Sight just returning from dust blindness, Harl tried to make sense of what he was seeing, and all he could think of was the ink in the water, the blood in the canal. Something flowed in through the broken door, a black liquid shadow pulling wood and broken men in with it as if the hungry sea below the castle had finally come to get him. Drowned in it were dead bodies, grey-robes, tossing about as the changing shape of it came around the door; throwing suddenly appearing clawed hands into the room to drag the rest of it in behind them. Cracked black skin rubbed against the stones of the study, then flowed upwards to become smoke like, to dance along the ceiling. And somewhere in that mess of parts and shapes, and dead men, and destroyed doors, a mouth opened and called out.
“Harl! Where is Harl?!”
It was Fysiwon.
Harl stood forward, ignoring Orinius’ chattering behind him as the man tried to find refuge behind his large desk and to draw Harl back there with him. “Friend. Friend its me.” His bones were shaking in his skin. He wanted to run, he wanted to scream. But he stood his ground, mind whirring as it tried to find the path out of here. He flinched as the creature suddenly flung a thick wave of itself at Cole, knocking him away and making his body skid into the foot of shelves, the chest with his weapons inside bursting open as it smashed into his prone body.
“Friend! Please!” Harl begged.
The darkness seemed, in its mess of parts, to turn most of itself towards him. Harl tried to ignore the bodies floating inside it, the horror on their pale dead faces. He stepped forward again. “You found me.”
“The spiders found you. They told me where to go.” Fysiwon’s voice bubbled from some small part of him Harl couldn’t see.
“I called them. They walked on me and I gave them purpose through my body. A quest. Protect my friend. Find my friend!”
He remembered the boys and the grey-robes, the ones how had died by poison! But the spiders in the castle were ordinary cobweb spinners, so how had they hurt them? How had he changed them, made them deadly?!
“Don’t listen to it!” Orinius hissed. “It’s mad. They’re all mad. Whatever power it thinks it has-”
A thin tendril whipped out to smash Orinius across his mouth, opening up his cheek and spilling his glasses and his blood across the desk.
“I remember you, Fyval. I remember you! You locked me away. I remember!”
‘Fyval’. Harl remembered something from the book of five, six, one. A small ‘F’ marked next to the first entry about the first boy put into the room. Nearly a hundred years ago.
“We can go, friend. We can go. We can get away from Fyval and the castle. All of it.” Harl spoke carefully. The shape slowed slightly, its mad whirling calming. The bodies in it started to drop, sliding out from Fysiwon and falling down by clawed feet that became flowing tendrils supporting his body. Harl watched as two patches of cracked flesh solidified and became closed eyelids of black scaled skin. The eyes opened, and Harl looked into young eyes much like his own. Woods-voln green eyes.
“I want to go home Harl. Back to the trees. Back to my father. He’ll be looking for me.”
Harl could not speak, tears pricking his eyes. So he just nodded.
“I was a Briarknell. I remember now. I was a Briarknell and I had a bow with greened arrows. Take me home Harl.”
“We can find it together.” Harl’s voice was hoarse.
Behind him he heard Cole stirring, coming to, slowly moving to get his roarer into his hand, pulling it from the wooden shards and remains of the chest.
“Don’t!” Harl turned and raised his palm in warning, but it was too late. The sound of the weapon rang in his ears as Fysiwon reared back, a seeping hole between his two floating woods-voln eyes. His inhuman roar became the sound of the sea when it had swallowed Harl in the broken room of the castle where they were washed clean. Fysiwon also swallowed him up whole, pulling him away with him as he retreated out of the room, a dark tide with spikes and claws and teeth. Everywhere Harl looked as his body was thrown and tossed about was cast into purple shadow. For a second he saw Cole in dark purple at the broken door, reloading his roarer. Then Harl was facing the ceiling, and then the floor. Rolling over and over, lost in the wyrd sea that was Fysiwon. He screamed, expecting the black to rush into his lungs like salt water, but he found that could breathe in the shadow flesh of his… friend.
They moved through corridors, endless similar passages where grey-robes tried to halt their progress and were flung aside. A familiar door flashed past and Harl tried to gesture, his arms pushing against shadows that were like thick treacle. Fysiwon turned and burst through the door to the small courtyard where Cole had chosen to sleep in a horse stall rather than in a room. The dogs in the kennel were howling as they rushed past, parts of Fysiwon darting out to shape vicious lances aimed towards the dogs, but only in warning. Other grey-robes came to the commotion but Fysiwon moved around them like they were just small boulders in a stream. He raced towards the walls of the courtyard, and then rolled up one, grasping it with outstretched parts of himself as though he was a climbing ivy. Then they were over and into a much larger courtyard and the great main gate of the castle was just ahead of them. Freedom was within grasp.
Fysiwon suddenly stopped, and all about Harl he felt the wyrd flesh trembling. Slowly, gently, he was released and slid down to the ground beneath the flowing, twisting shape.
“Why have you stopped?”
“I miss my room Harl.” The voice was small. Scared. “It’s all I remember.”
He had to think this out, to find some way. He tried. “You’re a Briarknell! You must remember!”
Fysiwon carried on. “I remember the trays. And the hours sitting in the dark. Or was that you Harl? Sometimes I’m the one sitting and sometimes it’s you. Sometimes I’m the monster in the dark, and sometimes it’s in front of me. I hear the screams of the ones I hurt. But then, other times, it’s me, screaming in the dark. I’m begging them to open the door because it hurt me. Such a small little hurt. Not like the others. I didn’t lose a hand or an arm. Just a small pain in my back when the monster in five six one gave me it. The thing they wanted so very much. Such a small pain, nothing. But then they locked me in chains. And then they locked me in the room. I miss my room Harl. I know my room.”
“I don’t understand Fysiwon, and I’m sorry, but we need to go!” Harl looked about, expecting grey-robes to be descending on them. But the large courtyard was quiet under the cold white moon. Harl looked up at Fysiwon, barely able to see him in the half-light but finding points where it reflected off of a spine or a twist of scale. “We could get out. Just the two of us. We could find somewhere safe to be. We could find a way to live. Outside of the room.”
A deep sigh. “I’ve been like this for too long to be out there. The madness, Harl, it’s always in me.” The two eyes returned before a ripple of his shape made a near human face for them to settle in. Harl and Fysiwon could have been cousins. The same sharp features with the twist of confident trickery. The wry smile on the creature’s lips could have been Harl’s when he thought of a way, when he finally thought of the trick of something. “Lios wants it. He’s always wanted it. Maybe you can be the one to finally give him his wish. You could ram it right down his throat for all the boys he’s sacrificed trying to get it! Yes! You could do it, Harl, you’re still yourself! I could give you a quest!”
“I don’t understand-” A sudden creak behind them and the gate between the courtyards was opening and he could hear the impatient clatter of a horse’s hooves. “We have to go Fysiwon! Now!”
He was swept up again, this time vertigo swallowing him as well as the flowing body, which pulled him up the wall beside the great gate and then tumbled him over it. Harl’s body twisted just in time to see Cole on the mare, galloping into the main courtyard, with his roarer aiming for the dark shape at the top of the wall. And then they were falling, flowing, downwards. Fysiwon’s body became something with many legs that ran and leapt along the sea path, heading Northwards. He muttered about quests and Lios, and his voice sounded to Harl, still in the midst of him, like it was coming to him through great depths of water.
Eventually, they came to another halt, this time at a place where the path brought them close to the sea. Harl was pushed out again, stumbling and finding his feet after being carried for so long. Fysiwon seemed to contract, pulling as much of himself down into a boy’s form as he could, even trying to make the shape of a plain tunic and trousers. He lacked some features, and his skin was still black and it sometimes bubbled and twisted into spikes and scales, but two woods-voln eyes looked into Harl’s own two again. There was a small smile on the nose-less face. “Harl. Thank you Harl.”
“For being a friend. For going away so that I would finally leave my room to find you. For telling me stories and for reminding me of songs I knew. For questing for me.”
Before he could finish the name, a thin tendril darted out from the boy-thing and nicked the bare flesh of his cheek. It was hardly a cut, just a dot of blood. But the second it happened he knew something was wrong. The world began to tilt and Harl only just saw Fysiwon flow quickly over the edge of the high cliff like a river over a waterfall, before he himself fell down. He smashed his face on the path as his body collapsed into blackness.
Harl slowly came to with his head pillowed by a thick blanket instead of the grit of the path, his face smarting and tight from bruising and cuts. At first he was curled into a ball as he shook and shivered with fever, but he managed to come to his hands and knees to look about the shadows of the wooden structure he was inside. It was slanted, a rough lean-to that stirred an uncertain memory. In the corners were furs and other blankets he’d likely pushed aside as his temperature had climbed.
He remembered the cliff… Fysiwon falling… and then nothing. Just silent blackness. How had he ended up here?
Suddenly his burning blood froze as a woman’s sobs rang out in the unknown outside. It was a cry of heartbreak, merging in with babbling words that he could not quite make out. Another female voice was trying to sooth the crier, their calm low voice too gentle to hear properly either.
Wherever he was and whatever was going on, he had to leave. He’d seen Cole on the mare, charging out of the castle after him and Fysiwon… last night? The night before? He no longer had a grip on time. But the man in the dark coat and hat was hunting him, and he was certain that Cole had a proper woods-voln’s determination and skill at tracking, no matter who he had become in the castle. If Harl could get back to Bara there were ways to disappear there. He could join up with Jerekyn and his firm properly, work his way into a new name and hopefully some coin, by helping with their ‘jobs’. A thought of his mother, green eyes and long red hair, flitted into his fevered mind. He was torn between finding her again, or not. She’d sold him. She’d sold him!
There was a sudden movement at the entrance to the wooden lean-to, as a leather flap was pushed aside, which let in more of the woman’s sobbing despair from outside. Another woman carefully crawled in, moving old and aching bones slowly. Harl recognised her even in his frantic panic. She was one of the hags in black from the camp by the road where the carts had stopped for rest and a meal. That had been a hundred or more years ago, it now felt like. She was not the one he’d spoken to, but another with grey streaking her hair and sorrow aging her eyes. Farm-voln? He’d thought so when they’d first come across the old women, farm-voln but worn thin and old.
She looked him over with a raven dark eye, light coming from behind her showing him it was likely early or late in the day. She sucked at her teeth and grimaced as the woman’s sobs and wails began to crescendo again.
“Merlat. Ignore her. She’s been told. And she be not happy ‘bout it.”
“Told what?” He shivered and the woman immediately busied herself with grabbing over a blanket for him, wrapping it about him. But then she spat out of the lean-to in what looked like self-disgust.
“What do you remember, boy?”
What to say? What lie to weave…? She stopped his thoughts with a sneer.
“Don’t you lie to me. We seen the tall man yesterday, charging through here on a sweat drenched mare. We seen him. Cole, the child taker. Lost a child did he? First one of them at the castle to do that, we were all thinking. Merlat weren’t here then, was she, she was visiting her daughters and grand-daughters at her homestead. But she came back just in time to see you walking up the road, as pale as bone, half dead with blood all on yer face. First she thinks you are a Lios-cursed ghost. Then she sees the flesh of you. Thinks you are her boy, come back at last. Because she been waiting. We all been waiting. Doesn’t matter that you’re woods-voln, it barely registers. Or that her boy would in his fifth decade now. Doesn’t matter. There’s a boy on the road walking towards her, calling for his mother. But now she knows.” She grimaced, gesturing with a shrug towards the flap and the wailing outside.
Harl swallowed thickly, and the woman passed him a waterskin. “You’ve all been waiting.”
“I know. I know. They aren’t coming back,” she shrugged, her bony shoulders creasing the ragged dress and cloak she wore, “but boys still go there. Maybe we were really waiting for you. The first to ever come back.” She peered closely at him, and he could see the map of her life on her face. It had not been a good one. “Escape did you? Steal a key or something? Guessing there be locks. Something to keep you all there and away from your mothers. Or is it nice? Wondered that over the years. Wondered if my boys liked it there better than on the farm.” She swallowed and he saw her eyes glisten with sudden tears. “Farm-work is hard s’pose-”
He stopped her, “it aint nice there! Its… its…” He started to cough, his face burning and starting to run with sweat.
“Peace, boy. You’re sick,” whe gave him the waterskin again, “you were barely awake when your body walked you here. That’s why we thought you were a dead one at first. Something’s got into your blood and your body be not happy ‘bout it.”
A memory. Fysiwon saying something about a quest. The thin tendril that had nicked his face. He put his hand to his cheek and felt the roughness of part dried scabs and lumps of bruises. He’d near enough landed on his face near enough when he’d fallen into darkness.
“You’ll be pretty again soon boy, they’re just some cuts and scrapes.” She looked the rest of him over as he sat there, wrapped up in the blanket “They fed you well there at least. Better than home cooking?”
His mother had not been much of a cook, but the simple meals she made them when she could scrounge together the parts were worth more than all the fine cuts the castle had fed them.
“No. Not better. Nothing was better there.”
“Did they hurt you?”
He thought of the grey-robes and their missing limbs. If this woman’s boys had even survived their days in their rooms then they might have been some of the masters of the keys that Harl had met, and been beaten by. What should he say?
“Lies are climbing onto your tongue again, boy. Doesn’t matter. Even if my boys were hurting, there’s nothing I could have done. The city-voln who direct this region from Bara don’t give a shit. Even when we tell them that our daughters are sharing husbands because too many boys have gone to the castle. Even when we tell them that our daughters are smuggling their boys out to the cities rather than have them work on the farms about here. They don’t care, because our daughters, and our daughters’ daughters can still make the harvest. Because they’re farm-voln.” There was both pride and despair in that one breath. “But you got out. There anything special about you, boy?”
She was looking closely at him again. He shook his head but Cole’s words from months ago haunted him. This one Orinius. This one will be here when I get back. Cole had scoffed at Orinius’ claim that he was making a prophecy about Harl, prophecies are mother’s milk stories for the feeble minded, he’d said. But why him, out of all of them? And why had he been the one to speak with Fysiwon, out of all the boys and all the things in all the rooms. He was feeling feverish again. Fysiwon had given him a quest. Lios wants it. He’s always wanted it. Maybe you can be the one to finally give him his wish. Ram it right down his throat for all the boys he’d sacrificed trying to get it. Yes. You could do it, Harl, you’re still yourself. I could give you a quest!
“Lios wants it.” He muttered.
“What’s that boy, what does the god-king want?”
“I could do it. I’m still myself.” He slumped, putting a hand to the ground to support himself. “I’m still here.”
The woman nodded, and gently helped him to lie down. “Yes, you’re here. You’re here. And I’m here. Mother’s here.” She gently pushed his sweat straggled hair from his brow as his eyes fluttered. His last sight of her before he slept again was of her rich red hair flowing over young, slender, shoulders, clear emerald green eyes, and a sweet smile as she started to sing to him. His mother. Back in Bara. Waiting for him?
The first time he emerged from the lean-to he was almost convinced he was a Lios-cursed ghost after all, given the way the women stared at him. Agnith, the woman who’d looked after him in there, shoo-ed the rest of the crones away, but they still watched him from careful distances as they worked at their chores. Some were carting wood for the firepit, some were airing ragged clothes, or coming back from their homesteads with more supplies.
“Why do you stay here?”
Agnith stared down the road as she peeled potatoes beside him. “There’s coin in feeding travellers. Not so much in the Harvest these days.”
“Even in feeding the carts and their drivers?” Asked Harl, remembering their brief stop here.
Agnith grunted, picked out an eye from a potato and flipped it into the fire. “Aint proud of that. But the homesteads need supporting.”
“It aint just that. You’re still waiting, all of you.”
“S’pose.” She said begrudgingly. “Seems we were waiting for you, woods-voln.”
He’d been thinking on Fysiwon’s quest and Cole’s prophecy since he’d woken from that second darkness. There was only one word for it all.
“Mind your tongue! You’re not too old to go over my knee!”
“I’m just saying there aint no fate at hand here. The bastard gods… or fucking Lios for that matter… aint behind me surviving. Aint nothing in me numbers, the length of me forearm aint the reason I got out and others… didn’t. Thinking like that… well, it’s just like swallowing mother’s milk stories whole and asking for more.” Cole’s words were light on his tongue, flippant.
Agnith looked at him scornfully. “And didn’t your mother’s milk make you strong before you could chew your own damn food, boy?”
“Well, yes, but… I aint special. That’s all.”
She shucked out a nasty bit of potato and cackled. “Let me take you to my homestead where me daughter and me daughter’s daughters will fight for your attention and then tell me you aint nothing special!”
Harl felt his traitorous cheeks burning red.
“Oh, but don’t be letting it be go to your head. Its just that there aint many males in these parts. Get yourself back to your woods-voln and you’ll be just another man in the making. One o’many. But best you be getting back to your own I s’pose.”
Harl felt sadness grip his heart. Fysiwon had wanted to get back to his voln, to find his father and the other Briarknells. And now he was gone.
Harl clamped down hard on his memory of Fysiwon falling over the cliff. Instead he thought the poor creature’s last words through. Were there others still waiting out there for the lost woods-voln boy, like the farm-voln crones were waiting here for their own? It was nearly a hundred year later though. But perhaps some great-niece or nephew would welcome word of their greening’s lost child? But could he find the Briarknells? Or should he just head back to Bara and hide there?
“You’re thinking on it. Roads lie before you and you can’t see the crossways marker telling you where to go.”
“Time’ll tell. The farm-voln have a saying… you ever hear a farm-voln saying before boy?”
“I was raised in Bara. Don’t even really know what the woods-voln say.”
“Hmmm, is that so? Well, among the wheat sheafs and the lambing blood the farm voln tell the world, ‘there is a season for this’. Do you understand boy? There is a season for this.”
“I… I don’t know if I do.”
“It means that what will happen will happen when it is meant to, and not before. It aint fate. Its how the world needs to be run. You can’t reap the corn before its sown. You can’t go down one road before you’re ready. Or before the road is too.”
“I don’t know if that’s really the way things are Agnith.”
“It’s how the world needs to be run. Lios…” she spat at the name of the god-king, “…Lios don’t understand that. He wants strawberries in Winter, and he wants men without there being any boys left to be made into them.”
Fysiwon’s quest would take him to Lios… if he followed it. He muttered a fearful prayer to the bastard gods. Agnith chuckled.
“I said my prayers to Lios every day for nineteen years. I aint let a prayer touch my lips since my boys were taken. Tell me about the bastard gods, boy? Should I be giving them my words and praise?”
“The bastard gods…” he thought on what his mother had told him over the years. “The bastard gods don’t ask for anything. No prayers, no devotion. Nothing. But those who believe in them will praise and curse them… sometimes in the same breath.”
“That aint how you should treat a god.”
“They aint like Lios. They’re impure. I don’t entirely understand them myself.”
“They ever done anything for you?”
“No more or less than bloody Lios, I suppose.”
Agnith’s cackling laugh rang out, and the other women looked, their eavesdropping losing its subtlety for a moment.
“My youngest daughter’s second daughter would love you, woods-voln or not. She got a woods-voln sharp tongue. A few hundred years ago she’d have gone husbandless for it. Now she’s going to marry one man with five others. And he’s damn old for her. Lame as well. So will the bastard gods bring her a husband with strong arms and a good heart if I ask them nicely?”
Agnith went to stand and he quickly moved to help her. “Come back with me to my homestead. The others want to ask you to theirs but I got first refusal since I bathed your sweaty brow when you screamed in the night.”
He flushed red again. He looked quickly to where Merlat was watching them. She was the first crone, the one he’d spoken to when they’d stopped here with the cart. The one he’d promised coin to. The one who’d reminded him of the bitch guard dog in Bara. The one who’d thought he was her son, come back from the dead.
“Oh, ignore her. I got beehives and she ain’t… you ever had honey boy?”
He bit his tongue. He had, but only at the castle. “I would be honoured to visit your homestead, Agnith.”
She smiled, showing her worn gums. Maybe it was cruel, finding the trick of her and wrapping her about his fingers so easily. Maybe it would be crueller to say no with no good reason. Until he decided where the road should take him… until he knew which season this was, perhaps staying with Agnith and the others wasn’t such a bad idea.
It was still a two day before he was strong enough in his bones to walk with the old woman along the road and to the fields again. They left early with the dawn light, and still the sun was high behind dull clouds by the time that they made it to Agnith’s ramshackle house and lands. He was amazed that she made this trip on her own, or even with supplies in hand. But farm-voln women seemed to have incredible strength even at an incredible age. When he mentioned something in passing about her taking it easier and not making the journey alone any more, Agnith told him the far-fetched story of having a mule that was so lazy she’d had to carry him along with her supplies some years back.
“Willard we called him.”
“After me husband. Lazy bugger. Oh don’t look at me like that, it’s a farm-voln turn of phrase, you gutter rat! He were! Had five wives and never lifted a finger but to sometimes try to make more children. Heard once that Lios’ favourite creature, the lion, was like that too. Never seen one so far north until I knew Willard a few minutes into our marriage! Bugger’s dead now, and now he gets to rest up all he cares to!”
She pulled herself carefully up the steps to the wooden building, leaning on a bannister and refusing Harl’s help this one time.
“The day I can’t walk into my house alone is a day when I give up and fall down on the ground for the worms to take me.”
They went in, the warmth of the fire making up for the sparseness of the main communal room. Harl saw adults and children all together. They sat on a variety of wooden chairs of many sizes, all looking toward the orange flames in the hearth. Several cats lay on several laps, and a baby was trying to fit its chubby foot in its mouth as it lay near naked on a crotched blanket stretched on the well swept floor. As one the women and the girls looked about to Agnith and Harl. Harl went red again, and a thin man in too large trousers held up by braces stood up from his rocking chair and came to his aid.
“Women-folk, don’t scare our guest!” He smiled. “Mother, where did you find this young lad? By the looks of him, in some deep part of the woods?”
Agnith smiled. “Harl, this is Simeon. He’s wed to at least one of my daughters.”
“Three of them, mother.”
“Insists on calling me mother, no matter what I say. Good man. Stupid, but good.”
Simeon laughed at her comment.
“Stu-stupid?” Harl stuttered.
“Daft man worships Lios as like to a priest. If he were city-voln no doubt he’d be in one of those fine temples, making himself fat on repentances.”
“Mother…” there was a warning in Simeon’s voice, “Lios hears all.”
Agnith just rolled her eyes and took a chair that was vacated for her by a sweet round faced girl with brown hair, who was of an age with Harl. Another, younger, let Harl take her seat by Agnith, who leaned in to whisper conspiratorially. “My youngest daughter’s girl is the one who gave me this seat. What think you?”
Harl paused, what was the trick here? What best to say? “She’s very pretty.”
Agnith nodded, and Harl saw her eye catch those of a woman whose swift hands were rapidly knitting on shining needles as she watched Harl. The woman nodded, and Harl had a sneaking suspicion that fell in his stomach like lead. But it was warm by the fire, so he lounged in the chair, sitting up only to accept some honey smeared on thick slices of bread when it was brought to him. He ate quickly, feeling himself already growing sluggish in the warmth of the low house. The cats purred near him and sleep began to creep upon him in the sound. He slept.
Over the next week Harl settled into a simple routine of helping with the chores in the day and then staying up into the twilight and just beyond to circuit the homestead with the women who were on guard. The irony was not lost on him; a woods-voln on guard duty with farm-voln who were watching out for woods-voln. The men and women of the woods only really came for small things. At some time they’d gained a taste for the homestead’s honey and mead and might try to get into the stores for that. Sometimes they stole a chicken or a lamb, but they never took much, even in the movement covering spring-night fogs. Their larger raids would come in the deep winter when hunting was scarce for them and their empty bellies over-rode their sense.
Agnith approved of his adoption of the farmstead’s rhythms and made no push to return him to the crone’s camp. She mumbled occasionally about him having other invitations he could take up, but then would then quickly press on him some more honey baked pie. Him and Simeon alike.
Simeon was also keen for him to stay, recognising the heathen in their midst as a more valuable target for his melodious sermons than the nodding women and young girls who sat in the chairs about the fire in the evenings. He read to all of them from the ‘Light of Lios’, a hefty old book. It was the same history and doctrine that Harl had sometimes watched young lads in the temple of Lios at Bara struggling to learn by rote as he snuck past their studies and onwards to the immense kitchens or orchards to steal his lunch. When Simeon read it became a background chant to Harl’s drowsiness at the end of the day, and he barely paid any attention unless Simeon referred to the bastard gods. Then Simeon might gain some animation, casting down the curses of Lios on the followers of those false creatures of impurity. But mostly he droned on and on about how the young Lios had travelled the lands for many years with his retinue of great warriors of true faith.
“At but eleven Lios met the great giant man of Delvenight pass and spoke unto him of the truth of his mission. And the others who followed with him, the archers, the swordsmen, and the great healers, they all showed the man of the mountains how to kneel and show obeisance to Lios, god of men.”
Harl’s head was nodding, and he felt a light tap on his elbow. It was Ethne, Agnith’s grand-daughter and the one who the older woman had drawn his attention to on his first night. Since then she had barely left his side, being set the same chores and hours of guarding as him. She was good enough company when they walked the boundaries of the homestead and there was no one else to speak with on their rounds. But those boundaries were also the limit of her knowledge of the world abroad, as well as her interest in it, and the few times Harl had asked her about anything deeper than her favourite way of making pie, or her plans for the development of their crop rotations, she had fallen into confusion. She had a sweet smile, sweet enough at first to have tricked him into thinking they were the same age when she was really a woman fully grown of seventeen years. Her shape was also interesting to Harl, but that confusion at his questions about what she knew of the rest of the world made him easily forget all about her when she did occasionally leave him to himself.
“You aren’t listening, you silly. Perhaps it’s time for sleep?”
There was something in her voice he didn’t quite catch, or fully understand. But he latched onto the idea.
“Forgive me Master Simeon.” A yawn began to push at his jaw, but he held it in.
“I have not finished the account of the boy-king Lios’s quietening of the mountains!” Simeon began, a stern look growing there on his face.
“Let the boy to bed.” Agnith said, not even looking up from her knitting. “Ethne, make sure he makes it to the barn in the dark.”
Simeon began to stutter a response, but then Agnith silenced him with a look, and the man went back to his pages as Ethne took Harl’s hand and led him away from the circle about the hearth.
Crossing the packed dry soil to the barn he felt that hand in his squeezing tighter, making a small sweat appear in the places where his hand touched hers. He had been staying in the barn since he’d first came here, for ‘propriety’s sake’ according to Simeon, a word Harl didn’t understand. But this was the first time he’d needed to be escorted there in the dark. The women on guard even complimented him on his sharp woods-voln eyes, good even in the dark. Eyes which had spotted a pack of stray dogs seeking chickens that had need to be chased away with sticks on pots and pans the very first night they’d put him on duty. And now he needed her help?!
He followed her in, confused at the sly look she gave him as she opened the door. His bed was a mess of hay in the loft, and as he lit a small oil lamp to make the ladder up there clearer, he was surprised to see Ethne leaning her back there, against the lower rungs, and preventing his passage up to sleep.
“Well… good night.” He gave her leave to go. She did not.
“You ever been with a girl, Harl?”
He fought the redness that flushed up on his cheeks. He knew what she meant of course, no child of a whore in Bara could possibly not know. But he was woods-voln raised in a city. The only city-voln girls who’d noticed him had been in the same gangs that had beaten him for his sharp words and sharp bones.
“I’m woods-voln.” He shrugged, not wanting to explain the rest.
She seemed to lose her confidence for a moment. “Oh. Do you do it different, like?”
“No! No, I mean… you’re farm-voln. Your family won’t like…”
“They want to wed me off to a man thirty years older than me with five wives! He spends his days travelling between homesteads, visiting for a while to make more babies, and then moving onwards to sell his mead!” She pouted. “I don’t want him.” Her fingers slowly moved to the laces of her dress. “Come here Harl.”
The slight moonlight in the barn lit her face and then the smoothness of her neck and chest as she uncovered her skin for him. Then he found himself following her command until he stood in front of her, not knowing what to do with himself apart from stand there with his arms by his sides and a wide-eyed look on his face as she revealed more of herself.
“You can touch if you like. Maybe I’ll touch you too.” She said with that same smile, though this time Harl wondered if he didn’t see something like triumph in it. But his hands moved to touch her anyway, just as hers found their way to his tunic, and then under it to rest on his waist. She was soft and warm, and when her lips touched his he was surprised to find that he liked them even more than her breasts. She whispered into his ear as he tried out touching his lips to her neck to see what that was like.
“Good. That’s nice. Yes. Hmmm.” Her encouragement excited him and he moved back for another kiss on her lips before smelling her rich brown hair and kissing her there as well.
“We could be wed… couldn’t we?”
Harl’s mind was completely engaged in feeling her, so that what she was saying barely registered at all. At the same time as he explored, her hands were working their gentle touch on him, running over his barely haired belly and chest under his tunic, and moving towards his back. And it felt so very good.
“My younger sister too? I would share you with her. We would make you such very good wives.” She murmured as he brought her closer to crush her bareness against his chest through his shirt. “I would make you happy Ha-”
She stopped suddenly and pulled away. “What… what is that?!”
“On your back. Something… ew!” She recoiled and Harl twisted and turned his head trying to see, forgetting for a moment the tunic and that it wouldn’t even be possible to see back there.
“Something dry and… scaly!” She was rubbing her hands against her rough spun clothes, ignoring her half nakedness for a moment before pulling the parts of her dress back together and starting to retie it. Harl twisted his arm up his back and felt about with trembling fingertips. There, almost between his shoulder blades, there was a line of skin that had creases and crevasses like… like the skin on Eris’ ankle and foot. He ripped off his tunic and turned his back to Ethne.
“What does it look like?!”
“Get that away from me!” She shrieked. “You aren’t pure! You aren’t pure!” Her voice was getting louder, and suddenly she was trying to dart past him. He grabbed at her, catching her skirts and pulling her off balance and hard down onto the ground, crouching over her quickly. He was younger, but they were of a size, and he was used to brawling. She shrieked until he got his hand over her mouth. Then suddenly he was crouching on the woods-voln girl again, the short sword in his hand, about to hurt her, to kill her.
He whispered urgently in Ethne’s ear. “I’m not going to hurt you. I’m just going to go. I’ll let you go so that I can put on my shirt, and then I’ll let you run back to the house. I’ll head back to the roads and you will never, ever, see me again.”
Her panicked eyes calmed and she nodded. All the while he put his tunic back on she was silent, just watched him with tearful eyes. Finally, he helped her up, her eyes never leaving him.
“You can go. And I will go too-” He started to say, but all she did was glare at him and hiss.
“Impure! Impure! Cursed by Lios!” She made the sign of Lios with her left hand and hitched up her skirts to run.
She screamed out her lungs all the way to the main house, where lights were still lit, shining out onto the path back to the road.
Harl took a deep breath, and also began to run, but away into the darkness. The light and warmth of the house fell behind him as he made it to the boundary fences and scarpered over them towards the tree lined road beyond them.