“Kill the city-voln, protect the boy!” he barked, and the men’s arms snapped out, golden roarers at the end of them. Thunder, four lions roaring, and the men and Brint were just silent shapes on the cobblestones, their blood bubbling and flowing over the muck between the stones. Acrid smoke swept around them all, falling from the roaring mouths of the men’s weapons. Rickarn walked forward, adjusting fine kid leather gloves as he smiled to himself.
“Good to see you again, lad. I’ve been looking for you; well, me and forty odd men of Lios’s choosing. Orinius thought you’d never be as simple-minded as to come right back here, but I tol’him, just because you don’t remember or care for your own spawning bitch, doesn’t mean the woods-voln brat wont. Seems I was right, aint that so Cole?”
A groan from the dark shape of Cole on the floor. All the while Harl had been watching Rickarn’s men with fear, too afraid to even check on Cole, so he felt a sudden relief to hear a noise from him.
Rickarn walked over to the woods-voln and lifted his head by his hair, freeing the side of his face from the mud and filth on the ground with a disgusting slurping noise. “Can’t say I expected to see you here though, Cole. According to Orinius you’re still hunting the boy.” Rickarn winked at Harl. “Seems you found him. I wonder though, were you ever going to be taking him back to the castle?”
Another groan. Where was the man hurt?!
“But that’s what we’ll be doing, Cole, old friend. I hear that there’s a room all ready and waiting for him. You want to guess what number that old bald bastard wants to put him in?”
Harl felt a sickening certainty in his belly even before Rickarn started reciting the numbers.
“Five, six, one.” Rickarn smiled at Harl again, as the boy’s face paled. “That’s what Orinius said. He’s looking forward to seeing you again, lad. Oh, he’s got some plans for you, oh yes!”
Cole thrashed his arms and shoulders, pushing at the dirt to struggle to his knees, his long dark hair still wound up in Rickarn’s gloved knuckles. “No!”
Harl saw a ragged tear in Cole’s coat, high up on his right shoulder, blood leaking out of it. “Wait!” he shouted.
“Wait?” Rickarn laughed. “I got four button men, and more within a whistle’s distance if needs be. Wait, you say? You don’t give the commands here, lad! By Lios, I’m glad I never took you into my bloody house! Equerry?! You’re far too stupid to be of any use to a decent household!”
Harl’s mind raced. Rickarn was a simple bully in many ways, and there had to be a way to work that angry confidence to his advantage. Although, Rickarn had four men on his side, each one already most of the way through reloading their cooling roarers. He was going to get what he wanted, with or without Harl’s resistance. Or… Harl recalled Eris in the Light of Lios. Jerekyn and Eris.
“I’ll go with you. Peacefully. But only if you help Cole.”
Rickarn laughed. “I don’t think you have a stable grip on the way of things. I got men, I got roarers. I got all the cards in my hand!”
“And I could kill you and not even move a step closer. Or has Orinius forgotten to tell you what my friend from room five, six, one, did to all those masters in the castle? All those dead masters.”
Rickarn paused, paling. Yes, Orinius had told him what he might face. “No. You’re only recently tainted! You’re like a new born. All screeches and wails, no bloody power!” But he let Cole out of his grip, the man falling down onto his one arm instead of straight onto his face in the mud again. Harl saw him slowly reaching underneath himself as if for another hidden dagger.
He had to keep Rickarn’s attention. “I can do things. I’ve made people do things. I can prove it.”
Rickarn looked about to laugh, but something like fear stole over him. “So what? Maybe like the woods-voln bitch you can heal…”
“I can hurt you.” Said Harl with steel in his voice. “All I have to do is want to.”
Rickarn looked to one of the men with him, one of the ones training his roarer, first on Harl and then Cole. “Field dressing, now.”
“Patch up the bleeding woods-voln and then we’re off!” Rickarn glared at Harl. “I’ll take your deal. Come peacefully, and Cole can go back to drinking himself to death. I swear it by Lios.”
The button man was crouching by Cole, pulling back his coat and winding a length of cotton from a pack around a pad lying over the wound. Wherever Cole had his hidden dagger, it was at rest for now. So Harl waited until the button man was completely focussed on what he was doing. Waited until Rickarn thought he had won.
“Come now, we’ll be off. It’s a long-ways back to the castle by the sea.” Rickarn nodded decisively, but still somewhat cautious.
“Captain.” Harl said quietly, staring across the distance between them into Rickarn’s slate grey eyes.
“Boy, I promised. I’m patching him up. Now you come with us.”
“I never promised though.”
Harl darted to one side, closing the gap between him and the button man by Cole. He grabbed the man’s bare hand and hissed out words at him, pushing them into him as he had done with the others before. “Kill the button men!”
The man’s eyes, normally young and clear, clouded over as the command took control. With the speed of years of military training the man turned and brought out his roarer and again, aiming it directly at Rickarn. The coward pulled one of his other men into the way and the man went down in spray of blood as part of his face was blown away. Rickarn stumbled and yelled. “Shoot him!”
But the men paused, confusion evident even behind their well-maintained moustaches and goatees. One of their own had tried to shoot their captain because a boy had told him to! A boy who’d claimed to be able to hurt Rickarn if he wanted to! There was some wyrd power at work, a power that their lives in the service of Lios had not prepared them for. It was a moment’s pause, but enough for Cole to release his dagger to fly into the throat of another button man, splattering Rickarn’s expensive coat with even more blood. Then Harl grabbed at Cole and pulled him to his feet, supporting him as they started to run. Harl’s new personal button man was fighting with his fists now, pounding his knuckles into the flesh of a comrade too shocked to fire his reloaded roarer. Another was not so shocked, and as Cole and Harl ran unevenly away from the massacre, a shot rang out again, and their charmed servant fell, dead. But he’d bought them an escape and some time to make good of it. Progress was slow with Cole in so much pain, but just when Harl was convinced that Rickarn was gaining on them, they were on the bridge to the Ossuary and there was no pursuit behind them.
They rested briefly against a broken archway on the rough grounds of the derelict workhouse, an arch leading to nowhere.
“By the fucking bastard gods!” Cursed Cole, pale and sweating. “You set one of his own men on him?!”
“It was all I could think of doing. Let me look.” He looked at the blood soaked bandages. “He did a poor job of patching this!”
“Rickarn didn’t actually care to keep up his end of that particular bargain.” Cole groaned, “Don’t suppose you can heal like that woods-voln bi-… Eris’ mother. Or Eris for that matter?”
Harl frowned, looking intently at the blood seeping from Cole. “I could try.”
“Might need more than a bloody try, Harl!” The sound of his name on Cole’s lips seemed weird, but it focussed Harl’s mind. He placed his hands either side of the wound and tried to think about healing, as though he could tell the man’s flesh what to do.
Harl swore by the bastard gods himself then. “I don’t know what I’m doing!”
A low cough made them both look around. It was the hunched man who’d taken their coins for accommodation in the Ossuary. “Excuse me.”
Cole started to laugh. “Don’t know if this is a time for pleasantries old man.”
“It’s only that… well… you’ve been invited.”
“Invited?” Asked Harl, pulling his blood soaked hands from Cole’s shoulder, the man sagging a little and taking his supporting shoulder again without comment, coming up to stand again. “Invited for what?”
“The Mouth of Lios wants to meet with you. It’s a great honour!” The man babbled.
“We might be a little busy for Lios and his shit.” Spat Cole.
“Not Lios. The Mouth of Lios!” The man looked about as though looking for eaves droppers. “She asked for you both specifically. The white faces will help you with your mortal problem while you meet with her.”
It took Harl a moment to realise that the ‘mortal problem’ was Cole’s wound. “If you’ll help him, I’ll meet with this ‘Mouth’.”
“Good, good! With me then!” the hunched man took up a position on the other side of Cole, and between them they walked him back with an uneven pace into the tumbling down workhouse, through the main doors. Inside this way was a great hall of broken tiles and cobwebs, full of sleeping and unconscious bodies lying where they could. A spiral staircase led upwards, but the old man led them to a corner underneath its first turns where an iron ring in the floor opened a trapdoor with a long wooden ladder below. Into the darkness they went, before the old man lit a torch with tinder from a box tied to his waist with what looked suspiciously like braided human hair. In the fire light the skull like white paint on his face was even more horrific. Although it was only slightly less terrifying than the hundreds of bones piled up on shelves all about them. Thousands of thighbones all together. Further down, shin bones. Then shelves of much smaller bones, the right size to be the parts of the foot. And then finger bones. Thousands and thousands of them, all sorted together by type.
“What is this place?” asked Harl.
“The Ossuary. The home of the bones.” Said the man like Harl was a fool. “Your friend took the white once, he knows.”
Cole nodded. “I’ve been here before. Once. I was led by one of you down here. I was told to take a bone. Any bone.”
“And out of the bone..?” asked the man.
However, just then they reached a wider chamber and the man fell silent. It took a moment for the light from the torch to highlight all the piles of bones. More leg bones, more arm bones. Ribcages piled high. Skulls smirking in the flickering light, eyeless and often toothless. And in the middle was a great pile of unsorted bones.
A woman sat there, wearing the same dull grey robes as the white faced ghosts of the Ossuary. And like them her face was covered in the thick white, chalky, paint. But with her it ran up into her hair, which was braided into a great spiking crown. Only the ends of it were still red; the whiteness had been used to stick it up into a great woven mane spreading out from her face. In her left hand was a deep stone bowl, and in her right was a thick rounded stick of stone that she was using to grind something down in the bowl, the sound of it putting Harl’s teeth on edge. Around her neck was a thick length of string, tied about a broken thigh bone, the cracked end hanging down to a jagged point.
The old man bowed towards her. “I found them.”
She looked down from her bone pile and nodded, her eyes wide and barely blinking. Harl saw the black parts of them were large. So large that he almost couldn’t see the green about them. A sob broke its way free from his chest.
“Harl..?” Asked Cole.
“It’s her. It’s her!”
The woman continued her grinding. “I am the prophetess” She said simply.
“You are my mother!” Shouted Harl, not even feeling the gentle hand Cole put on his shoulder.
“She is the Mouth of Lios!” Yelled the old man in triumph. “For centuries we have only been under his watch. Eyes everywhere. Now he finally speaks to us through this vessel!”
The woman paused in her grinding, spat in the bowl, and then mixed and smeared the contents onto two of her fingers. Those she then rubbed onto her face, renewing the white there. She started to shake.
“I see…” She moaned.
“She sees!” shouted the old man. “The bone sees!”
“Cole?” Harl looked up at Cole in desperation. “What’s happening to her?”
Cole paused. “The white faces. The paint… it’s from the bones. Every man or woman who accepts that they are dead is brought here to choose. One bone. To make the paint.”
“But this is different?!”
Cole nodded. “There’s something in that bone, something different.”
“Leave us!” Harl’s mother yelled at the old man and he quickly scuttled back the way he came.
“I see you, Harl.” She whispered, her back undulating as she spoke in her trance. “I see your quest.”
Harl remembered Fysiwon’s quest for him; to give Lios the power he craved, to ram it right down his throat.
“Mother! I’ve been searching for you!” Even as he said the words he felt a strange doubling, remembering Fysiwon worrying that his father would have been looking for him.
She looked confused for a moment. “Harl? I chose this bone” A hand touched the hanging broken bone. “But I think it chose me. That’s weird isn’t it? Or wyrd maybe.” She laughed. “I remember other lives. I remember a castle by the sea. I remember being young, and strong and being able to do things others couldn’t. I remember being a god.” She laughed and it was a sound on the edge of hysteria. “They call me the Mouth of Lios! Have you ever heard anything so ridiculous?! I told them a few times when the guards were coming to take bribes and suddenly I’m the Mouth of bloody Lios! But it isn’t Lios I dream of! It’s a man, young and wild, with passion so bright in him it burns. Sometimes there is a woman, crowned but free. Others walk with them. Shadowed. Pierced. Poisoned. Lame. Twinned. And I am walking with them. The bastard gods.”
A gasp behind them, the old man. “No! No! You are the prophetess, the Mouth of Lios!”
“Silence!” She shouted, and all three of them felt the bones lock in their bodies. She breathed out and then ran white stained fingers from her chin to her forehead and into her hair. “I am what remains of one of the gods. Bones lost among the thousands here. Somewhere I have a skull, ribs, a pelvis. Once I was whole and walked these lands. Now you walk here, Harl of the woods-voln. Son of Aril, daughter of Vantith, son of Vanil, son of Esaelth…” She was muttering, ancestors flowing off of her lips, names Harl had never heard before. “I see the past as I see the future. Thousands of woods-voln, sharp blood flowing onwards, towards you Harl.”
Cole staggered forward. “Aril. I don’t much care for prophesizing. Maybe you ‘saw’ guards coming for bribes. Maybe you ‘see’ the glorious ancestors of a woods-voln boy born on the streets of Bara. Like we don’t all have bloody ancestors all leading up to us! None of that means much to me. But I want to know how to help him.”
She turned her eyes towards him “Cole Child-Buyer. I remember you. I remember your mother, Haline, daughter of-”
“It’s a neat enough trick, to give me names I’ve never known. Yes, even my mother’s. Maybe you’re truthful. Maybe you aint. Tell me my future and I’ll call you a liar, or say you take me for a fool. But tell me how to help your son and I might just listen, Mouth of the Bastard Gods.”
Aril laughed. “Sharp tongue! You would have been well received by the gods when they walked these lands. They never suffered fools either. How do you help Harl? What have you done so far? Fed him? Clothed him? What more could a mother ask. Oh Harl!” Her voiced quivered and she sounded more like the mother he remembered. “I lost you. I lost you and I came here to be one of the dead!”
“You sold me!”
She went to dip her fingers back into the white paste.
“Don’t you dare disappear into that again!” Harl shouted. “You sold me!”
Tears began to come from her eyes, clearing trails down her cheeks, removing the white. “I should be one of the dead.” She picked up the bowl and the crushing stone and set to work again. “But your path takes you from here. Follow the footsteps of the bastard gods, walk their way out of the city. Hagen knows the way.”
The old man nodded. “Yes, Mouth of Lios.”
She began to laugh. “I told you today. I told you yesterday. And I will tell you tomorrow. Every time you will call me liar. And every time you will go back to seeing me as His servant.”
“The bastard gods have no place here!”
“And yet… somewhere amongst all those great piles are the parts of a god.” She looked down at the bone hanging about her neck again. “Out of all those bones, this one. This one. Under my hand as I sobbed and agreed to take the white.” Her eyes focussed again for a moment, looking down at Harl. “The Ossuary links to tunnels under the city. Forgotten ways. Ways out. Go.”
“Maybe I don’t believe in prophecy either.” Said Harl stubbornly. His mother laughed.
“Sometimes it doesn’t matter if you believe or not. Sometimes it matters more that a friend asked you to do what he could not. Or that a boy needs your help. And then you find that your hand has landed on the lost parts of the dead god after all.”
Harl shook his head at her nonsense, then looked up at Cole. He was still pale and in pain.
“Hagen! You promised him help!”
Hagen bowed quickly and scuttled off again. In the silence of his departure Harl chose to look at Cole rather than the delirious mouthpiece that his mother had become. She did not seem to mind, more preoccupied with her paste making and muttering. Finally, Hagen returned with other white faces, carrying bowls of sweetly scented water and clean bandages. They cared to Cole, and then Harl did finally look back to the woman on the bones, trying to reconcile this constantly moving creature in its trance with the mother who’d wept when he’d skinned a knee, or struggled so bloody hard to put food on their table.
“I see you Harl woods-voln.”
“That aint my real family name, is it?”
“No.” She whispered.
“What family are we of? What greening?”
She smiled, her eyes not quite focussing and did not answer.
“If you are Aril, daughter of Vantith… If you know that, then you must know our greening?!”
“Does it matter? Your future is not your greening.” She was cutting at the thigh bone with a vicious small knife, flaking tiny pieces of the broken ends of it into her bowl.
Harl sighed. “I’ve had my fill of this and I want to leave. Can he travel?” He asked Hagen, looking at Cole with his new bandages, his coat and shirt to one side, his body scarred and too thin. “Can he make it through these tunnels?”
“He will need to rest, regularly. But you can make it out of the city with a guide. If the Mouth of Lios sends me?”
She made an imperious gesture. “His renewal is soon. The time comes when he must be reborn.”
Harl looked at her in confusion. “Do you mean Cole?! What do you mean?!”
She smiled enigmatically. “Not the woods-voln. The would be god. His death is at hand; his birth is coming. Your chance is coming Harl woods-voln.”
Harl snorted. “Come on.” He helped Cole on with his blood stained shirt and coat. “I’d rather be lost in these tunnels under Bara than lost in the head here!”
“Hagen, go with them!” Commanded Aril, “Lead them out. Lead them to their quest.”
Harl paused, turning back before following Hagen. “You know what, mother, I’m glad I finally found you. But I am gladder still that I am leaving you!”
Another tear rolled down her cheek, but she quickly repaired her white mask there, a finger wiping yet more bone paste onto her face. The remains of a god.