The first one to hit him used the back of his hand, and Harl had just a moment, after he had regained his balance and shaken the stars from his head, to notice the whores standing on the jetty nearby, laughing. They must have followed the prophets to taunt them, but they were taking dark pleasure in seeing the three scrawny men in their fine robes beginning to beat the woods-voln. He was distracted by the women and their loosened corsets long enough for another of the men to cuff him around the head with something hard clenched in his hand. He staggered back more this time, the edge of his foot twisting about the edge of the planks of the jetty for a moment before he managed to right himself again.
Below him was the monster, the ever-hungry sea, and he’d fight a hundred mad prophets before he let it take him!
The last to hit him raised up his weapon, readying it for another stunning blow to Harl’s head. It was a book, the Light of Lios. Harl saw it was a well-worn copy; curling pages were fluttering away from its broken spine. But it was just a book. Harl’s dagger found its way into his palm. It was a finely crafted blade made from the sharp tooth of some long dead sea creature, sharpened to a fierce edge by a sea-voln maker of weapons in Emphon. The fingers of his free hand spread wide, and he looked for a chance to grab at a prophet’s hand and charm him to end this brawl!
“Woods-voln! Ugly, cursed, woods-voln!” Hissed one of the men, spittle flying from his lips.
Harl was dumb enough, and angry enough, to look the man’s way in that moment, and then he felt the knuckles of another prophet slam into the back of his head. He staggered forward and the third kicked at him, landing a weak blow that nevertheless jarred his already tense knee and made him stumble forward even more. The blows came quicker as the men saw him falling forward. Or perhaps they were cheered on by the screams and shouts of the whores; excited by the beating they were filling the air with foul-mouthed encouragement for the prophets, promising them various normally expensive acts if they gave the girls a good show and relieved their boredom. The sea-voln however were quiet, and when Harl looked about he saw them either hard at work at tasks that were making them look the other way, or just absent.
One of the prophets was pushing at him now, trying to get him down onto the boards of the jetty while the other two slammed fists into his face and ribs. Harl grabbed at him, desperately calling on whatever was inside him to protect him. But he missed and went down groaning, curling up on damp and salted wood as the prophets kicked him where they could. The small black claws in his hands were now flexing in and out, but some small measure of self-preservation made him pull his hands into his chest so that the prophets could not see them. Being woods-voln meant a beating before they bored of it. But being impure meant death.
The beautiful sound of singing eventually broke through the sound of blood pounding in his ears and the thumps of the men’s feet slamming into him. Finally he began to hear the ethereal cant of Ilv’Andri from way above him in her cage on the deck of the Lion in Armour. Her voice was sorrow flowing through the air, even as she sang the praises of Lios.
“Illuminating the dark, your majesty shines to save us all.”
At first it was only Ilv’Andri’s multi-tonal voice accompanying herself. But then he heard the line repeated by a multitude of voices. The prophets stopped to gape and wonder, muttering the name of Lios and making his sign at the voices seemingly coming from nowhere.
But then came shouting from above. Kranen’s bitter voice boomed as he emerged from wherever he’d been hiding to ignore the beating and began to berate Ilv’Andri.
“Stop that! Stop!” he roared.
But she, and the other voices echoing from within the hull of the Lion in Armour, persisted. A chorus of sorrow bringing the cant to stop the storm of kicks and punches Harl was suffering.
“Golden god, turn your eyes to us. We are small, but here upon the thrashing death. Turn your eyes to know us. Grant us another breath.”
There were screams then. Somewhere in the ship the sea-voln men inside were chastening the women.
Harl turned his face towards the hull, one eye swollen closed and the other blinking through blood that was flowing from his forehead. He looked at the hull, as though to look through the wood there and see the sea-voln who’d tried to save him, and that moment gave the prophets their chance to recover from the glory of the now halted singing.
A final shove from a booted foot and he was in the water of the harbour.
The sea pulled at him, dragging him down under the garbage thrown into the harbour by the ships’ men. The light faded all about him as he was brought lower and lower, his tired and bruised body not even trying to fight the insatiable hunger of the sea. He’d delayed it for a while, managing to escape the castle and the sea room there for a better life. But he’d been taunting the beast for too long; living within sight of it for over a year, pretending as though it hadn’t haunted his dreams as it broke along the coastal shore within earshot of Emphon. Let it take his sharp bones at last, after it had enjoyed running its tides through his red woods-voln hair for a time and bleaching it as white as a sea-voln’s. Let the end come in the water. Harl had thought it might do since the very first time he’d seen its waves on the road to the castle.
But then something grabbed him, wrapping about his wrist, and he let it pull him, surrendering still to the sea. But it was not the dark green of the water, but a darker shadow. His mind near left him just as the pulling became a strong yanking that made his limp body race out of the depths and back towards the shimmering green light above.
He came out of the water coughing and spluttering, and found himself dragging his sore body up a gravel and shell ramp by another jetty. He flopped over onto his back and looked up at the grey sky as water bubbled in his lungs. Harl brought it out; cough after cough. And there was blood in what he spat onto the small stones.
When he could breathe again he looked about for his saviour. There was no one about but sea-voln working on the ships anchored in the distance.
He looked behind himself and saw that he was by an unremarkable winding and cobbled path that was heading back into the second crescent. It was bordered by abandoned boats with holes in their hulls and ramshackle houses that had closed and warped shutters. A few empty brown bottles lay about, but their original owners were long gone. The only movement was from small spiny creatures that skittered about in small pools by the water’s edge, disturbed by his presence and waving tiny claws at him.
He staggered to his feet, feeling every single one of the bruises on his flesh as he tried to move. The prophets had been weak men at least, unused to fighting even if they’d had a great passion for it. He had only bruises and cuts, and nothing seemed to be broken. Although, he could have easily drowned had what was in the water not saved him. He looked again at the sea water lapping at his feet. The gentle waves were a reminder that it still wanted him, but that it could wait.
“Yes you can bloody well wait” He spat again, this time into the sea water, tasting the iron and salt in his own saliva. Blood was starting to seep from his forehead again, stinging his left eye. Groaning, he began the walk to more familiar paths, and then hopefully to the Cant of Lios.
Limping, it took him time. But then he was in the courtyard where he had left Cole that morning. Harl half expected the tall man to be still there, with words of scorn ready on his lips. But he saw him when he peered into the bar on his slow way back up to their room. Cole was standing with his back to Harl, serving at the bar and feigning interest in some city-voln’s argument with a sea-voln about this or that. Harl blinked back the blood in his eye and wiped at a cut re-opening on his lip. Bastard gods only knew what Cole would say when he saw him. Curse him out for stumbling into a pack of prophets? Blame him for drawing attention to their presence in Emphon? Greet him with silence but judgement?
It was a good hour or more before Harl found out. By then he’d gingerly removed his shirt and examined the red-purple welts already forming on his stomach and ribs. He’d washed away the salt water with water from the jug in their room, knowing that what he really needed was a proper wash at the barrel outside. But he did not want to go outside again.
By the time Cole came to the room for his break, Harl was already in a fresh shirt and breeches, the putting on of which had been a bloody feat in itself! He tried to turn his head from Cole to the shadows, but the man bloody well knew he was up to something the moment he came in. He walked right to him and appraised him.
Harl shook his head. With his voice unused for hours and his throat still sore from salt water he was reluctant to speak.
“No.” Harl managed. “Prophets.”
Cole’s face darkened. “Of course.”
The man’s long fingers reached for Harl’s face and gently turned his head to see the wounds more clearly. “You’ll live. You won’t even have a pretty scar to impress the Denosian lass. I take it that’s where you were.”
Harl began to protest that it had been Cole’s idea, but the man held up his hands in a sign of peace.
“It could have happened anywhere. It’s been bloody good fortune neither of us were beat black and blue before now. You were in Bara. A day ever go by you didn’t at least get a name or a comment thrown at your back?”
Harl nodded. “Sharp face.” He said bitterly.
“Aye, sharp face. Sharp tongue.”
“A beating is a near enough a sharp death. Though, I would’a thought you’d be wearing their guts on your blade by’now?”
Harl panicked, and then realised that the dagger was long gone, back to the sea that had born it. It had been from Cole. Calling it a gift weren’t right. The man didn’t give gifts. It had been a necessary thing, and Cole had got it for him.
“I see.” Cole nodded and smiled wryly. “Seems a visit to your lady costs more than a gold Lios!”
Harl felt his anger returning, but held it down.
“I hope you got what you were looking for?”
Harl struggled to maintain his peace.
“Did she sing for you?”
The anger twisted and became dark humour. “She did. As sure is blood is blood.”
Cole nodded, not knowing exactly what Harl meant, but seemingly glad that he was no longer glaring at him. “Here lad, you’re still leaking a bit.”
He grabbed at a towel Harl had been using, already brown with blood stains, and held it towards his forehead. Harl took it before the man could press it to the cut there.
Cole nodded. “I’m going to take a rest on my bed before I get back to making sea-voln and city-voln drunk. Try not to get yourself killed while I close my eyes for a time?” The tall man lay himself out and rested an arm across his eyes.
Harl struggled for a minute or more and then made a decision. “Cole.”
“I sleep better when I aint talking, Harl.”
“There’s something in the water of the harbour. Something that saved me.”
Cole sat up again, and even though he slouched over his long legs as though weary, he looked up at Harl with fiercely intense green eyes.
“Tell me what happened.”