Ghosts’ Prey, Chapter Ten, Part One

A sharp kick, more a chaotic flail than a precise attack, and he smashed the man’s kneecap. The farm-voln fell as though he was a great tree cut right through its trunk, and then tried to roll away as Harl launched himself upon him. But Harl rapidly punched his blade into the man’s back and belly. He stopped trying to crawl away.

Harl got to his feet, but stayed crouching low, and took in the rest of the fight. Cole was back on his feet and facing off, swordless, against the man with the pitchfork, hands out as though they alone might stop the sharp prongs. Harl whisked up his dagger from the sheath made by the dead man’s body and flung it almost without thought at the pitch fork wielder. It was a bad throw, but the weight of the hilt struck the man in the jaw and was enough to daze him while Cole picked up his steel and ran him through, spraying black blood against the wood of the fence.

Harl sought out the rest of their company through the night’s shadows and saw dead bodies in Ellinostrum colours. A maid, more guards. Common-folk from the first and second crescents. And Tersia standing proud with a sword in her hand, in front of Alisaya who timidly held a sickle. Harl darted to them, followed by Cole, and added himself to their defence.

Three farm-voln circled. Men again, spitting and chanting the name of Lios as they prodded their defences with pitchforks and iron pokers taken in haste from their farmsteads when the decision had been made to attack. Cole whacked a few of their sallies back, but then growled as he saw more dark shapes running across the fields towards them from both sides of the road. More women and younger lads and girls were coming, ready to support their menfolk against the refugees.

“To heels!” Shouted Cole, calling a retreat. But with either side of the road being farm-voln land they were forced to make a run through a gauntlet of violence. More fell as even clumsy whacks with skillets and hoes hit home. Harl found himself running by Pie, and manoeuvred her between the farm-voln and some city-voln children. The tailor was there as well, and he pressed the girl into Harl’s arms as he took up the defence of the other side, pushing back with bare hands against farm-voln who thrashed him until he staggered, his face bloody and crushed, and fell behind them. Harl looked back to see Tersia by the man’s side, showing surprising strength as she brought him to his feet and took blows meant for him. They could not continue like this, farm-voln lands ran alongside the road near enough all the way to the mountains themselves.

Harl held the girl closer, ignoring her terrified sobs, and curled them both into the warm straw smelling hide of Pie as he concentrated. Closing the chaos and screams out, he focussed on the fog he’d created in Emphon, the fear that had drifted from him and then brought terror to the prophets. He had no time to control it as he’d done then, but the refugees were already afraid for their lives and things likely couldn’t get any worse. He concentrated and it began to drift from him, growing into greater and greater billowing clouds. It served to hide them a little, but the screams of the farm-voln were what he’d been hoping for. The girl in his arms screamed as well, and he tried to comfort her, but there was only blind fear and tears in her eyes.

As soon as he could, he ended the smoke and looked about the darkness to see who still ran with him as it fled in the night’s breeze.

The refugees were scattered, but still mostly on the road. The farm-voln however had dashed back across their fields, joining in the stampede of their animals into the night. Harl also saw Cole limping back towards him, a grim look as well as blood on his face as he took in the remains of their convoy.

“Will she stop?” The girl was still screaming and Pie was skittering by them with wide white eyes because of the noise. Brave against fists, the cry of the girl child strangely spooked her more. Cole gestured at the city-voln girl. “Can you get her to stop?”

“She’s scared.”

“We all are.”

Tersia and Alisaya, clinging onto each other, walked towards them before Alisaya let go of her cousin to take the child from Harl’s arms and to try to sooth her. Her adopted ‘father’, in far worse shape than any of them, was found again by Tersia and carried over by others, his face a broken mess of blood and bone. The girl increased her wailing again.

“Hold her until she stops.” He mumbled through broken teeth and swollen lips. “She needs to stop.”

“Aye, and we need to get off the road.” Said Cole.

“And go through farm-voln lands?” Asked Harl, suddenly feeling the weariness of the night and its battles upon himself.

“If we go North and West we’ll get closer to the sea, and farm-voln don’t like those lands. The soil don’t grow things a’right.”

Harl remembered the untilled lands on the coastal road. But wasn’t that because the castle had taken their lads and land had been left to go barren? He looked at Cole with a suspicious eye. “That’s the other way to Bara. If we’re to cross farm lands we should go North and East!”

Cole looked out into the darkness as he’d done so few hours ago, looking across fields towards the sea. “The mountain range might curve south there.”

“Where ever we go, we must go soon.” Said Tersia, her nerves on edge and sounding in her smoke damaged voice. “There is some power abroad in this land. For now it has pushed away the farm-voln. But we might be next.”

Harl thought he saw a look of suspicion from her. Had she seen him drop his disguise back at the great house? Did she know what he could do? And did that mean she had guessed the smoke was due to him too?

There wasn’t time to find out now. There had been nods all around from the remaining Emphon refugees who were close enough to be listening in, and they started to shuffle further up the road, seeking farm lands to walk across with no sign of night’s torches or wary farm-voln. Eventually they forded over a fence, pushed through overgrown bushes, and walked through the grazing land of some large horned beasts that watched them from where they lay, their hooves tucked under their large muscular bodies. Low moaning noises came from them occasionally, leading Harl to fear that they would send up an alarm. But they all soon realised that their noises were either amiable chat between the beasts, or the low rumblings of their bellies as they worked on the grass that they were still chewing even though it was night.

Their path took them over many dark fields before the last fingers of the night were pushed away by the rising sun. Fences that had seemed proud and well-kept in the darkness revealed themselves to be old and forgotten in the daylight. The refugees were on the edges of farm-voln land as the ends of their strength gave out, and they all sat with their backs to a broken down fence in the morning chill to stare into the distance or to fall asleep where they stopped.

Harl sat himself down by Cole, ready to lay down his head and sleep, but the older man refused to even close his eyes. Instead he scanned the horizon for trackers, squinting into the orange light of the sun in the East.

“You need to rest too.”

Cole passed him an almost empty water skin from their packs. “Drink. There’s nothing to eat.”

“I’m okay.”

“Drink it.” There was no more disagreeing left in him, so he did. “And try to sleep. Some of the others are.”

“Ahh a rock for a pillow.” Harl joked as he lay down. “Puts the guest rooms of the house of Ellinostrum right to shame.”

Cole seemed about to say something when low crying caught their sharp woods-voln ears when it would have been missed by the others. Cole looked grim. “It’s Tersia. She’s taken herself off somewhere to hide the noise but you can hear her too, can’t you?”

“She’s lost everything.”

“Aye.” He paused then spoke as surely as he had when he’d told him to drink. “Use me for a pillow, lad. Got to be better than a rock.”

Harl was taken aback for a moment, before shuffling closer to lay his head on the man’s thigh. His trousers were the fine ones Tersia’d had him dress in, but mud stained and blood splattered. But he was right, they were better cushion than a rock. They’d only been so close when riding Pie, but the weirdness of it passed quickly as sleep claimed him.

He woke much later as Cole moved, the man trying to gently extract himself. Harl looked up with red and dusty eyes.

“Peace.” whispered the man. “Tersia’s not back and I thought to find her.”

Harl looked about quickly and saw that the sun was high in the sky now. He must have slept for hours.

“I’ll come too.”

Cole nodded and the two of them picked there way carefully past the sleeping city-voln. The tailor was slumped against the broken stump of a fence post, Alisaya beside him. His breath rattled through his broken nose as he seemed to sleep. Alisaya looked up from where she had been resting her head on the top of the sleeping girl in her lap. “He’s not sleeping, he’s unconscious.” She said without greeting. “He might not walk any further with us.”

“And the girl?”, asked Harl.

Alisaya looked down at her new charge. “She sleeps. She will come with me if…” She didn’t not finish the thought, but buried her face in the girl’s dark grey hair.

Cole walked on and Harl followed.

“Where are you headed? Have you seen her path?”

“Could hardly miss it.” Cole said curtly.

Harl when to chide him for his insensitivity but his ankle turned on something that clanked in a familiar way. He reached down and picked up the broken pottery. An arc of ceramic, plain greyish white and clearly broken from something larger. Part of a pot? He spotted more pieces spread among the grass. But they weren’t in a line as though dropped by Tersia, they were all about. He looked ahead of them and saw the same greyish colour in a thick band some ways of. And following the line that they made onwards towards the feet of the mountains on the horizon, he could make out a small dot moving. Tersia?

“What is this?” Harl asked, holding up some of the pottery. Cole shrugged and carried on his walk towards Tersia. The closer they got the more broken pieces there were, forming a path that Tersia was walking alongside. Occasionally the pieces looked more whole. They were shaped almost like upside down cups, or like the bells that hung in the temple towers of Bara. Though these pottery bells were broken at the top as though something had been sliced off, cracks spreading from the holes which showed that they were hollowed. There was something familiar about them, but Harl could not place it, and soon they were closing in on Tersia so he forgot even what he was trying to remember.

“Tersia.” Cole spoke, breaking the silence. She was no longer sobbing, but her veil was stained by tears. Harl could just make out her eyes behind the thinner part of the dark blue veil, and he was almost sure he could see them rimmed in red. “Tersia, you need to come back.”

“You’ve seen them, the statues?!” Tersia said pointing down at the broken pots. “They march northwards.”

“Tersia, you need to come back with us.” Cole tried again, but Harl was already looking at the pots again. Statues? Then it struck him what they reminded him of. They were the shoulders of decapitated figures! Just as they drew the bastard gods in one line going from arms to shoulders, head and back down the other side, these could be the torsos of clay moulded versions!

“The bastard gods?!” Harl breathed out.

“I think so! Or maybe not… so many are broken and it’s hard to say for certain without their heads!” The bastard gods wore their names in items either floating about their heads and shoulders, or, in some cases, through them. Harl picked up the closest decapitated statue and ran his fingers around the hole where the head should have been. There was no sign of arrows, a crown, shadows, colours… anything!

“They’ve been destroyed on purpose.” Said Tersia, “They must be some remembrance of the bastard gods! Maybe one of them is whole…!” She knelt by the edge of the path of pottery figures and dug about their remains, not caring that the sharp edges were scratching her hands. Harl knelt beside her and took her hands to stop her.

“You’ll hurt yourself!”

Tersia looked into his eyes, hers shaded by the thin silk of the veil over them. “Do you know? Does he?” Tersia looked to Cole then, asking with desperation in her voice. “Does he know?!”

Cole shook his head. “I don’t think so.”

“But you do.”

“Yes.”

“What? Know what?!” Harl’s brows knitted as he looked from the woman to the man and back again.

“Change me. You’ve done it for Cole. Do it for me!”

“It doesn’t last.” Cole said in his deep voice.

“I lost it. In the fighting. I lost it!” Tersia wailed, grabbing Harl’s upper arms and squeezing them tightly. “I lost the last of the god’s bone powder.”

The preparation she’d made to change them into city-voln, before Harl had worked out the trick of it and made it for himself. Tersia had lost her supply, and with it half her inheritance. What was she that she needed it to make her something else?

“You’re not city-voln?” Harl said, but even as he said the words they didn’t ring true.

Tersia laughed, her throat still raw from the fire and smoke. Or was it? The desperation. Her worship of the bastard gods. Of one god in particular… She Who Was Once He.

“He sees. His eyes are as sharp as yours now.” Said Tersia, laughing a little. A manic sound.

“Yes.” Cole said flatly. “But even if he helps you keep up the change, it doesn’t last.”

“Once I would have said I didn’t need it. I passed for years, sneaking out to the streets of Emphon in my sweet cousin’s dresses. But I needed more, I needed to be real.” She looked about the path of pottery statues. “The bastard gods made it real. The powdered bone did. And then I saw that you could do it too.”

Harl looked away from the pain he could make out in her veiled eyes. He squinted towards the furthest ends of the path. And above it, where distance made the line harder and harder to see, the mountains. A path to the mountains? Made out of bastard gods? Or… maybe made out of worshippers? Thousands of small statues of people, placed on a march towards the mountains. It could be an arrow as well as a path. But of his direction now, he was deeply unsure.

“Cole’s right. It doesn’t last that long in him. I can chose when to turn back, but I don’t know if those I pass it to can.”

“That was how it was with the powdered bone. I had to keep drinking…”

“But I am not a relic you can spend your father’s fortune on.” Snapped Harl. “If this is what you need, you will need it for the rest of your life. You will need to follow me… forever. And I don’t know if I want that!”

Thousands and thousands of statues, following after something. Following after a god? He felt the weight of them as he felt the weight of Tersia’s need. Would she be the first to follow? Would there be others? He looked up at Cole and saw something in his eyes as he looked at Tersia. Compassion?

“Is this how you feel?” Harl asked him. “About the charm I worked on you. I should not have…”

“Shut up lad.” snapped Cole. “Do it, or don’t do it. But don’t worry about me. My path is your path, whatever happens. Or happened.”

Harl found himself smiling.

“Here, my lady, take my hand again. Let me help you. If only for a little while.”

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