The Ossuary was a large but crooked workhouse sitting ugly on a flat spur of gorse covered land between two lesser arteries of the canals of Bara. It was actually surprisingly close to a wealthier area of Bara, but was backed up to the north western part of the wall as though it was creeping away from those better kept buildings. Their faces were bright and colourful. Its face was a cracked and empty eyed horror, covered over with dead or dying ivy. Water, still and fetid, bounded its territory, but Harl wondered what the gentle lords and ladies of wealth thought of the sight that greeted them each morning out of their fine parlours; an ugly eyesore with the odd shambling figure appearing and disappearing among its fog-hazed ruins and broken down yard walls.
Harl spotted one as they came closer, the two of them walking boldly over a squat bridge where some past arrivals had abandoned a coat, a random boot, several empty vernoush bottles, and a shrivelled hairy arm that could have come from a child, or perhaps some other creature unknown to Harl. The figure Harl saw coming looming out of the whispery white grey mist was thin and tall in long brown mud stained robes. He was bent with age and a severe curvature of the spine that made him seem even more monstrous to Harl. But worst still was his face, caked with a thick white paste as though his skull was seeping through his flesh. Harl was surprised when Cole greeted him politely.
“Two travellers, good sir.”
The man cracked an empty mouthed smile.
“You have coin?”
“Since when have you needed coin to stay in the Ossuary?!”
“Since the button men have been taking bribes to let us stay on this land. The town creeps closer.” He spat towards the buildings behind them. “Soon there will be no place for the dead and lost in Bara.”
“Has there ever been?” said Cole.
“Sharp woods-voln, is it eh? That’s extra.”
Cole nodded and pulled out the remains of their coin. Or rather, the remains of the fat man’s purse. On their way to this ‘ossuary’ Harl had insisted that they make a path to the whore now in his old home. Cole had made some excellent points about the need to move quickly; to stick to a simple path that took them where they needed to hide as soon as possible. And Harl had ignored every single one. His mind had been recalling the small hand that had pulled the door closed from the inside, and telling him a story of more sadness and hunger. But when they had reached the whore’s rooms they’d found her in industrious spirit, and the child out of the cupboard and playing with a new doll. Sewn from scraps, the woman told them, but using some of the old skills she’d had before she’d fallen into her ‘various vices’ as she called them. She’d taken on other sewing work too, just patching and repairing, but she hoped to be following that up with some new commissions for clothes and the like. He was relieved, even if he insisted on giving the woman more coin. But Cole was even more relieved when he finally agreed to move on to the Ossuary.
“How much?” Asked Cole, feeling the weight of the coin purse in his hand.
“Four copper a night. That gets you one of the lockable rooms. Two copper gets you a place in the old work hall. Share the floor with the rest and takes your chances.” The old man cackled, flakes of white falling from his face.
Harl remembered sleeping on the cold and hard floor of the great hall in the castle. He remembered waking up to see that some boys weren’t going to wake up ever again. He remembered the coldness in Weasel’s eyes the morning after he’d slit the throat of a boy who’d taken his bedroll. He tried to push Cole into spending more just by desperate look alone.
Cole held out four coppers.
The man smiled emptily and went to catch the coins with a skeletal hand.
Harl’s heart leapt into his throat as he saw the claw like bone coming towards the two of them. But the man just started laughing as Cole dropped the coins into the jagged palm he held out, his real hand just deeper within his sleeves.
“Not so smart, are you woods-voln boy? Follow me then.”
They followed him across shallow puddles of vile brown and green, their boots being sucked into the mire as the man walked as though unconcerned by the sludge and its greed. Other figures emerged and disappeared at a distance. Some wore the same white face paint and seemed calm. Others did not and were either running hither and thither, or were collecting in groups to pick on another, beating and kicking them mightily.
“Interested?” asked the man.
“He’s not been here before. Leave him be.” Said Cole gruffly.
“I’ll leave him be. Aye, I’ll leave him be. Could be there’s others than won’t.”
“Hold your tongue, you’ve got your coin.”
The man held up his hands. “Peace. I don’t mean that I’d help your pursuers-”
Harl paused in his laborious steps through the mud for a moment.
“How did I know? Everyone here is fleeing something wood-blood. But there’s others here who’ll bother you. The white faces aint the ones. The others.”
Cole pulled out his crossbow. “We aint exactly unprepared. I’ve been here before.”
“Did you wear the white?”
Cole looked to Harl before he answered. “Eventually.”
The old man nodded. “You see boy, the ones who wear the white aint your enemies. They’re the ones who’ve accepted the absence of Lios. They know that they dead and cursed. The ones you’ve got to worry about are the ones still clinging to life.”
Harl looked over to where one group of men and women, rough figures in the mist, had abandoned their fun and left their victim a muddled heap on the dank earth.
“Because them ones… they still think there’s something they can gain by fighting. Them’s the ones you’ve got to watch out for. Us, the dead, we aint a hassle to anyone but ourselves. This one here though, he’s worn the white and then come back again. That’s unusual. Why’s that do you think?”
Cole grunted. “Had something else calling me back.”
Cole laughed. “No. Nothing so ordinary like love.”
“Something like that. Something darker than even hate though. Do you hate Lios for turning his face from you?”
“Sometimes.” Shrugged the man.
“Do you still pray to him?”
“All the dead do. Ah now, here we are.” They’d reached the broken yards of the workhouse, where stone walls had been pulled apart. Lying against the broken bricks of one collapsed wall was a man in a stupor, his trousers long gone and his parts displayed to the world. A raven was watching the rise and fall of his chest.
“Come now. Don’t mind him.” They followed the crooked man into the crooked building, walking behind him as he walked a meandering route up and down stone staircases before bringing them to a wooden door that Harl found uncomfortably familiar. But inside was a small cell with a high and barred window of yellow grey glass.
“The door locks. Key’s in there. You’re lucky. Not many keys left. Some of the living keep trying to swallow them. Something about how the iron will keep away the ghosts. But as one of them, I can tell you, it does no good.” He patted a ring of keys on a robe about his too thin waste. “But at least you’ve got one. Nothing’ll get you in the night. Maybe.”
He nodded and left them. Harl looked about the small cell. If they were to curl up on their sides, both of them would be able to lie on the hard floor with an inch or two between them.
“It’s even less than you expected.” Said Cole. “You’ve never been inside a workhouse before?”
“My mother said I might end up in one, one day. Since she couldn’t always pay the rent. But I think she found other ways…” He stopped that thought and sat down, sliding his back down the cold and disturbingly slimy wall. “Did you bring me here so that I’d give up on her? That I’d give up and let us go somewhere else, some other city?” Harl knew Cole hadn’t… couldn’t. What he’d done to him made sure he’d be looking for her. He thought. But he was cross with the man, a selfish childlike anger, when he was the one who’d said he hadn’t needed a fine bed and a view out of a window! But he was too proud to admit he was angry.
Cole looked cross. “Is that really what you think I’ve done?!”
Harl shrugged, hair down over his eyes as he stared at the ground ahead of his crossed legs.
Cole sat down on the floor opposite him. “The one certainty of the Ossuary is that no one comes looking for its occupants.”
“The old man might talk.”
“He’s dead… I mean, he considers himself to be dead. A cursed ghost of Lios’s making. He’d no more talk to a button man than a bloody priest. Both are too strong reminders of his ‘eternal’ suffering.”
“He knows he’s not really dead… doesn’t he?”
This time Cole shrugged. “They’re all broken here. Might be they really think like that. Might be not. But a white faced man won’t stab you for your bread or the key to your room here.”
Harl looked about, embarrassed by his anger. “When this was a real workhouse, was this someone’s room?”
“This? This is a family room.” Cole said bluntly, and Harl found himself imagining growing up here, working with his parents as they dealt with whatever debt had brought them to this desperate end. “This is bloody luxury in a workhouse.”
“Were you born here, in Bara? Like me?”
Cole laughed darkly. “Because I seem so city-born?”
“How would you know what a real woods-voln sounds like, boy?”
Cole’s face darkened. “That bitch.”
“Don’t call her that!”
“If she hadn’t tried to trade your neck for her service!”
“We hacked off her foot!”
Harl stood quickly, scraping his back on the rough stone of the tiny cell like room. “Yes! We!”
“I aint give the order. I wasn’t holding the sword!”
“You… you… you were in charge!”
“Damn you I was!” Cole stood too. “Rickarn was in charge!”
“You took me to that fucking castle!”
Cole stopped, angry words dying on his lips. But Harl was going, darting out of the open door and running down the corridor, just as he had never had the chance to do in the castle, ignoring the shouts of his ‘guardian’.
Soon he was lost, running down dank and shadowed ways, pushing past shambling residents and dodging reaching hands. The odd white faced man he saw either pointed or laughed at his fleet path, letting him be. He paused for breath after running up another set of stone steps, his feet having clattered loudly all the way up. But just when his breath was back it was stolen again, a great hulk of a man pushing him forcefully against a nearby wall, flaking off centuries old paint and shoving out his gathered air in one long ‘oof’.
Harl tried to see the dark shape properly but his fetid smelling body was too damned close, holding him still with his entire form.
“Smells better than most.” The bulk muttered, his mouth and nose moving the hair about Harl’s ears as he sniffed him. “Prettier than most.”
Panic grabbed Harl and he tried to struggle. The man’s strength was many times his own though and he could barely move his arms let alone push him away.
“Don’t struggle. Don’t like it when they struggle.”
His dagger was on his waist, but his grasping fingers could not get close enough to even pull it from the leather there. Gods, why had he left the ‘safety’ of their room! He cursed himself, muttering the names of the gods as he did so.
“None of that heathen shit here! Lios watches over me!” The man yelled in his ear. “I will bloody end you if you send prayers to the bastard gods! You hear me?!”
The man drew back enough for Harl to nod, and to make out his bulbous and enflamed face. He was definitely on some kind of drug, but Harl could not be certain what it was. An idea appeared in his head.
“I have something in my pocket. You’ll like it. It’s something to make you happy.”
The man’s foul face was split by a wide smile, his blubbery lips pulling back to reveal tombstone teeth.
“I’ll bet there is.”
“It’s a special balm. A woods-voln thing.”
He had the man’s curiosity now, he could see it in his eyes. Work the trick of it, he whispered to himself, and a memory of holding the whores arm came to mind. Work the trick of it, and make him do what you want him to do.
“Step back a little and I’ll get it out.”
“Stick me with a dagger and I’ll only die to haunt you!”
“It’s just a balm, I promise you. Something better than the junk you’ve been taking today.”
The man begrudgingly released Harl from the full body press he’d had him in and allowed him enough room to reach into his pocket. He brought out an empty fist.
“Look here. It’s in my hand. Here”
The man looked dully at the boy’s small fist. And then suddenly, in one too fast motion, Harl had a large grab of the man’s flabby cheek in his hand, twisting at it while shouting as well. “Do as I say! Do as I say!”
He felt the same rage flood his veins as when he’d shouted at the whore. And he smashed the flat of his palm against the man’s face. “Do as I say!”
The man’s eyes glazed over, not that they had been all that bright in the beginning. “Yes.” He said dully. “Yes.”
“Leave me be. And never attack another soul in this place. Do you hear me?!”
“Yes.” He said again.
Harl released him, looking down at the sweat on his palm where he’d been holding the man’s face. Before he even knew he was going to do it, he brought his hand to his mouth and gingerly tasted the moisture there. A blast of sweetness made his saliva flow and his eyes widen.
“Go. Now.” He ordered the man, still in his daze.
He shambled away, staggering into nearby walls and almost rebounding off of them. Harl found himself breathing again, a smile forming on his lips. He knew the trick of it, he knew it!
It took him a moment then, his victory still clouding his wits, to realise that Cole was standing watching him. Watching him and understanding.
All the times he’d thought about telling Cole, really and truthful tell him everything… when it’d been Harl who’d forbidden him from even bloody well telling or remembering what was happening to him! All those times, and now, when he finally could tell him everything his mouth seized up! There was still that door between them. If Cole really knew what Fysiwon had granted him-
“Stop it Harl.”
“I can see you birthing lies in your mouth. I know what you did to me. What you just did to that shit. What it bloody means. Don’t need to see the marks, or be made to hold my tongue, again. I knew and I wasn’t going to tell anyways.”
“I thought you’d be mad. Worse than mad.”
“You thought I’d kill you.”
“That too. And you won’t?”
“You keep running off in the Ossuary and I won’t bloody well need to. I know what’s happening. But I don’t know how it’s going to turn out. Never seen a tainted person who weren’t locked away. Or hunted down.”
“Like Eris’ mother.”
“Aye, like the woods-voln Rickarn wanted dead. But I aint Rickarn.” He sighed. “Come back to the room. We got talking to do, and I aint doing it out here among the daggers and fists.”