“‘Bridge is ahead, ‘good’ sirs!” Evad’s call came from above them, and Harl found himself sighing in relief.
The past six or so days had not been pleasant. Trapped aboard the boat during the day with the sea-voln, even one charmed into silence for most of the time, had still meant listening to his grumbles and curses. Not to mention his mutterings and breaking of wind as they shared the belly of the boat for the whole of that first night while the canal boat was moored up. The idea of camping by the river from that night on had certainly appealed, and so he and Cole had laid out under the stars with both horses grazing softly near them. Harl had taken a liking to the so-called ‘Pie-bitch’, who had never showed him anything but a gentle curiosity. ‘Pie’, he could never have used Evad’s name for her, had snuffled her soft velvet like nose about him and between his shoulders where the mark was while he lay on his side on a blanket that first time, and then after been a constant night time guardian. Cole got on with her well enough as well, and the decision was firmed up that they’d be taking her with them, even if their coin was short of what he wanted. Harl secretly planned to ‘convince’ Evad of the value of that deal when it came time to.
Hearing that they were nearly at their destination, Cole went about checking the few items of gear that they had. The crossbow, their daggers, food that they’d ‘acquired’ from Evad’s goods, their coin in a small cotton purse tied with string. There wasn’t much. As he made sure it was all ready and secure, Harl snuck a look through the slats at the far end of the boat’s belly to see ‘Bridge. The reason for its name was obvious, the rebuilt stone bridge spanned the Bar and led on both sides to a few houses and a mooring down the right bank on their side of the bridge itself. A few of the smaller houses nearest them were blackened ruins. Newer, grander houses were being constructed in the two centres of the city, made with good white and grey stone; brought down from the mountains by the river most like. He could see another much larger barge offloading its cargo of stone chunks ahead of them. Most of it seemed headed to a building growing behind the others on the right bank, a white stone beast rising up with scaffolding shaping the empty space where its tower would eventually rise up. A temple of Lios.
“Cole, what do you think the people of ‘Bridge will make of two woods-voln coming to land from the river?”
Cole paused and thought. “Fair question.” He looked about. “There’s nothing we can use to disguise ourselves without drawing even more attention. I saw we brazen it out and be ready to run if needs be.”
Harl nodded, and took his dagger from Cole, sliding it into its place by the fox’s skull. Evad came below then, a strange happy look on his face. “We’ll be parting ways soon, seems like.”
“Indeed, good sea-voln.” Cole put on his city-voln airs, his posh accent hiding his dislike.
“Not a moment too soon. I’m certain ‘Bridge will be more to your liking than my old boat. Although you’ll not find company as good as mine.”
Harl stifled a laugh and then proposed their plan. “My master wishes to purchase your horse, the one you call ‘Pie-bitch’. As his equerry I am empowered to bargain on his behalf for horses-”
“My fine and strong horse? The one I have become so admiring of given her fierce but controlled nature. I couldn’t even hear of such a-”
Harl had intended to let the deal go as far as possible before he used his power on the man, but hearing him drone on false love for the horse, in order to push up the price, killed his patience dead. With a hand quickly around the man’s wrist, the deal was done. They gave him some coin for their own consciences, but it was little of what they had remaining. Then while Evad moored the boat and began to collect men for the unloading, Cole and Harl went and stood with the horse on the bank.
“You’ll be coming with us now, Pie.” He said, stroking the mare’s nose as she shook her mane and back, revelling in being freed from the weight of the canal boat’s harness.
Cole was looking about, his sharp green woods-voln eyes tracing the path past the mooring to the city that grew out on either side of the bridge itself. A few curious city-voln were about, some still offloading stone, some commanding them to work harder, and all blatantly stared at them. “No chance you can make them all believe we are city-voln, as you did Evad?” Cole asked with humour.
“Only if I could touch them all. And even then I don’t know that it would work on so many…”
“It was a fool’s question, Harl.” He looked back down the river a short ways to the low walls of the town that were also being rebuilt, men clambering over wooden scaffolding to smear grey mud like stuff between the blocks. “Walls mean guards though. We should move on from here.”
They walked up a mud path running alongside the river that brought them to the burnt out husks of older buildings first, and then to the new homes of timber and stone that breathed smoke from their chimneys as people went about their days inside. A few small children played in the street, gabbling and getting excited at the sight of the large piebald mare, and then panicking as they saw the two strangers. Harl’s red hair caught their eyes quickly, and some of the older ones pushed the smaller children into his path, laughing loudly about how he’d skin the terrified little ones for his leathers or put arrows in their bellies. The fact that he was wearing neither leathers nor bow did not seem to matter. The fox’s skull at his waist did, and one small girl went off crying into her apron at the sight of it. He felt bad for it, and made sure to glare at one of the bullies long enough for him to pale in fear.
Then they reached a small market square just by the beginning slope of the bridge. There they felt even more angry eyes on them as the traders examined them for possible custom and coin, and found them to be woods-voln instead. A snooty woman in an apron and dress of poorer quality than she was aspiring to was arguing with an old man at a stall covered in dried meats, cheeses, and loaves of bread. Cole led them there, obviously intending to gather more supplies.
“Your prices are outrageous!”
“This is bread brought down the river from Bara. Top quality!”
“Don’t you try to fool me, Old Dun! This is bread made by farm-voln to the south!”
“Aye, and they sell it to merchants in Bara who send it down the river to us. They don’t trade direct with ‘Bridge no more!”
The woman gathered her basket under her ample bosom and pulled a sour face. “Well! Lios be glad we aren’t sharing anything direct like with those impure farm-voln no more!” She turned in a huff and nearly walked into Cole, only just holding in a shriek upon seeing the dirt covered woods-voln a head taller than her. She scuttled off.
“Woods-voln?!” Said the trader. “Here?!”
“Peace, we just need to buy from you and then we’ll be heading out of town. We see we’re not welcome.”
“Sure as blood is blood! You go back to your wretched Lios-cursed woods! Get back where you came from!” The man glared at them from underneath bushy grey eyebrows. “If you head south over the bridge right away you can be there before my foot even hits yer arse.”
Cole nodded. “And if I want to be going elsewhere?” He brought out a silver and placed it on the trader’s stall.
“Emphon? Aye, well, Emphon’s a pit of impurity so might be you’ll find some home in that stinking harbour. King’s road to the south leads to the coastal road, then you let that take your foul hide north to there.”
Or if they turned south the coastal road would take them to the castle again Harl realised, thinking of his map in the mud.
“But I wouldn’t take the coastal road. City-voln been seeing strange things on that path. Some word in the tavern is that there’s a Lios-cursed ghost doomed to roam that path. Although… you being woods-voln heathens perhaps you should go that a-way and see what happens to them that don’t obey blessed Lios!” He pushed back a linen sleeve to show a mass of red and black scars, smiling darkly. “Or you could stay here and take a tour of the punished houses Lios’s button men torched! Or you could stay long enough for the guard to get you and lock you up-” His eyes looked beyond Harl and Cole and the two of them turned quickly to see what he was staring at. Three guards in chain, wearing surcoats with a lion above a black bridge were prowling closer, swords drawn.
Cole turned quickly and swiftly mounted Pie. He bent down and pulled Harl up behind him, so that the boy had to grasp his coat and hold on tight as Cole grabbed handfuls of her black and white and wheeled the horse about to face the bridge. Then they were charging past the stalls towards the arching stone over the river, leaving the guards behind; shouting and swearing in Lios’ name.
Their course over the bridge took them into the lower half of the small city. Here less work had been done so far and the poorer denizens scrapped a living in the burnt husks of houses. They were watched as the canal horse clattered her hooves loudly down the empty streets, ash smeared faces looking out at the two woods-voln fleeing their way. Eventually they came to where the southern wall should have been and Pie had to trace around fallen stones, blackened by fire. Beyond them was a wall of trees, darkness standing between them were the woods were deeper.
Cole wheeled the huge horse as best he could to stop before the treeline “Woods-voln lands. And farm-voln beyond. Neither will be all that friendly to us.”
“They’ll smell the city on us, lad.”
Harl, so close to Cole’s old coat could only smell the usual scents of travel, perhaps an echo of the potatoes and the like that they’d slept on and by during their time on the canal-boat.
“I’ve been by some of the farms that lie by the king’s road.”
“Aye, I suppose you have. And you weren’t scalped.”
“Not exactly. One, or two, farm-voln girls wanted to wed me…”
“Only one or two?!” He’d rarely heard such humour in Cole’s voice, and the man turned to share his mocking smile with Harl behind him. “That is sad indeed. But serious matters need attention. Once we join the king’s road to the south, do we head west to the coastal road?”
“Are you made afraid by the merchant’s ghost stories?”
Cole laughed curtly. “Hardly. But once we reach the coastal road there is another decision. And then another. And another. We have no plan, so we act as we will at the time. That is not always the best of ideas.”
“What do you know of Emphon?”
“Harbour city. Full of sea-voln.”
“Have you ever been there to…” Harl stopped himself before talking of Cole’s work for Orinius. For Lios.
Cole’s eyes were serious, dark, for a moment, and he turned back to face forwards again on Pie. “Perhaps we don’t need to decide just yet. Getting through this range of wooded, and woods-voln full, land might make the decision for us through the cutting of our throats!”
“Do you know which woods-voln live here?”
“Nay lad, but I suppose it makes no odds. The only woods-voln I’ve ever met have either wanted to kill me, or have died by my hand.”
Harl paused a brief moment before he corrected him, speaking to his back just in front of him. “Not all. Not I. Not now.”
Cole remained rigidly facing forward, before suddenly gee-ing Pie onwards towards the treeline ahead of them across the high and ragged grass.