“You’re getting fat, boy.”
Harl felt his cheeks redden but he took the insult. He wasn’t fat as such, but the combination of the fine food they fed them here and the lack of exercise had taken away his city-rat sleightness. His skin was better, his bones even felt stronger, but he also felt slower. He felt… lethargic. He had spent the last few months eating and sitting in the darkness like some bloody mushroom. But he was whole which was more than could be said for those who were standing with him in Orinius’s study being looked over by Cole’s flat green eyes.
“You simply can’t-”
Cole cut of the furious Orinius with a flicked hand, not even looking over at the red faced scholar. “I told you this one would be here when I got back didn’t I Orinius?” Cole sounded smug to Harl, and he didn’t like the small smile that toyed at the edges of the man’s mouth, the first one there Harl had seen.
Orinius made a dismissive noise, and looked back over the eight boys that stood before Cole, rage building again. “These are my best prospects Cole you can’t-”
“I can and I will. The God-King commands it.” Cole crossed his arms and continue his implacable stare at the boys. “These are the ones? Have your numbers told you anything? They all look different. All equally pathetic of course, but there’s nothing similar about them.”
“Leave the thinking to me Cole. I am in the process of working out a formula that might predict-”
“Didn’t Skylin have a formula too, one he was always working on?”
Orinius snorted derisively “That mad man would not have known a true scientific method if one had bitten him-”
Harl felt some of the boys by him tense. Dresick was to his left, and Harl’s eyes darted to the still pink and red scarring about the hole in his head where his ear had once been.
Cole threw himself down casually on a nearby couch, sending up more dust. “How did the ones from Liosinium work out?”
Orinius paused. “The results were not… promising.” There was a darkness in that comment that made Harl shiver. More boys had arrived over the months in batches. Not many were left. “I was surprised that Lios allowed you to harvest from the Centre of the World. You seem to have his ear…?”
“I have fuck all, Orinius! A minor bureaucrat passed on a message to me giving me leave. But Lios is getting impatient if he’s allowing me to scrape up even the dog shit from his celestial city! Especially when his hungry war needs more and more young male bodies to be thrown at it. Bear that in mind. Bear it in mind well.” His warning delivered, Cole’s eyes then found Harl’s. “This one. Not only still here but still whole. How often does that happen?”
“It happens.” Orinius jabbed a sharp look at Cole that Harl spotted. “You know that it happens.”
Cole smiled wryly, and Harl liked it as little as the last one. “Feeling nervous yet Orinius?”
Orinius sighed dramatically and opened a large volume to flick through at his desk, barely reading the contents, but pretending to. “This Captain. Tell me about him.” Orinius said lazily, as though it mattered nothing to him.
“I’ll tell you what little I know but the man is of a type I’ve seen many times before, and as sure as blood is blood he’s dull. He’s of an established name. And a city-voln of Liosinium, so he’s smarter than most I’ll admit. Ambitious but loyal to Lios. He’ll stab you in the back to get a promotion but he’ll use that promotion to serve his god-king better. He’s a whorer, a murderer, and likely a rapist. Not that that’s ever held against the military. He’s a Button man through and through.”
It was the most that Harl had heard Cole speak, and his voice was darkly cynical but low and oddly melodious. It was a welcome respite from the black silence of five, six. A silence that he’d been expecting to be in again this morning. Just as he had been in every morning and long afternoon since he’d been left here, until he was not sure when night was day and day was night. His skin drank in the warm candle light and he felt himself closing his eyes in something like pleasure.
“Wake up, boy. I need you to look impressive for the fucking Captain.” Snapped Cole, his sharp woods-voln eyes missing bloody nothing. Harl straightened in his new clothes, nodding slightly before he thought better of it. Cole ignored him again, anyway.
The shirt itched a bit and the leggings were way too large, he’d had to hold them up with a robe belt and tighten them at the end with wrappings above the two left boots he’d been given. But it felt good to be in outside gear again and not the bloody tunics of the castle. Which meant… were they leaving? All he had heard was that he was to be presented to this Captain, a Button man, who had to be pleased. Were they to join the King’s war at the front? That might explain Orinius’s annoyance. Whatever project was at hand here was not meant to involve the boys leaving his castle and his… project.
“And did he mention offspring?” Orinius asked.
“You want them?”
“If they are male. Put down any females, they are of no use. But a live male specimen would be of interest.”
Cole nodded, and scanned his eyes over the lads again who shifted uncomfortably under his gaze.
Orinius looked up “Shall I relieve the Captain’s boredom in the visitor’s parlour and take them there now?”
“Let him wait.”
“For a man with Lios’ ear-”
“I don’t have his blessed ear!”
Orinius corrected himself “For a man who works so closely with the god-king’s agents you certainly seem to enjoy antagonising them.”
Cole smiled darkly again. “Yourself included, Orinius.”
“Especially me, I think.”
“Just because I take Lios’ gold doesn’t mean I have to like the cunt.”
Harl and the other boys reacted to the blasphemy but clamped down on the shock on their faces quickly before any beatings followed. Cole watched their reactions carefully.
“Very well.” Cole stood, sweeping his wide brimmed hat back over his long dark hair, hiding his eyes in shadows. “We can take them over now.”
Orinius nodded and stood, his thick embroidered robe falling into its usual stiff, almost triangular shape. He gestured curtly to the boys and they formed themselves into a line facing towards the outer door of the study, the same door that they had lined up outside a thousand years, or a few months, ago. They followed Orinius like a badelynge of ducklings behind their fretting mother, and they wound their way back through corridors. But Harl could not recognise any familiar features and they could have been travelling anywhere in the castle. The only odd familiarity were the numbers on the doors and the chilling knowledge that behind some of them, behind all of them perhaps, were boys just like him, waiting in the darkness for pain or a very limited freedom and a good meal. Finally, they turned up a corridor that had no numbered doors only, at the furthest end, a single fine oaken door with craftily wrought iron hinges and scrolling.
Orinius unlocked it and they entered, Cole then closing the door behind them all and stepping forward to where a beefy man with a slick looking dark grey moustache lounged in a fine chair by a roaring fire. The man stood reluctantly, easily reaching the same tall height as Cole, but with a stocky width of muscle underneath his long fine navy coat that he lacked. Firelight flickered off of the man’s golden buttons that ran down the front of his coat, closing it over a military uniform. This was the Captain.
“Cole.” The man smiled without warmth. “Are these the men that you were to bring me?!”
“I never promised you men, Rickarn.” Cole gestured to them, “but they are fit enough.”
“That one has no ear. And Holy Lios, that one is missing a hand!”
“He has another.” Cole shrugged. “What is that city-voln expression? Something about beggars and choosing?”
“Very funny Cole.”
Orinius stepped forward. “You do not have to take them. They are needed here!”
The Captain sighed theatrically. “If only I had other options. But the war leaves us short of men, and this must be dealt with. Can they even wield a sword?”
“I doubt they’ve ever even touched one,” said Cole, ignoring the Captain’s grimace at that news.
“Have they ever followed orders?” Rickarn asked, already sounding disappointed.
“They follow the masters’ orders all the time here.”
“To go and sit and wait in the dark! That’s not the same as following orders in combat!” Harl hid his surprise that the Captain knew about the rooms and what they did there. But Rickarn was already spitting out more complaints. “Some city-voln scraps and a woods-voln who’ll no doubt stab me as soon as look at me. You’ve outdone yourself Cole.”
Cole took off his wide brimmed hat and bowed in an elaborate way with an elegance that surprised Harl. He’d seen grand men do that while he’d been outside, hanging from the boughs of sickly city trees to watch through windows, seeing fancy parties held at the temple for auspicious dates like the god-king’s birthday. Cole was a good mimic.
Captain Rickarn straightened himself, set his mouth beneath the greasy moustache and glared at Cole. “Let us get them to the carts them, we should set off as soon as soon as possible.”
Harl felt his heart both sink in despair and rise in hope. To be back in the carts that had brought him to this hell again filled him with dread, but there was a chance that once they left the castle he might find a way to escape back to Bara, as he had not been brave enough to do before. Before he had truly known what awaited him at the end of the cart’s route. Before he’d known about room five, six, one.
But he meekly followed the other lads as they made their way through even more corridors he was unfamiliar with, coming out through an immense iron studded door into a series of small and large courtyards where grey-robes walked and mumbled together in groups. These had been some of the ants he’d seen from an eagle’s eye view from somewhere up in the higher heights of the castle. They stopped in the largest courtyard where some of the masters were fretting about a huge warhorse. It had its hair banded into elaborate plaits over a coat brushed carefully into elaborate interlocking patterns, its fur shining even in the grey sunlight. The horse’s saddle had been waxed and it also reflected the low sun in its polished leather. A Button man’s horse.
Captain Rickarn vaulted onto the great beast’s back, silencing its whoomping and whickering with his tri-spurs and a “nya!” that stilled the horse but shock the grey-robes. Other masters, those still with whole and working hands, were settling long reins on some mules ahead of the cart. Just one this time as with Cole and Rickarn they were ten in number.
Harl lethargically pulled himself up and into the straw of the cart, settling into what he was certain was the same place he had sprawled in before. Dresick met his eyes for a moment, and mouthed “whoreson” at him. Reluctant smiles flitted on both their faces, erased when Cole leapt up into the front and spurred the cart forward, following after Rickarn on his high trotting horse.
This time the cart went through the great front gate of the castle walls, thirty foot high doors and an iron grate moving out of their way as they joined a rough path across the sea salted grass, the cart constantly roughly jolting its dumb occupants. Unlike the others Harl chose not to look back at the looming and then shrinking castle. Instead he looked to his left, looking at the dark figure of Cole, that same old coat and wide hat he’d worn against the rain on their journey to the castle before.
To five, six, one.
Harl put the room and his normal schedule from his mind and watched Cole drive the cart to avoid the coastal road this time, heading instead between roughly shaped fields filled with tumbled over clods of dirt and sprawling weeds. The odd low crofter’s cottage was visible across them. Some of the buildings lay with their with roofs open to the sky, thatch worn away and never replaced. Occasionally shambling figures moved near the squat buildings. Late in the afternoon, after a roll of bread and ham each had been thrown back to them and Harl was feeling rocked to near sleep by the cart, the sound of a young girl’s singing drifted towards them on the wind. Then it was suddenly cut off. Harl squinted into the distance to make out a larger figure standing tightly close to a small child, both wrapped about in rags. Without being able to see their eyes, Harl could still tell that the two of them turned to watch the cart in the distance. Watching in fear.
The singing must have inspired Rickarn, as he launched whole-heartedly into a full and throaty rendition of some marching song, apparently enjoying the dark stares that Cole threw at him and getting only louder. Then, perhaps to rile him more, the marching song became a lewd song about a whore who had so many of her jealous gents arrive at the same time that she had to stack them all together under the bed, and in the wardrobe, and even in the “gardrobe”, a thing which Rickarn rhymed with wardrobe but which Harl had never heard of before. His mother had never had one anyway. And there’d never been any comedy moments of panicked hiding with his mother’s jealous gents. Only black eyes, broken fingers, and more sobbing.
But as they turned down an almost invisible path the sparse gorse bushes at the side of the rough road became more and more populated with small trees, and Rickarn brought his volume down. Eventually the road was fully shadowed by grown trees and the Captain was finally silent. Then he trotted his prissily dressed horse next to the cart and glared at the boys. “This is woods-voln country. So don’t you bloody well get any ideas about darting for it. They’ll pierce you all through with poisoned greened arrows before you even breath out your damned sob stories and ask for aid. Your average woods-voln is a cold hearted hunter. Some say they even skin their human victims, using their flesh for their rancid brown leathers” he looked straight at Harl, “Some say that they are cunning,” he brought out his roarer, smiling as the lowlight glinted off of the open lion’s mouth. “They aren’t so fucking smart that they’ve got these though!” He smiled, his moustache quivering as he did, like some kind of small beast across his top lip, but with a waxed tail at each end of its body.
Harl thought that he sensed a cold tenseness from Cole at the front of the cart, but Harl kept his eyes respectfully low rather than check his suspicions.
Rickarn blustered on, “These woods are theirs… for now. So, bloody well put mind away from escape, pull hand from arse, and do as I command. There aren’t any of your bloody ‘masters’ to obey here, but I’m like all of those sallow half men rolled up into one glorious package, for Lios.” One boy, not one Harl had known from his carts, made a half-hearted sign for Lios with his left hand, drawing a smile from Rickarn.
The carts, Cole, the lads, the sign; they made it feel like the past was looping about again. But this time it wasn’t Dresick making the sign. Instead he was nursing an insolent look, keeping it turned down to the straw strewn floor of the cart.
“Good. Good.” Rickarn looked smug rather than pious. “Lios will watch over you, boy. He will watch over all of you and note your deeds. And your misdeeds.” That last word was thrown at Cole, and Harl got the even stronger impression the two men had known each other a long time. Cole had certainly had the measure of this man when he described him to Orinius. Proud. Pious. Deadly.
The boy who’d made the sign straightened slightly, daring to turn his eyes up to the man who was keeping pace with the cart on his horse. “Sir?” His voice was weak. They all were after lasting this long in the castle and the darkness of their rooms, but he seemed emboldened by Rickarn’s words about Lios’ protection.
“Boy?” There was a threat in that one word. Don’t test my patience, the edge in his tone told them all.
“Please sir. Where are we going?”
He seemed to ignore the question. “You’re lucky. Do you know that?”
The boy almost shook his head, but Rickarn was already looking ahead into a glorious future off on the horizon that only he could see. “You’ve been chosen for a mission in service of Lios. Most have to wait until they are of age to join the blessed army of Lios. Some never give Lios the measure of service that you will in this great adventure!” Harl wondered, was he looking at Cole just then? Rickarn rumbled on in his deep voice “There is a monster travelling these woods. Tainted by an ancient evil, it comes to good men and women… and woods-voln… spreading its foulness amongst them. And the god-king demands its head. And were it not for his great and glorious war he would have sent his own men. But now is your chance to shine in his service. Perhaps… perhaps if you serve him well you can be moved to my own equerry!”
Cole finally broke his silence. “Orinius wants them back, Rickarn.”
“Captain Rickarn.” The muscled man snapped.
“Captain Rickarn. The god-king supports Orinius’ work. Fully.”
“He also supports the putting down of monsters like the bitch we’ll be hunting!”
“Of course he does. And Orinius respects his request to employ these boys for this mission. He fully respects that. But if they come back whole… they come back.”
Rickarn laughed. “Cole. You’re still the fucking same, aren’t you? You’re still finding yourself in other’s orders! Still mewling about hoping for a master to make the world clearer. What would the woods-voln in these wretched fucking trees make of one of their own bending over and taking it hard from a long line of bureaucrats from Lios all the bloody way down to Orinius?”
Cole sat stock still. The boys sat still, waiting for a storm.
But Rickarn just laughed and pulled a bottle from his saddle bags. He threw it to Cole and for a second Harl thought it would smash right into the thin man’s face, pushing that shadow casting hat from his sharp face and cutting his right eye to bloody shreds. But a whip quick hand grabbed the bottle from the air, pulled it to the other which dragged out the stopper to let Cole chug back a mouthful without even grimacing. Harl caught the scent of dry Vernoush, a strong liquor that his mother reserved for her most tricky customers, to speed up the collapse into unconsciousness.
“Good lad” said Rickarn dismissively, even though Harl thought there was little difference in their age. “Keep sucking on Lios’ blessed teat! Though, having seen the old god-king recently, a bastard god’s great round titty is far more appealing.” The boy who had eeked out just enough remaining faith to make the sign of Lios in the cart shuddered at the blasphemy. “You should see the way some of the gutter suckers in Liosinium draw the bitch goddesses! Not enough to make a man apostate, but enough to raise his fucking pole. Saw some confiscated stuff last time I was in the centre of the world and the High Torturer allowed me a visit. Tits that put a Denosian whore to shame!”
Cole was silent, letting the larger man rattle on and on about who he’d fucked and where during his time serving Lios. Rambling on, Rickarn then mentioned a lady of Liosinium he was courting, and how she’d bring a pretty ‘dowry’ to make up for her unpretty face. Harl didn’t know what a dowry was but he understood the gleam of greed in the Captain’s face. What he didn’t get was Cole’s silence. Both men served Lios, both were taking the lads out to some likely doom, Harl was convinced of that, so why wasn’t the thinner man joining in with the Captain’s dark talk of women and whores? Under his wide brimmed hat Harl presumed the man’s face was stony, so silent and still he was. The only movement was the jingle of the reins through his fingers as he gently encouraged the mules onwards through the shadowy tunnel of trees.
Onwards, towards the monster.
They set up a small camp near a muttering stream, keeping wary eyes on the lines of trees all about them like brown-black barked soldiers standing in an inept formation. The woods were not quiet, and the boys jumped at every distant fox’s bark or owl’s initial hoot in the twilight of the day. Harl expected Rickarn or Cole to scuff their heads for their timid cowering, but both men were on the alert, working quickly together to set up the basic tents and a small fire that the city boys’ clumsy untrained hands had stumbled over. They seemed to know what each other needed without the broad man needing to shout out orders to Cole, maintaining a silence that the lads echoed. Not that they ever spoke much now, not since the rooms. The lads dragged over woods fallen boughs and set up seats in a rough circle about the weak fire, trying to toast their rapidly chilled hands and feet as Cole threw together a rough stew with water from the stream and some things from a seemingly bottomless bag he carried from the cart on his shoulder, a strange clanking coming from within it that was more than just the fat bellied pot he drew out of it.
After their quick meal, with Rickarn looking at his portion and pulling the face the lads wanted to pull when they saw theirs but were too scared to do so, there were orders to get some damned sleep. Cole took first watch, the large Captain disappearing into the tent they were to share while the boys were stuffed into two the same size, four jumbled bodies taking joy in the warmth if not the smell of unwashed youth. Harl tried to curl into a corner by the opening, where the simple knots binding it closed were not enough to keep out the whistling night wind. Time passed, minutes, hours, and Harl was finally dragged down into half-awake, half asleep, repeating nightmares of the hundred or more times he’d been to his room.
The unlocking of the door, the placing of the tray, the long sit in the dark and then the return to the slight light of the hall with the near licked clean plates left on his tray. Again, and again. Each time a little more light was gone from the eyes of those his own eyes met. Each time he felt a little more like a shadow belonging in the room. A shape just waiting there for something to rip into him, finally, as it had so many others, leaving them limping, blind, or just… gone. He was in the hall, eating endless meals, stuffed into them by grey-robes with torn faces. Protesting, more was pushed into his mouth until he couldn’t breathe. He was lying down on the hall’s cold, cold, floor, Weasel sprawled over him, his throat slashed open and spewing red-black blood down on him. His throat cut, just as he’d done to that nameless lad, done it with a shank made from warped glass and dark gleeful opportunity. The splattering sound was the sound of waves, and he was naked as the sea swallowed him whole, his mother drifting ahead of him, rich red hair turned into fronds of dry sea weed made fresh again in the deep wet.
In the room again, in the dark. And every second was a moment before it spoke to him. He felt it about to speak. A voice in the darkness about to enter through his ears and prove it was there by delving deep into him. A sudden intake of breath-
And then Harl was fully awake. The only one not sleeping in the muddle of boys’ bodies, but also not the only one suffering nightmares. He blinked hard, straining in the dark to make out the lines of the restless shapes around him, each caught in their own nightmare. He struggled to his knees and hands, finding small spaces to plant them so he could crawl out of the tent’s flapping entrance. He wrestled with the knots and snuck out, heading to where Cole still sat, his back to the tents and the fire shrunk down further.
It took Harl a moment to realise that the man had shucked off his long heavy coat, and what over shirt he normally wore beneath it. His skin was pale in the little moonlight and he was washing, drawing a rag over his skin, dipping it in stream water and rubbing it briskly at pits, shoulder and neck. White skin moved as he pushed the rag about, moving over nubs and angles of bone just under taught but sleight muscle. The line of his spine drew Harl’s eyes to the parts that Cole was avoiding. A large torn mess of scar tissue that ate away at half his torso, a filled crescent of ripped and still reddened flesh as though some great beast had bitten the tall man and tasted him, and, not finding him pleasant to eat, had released him. And that was bloody likely to be what had happened! Harl started to slowly crawl back.
“For a woods-voln you make noise when you move like a fucking mountain-voln.” Cole threw down the cloth and grabbed at his shirt, throwing it on over his head and following it up with the coat that had been draped over the log.
“I’m sorry, I-”
“You’re on watch with me now. Sit.” He settled the hat back onto his head, casting shadows across his eyes even before Harl sat opposite him, the small fire failing to fight them back even as Cole poked it back into some semblance of life. “See enough?”
“You’re a master? Sir?”
Cole smiled ruefully, his mouth twisting bitterly in the half light. “So if you’re wounded you’re a master. Couldn’t I have been a Button man like Captain Rickarn?”
“They don’t ‘ave woods-voln in the army, Sir. They don’t lik’em. And there’s the scars. Sir.”
“Not so. Our blessed god-king calls all voln to fight his wars against monsters. Perhaps I got these wounds fighting bravely for Lios, and not…. somewhere else.”
Harl paused, wary, but said it any way. “My mother said that he called men monsters so we would fight for him.”
Cole dipped his head, lowering the brim o fhis hat until Harl couldn’t even see his mouth to judge for smiles, dark or not. “Your mother had red hair did she not? A whore?”
“Yes.” He did not rankle at the title, but tried not to remember her in too much detail.
“I recall her. Seems she was smarter than I thought at the time. I rarely misjudge people, but woods-voln are tricky… Are we not?” The hat tilted back up to show his weary green eyes. “I’m no master, boy. But you are right, I did not get these wounds pointing a roarer at men or monsters for the King.”
“So, you did survive the rooms?!”
Cole was silent, pulling the dry Varnoush from where it had been sitting by one of his heavy boots and taking a swig. To Harl’s surprise, he offered it, and the boy near scampered to take it from his hand.
Cole’s hand, the fast one that had caught the same bottle earlier on the road, flashed towards him and punched him hard, right in the eye, knocking him to the floor and thrashing the half smile from his face.
“No one survives the rooms.” His voice was flat as Harl reeled. “The masters are all dead men. You are too, even though you bear no fucking wounds yet. Orinius is the king of the land of the dead, and Lios is its emperor.” Something about that last statement made the dark man laugh slightly as Harl held his head and tried to make the world stop spinning. “If you keep fooling yourself that you’re still breathing you’ll be driving the carts within five years. Buying up boys to feed to the castle. Taking Lios’ coin and throwing it down your throat as liquid gold.” He swigged again. “But maybe not. You’ve got your numbers don’t you, boy? Saw you counting the doors on the way to Orinius. Maybe you’re on your way to Orinius yourself!” The last was a hoarse whisper. He put the bottle from him and looked down at Harl sprawled by the fire, emerald eyes piercing through him like greened arrows.
Harl forced his words out, as his right eye started to feel as big as a roaring sun and was trying to distract him. But he had to know. “Which room was yours?”
“Two, one, one.” Cole said it without thinking and grimaced, almost reaching for the bottle again but stopping himself.
“What’s in the rooms?” Harl tried to sit upright, bringing his legs into a cross just as he did every single day in five, six, one.
Cole was silent. Minutes passed by the two of them, the man sat in the shadows and the boy in front of him, waiting in the near dark. Minutes edged towards an hour. But Harl was patient and used to silence.
“What’s this?” It was Captain Rickarn, emerging from the tent in his shirt and breeches.
“It’s nothing.” Cole rose and headed towards the tent. The Captain grabbed his arm which Cole brushed off.
“Got yourself a pet, Cole?”
The tall man growled and disappeared into the tent. Harl moved towards his own shared tent, but Rickarn stepped in front of him, blocking his path. “The sack. Bring it to me.”
Harl fetched the large sack Cole had been delving into. They might as well have been a dead body inside it for the weight. He dragged it to where Rickarn was settling in for his watch in Cole’s abandoned seat, filling himself with the same dry Varnoush.
“Good. Drop it here.”
Harl did as he was told and watched Rickarn reach inside and pull out another sack that was wrapped about something metal that gleamed in the slight firelight. A bundle of short swords. He took one and offered it to Harl, holding it by the blade. It was a simple killing shape, a foot-long leaf shaped blade merging into a plain hilt with round pommel. Harl reached for it, half expecting another black eye like the one he’d got from Cole. But the Captain let him take it, watching him try to heft the unfamiliar weight.
“Have you used a sword before?”
“Not exactly, sir. Smaller blades than this are pretty useful where I grew up in Bara, sir.”
“Good lad. You know what to do with it then.” He looked at Harl intently. “Do as I say and there is a way out for you. A way to escape from Cole and Orinius. There is always a way. But you must do what I say.” Rickarn’s eyes were fever bright in the fire light.
Harl paused and then found his voice again.
“Good lad” The words were empty, more a reflex than a genuine compliment. Do as I say and there’s a way out for you. A chance to be moved to his… ‘equerry’. Whatever that bloody was. But boys served him in some way. And they got this half-hearted good lad, and there were spaces for more. Do as I say. Harl’s eye throbbed in time with his heartbeat. Do as I say.
“Now, to sleep with you. We need you bright and eager tomorrow when we hunt the beast.” Captain Rickarn smirked, then it seemed as though another thought occurred to him. “You’re woods-voln, aren’t you lad? Sure as blood is blood.”
“Got a mother and a father in these woods, or elsewhere?”
“Just a mother. In Bara.”
He just nodded, his hands on his hips as he considered the smaller boy standing in front of him. “Woods-voln can make excellent soldiers… scouts and saboteurs… in the right circumstances. Bed now.”
Harl walked back to his shared tent, passing by where Cole now slept. Or did he? Harl imagined him, lying on his back, staring into the darkness. Remembering Two, One, One. How many hours had the young Cole spent staring into the dark before something in it came to him to taste his blood? Or was it straight away as it had been with some of the others? Like Dresick? Like Weasel, who had never come back after their first morning in the castle’s rooms?
He snuck back into the tent and curled into a ball, cradling the short sword.
Morning was on them before he was ready for it. But he smartly joined the other lads in a silent arcing piss into the stream, scaring small Arrowbacks that darted away in the muddied water like the woods-voln weapons that they were named for. He tucked himself back into the new trousers he’d been given and awkwardly looped the short sword back into the tough length of leather he’d gotten as a belt. He walked past Cole on his way to the cart, and saw the man’s sharp eyes flick first to his belt and the sword, and then upwards to the dark bruising around his eye. Again, he dipped his hat enough to shadow his expression and turned away to tend to the mules.
In the cart Harl’s sword got envious looks, but then the Captain was trotting alongside them on the road and passing out identical blades to all of them, smiling at the lads’ dark pleasure as they tested them out.
“How much further?” Cole asked, not turning his eyes away from the road ahead.
“A few hours perhaps. Least that’s where it was. Might have moved on, but we can track it.”
“You mean, I can track it.”
“No one bloody well brings a woods-voln with them and then does the dog work themselves.” Rickarn laughed at Cole. “It won’t have gone far.”
“How can you be certain?”
“I just am.”
Rickarn clicked his tongue and spurred his great horse on, letting it pick up its heels and give the mule a faster pace to keep up with, huffing and puffing. In the back the lads were all ears. The excitement of the swords, and of being away from the castle, was starting to dull as they realised that at the end of this road was some kind of beast that they were going to be facing. Dresick looked unwell, even as he absentmindedly scratched at the scarring on his head. But the hours went by and finally they reached a clearing that made Rickarn sit up in his stirrups and look about.
“Here. This is near the place.”
Cole nodded and pulled the mule to a halt. The boys leapt from the back of the cart before even being told to, and they all lined up for the Captain’s inspection. He nodded as he walked the line, his hands behind his back and his chest puffed up, glorious golden buttons glinting in the late afternoon light.
“Ten minutes walking that way is another rough clearing. In the clearing is the den of the beast. Cole and I will go there.” He looked to where Cole was pulled a strange device from the large sack. It looked a little like a small woods-voln bow, turned to its side and set upon a wooden arm. He set a tiny arrow into the top of it, and pushed others into a small quiver tied to his hip and thigh. He nodded at Rickarn.
“You boys are going to make our perimeter. Between my roarer and Cole’s crossbow we can take the beast, but you are to make sure its offspring does not escape Lios’ wrath. Spread out into the woods and take a position.”
“Sir?” It was the boy who’d made the sign of Lios. “What about the woods-voln, sir?”
Rickarn looked put out, his plan was being questioned. “You’d better hope that they puff up your face and blacken your skin with their poisons before you question my orders again, boy.”
The boy fell silent, a hand on the pommel of his short sword.
“Spread out then. And try not to get lost.”
They nodded, and struck out into the woods, pushing into dense ferns and thorny brambles to try and make the circle about the beast’s lair the Captain wanted. Harl found himself at the top of a steep bank, which fell down to a dense mess of bone white bracken. He readied himself, squinting into the ranks of trees ahead of him, trying to see between them to where he thought Rickarn and Cole were now approaching the beast. What if it charged this way in its rage and came crashing down on top of him?!
He pulled his sword from his belt and heard a soft gasp. To his right, having just emerged from the trees, was a young woods-voln girl.
She wore a shabby brown dress with a ragged white apron over it, muddied and with deep pockets at the front stuffed full of plants and herbs Harl did not recognise. The heads of their flowers bobbing slightly as she stepped back from him, her bare feet crunching into leaves. She was younger than him, but perhaps only by a few years. And where his hair was a deep rich auburn, hers was so dark as to almost be black. Straight as well, tricky spikes of it sneaking out of a long braid lying on her shoulder. Her face was still young and soft, even for a sharp woods-voln, but her determined lower lip and angry green eyes showed a certain stubbornness. She put her hands to her hips.
“You’ve got a sword.” She said, glaring at it. “Where’s your bow?”
He paused. She couldn’t really have taken him for one of her people, could she?
“How am I meant to know how to greet you if I can’t see your bow or your greening?”
He was about to think of a quick reply, when she continued. “I’m Eris Atta-Sutith. Tell me your name.” She pulled a small knife from her pocket, petals falling to the ground from her plant gatherings in there.
He stumbled and a full woods-voln name flashed into his mind. “I’m Kur Gyreblack.”
His hand tightened around the hilt of the sword.
“I said, that’s nonsense. My mother’s mother taught me all the greenings, and my mother taught me them all again. No one makes Gyreblack anymore. And you don’t even have a bow!”
“I lost it. And I’m going to be in so much trouble with my mother’s mother.” He put on a pitiful face and saw the empathy flash across hers before the haughty superiority of a young girl in the face of a stupid lad took over.
“Lost it?! What kind of woods-voln loses their bow!?”
“Well, you don’t have one either.”
She looked at him like he was mad. “I’m a Sutith. We don’t have a greening…” She took another step back. “What kind of woods-voln doesn’t know-”
He interrupted her. “Please, I just want to go home. I never wanted to be here. Or at the castle-”
She interrupted him in return. “A castle?! Tell me!”
“It’s not like that. It’s not good. It’s not exciting!”
“I think you’re lying. Making up stories because you’re a dumb woods-voln whose lost his bow, because he’s stupid!” She picked up her skirts to turn and storm away and he saw her feet and ankles properly for the first time. There, curling around the ankle and sole of her left foot was a ribbon of dark and cracked skin. She heard his gasp of surprise, and looked back in fear at his sword.
“Are you… are you the beast?!” He stammered.
She looked up at him with widening deep green eyes. Eyes that looked for a moment just like his mother’s, but framed by wisps of unruly black hair instead of sweetly scented waves of warm red hair. If he’d grown up in these woods he’d have known this girl. They might have played together. Grown up together. By the bastard gods, they might have been… more.
He swallowed at the thought and took a step away from her, dropping the point of the sword.
“I’m not here to hurt you.”
“You said I was a beast!”
“Not… I didn’t mean… I just want to talk to you.” He smiled cautiously. “I don’t know many woods-voln.”
He saw conflicting emotions dance across her face, before she settled on an unexpected and sudden trust. “You are odd.” She smiled and it was the first genuine smile he thought he’d seen in months.
“That’s not untrue. I grew up in a city.”
Her eyes widened again. “Did you live in a stone building?”
“I did. With stairs and doors.”
“Oh! We live in pretty little caravan, with flowers all growing in hanging baskets.”
“You and your mother and your mother’s mother?”
Her face fell briefly. “Mother’s mother died. It’s just me and my mother now.”
“I’m sorry.” And he was.
“She’s feeding the woods now. That seems right doesn’t it?”
He nodded. He could spend the rest of the day learning about this girl and her mother, and even her dead mother’s mother.
But then a chill spread through his veins, like ice fire.
“Eris. Where is your mother’s caravan?”
He watched her point. Into the woods, towards where Harl was certain Cole and Captain Rickarn had been heading.
To kill a monster.
He saw her face darken, and stern lines, that shouldn’t have been there for another thirty years or so, crept across her brow and turned down the corners of her lips. She started forward quickly, towards her home, and his free hand whipped out to catch a bundle of her dress at the shoulder, snagging her.
“Let go!” she shouted.
“Stay here. You can’t-”
“I said. Let. Go!” She pulled hard against him and then lifted the small knife, which he saw now was really no more than a thumb-length long, just a small blade for cutting plant stems and collecting mushrooms. It would hurt him, but Cole and Rickarn would hurt her more.
Eris’ eyes had narrowed further and he’d missed the beginning of the snarl that then suddenly growled deeply in his ear as she charged fully against him, body to body. She was smaller, but only just, and he was off guard. He stumbled back, still holding on to her and his sword as the world disappeared beneath him, and then he was rolling feet over head, pulling the girl with him and feeling each and every sharp edge of the rocks jutting from the slope. Dirt and leaves got in his eyes and hair as the world revolved and the girl was under him, yelping as she was squashed before she was on top of him again and the air was pushed further from his lungs. Finally, they slowed to a halt in the dry bracken below, white dust raining down on the two dazed bodies.
“Ungh” Harl groaned, but the girl was already trying to push out from under him, shoving her palms against him. He shook his head and opened gritty eyes.
“Get off! Get off!!” She cried.
He moved as quickly as his aching limbs could, and moved to sit straddling her. His short sword was on the ground nearby and he snatched at it, holding the point towards her.
“Shush. Please. Shhhh! You have to be quiet!”
She wriggled angrily, testing her strength against him, and then started screaming.
He jammed the fleshy part of his grazed and muddied palm into her mouth and took the pain of her sharp little teeth digging deep into it, groaning and rolling his eyes back as he held in his own scream.
“You. Have to… be quiet!” He hissed.
She settled slowly, two green sullen eyes looking up at him, under a fresh bloody cut on her forehead.
It was not a moment too soon. From above them he heard voices in the distance. Men’s voices. Angry voices that hissed as they tried not to shout, but which still drifted down to where he held the girl down.
“You lied to me!”
“Stop being such a little bitch, Cole.”
“She knew you! She called you Dren!”
“It is my name.”
“No one ever calls you that. She knew you well.”
“So she healed me once, what of it?”
“And then you hunt her down?!”
“Lios is very clear on putting down these abominations.”
“But he didn’t give the order did he? That’s why you couldn’t get any men!”
“Show some fucking spine Cole! I did what needed to be done!!”
“This was personal wasn’t it Dren? Did she turn you down, was that it?! Or was she naked before you saw the mark on her. Did it disgust you and you just had to put a shot between her eyes for fooling you? For bringing her impurity near your blessed-”
There was a loud thud, one Harl was familiar with from the night before and his own black eye throbbed again in sympathy.
“Get up! There’s work to do you lazy fucking woods-voln!”
There was a groan, from Cole Harl thought, and then in a quieter voice he sarcastically said, “Sir, yes, sir.”
The girl started drumming her heels into the dirt, squealing ineffectually against his hand. Harl’s heart leapt into his ears and drummed blood there as his panic increased. The whole time the voices had been coming closer. If they came to the edge of the bank and looked down!
Harl searched about in panic, desperately looking for an idea to get him and the girl out of this. You know the trick of this, you know the trick of this. The words repeated in his mind over and over. You know the trick of this! You know the trick of this!
His eyes fell onto the frantic curling and beating of her feet behind him, and a fevered thought flew into his mind as he looked again at that curious curl of darkened skin circling around her ankle and down to her foot. Such a small thing to be an impurity. Such a small bit of skin to doom this girl to being hunted, just as her mother had been doomed once she met Rickarn. Dren, he thought in his mind viciously, using the name he disliked, Captain Dren Rickarn.
He looked back into the girl’s panicked eyes and firmed his grip on the short sword. Without that flesh just there she would be no different to other woods-voln! She would be wounded, and then scarred, it was true. But others had survived like that. Like the masters.
It would be difficult, he’d have to keep his hand, his now numb and shaking left hand, in her mouth, while he twisted and cut it away. He paused.
He remembered, there had been a gent once who’d come stumbling into their wretched squat, some gent he’d seen visit his mother a few times before and been one of the rare ones to leave her with sweet words instead of bruises. But that day he’d been hurt, attacked maybe, or there’d been an accident. And he’d come to her with a massive gash on his thigh, leaking his life away as he’d stumbled in and begged for her help. A younger Harl had watched from around the doorframe as his mother had worked extremely fast to tie off the wound with the man’s own belt, looping it at the top of his thigh, and then then stitching quickly to close it up as the man had taken down most of her reserves of cheap red ale.
The flesh. It was such a small thing, such a small thing to make Captain Dren Rickarn hunt her mother down, and now-
Harl’s eyes flashed around again, scouring the treeline. He had no needles, no fine threads. But the woods-voln in these lands might find her. If he tied it off tightly enough with his own belt there might be a chance for her. A chance for a future where no one would hunt her down because of that small part of her!
No! It was madness. She would die from the wound. He started to drop the sword’s point.
Harl looked up, blinking into the grey sunlight, staring at the silhouette of a broad shouldered man, his roarer glinting gold in his hand.
“Good lad!” Rickarn started down the slope, his large legs eating up the distance down to Harl and the girl. “You found a whelp!”
Cole followed after, slowly, carefully plotting his way down from tree to tree, his hat almost but not quite covering where blood was spread from his nose across his cheek.
“Wait…” Harl began weakly, but Rickarn was there, casting his shadow over the girl.
“What’s this? Ah, you were driven by her impurity to take her life?” His eyes took in Harl’s sword and the backwards twist of his body. “Or just her cursed parts? Yes! Cut it all away! Let her bleed to death crawling in the dirt, trying to find her wretched bloody people!” That was a terrifying glee in him.
“Rickarn.” Cole said darkly.
“What is it Cole?” Rickarn said, almost sighing. “Does Orinius want the whelp? For his work?”
Cole paused, thinking. “No. No he doesn’t have any numbers for females to compare her to. But-”
“Good.” Rickarn turned back to him and said, almost bored, “Cut her impurity away, boy. Let her bleed it into the ground with her life.”
The girl fought harder and nearly bucked Harl from on top of her. Tears were streaming from her terrified eyes, and Harl felt his own pricking at his so similar green eyes.
Rickarn cocked his roarer and pointed it at her head. “Do it boy. Or she’ll be first, and you’ll be next.”
He held in a scream. And then he started.
Between her screaming and biting, her attempts to push him off, and the shaking in his hand, it was badly done. After the first stroke Cole came closer, knelt and held her feet still, looking into Harl’s red and tear filled eyes with something like curiosity. She passed out from the pain and Cole stood again as the task was finished.
Blood was splattered on the bone white bracken around them.
“Good. Let’s go.” Rickarn marched up the slope, not even caring to look back. Cole followed after him just seconds later.
It was only when Harl collapsed away from the unconscious girl, shaking and crying, that he realised that the woods-voln had dropped something as he left, letting it snake down his leg and onto the blood splattered plants near Harl. It was a plain but well-made black belt.
Harl worked fast, both his hands already covered in blood, both hers and his, and trembling so hard that his fingers barely responded. His left hand was torn, blood pouring from where her teeth had left puncture marks and wrenched at the flesh. But he put it to work. Then when his makeshift tourniquet was done, he used his own rougher belt as well, certain that he’d taken too long and that a roarer would be being aimed at him at that very moment. But it wasn’t, and soon he was dragging himself up the slope wearily, slowly, looking back to her body every so often. Just as he was reaching the top he heard shouting.
“You fucking hit me!” It was Cole.
“Stop shouting!” hissed Rickarn. “Fuck. Do you know the way back to the cart from here?”
“You fucking bastard! You lied to me! You hit me! You fucking city-voln bastard!!”
Harl had never heard Cole raise his voice like this. What was he thinking, broadcasting that a city-voln was in the middle of the woods, right in woods-voln lands?!
“Shut the fuck up Cole. I do what I need to do. Ah, another of the boys.”
Harl saw one of the other lads creeping through the tree line and towards the Captain. “Sir?”
“Take us back to the cart. We’re done. We put the beast and its whelp down.” The boy nodded, too confident for a city-voln deep in the woods, thought Harl.
Harl saw Cole looking at him, taking in the blood splattered on his clothes and his paleness. “Come boy. We’re done here. Nothing more we can do.” All trace of his anger at Rickarn seemed to be gone, his voice quiet and low again as it had been before. Harl nodded and walked with them, leaving the clearing behind, but taking the image of the girl and her leg with him, a heavier burden than the short sword itself that now felt like the weight of a thousand Bara red bricks.
The journey back to the cart, the exit through the woods, the path back past the fields and to the castle passed in a blur seen through red, puffy and gritty eyes. They stopped when they had to stop, and Harl ate and pissed when he had to. But inside he was empty, an echoing chamber where his mind just replayed the butcher’s job he’d done. Showing him again and again the girl’s terrified green eyes and the blood seeping into them. Eyes just like his mother’s.
At the castle they turned before the main gate and again took the worn down stone path to the broken sea room. Harl welcomed the waves this time, hoping for them to scour away the thoughts in his head, or to drown him fully so that he could forget them at the bottom of the sea as a bone white ghost, lost from Lios and mindlessly haunting the watery world. But his teeth torn hand found the rope, and it twisted him again into the life he’d been living for the past few months. No measuring this time, but quick stitches and bandages before the same corridors and dark corners. Before the same tray in the great hall. The same path back to five, six, one. The same cold floor that he sat on, legs crossed, as though nothing had ever happened in the woods.
He closed his eyes in the darkness, the movement of his eyelids the only difference between looking and not looking in this blackness.
And he sat.
Movement. A stirring of air, breathed in and out so slightly that he wasn’t certain it had really happened. And then before his mind could decide on it, there were words. In the dark. In five, six, one.
“You are different now.” Something said.