Their chatter carried on for a while, an hour or more along the road, and Harl kept an ear to it for interesting titbits. But mostly he learnt about the proper ways, according to ‘papa’, of making mead, and what ‘mama’ might think of various topics such as the state of the market for mead and papa’s plans for growth for their business. Lucie, the ‘little apple’ was inquisitive and sharp, and he enjoyed her questions well enough as he dozed with his eyes half open, staring out across rolling fields half used. He wished though that she might ask more delving questions about the state of the country as a whole. Like her father, she was an ardent worshipper of Lios, and had no interest in questioning how it might be that men were going to becoming for her little brothers, or why the hard earned coin of the family might be ending up in Lios’ treasury through repentences. Once, he’d had been as sheep-like as them. Or perhaps the city-voln equivalent to the farm-voln shepherd’s flock. Rat-like? Pigeon-like? Both were difficult beasts, and not sheep-like at all… never mind it, Harl thought, shaking his lengthening hair to dismiss the thought. He had once been as unquestioning as these farm-voln; assuming that Lios was god and king and all good… or good enough. Believing that the priests ran the temples and the button men ran the army, and that both worked for the same good… enough. But now, after the castle, he was different. The country was different, as he saw it through sharper eyes. He’d never been as much of a woods-voln as he was now, even if he’d been giving his prayers and his curses to the bastard gods for as long as he’d been able to shape them with his mouth or to draw their outlines with a chubby child’s hand under the guidance of his mother. Something had sharpened within him and listening to the ‘little apple’s’ soft questions about the coming shift of seasons and its effect on their mead was maddening in time.
So it was that he chose to skip off of the cart well before the great gates. He’d intended to get closer, out of tiredness. But he’d never have gone straight up to them. Not as a woods-voln in ragged clothes, too large boots, and with dried caked blood on his arm. His sharp features and green eyes would have raised questions enough, without giving more fuel to the fire. Instead he had decided to scout around to the north west of the city, hugging the hedgerows and borders of the farm land until it became forest again. About there the great stinking river Bar emerged from the city, after its brief bend into the city from the north east, and its splinter into numerous canals, conduits, streams, and trickles. After bringing pure water from the north the good people of Bara granted it all their waste and used it for a free ride as its flow headed down to the coast. Somewhere north of the castle, Harl realised with a shiver.
If he could get there, Bar’s escape was made up of sewer exits as well as the main river where canalboatmen used huffing great horses to pull their wares against the water’s return to the sea. Boats would be searched at the docks of course, so the sewers were the better option. Jerekyn had even spoken of them as a possible fast way out of the city should the Button Men stop taking his coin and began enforcing some of the laws of Lios.
It was near dark by the time he could see the dull shine of the Bar, the light of a few canalboats shining upon the rubbish and detris floating on top of it. He scouted diagonally, leaving the cover of hedgerows and darting across towards the city walls themselves. The first outlet he found had iron across its entrance, and even his returning slenderness couldn’t pass between the bars of it. The next outlet was jammed with animal bones and other less identifiable waste from inside the walls. The third was too small and he began to give up hope, with the trudging over and through stinking and flooding mud to try each one, and with getting closer and closer to the river itself and boatmen who would see him. Finally, the fourth gave him what he needed. Old bars, rusted and pushed through by something from within, opening up like a diseased flower to let him through. Inside was a pitch black hole into further darkness, a foul stench turning his stomach, identifying this outlet as coming from households rather than the streets. Although what they produced would be little better.
He stealed himself, taking a last gulp of semi-fresh air. Then he was in, storming forward as fast as he dared without the sucking water taking him over onto his face in the dark. Things floated past him, brushing against his knees as the water varied between waist and thigh height. His hands were outstretched ahead of him and encountered hanging fronds and caught up twine that spanned the tunnel like spider’s webs. But even though it stank, and things were touching him, he still preferred this path to those other pitch-black corridors in the castle. Because this path was taking him to freedom, and those had been paths to meals and unrelenting dark captivity. Even if they had also taken him to Fysiwon.
Guilt. Harl pushed it aside. He had no time for even thinking about Fysiwon’s insane request of him, his quest. No. No, he would find a way to live in Bara. He would find freedom here.
Eventually he came to a part of the tunnel where great flushes of water surprised him, running quickly down one wall and then another, coming from some water closet above. Better houses had them, he understood. He and his mother, in their shared tenement house, had simply had a bucket and door opening onto a back yard with a drain somewhere at the bottom of the sloping courtyard.
Coming in from the north west meant he was likely to be near the northern canal and the tall thin terraced houses there which overlooked several arching bridges lit by torches. He’d stolen something from one of them once. A book of all things. But Jerekyn had insisted that the names inside were actually written in a special ink that could be exchanged for pure king’s gold. Flicking through the book in the dark of the fancy study in the house all he’d seen were people’s names with a few letters following each one. ‘M’, ‘A’, ‘R’, ‘T’, appearing in different orders and quantities after each name. All written in a rather ordinary ink, he thought. He hadn’t understood the code, but he’d suspected eventually that that was what would really bring the gold. At least, Jerekyn had seemed well pleased when Harl had finally returned with it.
If he was somewhere in that neighbourhood he’d be better off finding a way to the south, towards the more crowded houses of the falling slums. A ragged, stinking, and bloodied woods-voln would pass with only some comment there. If he could come out somewhere by the statue of Lios on the Southern main canal he would even know which way to walk towards the Light of Lios.
It took time, and his energy was leaving him as he made his final ascent up a ladder between two grates far above. It had been days since he’d slept well, longer since he’d eaten, but somehow he’d been kept going by the promise of Bara. Bara of all fucking places! But no that the end was in sight, or at least at the end of a sewer, his exhaustion was chasing him. He still managed to push up the grate and emerge as quickly as he could, a bare ten foot from the meeting of several streets of jumbled tenements known as ‘Eight Dials’. Down one of those radiating streets was the statue of Lios by the Southern canal. And from there, the Light of Lios.
Trying not to drag his feet, he walked towards his destination like a man long dead but still marching. So it was that he tried to walk right past the three men who moved to block his path.
“What’s this, Ambrin?”
“Looks like something come out of the sewers.”
“Aint a rat.”
“Nah… too sharp to be a rat. Though by Lios, he fucking stinks like one!”
Harl lifted his head, looking through the curtain of his filthy hair. Three men. Typical street-muscle looking for a night time score of coin after getting their fill in cups. They slurred as they discussed him, and one was obviously wobbling as he stood.
“I’ve got nothing worth stealing.” He said simply.
“There’s always yer life.” The shortest of the three was bringing out a blade, his rounder city-voln face split by a smile that didn’t even reach his dead grey eyes.
Harl sighed. He was too tired for this.
“Looks like he don’t care.” Another of them, with a whispy beard, grown maybe to make him look older and failing to do so. “Gut him and see if he cares about losing his innards!”
“I’m heading to see Jerekyn.”
They paused. They obviously knew that name.
Ambrin, a flat faced man with thick brows, frowned. “You of his firm?”
“I done jobs for him. Fetched him things.”
“That aint the same, aint the same at all.”
“You sure of that?” He tried to keep a tremble out of his voice. He weren’t scared, not really. Just cold, all covered in sewer water, but he didn’t want the men to think otherwise.
Looks passed between the three of them. The blade was put away.
“Maybe we escort you, careful like, to the Light of Lios. Maybe we see if Jerekyn has a need for a woods-voln stinking of shit. If he don’t… well, there’s a place I know where no one’ll hear you scream as we do what we want with you.” There was a gleam in the younger man’s eyes that Harl did not like at all.
“To the Light of Lios then.” He said wearily.
Two of the men bookended him, forcefully looping their arms through his, bringing closer their own competing stenches. Harl caught whiff of their booze, obviously, but also an underlying metallic tang. Blood. He might not have been their first victim this night. And as they walked past closed and boarded up homes and shops, Harl’s mind was already whirring, thinking through how to get out of this, trying to find the trick of it. If Jerekyn didn’t need him… there were sneaky ways out of the Light of Lios he’d explored before. But that would mean losing his new bodyguards. He also knew where some daggers were secreted amongst the fine furnishing of the tavern; hidden behind elaborate mouldings or under tables. But again, he’d need to move quick. And bringing down or even just wounding someone in the ‘respectable’ inn would cause problems, even if they got there after the bell was rung and the tavern became… something else.
Before he had a plan fully made in his mind they had passed beyond the bounds of the slums and into the merchant’s quarter where building had fine black and white painted panels and were not built into, over and on top of each other. The Light of Lios was just such a fine building, and as soon as it came into view Harl realised turning up now was a mistake. He was fetid, filthy and likely to annoy the day owner even if the firms owning it by night might recognise him as one of Jerekyn’s occasional boys.
“Here we are then. Betcha looking forward to a great chin wag with yer great mate, Jerekyn.” Ambrin looked down at him smugly.
“Yes, yes I am.” Harl thought quickly. “I want to have a long chat with him about that book I stole for him from the great house up near the Northern canal. Had lots of names in it, did that book. Names that he got a goodly amount of gold coin for. And then there’s the time I got him some barrel parts for roarers I took from a works. That got him coin too. Straight out stole coin for him, once or twice, I did.”
“What you getting at woods-voln?”
“I’m just telling you I’m an earner. Nothing more than that.”
He watched thoughts move slowly through the minds of the three men.
“No harm in taking him in and seeing if he’s telling the truth.” Ambrin again, sounding less confident in that choice.
“Jerekyn… he don’t like them like us near the Light though. Don’t like its nice rugs got all dirty…”
“Aint he going to do that though?” They looked down at him.
“Fuck. We bring him in and he’s just some lad, and we’ll be for the chop for disturbing the patrons.”
“Bells not even rung yet. There’ll be non-firm in there still. Jerekyn’ll skin us!”
“Send me in alone. If I aint his boy, then he’ll do your gutting for you. I am, and you aint shown him your faces-” Harl began.
“Shut up woods-voln, I’m thinking. How about we send him in. He ruins the rugs, he gets the blade in his belly anyways.”
“Aw, but there were other things I wanted to-” whispy beard began.
“Shut it. We don’t want to annoy Jerekyn. Go on, fuck off woods-voln!”
Harl fought the urge to do an elaborate bow, and walked slowly towards the rich dark oaken door. His back itched, expecting a blade there soon enough. But when he did quickly look back before heading inwards, the three men were long gone, the cobblestones empty.
He took a deep breath, trying to ignore how he smelt and pushed open the door to the warmth inside. Bright and cheerful patrons in colourful silks and satins made the one dark spot by the bar all the more obvious. Slumped there, his wide brimmed hat fallen forward and his long coat flared around the barstool, was Cole.