“You a whoreson then?”
The other lads in the rumbling straw cart turned as one to look at Harl, slack jawed as they saw the ragged boy nervously sizing up the beast he’d just challenged. Harl’s target turned a fierce red, his filthy ham hock like hands tightening into fists as he worked out whether the tall man driving the cart would care if he knocked the smaller boy’s block off. ‘Ham fists’ was just another city-voln, the usual dull brown hair flopping over a wide face with gormless grey eyes. Harl was city born but woods-voln by blood, auburn hair, dirty as it was, falling over a sharp fox-like face. “Sharp face, sharp tongue, sharp death!” the city-voln lads used to shout as they shoved and kicked him down onto the cobblestones of Bara. Was he about to get another beating?
“What… what did you say?!”
There was uncertainty in the city-voln’s voice, as though he still couldn’t get his head around the younger lad having the balls to actually ask that question. Harl sent a whispered prayer, and a curse, to his bastard gods.
Maybe he should’ve chosen the little one he’d already dubbed ‘Weasel’, another woods-voln but younger and even smaller than him. Aye, that lad might have been a good choosing for a fight. Weasel was shrinking back into the cheap wood of the cart, trying to disappear into its knots as the fight threatened like thunder. Yeah, the weakling… not the city boy now on the verge of launching himself across the stinking straw and ripping him open. But Harl just spread a gap toothed smile wide across his face.
“Only thinking you might be. Because I am. And he is. And that lad there. And the most of us. So… you a whoreson too?”
There was a nervous laugh from one of the lads he had pointed out. Yeah, they were whoresons, almost to a one. Who else would’ve sold their sons to the tall man driving the cart? Who else but a whore would’ve let him take away boys who weren’t any more than just more mouths to feed?!
“I aint! I aint!” The boy was even redder yet, those slab hands grinding jagged nails into palm. “My mother was a pastry maid at the temple of Lios. Best crust cakes in Bara! I aint like you!”
Harl looked at the thick finger the lad now jabbed at him. Brat of a skilled maker, but with fingers too fat and clumsy to follow her in the trade? Apprenticed elsewhere maybe?
“Blacksmith’s boy is it?” Harl guessed, still wearing his fool’s smile.
“Yeah. Blacksmith’s boy.” The lump spat into the wet straw at their feet. “Till the master’s own blood came of age, and there weren’t work enough for two. Then the tall man came a’knockin’” The last words were said in a whisper, a glare from underneath his mop of hair aimed at the back of the black coated man driving the mules. One or two others nodded. Funny how quickly the tall man came a’knockin when there was one boy too many in a house. Funny that.
“I weren’t lying. Me mother was a whore.” Harl jabbed his thumb into his own chest. Defiant.
“They’re all whores.” Said another lad darkly. “She a woods-voln too? Like you? Or were that one of her gents?”
Harl looked into the other boy’s grey eyes. Was mixed blood worse’n or better’n wooden blood for this city-bred shit? A gamble presented itself, and Harl trusted to his luck.
“Woods-voln. Only the bastard gods know what my gent-father was!” he laughed bitterly and one or two of the whoresons who’d nodded before dared a quick laugh as well.
The pastry maid’s boy reflexively made the sign of Lios with his left hand at the mention of the bastard gods, before sneering at his own habit. Even the Pure God wasn’t welcome in this straw cart. Lios, sure as blood is blood, weren’t effing welcome on the dark winding streets of Bara that Harl had been trying to make his own before the tall man came “a’knockin’”.
Pastry boy rubbed his hand on his tunic, most like dirtying it further, and reached out to clasp Harl’s forearm. “Dresick.”
They shook on a truce. Harl’s green eyes looked over the lad’s clothes, his wide face, his hair, writing it all into memory even if he suspected this ‘Dresick’ wouldn’t last long. He was slow and lumbering large and whatever was at the end of this muddy winding road would be gobbling up the dull and leaving only the sharp ones behind. Harl felt that truth in his blood and in his piss. Wherever they were going he’d need to be smarter than he’d ever been before, clever enough to befriend the largest lad before he was ground under his fist in whatever fight for life that was coming.
The other lads had spent the journey sightlessly looking down at their feet, rain water dripping off snivelling noses, instead of marking the changes from city to farmland, to woods, and now to a rough road that was bringing the smell of salt closer. Those lads, they were dull like flat city cobblestones, well worn over by carts like the one taking them… somewhere. Harl bet they didn’t even know what that salt in the air meant. True, he was pretty much city-voln, having grown up in Bara, and even woods-voln didn’t know much about the sea. But his mother, whore as she was, had been a collector of stories – a better a collector of stories than coin, it seemed now – and sea-voln often came inland to Bara. Came inland, seeking to spend their life’s gains on cheaper whores when their sea legs didn’t last as long their lives. And they had liked to weave words about the sea, much like his mother had weaved on and on about the woods of her birth.
“Where are we going?” One of the younger lads, ten years old maybe. His eyes were wet with more than rain water, but he was taking advantage of the newly lightened mood to finally talk.
“Army.” Said another lad with abrupt authority.
Harl hid his sneer in a fake grimace as the cart rumbled its way through yet another deep puddle. As sure as blood was blood, they didn’t take woods-voln in the army; King didn’t trust them! Too sharp to be foot soldiers, too contrary to be captains! And if they were buying up ten year olds, like some of the sniffing lads here in the cart, then the King’s war was in the deep shit!
“Sacrifices. Human ones. To the bastard gods.” Dresick offered, but sounding unconvinced. A couple of the street lads shot him dark looks. Harl wondered which impure ones got their prayers at night? Himself, he tended towards the female gods lately, but there were plenty to choose from.
“The gods don’t care where the calf gets its throat slit. Why buy us from Bara for this arsing cart and twice arsing road?!” Harl realised he’d pissed him off by questioning his answer, and he twisted his words to lighten the city-voln’s dark stare. “Speaking of arses, can’t arsing-well feel mine anymore! Can you check it’s still there?”
Dresick laughed. “Yeah, you’d like that wouldn’t you, pretty little wood boy?! Don’t know why your mother sold you to the tall man when she could have sold you to lots of other tall men. And fat men, And ugly men-”
“Shut up back there!” barked the tall man, not even turning his head back to them, his face still a dark mark under a wide brimmed hat just holding up against the heavy rain.
Harl saw Weasel drew even further back into the side of the cart, as if the woods-voln boy was trying to get back to the trees of his birth through the rough wood there. The others went back to staring mindlessly at their rain cupping hands or their mud streaked legs that were tangled up with the boy’s opposite in the much too small cart.
Harl didn’t. He watched the tree line. Weasel might be trying to disappear into the rough-hewn wood of the cart, but out there were woods-voln who could frustrate the King’s button men by truly disappearing, moving quieter than shadows between the trees. Men and women with fox faces and silent arrows. Voln who could pluck away those shiny golden buttons from the soldier’s long coats, and leave behind their steel roarers for the whiteweed to grow through.
Least that was what his mother had always told him. Most like her whisper quick woods-voln were actually just scraping a living on the few hunting scores and charcoal burnings they could sell to dumb city-voln. Why else would she have left them to seek coin on her back in Bara?
The trees eventually gave way to unworked rising grassland, and at roughly marked crossways another cart with two muleteers turned left to follow after them up a steepening hill. Behind the two men in soaked coats Harl could just make out a cart full of yet more sullen boys. Another twelve maybe, bought from somewhere to the north of Bara. But Harl didn’t know any other cities, not even their names. Bara had been his world until he and the other lads had been bashed and poked up and into the straw cart standing by its main gate.
The mules behind them bellowed hoarsely as the rain water rushed past them in rapidly growing streams, threatening their climb as the shabby road rose up ahead of them. One of the men laid out a whip across their backs and they pulled harder, catching up to Harl’s cart. They trudged on like that, nose to cart, for a time and Harl began to feel his head sagging down like the others’. Then they were slowing, pulling up to a clearing to one side of the road where trees surrounded a sputtering fire pit and a few wooden lean-to’s. The tall man leapt down from the cart and made to tie the mules to nearby trees as five dark shapes sat about the fire, looking through the rain towards Harl’s cart and the one coming up behind. A couple more of the creatures emerged from the shelters into the rain, and Harl saw that they were old women, pulling up deep hoods over grey hair.