They set up a small camp near a muttering stream, keeping wary eyes on the lines of trees all about them like brown-black barked soldiers standing in an inept formation. The woods were not quiet, and the boys jumped at every distant fox’s bark or owl’s initial hoot in the twilight of the day. Harl expected Rickarn or Cole to scuff their heads for their timid cowering, but both men were on the alert, working quickly together to set up the basic tents and a small fire that city boys’ clumsy untrained hands had stumbled over. They seemed to know what each other needed without the broad man needing to shout out orders to Cole, maintaining a silence that the lads echoed. Not that they ever spoke much now, since the rooms. They huffed over woods fallen boughs and set up seats in a rough circle about the weak fire, trying to toast their rapidly chilled hands and feet as Cole threw together a rough stew with water from the stream and some things from a seemingly bottomless bag he carried from the cart on his shoulder, a strange clanking coming from it that was more than just the fat bellied pot he drew from it.
After a quick meal, with Rickarn looking at his portion and pulling the face the lads wanted to pull when they saw theirs but were too scared to do so, there were orders to get some damned sleep. Cole took first watch, the large Captain disappearing into the tent they were to share while the boys were stuffed into two the same size, four jumbled bodies taking joy in the warmth if not the smell of unwashed youth. Harl tried to curl into a corner by the opening, the simple knots binding it closed not enough to keep out the whistling night wind. Time passed, minutes, hours, and Harl was finally dragged down into half-awake repeating nightmares of the hundred or more times he’d been to his room.
The unlocking of the door, the placing of the tray, the long sit in the dark and then the return to the slight light of the hall with the near licked clean plates on his tray. Again, and again. Each time a little more light was gone from the eyes of those his own eyes met. Each time he felt a little more like a shadow from the room, just waiting there for something to rip into him, finally, as it had so many others, leaving them limping, blind, or just… gone.
In the hall, eating endless meals, stuffed into them by grey-robes with torn faces. Protesting, more was pushed into his mouth.
Lying down on its cold, cold, floor, Weasel crawled over him, his throat slashed open and spewing red-black blood down on him. His throat cut, just as he’d done to that nameless lad, done it with a shank made from warped glass and dark gleeful opportunity. The splattering sound was the sound of waves and he was naked as the sea swallowed him whole, his mother drifting ahead of him, rich red hair turned into fronds of dry sea weed made fresh again in the deep wet.
In the room again, in the dark. And every second was a moment before it spoke to him. He felt it about to speak. A voice in the darkness about to enter through his ears and prove it was there by delving deep into him. A sudden intake of breath-
And Harl was fully awake. The only one in the muddle of boys’ bodies, but not the only one suffering nightmares he thought as he blinked hard, straining in the dark to make out the lines of the restless shapes around him. He struggled to his knees and hands, finding small spaces to plant them and crawl closer to the tent’s flapping entrance. He wrestled with knots and snuck out, heading to where Cole still sat, his back to the tents and the fire shrunk down further.
It took Harl a moment to realise the man had shucked off his long heavy coat, and what shirt he wore beneath it. His skin was pale in the little moonlight and he was washing, drawing a pale rag over his skin, dipping it in stream water and rubbing it briskly at pits, shoulder and neck. White skin moved as he pushed the rag about, moving over nubs and angles of bone just under taught but sleight muscle. The line of his spine drew Harl’s eyes to the parts that Cole was avoiding. A large torn mess of scar tissue that ate away at half his torso, a filled crescent of ripped and still reddened flesh as though some beast had bitten the tall man and tasted him, and not finding him pleasant had released him. Harl started to slowly crawl back.
“For a woods-voln you make noise when you move like a fucking mountain-voln.” Cole threw down the cloth and grabbed his shirt, throwing it on over his head and following it up with the coat draped over the log.
“I’m sorry, I-”
“You’re on watch with me now. Sit.” He settled the hat back onto his head, casting shadows across his eyes before Harl sat opposite him, the small fire failing to fight them back even as Cole poked it back into some semblance of life. “See enough.”
“You’re a master? Sir?”
Cole smiled ruefully, his mouth twisting bitterly in the half light. “So if you’re wounded you’re a master. Couldn’t I have been a Button Man like Captain Rickarn?”
“Teeth marks. Sir.”
“Indeed. But don’t you know that our blessed King fight his wars against monsters? Perhaps I got these wounds fighting bravely for Lios, and not…. somewhere else.”
Harl paused, and said it any way. “My mother said that he called men monsters so we would fight for him.”
Cole dipped his head until Harl couldn’t even see his mouth to judge for smiles, dark or not. “Your mother had red hair did she not? A whore?”
“Yes.” He did not rankle at the title, but tried not to remember her in too much detail.
“I remember her. Seems she was smarter than I thought at the time. I rarely misjudge people, but woods-voln are tricky. Are we not?” The hat tilted back up to show his weary green eyes. “I’m no master, boy. But you are right, I did not get these wounds pointing a roarer at primitives for the King.”
“You survived the rooms?”
Cole was silent, pulling the dry Varnoush from where it had sat by one of his heavy boots and taking a swig. To Harl’s surprise, he offered it, and the boy near scampered to take it.
Cole’s hand, the fast one that had caught the same bottle earlier on the road, flashed towards him and punched him right in the eye, knocking him to the floor and thrashing the half smile from his face.
“No one survives the rooms.” His voice was flat as Harl reeled. “The masters are all dead men. You are too, even though you bear no fucking wounds yet. Orinius is the king of the land of the dead, and Lios is its emperor.” Something about that last statement made the dark man laugh slightly as Harl held his head and tried to make the world stop spinning. “If you keep fooling yourself that you’re still breathing you’ll be driving the carts within five years. Buying up boys to feed to the castle. Taking Lios’ coin and throwing it down your throat as liquid gold.” He swigged again. “But maybe not. You’ve got your numbers don’t you, boy? Saw you counting the doors on the way to Orinius. Maybe you’re on your way to Orinius.” The last was a hoarse whisper. He put the bottle from him and looked down at Harl sprawled by the fire, emerald eyes piercing through him like greened arrows.
Harl forced his words out, his right eye starting to feel as big as roaring sun and trying to distract him. But he had to know. “Which room was yours?”
“Two, one, one.” Cole said it without thinking and grimaced, almost reaching for the bottle again but stopping himself.
“What’s in the rooms?” Harl tried to sit upright, bringing his legs into a cross just as he did every single day in five, six, one.
Cole was silent. Minutes passed by the two of them, the man sat in the shadows and the boy in front of him, waiting in the near dark. Minutes edged into an hour.
But Harl was patient and used to silence.
“What’s this?” It was Captain Rickarn, emerging from the tent in his shirt and breeches.
“It’s nothing.” Cole rose and headed towards the tent. The Captain grabbed his arm which Cole brushed off.
“Got yourself a pet, Cole?”
The tall man growled and disappeared into the tent. Harl moved towards his own shared space, but Rickarn stepped in front of him, blocking his path. “The sack. Bring it to me.”
Harl fetched the large sack Cole had been delving into. They might as well have been a dead body inside it for the weight. He brought it to where Rickarn was settling in for his watch in Cole’s seat, filling himself with the same dry Varnoush.
“Good. Drop it here.”
Harl did as he was told and watched Rickarn reach inside and pull out another sack wrapped about something metal that gleamed in the slight firelight. A bundle of short swords. He took one and offered it to Harl, holding it by the blade. It was a simple killing shape, a foot-long leaf shaped blade merging into a plain hilt with round pommel. Harl reached for it, half expecting another black eye like the one he’d got from Cole. But the Captain let him take it, watching him try to heft the unfamiliar weight.
“Have you used a sword before?”
“Not exactly, sir. Smaller blades than this are pretty useful where I grew up in Bara, sir.”
“Good lad. You know what to do with it then.” He looked at Harl intently. “Do as I say and there is a way out for you. Away from Cole and Orinius. There is always a way. But you must do what I say.” Rickarn’s eyes were fever bright in the fire light.
Harl paused and then found his voice again.