Ghosts’ Prey, Chapter Ten, Part Four

“Are you afraid that he won’t return?”

Harl looked up from the ember he’d been staring at and looked through the flames to where Alisaya sat, her face lit up as she sat on the other side of the campfire. She waited for his response, compassion in her eyes. He looked down again, letting his eyes be filled by the red, orange, and white.

“Dunno.”

There had been much discussion about setting this fire. Some had been afraid that it would draw sharp scythes to them again, but louder voices had brought up the cold winds whipping down the mountain range’s peaks. Huddling together under fire damaged cloaks and uncured stolen sheepskin could only do so much for those only just about recovered from their wounds. In the darkness of late evening the campfire’s flames were outrageously bright, and Harl understood the fears of another attack. But there was also something comforting about being able to use the tinder that Nirayne must have left for them to find in the rubble about the arches and to have real warmth again. And Harl had been transfixed by the flickering shapes for a long time now, trying not to think about Cole in the farmlands. He let the long lengths of his hair fall down over his eyes and limit his vision even more.

“I’m sure he will. I saw him fighting the farm-voln. He wants to help us.”

“He is woods-voln though…” Lorus Pierson began and then faltered as he realised his words could be heard by Harl as well. “I mean… nothing against the woods-voln in general, but Cole is his own person. He lived in Emphon, but he wasn’t really from Emphon. Maybe when the steel is drawn he’ll choose to make his own way rather than fight for a few scraps for us.”

Harl looked up at the city-voln. He was sat about the fire as well, between two city-voln Harl didn’t know by name. He thought he saw the barest of nods from the two men as Pierson finished speaking. Tersia was there too, cradling the tailor’s child as she slept. A frown sprang up on her forehead and she spoke with an earnest voice.

“I gave Cole enough chances to be self-interested in Emphon. And each time chose my cause.”

“Aye, when there was a soft bed and some pay at the end of it.” Lorus muttered. “I’m just saying he has no blood ties to the rest of us.”

“And you’re not all city-voln here at the base of the mountains.” Harl said in a dark voice. “You walk with sea-voln too, don’t forget. And you were happy enough to sup with them in the Cant of Lios. And to take the food from Nirayne Mountain-Voln.”

White haired men nodded. There were certainly more city-voln among the refugees than sea-voln; perhaps because the first crescent where the sea-voln dominated had gone up in flames first and their ships had become their tombs. But there were enough for Harl’s words to have impact.

A chill suddenly ran through Harl’s blood and he shivered as he realised something. There were no Denosians among them, their golden hair and skin completely absent from the hungry and cold people about the campfire. Any slaves in the city had died there too, in the flames that had eaten the ships first. And some of these men would have been slavers. Men now desperate for hope and light had been the same ones who’d put Denosians in chains. A moment of grief for Ilv’Andri grabbed him deep in his chest, and he looked back into the flames, trying to block out the conversation that followed.

“Aye, of course. But woods-voln don’t live among the streets and the harbours as the city-voln and the sea-voln did in Emphon.”

“Cole did.” That was Tersia, and Harl wished she’d just let it go. He’d either come back or he wouldn’t. And if he didn’t it might not be because he hadn’t wanted to. The charm on him might mean he couldn’t abandon them. Abandon him. But there were plenty of other dangers out there that might stop him from making it back to them…

“Only for a year or so, if Geb told me true. There’s been woods-voln before. Nomad-fever gets them in the end and they move on.”

“Didn’t you come from Bara at first? Or was it Liosinium?” Tersia asked archly.

“Aye, well…” Lorus said uncomfortably, “But at least I came from the cities of Lios.”

“So it’s because he’s not city-voln?” Asked one of the sea-voln, smirking a bit at the scribe’s discomfort.

“No, because like I said sea-voln and city-voln live near enough side by side in the sea-touched cities like Emphon and Karid.”

“Dig deeper lad.” Laughed the sea-voln. “I’ve no love for woods-voln either. But the lady is right, he fought alongside us when the farm-voln came. I know blood is blood, but sometimes steel matters as well.” He shrugged.

Harl didn’t care about their comments about woods-voln. Lorus was right in a way. Cole was Cole. He wasn’t even likely to be like other woods-voln. Like Harl he’d grown up on the streets. Nomad-fever took his mother and he was born in Liosinium as Harl had been born in Bara. If Cole was able to go his own way, it would be no different to the rest of the times he’d carved his own path. From Liosinium and somehow then to the castle. To Bara and then back again. The journey the two of them had been on since the fall of the castle. Cole would walk his own way. Even if that meant leaving Harl. He hugged his knees to his chest and stared into the fire again.

Eventually the murmuring of sea-voln and city-voln voices muted in his ears, and he allowed himself to drop sideways to the uneven and cold ground, to lay his head on his hands and to shiver until sleep claimed him. Nirayne had told him to dream under the arches, but he was too exhausted to fight back against sleep’s charm of him. Tomorrow night, if we are still here, tomorrow night he promised himself.

Dreams did however claim him, and he found himself stood in the chill night air on the grass plain below the shoulders of the mountains. There was no sign of the path made from the shattered statues, or even of the stone arches. But there was the familiar red orange glow of a campfire, not far from where they had made their own. Figures, dark shadows against the light, were laughing and joking as they shared food, drink, and stories.

“Boy!” One of them shouted, the sound of his bellow drifting over the grass towards Harl. “Boy, here!”

He started forward before he realised that there was a smaller shadow sprinting about the fire, bringing wineskins to those sitting there that was responding to the call. But Harl carried on his steps, getting close enough to make out the men and women there, the weapons resting by their sides, and their number. Except, even as he watched them, they seemed to blur and move so that he could not have told another whether there were twelve, twenty, or more of them. One moment he was sure he was looking at an army about the fire, and the next he wasn’t sure if there wasn’t more than a handful of them. Just as the bastard gods carved into the arches had resisted being counted, the figures around the flames danced in front of his eyes as he tried to identify them. A bow slung across a back. A brace of daggers in sheaths along one’s thighs. A crown resting on a head already crowned with a wild plume of hair. The… the bastard gods?!

“Ho! Ho, sleeper!”

The voice came from behind him, and Harl turned his face away from the red glow of the campfire to see a figure walking towards him. He strode with confidence, long legs bringing him closer and into the range of the light. But Harl found that he could not raise his eyes nor focus them well enough to make out more than a general shape to the walker or to see much beyond his waist where a crude sword hung.

“Well met sleeper.” His voice came from a thousand yards away and was also intimately close to his ear, all at the same time. “You have our hospitality. All of you that sleep here are welcome.”

“Thank you.” Words emerged from his mouth cautiously. “I was told to dream. By Nirayne.”

The figure may have nodded, but the shape of its motion was unclear, as though Harl was seeing him through the bubbled glass of the castle. “She knows well about the dreams you can have here. Tell me, what would you see, here at the boundary between lands?”

Harl looked back again at the figures at the campfire. “I could ask to see you, couldn’t I?”

“You could.”

“Nirayne said you would decide what I needed to know.”

“Some sleep, some dream, and some remember. And a few, not many, they decide. Which do you think you are?”

“I want to see Cole.” He said firmly.

The figure moved and again Harl was not certain whether it was to nod, or in disturbance at his request.

“It is your decision.” The figure said finally.

Harl found himself standing in another open, flat space. But where there had been the gently undulating grasslands at the base of the mountain he was now standing on soil rent by farm-voln tools and labouring animals. He could see Pie standing alone on the king’s road as a dark shadow clambered over a wooden fence nearby to run across in front of Harl and then crouch below a window loosing firelight and the noises of people talking onto the broken flagstones outside. Harl tried to whisper to Cole as he passed, but the sound was ignored by the determined man. Harl watched him mutely as he drew his Emphon steel and moved along to darker shadows behind the farmstead building. The chatter inside continued uninterrupted for long moments more until a heart-shaking scream tore into Harl, followed by the jangling noise of breaking pots and plate. The dark shape of Cole raced from the building, followed seconds after by three men, grabbing with their bare hands. Cole’s blade was in his hands but he didn’t turn to fight, even though he would have had the advantage. He was soon back to Pie and astride her before the farm-voln men could catch him, his woods-voln fleetness serving him well as he raced away from them. Pie, her white fur showing up in the moonlight, worked herself up into a cantor, the great horse’s plate wide hooves cutting the king’s road as Cole pointed her back to the north, leaping a fence when he needed to drive her eastwards and back to the refugees.

North and eastwards Harl’s dream raced him, bringing him back to the refugees campfire just as Cole returned, time creasing itself up to run the moment of escape together with the moment of return. A strange doubling happened as Harl could see himself laying by the fire while he could also see the fire of the bastard gods burning nearby, with all the figures still around it.

“Ho, sleeper.” It was the blurred walker again. “You have returned to the boundary.”

“He came back.”

“Bearing gifts as well I see.”

Harl watched as Cole was greeted by Tersia who was still awake, her young charge still in her arms. And he saw Cole pass her bags, woven from rough hemp and full of his stealings. She brought out hard cheeses, bread, cured meats and pots of what might have been honey or milk. Others around the campfire who were awake greeted the food warmly, and by extension Cole. Even Lorus Pierson stood to clap Cole on the back, a gesture that he seemed to suffer rather than enjoy.

Harl watched Cole take up a place at the campfire, sharing in the spoils of his raid, but keeping some of his share back, hidden in the inner pockets of his worn coat. He watched as Cole looked down at his sleeping body, lying nearby between two oblivious city-voln children. There was relief in his eyes. Perhaps he’d been feeling the draw of the charm and the sickness that came when he didn’t obey. Travelling with Harl had been the happiness he had charged Cole to follow. Leaving them would have taken him away from that. But maybe there could be another happiness out there for the tall man. The road that had taken him back to the farmlands could have taken him on to the rebuilt Bridge, or southwards to Garre and Liosinium. There were other futures ahead of them. He looked towards the second campfire, where the bastard gods still sat and laughed together.

“Where go you, lad?” asked the boundary walker.

“I want to see them. Properly. I want to know who they are. What they laugh about.”

The blurred face of the walker was inscrutable. “Time to wake.”

“No! I want to know!” Anger bubbled inside him. “What are you doing? Laughing and drinking while Lios dominates the world?! While prophets preach blood and fire?! While men die fighting in the east?! While children hurt children!”

Eris’s face came to mind, rolled in with the slack dead faces of the other lads in the castle. “Where were you?!”

The walker waved his hand and the image of the gods about the campfire shimmered and faded. “Gone. This is just a dream, sleeper. We have not walked these lands for centuries. Broken statues and broken arches mark the way, but the makers are gone.”

Harl frowned. “No! That’s not good enough! What gods are you that you would leave us to Lios’ reign?!”

The walker began to fade. “What gods indeed.”

Harl threw a flailing punch into the disappearing shape of the walker with a yell of frustration. But there was nothing left to connect with. The god was right, the bastard gods were gone. Rage building, he stormed towards the arches, clenching his fists. He beat them against the rough worn stone of them, hitting the shapes of the bastard gods there. But it was as though he was fighting clouds, his dreaming shape made no mark on the ancient stones. Even so he found falling to the ground in tears of anger, on his knees as his hands pressed into the grass and soil beneath them.

“Curse you!” He hissed, “Damn you!”

For years the bastard gods had gotten his prayers and his curses, but now they came flowing from him with even more venom, as though he could spit up greening and poison his enemies. He poured it from himself into the ground, trying to rid himself of the ache of his disappointment. And the ground pushed back.

He moved back quickly as a tremor ran through the soil, racing towards the arches from where he had touched the ground, rumbling and railing with his anger and shaking the soil apart as stone emerged and grew upwards. At first it was like a creeping vine, but quickly the flow was slowing and squaring itself into edges and corners. A rounded top was made from two branches of the flowing stone coming together and setting, leaving a space below where even the tallest mountain-voln could pass through. A new arch.

Harl was woken by chaos. Around him the other voln were standing up quickly and then scattering as though something had terrified them, urging yells and screams from mouths. He felt Cole’s hand on his upper arm as the man roughly grabbed him and then dragged him backwards from the fire and the arches just beyond it. And it was lit up by the flames, the newly formed arch. It loomed over them all, standing proudly where there had not been one before he had gone to sleep. Harl remained next to Cole, staring at the new but ancient shape, unable to form words as he mutely lay where he’d been dragged to.

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