Ghosts’ Prey, Chapter Eight, Part Four

The remains of the household and the other refugees from Emphon trudged onwards to the north. Harangued by rain clouds and the last dying smoke filled breaths of the crescent city, they were a ragged band of half dead looking commoners and nobles trudging along in silence. Cole’s burns had not been as bad as Harl had feared, but others had not been as fortunate. Many limped or staggered through the mud and rain on wounded legs, barely bothering to push their drenched hair from their faces with their severely burnt hands and blackened fingers. Instead they just stared blankly through the rainwater towards the mountains slowly growing ahead of them.

The farmlands to either side of the barely there road were no more welcoming than the immense range to the north. Farm-voln spotted them and came to walk the edges of their lands, keeping pace with the refugees while holding sharp pitch forks and scythes in their hands. A few city-voln did try to veer away from the road and were turned back. An old man carrying a small shivering girl of two years old was tripped up when he tried to beg for food at a break in a fence. He rolled himself as he fell to protect her little body from the gravel on the road, but she still sobbed at the sudden fall and jolt. Later, when the weary city-voln bodies slept on the road where they had dropped, Harl had sought out the old man and the girl and shared some of his Ellinostrum supplies with them. The man was a second crescent tailor, his hands used to working mostly in hemp and soft leathers for the sea-voln. She was a stranger’s daughter that he’d carried out of Emphon after finding her in the third crescent, turned mute by the flames. Under the soot and ash he had seen that her clothes were of finer cotton and silk than his hands had ever worked with. But now she was a penniless nobody and had only him. Harl gave them what he could and then returned to where the remains of the Ellinostrum household had made camp in a loose protective circle on the road.

Cole noted his return from where he was lounging against Pie’s saddle. On the other side of it Alisaya was asleep under a patched blanket, her head awkwardly at an angle and her cheek pressed up against the worn leather. Tersia shared another saddle pillow with a maid and others had taken what comfort they could on the hard ground. The few guards that were left were keeping a protective eye on the few horses they had left among them.

“You fed them.” It wasn’t so much a question as a statement. “When we have so little.”

“They have less.” Harl whispered back.

“Soon we will have nothing.” In the dark Cole’s green eyes flashed. “The farm-voln keeping pace alongside us earlier were cursing the walkers in the name of Lios. I heard one mention ‘Bridge’.”

Bridge was the town that they’d passed through on the path that had taken them back to the castle by the sea. As woods-voln they’d not been welcome there, and had not stayed long. But Harl remembered Bridge, it was the town that Lios had destroyed for its sins, and that he was now rebuilding. The farm-voln thought Emphon had been brought low for the same reason?

“Is there anything to be gained from staying with them?” Cole asked under his breath, almost as much to himself as to Harl.

“You went back for Tersia and Alisaya. Pie could have gotten us away.”

“And you went back for the children.” Cole noted as well, and Harl followed his eyes to where one of the household maids slept with two smaller bundles huddled up by her. “Family is a burden.” he said, but it was said without much conviction. The older man sighed and rubbed hands ingrained with dirt across his ash stained face. “The lady Alisaya wants to find her beloved who headed north. But I fear her betrothed will find her before any such happy ending.”

Dren Rickarn. If they went with her and came across him again, the city-voln captain would be pleased to find another chance to put a roarer wound in Cole.

“I could disguise us.”

Cole nodded, but did not commit himself to an answer, or even a path for them to take.

A cold wind whipped down the road, coming from the further north, and Harl saw the sleeping figures pull ruined scarves and blankets closer. The boundary marking hedges stirred and rustled against each other, like creatures moving in the night. The road south of Emphon had been impassable because of the ghosts. Were they any safer here?

But the rest of the night passed without incident. The farm-voln watching them in the day seemed content to leave them be overnight, returning again in the morning to walk alongside them with wary eyes running over every one them. There were more men among them than Harl remembered from his journey through farm-voln lands near the castle, and they were hard looking voln with weathered skin and clothes.

“A friendly bunch.” Harl joked to Tersia, walking next to her and Alisaya on their black mount. “Don’t they normally trade with the city-voln of Emphon?”

“We’ve no coin to interest them now.” Tersia said from behind her thick navy veil, her voice still lowered by damage from the smoke. “And with Emphon gone there’s not likely to be much trading unless they can convince the mountain-voln to be less self-sufficient, or the woods-voln less murderous. They hate us for our starving because it will likely be them next.”

“Lios won’t allow that… will he?” Asked Alisaya, concern in her voice.

“Lios will do as he wishes. The death of a city might be a part of his plan for his world anyway. There was Bridge after all.”

“But Bridge is being rebuilt.” Said Alisaya.

“And he sent the ghosts.”

“As far as we know.” Muttered Harl, knowing full well that the ghosts had come from the castle. But even then, he had to admit, they’d been made according to Lios’ will and coin. Cole was walking ahead of them, as befitted a ‘scout’, and Harl found himself thinking over their journey together so far. Emphon had been a respite. And now even that was gone at the hand of Lios.

He sped up to catch up with Cole and then matched his walking pace.

The older man didn’t look down at him and was silent for the longest time before he finally spoke.  “I’ll go where you go…” There was another smaller pause, and then the man’s voice was bitter. “Damned charm.”

“Lios did this.” Harl left the rest unsaid. The castle. The maiming of Eris. His weird change. The death of Fysiwon. Ilv’Andri. Emphon.

“Better maybe to just forget that and maybe find a patch of world just for us two.”

Harl was silent. There wasn’t a place in all of Lios’ world for two family-less woods-voln. He glared over at the nearest farm-voln sentinel. The man smiled back, showing off gaps in his mouth.

Days passed and the flatness of the farm-land above the ruins of Emphon began to undulate, the crops giving way to orchards and herds of farm animals. In the night Harl and Cole hunted a few with handbow and dagger, carrying back a bloody ewe’s body for the rest of the walkers. It gave them enough energy to keep on their long trek northwards and to face the bitter winds starting to whip down from the crowns of the mountain range in the far distance. There was snow up there, and the illegal bounty of sheepskin began to be more and more important.

They had a choice. They could turn east along the foot hills but that would bring them to the tops of the woods that were just visible as a haze beyond the farmsteads dotted to their right. Or to the West there was the sea, the land dropping off suddenly past where small white dots of hardy sheep roamed.

Harl scratched all this out one evening, as the Ellinostrum household huddled around the basic campfire Cole had put together, catching from a hunk of sheep’s wool he’d been drying under his long coat for a few days. With a short branch Harl drew what they could make out across the fog bound fields.

“Sea. Farms. Road. More Farms. Woods.” He spoke as he drew them in the dirt. West to East, across the dirt road. “Mountains onwards North. Bara if we head East and then South by their feet. But even there, even if the woods are thin, there might be woods-voln.”

“Could we not approach the mountain-voln and ask them for aid? For an escort back to Liosinium?” Alisaya asked, but her voice was weak and uncertain.

Cole laughed. “The mountain-voln might pay lipservice to Lios in the mountains when the priests seek their repentances. But when they are gone they have their own ways. They might serve him in the army, but they play the sluggard to rile the captains. There’s no love lost there. And mountain-voln are suspicious of woods-voln.”

Harl looked at the map again, wishing for an answer. “The woods-voln in the trees to the South of the mountains… could we not claim some blood link?”

Cole shrugged. “I know them as well as you do. That is, not at all.”

“And where do you think Terstrum and Tersian are?” Alisaya asked quietly. “They were to head to Bara along the feet of the mountains, avoiding the woods-voln as best they could. Do you think they succeeded?”

Harl looked to Cole, seeing the man’s face darkening with hidden thoughts.

“You should put my brothers from your mind, cousin.” Tersia said. She was sat close enough to Harl to peer over his shoulder at the map he’d drawn, her eyes just visible where the veil was thinner over them. “Likely, they are warm, well fed, and lounging about in some tavern of Bara by now. We can’t expect their aid on the road.” Tersia’s voice was still hoarse, even now when others’ throats had healed up by now from the smoke and ash. She reached forward, a gloved hand pointing out their options. “Bara is the only place we can find refuge. There are merchants there who have benefited from Ellinostrum patronage. There are favours I can call in. There are warehouses with goods that can be the seed of a new income. From there we can send for an escort to take you back to Liosinium, to reunite with our family there.”

Harl was pleased to hear Tersia finally sounding convinced of the right path to take. In fact, it was good to hear anyone sounding like they knew what to do. Others about the campfire nodded, and a few smiles were exchanged at the return of their lady and her leadership. Not Cole though. The older man’s face was as still and grey like a stone statue’s.

Later when the others were asleep, Harl sought him out. He found the taller man standing rock still staring out across the fields to the North and West and onwards to where the sea must surely be roaring in its endless hunger, crashing into the Western feet of the mountain range.

“Bara then?” Harl said, his fingertips running over the fox’s skull tied at his waist. It was a nervous gesture he seemed to have started since the great fire of Emphon.

“Is that where you would go?” Cole asked quietly.

“Gods damn it, I don’t know!” Frustration burst from him. “I miss Emphon. I miss the Cant of Lios! We had a space to breath there!”

“A home.”

“Yes!” Harl paused as he felt an itching in his palms; the wyrd black claws wanting to be released. But there were no stone walls to climb here.

“No city can be our true home.” Cole’s expression was hard to read in the darkness. “No wood either. They never have been for those like us.”

Harl paused, hoping the man would say more. When he didn’t Harl finally decided to push him.

“Where did you grow up? I mean, before the castle.”

Cole turned his sharp green eyes to Harl’s and smiled faintly. “You’ve never asked me that before. Why now?”

“I guess… not really know where we are going… it’s got me thinking about where we came from. You know about me and Bara. I know about you and the castle. But not much else. Are you like me? Where you born in a city?”

Cole paused, deciding.

“Aye. I was born in Liosinium.”

Harl held in his rampant curiosity and let the man speak.

Cole sighed and looked back into the dark of the night as he finally spoke. “Against all reason there are always a very small number of woods-voln in every city. You were likely born in Bara because of your mother’s nomad fever. Normally that takes a woods-voln through the trees to other greenings, not into the cold grey stone of a city. But it happens. Sometimes. It was the same with my blood. And of all the cities to be drawn to, they were called to Liosinium. That bloody marble hell hole where city-voln are allowed to kill another kind of voln as soon as look at them. Dren was cruel to offer you a way out of the castle and a place in his household there. The least of evils that would have befallen you was insult and injury. Death would have been much more likely. I’ve seen woods-voln strung up by their necks, hanging down from the bridges so that their heels dip into the Mane, the river there.”

“But your people were in Liosinium?”

“I only know about my mother for certain. Like yours, she ended up in in a city. Unlike yours she must have travelled for weeks across the dry scrubland south of the armoured city, Garre, to get there. Bara at least sits among the farms and trees. I have no idea what she was doing. She must have been driven completely mad by the nomad fever.” He smiled darkly.

“So your father was a Liosinium city-voln?” Harl looked at the man’s dark hair. He’d always wondered.

“Maybe. I have no idea who my father was.”

“Just like me.”

Cole nodded, and looked back across the fields. “What do you think is out that way?”

Harl peered past him into the black of the night. “North and West? The sea? The Western edge of the mountains, falling down into the waves?” That was a horrifying image and Harl pushed it from his mind.

Cole’s demeanour changed suddenly and Harl recognised the shift in his weight and posture well enough to know he was reacting to danger. His hand flew to the dagger at his waist as Cole’s hand pulled the long curved steel sword from where it was tied to his side. Harl’s eyes pierced the darkness to see what Cole had noticed and saw shapes moving towards the road. Farm-voln.

“They’re coming!” Cole shouted and the sleeping figures around them stirred. The few Ellinostrum guards already on watch duty were quickly by their side as the sharp edges of sickles, scythes and pitchforks glinted in the moonlight.

“Why now?!” Shouted Harl and got no response as farm-voln appeared on the other side of the rough road as well, and stalked towards the city-voln who were still bleary eyed from waking. Screams in dark and the sounds of struggle echoed along the dark road.

Harl darted back a step as a farm-voln tried to clear a path over the fence marking the edge of someone’s land, sweeping his scythe over the top of it and hoping to slash across Harl’s belly. The move made him step into an Ellinostrum maid behind him who was backing away from farm-voln running into their circle. Harl leapt forward and jabbed his dagger into the turned shoulder of the scythe bearer and twisted it viciously, earning a yell from the man who fell back into the furrowed field behind him. Others took his space though, jabbing at Harl just as Cole fought off another, clashing forged steel into the prongs of a pitchfork. The woods-voln cursed as the man twisted his fork, stepping up onto the fence and using his descent to rip his weapon from his hand. Cole rolled to the ground as the farm-voln swung back with the fork and narrowly missed catching its vicious points in his forehead and hair.

“Lios!” Roared the farm-voln nearest to Harl, bounding over the fence as well and landing heavily against Harl and shoving him down to the gravel of the road. He looked up from where he sat heavily in the dirt to see the man looming above him.

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