As thick as they’d seemed, the woods did not actually last that long, the far side having been taken over by the creeping growth of the tilled lands of the farm-voln. When Harl had walked the king’s road to Bara, and seen the farmland from the other side, he had not realised quite how many families and farmsteads there were marching onwards to the north. The woodland the two woods-voln now went through had been thoroughly hacked and scorched back, button men likely clearing the woods-voln out before-hand. What greenings had been here before that had happened, Harl wondered, and where were they now? Murdered, or moved on? They walked overgrown hunters’ trails between ancient trees; the immense Pie oddly nimble amongst the reaching branches and the roots that were bursting through the dirt. Cole had taken to walking to rest her after their cantering escape, and Harl could watch from his high vantage point how the man’s feet also found the easiest paths. It might have been years past, but Cole had obviously walked woods before. Harl doubted he would do as well as him, and he was glad that Cole didn’t suggest he give up his seat on Pie as well. The great strong beast barely noticed him there anyway.
When the woods did end it was sudden; the treeline was a severe line standing just before a low stone wall. On the other side of it were the same dull brown rows and rows of planted crops that Harl already knew. A light drizzling rain greeted them as well once they were out of the slight protection of the remaining trees here. In the distance Harl saw, squinting to make it out through the falling rain, low farm buildings dotted at the corner points of great rectangles of fields, a patchwork blanket lying over land that had once nurtured both great trees and woods-voln.
“We don’t have much choice about going over farm-voln land then.” Harl spoke down to Cole.
“There might be dogs.”
“I don’t think so. The few farm-voln who I met didn’t have much. But they were very protective of their lands.”
Cole nodded, the slight but persistent rain already slicking his long dark hair to his forehead and face. Did he miss his hat, wondered Harl.
“We’ll just have to risk it. Come down from there in case we need Pie to carry us both at full pace in a bit.”
Harl nodded and reluctantly slid down, his boots squelching into mud by Pie’s half stuck hooves. Together they walked her along the low stone wall until they found a tumbled down part. Whoever had built it here had not believed that woods-voln were still a threat; even un-broken, it only came to Harl’s hip and would never had kept out a woods-voln raiding party. Was it for the look of things that the farm-voln had a wall at all? Harl led Pie through after Cole, struggling slightly with every step. His mud slicked trousers were starting to cling to his legs, but he’d not dare suggest they still ride Pie and tire her.
For hours they continued on, choosing fields away from any of the low ramshackle buildings, following the few hedge row lined paths between farms, veering away from any sounds of life. The rain grew stronger, which although slowing them further also made sure the farm-voln would stay inside. Eventually two very bedraggled woods-voln finally made it to a thicker hedgerow standing above the king’s road. Somewhere along here, a thousand years ago, Harl had escaped from some angry dogs and made a bed in a burrow. He told Cole the story, ignoring the rain water that slipped into his mouth as he did, and got a slight laugh in return.
“I might even have ridden past you while you slept there. Or else I was already at the gates of Bara seeking a horse tradesman.”
“Yes, what did happen to your little bay mare?”
“Sold her, lad. Sold her for coin to take with me to a tavern.” Cole said in a quiet voice.
“Oh.” Said Harl, not knowing what else to add.
They found a path out onto the king’s road, all the while cautiously looking back to the lights in the farmstead behind them. They’d made it without being seen; no dogs were on their trail, and the more solid broken stones of the road were finally under their mud sodden feet. In unspoken agreement they turned their backs towards Bara and began to walk; Pie’s hooves clattering on stone now instead of making a sucking noise in the dirt of the fields. They went on like that for hours more, the day easing into darkness as they ate on the move. The idea of making camp had occurred to Harl, but the farm-voln land on either side of the road kept him from suggesting it. The first star was just appearing, and with it Harl’s first yawn, when suddenly Cole yanked at his arm while also nudging at Pie’s flanks.
“Rider on the road!” He hissed, and they rushed Pie to the nearest break in the hedgerow; a path leading to another homestead some ways away in the darkness. They crouched behind it, hoping that no one was patrolling this farmstead that might see Pie standing almost to the top of the thick hedge. Harl pushed through it, ignoring the scratches he got for crawling a little further in to try to peer back out onto the road. Cole was right, someone was coming, but it wasn’t just riders. Through the hissing of the rain he heard the jingle of a harness and the wobbling and squeaking of wheels. Likely it was a farm-voln cart like the one he’d hitched a lift on towards Bara. If it turned onto this farm they’d be seen behind the hedge, the immense Pie especially. So he watched as the cart drew near, holding his breath.
But it didn’t turn in through the same opening that they had; it carried on past them. The drivers, sat behind the mules harnessed to the cart, were hunkered down in their long dull coats, ignoring the rain through sheer focus on the road ahead. The ten boys in the back were similarly focussed but less protected from the elements amid the straw in the open cart. Harl let out his breath and wiggled back to where Cole crouched.
“What is it, lad?”
A tumult of emotions battled inside him and one won. “One of your fucking carts!”
Cole looked as though he’d been slapped, and had the honesty to at least nod and accept Harl’s anger. “So they’re still taking boys to the castle.”
“Why would they stop?!”
“I did wonder if what happened changed things there.”
“You wondered if they needed you?! But you ain’t special Cole, you’re just another master!” Harl said bitterly.
“Aye, that’s true.” His eyes were pained, but Harl ignored it. “But I actually wondered if your escape, and the death of one of their creatures, might have changed things. It might’ve in truth. This cart is definitely sooner after the last I brought them than I’d have expected.”
“Orinius is bringing in even more boys?!” A sickening feeling spread in Harl’s belly.
“Were they woods-voln? In the cart?”
“City-voln I think.”
“Aye, well, woods-voln were always hard to come upon. But I’m sure after his success with you Orinius is just dying to get his hands on more-”
“Success?! I escaped!”
“But not before your ‘friend’ changed you. And if it can happen once, it can happen again. That’s damned near the motto of that cursed place!”
Harl nodded, remembering what Cole had been able to tell him already about the castle. “What am I Cole? What am I now? Am I like Fysiwon, really?! Like one of those things in the dark, in the rooms?!”
Cole’s face darkened. “You are Harl Whoreson. Hold on to that. Whatever else… well, gods, Orinius knows, not me. Lios too at that, and I aint going to claim to know what’s in the god-king’s mind!”
“‘Harl Whoreson’?” Harl laughed a little at that. Then he looked back at the road winding away to the west beyond the hedgerow. The cart was a dark shape, already further up its length. Eventually the king’s road would meet with the coastal road. Some-time before that they’d maybe stop for stew with the crones. And then they’d turn left, southwards, to head towards the castle. And then there would be the sea-scouring. And then there would be the measuring. And the rooms.
Harl stood slowly and laid a hand on Pie’s shoulder. She turned her head and contemplated him with her placid brown eyes. He looked away from her to Cole, boldly meeting his pair of deeply agitated green eyes. “I’m going back. I’m going back to stop all this. For good.”
“The fuck you are. We go north, to Emphon!”
“And then where? Where can we go, truly?” Harl held Cole’s eyes, trying to calm them with his low words. “You said it yourself, the castle is always with you. It brought you back from Bara before…”
Cole snarled, pushing back his sodden hair out of his eyes, readying himself before he quickly drew his dagger. “I’ll tie you up and fling you over the back of that horse to come with me to Emphon before I let you go back there!”
Harl lowered his voice. “No. No you won’t. Get close enough and I’ll make you let me go.”
Cole took a step away from him, holding out his dagger warily. “Don’t! Harl, if you go back Orinius’ll lock you up. He’ll chain you in a room without light. And he’ll wait for you to go mad from the loneliness and the curse before he sticks some young boy in there with you. And you’ll hurt him!”
“Why would I stay in there? Why do any of them stay in there? Why if they can do what Fysiwon could do… what I can do?!”
“I don’t know! What kept you on the bloody cart? You could have run at any time, couldn’t you?!”
“I didn’t think I had anywhere to go to. My mother had sold me. And I was… scared. Of you. Of the other muleteers. Of the woods. Of the farms we drove past. I’d never been outside of Bara before.”
“And the creatures in the rooms, they were all scared little boys once, and Orinius knows that is enough to keep them in there when the masters come. You’ll be like that!”
“But I’m not scared anymore! Don’t you see that? I’ve been outside of Bara! I’ve been hunted and I’ve shot at! I’ve already hurt someone innocent and I don’t want to ever do that again! I’ve made people do what I want of them! I’ve seen the woods and the farms, and walked them both. Gods damn you, I’ve walked by your side and seen that you aint someone to fear either! So there’s nothing Orinius could do to keep me in one of his bloody rooms!”
Cole paused, looking intently at Harl and seeing… what? A half-drowned street rat covered in farm-voln mud? A creature like the one that’d attacked him? A woods-voln like the ones he’d known as a child, before the castle had him?
“Very well. Very well. We’ll go to the castle. We’ll do as you say. And you don’t have to bloody well charm me to make me help you.” He said flatly. “You want to stop Orinius, I’ll help you. Though it might well mean both our deaths. We’ll take the coast road southwards when we get there.”
He re-sheathed his dagger and held out his hand to Harl. Cautious, Harl did likewise and the older man clasped his forearm, making the agreement while also opening himself completely to Harl’s ability to charm him if he chose to. But Harl did not.