“You never talk about it. The castle.”
Harl looked over at Cole, watching the night’s breeze pushing gently at both the man’s coat and that dratted hat that was shadowing his eyes so that Harl could not see his first response to his cautious words.
“You want to talk about that. Now?”
Harl would have admitted that his timing was perhaps not the best. They were currently five storeys up, perched precariously on the slightly sloping blue grey tiled roof of a townhouse, the stars their only witnesses. But the days and days of Cole’s near silence had finally gotten to him. Harl had been walking on a knife edge ever since he’d left the Light of Lios with the woods-voln man as his new ‘handler’, a situation that seemed to just mean that Cole said little, spent his days out in the town while Harl hid away in their new lodgings, and then drank himself into a dire state before returning to collapse on the other bed in their small room. Sometimes he muttered in that drunken half-sleep, words and names that Harl could not make out, before finally falling into a death like full-sleep. Occasionally they’d go out on a job together, hunting down and taking some item – a book, a key, a small marble statue – for their new master, Jerekyn. But one thing he had not done, not once, day after day, was talk about the castle and what had happened there.
Harl bit his lip. He was afraid of bringing back the memories, but how could the tall lean man go about their new jobs, their new life in Bara, without wanting to interrogate Harl about what had happened?!
“Well.” Cole said, still staring into the night, across the street far below, to this night’s target. “Aint much to talk about is there?”
Harl paused, letting Cole fill the empty space, itching to needle him, prompt him into more, but wanting to hear what he was thinking without interrupting.
“Orinius was wrong. You aint been tainted by that monster. You’re still as human as me. So that’s all done with. And now we are here, doing this.”
Harl felt his held breath leave him. Cole didn’t know about the new flesh. He’d had really been so deep into his cups that when Harl had washed before bed he’d never even looked at the boy stripping himself across the way from him. Harl’d been trying to twist and keep his back from him, but then there were the healed teeth marks on his arm as well. And the man hadn’t seen either, at all.
Cole took in a deep breath, the cold in the air turning it into a curling white fog as he spoke. “You ain’t ever going back, if that’s what’s fretting you. Never.”
There was a promise in his words that surprised Harl. Yes, he’d been made to watch over him by Jerekyn, but there was more than just a forced duty in those words that escaped with his chilled breath.
“Thank you, Cole.”
His words seemed to have an odd effect on Cole. The calm man who’d been as still as statue all this time that they’d been casing the house across the way suddenly became a fidgeter, taking off his hat with the one hand not holding him to the roof, and then just as quick putting it back on again. He played with the set of the brim. He shifted his position on the tiles. He adjusted the roarer at his hip.
The small movements were contagious. Harl found himself running his own free hand through his hair, pushing it back from his eyes. Then his fingertips tracing over the fox’s skull, making sure it was still secure on the new length of good quality blackened leather that Estille had put it on when she’d returned it to him. She’d even cleaned it a little better, making the pale bone shine in the moonlight if he pushed his new cloak back. Another gift from the city-voln lady, along with a quality pair of boots, matching this time, and soft black leathers. New clothes befitting a full member of Jerekyn’s firm… and a proper thief.
“Leave that be. Don’t even know why you wear that ugly skull.” Snapped the suddenly irritated Cole.
“It’s mine. I can wear it if I please.”
“Do you even know what she is, lad?”
Harl was confused for a moment, did Cole think the skull was female? But then he realised she meant Estille. At least the darkness hid his flaming cheeks as he thought of her, and the work she likely did for Jerekyn.
“My mother was a whore too, Cole. I aint stupid!” he hissed.
Cole let a small dark laugh escape his thin lips. “She ain’t a whore boy. The paint on her face hides the steel behind it, true. And also true that there’s those who’ve kissed her reddened lips thinking that they’ve bought them. But she’s Jerekyn’s subtle blade. She’s an assassin.”
Harl didn’t know what to say, but found himself thinking for a moment of Estille’s laughing grey eyes and long neck. And the other shapes of her that he’d brought to mind late at night when Cole had stopped his muttering.
“So think on that as you admire that damn skull and the leather its on.”
“I’ve known killers before, Cole.” He put an emphasis on the man’s name, and Cole grunted dismissively.
“Best you know that if the order from Jerekyn comes that she’ll draw steel across your young throat without a single thought about it.”
“Like the masters would have done? Like you would have done if Orinius had told you to?
Cole turned to face him, his eyes still shadowed from the slight moonlight by the hat.
“Aye, lad. Just like I would have done. But that aint why I came a’hunting you in Bara.”
Harl was about to ask more when Cole raised his hand to silence him. “Enough. We have a job to do. And the people in that house have been asleep for near enough three hours. You got the key?”
Harl nodded. It was tied to a silver ribbon that he’d been obsessively checking for in his pocket all the time that they’d been walking to their target. Hours ago now.
“Get in, get out. Tell me about what you are looking for.”
This was becoming their ritual; Cole making Harl describe the item in detail before he let him loose to find it, making extra certain that Harl had paid attention to Jerekyn’s orders. Both their necks were on the line if he made a mistake.
“A pendant. Hanging from a length of brown leather. A simple stone, plain bit of grey that you’d find on any king’s road. Looks like nothing special. It’ll be with the priest, either wrapped about his wrist, or nearby where he sleeps. Or…” Harl paused. “This will be difficult Cole. It might be about the neck of a mountain-voln.”
“Aye. Jerekyn’s given us one hell of a job.”
“Us?” Said Harl bitterly.
“I’ll be ready to help you in your escape, if you need it. But I’ve seen you cut a purse from the waist of a wary merchant in the middle of a busy Bara street. You’re competent and silent.”
Harl supposed that was high praise from Cole, but it didn’t settle the nerves in his stomach all that much.
“Now get to it.”
It took Harl moments to retrace their route to the roof of the house that had served as their lookout; he swung himself over the edge of the roof at the back where a lower window ledge gave him a place to put his feet, before he dropped down from there to a jutting piece of masonry, the remains of where the original house had reached before the every growing city of Bara had pushed its roof higher. A few more drops and he was back on the cobblestones at the back of this row. Cole was not long behind him, showing a grace of movement that he’d never have expected from the scarecrow like man who’d driven the cart, a hundred lifetimes ago. Oh yes, thought Harl, I’ve known killers before.
But now that fight had to be put aside as the two figures darted from deeper shadow to deeper shadow, working their way across the street and then to the backs of the facing houses. This was a good neighbourhood. Not quite fancy enough to be on the doorstep of the temple and its maze-like gardens, but good enough that Harl had never been here before. But now he had a key to a fine house!
Pulling it out on its silver ribbon, Harl let himself into the rear door of a narrow house with grey paint on its window frames. He nodded to Cole who waited in a shadow in the alleyway at the back, a glint showing Harl that his roarer was free from its holster at his thigh, and ready if needed.
Inside, the house was silent. And if Harl was going to survive this job, it was going to have to stay that way. A corridor led off into darkness and towards the front of the house where proper guests would be greeted by a fine hall and perhaps a lounge. But Harl turned his attention to a set of plain wooden stairs leading upwards and then back on themselves twice. A servants’ more discrete way.
He pulled up a scarf lying about his neck, covering his mouth and nose, before stepping his right foot on the first stair.
Four steps are fine. The fifth needs the left avoiding. The fourth to twelfth are pleasant. But the thirteenth is a bitch who needs standing on directly in the middle, or she shrieks. The fourteenth and fifteenth are lesser sisters of the thirteenth, and need a gentle touch on the right. The rest, the other twenty or so, are fine. But the landing running from left to right at the top of the stairs has a loose panel under the rug where the pattern repeats for the third time. The door just behind you on the left creaks, but you’ll want to try either the door directly ahead of you, or the door behind you and to the right.
Everything he’d been told about the house went round and round in his head until he’d finally made it safe past the creaking panel on the landing floor and was outside the door opposite the top of the stairs. Slowly, painfully slowly, he turned the door knob and let himself into a room where even in the darkness of night he could make out the thick rugs, the fine drapes and tapestries, and the elaborately printed wallpaper. If he had time, and the permission, he was certain he would find many small trinkets to fill his pockets, and then later his coin purse. But Jerekyn had been clear on finding the pendant, as worthless as it sounded to Harl.
Sneaking in on soft soled boots, he made it over to a four poster bed and the soft cloud of white sheets and rich blankets there. His sharp green eyes searched for sign of priest’s robe or pendant, but he saw instead that the occupant of the bed had the long dark hair of a woman. In the light of the slight moon that was coming in through large windows it splayed out like a black ink mark on the pillows, as the rest of the woman was nestled deep down in the cocoon of soft bed linens.
Harl envied her. His plain bed was not only as hard as a rock, it was in a room he shared with Cole. The drunk. He would like a room like this where he could make a similar cave in his bed and hibernate, and not be disturbed by Cole returning from whatever pub was still taking his coin. Coin made from Harl’s hard and careful work.
Which reminded him of the careful job still at hand. He retraced his steps and went instead to a door across the landing from the woman’s room. This time the occupant was male, if his snoring was anything to go by. There were two beds in this room, reminding Harl again of sharing lodgings with Cole. But whereas their quarters had nothing but bare stone floors and walls, a small stove prone to pushing smoke back into their rooms, and a constant chill, this room was almost as elegant as the woman’s. And there, slung carelessly over a high backed chair between the two beds, was a glistening priest’s robe.
Harl’s quick fingers snuck through its deeper layers at the same time as he was also assessing the beds by the light from the tall window behind the chair. One was definitely full, the other definitely empty. But the occupant of the one bed was by no means as huge as he’d been told mountain-voln were. The window threw in just enough light to show Harl a lithe man with dark hair, the hilt of a dagger under his pillow, his hand just covering it. No pendant around his wrist. No pendant in the robe. Harl was beginning to panic. No one came back to Jerekyn empty handed.
And then he saw it, his frantic search bringing his eyes to the robe again. He hadn’t even looked on top of it! The pendant was there, simply laying over it! He took it quickly, and checked it over to be sure it was the plain stone he’d been told to expect.
A pendant. Hanging from a length of brown leather. A simple stone, plain bit of grey that you’d find on any king’s road. Looks like nothing special. Estille’s words echoed in his head.
Smiling, Harl quickly pocketed it, and made his way back across the room and out of the door, gently closing it behind him.
At the top of the stairs, right in front of him, just a breath away, was a giant shadow. A man.
Harl had just a second to take in the sword pommel coming over the top of his shoulder, the man’s old patched coat, and the long brown length hair with glints of silver at the ends of his braids. Then the giant roared and a wave of beer fumes swept over Harl, followed by a sweeping fist that he easily ducked under. He let himself continue his fall, rolling backwards until his feet were under him again and he could both stand and pull out his dagger to hold in front of him.
But the roaring had woken the man and the woman, and he knew they’d be coming to aid the giant. He turned and darted towards the door, just avoiding the man’s grabbing hand. A frustrated yell followed him as Harl pushed as hard as he could against the door, startling the man on the other side and pushing him back as he burst in. More hands grabbed towards him as he heard a young girl’s voice. Not a woman at all then.
Was ‘Nem’ the priest or the giant? Did it matter?! Harl scarpered across the room, but straight away slid on a rug, losing his dagger. He regained his balance just in time to duck down and then dart to the right to avoid the hefty sword that was arcing across the top of him, the giant now standing with his feet planted wide in front of the door, blocking his way out with his bulk. And there was the priest stalking him from the shadows to the left of the door, steel also in his hand.
“Come on now lad, there’s nowhere to go.” The priest said, surprisingly amiably.
Someone was trying to push past the giant, Harl could see a fluttering white nightdress in the spaces between his legs and underneath his ready sword arm.
Then the priest darted forward as Harl was distracted by the girl’s efforts. Thinking quickly, Harl intentionally tumbled down to his left, landing heavily on his knee and then completing another roll that brought him to the foot of the priest’s bed. He grabbed at the sheets and threw them at the advancing dagger, twisting, and trapping it, even as the giant was trying to get past the priest to add his sword to the mix. The girl was still behind him, but he was still holding her back with a wary muscled arm.
“Nem!” there was annoyance in the girl’s voice now.
Harl took the moment in which both the priest and the giant were focussed on her to drop his hold on the sheets, and to run up the chair, pushing it back with his momentum. It fell back with him, and it and his shoulder impacted heavily with the window. He felt the world shatter about him before the fall caught him!
His flailing arm and hand caught some sort of edge, giving him a second’s peace before he slammed against the outside of the house. His breath was thrashed from his lungs as he swung into it, but he held on.
As his head pounded, he thought he heard a shout. A man’s voice. Was it above him, or below him?
“Cole” He wheezed out, already feeling his fingertips numbing. Above him there was frantic movement, two dark shapes leaning out and looking down at him.
“Boy…” Someone above him began, but his fingers were already peeling away from his last hope. The drop would concuss him, break his legs maybe. But that’d be nothing to what Jerekyn would do if he found out that Harl had failed him. He brought up his other hand, fingers wriggling over the brick work, trying to work their way up to the same handhold he had a grip of.
But then his weary fingers let go, both hands scrapping their palms against the brick as he fell and tried to stop himself again, a soundless scream coming from his throat.
When he did stop, it took him a lifetime of seconds to realise that he wasn’t dropping anymore. His hands had halted against the wall, an odd tugging feeling spreading out from the palm of them. He opened eyes he didn’t even know that he’d closed, and squinted in the dark to see… it was like nothing he’d seen before. The closest he could recollect was seeing a cat climbing up a wooden fence between tenements, its hooked claws digging into the wood and then retracting when it had its scarred and whip thin body to the top. There, in hundreds of different sizes, were black claw-like parts emerging from his palms, digging into the very brickwork. Holding him there.
Harl took a deep breath and looked down. A goodly way down still remained, enough to twist an ankle and slow him down if the priest and the giant were coming after him.
He looked again at the claws. The cat could retract his. So he concentrated on pulling them in on one hand, and watched as one by one they re-entered his flesh, freeing that hand to be moved down lower, before the claws returned. Carefully, he repeated it with his other hand, the toes of his soft boots digging into the brick work where they could to give him more support. Eventually, he was down, his feet touching the ground and the claws retracting for the last time. And when they did the flesh covered over the holes like they’d never been there.
Cole found him there, standing gormlessly by the back door to the townhouse, staring at his hands. The man burst from the door, a cut across his forehead, and without his roarer.
“There you are! I went in… come on, come on, run now!” He grabbed at him, and pulled him along with him. Seconds after their feet started pounding on the cobblestones, a larger shape burst through the back door, roaring in immense anger and pain.