Morning brought more worries. In the night the tailor had taken a turn for the worse, his face paling to bone white and his breathing slowing to a faint rasp. There was also a new problem; among the children a hacking cough was spreading that wracked bodies that were already faint from lack of food and very little water. The adults were fairing little better. Bruises and shallow cuts were common after the skirmish with the farm-voln, but there were also deeper wounds that had been ignored and were enflaming the surrounding skin with streaks of feverish red.
“Is there anything you can do?” Asked Cole in a low whisper as they sat together by the base of one of the arches, both too weak to stand. Cole’s face was gaunt under the stubble on his face, and Harl wondered if he looked the same to him. “Is there some… trick? Some charm?”
Harl focussed his mind on the question, even as the horizon and the sea at its edge swam before his eyes. For all his tricks and his newer ways of making people do what he’d wanted when he’d needed to heal Cole before, when the button men had shot him, it just hadn’t worked. And the desperate refugees needed much more than just healing. He couldn’t just bring food into being or make water spring from the ground for them!
“I… I don’t think so.”
Cole nodded. “I could take Pie and ride back to the farms. Maybe I can beg for some supplies.”
Harl looked down to where Cole was tightly gripping the hilt of his Emphon sword. Beg? Or steal?!
“Don’t look so suspicious! I’d come back, you know I’d have to!”
“No! That’s not what I was thinking-”
Suddenly he was interrupted by movement among the exhausted refugees and the misunderstanding was forgotten. A sea-voln man was slowly getting up from where he lay to point towards the path heading up the slope through the arches.
Harl saw a figure carrying a pack walking towards them. It was a woman, taller than any he’d seen before, walking carelessly with long strides as though the steep and rocky slopes of the mountain were nothing at all to her. As she got closer she changed her path so that she would not have to go directly through the arches, but around them, and then she drew up to where the refugees lay by the side of the path of shattered statues. Cole was on his feet and walking towards her already, and Harl shook himself out of his surprise to rush to catch up by him. The tall man, who’d once loomed over all the boys in the carts, was now dwarfed by the woman; she was near enough seven feet tall. She looked down at Cole with a face weathered and lined, serious dark grey eyes taking him in and then looking beyond him to the rest of the city and sea-voln.
“Long way from your trees, woods-voln.” She spoke in a voice like rich honey, but there was also a stern edge in her tone. “I see city-voln and sea-voln too. Are you all lost?”
“We are not button men.”
“You’d be dead already if you were.” She seemed to wear no weapons, but with her greater size and strength, and their weakness, it might not be bluster on her part to make such a claim. “But you are-”
“Please, we need help.” Harl interrupted.
“You do indeed. And when the city-voln need stronger soldiers to die under roarer’s fire and the lash of whips they come to the mountains. Do the woods-voln now come for more?”
Harl held out his hands in the sign for peace. “Sure is blood is blood, all we need is aid. Emphon has fallen to fire, and we are what remains.”
“Emphon gone?” Said the woman thoughtfully. “After Bridge some time back?”
Harl was confused by her interest. “Yes, Bridge rebuilds. Emphon may do too, if we have help.”
“Lios is old now.” She said, looking intently at the rest of the refugees. “City-voln.” She called out, picking out Alisaya and Tersia in particular. “City-voln, come here and tell me of Lios.”
The ladies walked forward, braver than the other city-voln among the walkers. “Lios is Lios.” Began Alisaya. “He is immortal.”
The woman smiled ruefully. “Isn’t he just! Tell me, does he still attempting his great experiment?”
The others looked confused, but the words reminded Harl of Orinius’ words and his work at the castle. “The measuring? The books of numbers, and the lads in the castle?” He looked up at Cole to measure his response the reminder. But he was looking intently at the mountain-voln and betrayed nothing in his face or eyes.
The woman turned to Harl, and her eyes pierced him. “Yes. The castle.”
“No. The castle has fallen too.”
Shock was clear on the woman’s face. “By the… it has fallen?!”
Harl went to say more, but Cole stopped him. “We need aid. We will tell you everything you want to know about the end of the castle, but for now we need food, water… there are those amongst us who are badly hurt. Dying even. Will you help us, mountain-voln?”
She recovered her composure and focussed on Cole. “The mountains will help their children when asked.” She took off her pack and drew out water skins, hard cheeses, dried meats, and bread. The refugees moved forward to take them and she let them grab them from her hands and tear them into smaller parts. She seemed to note that the food and water was shared with the children first, and nodded. When one of them coughed, the effort shaking his small body, her frown reappeared. She drew out another pouch from under her cloak and handed it to Harl. “Pass this to all who are sick or are hurt. They need to swallow just a fingers pinch with the water. I’ll need to see the worst of them too.”
He opened the strings of the pouch and found it full of a dull grey powder. Quickly he spread word of what to do with it and then led her to the tailor as the refugees cautiously swallowed the strange balm. The little girl was curled up against him, nursing a small bit of bread in her hands but not eating.
“Is this your father, little city-voln?” The large woman asked the child.
“She’s too small to know he isn’t.” Harl replied for her.
“But old enough to know that he is now.” She knelt by the tailor and looked him over, forcing open his eyelids and putting her ear to his chest.
“Are you a healer?”
“A woods-voln Atta-Sutith with hair as red as yours passed through my village once, and I learnt a few things from her.”
The name made ice flow through his veins. “Did she have a daughter?”
“Aye, and a grand-daughter with dark hair like this one.” She pointed at Cole. “You know of her?”
“I think so. What can you do for him?” He looked at the tailor with concern. He looked near enough dead.
“There is blood on his brain. Draining that will help. The powder I gave you will do the rest.”
“What is your name?” Asked Cole, “Who can we thank?”
The woman smiled. “That is not why you want my name. But you can have it. I am Nirayne. I am the warden of these parts for now.” She withdrew a metal object from under her cloak. It was almost like a dagger but it was round and not flat. But it had a point like a blade. “You might not want to look as I do this. And I’ll speak the truth, I normally use this for digging out stones from the hooves of goats and sheep. Likely it will kill him.”
The girl whimpered and held closer to the man. Nirayne looked, regretting her words. “Get the powder and the water and mix them both together into a paste. We’ll need to run it over the wound.”
Harl rushed about getting it done and brought back the thick paste in the hollow of his hand. It reminded him of the god’s bone paste that his mother had worn in the belly of Bara, but if it had been the same thing he might be ranting from its visions already. Instead, all he felt was a subtle warmness were his palm touched the balm. Alisaya took the girl away as Cole and another man strengthened by the food and water braced him on the ground. Harl looked away as suggested, but still heard the man’s low moan as it was done and the whispered cursing of Cole who had decided to watch.
“The blood will stop once the balm is on. Boy, you’re going to have to look to make it happen!”
Harl tried his best to ignore the river of blood coming from the man’s temple and instead focus on smearing the paste there, covering it up. The woman was right, as soon as the paste was on the blood was blocked by it. But there could be no way that the man could survive the releasing of so much blood! Harl noted the girl in Alisaya’s arms. They would have to look after her now.
“Well, that’s done.” Nirayne was wiping her tool clean on the grass nearby. “He’ll live. A half day more and I doubt even the god’s stone could have saved him.”
Harl was amazed at her confidence, but her mention of ‘god’s stone’ caught his ear.
“Stone?”, He asked.
“Aye, there’s more to be said on that. But I won’t.” Her steely eyes shut down further questions. “Where will you go next? The mountains are high and cold. You’ll not like them.”
Cole went to answer but Harl wasn’t done with her.
“We know about the gods’ bones! I’ve seen paste like the one held in my hand and then against that man’s head. I’ve drunk powder in water before-”
“Careful lad.” Said Cole in a low warning voice.
“I’ve drunk powdered bone in water before and changed my face.” He consciously avoided looking at Tersia, but felt her tension. “I have seen prophecy from the lips of… someone wearing bone she’d powdered herself.”
“Is that so?” The woman looked at him blandly. “What you talk about is impurity little woods-voln. Beware that the city-voln about you don’t take your head for it.”
Tersia stepped forward. “Some of us offer our prayers and our curses to the bastard gods.”
“I see, I see. And whose is this?” Nirayne reached into her cloak again and drew something out from the folds and pouches under there. She held it forward, resting in the palm of her hand and Harl recognised his own fox’s skull! She watched his reaction and then passed the skull back to him.
“You and I need to have a talk, away from the others.”
“No.” Cole said simply. “You talk to him, you talk to me too.”
“Well I say not. But does the lad have any say in it?” They both looked to him to decide.
“Cole…” Harl said reluctantly.
“Fine.” Cole walked away, heading towards where Pie was grazing and where voln were slowly getting themselves back to their feet and finding new energy after finishing the supplies and the god’s stone powder.
Harl walked off a ways with Nirayne, jogging a bit to catch up with her long strides. She crouched down and picked up a shattered statue from the long path and turned it over in her hands.
“You were at the castle. Before it fell. You were in one of the cells? In the dark with… something.”
“How do you know about that?”
“Lios thinks himself very smart keeping all his worst sins on the very edge of his world. But they are seen, they are seen. You were changed there. There was a small wound and it was a choosing. And now you are different.”
“Am I like them, the creatures in the dark?”
Harl swallowed hard, feeling ice in his veins. “Will I go mad like them?”
“The castle fell.”
“The castle fell. It has never fallen before. That means that something is different. Perhaps you will be different too.”
“You talk in riddles!”
Nirayne laughed. “True enough. Show me what’s impure about you.”
He held out his hands, palms up, and brought out the small black claws sheathed there. “With these I can climb. I can also make people do what I want them to do.”
“If you touch them?”
“Yes, how did you know..?”
“I have made a mist to make people afraid.”
“It comes from your skin?”
“I am the warden of the arches.” She looked past him, towards them. “They have stood here since the time of the bastard gods. Forgotten by many because they are not on a path to a city. Forgotten by Lios because he took the heads of the worshippers and considered it unworthy of mention in his book. But the stones remember. The arches remember. And if you sleep closer to them tonight, perhaps you will remember too.”
Harl thought of how she had avoided walking through them as she’d come towards the refugees. And his own dream last night, the vision of his fox running up the mountain to find help. How close had he been to the arches then? And had he summoned Nirayne with his dream fox? His fingers closed around the skull, and he carefully tied it back onto his belt.
“Will I understand all this if I do?”
“All? Maybe not. What you need to know now? Perhaps. The bastard gods will decide.” She turned to go.
“Wait! What should we do? Where should we go?”
“The mountains will accept you, little woods-voln. The others… well they will tolerate them for a while. But in the longer term you should think about getting the young and the weak to a city. The lost of Emphon could find shelter in Bara perhaps. I wouldn’t head to Tralis on the front, and Garre is further yet than Bara. I will return tomorrow to hear of your dreams and your plans.”
The mountain-voln walked away, veering from the crowd of refugees and instead circling about the arches to take the path back up the mountain side without going through them.
Harl’s eyes picked out Cole again, and he saw him watching Nirayne depart as he stood by Pie. Harl went to hail him, hoping to explain what he’d heard from Nirayne and to apologise for going along with her secrecy and excluding him. But by then he was already leaping up onto Pie’s back, wheeling her about, and setting her on a course to the south and east. Heading back into the farmlands.