimed it for his own and then, later, Pierson’s interest in the Gyreblack greening. “What do you know of Kur Gyreblack?!”

The Nuerveld stopped still on their trail and listened in as Marked began a story that seemed familiar to them.

“Kur Gyreblack was a woods-voln.” Marked began, enjoying playing to his audience seemingly as much as Orrin usually did. “Sharp of face and sharp of mind. He wore strong leathers and greened his arrow with Gyreblack, the strongest poison ever made. And he was a bandit. He took gold and jewels from the city-voln who travelled on the roads that cut through his woods. City-voln sent out by Lios from the centre of the world. He strung up the stupid voln who’d thought they owned the land and the trees. But the bandit-king gained the attention of the god-king, and only one could survive. Burnt from his lands by fire and rage, Gyreblack was taken in chains to Garre, to pass through the black gate and to walk southly along the golden road to Liosinium. Over a hundred days he was forced forward on the road, bearing on his back the marks of whips and the thunderous light of the sun. Finally he was brought before the immortal one. “Who are you that you would defy a god?” Asked Lios, a terrible giant clad all over in golden armour. “I am Kur Gyreblack and I defy you.” retorted the bandit-king, even though on his kees and with blood pouring from a thousand wounds. Lios, it is said, simply laughed and ordered him to be hanged from a tree in the centre of Liosinium, a cankernut sapling captured in the earliest days of his reign and forced to scratch out a living jammed between cracks in the marble flagstones. The ancient tree barely took Kur Gyreblack’s weight, it bent down just enough to let his feet dance on the marble as his life was strangled from him.”

Marked paused for a moment, staring into Eris’ watching eyes. “And then he died.”

“So will you dance your two feet, the wyrd and the not, on the flagstones of Liosinium?” Asked another Nuerveld.

She could feel the weight of Orrin’s expectations on her as he looked to her response. Perhaps she was foolish to think about facing Lios. Perhaps it was her fate to end her life at the end of a length of rope just like the bandit-king. No, I refuse! She thought angrily before speaking out loud.

“I am not Kur Gyreblack. I am Eris Atta-Sutith.”

At the very moment that she announced her name a dark shadow swept over them, blocking out what little grey light from the afternoon’s pale sun dappled through the topmost reaches of the trees. The Nuerveld swiftly took cover, but Eris stood her ground to peer upwards through the canopy, just making out the swirling mess of black shadows and flailing, forming and reforming limbs that had to be a shadow dancer. Was it the Harl creature, returning to find her and Orrin after seizing the Beloved and… disposing of him?

“Behold! The sky darkens at the name of Eris Atta-Sutith!” Orrin proclaimed, gaining a glare from her for his theatrics. But it didn’t deter him. “Eris Atta-Sutith, She Who Once Harmed and Healed! The One Who Walks On Two Feet! The Leader of the Atta! Leader of woods-voln, city-voln, mountain-voln, and street-voln. Atta-Sutith!”

The shadow swirled far above them and the branches of the trees swayed as though nodding their assent. A few Nuerveld took a knee in the growing wind. Marked was one of the ones still standing tall, his face flushing with the urge to flee or fight and not knowing how he could do either. The red lines of Eris’s fingers near enough glowed on his cheeks.

“What power is this?!” He shouted over the small storm that centred on them as the shadow dancer whirled far above them.

“The power to face a god-king” Orrin shouted back, an almost smug smile on his face. Eris placed a hand on his arm to quiet him and then walked towards the Nuerveld, capturing Hunar ‘Marked’ Nuerveld’s eyes and holding them as she closed the distance between them. She didn’t not have Orrin’s flare for crafting stories – even new ones – but for now they needed the Nuerveld to at least get them to the king’s road and let them get on their way to Tralis.

She raised both hands above her head, still keeping the Nuerveld’s eye locked to her own.

“Go! Join the rest of the Atta!” She bellowed against the wind whipping about them, hoping that if it was the Harl creature that it would hear and obey her. Her heart pounded on for a few more beats, thudding blood through her ears and overpowering even the sound of the winds that the ghost had raised around them. And then, as though they’d hit the eye of the storm, everything dropped. The winds ceased, and the flailing leaves and twigs fell to rest on the ground.

The remaining Nuerveld finally knelt as well, led by Marked.

“And you will take us to the road to Tralis. I have spoken.”

The path they took with the Nuerveld after her proclamation was quieter, but no less awkward. It was a relief to final break through the edges of the trees and step back upon the loose stones of the king’s road between Bara and Tralis. For the past hour or more the land beneath their feet had begun to sink and sag, with pools of stagnant green water sitting in the hollows between the trees. The trees themselves were more inclined to lean towards each other, their boughs covered over in thick green hair like strands. Eris had found the change mostly curious, but she’d noticed Orrin seeming to become more and more concerned by the slowness of their path over the springy moist ground, and increasingly afraid of the dank fronds that hung down over them and sometimes touched their faces as they passed. He seemed to breathe out a long held breath when his boots finally crunched down onto the stones of the road, even though they too seemed to be covered with smears of damp emerald growth.

The Nuerveld left them there, slipping away back into the trees before she really had a chance to thank them. The moment in the woods, when the wind had whistled the leaves about them and the Nuerveld had knelt, felt like a century past, and Eris was slightly grateful they did not share words of parting before they separated. She was left standing on the open road with Orrin, and even though they were on the king’s own road she felt more at ease than she had done since meeting the Nuerveld.

“Eastwards then?” Orrin asked, trying to keep a lightness in his voice but failing. “Eastwards to the front where there are thousands of soldiers and button men, not to mention the demons that still haunted Beloved. You know, the ones that that entire bloody army are fighting against and have been for hundreds of years?!”

Eris looked back the other way down the road towards Tralis. Somewhere back that way were the city-voln slaves, and beyond them was the way through the farm-voln lands, and the turning northwards back to the farm of Thoma and Lissy, and the path into the dark woods of the Rexakyde where the Atta might still be waiting. Pierson would let her have a warming sip of whatever he was carrying in his wineskin. Nemnir would have a seat kept for her by the warmth of the campfire. Sarai or Callia would pass her one of their children to entertain before she had a chance to think about moping. And Orrin could be there with her, telling some vast story of what this or that bastard god had gotten up to hundreds of hundreds of years ago.

And eastwards… eastwards was more damp earth, sodden with the rising water of the swamps beyond Tralis. Then there was the front itself, where a woods-voln would stand out enough to make herself a target of roarers.

“Yes, to Tralis.”

“Eris?” He asked, his face a picture of innocence.

“Orrin?”

“Tell me true…” his smirk broke through, “Do you have nomad fever?”

She swung a gentle fist at his upper arm, and laughed as he jumped out of its way.

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