Nirayne’s return from the mountain was heralded by a yell from the man her powder had saved. The tailor was still weak and wore a thick scrap of cloth about his head, but his wits had returned well enough to see the large woman striding down the mountain path before anyone else did. He also pointed towards the men that she had brought with her. More mountain-voln.
Just like Nirayne had done before, all four of the mountain-voln avoided walking through the arches. But as they drew closer one of them noticed that there was a new arch, risen in the night from nowhere, and the four of them fell suddenly to arguing. A sword was drawn, one that was almost as long as Harl, but it was put away again after Nirayne seemed to calm them with her words and gesturing towards the refugees’ new campsite, which they had set up in the night at a greater distance away from the new arch. The mountain-voln joined the refugees by their dying campfire.
“Where is the woods-voln?” Asked Nirayne, looking about for him, her creased eyes squinting in the morning grey light.
Harl stepped forward and found himself immediately towered over by the four mountain-voln.
With Nirayne were two men and another woman. All three of the newcomers wore more ornately embroidered cloaks and shirts beneath them than the older woman. Like her, they all wore their dark hair long, and had the braids within them clasped at the end with folds of metal. But unlike Nirayne, their hair was well-kept in tidy golden fastenings and neat plaits so that Nirayne’s hair looked even more nest like in comparison with them. One of the men, older than the other, roughly took Harl’s hands and turned them over to run a fingertip over the sheathed claws there. Cole took a step closer, but the other mountain-voln growled and quickly put their hands to the grips of their great swords.
“It could be true.” Said the man, begrudgingly.
“You saw the arch, Alnim!” Insisted Nirayne. “Last night he dreamt here.”
“There have been dreamers before.” Alnim shrugged, his fur covered shoulders disturbing the flapping of his slate grey cloak.
“Not like this. And Emphon has fallen.”
Alnim humphed, and peered down at Harl. “And you, boy, what did you dream of?”
Harl looked about at the other refugees nervously, catching Cole’s curious eyes in particular. “Um… the bastard gods, I think.”
A hiss from the city-voln and sea-voln in their number. Cole drew his Emphon made steel, and turned to face them with its edge ready to defend Harl. “Hush your mouths now, you are in the lands where there are still worshippers of the bastard gods!”
“Impure!” A city-voln yelled and spat into the ground, his eyes full of indignation. “Lios will restore us!”
“And where is your god-king now? Where is he?! His prophets burned your own bloody city!” Cole snapped back at him.
The oldest mountain-voln whacked the flat of his blade against a nearby rock, and a loud vibrating sound rang out as it tremored, drowning the city-voln and sea-voln anger and vitriol that had flowed back to Cole after his retort.
“Enough!” the mountain-voln bellowed and they all stilled for a moment as Alnim turned back to Harl, “And what did the bastard gods want of you, small woods-voln?”
Harl felt the others’ stares. “They asked me what I wanted. Or one of them did. And I wanted to see… to see them as they sat about their campfire, just there. But then he left, and I was angry that they did not still walk the world now to stop Lios, and all that he does.”
“And the arch?”
“I… I did that. I think.”
The refugees drew back from him. Even Cole looked concerned.
Nirayne smiled darkly at her companions. “Well, did I not tell you?!”
“Aye, you did goat-hag, you did.” Said their leader begrudgingly. “And in your dreams have they told you of him?”
“No. I did not know he was here until a night or so past. He called me from my tent.”
Harl’s fingers touched to the smoothness of the fox’s skull at his waist, remembering the odd sending he’d had, the running of the dead fox.
“You, boy, you will come with us. The rest of you can get back to your own lands.” Alnim said with finality, already making to leave.
A cry of concern went up from the refugees. The tailor stepped forward, the girl in his arms again. “Please, we cannot walk all the way to Bara with no aid! She helped us, why will you not?!” He said, pointing to Nirayne.
“What the goat-hag does is her concern. She is not a part of our voln. She walks the boundaries because she is not welcome among our villages. And neither are you.”
The other two mountain-voln unsheathed their great swords. The mountain-voln were greatly outnumbered, but only by desperately weak and demoralised voln. The refugees backed away, some holding out their hands in the sign for peace, others glaring at the lack of compassion from the mountain-voln.
“Nirayne, please!” Harl begged of her. “They need aid!”
Nirayne glared at Alnim even as she replied to Harl. “He’s right. I have no claim to the supplies of my people, for they do not think of me as being of their people. I helped you as much as I could, as walker of the boundaries. There is nothing more I can give you!”
Harl felt desperation and anger welling up within him, and he made a sudden grab for Alnim’s bare arm, intending to force him, to charm him, into helping them. His fingertips made slight contact with the thick dark hair on the mountain-voln’s arm, but the old warrior was quicker on his feet than the plump city-voln tradesman that Harl had learnt his quick-skills on, and he was a step away from him in but a moment.
“What!” Raged Alnim, unsure of Harl’s intent since he bore no weapon, except the claws in his hands the man had seen. “Scratch me will you?!” He spat on the ground by Harl’s feet, “I’ve faced off against mountain lynx, you think your claws will harm me?”
There was movement among the refugees as they listened in to the mountain-voln’s words. Harl looked back at the voln behind him, seeing revulsion in their eyes. Some seemed to be mouting the word ‘impure’. Tersia’s eyes caught his own and he saw only compassion. It was echoed in Alisaya’s. And in… Cole’s?
“I wasn’t trying to hurt you.”
“As if you could!”
“These people will die if you don’t help them, I was only going to beg for their sake.”
Alnim sneered, “Never met a woods-voln that would beg for the sake of city and sea-voln!”
Nirayne stepped before the large man, “See!! See, it is as I said. Time is changing!”
“I don’t care for your blathering about time goat-hag”, he yelled back at her. “If he’s chosen as you say, let him prove it with some magic making that will convince me!”
Nirayne went to point towards the new arch, but Alnim cut her off. “No, not something I didn’t see happen. Make something happen… now.”
Harl swallowed, feeling all the eyes of the refugees and the mountain-voln upon him. He flexed his fingers, unsure where to even begin, what the trick of this might be. What he had done for Tersia was too subtle, unless the viewer knew what she was. His claws had not impressed Alnim. The fog of fear he’d made before might convince him…
“Hurry lad, I am not a patient man!”
Panic and desperation fuelled his next move. As he stood before all of the voln and felt their judgement of him he reached for the fox’s skull at his waist and filled it with the power within him, making the dream a reality. Throwing the white bone away from him, Harl shaped the power into the black whisp of a body that tumbled after the skull and grabbed a hold of it, forming the four legs and whipping tail of the curious beast that sniffed at the air with a the space where its sensitive nose had once been. It scampered and skipped around the feet of the mountain-voln, who were torn between smacking at it with their blades or darting away in fear from the beast returned from the dead. But he called the shadow back from the creature after a moment and the skull fell and rolled on the long grass of the plain.
He looked into eyes horrified by what they had seen. Some of the refugees backed further away again, several breaking and running from the sight of the eyeless skull. Tersia and Alisaya were pale but steadfast. And Cole, who’d seen other tricks from Harl, was apparently unwavering even if Harl noticed a slight quake in the steel he still held in his right hand.
Nirayne was the first to speak. “Do you think me wrong now, Alnim?”
She strode forward defiantly to collect up the skull and to return it to Harl, apparently unafraid of the ‘life’ he’d put into it. He tied it back at his waist, concentrating on the knots to ignore the faces about him.
“So, it might be as you said, goat-hag.” Alnim admitted, “Does that mean we have to help the others?”
Harl took the measure of the man, gauging quite how much fear he’d put into him even if he was hiding it well. “Yes, I command it.”
“You command… you command the mountain-voln?!”
“Aye.” Said Harl simply.
A stream of curses flew from the man’s cracked lips before he took a deep breath. “Fine. Fine! The mountain passes are clear to you. You and as many as still walk with you can come under the protection of the Servants of the Mountains. We will watch your paths and guide your feet. Give you food and warmth. This I swear by She Who Shaped the Skies.” He bowed low, and Harl returned the gesture, making certain not to bow as low as Alnim.
The mountain-voln snapped at Nirayne. “We will go and fetch others to walk by their side, and some decent bloody clothes for them to wear in the passes. Stay and enjoy your moment of victory, goat-hag!”
Nirayne did indeed watch the departure of the mountain-voln with a look of pleased self-congratulation on her weathered face. Harl had other concerns however. The refugees were either dispersed or watching him with great concern. Walking towards Cole he felt the others shrink away. He wanted to be back in their rooms in Emphon. Two woods-voln hidden away from the world in their own private place, not stared at and considered as he was now.
“A new trick?” Cole asked, a casual tone in his voice sounding forced as he looked over his companion with much more concerned eyes.
“I… I don’t know how I…”
They were interrupted by a few of the voln drawing closer. Tersia, Alisaya, the tailor and the child, Lorus, some other faces he had come to know. They seemed scared, but also eager to be nearer to him, which he could not say for some of the others who were already just dark specks moving away in the morning light.
Unspoken words rested on the lips of all those who had stayed however. He answered them all by repeating his words to Cole.
“I don’t know how I did it.”
Alisaya nodded, “It does not matter how you did it, only that you did. That you can.”
Tersia, who had already been the recipient of his power, also agreed, moving closer to touch him gently on the arm. And until then he had not realised how much he craved an accepting touch, the recognition that he was still flesh and blood, no matter what he did with this wyrd power in him. She spoke quietly to him, “You helped us when no one else could.”
Cole, still at more than an arm’s length away, considered the crowd of well-wishers. “Aye, well, you convinced them and that’s the main thing.”
“He’s saved us!” Said Alisaya enthusiastically.
Harl remembered Cole in the farm-volns’ home, putting his life on the line to get them more food. “I’m not the only one who-”
But Cole was walking away from the crowd, letting others take his space to mutter thanks at Harl and heading towards where Pie was grazing, happier away from the other voln as usual.