Harl awoke to the Spring-cold earth pressed hard against his face. His body was bent and twisted in on itself to try and keep the chill away. Reluctantly opening sore eyes, he took in the bush about him and the burrow he was resting against. Memories of dogs hunting him down flashed into his mind and he cautiously squinted in the half-light down at his right arm. Blood matted the tunic to him there, turned dark and brown by the night, spreading out from several points on his forearm where the dog’s jaws had clamped onto him. It wasn’t bleed at least. And… and it didn’t hurt. At all.
He carefully pulled at a torn part of the white coarse woven material, feeling the tug of solid blood trapped onto the fine hairs he had there. But still, no pain, apart from the scabbing pulling at his hairs and making him wince. He smiled ruefully as he remembered the agony he’d been in last night, and now he was complaining about a few pulled hairs! Eventually the material came away from about the wound, revealing what at first he thought was a rich dark brown scab making a near round shape where the dog’s pointed tooth had pierced him. For a moment he believed it hadn’t been as bad as it had seemed then. For a moment he almost laughed at his over-reaction; if it had scabbed over already then the old dog had worn his teeth away already on sweet treats from a spoiling farm-voln master!
But then… he looked closer.
What he had taken for a scab was flesh. Dark and cracked like a red-brown scab, but black. Black like the mark on the girl, and black like the skin that the farm-voln girl had felt and seen between his shoulder blades. Barely breathing, he pulled harder at the rest of his sleeve, revealing the two half-moons of teeth marks on either side of his forearm where the dog had caught him. Each tooth mark now filled in with new skin!
Impure. Ethne had called him, impure. Like the bastard gods. Every city-voln knew the bastard gods were impure, tainted, unlike the Pure God, Lios. But when Ethne had called him that he’d not thought on it. Or perhaps he’d glanced over the words, thinking for a moment that she believed him diseased, with something like the Sewer Pox on his skin, a spreading illness normally bursting out in spots on the face and hands. He looked down at his forearm and the teeth marks there. This was not an illness. This had… saved him? If not for this new skin, wouldn’t he have bled to weakness in this hole in a hedge, drifting in the night’s cold into a longer sleep? A sleep without dreams.
Then he remembered fever dreams. His mother. The woods-voln girl, and Cole with his roarer and crossbow. But they were just whisps of memory and he could not remember their words.
He shook his head to dash away those whisps, looking out through the bush to the king’s road, still heading onwards to Bara if his feet could still take him there. And he thought they could. He felt strong, stronger than he expected for another night outside and no food for a day or so. He felt as if he could walk right up to the gates of the heaving town and knock. But that was stupid. He needed to be smarter than that.
As he moved, preparing to push carefully back through the briar bush to the road, he noticed something just under where he had been lying, just further back into the abandoned burrow. A skeleton, complete, and picked clean by scavengers and time. It had been a fox once, its head lying just between its two paws on the ground as though it had lain down here one night, as he had, and never got up again. As he so nearly had. He carefully picked up the fox’s skull, its spine crumbling as he brought it closer to him. Eye sockets looked back at him. Long canines gleamed in the little light there was.
“You should have stuck to the woods.” Harl whispered. “True, there’s no chickens there… as far as I know… but there’s no farm-voln foxhounds either.” He was about to replace the skull, when he decided not to, instead looping his rope belt through the outer sweep of its eye sockets and under the base of the skull. With the pale skull on his belt he carefully crept through the hedge and back to the long road.
Squinting to the East, towards where the sun was rising beyond Bara, he absent-mindedly ran finger tips over the new flesh on his arms.
“I’d take you back to the woods little fox. But I gotta get back to Bara and…”
He paused. Now that it was in sight, the idea of disappearing into Bara and never even seeing his mother again seemed more real and more wrong. Maybe he should find her? At least check that she was okay? He could go to Jerekyn for work at any time. He was always hanging about the Light of Lios pub once the closing bell was about to sound. Or he could get a job or two done, and get some coin to his mother? More coin than she sold you for, a disgruntled part of him said.
“What would you do, little fox?”
The skull was silent. And for that Harl was a little grateful.
Nodding, he set his feet to his path, hoping to decide along the way, before the great gates at least, what he should do once hidden inside Bara and away from Cole and his woods-voln tracking. A smile played on his lips. The tall man had charged off madly on his bay mare, passing by the crones when Harl had been sleeping. Along with Harl’s brief time at the homestead of Agnith and Simeon, Cole would have reached Bara long ago, his search entirely bloody fruitless! Although… if the man decided to return to the castle this way as well, then Harl might still run into him on the road. At least, Harl would be able to hear any rider coming and could quickly hide… he could have Cole fly past him not once but twice! Putting one over the tall man pleased him. It would please him even more if he could find a way to let the older woods-voln know how close he had been to his quarry, not once, but twice! He would give up all the gold in Lios’ treasury to see his face then! If he could walk up to him and let him know! Oh, those dulled green eyes would widen in surprise, and then narrow in annoyance. Harl would love to see his eyes like that, even if Cole tried to hide them away in the shadows under that daft hat! Cole would probably mutter some profanity, turnabout, sending out that great old cloak, and then walk away with his tail between his legs! Oh he would give plenty to give Cole that kind of annoyance!
The thought of riling up Cole so greatly amused him for a goodly mile of walking, Bara still creeping closer as the woods-voln boy walked now with a spring in his step. Because of this he was so distracted that he didn’t at first note the wooden cart ahead of him, rumbling away from him towards the city. He could just make out the great barrels on the back and a tempting spot between them where someone sitting might be able to hitch a sweet lift for a while without the man at the front noticing. Harl increased his pace.
Gaining on it, he swiftly grabbed a hold with his two hands, twisted and planted his behind on the back of the cart, feeling his aching feet sigh in relief. To either side were great fat barrels, strapped in but jigging with the up and downs of the road. They were taller than him and if he tucked up his legs he would be invisible to anyone but someone following after them on the king’s road. As he’d jogged closer to the cart he’d tried to get a glimpse of the man driving but only seen a rather large bald spot and two handle like ears for his efforts. No matter, thought Harl, as he relaxed into his seat and enjoyed watching the farmlands moving past him under someone else’s steam.
It was a surprise then when he heard a small voice asking a question of the man at the front. They had obviously been, like him, hidden by the barrels, but in front of them. On hearing their voice, he realised that there was a child at the front with the man driving the mule or pony.
“Will we get a good price?” The voice was female, young but shrewd.
“The taverns of Bara enjoy our mead, little apple.”
“That’s not what I asked, papa.”
“Humph. You sound more and more like your mother every day, Lucie.”
“And she’s the one who usually does the talking, don’t she papa?”
“She ask you to nag me so?”
“We’ll get a good price as long as the throats in Bara aint been cut, although that’s never too certain.”
“Papa! Mama don’t like you speaking like that!”
“There’s plenty mama don’t like, by the Pure God!”
“Oooh, will we go to the temple this visit?”
“Surely. You have something to repent, Lucie?” A note of concern in the man’s voice. “I brought only a little coin for repentances. But you’re a good girl, aren’t you?”
“Of course papa. I just like to see all the glitter and gold.”
“Ah. They say Garre has more gold than even Liosinium. Perhaps the next time we trade to the South I shall take you there also?”
Excited gasping from the girl “Thankyou papa! But one day might we go all the way to Liosinium?”
“Your mother and your aunts can’t spare me for so long. Though… the coin from such a trip would be handy when the men come about asking for our boys.” A dark tone then, a thought curtly cut off.
“Mama said she’s going to dress up Huw as a girl once he turns six. And Frin after him.”
“Did she now?” More curtness, and then a deep sigh. “She might not be as mad as all that. Paying off that Lios-cursed woods-voln and the other men who come around hunting boys to take to the West is going to be dear. And there’s the repairs needed on the mead shed.” He snorted and spat over the side onto the road. “Lios bless us.”
“Lios bless us.” The girl muttered back by rote. Then it was Harl’s turn to spit off of the back of the cart. Lios be damned! Fuck the Pure One in his fucking face!
Harl absent-mindedly rubbed the new flesh on his arm, and settled in for the journey, and for what else he might hear from the farm-voln father and daughter.