He meekly followed the other lads as they made their way through even more corridors he was unfamiliar with, coming out through an immense iron studded door into a series of small and large courtyards where grey-robes walked and mumbled together in groups. These had been some of the ants he’d seen from an eagle’s eye view up somewhere in the heights of the castle. They stopped in the largest where some were fretting about a large warhorse, its hair banded into elaborate plaits over a coat shaved into elaborate interlocking patterns, shining even in the grey sunlight. Its saddles had been waxed and also reflected the low sun in its slick polished leather.
Captain Rickarn vaulted onto the great beast’s back, silencing its whoomping and whickering with his tri-spurs and a “nya!” that stilled the horse but shocked the grey-robes. Others, those with whole and working hands Harl saw, were settling long reins on some mules ahead of the cart. Just one this time, all together the lads waiting were eight in number. And the two men.
Harl lethargically pulled himself up and into the straw of the cart, settling into what he was certain was the same place he sprawled before. Dresick met his eyes for a moment, and mouthed “whoreson” at him. Reluctant smiles flitted on both their faces, erased when Cole leapt up into the front with a large back and spurred the cart forward, following after Rickarn on his high trotting horse.
This time the cart went through the great front gate of the castle walls, thirty foot high doors and an iron grate moving out of their way as they joined a rough path across the sea salted grass, the cart constantly roughly jolting its dumb occupants. Unlike the others Harl chose not to look back at the looming and then shrinking castle. Instead he looked to his left, looking on past the dark figure of Cole, that same old coat and wide hat he’d worn against the rain on their journey to the castle before.
To five, six, one.
Harl put the room and his normal schedule from his mind and watched Cole drive the cart to avoid the coastal road this time, heading instead between roughly shaped fields filled with tumbled over clods of dirt and sprawling weeds. The odd low crofter’s cottage was visible across them. Some of the buildings lay with their with roofs open to the sky, thatch worn away and never replaced. Occasionally shambling figures moved near the squat buildings. Late in the afternoon, after a roll of bread and ham each had been thrown back to them and Harl was feeling rocked to near sleep by the cart, the sound of a young girl’s singing drifted towards them on the wind. And then it was suddenly cut off. Harl squinted into the distance to make out a larger figure standing tightly close to a smaller one, both wrapped about in rags. Without being able to see their eyes, Harl could still tell that the two of them turned to watch the cart in the distance. Watching in fear.
The singing must have inspired Rickarn, as he launched whole-heartedly into a full and throaty rendition of some marching song, apparently enjoying the dark stares that Cole threw at him and getting only louder. Then, perhaps to rile him more, the marching song became a lewd song about a whore who had so many of her jealous gents arrive at the same time she had to stack them all together under the bed, and in the wardrobe, and even in the “gardrobe”, a thing which Rickarn rhymed with wardrobe but which Harl had never heard of before. His mother had never had one anyway. And there’d never been any comedy moments of panicked hiding with his mother’s jealous gents. Only black eyes, broken fingers, and more sobbing.
But when the sparse gorse bushes at the side of the rough road became more and more populated with small trees Rickarn brought his volume slowly down, until the road was fully shadowed by grown trees and the Captain was finally silent.
Then he trotted his prissily dressed horse next to the cart and glared at the boys. “This is woods-voln country. So don’t you bloody well get any ideas about darting for it. They’ll pierce you all through with poisoned greened arrows before you even breath out your damned sob stories and ask for aid. Your average woods-voln is a cold hearted hunter. Some they say even skin their human victims, using their flesh for their rancid brown leathers.” He looked straight at Harl. “Some say that they are cunning.” He brought out his roarer, smiling as the lowlight glinted off of the open lion’s mouth. “They aren’t so fucking smart that they’ve got these though.” He smiled, his moustache quivering as he did like some kind of small beast across his top lip, but with a waxed tail at each end.
Harl felt a cold tenseness from Cole at the front of the cart, but Harl kept his eyes respectfully low rather than check his suspicions. Rickarn blustered on, “These woods are theirs. For now. So bloody well put mind away from escape, pull hand from arse, and do as I command. There aren’t any of your masters to obey here, but I’m like all of those sallow half men rolled up into one glorious package, for Lios.” One boy, not one Harl had known from his carts, made a half-hearted sign for Lios.
The carts, Cole, the lads, the sign; they made it feel like the past was looping about again. But this time it wasn’t Dresick, who nursed an insolent look, keeping it turned down to the straw strewn floor of the cart.
“Good. Good.” Rickarn looked smug rather than pious. “Lios will watch over you, boy. He will watch over all of you and note your deeds. And your misdeeds.” That last word was thrown at Cole, and Harl got the even stronger impression the two men had known each other a long time. Cole had certainly had the measure of this man when he described him to Orinius. Proud. Pious. Deadly.
The boy who’d made the sign straightened slightly, daring to turn his eyes up to the man keeping pace with the cart on his horse. “Sir?” His voice was weak. They all were after lasting this long in the castle and the darkness of their rooms, but he seemed emboldened by Rickarn’s words about Lios’ protection.
“Boy?” There was a threat in that one word. Don’t test my patience the edge of his tone said.
“Please sir. Where are we going?”
“You’re lucky. Do you know that?”
The boy almost shook his head, but Rickarn was already looking ahead into a glorious future off on the horizon only he could see. “You’ve been chosen for a mission in service of Lios. Most have to wait until they are of age to join the blessed army of Lios. Some join and never give Lios the measure of service that you will in this great adventure!” Harl wondered, was he looking at Cole then? He rumbled on in his deep voice “There is a monster travelling these woods. Tainted by an ancient evil, it comes to good men and women… and woods-voln… spreading its foulness amongst them. And the King demands its head. And were it not for his great and glorious war he would have sent his own men. But now is your chance to shine in his service. Perhaps… perhaps if you serve him well you can be moved to my own equerry…”
Cole finally broke his silence. “Orinius wants them back Rickarn.”
“Captain Rickarn.” The muscled man snapped.
“Captain Rickarn. The King supports Orinius’ work. Fully.”
“He also supports the putting down of monsters like the bitch we’ll be hunting!”
“Of course he does. And Orinius respects his request to employ these boys for this mission. He fully respects that. But if they come back whole… they come back.”
Rickarn laughed. “Cole. You’re still the fucking same, aren’t you? You’re still finding yourself in other’s orders! Still mewling about hoping for a master to make the world clearer. What would the woods-voln in these wretched fucking trees make of one of their own bending over and taking it hard from a long line of bureaucrats from Lios all the bloody way down to Orinius?”
Cole sat stock still. The boys sat still, waiting for a storm.
But Rickarn just laughed and pulled a bottle from his saddle bags. He threw it to Cole and for a second Harl thought it would smash right into the thin man’s face, pushing that shadow casting hat from his sharp face and cutting his right eye to bloody shreds. But a whip quick hand grabbed the bottle from the air, pulled it to the other which dragged out the stopper to let Cole chug back a mouthful without even grimacing. Harl caught the scent of dry Vernoush. A strong liquor that his mother reserved for her most tricky customers, to speed up the collapse into unconsciousness.
“Good lad” said Rickarn dismissively, even though Harl thought there was little difference in their age. “Keep sucking on Lios’ blessed teat! Though, I have to say, having seen the old god-king recently, a bastard god’s great round titty is far more appealing.” The boy who had still eeked out enough faith to make the sign of Lios in the cart shuddered at the blasphemy. “You should see the way some of the gutter suckers in Liosinium draw the bitch goddesses. Not enough to make a man apostate, but enough to raise his fucking pole. Saw some confiscated stuff last time I was in the centre of the world and the High Torturer allowed me a visit. Tits that put a Denosian whore to shame!”
Cole was silent, letting the larger man rattle on about who he’d fucked and where during his time serving Lios. Then Rickarn got on to a fine lady of Liosinium he was courting, and how she’d bring a pretty ‘dowry’ to make up for her unpretty face. Harl didn’t know what a dowry was but he got the gleam of greed in the Captain’s face. What he didn’t get was Cole’s silence. Both men served Lios, both were taking the lads out to some likely doom, Harl was convinced, why wasn’t the thinner man joining in with the Captain’s dark talk of women and whores? Under his wide brimmed hat Harl presumed the man’s face was stony, so silent and still he was. The only movement was the jingle of the reins through his fingers as he gently encouraged the mules onwards through the shadowy tunnel of trees.
Onwards, towards the monster.