They did eventually rest that night. Hunkering down on the sodden ground, shivering in the damp with their coats pulled as tight about them as they could as be, and with Pie sleeping standing up above them. It was damned miserable; so miserable that they could laugh a little about it. As they struggled to claim sleep they traded small snippets of their lives. Cole admitted to, as a boy, having collected tiny mice and rat shits from about the castle, when he could find them, and dropping them into the meals of any the lads tormenting him at that time. It seemed to Harl that the bullying of woods-voln was a long standing hobby among the city-voln and farm-voln lads brought to the castle. Cole even allowed that he might not have stopped his collections when Skylin had finally taken him from the others and given him a grey robe to wear; turning his attention instead to some of the masters.
Harl told him about the first night, of how Weasel had shanked a city-voln for his bed. The story didn’t shock Cole; he’d seen that and worse in his time. Nor did it make either of them laugh. So Harl reminded him of how Orinius had set him to fetch Harl’s quill cleaning water when he had been Orinius’ apprentice for that oh so very short time. “You were serving me better than a bloody equerry might.” Harl said, smirking a little. This time Cole did laugh in the darkness, in turn reminding Harl of Fysiwon talking to him in the pure black of their room.
Finally, morning came and both of them stood to stretch out tired and aching arms and legs. Harl had woken with his face on the ground itself, a dark stain of mud up one cheek, which Cole took seemed to take much pleasure in pointing out. He rubbed hard at it with the sleeve of his shirt.
“Don’t matter much. We get to the castle and the masters aint going to care what’s on your face before they lock you away and hang me.” Cole said as he checked Pie over. Woods-voln as rule didn’t know much about horses, part of why it was weird that the beast had been wandering the woods when the farm-voln found him. Rare indeed for a woods-voln to need a horse when nimble human feet were quicker between thick tree trunks and reaching bushes. But Cole had obviously spent more time about them, and sometimes Harl caught him clicking and talking to Pie under his voice, reassuring the great horse.
“You changing your mind about helping me?!”
“No lad. Just realistic. We can approach the castle by night, walk our way about to the sea entrance and risk the waves there. We can even make our way through the labyrinth of corridors since I know them so well. But don’t you be thinking that we’ll both make it out alive… or together. But maybe that’s how it should be. I’ve got plenty of debts to pay in that damned place, that’s for sure.”His face was away from Harl’s as he spoke his dark words; he was busying himself with Pie, patting her and smoothing her mane. “Come now. We’ll mount up. Pie can carry us both to the coastal road and rest our sharp bones for a short while.”
He was up on her before Harl could answer, holding out his hand again to help swing Harl up behind him. But as Harl took his hand, he made a decision.
“You’ll forget these words after I speak them. You’ll forget I charmed you this time.” The place where their palms met slickened as though with sweat, and Cole’s eyes deadened. “Whatever happens to me in the castle… if I am captured, or die, or if I am hurt… You are going to get yourself out. You are going to get out and you are going to find a way to live that don’t involve losing yourself in some bottle or hurting someone else who don’t deserve it. You are going to find a life without the shadow of the castle over it. And you are going to find some kind of happiness. That is what you are going to do.” He let the charming end, and took back his hand.
Cole looked down at him, reason returning to his face and with it a new confusion. “Lad, come on, take my hand and get up now!”
“Yeah, course.” Said Harl, letting him draw him up and sat behind him. They rode the rest of the morning like that, Harl unable to shake the deep and dark feeling of mortality that Cole’s words had woken in him. It did not help that they passed the crone’s camp on their path, the old women coming out of their hovels with a burning hope on their faces that was dashed yet again when they saw and recognised Cole. One or two of them pointed at Harl, and he thought he recognised them too, but Cole moved Pie onto a canter to be past them. How many times must riders on the road make them leap up with that endless hope? How many times was it not just a disappointing merchant or a farm-voln cart, but a cart full of boys traded to the castle and come to be fed, before being lost forever like their own sons?! He felt even greater determination grip him then, a memory of Eris’ face when she’d asked the rogues to kill him. He could understand that kind of relentless anger now, even if that time it’d been directed at him.
“Careful, boy.” Cole said, turning back as much as he could to face him. “You don’t have to grip my damned flesh as well as my coat.”
Harl released his grip, letting go of the small amount of the thin man’s waist he’d been holding, remembering the deep and twisted scars there under his clothes. “Sorry.” He said, but Cole just nodded and went back to facing the road rising ahead of them.
Finally, the scent that Cole had learnt heralded the sea came to his nostrils. Pie whickered and became more boisterous but still took her lead from Cole as he brought her to the end of the king’s road where it intersected the winding of the coastal road. The sun glinted off of a great shifting monster by the horizon, a thousand points of light glinting back at them from the back of the devouring sea. Harl felt his mouth dry up, remembering its hunger for his sharp bones when they’d entered the castle by the sea way the first time. Even returning from Dren Rickarn’s mission in the woods they’d been scoured and pawed by it before being allowed inside. It’d tasted him twice; was its hunger enough to claim him this third time?
“We’ve made better time than I thought. We’ll walk from here to get there after dark. If that’s still the way you want to go?”
There was a great silence after his words, Cole letting him fill it. Emphon, a part of him whispered. Emphon and maybe that some kind of life he’d commanded Cole to find. Or perhaps elsewhere… to find Eris and to explain. To deal with the guilt he’d carried since Rickarn’s command. Or Fysiwon’s quest for him… the coastal road fractured and the two directions, the two choices, became many.
“The castle.” He said firmly. “I know that’s where I am meant to go.” He dismounted and walked towards the left fork.
“Sounds like you’re taking a turn at prophecy. Like your mothe-” Cole stopped himself, muttering instead as he also got down from the piebald mare.
“‘Prophecies are mother’s milk stories for the feeble minded.’” He parroted Cole’s words back to him.
“Aye. They are.” He nodded and gee-d Pie on to take the left way with them, heading south to the castle.
Their walk took them into twilight after the sun was eaten by the great roaring beast below them; its thrashing depths lying a thousand measures down a dizzying cliff just a short walk from the coastal path. Harl avoided looking at it as much as possible, but soon enough a more horrific sight appeared on the path ahead of them as its twists revealed the further southern cliffs. The castle; black and jagged, hanging over the edge of the world like a limpet while grasping at the sky above it with torn walls and towers. As the day had greyed, the slight light meant that the castle’s eyes were now flat and dead, reflecting little.
“Gods, its ugly.” Said Cole as he paused for a second to take it in properly. “You still remember the first time you saw it?”
“From the cart, yes.”
Silence from Cole. He started walking again.
They skirted as far out from the eyes of the castle as they could, but still the dead eyes seemed to follow the two figures and their horse. They left her where they thought was best, nearer the treeline than the castle.
Nearing the castle again only when they could see the steep drop of the cliff, they angled their path towards the arch that lead down to the seaward path that was made from well-worn stone slabs that Harl recalled near slipping and plunging from both the times he’d come this way. Again the emptiness next to him showed him what waited for them below. Soon they were near enough to feel the peppering of salt water spray and to see the rush and roar of the water filling and then escaping the broken rooms where the hemp ropes lay waiting. Cole was behind him, and his back itched at the memory of the roarer he’d aimed at all the boys to get them to strip and to run into the space where the water would flood in and near drown them, Strip yer damned selves, and between the waves get down into there and find the ropes. Be damned sure you hold it tight! Cole’s voice in his head made the hairs on his arms raise themselves higher than they’d already been at the nearness of the sea.
“We have to wait for a good time to get across; between the waves.” He shouted back to Cole, hoarsening his voice by bellowing over the sound of the sea. But the man was silent. Harl looked back and saw him stripping off his coat. “What are you doing?”
“Get across Harl, I’ll follow after.” He was removing his shirt and revealing his scarred body.
“What are you doing?!”
“Don’t believe in much Harl. But I believe in punishment. Repentance even, but not in coin for Lios.”
“Don’t be a bloody idiot! They did this to you too!”
“Not this. Never this before with Skylin. This I did because Orinius told me to.” The water was whipping up from below and spraying them both, becoming even more wild if that was possible.
“No!” Harl remembered his charm. It couldn’t stop him; he’d not worded it to stop him from this lunacy before the castle! “I wanted you to be happy!”
Maybe his words were lost in the sound of the waves, or maybe Cole heard them but just didn’t want to listen. In either case he was naked and moving towards the room and the stone steps as quickly as Harl had done when he’d been surrounded by lumbering city-voln lads. It was deeper than he’d realised when he’d been the one to go down there, and Cole was soon a small shape charging towards the farthest wall of the second broken room where the iron rings and the rope waited for him. Harl saw him twisting his hands in them, the redness of the scars on his middle livid against the paleness of the rest of him. And then the room was flooded with sea water and the man was gone! Harl counted, first in his head and then out loud as his panic grew. And with a rushing roaring sound like one of the bloody god king’s own lions the water receded and dragged the man’s body with it as he struggled to get his feet back under him again. But he did not pull away from the ropes, even when he could stand. He stood there, hair a dripping dark curtain over his face, his too thin body bowed and bruised, waiting for the next wave.
All he got in response was a shake of his head. And then Cole was under the water again. How many times was he going to put himself through this?! A sick feeling in his stomach grew. How many times had he put boys through this for Orinious’ ‘science’?! He saw him emerge from the fleeing water again, a stretched out line as the water refused to let go and instead pulled him away from the wall and along the floor, his arms in a painful looking brace above his head.
“By the bastard gods.” Harl breathed out, and darted to the broken walls of the room, finding hand holds and places for his feet to be able to scamper along to the top of them. The bricks were old and worn free of mortar, and they often tried to crumble away beneath him. A few times they fell into the maelstrom as it flooded in to batter Cole, and Harl had to hold on tight as the rest of the failing walls vibrated with the pounding waves. Eventually though he was above the iron rings in the second room, above Cole by quite some way.
“Cole!” he shouted down. The man was a silent curled up shape by the rings. He had to get down there!
He raised one hand to stare at the palm, remembering how he’d managed to climb down from the house in Bara after Eris’ mountain-voln had caught him robbing them. He pictured the curling claws that’d erupted from his hands to cling to the brickwork and save him from a great fall. Slowly, painfully, they began to push at and pierce the skin of his palm, growing outwards, rounded and wickedly sharp at the end. He moved quickly, as soon as the wave departed again, testing their grip on the large black bricks before getting down to Cole and slashing at his sea water soaked bonds with a dagger held awkwardly in his clawed hands, as the man lay on the broken tiles of the sea’s room and barely breathed. He realised as soon as he had Cole free that he had no way to carry him back towards their starting point.
“Bastard gods.” He near sobbed under his breath, and then only had a second to regain that lost air before the sea returned again, dragging the two of them with it towards the stairs and beyond them the toothy mouth of the empty spaces where the sea was coming in from. He had only one more second of grace, while being turned over and over under the water, to see the bottom step and punch his hand towards it, through the green blue world he was in, and scrape his clawed hand against it. The other held hard onto Cole’s wrist, and the sea pulled and stretched him as he held him, trying to break him in two!
And then it was gone again, leaving the two drowned woods-voln lying by the stairs, coughing and spluttering. Harl got to his knees and pulled desperately at Cole, ignoring his how his hand scratched at him as well as the man’s nakedness. He urged him towards the stairs and upwards. Finally, the man started to move himself and both of them made it on their hands and knees up to the top just before the next wave came hunting for them.
“Gods… damn… you.” Heaved Harl, spitting water out and gathering up the man’s clothes to throw at him. “Gods damn you!”
Cole was silent, pulling his trousers and shirt over his reddened skin, raw from scraping along the stones and from being thrashed by the waves. And scratched by Harl’s hand. Finally, when dressed again, Cole looked to where he stood and spoke.
“You should have left me, lad.”
“Oh bollocks I should! I need your help! Sure as blood is blood I’ll get lost in the corridors without you. And then there’s Orinius. You know him better than anyone-”
“Don’t I just.” He was slowly, painfully, picking up his dagger and the crossbow, and putting them both back in their harnesses. “Can’t ever get clean from what I’ve done for him.”
“Enough.” Harl snapped at him. Then he said again, more gently. “Enough. Just help me.” He curled his hands into fists, the claws refusing to retract for heart stopping moments. And then they slowly did.
But he could still feel something of them under the skin of his palms when he rubbed at them behind his back, away from Cole.
Cole nodded, but still avoided meeting his eyes. “This way. Avoid the next wave.”
Harl followed after him, warily walking into the darkness of an ancient archway that waited for them once they’d turned away from the sea. Beyond it was the very first long stone corridor of the castle that Harl had been through that first time. He knew that so many more lay beyond it. Some ways down the corridor he knew to reach out with stretched fingertips to the right to touch a wooden door, even in the deep lightless black. Within seconds he had found the numbers there. Eight, two, three. He was back.