Harl smiled as he ran. The huffing and puffing of the man chasing him was dropping further and further behind him. The alleyways he’d led his pursuer down were well known to Harl, and he’d led the merchant on a merry dance after he had cut away his purse. Of course, a better twilight’s thievery would have involved not being caught in the act! But the purse had been heavier than he’d bargained for, which was both an upstroke in their luck, and also the reason why his sneaky actions had been noticed.
“Stop. Thief.” The man was trying again, pushing out the words between laboured breaths. But no one had helped back at the cross-streets where Harl had first targeted the man, and sure as blood was blood, no one was going to help him now he was lost in the back alleys of Bara.
Finally, the slowing beat on the man’s feet on the cobbles stopped and Harl managed a look back at the man, bent over and near vomiting from all the running. Harl picked up his heels and ran even faster to leave him far, far behind. Then his path led him to a nicer area of town, and he stopped his running to pull his hood closer about his head, covering his red woods-voln hair. Jerekyn would be unlikely to look for the two of them here, but he might still have eyes all about. A street-rat pilfering a coin purse would go almost unnoticed. A woods-voln walking boldly through a respectable area would not. But Cole had chosen this suburb for the overall unlikelihood of them being here, spending more than a few of his undrunk coins on the rent on their good lodgings, as well as a fat bribe for a landlady who’d initially quailed at renting to the two woods-voln louts who’d come knocking at her door. That’d left them both little enough to live on, and so Harl had gone out tonight to cut purses and pilfer trinkets.
Not that Cole knew… or would have approved.
But the woods-voln man was out and about himself; seeking word of Harl’s mother while the boy himself was meant to be keeping his head down in their too expensive lodgings. A bedroom a-piece at that! The cupboard that had been his bedroom for years would have fit into his new room several times over. But even so, after a few weeks of keeping his nose clean and doing as Cole demanded he’d found the walls starting to come in on him; the delight at having a window of his own turning to despair as he had to spend hours and hours watching the sky changing from grey-blue to black and back again, with no hope of Cole letting him go outside. And besides, their coin had been running out, He hefted the purse in his hand, and now it wasn’t.
All of these excuses died on his tongue however, exactly when he needed them the most, when he snuck back into their place and found Cole sat waiting in a wooden chair facing the door as he came in.
“You’ve been out.”
“I… I…” He began, searching for words. But then he pushed away his uncertainty and threw down the coin purse on a table covered with that evening’s dinner plates.
“We needed coin. I got coin.”
“Will be looking for Eris! He was much more interested in her than me, or he wouldn’t have taken her bloody deal!” That still stung. He hadn’t expected her to be pleased to see him, but he’d hoped for at least a chance to speak with her. And all she’d wanted was his head!
“Jerekyn’s men are not the only problem we have now.” Cole’s voice was low, and somehow much, much worse than if he’d been shouting at him.
Harl took off his new, but second hand, hooded cloak and threw it casually over another chair’s back, but his mind was racing. What else could happen to them?!
“There’s more button men in the city. Lios’s own guard. I’ve been hearing stories of them raiding houses in the slums.”
“Perhaps they’re clearing out the firms?”
“They’re looking for a woods-voln boy, and they’re offering good coin for information.”
“But there’s nothing to find out. No way to find us. We left the tavern with no trace…”
“You think our ‘warm-hearted’ landlady, who so loves woods-voln, won’t turn us in for the chance of even more coin? We have to move on, somewhere where we won’t be noticed for a longer time.”
“Do you want to leave Bara?” There was concern in his voice. “But my mother is still here?!”
Cole stood and walked to the window and the growing darkness outside. Down below them Harl knew there was a shared garden, their fine house and others around it in a square, overlooking it with envious window eyes. They’d even secured their floral treasure away by fitting it all around with iron railings to keep out ‘the wrong sort’. Cole liked to stare at it when he was thinking, looking down at the orderliness of it. And right in the middle of all those shaped flower beds, the oddly out of place great old oak that was a mess of old and broken boughs, resting on top of a mound of jagged stones. Harl preferred him like this, quietly thinking. Not drinking.
“I’ve been looking Harl. As much as I can without drawing attention. But there’s no word. We might have to accept-”
“No!” Harl got up and marched over to stand opposite him. Out of the corner of his eye he saw the garden, and rising above it the houses, and beyond them the golden tower of the temple of damned Lios, shining lightly in the moonlight. “I’m not giving up! Fuck Lios and his button men, I’m going to find her!”
Cole sighed. “We can move again. There’s somewhere else I know. It aint as fine as this place though.”
“I don’t care. I don’t need a room of my own and a fancy garden I can’t even go into.”
Cole nodded. “We’ll leave before dawn, get some sleep.”
They went about their usual preparations for bed as they had done over the past few weeks. Harl would wash, scrubbing at his skin with a cloth and brushing at his teeth with a rough brush and chalk, while Cole waited, still staring out the window, no doubt. Then Harl would retire to his room while Cole went about his own cleansing, just as he had in the woods all that time ago. It was at that time every night that Harl was always reminded of the scars on Cole’s body, and that thought also brought his mind to the strange dark mark that had grown on his own back, and the teeth marks on his forearm. Cole still had no idea about them at all; he would always remain out of the way as Harl stripped and washed himself.
Harl had thought about telling him, thinking on how he’d climbed down the wall of Eris’ lodgings and what it might meant, what it might foretell for him. But something always stilled his tongue, no matter how many times he lay a-bed and thought on what words he would use to tell the man who was now guarding him. The block on him was almost something he could see. A door. Standing between them and keeping the secret hidden. A wooden door with numbers on it. Two, one, one. The door that had held in Cole the boy; where he’d been attacked and scarred for life. If Harl ever told Cole what was happening to him… he would be afraid of him, and while that might have once pleased Harl – Cole the Child Buyer afraid of punishment for what he’d done – it didn’t feel like that anymore. Nothing was quite how it had been in the castle.
Laying in his bed, sheets pulled up over his tunic and bare legs, he heard Cole moving about their rooms. Finally, he could tell that the man had lain down on his own bed; a creaking as the man settled his body onto the mattress and the slats of wood below its feather filled shape. In the long nights when Harl couldn’t sleep, when memories of sea water and inky shadows filled and wracked his dreams, he often heard the bed creaking again. Muttered words and low curses sometimes also drifted through and across the thin wallpapered wall between them, and then Harl knew that Cole had awoken from nightmares as well. But he would never admit to the man that he knew that they shared sleeplessness. Not even the next morning when Cole would be absent-mindedly griddling bacon for them, or stirring porridge on the hearth without a single word. Not even when it was bloody obvious that neither of them slept well any more.
But this night was going to end earlier than that, and Harl felt excitement fill his veins, and not too small a sense of dread. Another hiding place. Rougher than this and somewhere they would not be looked for? When he finally fell into sleep, he dreamt of the castle, but now bursting through the centre of Bara, becoming the only place that they could hide from thousands of button men marching in exact step with each other, no matter how horrific the thought was to him.
He was suddenly woken by Cole, crouching by him, already dressed and ready to go.
“Get your gear. Be ready soon.” Cole stood and quickly left Harl alone in his room, and the boy darted about putting on his clothes and packing what little he had. Another tunic, bought back from the outside by Cole. A dagger in a worn sheath, a replacement for Cole’s that Harl had taken to wearing next to the fox skull. The fox skull itself, waiting where he’d set it up on set of drawers in the room, facing the door like a guard. Just like he’d done every night, a new habit.
Finally, he was ready and he left his room to join Cole who was looking out of the window again, searching the night streets. He wore his great long coat, but he had still not tried to replace his lost hat, so now Harl could see the concern clearly on the man’s face.
“I’m moving us to a place that will be very dangerous.”
“More dangerous than waiting here for button men and rogues?”
“Perhaps. The people where we are going have lost everything. Do you understand?”
Harl shook his head.
“No, you have not been there yet. When you have nothing left then you are the most dangerous you can be.”
Harl paused and then asked anyway. “How do you know this place?”
Cole looked out of the window at the garden again. “The first trip I made from the castle on the carts I was just a muleteer. A master as well, a survivor, but also assistant to a man called Dentak. A city-voln of particular vileness. When we got to Bara to find…. to find boys for the castle, I managed to give him the slip for a day or two. The only place I could go was the Ossuary.”
“That’s where we’re going?” Harl was confused, he didn’t recognise the word. “The ‘Ossoowary’?”
“The name is not… right. The people there aren’t dead yet. But they might as well be, for all they consider themselves to have passed beyond Lios’s care. As close to cursed ghosts as breathing men and women might be.” Cole was pale in the pre-dawn darkness, already ghost-like himself.
“And Dentak found you there?”
Cole paused. “No. After those few days, I sought him out myself and went back with him.”
“Because of how terrible this place is?” Harl asked, fear building.
“No. Because the castle never leaves you, lad. Not Never.”
Cole moved about, picking up a light pack and his hand crossbow. They’d not had near enough coin to replace his roarer, and Cole had also said that Jerekyn and some of the other firms kept a very close eye on their transactions and exchanges. Suddenly Harl wished that they still had it though, thinking about how they were headed to a place of living ghosts.
“Wait, why have I never heard of this place?” Harl was slightly indignant, Bara was his city, far more than Cole’s, assuming that he’d been born a true woods-voln, coming to first breath among the trees.
“Maybe you’ve just been lucky so far.” He shouldered his pack and nodded to Harl. “Time to be going. We’ll not be paying that bigoted hag any more coin, soft beds or no.”
Harl nodded, and followed Cole out of the front door.