There were four behind him, racing after him on swift feet.
Harl’s own feet pounded against the rough road. Even as they slipped and slid on the coarse stones, they kept time with his heartbeat. The beasts were gaining, and any moment their claws would rake his back as they punished him for his thievery!
Just a few sausages, and a hamhock. All that he had been able to grab from the dusk covered farmstead as he’d come across it, weary feet plodding him back up the king’s road back to Bara. He hadn’t even seen the dogs until it’d been much too late.
A large woman had been framed by orange light in the main door of the thatched building, dark glee no doubt on her bloody soft farm-voln face as her four great dogs had barrelled straight after the woods-voln lad. In height they were almost to his ribs. And each one was a mess of burred long grey fur; knotted and thick with trapped wheat heads and thistle down. But for all the soft jumble of their fur, their teeth had been clear white points of light in the darkening hours. And they did not give up on their quarry easily, sure as blood was blood!
Harl was fast. He’d learnt to outrun guard dogs before these beasts were even puppies. But most the time he preferred to wheedle his way about them. Most of the dogs Harl had encountered in Bara were sad beasts surprisingly happy to be spoken to with the voice of a soft friend rather than a hard master. But these were farm-voln dogs and the only security for lonely farming women. They’d been well-treated, spoilt even, and obviously resented anyone making off with the treats that they would normally have been sharing with their human masters.
Sweat dripped into his eyes, his breath rasped. They had been running for a hundred years. They had been running for moments. The sun was just down, and the star-voln were beginning to come out to see the woods-voln boy get eaten by the great shaggy beasts. He spat, pumping his arms and spurring his burning legs on, and on, and on.
He’d thrown down the sausages at first. Then the ham hock. No difference.
“You want me, don’tcha?” He wasted his breath on the words. “You want me, don’tcha?!” The chase had overridden the dogs’ normal salivating desire for the meat. Some other flesh was more tempting. He felt an itch between his shoulder blades, just where the leader of the pack would soon likely score lines down his back with mud encrusted claws, before baring teeth to rip into his neck. Any second now, any moment. Soon.
He stumbled, regathered himself, and sprinted on, his heart in his mouth. For a second he’d seen them behind him as he’d outsplayed his hands, pushing against air in one blurred and sickening moment. The lead dog was a mess of froth and spit spreading back from a wide-open muzzle. Behind him were three dark shadows, ripping up the road to get at Harl. But they should have got him already, and a small voice whispered in Harl, sharing the growing fear that the dogs had been letting him get ahead, that their true speed was being held back for a moment of their choosing. Then they’d bunch together muscles to leap upon him and bring him down like lions were said to bring down their prey in the gathered lands about Liosinium.
“Fuck you. Fuck you.” He muttered under his breath, wasting more of his air in words, but using that anger and that rhythm of words to pull out more reserves of energy, his two left boots hammering down onto the king’s road in an otherwise eerie silence. “Fuck you. Fuck you!” Above him were high hedgerows, the occasional cat’s glowing eyes watching him as he sprinted past. But no sanctuary was there even if he could find the moments to pull himself up off the road and through to fields. More farm-voln lands, tilled and worked over into more stumbling places, more hovels full of women who would cut him for his theft, or manically try to marry him off! “Fuck you! Fuck you!”.
And then there was, ahead, the growing lights of Bara. A sputtering lake of torches and lamps beyond the dark farmlands, the trees even further beyond it illuminated by its sly growing boundaries even as the tops of them leered towards and over the top of its great walls. Fuck you the different lands were also saying as they butted against each other. If he could just keep running, he could make it there… and then let the bloody great gates there could trap him for the dogs! Fuck you!
Then he was flying, a misstep taking him into the air before dumping him down onto the rough stones of the king’s road. Instinctively he rolled and brought up his arms to protect his face, his neck, just as the lead dog snapped its jaws at him, catching his forearm in its maw and grinding down on it!
“Argh!” Harl screamed, feeling its teeth going down to the bone, its hind-claws tearing into the rest of him as it scrabbled about on top of his back. The other dogs came and butted against the lead runner as Harl’s body swam in pain, but the leader growled at them, that terrifying sound muffled by Harl’s red drenched arm. Harl screamed again, battering against its face with his free hand, avoiding the dog to the left that tried to snap its jaws shut on that arm too. “Arrgh!” He roared into the pack leader’s face; pulling his torn arm towards himself to bring his mouth right into the dog’s face. “Arrrrrgh!”
The beast’s jubilant growl changed tone then, something like uncertainty merging with its deep throated joy. And then it was shaking free of him, releasing his arm and backing away, its red tongue lolling out of it mouth as its muzzle creased in greater confusion. A great huffing followed, then a whine, just stopping the three stalking dogs who were moving closer for their turn on the ash white boy. Then the beast was spitting and hacking, retching out the blood its tongue was washed with. Harl’s blood.
“Yeah, fuck you.” His voice was weak, his sight dimming as he lay on the jagged stones and pebbles, his arm a torn and shredded mess. “Choke on me.”
More whining, the dog’s tail hiding away before it turned and ran, loping oddly with its body still shuddering. The other three came sniffing around him, cautious suddenly. The dog kisses he’d had in Bara from the guard dogs he’d charmed on different jobs for Jerekyn had not prepared him for the jabs of dog’s nose and claws as they dug into his side, his face, trying to understand. But then they were gone too, heading back towards the pig farm where this nightmare had started.
Harl groaned, holding his arm to him as he tried to at least get sat up on the cold road, adrenaline still shaking him like the dog had shaken as it had run away. He looked down at the bloody mess of his arm, seeing flaps of skin through his shredded tunic where the dog’s teeth had cut away triangles of flesh and left him gushing red blood turned black in the night. “Fuck me.” He said, this time more half-heartedly as he cursed himself. He threw in a couple of choice curses for the bastard gods, following up quickly with a couple of swift begging prayers. “I’m going to bleed out, could you do anything?” He asked of them, “Shadowed One, help out a dying boy won’t you? Hide me from the light. Crowned One, please bring your mercy. Mama always liked you.”
He curled himself around his arm and rocked away the sobs bubbling up through him. “I’m sorry Fysiwon, I’m sorry.”
Closing his eyes tight, he saw the long road South to Liosinium as a strip of light running ahead of him, surrounded by dark trees full of woods-voln, each sharply shaped face watching him as he walked there with a bloody short sword in his one hand and a shield in his other hand. Each face was mocking the toy soldier walking slowly in his two left shoes, whispering to their nearest to share harsh jokes and cruel asides. Harl looked ahead, and the road became a curling lion’s tail flicking with contempt, now trying to shake him off. But he could not be shaken off because Eris Atta-Sutith walked beside him, glaring up at him through her bird’s nest of tangled dark hair, Harl’s mother’s green eyes shining in her face. And Cole was on his other side, his long dark coat and wide brimmed hat shrouding him in darkness, a roarer in one hand and his compact crossbow in the other. His words came bubbling through the air, as though spoken through sea water, Prophecies are mother’s milk stories for the feeble minded… This one will be here when I get back
Harl found himself falling, expecting dogs on him again, instead finding his hands on the sharp stones of the road, blood dripping down and staining them. “Ungh!” He groaned, forcing his boneless legs to bring him to his feet, staggering to the side of the road where a briar tangle of gorse hedgerow made a boundary for rolling fields of cabbages or some other small round vegetable growing just above the ground. Their shapes were just visible through the bushes, seeming to Harl to be rows and rows of heads of men, Lios’ armies of voln, marching through the earth. Always marching for the god-king, even when buried to their necks in the dirt. Even in their death. He found his way to the sharp points of the hedgerow, his good arm scratched and pricked as he walked its edge, teetering on the steep bank as his feet eventually brought him to a burrow back there in the soil. A fox had made its way into these farm-voln lands, hunting chickens maybe, and in an insane moment had tried to make its home right here on the edge of the king’s road. Harl felt the rounded edges of it, pushing past the barrier of the briar. It was small, too small for him to get into, but if he pushed past the branches he would at least be hidden from the road as he curled up on himself in its entrance. He found his way through, gaining more scratches to his face as he did, nursing his arm as he walked on his knees to the small dark space.
Bara. Tomorrow he would make it to Bara, he thought, fire and ice in his veins and running across his skin as he sweat. Hush, said his mother, brushing his hair from his forehead and placing a soft kiss there, hush sweetling. Bleed and live. Sure as blood is blood, you’ll bleed and live.
Then he fell into darkness, hidden from the light by the Shadowed One.
Harl awoke to the cold earth pressed hard against his face. His body was bent and twisted in on iteself to try and keep the chill away. Reluctantly opening sore eyes, he took in the bush about him and the burrow he was resting against. Memories of dogs hunting him down flashed into his mind and he cautiously squinted in the half-light down at his right arm. Blood matted the tunic to him there, turned dark and brown by the night, spreading out from several points on his forearm where the dog’s jaws had clamped onto him. It wasn’t bleeding, at least. And… and it didn’t hurt. At all.
He carefully pulled at a torn part of the white coarse woven material, feeling the tug of solid blood trapped onto the fine hairs he had there. But still, no pain, apart from the scabbing pulling at his hairs and making him wince. He smiled ruefully as he remembered the agony he’d been in last night, and now he was complaining about a few pulled hairs! Eventually the material came away from about the wound, revealing what at first he thought was a rich dark brown scab making a near round shape where the dog’s pointed tooth had pierced him. For a moment he believed it hadn’t been as bad as it had seemed then. For a moment he almost laughed at his over-reaction; if it had scabbed over already then the old dog had worn his teeth away already on sweet treats from a spoiling farm-voln master!
But then… he looked closer.
What he had taken for a scab was actually flesh. Dark and cracked like a red-brown scab, but black. Black like the mark on the girl, and black like the skin that the farm-voln girl had found between his shoulder blades. Barely breathing, he pulled harder at the rest of his sleeve, revealing the two half-moons of teeth marks on either side of his forearm where the dog had caught him. Each tooth mark now filled in with new skin!
Impure. Ethne had called him, impure. Like the bastard gods. Every city-voln knew the bastard gods were impure, tainted, unlike the Pure God, Lios. But when Ethne had called him that he’d not thought on it. Or perhaps he’d glanced over the words, thinking for a moment that she believed him diseased, with something like the Sewer Pox on his skin, a spreading illness normally bursting out in spots on the face and hands. He looked down at his forearm and the teeth marks there. This was not an illness. This had… saved him? If not for this new skin, wouldn’t he have bled to weakness in this hole in a hedge, drifting in the night’s cold into a longer sleep? A sleep without dreams.
Then he remembered fever dreams. His mother. The woods-voln girl, and Cole with his roarer and crossbow. But they were just whisps of memory and he could not remember their words.
He shook his head to dash away those whisps, looking out through the bush to the king’s road, still heading onwards to Bara if his feet could still take him there. And he thought they could. He felt strong, stronger than he expected for another night outside and no food for a day or so. He felt as if he could walk right up to the gates of the heaving town and knock. But that was stupid. He needed to be smarter than that.
As he moved, preparing to push carefully back through the briar bush to the road, he noticed something just under where he had been lying, just further back into the abandoned burrow. A skeleton, complete, and picked clean by scavengers and time. It had been a fox once, its head lying just between its two paws on the ground as though it had lain down here one night, as he had, and never got up again. As he so nearly had. He carefully picked up the fox’s skull, its spine crumbling as he brought it closer to him. Eye sockets looked back at him. Long canines gleamed in the little light there was.
“You should have stuck to the woods.” Harl whispered. “True, there’s no chickens there… as far as I know… but there’s no farm-voln foxhounds either.” He was about to replace the skull, when he decided not to, instead looping his rope belt through the outer sweep of its eye sockets and under the base of the skull. With the pale skull on his belt he carefully crept through the hedge and back to the long road.
Squinting to the East, towards where the sun was rising beyond Bara, he absent-mindedly ran finger tips over the new flesh on his arms.
“I’d take you back to the woods little fox. But I gotta get back to Bara and…”
He paused. Now that it was in sight, the idea of disappearing back into Bara and never even seeing his mother again seemed more real and more wrong. Maybe he should find her? At least check that she was okay? He could go to Jerekyn for work at any time. He was always hanging about the Light of Lios pub once the closing bell was about to sound. Or he could get a job or two done, and get some coin to his mother? More coin than she sold you for, a disgruntled part of him said.
“What would you do, little fox?”
The skull was silent. And for that Harl was a little grateful.
Nodding, he set his feet to his path, hoping to decide along the way, before the great gates at least, what he should do once hidden inside Bara and away from Cole and his woods-voln tracking. A smile played on his lips. The tall man had charged off madly on his bay mare, passing by the crones when Harl had been sleeping. Along with Harl’s brief time at the homestead of Agnith and Simeon, Cole would have reached Bara long ago, his search entirely bloody fruitless! Although… if the man decided to return to the castle this way as well, then Harl might still run into him on the road. At least, Harl would be able to hear any rider coming and could quickly hide… he could have Cole fly past him not once but twice! Putting one over the tall man pleased him. It would please him even more if he could find a way to let the older woods-voln know how close he had been to his quarry, not once, but twice! He would give up all the gold in Lios’ treasury to see his face then! If he could walk up to him and let him know! Oh, those dulled green eyes would widen in surprise, and then narrow in annoyance. Harl would love to see his eyes like that, even if Cole would try to hide them away in the shadows under that daft hat! Cole would probably mutter some profanity, turnabout, sending out that great old cloak, and then walk away with his tail between his legs! Oh he would give plenty to give Cole that kind of annoyance!
The thought of riling up Cole so greatly amused him for a goodly mile of walking, Bara still creeping closer as he walked now with a spring in his step. Because of this Harl was so distracted that he didn’t at first note the wooden cart ahead of him, rumbling away from him towards the city. He could just make out the great barrels on the back and a tempting spot between them where someone sitting might be able to hitch a sweet lift for a while without the man at the front noticing. Harl increased his pace.
Gaining on it, he swiftly grabbed a hold with his two hands, twisted and planted his behind on the back of the cart, feeling his aching feet sigh in relief. To either side were great fat barrels, strapped in but jigging with the up and downs of the road. They were taller than him and if he tucked up his legs he would be invisible to everyone except someone following right after the cart on the king’s road. As he’d jogged closer to the cart he’d tried to get a glimpse of the man driving but only seen a rather large bald spot and two handle like ears for his efforts. No matter, thought Harl, as he relaxed into his seat and enjoyed watching the farmlands moving past him under someone else’s steam.
It was a surprise then when he heard a small voice asking a question of the man at the front. They had obviously been, like him, hidden by the barrels, but this time in front of them. On hearing their voice, he realised that there was a child at the front with the man who was driving the mule or pony.
“Will we get a good price?” The voice was female, young but shrewd.
“The taverns of Bara enjoy our mead, little apple.”
“That’s not what I asked, papa.”
“Humph. You sound more and more like your mother every day, Lucie.”
“And she’s the one who usually does the talking, don’t she papa?”
“She ask you to nag me so?”
“We’ll get a good price as long as the throats in Bara aint all been cut, although that’s never too certain in that bloody city!”
“Papa! Mama don’t like you speaking like that!”
“There’s plenty mama don’t like, by the Pure God!”
“Oooh, will we go to the temple this visit?”
“Surely. You have something to repent, Lucie?” A note of concern in the man’s voice. “I brought only a little coin for repentances. But you’re a good girl, aren’t you?”
“Of course papa. I just like to see all the glitter and gold.”
“Ah. They say Garre has more gold than even Liosinium. Perhaps the next time we trade to the South I shall take you there also?”
Excited gasping from the girl “Thankyou papa! But one day might we go all the way to Liosinium?”
“Your mother and your aunts can’t spare me for so long. Though… the coin from such a trip would be handy when the men come about asking for our boys.” A dark tone then, a thought curtly cut off.
“Mama said she’s going to dress up Huw as a girl once he turns six. And Frin after him.”
“Did she now?” More curtness, and then a deep sigh. “She might not be as mad as all that. Paying off that Lios-cursed woods-voln and the other men who come around hunting boys to take to the West is going to be dear. And there’s the repairs needed on the mead shed.” He snorted and spat over the side onto the road. “Lios bless us.”
“Lios bless us.” The girl muttered back by rote. Then it was Harl’s turn to spit off of the back of the cart. Lios be damned! Fuck the Pure One in his fucking face!
Harl absent-mindedly rubbed the new flesh on his arm, and settled in for the journey, and for what else he might hear from the farm-voln father and daughter. Their chatter carried on for a while, an hour or more along the road, and Harl kept an ear to it for interesting titbits. But mostly he learnt about the proper ways, according to ‘papa’, of making mead, and what ‘mama’ might think of various topics such as the state of the market for mead and papa’s plans for growth for their business. Lucie, the ‘little apple’ was inquisitive and sharp, and he enjoyed her questions well enough as he dozed with his eyes half open, staring out across rolling fields half used. He wished though that she might ask more delving questions about the state of the country as a whole. Like her father, she was an ardent worshipper of Lios, and had no interest in questioning how it might be that men were going to becoming for her little brothers, or why the hard earned coin of the family might be ending up in Lios’ treasury through repentences. Once, he’d had been as sheep-like as them. Or perhaps the city-voln equivalent to the farm-voln shepherd’s flock. Rat-like? Pigeon-like? Both were difficult beasts, and not sheep-like at all… never mind it, Harl thought, shaking his shaggy length of hair to dismiss the thought. He had once been as unquestioning as these farm-voln; assuming that Lios was god and king and all good… or good enough. Believing that the priests ran the temples and the Button men ran the army, and that both worked for the same good… enough. But now, after the castle, he was different. The country was different, as he saw it through sharper eyes. He’d never been as much of a woods-voln as he was now, even if he’d been giving his prayers and his curses to the bastard gods for as long as he’d been able to shape them with his mouth or to draw their outlines with a chubby child’s hand under the guidance of his mother. Something had sharpened within him and listening to the ‘little apple’s’ soft questions about the coming shift of seasons to colder days after the harvests, and the change’s effect on their mead, became maddening in time.
So it was that he chose to skip off of the cart well before the great gates. He’d intended to get closer, out of tiredness. But he’d never have gone straight up to them. Not as a woods-voln in ragged clothes, too large boots, and with dried caked blood on his arm. His sharp features and green eyes would have raised questions enough, without giving more fuel to the fire. Instead he had decided to scout around to the north west of the city, hugging the hedgerows and borders of the farm land until it became forest again. About there the great stinking river Bar emerged from the city, after its brief bend into the city from the north east, and its splinter into numerous canals, conduits, streams, and trickles. After bringing pure water from the north the good people of Bara granted it all their waste and used it for a free ride as its flow headed down to the coast, opening out to the sea. Somewhere just north of the castle, Harl realised with a shiver.
If he could get there, Bar’s escape was made up of sewer exits as well as the main river where canal boat-men used huffing great horses to pull their wares against the water’s return to the sea. Boats would be searched at the docks of course, so the sewers were the better option. Jerekyn had even spoken of them as a possible fast way out of the city should the Button men stop taking his coin and actually began to enforce some of the laws of Lios that were ‘inconvenient’ to his enterprise.
It was near dark by the time he could see the dull gleam of the Bar, the light of a few canal boats skirting over the rubbish and shit floating on top of it. He scouted diagonally, leaving the cover of hedgerows and darting across towards the city walls themselves. The first outlet he found had iron across its entrance, and even his returning slenderness couldn’t pass between the bars of it. The next outlet was jammed on the other side with animal bones and other less identifiable waste from inside the walls. The third was too small and he began to give up hope, what with all the trudging over and through stinking and flooding mud to try each one, and with getting closer and closer to the river itself and boatmen who would see him. But finally the fourth gave him what he needed. Old bars, rusted and pushed through by something from within, opening up like a diseased flower to let him through. Inside was a pitch-black hole into further darkness, a foul stench turning his stomach, which identified this outlet as coming from households rather than the streets. Although what waste they produced was little better.
He steeled himself, taking a last gulp of semi-fresh air. Then he was in, storming forward as fast as he dared without the sucking water taking him over onto his face in the dark. Things floated past him, brushing against his knees as the water varied between thigh and waist height. His hands stretched out ahead of him and encountered hanging fronds and caught up twine that spanned the tunnel like spider’s webs. But even though it stank, and things were touching him, he still preferred this path to those other pitch-black corridors back in the castle. Because this path was taking him to freedom, and those had been paths to meals and unrelenting dark captivity. Even if they had also taken him to Fysiwon.
Guilt. Harl pushed it aside. He had no time for even thinking about Fysiwon’s insane request of him, his quest. No. No, he would find a way to live in Bara. He would find freedom here.
Eventually he came to a part of the tunnel where great flushes of water surprised him, running quickly down one wall and then another, coming from some water closet above. Better houses had them, he understood. He and his mother, in their shared tenement house, had simply had a bucket and door opening onto a back yard with a drain down at the bottom of the sloping courtyard that those on higher floors used as well; opening windows to empty their buckets through.
Coming in from the north west meant he was likely to be near the northern canal and the tall thin terraced houses there which overlooked several arching bridges lit by torches. He’d stolen something from one of them once. A book, of all things! But Jerekyn had insisted that the names inside were actually written in a special ink that could be exchanged for pure king’s gold. Flicking through the book in the dark of the fancy study in the house all he’d seen were people’s names with a few letters following each one. ‘M’, ‘A’, ‘R’, ‘T’, appearing in different orders and quantities after each name. And all were written in a rather ordinary ink, he thought. He hadn’t understood the code, but he’d suspected eventually that that was what would really bring the gold. At least, Jerekyn had seemed well pleased when Harl had finally returned with it.
If he was somewhere in that neighbourhood he’d be better off finding a way to the south, towards the more crowded houses of the falling slums. A ragged, stinking, and bloodied woods-voln would pass with only some comment there. If he could come out somewhere by the statue of Lios on the Southern main canal he would even know which way to walk towards the Light of Lios tavern.
It took time, and his new found energy was leaving him as he made his final ascent up a ladder between two grates far above. It had been days since he’d slept well, longer since he’d eaten, but somehow he’d been kept going by his strange healing and the promise of Bara. Bara of all fucking places! But now that the end was in sight, or at least at the end of a sewer, his exhaustion was chasing him. He still managed to push up the grate and emerge as quickly as he could, a bare ten foot from the meeting of several streets of jumbled tenements known as ‘Eight Dials’. Down one of those radiating streets was the statue of Lios by the Southern canal. And from there, he knew the way to the Light of Lios.
Trying not to drag his feet, he walked towards his destination like a man long dead but still marching. So it was that he blindly tried to walk right past the three men who suddenly moved to block his path.
“What’s this, Ambrin?”
“Looks like something come out of the sewers.”
“Aint a rat.”
“Nah… too sharp to be a rat. Though by Lios, he fucking stinks like one!”
Harl lifted his head, looking through the curtain of his filthy hair. Three men. Typical street-muscle looking for a night time score of coin after getting their fill in cups. They slurred as they discussed him, and one was obviously wobbling as he stood.
“I’ve got nothing worth stealing.” He said simply.
“There’s always yer life.” The shortest of the three was bringing out a blade, his rounder city-voln face split by a smile that didn’t even reach his dead grey eyes.
Harl sighed. He was too tired for this.
“Looks like he don’t care.” Another of them, with a whispy beard, grown maybe to make him look older and failing to do so. “Gut him and see if he cares about losing his innards!”
“I’m heading to see Jerekyn.”
They paused. They obviously knew that name.
Ambrin, a flat faced man with thick brows, frowned. “You of his firm?”
“I done jobs for him. Fetched him things.”
“That aint the same, aint the same at all.”
“You sure of that?” He tried to keep a tremble out of his voice. He weren’t scared, not really. Just cold, all covered in sewer water, but he didn’t want the men to think otherwise.
Looks passed between the three of them. The blade was put away.
“Maybe we escort you, careful like, to the Light of Lios. Maybe we see if Jerekyn has a need for a woods-voln stinking of shit. If he don’t… well, there’s a place I know where no one’ll hear you scream as we do what we want with you.” There was a gleam in the younger man’s eyes that Harl did not like at all.
“To the Light of Lios then.” He said wearily.
Two of the men bookended him, forcefully looping their arms through his, bringing closer their own competing stenches. Harl caught whiff of their booze, obviously, but also an underlying metallic tang. Blood. He might not have been their first victim this night. And as they walked past closed and boarded up homes and shops, Harl’s mind was already whirring, thinking through how to get out of this, trying to find the trick of it. If Jerekyn didn’t need him… there were sneaky ways out of the Light of Lios he’d explored before. But that would mean trying to lose his new bodyguards. He could try kicking one or two of them in the unmentionables hurting someone in the ‘respectable’ inn would cause problems. even if they got there after the bell was rung and the tavern became… something else, Jerekyn or his like would not be best pleased.
Before he had a plan fully made in his mind they had passed beyond the bounds of the slums and into the merchant’s quarter where buildings had fine black and white painted panels and were not built into, over and on top of each other. The Light of Lios was just such a fine building, and as soon as it came into view Harl realised that turning up so early was a problem. He was fetid, filthy and likely to annoy the day owner even if the firms owning it by night might recognise him as one of Jerekyn’s occasional finders and takers.
“Here we are then. Betcha looking forward to a great chin wag with yer good mate, Jerekyn.” Ambrin looked down at him smugly.
“Yes, yes I am.” Harl thought quickly. “I want to have a long chat with him about that book I stole for him from the great house up near the Northern canal. Had lots of names in it, did that book. Names that he got a goodly amount of gold coin for. And then there’s the time I got him some barrel parts for roarers I took from a works. That got him coin too. Straight out stole coin for him, once or twice, I did.”
“What you getting at woods-voln?”
“I’m just telling you I’m an earner. Nothing more than that.”
He watched thoughts move slowly through the minds of the three men.
“No harm in taking him in and seeing if he’s telling the truth.” Ambrin again, sounding less confident in that choice.
“Jerekyn… he don’t like them like us near the Light though. Don’t like its nice rugs got all dirty…”
“Aint he going to do that though?” They looked down at him.
“Fuck. We bring him in and he’s just some lad, and we’ll be for the chop for disturbing the patrons.”
“Bell’s not even rung yet. There’ll be non-firm in there still. Jerekyn’ll skin us!”
“Send me in alone. If I aint his boy, then he’ll do your gutting for you. I am, and you aint shown him your faces-” Harl began.
“Shut up woods-voln, I’m thinking. How about we send him in? He ruins the rugs he gets a blade in his belly anyways.”
“Aw, but there were other things I wanted to-” whispy beard began.
“Shut it. We don’t want to annoy Jerekyn. Go on, fuck off woods-voln!”
Harl fought the urge to do an elaborate bow, and walked slowly towards the rich dark oaken door. His back itched, expecting a blade there soon enough. But when he did quickly look back before heading inwards, the three men were long gone, the cobblestones empty.
He took a deep breath, trying to ignore how he smelt and pushed open the door to the warmth inside. Bright and cheerful patrons in colourful silks and satins made the one dark spot by the bar all the more obvious as he quickly scanned the room.
Slumped there, his wide brimmed hat fallen forward and his long coat flared around the barstool, was Cole.
Harl took a short sharp intake of breath as the man raised his head to consider who was entering the tavern. Then he stopped breathing as the tall man squinted his flat green eyes at him, a frown creasing his forehead. He raised a hand, and Harl half expected to see the roarer there, even in the Light of Lios where weapons were left in a rack at the door after the bell. Before the bell the patrons were simple fops, the sons of local merchants who sought out the Light of Lios for its veneer of respectability, as though that made up for their drunkenness when the bell was rung and they were out, falling to the gutters. Before the bell, like now, only a fool would bring a weapon into the Light of Lios. A soon to be dead fool.
And so it was that Cole was not aiming the barrel of his roarer at Harl. Instead his hand came up and made a dismissive gesture as the man himself returned to the large goblet he was nursing. And then Harl realised that the child-buyer was so deep in his cups that he had passed over Harl as an alcohol inspired dream. Instead of surprise or sudden action, all Cole’s weary eyes betrayed was a mild annoyance. So, it was not quite the moment of victory he’d imagined, but he enjoyed that bitter curve to the man’s mouth. But only for a moment.
Even if Cole had dismissed him as a drunken imagining, sewer stained clothes and all, the other patrons had not. Murmers spread about the fine room, from the nearest table to a dark place at the back, away from the fire, where five figures sat together in shadows. One stood and separated himself from the others, coming closer and revealing his face in the flickering firelight. Harl recognised the bulk of the city-voln man called Barlow, Jerekyn’s prime enforcer, and he took a step back, no doubt adding yet another muddied footprint to the floor about the door.
Before Barlow could reach Harl, another figure stepped in front of him, stopping him somewhat between the bar with the barely conscious Cole, and Harl. She was beautiful. City-voln certainly, but where grey eyes and dull thick hair made some of them look faded or just dirty, her long dark grey hair was sleek and lay in thick ribbons across smooth white shoulders, bare above a plunging neckline. Laughing moonstone eyes looked up at Barlow and sent him gently back to the shadows as she took up his mission, coming closer to Harl and bringing with her a gentle flowery scent that only slightly covered the big man’s stench.
“Nice mess you’ve made of the floor there, handsome.”
Harl felt his cheeks reddening, nearing the auburn of his hair. He tried to avoid her smiling eyes and only found himself drifting over the corset of her dress… and what was under there.
“Traveller? Excuse me, traveller? Would you be wanting feeding and somewhere to bath?”
“Yes… yes…” His voice was stuttering and hesitant. Then she was leading him to the back of the tavern, past curious city-voln eyes that just as quickly turned back to more exciting gossip of the night moves of various city alderman and their mistresses. Cole looked up at them for a moment, confusion on his face passing as quickly as the burning liquid did across his lips a moment later.
“Thank you, but I have no coin-” He began, then his mouth came to a grinding halt as he felt the sharp point of a blade in his ribs.
“Keep walking traveller. You’ll get that bread and water. Then Jerekyn will see you.” Her voice was no less musical, but now it had a sharp edge warning Harl not to try anything.
“I know Jere-”
“And he knows you. Barlow was enthusiastic to get you to him, but the bell hasn’t rung yet. And the patrons here need handling with gentle hands before kicking out time.”
“You’re of his firm?”
They passed into the shadows, nearing the figures back there, Barlow standing out for his size. The others were harder to make out. But there, furthest back, was Jerekyn.
Some called him the Old Man, but never to his face… or within earshot of anyone wanting to get his favour. But he was old. City-voln of course, but worn thin by time so that his chin had lengthened under the baldness of his head. Shrewd eyes rested between narrowed eyelids, always calculating. It was that constant thinking that had got the thief-lord to this many years. And he’d always been smart enough to surround himself with the smartest city-voln, building his firm with those who had not been dulled by city life. Harl only hoped that Jerekyn still thought him to be sharp enough to be useful to him.
“What’s this, Estille?”
There was no way that Jerekyn had not already noticed his arrival, or made up his mind about what to do about it. Harl waited for that decision to become apparent, breathing slowly all the while Jerekyn and Estille went through their play act.
“Some lost and weary traveller who has found his way to this fine establishment, Fedori.” She used a fake name for him and Harl noted it. He could not call him Jerekyn, at least not until the bell sounded.
“Terrible. Has he hurt himself too?” Jerekyn’s concern was the interest of a snake considering his potential lunch.
“Perhaps once he washes away the blood and the dirt we shall know. A meal would help too wouldn’t it?”
“It would be the charitable thing to do, my dear, wouldn’t it?”
“You are a good man of Lios, Fedori.”
Jerekyn nodded, and the woman led Harl by the arm towards a door at the back and the rooms beyond it. She brought him into one where there was a wash basin, a bowl of soup with a small loaf, and clean clothes waiting.
“How…?” Harl began, but Estille silenced him by gracefully reclining on the simple bed, shaping herself in a very pleasing way. Harl swallowed and tried to ignore her gaze.
“Lios is not the only one with eyes in Bara. You came in by a known route. And you were watched.”
“Does he remembered me?”
Estille laughed, and the sound of it reminded Harl of the birds he’d seen in the gardens of the temple here in Bara. “Jerekyn remembers everyone and everything. What he doesn’t know is what happened to his promising young second-story man?”
Harl found the story on the edge of his lips before he knew it, the woman’s eyes charming him. He turned and started using the water to rub at his face and hands.
“Don’t be shy now.” Estille’s voice was cold. “You must want something from him, or you’d not made it straight for him, idiot muggers or not. And he wants to know what happened to you, that’s all.”
Harl paused, thinking through his options, taking the moment when his eyes were away from her to practise the best face to go with his confession.
“I went to find my father. ‘e’s woods-voln too, so I left Bara and went to the woods. Didn’t go so bloody well, did it?!” He let a sob into the last of his words, fuelling it with his genuine exhaustion.
“Oh you poor thing.” The compassion sounded genuine, but Harl remained on his guard. He heard her move, the thickness of her skirts making her movement obvious. Then she was in front of him, undoing his buttons.
“I… I, um, I can do that!”
She took no excuses and removed his tunic. Then she soaked a sponge and began washing his shoulders. He kept his arms across himself, trying in some small way to hide his forearm and the marks there. Hoping also that she’d not move to wash his back as well, and see what was there. The fear of that pushed away any interest he had in the beautiful woman or enthusiasm for this intimate moment.
“That’s enough Estille.” Jerekyn stood at the doorway, leaning against the lintel with arms crossed, a dark smirk on his lips. “I said to be gentle, but not too gentle.”
Estille merely nodded and placed the sponge down again. Harl snatched up the clothes and flung them on. Estille watched all the while, those shining eyes burning him up all over again.
“You are really more evil than Barlow, aren’t you, my dear?”
“Evil is a relative term, Jerekyn.” She gathered her skirts to leave. “Make sure he eats, he more bones than boy. I’ll go back to tending after the other woods-voln.”
“Be good to him, Estille.”
Harl’s rage must have shown on his face.
“Ah, you do not care for our other guest this evening?” Jerekyn said, his mind already thinking through the possibilities. “The guest who is not saying what he seeks, but is definitely seeking something. Or someone.” He came in and sat on the bed that Estille had left empty. “And you left Bara to ‘seek your father’, as you told the beautiful Estille.”
Harl thought quickly. “I don’t want to see him again! He abandoned me, and me mother-”
Harl’s heart stopped for a second. Lying to Jerekyn, and him finding out, was a death sentence.
“I even admire the effort, but I know Cole of old. Perhaps he sired you. There’s many who might have done of course. But that’s not the reason that first brought you together. Cole buys boys with good king’s gold.”
“Aint gold he spends, its coppers!” Harl shouted, not thinking about how he was confessing the truth as he did.
Jerekyn paused, and then said through thin lips. “I once gutted a man with his own hook hand for raising his voice to me, boy.”
“Forgive me. Please.”
The old man made a dismissive gesture, repeating Cole’s hand’s flick when he’d seen Harl at the doorway. “So what does Cole do with all those lads? Sells them onto to boy-lovers in the south I always thought.”
Harl paused, thinking on how to tell the story. “There’s a castle to the West. The boys go there. Lios wants them there-”
“Stop. Stop there.” Jerekyn said quickly. “I aint getting burnt again.”
Harl must have looked confused.
“I don’t meddle with Lios and his priests, and he don’t meddle with me!” Jerekyn stood up and looked agitated. “You were the lad who got me that book, weren’t you?”
“The book of names?”
“Never had such a fucking disaster. Button men who’d turned eyes for coin for years were hunting for it. The priests began speaking out against the evils of the rogues in Bara when for years they’d let us rob the people just as blind as they had been doing all the while! I ain’t messing in Lios’ shit and he aint messing in mine again! So, you keep your stories of castles to yourself!” Darker clouds passed over the old man’s face. “Wait. Cole is looking for you!”
Jerekyn grabbed him by the arm, wrenching it as he dragged him back into the large common room, yanking him towards Cole.
“Ring the damn bell!” He bellowed at the meek looking barman just pouring Cole another measure of something thick and dark.
“Its hours early!” The man hissed back, but he quailed under Jerekyn’s rage. “Of course.” He reached for an ornate silver bell and gave it several pealing shakes, as Harl pulled and struggled against the man as he brought him to Cole. The other patrons left reluctantly and loudly, Barlow making a threatening move towards the few stragglers, who promised never to return to such an inhospitable tavern!
“Here! Here is the boy you are looking for!” Jerekyn shoved him towards the slumped man.
Cole at least had enough wit left to turn and face the old man and the boy. There were days of growth in the hair on his chin and cheeks, and greyness under his eyes, but there was some of the old sharpness of him behind them still. Cole looked Harl over carefully, this time really looking. He immediately glazed his eyes over again, and looked away dismissively.
“I ain’t buying for the carts today.” He slurred.
“But this one you’ve already bought. Sure as blood is blood.”
Cole looked from Harl to Jerekyn. “Just some lad. He aint nothing to do with me.”
“By the bastard gods I say you know him!”
Cole looked about with exaggerated care and fake indignation. “Aint this the Light of Lios? I thought I were in the Light of Lios. I thought I heard someone call upon the impure bastard gods just then-”
“Fuck you, the bell’s been rung!”
“Has it now?”
Whip quick, even with his blood half full of whatever he’d been drinking, Cole brought out his roarer, hidden Harl knew not where. He aimed it full in Jerekyn’s face.
Several other daggers, roarers, and crossbows appeared in the hands of the remaining figures in the tavern; the no-weapons rule seemingly a myth. Cole began to laugh.
“I aint dying for this fucking worth-nothing boy.” He lowered his roarer, and the other weapons followed suit before Jerekyn barked at them, rage turning his face red.
“I’ll fucking decide that!”
Cole shrugged, turned and went back to his glass. “Kill me. Don’t kill me. I got drinking to do.”
Jerekyn looked from the woods-voln man to woods-voln boy. “Oh, fuck both of you.” He released Harl and went to move back to the shadows. “By the Bloodied One, fuck both of you.”
“The boy wants a job.” Cole slurred. But Harl was wondering how much of that slur was real now. He seemed more awake than he had done before, but if he wasn’t as deep in his cups as he had seemed, why had he dismissed Harl before? Why hadn’t he grabbed him??
Jerekyn turned back. “With other Lios-fuckers looking for him? No way.”
“Why you so sure?”
“Because they found his body at the bottom of a sea-cliff not so long ago.”
Harl held in his gasp. Fysiwon!?! Had his body…?!
Jerekyn was thinking, the lines of his face deepening. “So you’re clever.” Something seemed to occur to him “Or perhaps very, very, stupid.” Cole shrugged, and the older man continued. “But even so, a woods-voln in Bara is going to get attention. It always did. Just takes one Lios-fucker with half a brain hearing about the boy with green eyes in the very same city they took one from…”
Cole sighed. “Gods, but you know how to kill a man’s fairly bought joy.” He chugged back the last of the drink in his glass.
Jerekyn stared at him, a dark smile forming. “You. You’ll be his handler.”
“The fuck I will.”
“You’ll keep watch out for curious eyes. And he’ll pay for your life by stealing for me.” Around them the weapons raised again.
“I told you, I don’t give a shit if you kill me. So, I tell you, the fuck I will!” Cole stood, wobbling.
“You will.” Jerekyn turned and walked away through the watching weapons.
“The fuck I will.” Cole muttered, more half-heartedly this time, and gestured to the barman to refill his glass, pushing small coins towards him. Harl stood aimlessly near him, half watching the roarers, daggers, and crossbows and half waiting for what he should do next. Estille threw him a smile, which, as it was coming from behind her readied dagger, Harl chose to ignore.
Cole finally turned and looked at Harl as Jerekyn’s firm stood down and went back to their nightly pleasures.
“You eaten anything, lad?”
Harl was surprised and stumbled out an answer. “There was a meal, in the back, but I never got to have it.”
More coins were pushed towards the barman. “Get him some feed.”
“Thank you.” Harl said to the tall man, noticing how seated they were almost the same height. Cole’s dark eyes flashed, and for a moment they seemed more coloured for the deepness of the woods that his mother had always described to him, than dulled as Harl had always thought.
“Oh shut up Harl.” Cole said simply, and turned his attention to his new drink.