The tall man passed some coin to a nearby hag in black and she gestured towards a cauldron over the spitting fire.
The boys hesitated.
The tall man hadn’t said they could join him for the grub, and many among them already had welts on their ribs or faces, from not waiting for his commands. But as the tall man got down to slurping noisily from a roughly cast pottery bowl passed to him by another skeleton thin woman Harl took the lead to jump down from the cart.
Then suddenly he was shoved aside. For a moment he thought it was one of the stinking muleeters sending him back. But they were just rushing past him to get to the best of the stew. The other lads followed them once they saw that, and took seats on logs, stuffed close together as the drizzle never let up. More misshapen bowls were passed around and Harl sent his portion down quick. Weasel was slower and lost half of his to one of the new boys from the second cart. The small boy didn’t dare complain, he just dragged his wet tunic about him and shivered. Harl looked longingly towards the wooden shelters.
“Them’s extra, boy.” The crackling voice was above and behind him. Harl looked up to see another woman in rags, stick thin and with lines as deep as a fort’s moat on her face. A farm-voln maybe, but worn so thin it was hard to be certain.
“You have coin?” she spat between crooked teeth.
“Leave him be. There’ll be no more coin this visit.” the tall man smirked at her. “We aint stopping long.”
“No. No you aint. You got a place to be, aint that so?!” The woman snarled, and the sound reminded Harl of a guard dog he’d known in Bara. A vicious bitch with teeth like daggers and a hide covered in scars. All the city-voln lads had been shit scared of her. But Harl had worked out the trick of it, and he’d been the one to get past her and into the steel worker’s shop to get the oddly shaped roarer parts for Jerekyn. He’d eaten well off of that score, he thought darkly as the dank stew chunks of ‘meat’ settled in his stomach and he wiped the grease of it from his lips with the back of his hand. Yes, he’d known the trick of it.
“Sorry that there’s no more coin for you.” Harl looked up at her cracked old face as he whispered earnestly. “I’ll bring some when I come back this way, old mother -”
The woman gasped as though struck deep with a street shiv and moved away quickly, a couple of the other thinly drawn women following her as she fled into one of the shelters.
The tall man started to laugh, and it was the worst sound Harl had heard in his short life. Worse even than the Bara guard bitch’s blood freezing growl. Worse even than the sound of his mother’s tears, dulled by the hands on her face as she tried to hold them back.
“Promise your sweetheart you’d be back, did you?” The tall man’s keen hearing had gotten some of the lads into the way of his fists before and Harl felt the lads once squashed hard against him somehow suddenly find the room to make an empty space about him. “You’ll not be coming back, you stupid fucking brat!”
Harl reddened, but he stayed still, lowering his eyes to the sodden ground, trying not to reach out a hand to grab at a burning brand from the fire and jab it at the tall man.
“Try it.” The threat in the man’s voice was a steel sword against Harl’s throat. Then suddenly the man laughed again, and a chill ran down Harl’s back along with the raindrops. “Or maybe it’s that I’m wrong, lad. Maybe, you’ll be the one to prove me false tongued and addled minded. Is that the way of it?!”
Harl didn’t understand. He just shook his head like a dull city-voln lad. The man spat pointlessly against the rain and stood to go. Harl and the other lads got up quick as they could as well, but the two foul muleeters sighed and cussed, slowly getting to their feet on stiff legs. But then they were silenced by the tall man’s bark.
“Orinius is expecting us on the ‘morrow. Get!”
Soon the cart was rumbling its way again up the road, and Harl looked back through the rain towards the circle of dark figures and the cauldron hanging fat bellied over the low fire. He missed even that small red ember of fire when it finally fell behind them, disappearing as the road levelled and joined a coastal road running north to south. A steep drop off to their right crept closer, and fell down towards a sound like a hundred thousand roarers, firing with a pattern that Harl didn’t recognise. Was this the ‘sea’? Where was the tall man taking them? To a ship? Were they going to replace some of those old timer sea-voln who’d visited his mother before their lives had finally snuffed out like the one greasy candle he’d ever been allowed in his room? Harl wasn’t so sure he’d make a good sea-voln, even if he’d spent his short life making a fair stab of pretending to be a city lad. But Summer swimming in the fetid canals of Bara barely made him sea born, and looking about he doubted the other lads would fare any better down there on that beast roaring in the deepening dark.
That dark became black as Harl’s eyes finally slipped closed, against all the protests of his stomach and his aching back. His dreams were full of beasts made of endless water, fire embers, and old women with crying eyes who were sometimes his mother, and sometimes not.
His bladder woke him in the dawn light, and like the others he took his turn pissing off of the side of the cart into the rain. The furious shouts from the muleteers behind them almost made him laugh as he pulled his breeches back together. But then the road turned he saw the shape emerge from the rain ahead of them and the laughter died in his mouth.