“Are you all right?!”
They’d run down streets and through alleyways, weaving a twisting route about the city before finally circling their lodgings. Two skulking figures who waited, watching, and then suddenly dashed in and up the stairs to their decrepit rooms, gasping for breath.
Harl looked over at Cole, seeing the blood dripping down and circling about his left eye.
“Are you all right, Harl!?” This time Cole asked with more urgency.
“Yes, I’m fine.” But the man was already walking over, looking at him, pushing the blood away from his eye without a second thought.
“Lios damn me!” Cole shouted. “I’m a fucking idiot!”
Harl’s face scrunched in confusion. He’d expected Cole’s anger, but directed at him for failing in their mission. “But I was the one-”
“I should have been set up on the other side of the house, watching the servant’s entrance. But I didn’t want to leave-”
Cole was a whirl of action then, grabbing at their things and stuffing new clothes into new packs, checking his crossbow and tying it to his thigh. It was then that he finally noticed the blood smeared across the back of his hand, and he went quickly to where their wash basin sat. As he scrubbed the red away into the bowl he made plans.
“We’ve messed up right and proper. But if we get that bloody stone pendant to Jerekyn as soon as possible we can we might still be good.”
“You need that cut looked at.”
“The mountain-voln, the bloody giant… I clipped him, but he’ll be hunting us once that’s patched up. Hunting that fucking stone. Did you see his face? There’s Lios cursed ghosts I’d rather be in a room with than him right now. Lost the roarer when he came back for another taste of my blood. Damn him! Damn me!” He muttered.
He threw his hat off, letting it land on his unmade bed, and ran his wet fingers through his hair, his eyes still bright and fevered as he grasped the washstand with both hands and stared straight at the wall. Gazing into the distance.
“I heard the commotion. How did you manage that fall? I saw the glass on the ground.” His voice had slowed, deepening. He was thinking the past hour through in his mind.
“I dunno. Dumb luck I suppose.” Harl put his hands behind his back. They looked ‘normal’ now. But even so…
Cole looked straight at him, his eyes free from the usual shadows of his hat. They were a bright and furious green now, concentrating on him. Harl felt anger stir in him too.
“What do you care anyway?! Child stealer!” he spat out the words. “Don’t you dare pretend you care! You never cared when we were all on the bloody carts!”
“This aint the time for that!”
“When is, you sharp bastard!?” He threw the woods-voln slur at him, not caring it was stupid coming out his own sharp woods-voln mouth.
Cole paused, his eyes losing some of their fury. “You don’t know… you can’t know-”
“Maybe I know better than most.” Harl snapped. “You told me the masters were dead men. Even you. Maybe I know that you’re wrong.”
Cole laughed bitterly. “So you listened to the ramblings of a drunk man.”
“You aint dead Cole. Or you wouldn’t need to drink all the time.”
“Shut up, lad.” Cole looked away, turning to pick up his hat from his bed. To hide.
“You leave that fucking thing there! Look at me!”
Cole turned back, locking his eyes with Harl’s again.
“Why didn’t you just leave?” Harl began, the flood of questions he’d been holding in since seeing Cole again at the Light of Lios bursting free from their dam. “You were a master… you were on the carts. You could have gone and never come back!”
“I tried sometimes. Left them behind and disappeared into Bara, or Emphon. Tralis. Sometimes I’d be months coming back. But I always came back. Because I didn’t know anything other way of being. Because the castle is always with you, lad. You’ve seen the scars. You got some of your own, unwounded or not.” Blood was starting to seep from the cut on his forehead again.
Harl remembered the twisting mess of flesh that was the side of the tall man. Remembered the reddened scars against the paleness of him. He walked to the basin and grabbed at a linen cloth, passing it to Cole. “You’re bleeding again.”
He held it to his head, cursing under his breath. “Damn that mountain-voln. If you’ve had quite enough me spilling my bloody guts tonight, we have to go!”
“There were lots of lads on that cart. More in the castle. Why you protecting me?”
“Aint the reason.”
Cole looked pained, then a mask slipped down over his face, dulling his eyes again. “Don’t know why. Sure as blood is blood don’t enjoy your company. Would rather drink than listen to you whine.”
You’re lying, Harl thought. But what he said outloud was different. “Let’s get to the Light of Lios then. Get this bloody pendant to Jerekyn.”
Cole nodded, putting his hat back on.
The night’s streets were chilled and shining from rain water. They took another circular route to the tavern, watching the shadows for daggers. But if the mountain-voln and his priest were about, Harl doubted he’d be subtle in his rage. And there was that woman with them too.
They reached the tavern well after the bell and came in to find the place quiet. The storyteller, Orrin, had a small but enraptured crowd about him. But other worshippers of the bastard gods were scarce. Jerekyn was there, at the head of a table with Estille and Barlow among those drinking quietly with him. Estille. The assassin, thought Harl. She looked over at the two of them and nodded, a bright smile greeting them. Two of Jerekyn’s men were made to leave and the spaces offered to Harl and Cole.
“A good evening’s work, I hope.” Said Jerekyn, eyeing them up. Seeing the blood on Cole. “But Estille, remind me… did I ask Harl here to let the blood out of anyone?”
“No you didn’t.”
“No. No I did not.”
Harl felt ice flow through his veins, and went to speak, stopped quickly by Cole.
“Unforeseen problems. But we have the item.”
Harl brought out the pendant and put it on the table between them.
“I don’t care for unforeseen problems.” Jerekyn leant back in his chair, steepling his fingers, and revealing the short sword at his side. “Are you telling me that all did not go according to plan?”
“The mountain-voln caught Harl at it.”
Harl saw the panic rising in Estille’s eyes. “Jerekyn, they did get the pendant-”
“That was only half the job! Doing it without being seen was the whole damn point!” Jerekyn growled. “I wanted the mountain-voln to come here without that fucking Pierson knowing! I wanted him to want to trade. Now the fucker’s going to come here with his priest ally in bloody tow!!”
Harl was realising that there were plans within plans that he knew nothing about. He caught Cole’s eyes across the table and saw some of the same realisation in them. Along with something he not seen before. Fear.
“Look. The job is done. Yes, it was done badly. But Harl’s still learning-” He began. But Jerekyn cut him off.
“You’re his handler. You’re meant to control him!”
“That meant keeping the ‘Lios-fuckers’ away from him, if you recall.” Cole said.
“I know what it means. I’m the one who decided it!” The other men at the table were tense, ready. “Maybe you’ll do a better bloody job of it with a little reminder of tonight’s disaster!”
Barlow was sat immediately next to Cole and reacted the quickest, slamming the tall man’s head down onto the table, and holding his face hard there as he struggled, his hat falling to the ground. Harl went to stand, but found Estille’s dagger pushed against his side. She was quick too.
“Sorry Harl.” She whispered. “But you can’t interfere.”
Cole’s arms flailed and another man grabbed at his wrist, slamming his hand against the wood of the table, a dagger already ready in his fist.
“First offence?” He asked.
Jerekyn paused, then decided. “No. Take his whole hand-”
The doors slammed open, and a furious shape wielding a great sword came storming in. Patrons pulled out their own weapons, but two fell before they could even raise them in defence, blood spurting from where the edge cleaved them. Immediately, Harl recognised the giant man from the townhouse, the mountain-voln. Behind him came the priest in his shining gold robes, picking off another patron beginning to charge his friend, his swirling dagger and golden mouthed roarer dull compared to the glints coming from his vestments. And after him, a young girl in woods-voln leathers, daggers in her hands and a wild look on her face.
Harl stopped breathing. The dark hair. The fierce green eyes. The angry, stubborn look on her sharp face. His eyes went to her feet. Two leather boots buckled up to her knees. But still… it was Eris!
Jerekyn shouted. “Stop! Stop!” He was holding up the giant’s pendant. “I’ve got what you are looking for!”
The mountain-voln stopped his advance, ignoring the cowering storyteller’s audience. Orrin himself was staring, but not in horror, Harl had a moment to think before the mountain-voln bellowed at Jerekyn. It was a wordless noise, anger and rage.
“My friend here says you stole his mountain.” The priest began coldly. “He wants your head, and I’m inclined to give it to him.”
“He wouldn’t be the first.”
Barlow had released Cole, and was working his way about the table.
“Oh no, stay there. If you would be so kind.” The priest aimed his roarer at Jerekyn’s walking muscle.
“Pierson!” Began Estille.
“Shout your lying mouth Estille!”
“To be fair Pierson, she never lied. She told the whole truth in fact. But only to me.” Jerekyn looked smug.
“Nemnir would never have worked for you, not even if you kept his mountain apart from him long enough to break his heart and kill him!”
Jerekyn laughed, and Harl saw Cole taking the opportunity to begin to circle slowly about the tavern to stand by Harl.
“You fucking idiot, I never wanted the mountain-voln! I wanted the girl!”
Harl looked at Eris again. This time her eyes found his gaze. An even greater anger flashed in her green eyes.
“Do you even know what you’ve got?! A true healer! She’s worth a thousand mountain-voln brutes!” Jerekyn smiled darkly. “But we can still make a deal. The girl for the pendant and anything else you want. Gold. Whores. Half of Bara’s take? Tell me, I can make it happen.”
“She isn’t going anywhere.” Hissed Pierson.
“No. Wait.” Eris said firmly. “We can make a deal.”
“Good girl.” Smiled Jerekyn smugly. “What do you want?”
Cole was close, all the eyes were on the intruders and Eris in particular. Harl couldn’t take his eyes off of her, guilt flooding his blood, but also relief. She was alive!
“I want you to kill the Gyreblack boy.”
Jerekyn looked confused, but Pierson shouted out. “Eris, no!”
“It’s my decision. I’ll work for you if you kill him now.” She pointed at Harl, and Jerekyn’s smiled returned.
“Well, if that’s all you want…”