“I need to find her. The girl in the woods.”
Silence in the darkness. Harl thought perhaps he was sleeping again, his friend seemed to be able to switch from awake to sleeping – to dreaming – in the space of a bloody moment. He seemed to prefer dreaming, and Harl’d had to force himself not to take offence. Harl thought he’d likely be the same if he had nothing to do or see or day. Except speak to you. He quashed that moment of petulance. Harl knew it was different for him. He made allowances because everything was different for him.
“I said, I need to find her, the girl in the woods. Eris Atta-Sutith.”
A stirring in the air. He was moving at least.
“She might be dead.” The voice in the dark was quiet and misshapen, as though coming through a difficult mouth.
Harl’s stomach knotted at his words. She was very likely dead after what he’d done to her. He still remembered the feeling of his short sword cutting into her flesh. The spatter of her blood. The feeling of her bone under the blade…
“She might be, Harl.”
“Yes. She might.” Harl agreed, feeling a chill in his blood again. “But maybe I can give her a proper burial. I don’t know, do something.” He shifted on the cold stone floor, adjusting his stiffening legs crossed underneath him.
“Yes, I’d have to get outside.” Back to the woods where they’d left her. Back along the road where Captain Rickarn had heaped praise on him while Cole had near enough disappeared into the shadows of his large coat and wide brimmed hat. Until Rickarn had offered Harl the ride on his horse. At the time the words had not even sunk in, Harl had been numb and deaf. He barely remembered them until days after. And only then Cole’s reaction.
“An equerry should know the beast he’s to care for.” Rickarn had said, making as if he was going to dismount. Harl was in the cart, white and shaking still, eyes red and swollen from tears. At that moment he could only see her face and not the smug city-voln looking down at him from his fine mount.
“Fuck you, Dren!” Barked Cole then, turning suddenly towards Rickarn and in doing so showing a face almost as pale as Harl’s. “Stop playing with the boy! Sure as blood is blood you aint going to take on a woods-voln equerry. You’d be the laughing stock of Liosinium! So stop your fucking games!”
It had been the angriest he’d ever seen Cole. But almost as quickly as the rage had blossomed on the man’s sharp features, it passed. His lips were still pressed thin as he looked at the Captain, but his anger was contained again. Rickarn merely nodded and clicked his tongue at his horse, who picked up his hooves and fair pranced ahead to a few paces beyond the cart mule. Rickarn stayed up front like that all the way back to the Castle, a stiff back turned to Cole and the boys who dreaded their return. Harl only dreaded thoughts of what he’d done. And still they came to him; in the night, in the dark of this room. When he dreamt.
“Don’t go outside Harl.” whispered pain in that broken voice. “Stay with me.”
Harl paused, returning to the darkness of the locked room. “We could both leave. You could help me find her…”
A low laugh, bubbling through that broken mouth. The voice sounded young, but he’d told Harl he’d been here for years. Decades even. Not that he could measure the span of time by anything other than the boys and the meals the masters brought him. Wounds flashed into Harl’s mind. Dresick’s missing ear. The missing limbs. The scars on Cole’s torso. He put that question from his mind again. He was getting good at locking things away in the thousand rooms in his mind, a version of the castle made small in his head. If only he could contain the girl in there too.
Harl sighed. “Fysiwon…”
“They’ll kill you Harl. The masters.”
“Fysiwon, I can’t be here forever.”
“Tell me the story of Kur Gyreblack again.”
“Tell me the story!” The madness was in his voice, echoing about the black room. Movement in the dark, something large stirring. Harl sat still. The movement slowed.
“Sorry Harl. Sorry.” Pain again in his broken voice. Once Fysiwon had admitted that his body hurt. Seconds later he was begging Harl never to try to see him. As he had done every day for weeks after he first spoke. Please, please don’t try to see me, he’d whispered. No matches snuck in, no lamps. Please Harl. Promise Harl. And Harl had promised.
“It’s okay, I understand. But I have to find her. I can’t stay here. I can’t…” He stopped himself. He couldn’t tell Fysiwon about the looks he was getting. Couldn’t tell the broken thing in the dark that because he hadn’t hurt him yet that the other lads hated Harl now. They hated him to the point of violence, even if under the eyes of the masters they hadn’t dared to do anything to him yet. But soon, maybe.
And he needed to find the girl. Fysiwon might be able to escape to his dreams – of the past? Harl wasn’t sure – but he only saw the same butchering over and over again. His hands bloody with it. If he could find her, he could try to make amends. Or lay her to rest.
A low moan from Fysiwon, pain and frustration. Harl tried to calm his rapidly beating heart again.
“Friend. Please, friend.”
“Harl is my friend.” Calmness again. The madness came in waves like this some days. The bastard gods only knew how Harl’d survived so long before the poor thing had first spoken to him that day. Now he knew that he could calm Fysiwon. Before… it was pure luck that the creature had not raged against the intrusion in his room like the others had done and taken his ears, or eyes, or limbs. Or his life. Something about the woods-voln boy had caught the poor thing’s attention and kept him safe from his madness and pain. Perhaps it was his charming personality, Harl thought with a smirk. Or his many creative bloody ways of saying ‘piss pot’.
Harl sighed. “Not long now friend. You ate a long time ago. My legs ache enough, so that it must be soon. But you dream until I’m back tomorrow morning, alright friend?”
“No Harl. How long until you go outside?”
Harl paused. “I don’t know Fysiwon.”
The name had evolved over the early days of his speaking to Harl. When Harl had explained where he was held captive, the shape in the dark had been amazed, seeming not know that there were other things like him in other rooms just nearby. Never knowing that there were numbers on his door, marking him out as different. After all that time alone in the dark without a name he’d been so overjoyed that he’d repeated it through his broken mouth over and over again. Five, six, one. Five, six, one… ‘Fysiwon’.
“You can’t tell. You can’t let the master know.” That was something else he’d repeated as well. Silent for so many years, only barely aware of the grey-robes locking and unlocking the doors, he still knew to fear them. To fear them knowing that something different was happening between him and Harl. Friend. None of the other lads knew their fellow captives like this. None of them had anything other than fear for the things in the darkness of the rooms allocated to them. The bloody masters couldn’t be allowed to know that in his room someone was talking to him. Friend.
Harl stood and stretched. “Until tomorrow, Fysiwon.”
“Tomorrow Harl.” He already sounded sleepy, falling into the safe softness of dreams. Memories? Harl didn’t know, but hoped that they were better than here. Although, by the bastard gods, anywhere was fucking better than here.
Moments later the door was being unlocked. His body truly had a sense now of when it was going to be. All the use that bloody was.
The master brought him, his barren tray, and his piss pot, out and relocked the door. Five, six, one. Harl went to follow after the few others walking from his corridor, back to the great hall for food.
“Not you, Orinius wants you.” The master grabbed his arm quickly. His other arm, a twisted mess of muscle and flesh, long ago healed in the shape it’d been left in, pointed the other way. “You come with me, down here.”
Harl nodded and walked with the man. They passed other corridors. In one a master was mopping up a trail of blood that led from one door to half way up the corridor. He looked up at Harl and his colleague. His ear and an eye were missing.
Finally, Harl and the master reached the door to Orinius’ study where the grey-robe knocked and then left Harl alone.
“Come in.” Orinius’ voice chilled Harl’s blood. He’d been so used to following orders from the masters, he hadn’t yet thought through why Orinius might want to see him. Could he know that Fysiwon was talking? How could he know though?! The walls and doors were so thick only the worst of the screams made it through. Fysiwon sometimes yelled, as he’d done earlier, but even so… it could be any moment of madness, not the anger of a poor broken thing in the dark who just wanted the same bloody story for the hundredth time. Harl held his breath as he walked in, trying to calm his thrashing heart.
In the warm room he saw Cole, lounging again on one of Orinius’ chairs. He wasn’t entirely surprised; some new lads had arrived the day before. Some were broken and some had already… gone.
“Ah, there you are.” Orinius smiled like a snake. “Come, sit.” He gestured at a spare chair facing the two of them and Harl slowly lowered himself into it. For months he’d been sitting on cold stone floors, in the great hall or in room five, six, one. It was like sitting on a cloud.
“I’ll have your dinner brought here presently. Perhaps you would like some water while you wait?”
Harl nodded cautiously, looking at Cole out of the corner of his eye. The woods-voln had one leg slung across the other, his mud stained boot showing its patched sole to the room. He was more than half way through a bottle of some liquor that one hand rested on possessively. The other hand brought a horn tumbler to his lips. Again. And Again.
Orinius was behind his desk. He steepled his finger tips and looked closely at Harl.
“He’s not what I would have asked for.”
“You should be smug Cole. You were the one who predicted he’d still be around.”
“When I got back the first time after. Not now.” Cole’s words were slurring slightly, although he was still a ways off of sounding like Fysiwon. Who they hadn’t mentioned. Harl’s heart heaved in his chest. Maybe they didn’t know.
“Well. This is what I’ve got. Twenty years of waiting, give or take, and I get a woods-voln.”
Cole drank, and refilled his cup.
“Could be worse… could be worse. A farm-voln maybe. You have your numbers and letters, boy?”
“See, could be worse.” Orinius stood and moved to one side. “Come sit here.”
“Orinius.” There was a warning in the man’s voice. It was hard to see his eyes for his long dark, straggling hair, but Harl imagined their emerald fire. This wasn’t just the anger of a drunk, something he’d seen many a time before. Bastard gods, what was going on here?
He stood and walked to Orinius’s desk, taking his seat and seeing the room from behind the ornate wood for the first time. There were small drawers built into it, quills dipped in pots, and piles and piles of books that almost blocked out his view of Cole. The man was looking away, staring to where Harl had been sitting seconds before.
Orinius laid a book out before him. It was easily three feet wide, a great ledger of numbers running down in columns. This is where I was written down, Harl thought.
“Read, here.” Orinius pointed a yellowing nail at a line of numbers. He understood them, but their meaning was unclear.
“Three Li-measures and a half. Seven Li-measures and three quarters. A measure. Five lengths.”
Cole stood suddenly, stood and watched. His thin lips getting tighter by the moment.
“Now here.” A page before, fine handwriting describing something. “Start from here.”
“Orinius. A D-Denosian. Copper of skin. Ten years of age. B-Brought by Ellus, sea-voln of the Western Cape. Captured at sea. Sold to us for two silver coins.” Harl stuttered a bit under Cole’s fierce gaze.
“Excellent. The rest, the Science of it, can be taught. But I could not bear to have to go through teaching the numbers and the letters. Return to your seat.”
Harl had to walk past the slightly swaying man on his way back to the fine chair. Orinius arranged his thick robe and sat down carefully, oblivious of Cole’s closeness to Harl as he passed him. Cole seemed to be about to say something, but he just grabbed at the bottle again and flopped down onto the chair instead.
“Will you tell him now?” Cole far spat out the words.
“Not all of it. Not yet.” Orinius was cold and detached to Cole’s barely controlled anger. And neither of them seemed to care that they were speaking right bloody in front of him! Tell him what?!
“Unmarked. Fucking unlucky bastard.”
“Do be quiet, Cole. There are far worse fates.”
“Oh yes, far worse. Rickarn wanted him for an equerry.”
“Ridiculous. A woods-voln equerry?! Liosinium would lock all its stables, hide all its fine silver horse ornamentations…”
“Fucking right!” Cole supped again. “But this?” He gestured about at the room, the shelves, the books.
“That’s enough. I’ve never seen you complain about the gold that my position brings you, Cole.” Orinius sneered. “Never seen you turn down a chance to remind me that you stood between me and them.” Orinius turned his attention to Harl. “Have they started hating you yet, boy?”
Harl started. How did he know??
“You aren’t the first to be unmarked.” Orinius pushed the thick embroidered sleeves of his robe back, revealing the light brown skin of his thin but normal arms. “But they won’t hate you when you are granted Lios’ protection. When you… eventually… replace me.”
Cole scoffed. “They still fucking hate you Orinius. They just know better than to show it to Lios’ last hope.”
That comment confused Harl, what was Lios hoping for? What could the god-king need from Orinius. From this bloody place?
“Fuck this, and fuck you.” Cole stood again, even more unstable. “I’ll not sit and wait for him to be prancing about in your fucking robes when you’re gone.”
“You belong to this place as much as I do, Cole.” Orinius sounded bored. Had he heard Cole speak like this before, wondered Harl? “Take your rest. But then be back to your work on the morning. The last boys you brought are already used up.”
“In a day?!” Cole slurred.
“You only brought six this time. You must do better.”
A grey-robe quietly came in from the recessed door in the alcove, bringing a tray with Harl’s dinner.
Suddenly all the blood was gone from Cole’s sharp face. Then he whispered raggedly. “You will go in. You will be locked in. You will deliver the food. You will stay inside.”
Orinius sighed. “There’s no need for dramatics-”
But Cole was moving, stumbling past Harl and charging into the grey-robe, knocking him and the tray flying. And Harl’s dinner with him. Cole was gone, off down the dark corridor where the red rope led to the great hall.
“Oh dear.” Said Orinius flatly. “Clear that up.” The grey-robe got to work, scooping up the ruined dinner and depositing it back on the plates with his bare hands. Harl watched him, with a sick feeling in his stomach. Was he… was he meant to become this man’s master, like Orinius?!
“Go back to the great hall. They can still find you a meal, I suppose.” He waved his hand dismissively, and Harl walked past the grey-robe still cleaning the floor with his hands. Beyond him was the door and Harl let himself into the darkness beyond, his hand finding the red rope easily, and starting his path towards the hall.
Suddenly he was on the floor, hands and knees smashing into the hard stone there and complaining loudly.
A groan in the dark. He’d fallen over something, someone.
“Ne’er said you could say m’name.”
It was pitch black but he realised that from the height of the voice Cole was sitting on the floor, most likely with his back to the wall. He heard movement from the man and a match sparked to life, showing the dark straggle of the man’s hair over his bowed head. Cole put the match to a bundle of papers and threw them across the corridor to lie and burn on the stone. The strange silvery paper burned slowly, casting light so Harl could see as he got to his feet.
“You never said I couldn’t neither.”
Cole laughed. “Sharp tongue, sharp death, woods-voln.”
“That’s you too, yer know!”
He was quiet. Then he ran his fingers through his hair suddenly, breathing out. “Once maybe, not now. Sit with me awhile, lad.”
Harl felt rage building in his chest. Memories of Eris came burning through his mind like acid. “Fuck you!”
It was hard to see the man’s eyes, even in the firelight, but Harl hoped there was pain there, even a small amount for everything this man had done.
“You’re a fucking monster! You feed children to monsters! And you drink and eat, all on the coin they give you. Fuck you!!”
“I could get you out of here. Get you back on the carts-”
“Make me like you? Make me steal children too? Fuck that!”
Cole looked up at him, sharpness returning to his booze-addled eyes. Green eyes. “Didn’t steal-”
“Woods-voln don’t sell their sons, you said!” Harl was bringing his hands into fists.
He kicked him then, putting all of his burning hot anger into that quick, forceful movement. Landing the blow right where under his clothes Cole was scarred. Where he had been bitten by something like Fysiwon. Harl fell to his knees, tears flowing.
Cole didn’t even groan, even though he clasped a hand to that side.
“You still cry though.” Cole said hoarsely. “Good.”
He took deep breaths and tried to stop. “Fuck you.” It was a weaker curse, so he added some colour. “May the poisoned one never take your grief. May the shadowed one never hide the light from you. May-”
Cole laughed. “The bastard gods. Of course. These walls remember the bastard gods well.” He was slurring again, and Harl noticed, even in the fading light of the small fire, a small wine skin in his hand.
“Does that even help?”
“Not a fucking bit, lad. Not a fucking bit.” Cole paused. “I meant… I meant I could get you out. Not get you working on the carts.” His green eyes were surprisingly earnest, and Harl almost, for a brief moment, thought about it. Somehow, under a horse blanket maybe. There would be a trick to it. He would be able to work it out. Somehow. But what about Fysiwon?
Harl changed the subject, and sure as blood was blood, the drunk man didn’t even notice “I can get you back to your bloody room and out of my bloody way. The visitor’s parlour, is it?” He pulled at the man’s arm, getting him to his feet with some help and then waited expectantly in the fumes of his breath.
Cole nodded and started to stumble forward, Harl struggling to keep him upright as the man seemed to be leading the way. They marched together down numerous corridors, and Harl began to wonder if they were getting deeper and deeper into the castle, and deeper and deeper into being lost. Then finally Cole slowed, and pulled them to a stop outside a plain wooden door, one among many on the corridor. It was nothing like the fine door to the visitor’s parlour where Rickarn had been waiting for the lads. It was just another door.
Just another door. With numbers.
Cole slurred, reading them aloud, even though his eyes were closed behind the length of his tangled hair, his head lolling down. Knowing them anyway. “Two, nine, one.”