Harl slowly came to with his head pillowed by a thick bundle of blanket instead of the grit of the path, his face smarting and tight from bruising and cuts. At first he was curled into a ball as he shook and shivered with fever, but he managed to come to his hands and knees to look about the shadows of the wooden structure he was inside. It was slanted, a rough lean-to that stirred an uncertain memory. In the corners were furs and other blankets he’d likely pushed aside as his temperature had climbed.
He remembered the cliff… Fysiwon falling… and then nothing. Just silent blackness. How had he ended up here?
Suddenly his burning blood froze as a woman’s sobs rang out in the unknown outside. It was a cry of heartbreak, merged in with babbling words he could not quite make out. Another female voice was trying to sooth the crier, their calm low voice too gentle to hear properly either.
Wherever he was and whatever was going on, he had to leave. He’d seen Cole on the mare, charging out of the castle after him and Fysiwon… last night? The night before? He no longer had a grip on time. But the man in the dark coat and hat was hunting him, and Cole had a woods-voln determination and skill at tracking, Harl was certain, no matter who he had become in the castle. If Harl could get back to Bara there were ways to disappear there. He could join up with Jerekyn and his firm properly, work his way into a new name, and hopefully some coin, by helping with their ‘jobs’. A thought of his mother, green eyes and long red hair, flitted into his hot mind. He was torn between finding her again, and not. She’d sold him. She’d sold him!
There was a sudden movement at the entrance to the wooden lean-to, and a leather flap was pushed aside, letting in more of the woman’s sobbing despair. Another woman carefully crawled in, moving old and aching bones slowly. Harl recognised her even through his frantic panic. She was one of the hags in black at the clearing by the road where the carts had stopped for rest and a meal. A hundred or more years ago it felt like. She was not the one he’d spoken to, but another with grey streaking her brown hair and sorrow aging her eyes. Farm-voln? He’d thought so when they’d first come across the old women, farm-voln but worn thin and old.
She looked him over with a raven dark eye, light coming from behind her showing him it was likely early or late in the day. She sucked at her teeth and grimaced as the woman’s sobs and wails began to crescendo again.
“Merlat. Ignore her. She’s been told. And she be not happy ‘bout it.”
“Told what?” He shivered and the woman immediately busied herself with grabbing over a blanket for him, wrapping it about him, before spitting out of the lean-to in what looked like self-disgust.
“What do you remember, boy?”
What to say? What lie to weave…? She stopped his thoughts with a sneer.
“Don’t you lie to me. We seen the tall man yesterday, charging through here on a sweat drenched mare. We seen him. Cole, the child taker. Lost a child did he? First one of them at the castle to do that, we were all thinking. Merlat weren’t here then, was she, she was visiting her daughters at her homestead. But she came back just in time to see you walking up the road, as pale as bone, half dead with blood all on yer face. First she thinks you are a Lios-cursed ghost. Then she sees the flesh of you. Thinks you are her boy, come back at last. Because she been waiting. We all been waiting. Doesn’t matter that you’re woods-voln, it barely registers. Or that her boy would in his fifth decade now. Doesn’t matter. There’s a boy on the road walking towards her, calling for his mother. But now she knows.” She grimaced, gesturing with a shrug towards the flap and the wailing outside.
Harl swallowed thickly, and the woman passed him a waterskin. “You’ve all been waiting.”
“I know. I know. They aren’t coming back.” She shrugged, her bony shoulders creasing the ragged dress and cloak she wore. “But boys still go there. Maybe we were really waiting for you. The first to ever come back.” She peered closely at him, and he could see the map of her life on her face. It had not been a good one. “Escape did you? Steal a key or something? Guessing there be locks. Something to keep you all there and away from your mothers. Or is it nice? Wondered that over the years. Wondered if my boys liked it there better than on the farm.” She swallowed and he saw her eyes glisten with sudden tears. “Farm-work is hard s’pose-”
He stopped her. “It aint nice there! Its… its…” He started to cough, his face burning and starting to run with sweat.
“Peace, boy. You’re sick.” She gave him the waterskin again. “You were barely awake when your body walked you here. That’s why we thought you were a dead one at first. Somethings got into your blood and your body be not happy ‘bout it.”
A memory. Fysiwon saying something about a quest. The thin tendril that had nicked his face. He put his hand to his cheek and felt the roughness of part dried scabs and lumps of bruises. He’d landed on his face near enough when he’d fallen into darkness.
“You’ll be pretty enough again boy, they’re just some cuts and scrapes.” She looked the rest of him over as he sat there, wrapped up in the blanket. “They fed you well there at least. Better than home cooking?”
His mother had not been much of a cook, but the simple meals she made them when she could scrounge together the parts were worth more than all the fine cuts the castle had fed them.
“No. Not better. Nothing was better there.”
“Did they hurt you?”
He thought of the grey-robes and their missing limbs. If this woman’s boys had even survived they might have been some of the masters of the keys that Harl had met, been beaten by. What should he say?
“Lies are climbing onto your tongue again, boy. Doesn’t matter. Even if my boys were hurting, there’s nothing I could have done. The city-voln who direct this region from Bara don’t give a shit. Even when we tell them that our daughters are sharing husbands because too many boys have gone to the castle. Even when we tell them that our daughters are smuggling their boys out to the cities rather than have them work on the farms about here. They don’t care, because our daughters, and our daughters’ daughters can still make the harvest. Because they’re farm-voln.” There was both pride and despair in that one breath. “But you got out. There anything special about you, boy?”
She was looking closely at him again. He shook his head but Cole’s words from months ago haunted him. This one Orinius. This one will be here when I get back. Cole had scoffed at Orinius’ claim that he was making a prophecy about Harl, prophecies are mother’s milk stories for the feeble minded, he’d said. But why him, out of all of them? And why had he been the one to speak with Fysiwon, out of all the boys and all the things in all the rooms. He was feeling feverish again. Fysiwon had given him a quest. Lios wants it. He’s always wanted it. Maybe you can be the one to finally give him his wish. Ram it right down his throat for all the boys he’d sacrificed trying to get it. Yes. You could do it, Harl, you’re still yourself. I could give you a quest!
“Lios wants it.” He muttered.
“What’s that boy, what does the god-king want?”
“I could do it. I’m still myself.” He slumped, putting a hand to the ground to support himself. “I’m still here.”
The woman nodded, and gently helped him to lie down. “Yes, you’re here. You’re here. And I’m here. Mother’s here.” She gently pushed his sweat straggled hair from his brow as his eyes fluttered. His last sight of her before he slept again was of her warm red hair flowing over young, slender, shoulders, clear emerald green eyes, and a sweet smile as she started to sing to him. His mother. Back in Bara. Waiting for him?