Chapter One

“You a whoreson then?”

The other lads in the rattling straw cart turned as one to look at Harl, slack jawed as they saw the ragged boy nervously sizing up the beast he’d just challenged. Harl’s target turned a fierce red, his filthy ham hock like hands tightening into fists as he worked out whether the tall man driving the cart would care if he knocked the smaller boy’s block off. ‘Ham fists’ was just another city-voln, the usual dull brown hair flopping over a wide face with gormless grey eyes. Harl was unusual; city born but woods-voln by blood, his dirty hair was auburn, and fell over a sharp fox-like face. “Sharp face, sharp tongue, sharp death!” the city-voln lads used to shout as they shoved and kicked him onto the cobblestones of Bara. Was he about to get another beating?

“Whu-what did you say?!”

There was uncertainty in the city-voln’s voice, as though he still couldn’t get his head around the younger lad having the balls to ask that question. Harl sent a whispered prayer, and a curse, to his bastard gods.

Maybe he should’ve chosen the littlest, the one that he’d already dubbed ‘Weasel’. He was another woods-voln but younger and even smaller than him. Aye, that lad might have been a good choosing for a fight. Weasel was shrinking back into the cheap wood of the cart, trying to disappear into its knots as the fight threatened like thunder. Yeah, he should’ve picked the weakling. Not the city boy now on the verge of launching himself across the stinking straw and ripping him wide open. But Harl just spread a bright smile wide across his face.

“Only I’m thinking you might be. Because I am. And he is. And that lad over there. And the most of us. So… you a whoreson too?”

There was a nervous laugh from one of the lads he had pointed out. Yeah, they were whoresons, almost to a one. Who else would’ve sold their sons to the tall man driving the cart? Who else but a whore would’ve let him take away boys who were just more mouths to feed.

“I aint! I aint a whoreson!”, the boy was now even redder, those slab-like hands grinding his jagged nails into his palms, “my mother was a pastry maid at the temple of Lios. Best crust cakes in Bara! I aint like you!

Harl looked down at the thick finger the lad, which was now jabbing at him. Brat of a skilled maker, but with fingers too fat and clumsy to follow her in the trade? So maybe he was apprenticed elsewhere…?

“Blacksmith’s boy is it?” Harl guessed, still wearing his fool’s smile.

“Yeah. Blacksmith’s boy”, the lump spat into the wet straw at their feet. The rain drizzled on, “just till the master’s own blood came of age, and there weren’t work enough for two. Then the tall man came a’knockin’”

The last words were said in a whisper, a glare from underneath his mop of hair was aimed at the back of the black coated man driving the mules. One or two others nodded. Funny how quickly the tall man came a’knockin when there was one boy too many in a house. Funny that.

“Well, I weren’t lying. Me mother was a whore.” Harl jabbed his thumb into his own chest. Defiant.

“They’re all whores”, said another lad darkly, “she a woods-voln too? Like you? Or were that one of her gents?”

Harl looked into the other boy’s grey eyes. Was mixed blood worse’n or better’n wooden blood for this city-bred shit? A gamble presented itself, and Harl trusted to his luck.

“Woods-voln. Only the bastard gods know what my gent-father was!” he laughed bitterly and one or two of the whoresons who’d nodded before dared a quick laugh as well.

The pastry maid’s boy reflexively made the sign of Lios with his left hand at the mention of the bastard gods, before sneering at his own habit. Even the Pure God wasn’t welcome in this straw cart. Lios, sure as blood is blood, weren’t effing welcome on the dark winding streets of Bara that Harl had been trying to make his own before the tall man came “a’knockin’”.

Pastry boy rubbed his hand on his tunic, most like dirtying it further, and reached out to clasp Harl’s forearm. “Dresick.”

“Harl.”

They shook on a truce. Harl’s green eyes looked over the lad’s clothes, his wide face, his hair, writing it all into memory even if he suspected this ‘Dresick’ wouldn’t last long. He was slow and lumbering large and whatever was at the end of this muddy winding road would be gobbling up the dull and leaving only the sharp ones behind. Harl felt that truth in his blood and in his piss. Wherever they were going he’d need to be smarter than he’d ever been before, clever enough to befriend the largest lad before he was ground under his fist in whatever fight for his life that was coming.

The other lads had spent the journey so far sightlessly looking down at their feet, rain water dripping off snivelling noses, instead of marking the changes from city to farmland, and now to a rough road that was bringing the smell of salt closer. Those lads, they were dull like flat city cobblestones, well-worn over by carts like this one that was taking them… somewhere. Harl bet they didn’t even know what that salt in the air meant. True, he was pretty much city-voln, having grown up in Bara, and even woods-voln didn’t know much about the sea. But his mother, whore as she was, had been a collector of stories – a better a collector of stories than coin, it seemed now – and sea-voln sometimes came inland to Bara. They came seeking to spend their life’s gains on cheaper whores when their sea legs didn’t last as long their lives. They liked to weave words about the sea, much like his mother had weaved on and on about the woods of her birth.

“Where are we going?” One of the younger lads, ten years old maybe. His eyes were wet with more than rain water, but he was taking advantage of the newly lightened mood to finally talk.

“Army.” Said another lad with abrupt authority.

Harl hid his sneer in a fake grimace as the cart rumbled and shuddered its way through yet another deep puddle. As sure as blood was blood, they didn’t take woods-voln in the army; the god-king didn’t trust them! Too sharp to be foot soldiers, too contrary to be captains! And if they were buying up ten year olds, like some of the sniffing lads here in the cart, then Lios’ war was deep in the shit!

“Sacrifices. Human ones. To the bastard gods.” Dresick offered, but sounding unconvinced. A couple of the street lads shot him dark looks. Harl wondered which impure ones got their prayers at night? Himself, he tended towards the female gods lately, but there were plenty to choose from.

“The gods don’t care where the calf gets its throat slit. So, why buy us from Bara for this arsing cart and twice arsing road?!” Harl realised he’d pissed him off by questioning his answer, and he twisted his words to lighten the city-voln’s dark stare, “speaking of arses, can’t arsing-well feel mine anymore! Can you check it’s still there?”

Dresick laughed. “Yeah, you’d like that wouldn’t you, pretty little wood boy?! Don’t know why your mother sold you to the tall man when she could have sold you to lots of other tall men. And fat men, And ugly men-”

“Shut up back there!” barked the tall man, not even turning his head back to them, his face still a dark mark under a wide brimmed hat, which was just holding its own against the increasingly heavy rain.

Harl saw Weasel drew even further back into the side of the cart, as if the woods-voln boy was trying to get back to the trees of his birth through the rough wood there. The others went back to staring mindlessly at their rain cupping hands, or their mud streaked legs that were all tangled up with the boy’s opposite in the much too small cart.

Harl didn’t. He looked out into the dark to distant trees. Giants on the horizon. Weasel might be trying to disappear into the rough-hewn wood of the cart, but out there were woods-voln who could frustrate the King’s button men by truly disappearing, moving quieter than shadows between the trees. Over there were men and women with fox faces and silent arrows. Voln who could pluck away those shiny golden buttons from the soldier’s long coats, and leave behind their steel roarers for the whiteweed to grow through.

Least that was what his mother had always told him. More likely her ‘whisper quick’ woods-voln were just scraping a living on the few hunting scores and charcoal burnings they could sell to dumb city-voln. Why else would she have left them to seek coin on her back in Bara?

The unworked grassland began to rise until they reached a roughly marked crossways. Another cart with two muleteers turned right to follow them up the steepening hill. Behind the two men in soaked coats Harl could just make out a cart full of yet more sullen boys. Another twelve maybe, bought from somewhere to the north of Bara. But Harl didn’t know any other cities, not even their names. Bara had been his world until he and the other lads had been bashed and shoved into the straw cart standing by its main gate.

The mules behind them bellowed hoarsely as the rain water rushed past them in rapidly growing streams, threatening their climb as the shabby road rose ahead of them. One of the men laid a whip across their backs and they pulled harder, finally catching up to Harl’s cart. They trudged on like that, nose to cart, for a time and Harl began to feel his head sagging down like the others’ around him. Then they were slowing, pulling over to one side of the road where a sputtering fire pit was surrounded by a few wooden lean-to’s. The tall man leapt down from the cart and made to tie the mules to nearby tree stumps and decaying boughs on the ground as five dark shapes sat about the fire, looking through the rain towards Harl’s cart and the one coming up behind. A couple more of the creatures emerged from the shelters into the rain, and Harl could see now that they were old women, deep hoods pulled up over wispy grey and white hair.

The tall man passed some coin to a nearby hag in black and she gestured curtly towards a cauldron over the fire, which was hissing and spitting in the rain.

The boys hesitated. The tall man hadn’t said they could join him for the grub, and many among them already had welts on their ribs or faces, from not waiting for his commands. But as the tall man got down to slurping noisily from a roughly cast pottery bowl passed to him by another skeleton thin woman, Harl took the lead to jump down from the cart.

Then suddenly he was shoved aside. He thought it was one of the stinking muleteers sending him back, but they were just rushing past him to get to the best of the stew. The other lads followed them, and took seats on logs, stuffed close together as the rain never let up. More misshapen bowls were passed around and Harl sent his portion down quick. Weasel was slower and lost half of his to one of the new boys from the second cart. The small boy didn’t even dare complain, he just dragged his wet tunic about him and shivered. Harl looked longingly towards the wooden shelters.

“Them’s extra, boy.” The crackling voice came from above and behind him. Harl looked up to see another woman in rags standing behind him, stick thin and with lines as deep as Bara’s oubliette on her face. She might be a farm-voln, but she was worn so thin it was hard to be certain.

“You have coin?” she spat between crooked teeth.

“Leave him be. There’ll be no more coin this visit”, the tall man snapped at her, “we aint stopping long.”

“No. No you aint. You got a place to be, aint that so?!” The woman snarled, and the sound reminded Harl of a guard dog he’d known in Bara. A vicious bitch with teeth like daggers and a hide all covered in pink scars. All the city-voln lads had been shit scared of her. But Harl had worked out the trick of it, and he’d been the one to get past her and into the steel worker’s shop to get the oddly shaped roarer parts for Jerekyn. He’d eaten well off that score, he thought darkly as the dank stew chunks of ‘meat’ settled in his stomach and he wiped the grease of it from his lips with the back of his hand. Yes, he’d known the trick of it.

“I’m sorry that there’s no more coin for you”, Harl looked up at her cracked old face as he whispered earnestly, “I’ll bring some when I come back this way, old mother -”

The woman gasped as though struck deep with a street shiv and moved away quickly, a couple of the other thinly drawn women following her as she fled into one of the shelters.

The tall man started to laugh, and it was the worst sound Harl had heard in his short life. Worse even than the Bara guard bitch’s blood freezing growl. Worse even than the sound of his mother’s tears, dulled by the hands on her face as she tried to hold them back.

“Promise your sweetheart you’d be back, did you?”, the tall man’s keen hearing had gotten some of the lads into the way of his fists before and Harl felt the lads once squashed hard against him somehow suddenly find the room to make an empty space about him, “you’ll not be coming back, you stupid fucking woods-voln! Sure as blood is blood!”

Harl reddened, but he stayed still, lowering his eyes to the sodden ground and trying not to reach out a hand to grab at a burning brand from the fire and jab it at the tall man’s shadowed face.

“Try it.” The threat in the man’s voice was a steel sword against Harl’s throat.

Then suddenly the man laughed again, and a chill ran down Harl’s back along with the raindrops. “Or maybe it’s that I’m wrong, lad. Maybe you’ll be the one to prove me false tongued and addled minded. Will you make a fool of me, is that the way of it?”

Harl didn’t understand, he just shook his head like a dull city-voln lad. The man spat pointlessly against the rain and stood to go. Harl and the other lads got up quick as they could, to avoid a thump or two, but the two foul muleteers just sighed and cussed, slowly getting to their feet on stiff legs. They were silenced by the tall man’s bark.

“Orinius is expecting us on the ‘morrow. Get!”

Soon the cart was rumbling its way again up the road, and Harl was looking back through the rain towards the circle of dark figures and the cauldron hanging fat bellied over the low fire. He missed even that small red ember of fire when it finally fell behind them, disappearing as the road levelled and joined a coastal road running north to south. A steep drop off to their right crept closer, and fell down towards a sound like a hundred thousand roarers, firing off with a pattern that Harl didn’t recognise. Was this the ‘sea’ he’d been told about? Where was the tall man taking them to? To a ship? Were they going to replace some of those old timer sea-voln who’d visited his mother before their lives had finally snuffed out like the one greasy candle he’d ever been allowed in his room? Harl wasn’t so sure he’d make a good sea-voln, even if he’d spent his short life making a fair stab of pretending to be a city lad. But Summer swimming in the fetid canals of Bara barely made him sea born, and looking about he doubted the other lads would fare any better down there on that beast roaring in the deepening dark.

That dark became black as Harl’s eyes finally slipped closed, against all the protests of his stomach and his aching back. His dreams were full of beasts made of endless water, fire embers, and old women with crying eyes who were sometimes his mother, and sometimes not.

His bladder woke him in the dawn light, and like the others he took his turn pissing off the side of the cart into the rain. The furious shouts from the sprayed muleteers behind them almost made him laugh as he pulled his breeches back together. But then the road turned he saw the shape emerge from the rain ahead of them and the laughter died in his mouth.

Harl had never seen anything as immense. There had never been a building in Bara that grew and stretched up into the sky while being born from the mud, like some great old tree. Although its stone was black and pitted, not like bark at all, and its walls and buttresses followed no rational pattern, not like the great square stone buildings in the nicer areas of Bara. Even the most ramshackle terrace of shop fronts, with traders on different floors, with mended and patched walls or haphazard improvements, made more sense than the dark reaching stone of this monster with its thousand blind glass eyes.

As they got closer and turned, not for the blackened main gates but for the rear of the goliath, Harl saw that it didn’t just emerge from the ground, it clung to the edge of the sea cliff and delved down towards the rushing water below. It reminded Harl of the toadstool spores that had found a warm damp home in their lodgings, not caring which way was up or down as they clung on to the peeling paint and gave him and his mother an awful hack deep in their lungs.

The carts rumbled down a slope towards an archway which was shaded by the rest of the dark fortress, and the muleteers jostled and pushed them out of the carts and towards it on foot.

“Line up!” Snapped the tall man, “Single file. Stay in the order you find yerself in. Don’t talk. Don’t step out of line. And don’t bloody well slip!

Harl realised what he meant as the shivering line of lads snaked into the archway and the mud below their shabby thin soled shoes was replaced by stone slabs made dangerously slick by the rain. But slipping would mean more than just a busted ankle. The wall to the left of them quickly fell away, its black bricks long ago lost into the sea. Only jagged holes remained, like toothy mouths ready to snap them up and let the sea swallow them. Harl focussed hard on his slow steps. A few younger boys held hands, but Harl could see some lump like Dresick pulling him over as he fell to a watery death, so he kept his own balance and his hands to himself.

The old corridor sloped downwards, the dangerous slickness of rainwater replaced by smoothed stones so worn that the joins between them had all but vanished. No carts could have rolled down this way, and for a while Harl could not understand what could have made the stones like this. Then he saw that the rainwater had been replaced by pooling, salt reeking pools. The sea had been here, and strange spiny creatures skittered through the puddles and out of the rounded corners of the path, making the younger lads jump too near to the ruined wall. But Harl was more concerned about the great, slinking, watery beast that had crept up this path and worn down these stones. What could that wearing water do to the bones of a woods-voln?!

The snake of boys gingerly made its way down a roughly hewn set of stairs that also bowed down in the middle. Perhaps from the touch of many feet over many, many years? Then a wave of fear washed over the lads as they saw the water that came crashing through the open mouths in the wall to their left. It went swirling down into a space to their right which might have been a room once, but its door and walls had all tumbled down long ago. The corridor here was bared to the sky above and Harl saw several more floors of the monstrous tower up there, open to the ceaseless rain. All the broken floors watching over them had thick wooden doors set into their walls. So many doors that Harl lost count, and they were only the ones exposed to the grey sky. How many corridors were there? How many doors closed on dark rooms? This castle was a city in itself!

They stood there for long enough for several waves to crash past them and swirl and rush down into the broken room. Then the tall man pushed back his long dark coat and pulled out a roarer. The rest of the boys shoved against each other to get away, but Harl looked back past the crowd, seeing the golden lion mouth open around the barrel and forming the front sight. He knew that part; he’d stolen enough of the heavy metal barrels for Jerekyn. King’s lion, King’s gun. Was the boys’ new owner a Button man after all? Was this the god-king’s castle? He’d heard it was at the centre of the world but perhaps he’d been mis-told? Perhaps. Because it had been one of his mother’s own blessed stories that the god-king lived in a right proper palace of white and gold. But even if he had a gold lion in his hand the tall man wore no shiny buttons on his long coat, as the god-king’s own captains and killers did.

Still, it was a lethal roarer that he was still waving towards boys who were pissing down their legs as the sea sprayed its own damned salt piss in their eyes and hair.

“Now listen up”, the tall man shouted over the crashing water, “strip yer damned selves, and between the waves get down into there and find the ropes. Be damned sure you hold them tight!”

Confusion reigned as the tall man gestured with the lion’s maw towards the broken room, but his eyes brooked no argument. Harl’s frozen fingers found their way to his tunic, before numbly undoing the laces on his breeches and unravelling the wraps about his calves. All the while he ignored the muleteers’ coarse laughter, pretending it was just him who was here. Just him who was going to dart through between waves and hope there was a haven there on the other side. Running for his life before the sea found him and gobbled him all the way up.

“Go!”

The boys started forward like lean dogs from a trap, but soon tangled together as some pushed the others out the way and their muddy naked bodies tumbled forward. Harl was quick, fox quick, not like these city-voln. Their lumbering feet got caught on fallen bricks or knifed by the prickling beasts hidden between them. Harl was into the broken room and down the stone steps he found there while the others were still trying to force their way through in one go, jamming against each other but not caring as the sea bellowed behind them, bringing death.

He got to the bottom and found another room, this one with a floor tilting back towards the sea beyond its own broken walls. He skidded, slipped and crawled towards a far wall where loops of coarse straw rope hung from iron rings. By the time the other lads finally got there and frantically grabbed at them Harl’s wrists were already red raw from twisting in the ropes, tightening them into manacles.

After that there was only time for a panicked breath before the water came in from above them – in front of them, from all around – blinding them with salt, and scourging their slight bodies until their skin sang bright with pain. He held his breath as the water battered him, his lungs burning. Then, as the water withdrew, Harl felt his feet sucked down the slippery sloping flagstones on the floor, and pain flared in his wrists as they suddenly took his full weight. The rope kept him from flailing and falling like some of the other lads as the receding water washed them along the floor into the tumbling down walls.  But a few broken ribs, or having the pale skin ripped from their backs in jagged strips, were both still a better fate than falling from the castle walls! As the beaten, bleeding boys limped back, taking the brief time before the next wave to copy Harl and twist their wrists into the rope, he saw the realisation in their eyes. They had nearly died. And they still could.

The lads suffered the smashing waves three more times before the tall man yelled down from the space above, waiting for a lull in the cascading water to bark more orders to the trembling boys.

“Get back up here. After the next wave!”

The final word was almost swallowed by crashing of the water, but as soon as they could breathe again, or at least cough and splutter, the lads were untwisting the ropes from trembling hands and crawling back up the steps to where he waited.

One boy, not one of Harl’s, one from the other cart, took too long to get free. He had one hand still entangled when the next surge came. It knocked him hard against the inner wall and when the water flooded back out his limp body swung from one oddly angled wrist. The tall man cussed and charged down the steps past Harl and the other blue lipped shivering lads, a wicked curved dagger in hand ready to cut him free. One of the muleteers laughed to the other one as they started chucking dingy white bundles at the rest of the boys. Harl shook his out, unfurling a long tunic that came to his knees. He and the others flung them on over their heads, taking what warmth they could from the well-worn material.

The muleteer stopped laughing when the tall man returned, the dagger still in his hand and the unfortunate lad flung over the other shoulder, unconscious but ribs still moving under blue-white skin.

“Lost yerself a coin, Cole?” Asked the other. “Orinius won’t be pleas-”

The tall man, ‘Cole’ it seemed, gave the stinking muleteer a dark look from underneath his wide hat that silenced him. The shadow under there then turned to consider them. Some boys were bleeding through their new tunics. Others nursed bloodied noses, or favoured bruised ankles.

“A sorry bastard bunch. Come now.”

Cole set a quick pace heading down the broken corridor, deftly avoiding a pounding wave that the muleteers and boys had to pause for. Then they were walking after him… or limping. Some were trying not to cry, some were crying freely. Harl was as numb as his skin. He’d survived this watery scourging, but what would be next?

Next was a long walk into the castle. Up spiralling staircases and past endless rows of wooden doors. Now they were closer to them Harl could see numbers jaggedly carved into each wooden door. He had his numbers, so he tried to follow their order, but they changed floor and corridor so often there was no logical progression. All he could was that there were hundreds, if not thousands, of the pitch stained wooden doors, and each one was closed tight. Sometimes they found themselves by broken exterior walls again, and Harl could look down onto the sea from a great height. Sometimes he saw the inner courtyards of the castle, squares of bleak grey where tiny distant figures walked like ants. Sometimes the corridors were windowless, endless, black tunnels that only Cole seemed to understand. They were in one of these when suddenly the tall man opened a damp-warped door at the far end and light blinded them. Then they were shoved in, the wood of the door screeching behind them before it thumped shut.

When Harl’s eyes calmed he saw that they were in a dull red and brown room with shelves and shelves of books as high as the distant ceiling. At the far end from the door was a great segmented window of bubbled glass that let in a low afternoon glow. Candles dripped from wrought iron stands, and onto a great desk with lion’s feet that took up much of the room. A gaunt, bald, man with copper coloured skin sat behind overflowing piles of books and parchments, squinting at some great volume through strange circular shapes of glass hooked onto his head. He looked up as they entered, eyes bulging through his spectacles, taking in the two score of weary boys and Cole, the boy still carried on his shoulder as though he weighed nothing.

“You’re back.” Said the man abruptly.

“Yes.” Replied Cole, just as plainly.

“Well then, have them line up!” The bald man was impatient.

The boys started to move in front of the book cases even before Cole or the wretched muleteers could bark orders at them. Cole dumped the body of the unconscious lad on a couch, ignoring the bed of papers that he fell on. The bald man looked horrified at the lad’s nakedness. “Cover him up!” he near squeaked. Cole moved some parchment over him and shrugged.

“Is he broken?! I told you that I wanted them in a good condition!” snapped the man from behind his desk.

“And I told you that the sea way was too dangerous.” Cole threw himself down on a dusty chair, sending a grey cloud into the air which he swept at with his wide brimmed hat with a sneer, sprinkling more water about. Harl tried to sneak a look at Cole from the corner of his eye. Long pointed face. Dark straggling hair. And dull, almost green eyes. Was he woods-voln too?!

“You’re the one who wanted them scrubbed clean” Cole continued in a flat voice, as though this was an old familiar argument long past interest.

“They have bad humours… the water purifies… it is a science I would not expect someone of your ilk to understand Cole!”. The bald man sneered dismissively. Then he got up from his desk to walk down the line of them, rubbing his hands together. The great sleeves of his thick and heavily embroidered robe slid back to show long scrawny arms and weak muscles. Harl steeled himself as the man got closer and peered at his face, bad breath near gagging him.

“I told you I wanted more woods-voln! Two?! You brought me only two!”

“And I told you,” began the tall man, boredom thick in his voice as he began his answer in the same way again, “woods-voln are hard to come by. They don’t sell their sons.”

Harl flinched. That wasn’t always true.

“You could have gone and got them!”

“If I wanted to end up hanging by me throat from a tree, punctured all through by poison-greened arrows, then maybe I could’ve, Orinius!”

Orinius huffed and moved on from Harl, still muttering, but Harl heard him with his attentive ears. “We used to get boys of the royal blood. Not this trash. City-voln trash!

Harl could feel the other boys near him tensing in anger, even in their exhaustion. Orinius sighed dramatically. “Very well. This is what you’ve given me, this is what we will have to work with.”

“And what have you given me, Orinius?”

Cole glared at him until the bald man went back to the desk, unlocked a wooden box sitting there and threw him a bag from it. Harl noted the box well as Cole counted out the coins. Coins with the yellow glint of god-king’s gold. And Harl’d been paid for in dull stinking copper!

Cole flicked a few to the foul muleteers, one of whom went to bite his coin and then thought better of it under Orinius’ glare. Then they nodded and left, leaving the warped door to screech closed behind them.

“Will you be going back to the cities?” Asked Orinius, as he stared intently at Dresick. The bigger boy was sporting a bleeding cut over one eye and a dazed look.

“Not Bara, nor Emphon, again for a while. Maybe Tralis”, he shrugged, “I can’t over mine the nearest cities for too long or they’ll be as barren as the fields near here.”

Harl was confused. The land had been unworked as they neared the castle, but it had been wild grassland, not barren. Did he mean he had already taken boys from there? And if so, where were they now?!

“And decades of oh-so-bloody-humble-fields-voln did little good, now did it?”, Cole buried the pouch into a pocket inside his long coat, “or do your blessed books tell you otherwise?”

“Enough Cole. You’ve done your work here, and now I set to mine.” Orinius moved back towards his desk, his heavy robes marking a trail in the dust on the floor. He picked up a long thin candle wick and pulled at it, the white line of it snaking up and along the shelves to a small gilded bell that sang out.

Cole grabbed at his hat and stuck it down on his head again, hiding his face once more in shadows. Then he walked the line of the boys himself, staring into each one’s eyes until they looked at their feet again. Not Harl though, not this time! Let Cole remember his face if Orinius was going to butcher him for meat or sell him onwards to sea-captains or boy rapers… let him remember!

Cole gave a noise that might have been a wretched laugh. “This one Orinius. This one will be here when I get back.”

“Hmmm.” Orinius was distracted, pulling a large volume from a pile on his desk and opening it, reading with an ink stained fingertip. He didn’t look up. “You’ve taken to prophecy, is that it? You’ve never done that before.”

“Prophecies are mother’s milk stories for the feeble minded.” Cole spat on Orinius’s rug, making the book-man harrumph angrily. Cole moved closer until Harl could see his dead man eyes under the brim of his hat. They were definitely green. Woods-voln green. “But this one’ll be here when I get back. Won’t you, lad?”

Harl could neither nod nor speak under the tall man’s glare, but Orinius laughed sarcastically. “You cannot possibly know that! I have not even measured-” But then he was interrupted by the arrival of four men through a door that had been hidden in an alcove to the left of the boys. The men were similar in appearance to Orinius, also gaunt and bowed, but paler of skin and wearing dull grey thick-weaved robes that swept the floor of its dirt behind them. Cole laughed coldly, and pushed his way through the boys and out of the door, just before they too were shoved back through to the dank corridor by the robed men and made to line up there on one side. Harl took his place obediently but his eyes followed Cole’s back as the tall man loped away into darkness, his coat merging with the shadows.

“Eyes front boy!” hissed one of the grey-robes, and Harl snapped to attention. “Eyes front, and wait right there!”

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