Two wide set chairs that had once been hacked into shape from the whole girth of a pine-nut tree were placed either side of a simple farm-voln style table. Harl watched as Alnim preened and paced in front of the growing crowd of mountain-voln, barking out the challenge and roaring about his superior strength. He wasn’t wrong. He was a giant compared to the woods-voln, and the muscles that he was tautening and flexing for his audience were almost as big as Harl’s head.
Cole had walked out from the leader’s tent with them and had immediately gone to stand by the table, stopping between both the chairs, as though he would be the one to judge the feat.
“No!” Shouted Alnim, “Not you. Him!” He jabbed a finger towards the tailor, who was startled into a response as he held on to his charge.
“Me?! Why… I’m-”
“You’re city-voln. You have no more love for woods-voln than for mountain-voln. You’ll be fair. Honest.” There was an edge of threat and insistence in Alnim’s voice. If he wasn’t an honest judge there would be consequences.
The tailor passed off the girl child to Alisaya, who hushed and calmed the girl as she immediately reached out her arms for him and wailed. He took Cole’s place from him and the tall man skirted past Harl and quickly whispered into his ear.
“He’s going to break your arm if you don’t charm him quickly.”
Harl looked at him in surprise, “You know-?!”
But he was cut off by Alnim slamming his fist onto the table and demanding that Harl sit down with a sneer and the jerk of his head. Harl sat and looked up at the mountain-voln who near enough blocked out the sun resting above the peaks as he took his own seat. When their hands clasped a moment later Harl was already concentrating on the charm he would push through that connection to the man. Slickness between their hands could have been from Harl’s nerves, but he risked it anyway.
“You have to help us. I command it.” He whispered, moving his lips as little as possible.
The mountain-voln’s eyes widened for a moment and then settled into a placid state of agreement. He still gripped Harl’s hand with the crushing power of the stones about him, but he made no effort to push Harl to defeat. The others watching began to mutter as neither combatant seemed to be starting. Then their mutters become calls for Alnim to crush the wretch. Harl thought for a moment about charming him into losing, but perhaps there was a greater victory he could win here in losing. He whispered again, forming in words what he wanted Alnim to do.
When the back of his hand crashed into the wooden surface of the table after Alnim put in just the slightest bit effort, Harl winced. But Alnim’s cocky strutting walk around the circle of watchers was worth it for his next words.
“Harl Woods-Voln is a misguided fool! But Harl Woods-Voln is also a brave lad! Braver than many of you who would never stand up to the might of Alnim. He is strong of spirit… if not of arm! So he and his friends are welcome here if they all have hearts like mountains’ own. Strong! Enduring! Defiant in the face of the lion’s armies!” His words were a loud staccato.
A roar went up from the mountain-voln that was slightly more cautiously taken up by the refugees. Harl watched Cole as he smirked a little, but when he re-joined him the tall man seemed more concerned by his red and aching hand.
“It’s not so bad. I didn’t put up much of a fight so there wasn’t much pain.” Harl shrugged. But then a mountain-voln thwacked him on the back as he walked past and Harl winced from that as well as he held onto his bruised hand.
“At least you have won their trust. For now.” He nodded towards Nirayne as she approached, warning Harl that they were no longer alone. She also seemed to have a sly smile on her lips, making Harl wonder if she could somehow know what he had done to Alnim.
“Good try boy. You’ve carved out a small space here as Alnim’s pet, but if the time comes when they ask you to go, you’d best get packing.”
Harl noticed then that she had her pack back up on her back. “You’re going?”
“I’m not allowed up into the villages for long, even this one at the edges of our lands. My duty is to walk the borders of the mountains and the plains.”
“But you… you seemed to know about the gods and the dream and-” Harl stuttered.
Nirayne chuckled. “Aye, there’s more to be told there, true. Am I the one to tell it? Who knows?” She scuffed at the soil beneath her feet for a moment and cleared a space. Then she crouched down and drew in the dirt with an already very filthy finger. “If the stones call you, the path from here is like this.”
She shrugged, “Might not be as I think. Maybe Emphon falling to fire means nothing. Maybe nothing means anything. But if the stones call you, you can find them here.” She jabbed at the end of the trail she’d outlined with her soil packed fingernail. “Or maybe they will find you here!” She cackled as her own wit and stood slowly.
Harl quickly scanned her improvised map and then scuffed it over with his own foot, earning a nod from Nirayne.
“Smart lad.” She said before she ambled off, the occasional word drifting back to them as she muttered to herself on her way out of the village.
The rest of that day passed without incident, but Harl still had to struggle find a moment to get away from the many mountain-voln who wanted to either congratulate him for his bravery or smugly mock him for his failure. He and Cole finally joined the other refugees who’d been spread out between four tents with their backs up against the rock face like Alnim’s home. In one they found Alisaya and Tersia moving about the shadowed space and checking on the refugees.
“My ladies.” Cole said gruffly as they greeted the city-voln women.
“I think we can finally drop the city-pleasantries Cole now that we are without an actual city.” Said Tersia with a warm smile.
“What will you be now, my la-” Cole began and then corrected himself, “If not city-voln, perhaps Mountain-voln then? Or farm-voln?”
“I dare say I cannot lift a greatsword… nor a scythe. Perhaps I shall be a lost-voln, doomed to wonder forever!”
“Oh Tersia!” Said Alisaya, with shock and concern on her sweet face. “Do not say such things! We will continue to Bara and meet with Terstrum… or perhaps with both your brothers!” Harl watched her redden.
“Perhaps we should drop all city-pleasantries?” Said Tersia pointedly and Alisaya’s lips tightened. But she was quickly distracted by the arrival of the little city-voln girl and the tailor.
“Toria!” She said warmly, happily sweeping the girl up as she raised her arms for a cuddle.
“So… we staying then?” The tailor asked, his brow knitting. “Toria will be safe here for a bit?”
“That’s the plan for now, Erskine.” Replied Tersia.
Harl saw Cole nod out of the corner of his eye, nodding as he noted the tailor’s name at last. How strange to have travelled with these people, to have fought by their side, to have taken wounds with them, and not to know all of them well enough to know their names?! For so long it had just been him and Cole, and even in the Cant of Lios they had only bothered to speak with a few regulars. Lorus Pierson, one of those who’d held up the bar in the Cant on many occasions, joined them just as Harl was thinking on the oddness of having a wider circle of companions.
“Well, since the mountain-voln have no call for the quill and parchment of a scribe, can I suggest that our stay be brief and that we work towards departing for Bara as soon as possible?” Lorus said almost flippantly, but there was self-concern under the words. Was he uncomfortable so far from the safety of the bricks and stones of a city, wondered Harl?
There was a moment of silence as Lorus’ words were digested and each member of the small circle of companions hesitated to respond. Harl was surprised then to find himself speaking up. “Lorus is right. We cannot stay here for long. We have won a small peace, for now. And we should rest… for now.”
The discussion disbanded and they went back to either tending to others or finding a small space to lie down and try to sleep. Harl saw Lorus Pierson wrap what remained of his brown coat about him. He saw Alisaya sit to chat with Erskine as Toria slowly drifted into sleep in her lap. Tersia moved about still, asking those who were awake if they needed anything.
“You should sleep.” Cole said as he joined Harl in the space he’d found right by the rough stone at the back of the tent. Leaning back against it reminded Harl of sleeping on the stone flagstones of the castle, but at least he had no fear of a shiv in the night from one of the other lads. All that came from the other refugees was the rustling and murmuring of sleep. Cole’s words seemed to charm as well as his own could, and he finally gave in to the bone weariness within him and allowed his body to slump further down the wall.
He woke to a far emptier tent. Panic grabbed his heart, but the few city and sea-voln who were still about did not seem concerned by the departure of their companions. He spotted Tersia and Alisaya curled up together and Lorus Pierson snoring gently against the cloth of his coat, now folded up into a pillow for his head. Cole was no longer with him, so Harl set out from the tent to find him. As the cold brightness of the grey morning sun hit him he thought he remembered something from a dream the morning had almost erased. A great figure, larger even than a mountain-voln, larger than the many floored houses of Bara. But the moment was lost like a dew drop when the sun catches it. He spotted Cole and a few mountain-voln standing staring at a slope of the mountain that was above and to the East of them. The rugged lines of its slope and its sparse trees led upwards to barer outcroppings and finally to a cap of whiteness that Harl thought was the snow the others had spoken about. It took him a moment of scanning the slope to work out what the voln were staring at. A dark spot. Small at this distance from it, but bigger than the tall pine trees it was swirling among.
“A ghost.” Said Cole quietly. “Two ghosts actually. Fighting.”
“We spotted when they met, coming across the face of that mountain from different directions. It’s hard to see, even for our sharp eyes, but they’re fighting each other tooth and claw.”
Harl squinted trying to see what Cole was saying and could just make out the blurred shape of the thing erupting with points as perhaps a limb flailed or when in for a strike. “Do you think they’ll come here?”
“Let them.” Growled one of the mountain-voln watchers, adjusting the greatsword at his belt.
Cole sneered at him. “We should hope they don’t. How could we think to fight them?”
“I can fight anything in front of me!” snapped the mountain-voln.
“Moron”, muttered Cole and moved away.
“Coward!” Bellowed the warrior.
“I might be at that. That I’d rather not come up against those twisting dark shadows and bear only a sword to defend me.” Cole said in a low dangerous voice. “Maybe that makes me a coward.”
“You are no man!”
Cole laughed. “My manhood, or lack of it, will be the least of our concerns if the ghosts do come to the village.” He continued to walk away, and Harl bounded after him.
“I think I could send them away… if it came to it. In the castle, I…”
Cole looked at him with intense eyes. “In the castle you made them break free? Because you are like them in some ways. I know. You might be the only one who can save us if more come here.”
“Fysiwon never wanted to fight…”
“Fysi- yes, your fellow captive. Perhaps not. But the one in my cell did this!” He gestured to his side, indicating the gnarled flesh underneath his clothes that Harl had seen before. “Do not assume they are all like your ‘friend’! At the very least they are all mad!” Cole strode away before Harl had the chance to reply, leaving him standing amid the bustle of the mountain-voln village, momentarily speechless. He turned back to where the warriors were watching the fighting ghosts. The dark spot seemed smaller, as though only one ghost remained there.
“We’ll hunt it.” Said one of the other mountain-voln men. “Alnim will see that we need to hunt it. And I will be in the party that goes after it!”
He looked down at Harl. “Will you join us woods-voln? Or are you a coward like your friend? A man lacking in manhood and not caring at all that he is?!”
“Its not like that-” he began but was interrupted.
“Woods-voln are cowards. You don’t even fight on the Front!”
“You only fight because the button men force-”
“Will you hunt with us?!”
Harl paused, thinking about Fysiwon. About how scared the creature had been. The creature that had once been a boy like him. The ghost out there was the same. Perhaps he could help him?
“Yes. I will come with you.”