He saw her face darken, and stern lines, that shouldn’t have been there for another thirty years or so, crept across her brow and turned down the corners of her lips. She started forward quickly and his free hand whipped out to catch a bundle of her dress at the shoulder.
“Let go!” she shouted.
“Stay here. You can’t-”
“I said. Let. Go!” She pulled hard against him and then lifted the small knife, which he saw now was no more than a thumb-length long, just a small blade for cutting plant stems and collecting mushrooms. It would hurt him, but Cole and Rickarn would hurt her more.
Eris’ eyes had narrowed further and he’d missed the beginning of the snarl that then suddenly growled deeply in his ear as she charged fully against him, body to body. She was smaller, but only just, and he was off guard. He stumbled back, still holding on to her and his sword as the world disappeared beneath him, and then he was rolling feet over head, pulling the girl with him and feeling each and every sharp edge of the rocks jutting from the slope. Dirt and leaves got in his eyes and hair as the world revolved and the girl was under him, yelping as she was squashed before she was on top of him again and the air was pushed further from his lungs. Finally, they slowed to a halt in the dry bracken below, white dust raining down on the two dazed bodies.
“Ungh” Harl groaned, but the girl was already trying to push out from under him, pushing with her palms against him. He shook his head and opened gritty eyes.
“Get off! Get off!!” She cried.
He moved as quickly as his aching limbs could, and moved to sit straddling her. His short sword was on the ground nearby, and he snatched at it, holding the point towards her.
“Shush. Please. Shhhh! You have to be quiet!”
She wriggled angrily, testing her strength against him, and then started screaming.
He jammed the fleshy part of his grazed and muddied palm into her mouth and took the pain of her sharp little teeth digging deep into it, groaning and rolling his eyes back as he held in his own scream.
“You. Have to… be quiet!” He hissed.
She settled slowly, two green sullen eyes looking up at him, under a fresh bloody cut on her forehead.
It was not a moment too soon. From above them he heard voices in the distance. Men’s voices. Angry voices that hissed as they tried not to shout, but which still drifted down to where he held the girl down.
“You lied to me!”
“Stop being such a little bitch, Cole.”
“She knew you! She called you Dren!”
“It is my name.”
“No one ever calls you that. She knew you well.”
“So she healed me once, what of it?”
“And then you hunt her down?!”
“The King is very clear on putting down these abominations.”
“But he didn’t give the order did he? That’s why you could get no men!”
“Show some fucking spine Cole. I did what needed to be done!”
“This was personal wasn’t it Dren? Did she turn you down, was that it?! Or was she naked before you saw the mark on her. Did it disgust you and you just had to put a shot between her eyes for fooling you? For bringing her impurity near your blessed-”
There was a loud sound, one Harl was familiar with from the night before and his own black eye throbbed again in sympathy.
“Get up! There’s work to do you lazy fucking woods-voln!”
There was a groan, from Cole Harl thought, and then a quieter voice sarcastically said, “Sir, yes, sir.”
The girl started drumming her heels into the dirt, squealing ineffectually against his hand. Harl’s heart leapt into his ears, drumming blood there loudly as his panic increased. The whole time the voices had been coming closer. If they came to the edge of the bank and looked down!
Harl searched about in panic, desperately looking for an idea to get him and the girl out of this. You know the trick of this, you know the trick of this. The words repeated in his mind over and over. You know the trick of this! You know the trick of this!
His eyes fell onto the frantic curling and beating of her feet behind him, and a fevered thought flew into his mind as he looked again at that curious curl of darkened skin circling around her ankle and down to her foot. Such a small thing to be an impurity. Such a small bit of skin to doom this girl to being hunted as her mother had been doomed once she met Rickarn. Dren, he thought in his mind viciously, using the name he disliked, Captain Dren Rickarn.
He looked back into the girl’s panicked eyes and firmed his grip on the short sword. Without that flesh just there she would be no different to other woods-voln! She would be wounded, and then scarred, it was true. But others had survived like that. Like the masters.
It would be difficult, he’d have to keep his hand, his now numb and shaking left hand, in her mouth, while he twisted and cut it away. He paused.
He remembered, there had been a gent once who’d come stumbling into their wretched squat, some gent he’d seen visit his mother a few times before and been one of the rare ones to leave her with sweet words instead of bruises. But that day, he’d been hurt, attacked maybe, or there’d been an accident. And he’d come to her with a massive gash on his thigh, leaking his life away as he’d stumbled in and begged for her help. A younger Harl had watched from around the doorframe as his mother had worked extremely fast to tie off the wound with the man’s own belt, looping it at the top of his thigh, and then then stitching quickly to close it up as the man had taken down most of her reserves of cheap red ale.
The flesh. It was such a small thing, such a small thing to make Captain Dren Rickarn hunt her mother down, and now-
Harl’s eyes flashed around again, scouring the treeline. He had no needles, no fine threads. But the woods-voln in these lands might find her. If he tied it off tightly enough with his own belt there might be a chance for her. A chance for a future where no one would hunt her down because of that small part of her.
No! It was madness. She would die from the wound. He started to drop the sword’s point.
Harl looked up, blinking into the grey sunlight, staring at the silhouette of a broad shouldered man, his roarer glinting gold in his hand.
“Good lad!” Rickarn started down the slope, his large legs eating up the distance down to Harl and the girl. “You found a whelp!”
Cole followed after, slowly, carefully plotting his way down from tree to tree, his hat almost covering where blood was spread from his nose across his cheek.
“Wait…” Harl began weakly, but Rickarn was there, casting his shadow over the girl.
“What’s this? Ah, you were driven by her impurity to take her life?” His eyes took in Harl’s sword and the twist of his body. “Or just her cursed parts? Yes! Cut it all away! Let her bleed to death crawling in the dirt, trying to find her wretched bloody people!” That was a terrifying glee in him.
“Rickarn.” Cole said darkly.
“What is it Cole?” Rickarn said, almost sighing. “Does Orinius want the whelp? For his work?”
Cole paused, thinking. “No. No he doesn’t have numbers for females to compare her to. But-”
“Good.” Rickarn turned back to him and said, almost bored, “Cut her impurity away, boy. Let her bleed it into the ground with her life.”
The girl fought harder and nearly bucked Harl from on top of her. Tears were streaming from her terrified eyes, and Harl felt his own pricking at his similar green eyes.
Rickarn cocked his roarer and pointed it at her head.
“Do it boy. Or she’ll be first, and you’ll be next.”
It was a messy, badly done, job.
Between her screaming and biting, her attempts to push him off, and the shaking in his hand, it was badly done. After the first stroke Cole came closer, knelt and held her feet still, looking into Harl’s red and tear filled eyes with something like curiosity. She passed out from the pain and Cole stood again as the task was finished.
Blood was splattered on the bone white bracken around them.
“Good. Let’s go.” Rickarn marched up the slope, not even caring to look back. Cole followed after him seconds later.
It was only when Harl collapsed away from the unconscious girl, shaking and crying, that he realised that the woods-voln had dropped something as he left, letting it snake down his leg and onto the blood splattered plants near Harl. It was a plain but well-made black belt.
Harl worked fast, both his hands already covered in blood, both hers and his, and trembling so hard that his fingers barely responded. His left hand was torn, blood pouring from where her teeth had left puncture marks and wrenched at the flesh. But he put it to work. Then when his makeshift tourniquet was done, he used his own rope belt as well, certain that he’d taken too long and a roarer would be being aimed at him at that very moment. But it wasn’t, and then he was dragging himself up the slope wearily, slowly, looking back to her body every so often. Just as he was reaching the top he heard shouting.
“You fucking hit me!” It was Cole.
“Stop shouting!” hissed Rickarn. “Fuck. Do you know the way back to the cart from here?”
“You fucking bastard! You lied to me! You hit me! You fucking city-voln bastard!!”
Harl had never heard Cole raise his voice like this. What was he thinking, broadcasting that a city-voln was in the middle of the woods, right in woods-voln lands?!
“Shut the fuck up Cole. I do what I need to do. Ah, another of the boys.”
Harl saw one of the other lads creeping through the tree line and towards the Captain. “Sir?”
“Take us back to the cart. We’re done. We put the beast and its whelp down.” The boy nodded, confident for a city-voln Harl thought.
Harl saw Cole looking at him, taking in the blood splattered on his clothes and his paleness. “Come boy. We’re done here. Nothing more we can do.” All trace of his anger at Rickarn seemed to be gone, his voice quiet and low again as it had been before. Harl nodded and walked with them, leaving the clearing behind, but taking the image of the girl and her leg with him, a heavier burden than the short sword that itself felt like the weight of a thousand Bara red bricks.
The journey back to the cart, the exit through the woods, the path back past the fields and to the castle passed in a blur seen through red, puffy and gritty eyes. They stopped when they had to stop, and Harl ate and pissed when he had to. But inside he was empty, an echoing chamber where his mind just replayed the butcher’s job he’d done. Showing him again and again the girl’s terrified green eyes and the blood seeping into them. Eyes just like his mother’s.
At the castle they turned before the main gate and again took the worn down stone path to the broken sea room. Harl welcomed the waves this time, hoping for them to scour away the thoughts in his head, or to drown him fully so that he could forget them at the bottom of the sea as a bone white ghost, lost from Lios and mindlessly haunting the watery world. But his teeth torn hand found the rope, and it twisted him again into the life he’d been living for the past few months. No measuring this time, but quick stitches and bandages before the same corridors and dark corners. Before the same tray in the great hall. The same path back to five, six, one. The same cold floor that he sat on, legs crossed, as though nothing had happened.
He closed his eyes in the darkness, the movement of his eyelids the only difference between looking and not looking in this blackness.
And he sat.
Movement. A stirring of air, breathed in and out so slightly that he wasn’t certain it had really happened. And then before his mind could decide on it, there were words. In the dark. In five, six, one.
“You are different now.”