Harl grimaced slightly as the sound of the sea-voln singing and shouting out some sea cant drifted down to them in the fat belly of Evad’s canal boat, where grime covered slats above their heads let in a small amount of the remaining grey daylightas well as his noise. A quick look at the pale man who was almost leaning against him on the long wooden bench running down one side of the boat showed him that Cole still slept. Since Evad had yanked the roarer pellet out of Cole’s shoulder with long iron pincers – left there by those damned white faces in the Ossuary who’d promised to help him! – the older woods-voln had fallen into a deep and still sleep. His dark hair had fallen across his face but he didn’t seem to care, so deep down he’d gone after their escape through tunnels and sewers beneath Bara. Muck and mud from that labyrinth still covered his clothes; Harl’s too. Evad had grumbled about that, not that his boat was exactly a fine and clean vessel!
Harl looked towards the jointed wooden doors that led up and out of the boat’s cargo and living quarters, listening as Evad loudly cursed out one of the two mares he had pulling the barge westwards on the river Bar, coming out of Bara. The ‘Bar-voln’ Evad had called the river instead, muttering something about it being the sea-voln way of naming things and ignoring Harl’s confusion. Outside, the horse whickered loudly enough for Harl to hear the complaint over the sploshing of the water against the hull near his head. Apparently the piebald mare was new, bought for little coin from a farm-voln who’d claimed to have found it wandering near the king’s road and had no space for her amongst the animals already working his own farm. Evad had thought he’d got the better of that deal, until he’d found out how contrary the piebald really was. ‘Pie-bitch’ was more like it, and that name had stuck. The sea-voln had laughed as he’d explained. All this Harl learnt within moments after they had met, and pacified, the sea-voln. Evad liked to talk, charmed or not.
They’d first seen him after hours of walking in the darkness under Bara, coming out of a familiar broken sewer entrance to crawl, near dead, into a ditch. Cole had been quiet for the longest time, letting Harl carry him as best he could as sweat poured from him while the pain grew. Getting to the river meant that that were just a small turn around Bara from the king’s road heading West. Towards the castle.
“Where will Rickarn look for us?” Harl had asked the suffering man, and he’d gotten a mumbled answer of ‘Bara’ in return; Cole had assumed that the Captain would think the city born Harl would still stay where he knew the safer streets and hidden places. That meant that they might strike out to anywhere else and find some bloody peace. Even so, two woods-voln on the road, one of them bleeding bright red blood, were going to raise questions wherever they went. Harl had frowned in the dark and, with a stick he had drawn a quick map in the dirt of the places Cole had mentioned before. Tralis he thought was further in the East, towards the Front, the other side of Bara. Emphon was somewhere north and westwards on the coast. Then there was the dreadful castle to the west. Garre was meant to be almost dead south of Bara, a place he knew even less about than Tralis or Emphon. And beyond that, there was Liosinium, centre of the world and godhome. There were meant to be other cities, but he knew nothing about them, not even their names. Looking at his roughtly sketched map, Harl had supposed that Liosinium would at least be the very last place Rickarn would think to look for them. At the thought of Liosinium he’d felt the old tug of guilt in his heart over the quest Fysiwon had given him, and which he’d been ignoring all this time. But surely the boy hadn’t meant for him to charge blindly into Liosinium, and certainly not with only a wounded woods-voln as companion?!
Singing had caught his ear as he’d considered their options. He’d recognised the sea-voln way of half singing, half talking, sea cant. He’d heard drunken men do it in his mother’s company often enough. Wriggling closer in the brush and weeds that were growing tall and strong on the bank of the river he’d seen a canal boat emerging from the guarded water gate of Bara, a man with the heavily weathered face and large white beard of the seafarers steering it behind two large horses plodding alone on the bank. One black and white tossed its head in its harnesses, while the other was bay toned and placid. An idea formed quickly, but it would need careful execution.
“Come on!” He’d whispered to Cole when he’d wriggled back to him, and then helped him to stand. They’d limped along for a bit, letting the guards of Bara fall behind them before Harl had approached the canal boat. Instantly suspicious, the sea-voln man had pulled out a dagger upon seeing the two muddied travellers.
“Please sir, my master is hurt!”
“Go tell a priest. I aint letting you near my cargo!”
“Can we at least have some water?”
“There’s a whole bloody river in front of you, boy! Drink up!”
Harl had let Cole stand alone for a moment and edged closer the man’s horses. “I like your horses.” He’d slipped his dagger from its sheath, letting the fox’s skull on his hip show to the man before painting a sly and evil smile onto his lips.
“Don’t you dare!” The sea-voln had then leapt with surprising agility from the boat to the bank and charged at Harl. He had been fast, but Harl was faster, grabbing the man’s hairy wrist with his free hand and stopping the man with a word. “Halt!”
The sea-voln’s wrinkled eyes widened then, before beoming flat and lifeless as Harl commanded him.
“You only see two city-voln. Both are so ugly and so pox-scarred that you do not like to look at them too much. One is hurt and you will help him as best you can. And you will invite them onto your boat to wherever you are going. Where are you going? Emphon? The sea?”
The sea-voln had laughed, a dead toneless noise, “Aint seen the beloved sea for many years. Too old for all that now. And Emphon is past the point where I can calm the Bar-voln with cant to Lios. I go to ‘Bridge to sell my master’s wares, and then I’ll return to Bara to fetch more from his workhouses and stores.”
“Let us board, help us with food and drink, and then tell us about ‘Bridge.” The name had been completely unfamiliar to Harl. Even so, the two of them had clambered awkwardly after the sea-voln as he leapt back about his craft and settled them below with hard bread, cheese, and a strong red wine. He’d nattered about his new horse for a bit as he’d scuttled about collecting barbaric looking tools to tend to Cole’s wound. Then his mind had begun to wake a little, and questions had formed in his head.
“What’s two gents like you doing a-wandering outta the city walls and bleeding all over the riverbank?” Suspicion had crept into his tone.
“A duel gone quite wrong, my good sir.” Said Cole, and Harl had felt relief that he was returning to some kind of awareness as well. “I left with my equerry before the city-guard could investigate.” He’d put some high class city-voln authority into his voice, sounding quite unlike himself. “I’m sure you can understand, honorable sea-voln ship’s master.”
“Oh yeah. Over a woman, right? Been there, done that.” The sea-voln had picked up his tools and set to work on Cole, ignoring his groans as he did. Evad was still slightly charmed; Harl saw it in the quickness and efficiency of his movements as Harl’s commands controled him and he pulled out the ball from Cole’s shoulder, bringing a louder groan with it. “Although… maybe not.” He’d continued, as though having second thoughts as his eyes flashed towards Cole’s face and then Harl’s. Harl thought he was seeing the image he had impressed on him; the scars and the general unattractiveness of Cole and himself, and then perhaps he was dismissing the thought of a woman even ever wanting Cole.
“What’s your name good sea-voln?” Asked Harl; trying to draw the subject away from themselves, unsure how good his charm really was.
“Evad Lios’ Roar.” He’d told them, before a note of smugness had crept into his voice. “Guessing you land loving city-voln types don’t know what that means.”
“You were born aboard the ship called the Lios’ Roar. I’ve met sea-voln before in Bara.” Harl had been pleased to deflate his superiority.
“Well, yeah. Served aboard that slaver for fifty years, man and boy. You ever seen a Denosian whore, boy? Collected a few of them from the island in my time. Harboured myself amongst one or two at that! Golden skin and hair. Tits like you wouldn’t believe!” with his bloodstained hands he made a gesture that seemed to suggest he was holding a pair of breasts in front of his own chest, and weighing them. Harl felt his face redden.
“No. Didn’t think so.” He began to bandage Cole again with new cloth, but roughly. “We had a couple of your sort aboard the Lios’ Roar. Captain was a good Lios fearing man. Had them hanged like he ought. Be warned, I don’t want to see any of that filth here or I’ll be reaching for me dagger.” He touched the cheap hilt to emphasise his words.
Harl went to speak his confusion, but Cole stopped him. “The boy is just young. I’ve been with a Denosian. In Liosinium of course, where they serve at the wish of blessed Lios himself.”
The sea-voln had smiled vilely then. “Better than a city-voln whore aint they? Better than a woods-voln even! A woods-voln bitch’ll fight and scratch, and that’s all good if you like that.” He twisted at his white beard as he remembered, ignoring the blood on his fingers. “A farm-voln’ll just lie there and wet her face with tears. A sea-voln woman will let you harbour in her if her Captain tells her she ought to. But a Denosian, now a Denosian, she’ll make like she wants you to save her throat. And that’s something grand that is!”
He’d begun to pack his tools away, turning his back to Harl and Cole, and had therefore not seeing the disgust on Harl’s face. Cole had spoken again while Harl was beginning to rage. “Tell us about ‘Bridge. It’s not somewhere I’m familiar with.”
“Aint surprised. Lios scourged it with fire some fifteen years back. No one’s spoken of it in that time. But now it’s being rebuilt, under the Blessed Lios’s own orders. Seems he’s realised the need of it. It spans the Bar before the waters get rapid.”
“Why did he destroy it?” Cole had asked.
“Disgusting things were happening there. Perversions our loving god king couldn’t allow.” Evad had sneered. “The city-voln there were taking wives of the farm-voln nearby. They made excuses about there being too few men for all the women. Disgusting!”
Harl had been confused. “But you lay with farm-voln, woods-voln-”
“I don’t bloody breed with them!” Evad had spat on the floor of his own boat. “I aint a deviant. I am a good god-fearing man.” He’d glared at them both then, a dark thought occuring. “Dunno what’s worse, men like you, or those who try to mix the volns against Lios’ will!”
Harl had grabbed at his wrist again then, snake fast, unable to take any more of his bile.
“You are going to serve us like we are bloody Lios himself. You will only talk to us when you absolutely need to. You are not going to talk about the women you’ve been with or the men you hate. You’re going to pilot this boat to ‘Bridge, and then we aint ever going to cross paths with you again!”
That had been hours back. The sea-voln had gone back to his work after the second charming, barely noticing Harl and Cole except when he needed to, and even then not taking much note of their faces. Cole had surrendered to sleep not long after they’d been left alone, and Harl had kept watch, thinking and raging a bit about the sea-voln’s words. For all he knew he was the product of a woods-voln and a city-voln ‘mixing’. He knew about how babies were made; he could hardly have avoided that knowledge given his mother’s ‘profession’ and that of her friends in their slum building! And he knew for certain that there few to no bloody woods-voln in Bara, and none then who could have been candidates for his siring. No, chances were he was half city-voln, and in some eyes that made him no voln at all. Fuck that! He was as red haired as his mother, and just as green eyed. More woods-voln than not, even if it was only in the last few months that he’d finally come close to the woods of his ancestors!
He looked down at Cole again. He could also be half city-voln with that long dark hair that’d fallen across his high cheeks. But then Eris had been dark of hair too. Green eyes and sharp bones aside, there weren’t all that much between the voln when you thought about it. And then there were Denosians… Orinius had been Denosian, golden of skin as the sea-voln had said, and bought from a slaver ship like the one Evad had lived and worked on. From an ‘island’? What was an ‘island’?
His eyes stayed on Cole’s face as Harl’s mind rambled over the words of the sea-voln. He knew pretty much what Evad had called the two of them. There weren’t a street child in the whole of Bara who didn’t know about boy-rapers; where they lurked and what they’d do if they caught you. The man in the workhouse who’d crushed him against the wall had been one. But that weren’t exactly what Evad had meant about the two of them. And Cole had lied about the Denosian he’d claimed to have been with. His words had been thick with falsehood and if Evad had been less charmed by Harl he might have noticed. Cole’d lied to try to change the man’s mind about his ‘wrongness’. Even so, Harl couldn’t imagine Cole ever knocking at the door of a whore’s room. Couldn’t imagine him pawing at her body, like he’d seen his mother’s gents do when he’d made the mistake of peering through the cracks in the door to his tiny space. Couldn’t imagine…
“You staring at me, lad?” Cole was stirring and looking at Harl through his eyelashes as his eyes slowly opened. “What’s that about?”
“Was just checking you weren’t fetching a fever from your wound.”
Cole straightened, no longer leaning towards Harl on the bench. “Evad might be a Lios lover, but he aint a bad healer on the fly.” He carefully stretched and rolled his shoulder. “At least he dug out the pellet, unlike those fucking bone covered idiots at the Ossuary! Though if he could stop that odd singing talking he’s doing it would be appreciated.”
“He says he’s calling on Lios to settle the river for the boat. I’ve heard that on the sea-volns’ ships there are women who sing to Lios the whole day long.”
“I wonder if Lios likes it as little as I do.” He rubbed at his head. “Any of that wine left. No. Wait.” Harl had already got up. “Water.”
Harl nodded and fetched a water skin left for them on a table mid-boat. It was packed about with crates and sacks of goods for trade in ‘Bridge. He helped himself to a pastry from one and crunched at it while Cole drank, pulling his legs up onto the bench.
“You sit like an animal. At least pretend to be an equerry, or his mind might push against your trick.” Cole grumbled.
“If I’m pretending to be your equerry why aint I still at your stables? That’s what they do, aint it? Look after horses, like bloody Rickarn said?”
Cole hid a smile. “Evad don’t know that. So you don’t tell Evad, and I won’t either. But better he thinks you’re my equerry than aught else-”
Harl went to speak, but he was interrupted by Evad cursing out the damned ‘Pie-bitch’ again. Both of them smiled at the sea-voln’s annoyance.
“If we have the coin, I may buy that bloody horse just to save it from Evad” Said Cole darkly, taking the pastry from Harl’s hand and finishing it without apology.