It was as simple as putting one foot in front of the other. Something that they had all been doing on the long path from Emphon, even if they’d be in bad shape while doing it. But for Harl and a few of the others the path upwards through the pine tree covered feet of the mountains seemed to demand more than their rapid escape from the crescent city had done. The slopes had started as gentle as the undulations of the grasslands they were leaving behind, but too soon they had become as steep as the banks of the canals of Bara. The sea-voln seemed more at ease walking upwards, they had spent their lives walking up the waves their ships had crested and that they had spent their evenings in the Cant of Lios bragging about. But the city-voln, and Harl, struggled with the change in the world, the upwards tilt of the earth as it seemed the ground was coming up to face them. The soil skittered under their aching feet, sending stones and pine cones to roll down and trip up those behind them.
Nirayne was ahead of them but glaring back fiercely as yet another group of city-voln called for the mercy of a moment’s rest against a slate grey boulder. Other mountain-voln had arrived at their rough camp later in the day, their brows free from sweat as they’d casually made their way down the hidden mountain ways to the refugees. A few of them were helping the voln from the flat lands: carrying children on their immense shoulders or supporting older city-voln as they stumbled upwards. As Harl was neither a child nor an elder he’d tried to hide his exhaustion as the climb continued upwards.
“Can’t you… you know… do something?” It was Alisaya. She was sweaty of face as she marched upwards, the effort of it heating her through the growing chill that had made the mountain-voln’s gifts of basic cloaks and furs so welcome at first, before the long walk had truly begun. Tersia kept pace alongside her, free of her veil and just as slick with sweat in her ragged dark blue gown.
“Blasphemy.” Tersia gently chided her cousin, who then somehow found an even deeper shade of red for her cheeks to go, even with them already bright and glowing with the ascent.
“I don’t… know… what…” Harl was breathless. He’d considered himself to be more fit for battle than most of the sluggardly city-voln of Emphon, but perhaps even the time they’d spent rolling barrels up the slope from the first crescent to the Cant of Lios hadn’t truly prepared him for this climb. His eyes sought out Cole and found him behind them, walking with one arm slung over Pie’s neck. Either he was helping the great horse upwards, or, more likely, he was drawing on the beast’s strength.
Harl eased his pace until he drew back and level with him. “The mountains seem to touch the sky.” He said in a hoarse breath, “Will we ever reach the top?”
“The top? No, lad. We’ll not aim for the top. Up there is snow and ice. Danger to voln like us that have never seen them before. No…” Cole paused, regaining his breath, “No, we’ll reach the terraces of these mountain-voln soon enough, and then there will still be a seeming eternity of stone above us.”
Cole’s words made Harl pause. “You’ve been to the mountains before?”
The tall man laughed darkly, “You think that there was anywhere Orinius and his predecessors didn’t send the carts? A fool’s bloody errand to be sure. Mountain-voln children are near warriors from the womb, so we lost quite a few masters on those bloody expeditions. But I got to see the whiteness of the snow for myself once when we turned towards the north instead of the south. Some of the masters near pissed themselves before they’d dare to touch the white and be chilled by it. I kind of liked it myself.” He stopped, making Pie halt as he gathered his breath, “It were like this then too. The slope kills you and then later the air disappears as the cold fingers of the mountains creep under your skin and touch you to the bone.” He shrugged his shoulders under the plain grey cloak gifted to him by a mountain-voln. “This won’t keep them out.”
Harl looked about at the long line of refugees, a winding line of stragglers and stumblers. “Perhaps the ones who ran had the better idea.”
“No. You did what was necessary by whatever means were necessary, pure or impure or whatever they want to bloody well call it. The mountains and the tents of the mountain-voln were our only hope.”
“Even if we die on the path there?”
“It won’t happen. The mountain-voln want you alive.”
“And the rest of them?” He gestured back to the refugees. “Did I really work out the trick of it with that dumb show with the fox, or will they leave them all behind even if I tell them not to?”
Cole met his gaze and held his eyes with his own. “Are you asking me for a prophecy?”
“No. I just meant-” the words scrambled from his lips as he cursed himself for raising the ghost of Cole’s pet annoyance. Prophecies were for fools.
Cole laughed, enjoying Harl’s squirming. “Peace, lad. But I can’t tell you if you did good or not. The mountain-voln will give these people some rest and food. After that… well, if you can use whatever it is that runs in your veins to convince them to do more, perhaps this gods thrice damned walk up the side of a damned mountain will be worth it!”
Harl felt his own smile creeping across his face. They should not be friends, but there was something about Cole’s bluntness that made him feel even closer to the tall man.
“I miss our room in Emphon.”
“Above the Cant? Aye, well it was warm enough.” Said Cole, drawing that mountain-voln cloak closer to him. “Well, warm enough until the prophets bloody well set it on fire!”
Harl’s smile turned into slight laughter, and the sound caught in the ears of the girl in the tailor’s arms as the two of them drew near. She mimicked him, giggling even as her guardian huffed and puffed his way up the path.
“Glad that you young people can laugh while us older voln take the strain.” Said the man through gritted teeth, plodding one foot after the other and getting quickly beyond the two woods-voln and the horse.
“I still don’t know that man’s name.” Muttered Cole under his breath, “And now it might be too late to bloody well ask!”
Harl’s small laughter grew into something full grown and the walkers threw him surprised glances. Cole looked at him with an unreadable expression.
“Come on now lad, keep walking. No doubt there’s an age to go before we can rest properly.”
Hours later and their winding upwards path took them through a darkened place where the pines grew thick and close together. Beyond that shadowed part was a junction between two eruptions of rock that made a narrow channel to get them all through. But on the other side was a flattened space, overlooking the plains so far below and carved into numerous terraces where giant men and women were bent over tending crops. A few of the city-voln were confused by the mountain-voln acting as though they were farm-voln and said as much, but Harl thought it made sense. The mountain-voln never dealt with the other voln at all. Apart from being collected by the button men to join the forces at the Front they never traded, nor even spoke, with the other volns. How else were they to have food? They could not hunt as the woods-voln did…
His thought was interrupted by the sight of two mountain-voln carrying a deer-like beast between them, slung up on a branch just as a woods-voln hunt might be. It was his turn for his jaw to hang lose. Cole noticed his surprise, as well as that of the city-voln and laughed darkly.
“They hunt just like woods-voln, eh? On the carts we masters saw all the kinds of voln. Sometimes we are not so different as we think.”
Nirayne was near enough to hear his words and hissed. “Let not Alnim hear you say such a thing. The mountain-voln are not like city-voln, nor woods, nor any else.”
Harl looked up at the windswept woman. Goat-hag the leader of the mountain-voln had called her, and there was a little similarity with those beasts he’d seen chained to posts by farm-voln at the trading squares of Bara. She was loud, gruff, and… un-liked. “Why do the mountain-voln call you different, even to them?”
Nirayne near growled at him. “Mind your tongue. There’s things I don’t want the others to be reminded of.”
But Harl wondered if it was already too late for the old woman. Around them mountain-voln stared at her almost as much as they stared at the land-locked sea-voln and the wall-less city-voln. A few muttered ill words as she passed by them, heading with the winding chain of refugees towards where leathers were stretched over frames to make half round houses nestled against the walls of the mountain. ‘Goat-hag’ he heard, as well as ‘dirt-lover’ and ‘impure’. She spat back words and gestures that Harl did not recognise entirely, but he got their meaning. The old woman had been camping by the roots of the mountains, closer than any to the plains of the farm-voln. She was an outcast.
“Why do they taunt you?” Harl asked.
“I don’t give a hisho for their insults boy. And nor should you.”
Harl let the unusual word go, reacting instead to her advice. “They’ll say the same about me?”
“They’ll see you as betwixt and between like me. But hear me… that’s where the power lies. Trust me boy, the power in your blood is only half of the thing. Summoning dead foxes or raising stone arches will shake the world. But them lot not knowing who or what you are will shake the people.”
“Do you have… a power?”
“No boy. I made a choice once that took me away from my voln. I weren’t the first and won’t be the last. But they don’t forget neither.”
They reached the tents and Harl saw how they hugged the steep sides of the mountains so that one wall would always be made of their stone. Some of their party were directed to campfires and to bedrolls, but Harl was approached by two mountain-voln wearing strange repeating lattices of grey metal under their furs and holding greatswords.
“Alnim wants to see you woods-voln.” Said one, his stance broking no defiance. Harl shrugged and stepped forward to follow, pleased that Cole, Tersia and Alisaya went to move with him.
“Just the red hair.”
“Fuck off.” Growled Cole. The greatsword was swept from its casual stance to a place just left of his neck.
“Calm Renraln.” Chuckled Nirayne. “The woods-voln doesn’t have to go alone.”
“What do you know goat-hag? Why do stand with them? Are you lying with woods-voln now too?”
Nirayne’s face betrayed her anger, but she took a step back. “As you wish, Renraln.”
Harl nodded at Cole and the man took his own step away from the fight, but glaring at the mountain-voln anyway.
The inside of the domed tent was warmer than Harl had expected given that the furthest end was the bare rock of the mountain, complete with lichens and small defiant plants. Alnim sat cross legged by a large basin of water bubbling over a low fire at the centre of his accommodations. A woman drew a cup full of the water and brought it to Harl. She was of an age with Alnim.
Harl took the cup, noting that it was made of some animal’s horn he did not recognise, and looked into the liquid. It was not just water, there was a dull grey tint to it.
“We can not use greenings as woods-voln do. We aren’t trying to poison you.” Said the woman with a warm smile.
“No. But Nirayne used a grey powder mixed into water to heal…”
“Nirayne!” spat the woman suddenly, all pretence of warmth gone. “The witch has the knowing of the stones and uses it on other voln! You have to punish the goat-hag Alnim!”
“Feyn, peace. She is the boundary walker. She has her duties as we have ours.” Snapped Alnim.
“She is a wretched, foul-”
“Peace!” He bellowed, and both Harl and Feyn jumped in surprise.
A crashing sound outside began even before Alnim’s shout had faded from their ears, and moments later Cole had burst through the flaps of the domed tent and rushed to Harl’s side, panting slightly as though he had run from Bara to be there. A greatsword was now held by his right hand, the point dragging buried in the dark soil and rugs of the tent as he regained his strength. The knuckles of that hand were red and raw.
“What did you do to my guards?!” Roared Alnim.
Cole ignored him and looked Harl over quickly, “You’re well?”
“GUARDS!” Alnim yelled again.
Men ran in, towering over the two woods-voln. One seemed to no longer have his sword, but he could then grab Cole by both his arms and force him to his knees as he pinned them behind his back, making him yell out in pain and drop the greatsword. The guard pushed his knee deep into Cole’s back and the yell grew.
“Stop this!” Shouted Harl, his hands snapping taut, the claws unsheathing in the palms of them.
“Peace!” Alnim shouted again, and all noise in the tent stopped apart from Cole’s pained groaning as the mountain-voln kept him in his torturous position. “Your companion has assaulted my guards!”
“He was coming to my aid!” Snapped back Harl, his hands curling and uncurling and the claws within them doing the same. “Let… Him… Go!”
Alnim smiled mockingly at Harl, but still he nodded at the guard. Cole was flung down onto a brown and red rug, gasping as his stretched out muscles and chest sang with pain.
“Is this how guests are treated by the mountain-voln?!” Harl barked at him.
“Guests?! You’re trespassers and outcasts! And you… you’re the worst of the lot!” Alnim raged at him, spittle flying from his lips as his face reddened. He was easily head and shoulders taller than him, and twice as wide. “Impure little hisho! Nirayne might think the wyrd in you makes you worthy of saving, but I see nothing of the stones in you! You are a corruption, not a bastard god made flesh. Let Nirayne take you onwards to the next village nor’wards, or keep you for her fancy, I care not!”
Harl was confused, but the tension that filled the room gave him little space to question the mountain-voln leader’s meaning. Feyn was right at his side sending daggers with her eyes, and Cole and the guards were a heartbeat away from taking their heads with their greatswords. That Cole had gotten past them – had stolen one of their swords – was a gods’ blessed moment of chance that they’d not see again. And Cole was now torn and wracked with pain, lying on the floor. There’d be no other chance to over-power them-
A thought occurred to Harl. Another trick sneaking into his mind like a silver whisper of the fog of fear. The fog itself wasn’t an option, there were too many damned swords too damned near and his head would be gone the moment he started to push the fog from himself. But strength might still be the key…
“You are weak.” Harl said simply, his voice low and determined. “And your guards were weak because of you. Could a woods-voln ever have pushed his way into your presence when you were young and strong? Your days of leading this village are ending Alnim Mountain-Voln.”
Alnim growled, “I could crush your skull with one hand!”
“Then let us try, arm against arm, to see who is the little hisho and who is the strong one.”
Alnim was taken back for a moment before bursting into deafening laughter. He stopped only to take a drink from the pot in the centre of the room, wiping the ends of it away from his grey whiskers and beard. “You think you can arm wrestle me?”
It had been a popular sport in the Cant of Lios, and one of a number of ways of sorting out disputes that was unique amongst them all in not involving the spilling of voln blood. At least not at first. Sometimes daggers still came out after the tests of strength, but not often. Harl had tried it once or twice, finding a few reluctant city-voln to try his arm against. But most in the Cant only wrestled voln to voln – city-voln with city-voln, sea-voln with sea-voln – for fear of impurity. And Harl began to see that fear creeping into Alnim’s eyes. Harl was woods-voln. More than that, he was obviously impure. Alnim had seen the changes he had wrought on his hands and heard Nirayne’s tales of him.
“Of course, if you are afraid…” taunted Harl.
“Set up a table outside Feyn!” He barked at his lady. “All the village should see this whelp being thrashed. And he will be thrashed till he’s bloody if he loses!”