Harl had never seen anything as immense. There had never been a building in Bara that grew and stretched up into the sky while being born from the mud like some great old tree. Its stone was black and pitted, not like bark at all, and its walls and buttresses followed no rational pattern, not like the great square stone buildings of Bara did. Even the most ramshackle terrace of shop fronts with traders on different floors, with mended and patched walls or haphazard improvements, made more sense than the dark reaching stone of this monster with its thousand glass eyes.
And as they got closer and turned, not for the blackened main gates but for the rear of the goliath, Harl saw that it didn’t just emerge from the ground, it clung to the edge of the sea cliff and delved down towards the rushing water below. It reminded Harl of the toadstool spores that had found a warm damp home in their lodgings, not caring which way was down as they clung on to the peeling paint and gave them the hack deep in their lungs.
The carts rumbled down a slope towards an archway which was shaded by the rest of the dark fortress, and the muleteers jostled and pushed them out of the carts towards it.
“Line up.” Snapped the tall man. “Single file. Stay in the order you find yerself in. Don’t talk. Don’t step out of line. And don’t bloody well slip!”
Harl realised what he meant as the shivering line of lads snaked into the archway and the mud below their shabby thin soled shoes was replaced by stone slabs slicked by the rain. But slipping would mean more than just a busted ankle. The wall to the left of them quickly fell away, its black bricks long ago lost into the sea. Only jagged holes remained, like toothy mouths ready to snap them up and let the sea swallow them. Harl focussed hard on his slow steps. A few younger boys held hands, but Harl could see some lump like Dresick pulling him over as he fell to a watery death, so he kept his own balance.
The old corridor sloped downwards, the dangerous slickness of rainwater replaced by smoothed stones so worn that the joins between them had all but vanished. No carts could have rolled down this way, and for a while Harl could not understand what could have done it. Then he saw that the rainwater had been replaced by pooling, salt reeking pools. Strange spiny creatures skittered through the puddles and out of the rounded corners of the path, making the younger lads jump too near to the ruined wall. But Harl was more concerned about the great, slinking, watery beast that had crept up this path and worn down these stones. What could that wearing water do to the bones of a woods-voln?!
The snake of boys gingerly made its way down a roughly hewn set of stairs that also bowed down in the middle, perhaps from the touch of many feet over many, many years? Then a wave of fear washed over the lads as they saw the water that came crashing through the open mouths in the wall to their left. It went swirling down into a space to their right which might have been a room once, but it’s door and walls had all tumbled down long ago. The corridor here was open to the sky above and Harl saw several more floors of the monstrous tower up there, open to the ceaseless rain. All the broken floors watching over them had thick wooden doors set into their walls. So many doors that Harl lost count, and they were only the ones exposed to the grey sky. How many corridors were there? How many doors closed on dark rooms? The castle was a city in itself!
They stood there for long enough for several waves to crash past them into the broken room. Then the tall man pushed back his patched coat and pulled out a roarer. The rest of the boys pushed against each other to get away, but Harl looked back past the crowd, seeing the golden lion mouth open around the barrel and forming the front sight. He knew that part; he’d stolen enough of the heavy metal barrels for Jerekyn. King’s lion, King’s gun. Was the boys’ new owner a Button Man after all? Was this the king’s castle? He’d heard it was in the capital but perhaps he’d been mis-told? Perhaps. Because it had been one of his mother’s own blessed stories that the king lived in a right proper palace of white and gold. But even if he had a gold lion in his hand the tall man wore no shiny buttons on his long coat.
Still, it was a lethal roarer that he was still waving towards boys pissing down their legs as the sea sprayed its own damned salt piss in their eyes and hair.
“Now listen up” the tall man shouted over the crashing water. “Strip yer damned selves, and between the waves get down into there and find the ropes. Be damned sure you hold it tight!”
Confusion reigned as the tall man gestured with the lion’s maw towards the broken room, but his eyes brooked no argument. Harl’s frozen fingers found their way to his tunic, before numbly undoing the laces on his breeches, unravelling the wraps about his calves. All the while he ignored the muleteers’ coarse laughter, pretending it was just him who was here, just him who was going to dart through between waves and hope there was a haven there on the other side. Running before the sea found him and gobbled him all the way up.
The boys started forward like dogs from a trap, some pushing the others out the way as their muddy naked bodies tumbled forward. Harl was quick, fox quick, not like these city-voln whose lumbering feet got caught on tumbling bricks or knifed by the prickling beasts hidden between them. Harl was into the broken room and down the stone steps he found there while the others were still trying to force their way through in one go, jamming against each other but not caring as the sea bellowed behind them.
He got to the bottom and found another room, this one with a floor tilting towards the sea beyond its own broken walls. He skidded, slipped and crawled towards a far wall where loops of coarse straw rope hung from iron rings. By the time the other lads finally got there and frantically grabbed at them Harl’s wrists were already red raw from twisting in the ropes, tightening them into manacles.
After that it was but a panicked breath before water came in from above them – in front of them, from all around – blinding them with salt, and scourging their slight bodies until their skin sang bright with pain. He held his breath as the water battered him, his lungs burning. Then, as the water withdrew, Harl felt his feet sucked down the slippery sloping flagstone on the floor, and pain flaring in his wrists as they suddenly took his full weight. The rope kept him from flailing and falling like some of the other lads as the receding water washed them along the floor into the tumbling down walls. But a few broken ribs, or having the pale skin ripped from their backs in jagged strips, were still a better fate than falling from the castle walls! As the beaten, bleeding boys limped back, taking the brief time before the next wave to copy Harl and twist their wrists into the rope, he saw the realisation in their eyes. They had nearly died. And they still could.
The lads suffered the smashing waves three more times before the tall man yelled down from the space above, waiting for a lull in the cascading water to bark more orders to the trembling boys.
“Get back up here. After the next wave!”
The final word was almost swallowed by crashing of the water, but as soon as they could breathe again, or at least cough and splutter, the lads were untwisting the ropes from trembling hands and crawling back up the steps to where he waited.
One boy, not one of Harl’s, one from the other cart, took too long to get free. He had one hand still entangled when the next surge came. It knocked him hard against the inner wall and when the water flooded back out his limp body swung from one oddly angled wrist. The tall man cussed and charged down the steps past Harl and the other blue lipped shivering lads, a wicked curved dagger in hand ready to cut him free. One of the muleteers laughed to the other as they started chucking dingy white bundles at the rest of the boys. Harl shook his out, unfurling a long tunic that came to his knees. He and the others flung them on over their heads, taking what warmth they could from the well-worn material.
The muleteer stopped laughing when the tall man returned, the dagger still in his hand and the unfortunate lad flung over the other shoulder, unconscious but ribs still moving under pale skin.
“Lost yerself a coin, Cole?” Asked the other. “Orinius won’t-”
The tall man, ‘Cole’ it seemed, gave the stinking muleteer a shadowed look from underneath his wide hat that silenced him. The shadow then turned to consider them. Some boys were bleeding through their new tunics; others nursed bloodied noses, or favoured bruised ankles.
“A sorry bastard bunch! Come now.”