“Good lad” The words were empty, more a reflex than a genuine compliment. ‘Do as I say and there’s a way out for you’. A chance to be moved to his… ‘equerry’. Whatever that bloody was. But boys served him in some way. And they got this half-hearted ‘good lad’, and there were spaces for more. ‘Do as I say’. Harl’s eye throbbed in time with his heartbeat. ‘Do as I say’.
“Now, to sleep with you. We need you bright and eager tomorrow when we hunt the beast.” Captain Rickarn smirked, then it seemed as though another thought occurred to him. “You’re woods-voln, aren’t you lad? Sure as blood is blood.”
“Got a mother and a father in these woods, or elsewhere?”
“Just a mother. In Bara.”
He just nodded, his hands on hips as he considered the smaller boy standing in front of him. “Woods-voln can make excellent soldiers. In the right circumstances. Bed now.”
Harl walked back to his shared tent, passing by where Cole now slept. Or did he? Harl imagined him, lying on his back, staring into the darkness. Remembering two, one, one. How many hours had the young Cole spent staring into the dark before something in it came to taste his blood? Or was it straight away as it had been with some of the others? Like Dresick? Like Weasel who had never come back?
He snuck back into the tent and curled into a ball, cradling the short sword.
Morning was on them before he was ready for it. But he smartly joined the other lads in a silent arcing piss into the stream, scaring small Arrowbacks that darted away in the muddied water like the woods-voln weapons that they were named for. He tucked himself back into the new trousers he’d been given and awkwardly looped the short sword back into the tough length of leather he’d gotten as a belt. He walked past Cole on his way to the cart, and saw the man’s sharp eyes flick first to his belt and the sword, and then upwards to the dark bruising around his eye. He dipped his hat enough to shadow his expression and turned away to tend to the mules.
In the cart his sword got envious looks, but then the Captain was trotting alongside them on the road and passing out identical blades to all of them, smiling at the lads’ dark glee.
“How much further?” Cole asked, not turning away from the road ahead.
“A few hours perhaps. Least that’s where it was. Might have moved on, but we can track it.”
“You mean, I can track it.”
“No one bloody well brings a woods-voln with them and then does the dog work themselves.” Rickarn laughed, seemingly at Cole. “It won’t have gone far.”
“How can you be certain?”
“I just am.”
Rickarn clicked his tongue and spurred his great horse on, letting it pick up its heels and give the mule a faster pace to keep up with, huffing and puffing. In the back the lads were all ears. The excitement of the swords, and of being away from the castle, was starting to dull as they realised that at the end of this road was some kind of beast that they were going to be facing. Dresick looked unwell, even as he absentmindedly scratched at the scarring where his ear had once been. But the hours went by and finally they reached a clearing that made Rickarn sit up in his stirrups and look about.
Cole nodded and pulled the mule to a halt. The boys leapt from the back of the cart before being asked and lined up for the Captain’s inspection before being asked. He nodded as he walked the line, his hands behind his back and his chest puffed up, glorious golden buttons glinting in the late afternoon light.
“Ten minutes walking that way is another clearing. In the clearing is the den of the beast. Cole and I will go there.” He looked to where Cole was pulled a strange device from the large sack. It looked a little like a small woods-voln bow, turned to its side and set upon a wooden arm. He set a tiny arrow into the top of it, and pushed others into a small quiver tied to his hip and thigh. He nodded at Rickarn.
“You boys are going to make our perimeter. Between my roarer and Cole’s crossbow we can take the beast, but you are to make sure its offspring does not escape Lios’ wrath. Spread out into the woods and take a position.”
“Sir?” It was the boy who’d made the sign of Lios. “What about the woods-voln, sir?”
Rickarn looked put out his plan was being questioned. “You’d better hope that they puff up your face and blacken your skin with their poisons before you question my orders again, boy.”
The boy fell silent, a hand on the pommel of his short sword.
“Spread out then. And try not to get lost.”
They nodded, and struck out into the woods, pushing into dense ferns and thorny brambles to try and make the circle about the beast’s lair the Captain wanted. Harl found himself at the top of a steep bank, which fell down to a dense mess of bone white bracken. He readied himself, squinting into the ranks of trees ahead of him, trying to see between them to where he thought perhaps Rickarn and Cole were approaching the beast. What if it charged this way in its rage and came crashing down on top of him?
He pulled his sword from his belt and heard a soft gasp. To his right, just emerging from the trees was a young woods-voln girl.
She wore a shabby brown dress with an apron over it, muddied and with deep pockets at the front stuffed full of plants and herbs Harl did not recognise, the heads of their flowers bobbing slightly as she stepped back from him, bare feet crunching into leaves. She was younger than him, but perhaps only by a few years. And where his hair was a deep rich auburn, hers was so dark as to almost be black. Straight as well, tricky spikes of it sneaking out of a pair of braids lying on her shoulders. Her face was still young and soft, even for a woods-voln, but her determined lower lip and angry green eyes showed a certain stubbornness. She put her hands to her hips.
“You’ve got a sword.” She said, glaring at it. “Where’s your bow?”
He paused. She couldn’t really have taken him for one of her people, could she?
“How am I meant to know how to greet you if I can’t see your bow or your greening?”
He was about to think of a quick reply, when she continued. “I’m Eris Atta-Sutith. Tell me your name.” She pulled a small knife from her pocket, petals falling to the ground from her gatherings there.
He stumbled and a full woods-voln name flashed into his mind. “I’m Kur Gyreblack.”
His hand tightened around the hilt of the sword.
“I said, that’s nonsense. My mother’s mother taught me all the greenings, and my mother taught me them all again. No one makes Gyreblack anymore. And you don’t even have a bow!”
“I lost it. And I’m going to be in so much trouble with my mother’s mother.” He put on a pitiful face and saw the empathy flash across hers before the haughty superiority of a young girl in the face of a stupid lad took over.
“Lost it?! What kind of woods-voln loses their bow!?”
“Well, you don’t have one either.”
She looked at him like he was mad. “I’m a Sutith. Of course I don’t have a bow!” She took another step back. “What kind of woods-voln doesn’t know-”
He interrupted her. “Please. I just want to go home. I never wanted to be here. Or at the castle-”
She interrupted him in return. “A castle?! Tell me!”
“It’s not like that. It’s not good.”
“I think you’re lying. Making up stories because you’re a dumb woods-voln whose lost his bow, because he’s stupid!” She picked up her skirts to turn and storm away and he saw her feet and ankles properly for the first time. There, curling around the ankle and sole of her left foot was a swath of dark and cracked skin. She spotted him looking, and looked back in fear at his sword.
“Are you… are you the beast?” He stammered.
She looked up at him with widening deep green eyes. Eyes that looked for a moment just like his mother’s, but framed by wisps of unruly black hair instead of sweetly scented waves of warm red hair. If he’d grown up in these woods he’d have known this girl. They might have played together. Grown up together. By the bastard gods, they might have been… more.
He swallowed at the thought and took a step away from her, dropping the point of the sword.
“I’m not here to hurt you.”
“You said I was a beast!”
“Not… I didn’t mean… I just want to talk to you.” He smiled cautiously. “I don’t know many woods-voln.”
He saw conflicting emotions dance across her face, before she settled on an unexpected and sudden trust. “You are odd.” She smiled and it was the first genuine smile he thought he’d seen in months.
“That’s not untrue. I grew up in a city.”
Her eyes widened again. “Did you live in a stone building?”
“I did. With stairs and doors.”
“Oh! We live in pretty little caravan, with flowers all growing in hanging baskets.”
“You and your mother and your mother’s mother?”
Her face fell briefly. “Mother’s mother went to sleep. Just me and my mother now.”
“I’m sorry.” And he was.
“She’s feeding the plants now. That seems right doesn’t it?”
He nodded. He could spend the rest of the day learning about this girl and her mother, and even her sleeping mother’s mother.
But then a chill spread through his veins, like ice fire.
“Eris. Where is your mother’s caravan?”
He watched her point.
Into the woods, towards where Harl was certain Cole and Captain Rickarn had been heading.
To kill a monster.