Ghosts’ Prey, Chapter Ten, Part Two

Tersia dropped her veil as they walked back to the temporary camp of the refugees. She let it drop from one hand carelessly, leaving the navy silk snagged on pottery fragments as their steps took them back to the others. She spoke carelessly then of being different, of finding how she was different and of how she had made that work before she’d bought the god’s bone powder. She spoke of her brothers who’d helped her, finding her things to wear and even helping to fancy up her hair as it had grown out. And she spoke of her father who’d cared not one jot for her. She was sad when she spoke of him, telling the two silent woods-voln in a sombre voice about how he’d kept all three of them from his business and from the city, locked up in the old house. He’d jealously guarded his work from them, and them from others, and it had been that that’d made her lies possible for so many years. That and her now dead mother’s love. And the willingness of her brothers to give up their inheritance for her, to let her claim the Ellinostrum name as a woman. Neither had wanted the same power that had turned their father to stone, but even so, stepping aside had enabled her to step forward as she was. And tears were on her cheeks as she told them of that.

And yet, it was with her face unhidden and a smile on her lips that she greeted Lorus Pierson, the city-voln scribe they had last seen pushed through Emphon by the flow of terrified city-voln and sea-voln, as he marched forwards from the others. He was bloodied from a cut across his cheek, and he was as dirtied by soot and smoke and as exhausted looking as they were. He hailed Tersia as they approached, raising an arm covered by an unravelling makeshift bandage, but did not speak until they were very close.

“My lady.” He bowed a little, returning his damaged arm to where he could cradle it with the other.

“You still breathe, Lorus.” There was some of Tersia old spirit in her greeting.

“As do the woods-voln of Geb’s Cant I see.” He bowed again, towards the two of them this time. But Harl was already looking past the new arrival and taking in the state of the other walkers. So when Cole spoke he was surprised by the suspicious edge in his voice.

“How did you find us? We are well off of the road.”

“I was with the rest of the voln fleeing the city.”

“I didn’t see you amid the fighting last night.”

“Aye… well… I’m more a scribe than a fighter.”

“A tailor near had his head taken from his shoulders helping to protect the children…” Cole ignored Tersia’s hand on his arm, trying to calm him. Harl looked intently at Cole. Was he truly upset about the children? After all he’d done at the command of the castle… Or was there something about this Lorus that bothered him specifically? So what if he was a coward, staying back from the fight and following after them when he could? Lorus wouldn’t have been the only city-voln or sea-voln among the refugees to have done so.

“Peace, scout Cole.” Said Tersia. “I have known Lorus for many a’year. He prefers conflict by words, not by arms. He’s served the House of Ellinostrum many times as a man of letters, dealing with missives and numbers for the merchants of Emphon and Bara, but he is no warrior.”

“Thank you for the words of defence, my lady, but I don’t know why ‘scout Cole’ is so bothered. Surely there is plenty else to deal with here. The tailor you spoke of is ailing. There are other wounded, and no plan ahead of where to go.”

Cole sneered and walked past the city-voln, heading to where Pie stood, grazing aimlessly on the salt stunted grass.

Lorus Pierson looked to Harl with bemusement in his eyes. But if he thought Harl would apologise for Cole’s attitude, he was wrong. Harl also walked past the scribe and went to where Alisaya was sat tending to the tailor, the child still in her lap. She nodded at him as he sat beside her.

“That Pierson said he’s ailing.” Said Harl, looking down at the man’s pale face.

“His head has been hit too hard. I don’t know if he can regain his wits. I am no apothecary though. I may be wrong. But I fear I am not.” She said sadly. “We have tried to make him comfortable but we don’t even have the water to spare to ease his thirst.”

An idea began to form in Harl’s mind. “Could he be moved?”

“I do not think that would be a good idea… what have you in mind. Bara is days away.”

“Aye. But the foot of the mountain is closer.”

“And then…?”

“The Mountain-voln… perhaps.”

Alisaya paled, “They have no love for the city-voln, who normally only come to the mountains to take them into the army and to battle. And Lios only knows what they think of woods-voln…”

“True enough. But I don’t think that we have another choice. We could break down the remains of this fence and make some kind of litter that Pie could drag. Tie it together with… I don’t know, scraps of clothes like we made bandages…”

He saw the hope on his face reflected in Alisaya’s for a moment and then it faded quickly. “He might not make it…”

“He might though.” He took her hands in his, conscious for a moment that the wyrd hooks there might disturb her if she felt them come from their homes. But she did not pull away from his touch. “There was a mountain-voln in Bara I saw once. He fought alongside a city-voln and… and a woods-voln.” Memories of Eris’ rage in the Light of Lios flooded his memory and he had to push his guilt aside for a moment to finish his words. “They fought together. Protected each other. Perhaps there is hope that the mountain-voln north of us can help him. Perhaps.”

She nodded, holding the sleeping girl even closer. “We can try.”

It took them hours to spread word of their plan and to convince others to help. Some of the refugees were wandering mindlessly among the untilled grass lands and only blankly looked at them when they tried to convince them to help. Tersia and Lorus were immediately involved. Cole took longer to convince, although he seemed keen on heading back north towards the path of decapitated statues on their way to the feet of the mountains. Actually making the litter, even with the help that they had gathered took time. Strips of cloth were begged for and woven around the fence posts and boards. The children helped as much as they could, even if it was only to calm Pie as the contraption was tied about her. The mare always seemed calmer about the children, as though in a previous time she had been around children a lot.

Eventually they were done, and Harl led the way northwards towards the start of the path of broken pottery. Most of the refugees came with them, but they reluctantly left a few who refused to walk further, or who did not reply to their gentle requests that they follow. They were a smaller band that had started out from Emphon. But the look on Cole’s face when he looked at Lorus suggested that he had not forgotten the man’s sudden appearance. Soon though they were back at the beginning of the path of broken statues, leading Pie to one side of it so that she did not have to walk over the broken shards. Following it further than they had before, nightfall brought them to a part of the forgotten fields were a deep fog rolled down from the mountains and obscured their way. Harl raised his hands in front of his eyes and could not see them a foot in front of his face.

“Can we make it through this?” Asked someone cautiously. It sounded like Alisaya, but Harl looked to where her voice was coming from but could not actually make her out. But they could still see the path of broken shards to their right, so Harl tugged on the makeshift robe about Pie’s shoulders and led her onwards, knowing that the path led towards the north, and so did their hope.

Eventually shapes loomed out of the fog. At first Harl could not recognise what the shapes meant, seeing them through the shroud and at a slight angle. They were at the end of the path and marked where the land began to slope upwards, the grass thinning out and the rocks of the mountains starting to show through. But soon Harl could see that they were ancient stone arches, and as they got closer he could see how tall they were, stood next to each other. They easily overshadowed all the refugees as they drew closer, with a clearance above their heads of a few more feet. And on the arches themselves he could make out marks scored in their stone. As they halted Pie to the side of them, just beside the broken shards, Harl carefully drew closer to them, his feet finding the few spaces between the broken statues. His fingertips traced the lines in the worn stone. Shoulders and heads. And about them there were arrows, crowns, flowers, missing mouths, open eyes, branching antlers, cut throats, vines… They were the bastard gods. He counted them off, twice, and found there to be different numbers each time. Cole drew near.

“Marks of the bastard gods?” His voice echoed in the fog, even as he whispered.

Harl nodded, reluctant to take his fingertips from them. He saw Cole do the same as him, tracing the marks and finding familiar shapes. Patrons? Had Cole ever given the bastard gods his prayers and his curses?

“A marker? A place of worship?” Asked Cole.

“The broken statues… perhaps they were meant to be worshippers. Until someone took their heads.”

“Lios.” Said Cole firmly.

“Seems likely.”

“And beyond the arches?” Harl peered through the fog, counting the arches at the end of the broken shards and noting seven. The path made of pottery led to them and then stopped. But he could just make out dull earth beyond them, marking out a rough track onwards up the mountain’s steep sides.

“There’s a way.” Harl told the older man.

“A way upwards.” Cole grimaced at the thought. They were all tired. Children were sagging in their guardian’s arms as they all stood waiting for their next steps. Harl looked to the tailor on the litter. No one had even gotten his name from him before the attack by the farm-voln. He was still but slowly breathing.

“We must rest.” It was Tersia, walking up with Lorus at her side. “The fog might be enough to keep us from prying eyes. Though I doubt any farm-voln have come this close to mountain-voln lands.”

Harl nodded, but it was Cole who spoke for them, taking the lead. “Rest for now. The climb to the mountain-voln villages will be… difficult.”

Harl found a spot by Cole again as the bone tired man leaned his back against a rising stone arch and closer his forest green eyes. There was no water to pass about now, and hunger clawed at his belly as well. A child cried somewhere nearby, out in the fog, and was comforted.

“Can we even make the climb?”

Cole kept his eyes closed and held his tongue. Harl searched his face for any sign of hope and found non amongst the man’s furrowed brow and thin, stern, lips.

“The mountain-voln won’t let us die.” Harl thought of the mountain-voln he’d stolen from, the man who’d raged in the tavern in Bara. And his companions. The city-voln priest. Eris. A man who would travel with a maimed girl, and help her… there had to be some good in the giants of the mountains. “They won’t, I know it.”

He found that his fingers were mindlessly running over the ridges and smooth planes of the fox’s skull tied at his waist. Then bone became fur under his touch as he ran his fingers down the length of a spine that hadn’t been there a moment before. The fox darted away, a shadow in the fog, as Harl unleashed its skull from his belt. Its face was still white bone, looking back at him for a heartbeat before skittering over the broken statues, and heading between the middle of the arches. Harl’s mind flew with the beast as it bounded up the path, its red tail barely a flash of colour in the whiteness of the shrouding fog. Higher and higher it ran, tracing the hunter’s trail they’d seen on the other side of the archways, a path that zig zag up the steepening sides of the foot of the mountain range. It paused, panting with it boney jaw open and no tongue inside, and then darted onwards towards a small valley between the main slope and a spike of the mountain’s reach. There the earth had been carved into terraces but time had worn away the sharp edges and grass had reclaimed the space from any crops. The fox ran across the flattened green spaces and darted towards an abandoned firepit, circling it twice before running on, a scent in mind, towards a low weather-battered tent. The flap was closed, and the fox nosed at it with the white bone of its face. A shape moved inside.

The vision faded as Harl shifted in his sleep, his hand reaching for the fox’s skull tied at his waist. But he was too deep in his sleep to notice its absence.

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