Hunting in Bara had meant scoping out the bustle of the streets, sneaking into the shadows behind the prey, and slinking off with whatever coin or bangle fell quickly into small grubby hands. Hunting for food could mean snatchings from carts and stalls, but more often than not meant digging about in the piles of mess and leavings when the traders cleared out from the market squares and the city-guard weren’t hanging about them to eat their fill too. Hunting for woods-voln was all sneaking between trees with greenings and arrow heads, and Harl didn’t know much about that. For the mountain-voln hunting was something else again. For animals maybe they hushed their mouths and snuck from shadow to shadow. But for the ghost they were bearing arms and carrying on in loud voices, bragging about their skill with the sword, the quickness of their spears, or the strength of their… manhood.
The language was coarse and illuminating. Harl had never heard city-voln discuss their sexual prowess like this, even back when he was lodged with his mother and overheard her clients arriving and leaving. Some might demand that she was enjoying their trysts and she might assent for the coin, but he’d never heard voln combining their skills with weapons with a skills with that of their other ‘weapon’. Their path through passes barely wider than them and up winding mountain trails, always heading north gave Harl plenty of time to hear all about the mountain-volns’ vigour.
“Barely a heartbeat of sleep all that night and I had her moaning well the next night again!”
“She’d sheathed you well?”
“My sword was slick with her! Just as this blade will be slick with the monster’s guts come our next dawn!” The braggart swung his greatsword, slicing at nothing as he smiled.
“Do they have guts? I thought that they were more like the fart of a yak?” Laughed another warrior, the closed metal loops at the end of his braids jangling over the metal and fur on his shoulders. “A black fart! How do you slice at that?”
“Let me show you, man of a tiny blade. Let me show you how a real man wields his sword!” He showed off his swings again, mighty muscles throwing the long edge of the greatsword about.
“And this one. What kind of weapon does he have?” Asked one of the few women with them. She had not seemed upset at all by the sexual banter and in fact had joined in mocking a few of the men who she seemed to know – and their weapons – well. “Will he be able to blood the creature with whatever he’s carrying?”
Harl didn’t want to bring out his dagger, already predicting their response. But they had all turned to him, waiting. He pushed aside the fur lined cloak they’d lent him, even if it dragged down to the floor of the path on him, and pulled out the sea-voln dagger made from a single sharp tooth.
Laughter. Of course there would be laughter. He got their joking, the comparisons between their manhoods and their weapons. The insinuation was obvious to him.
“My son carries a blade bigger than that and he’s not weaned as yet!” Laughed one man, as another of the women waggled her little finger at the first who’d asked about his blade and they both cackled. He felt his cheeks flush, and then a sudden rage that enveloped his chest. They were mocking him!
A calmer part of his mind rose to the surface. There was an advantage in this. Back in Bara, when the slam of bare feet into him had broken ribs and the chant of “Sharp face, sharp tongue, sharp death!” had echoed in his ears, he’d found ways to either get away or to exact his revenge later. Sometimes he even turned his attackers against each other, or got them back on side with some other trick. He searched quickly for the trick of this moment, the lever to shove at to turn the mocking to his advantage.
“You’re right. It’s a poor blade for such a brave man in the company of such noble warriors.”
“A brave man?!” Laughed a mountain-voln with dark lines written into the skin of his bare arms. “A MAN?!!” He roared with loud humour, and it was enough to distract him for a moment and for Harl to throw down the sea-voln blade in order to yank his greatsword away from his careless hand. It was almost as long as he was tall, and for a moment the spin he’d done to get it away from the mountain-voln threatened to carry him over on to his arse. But he righted himself, drawing the tip up and avoiding clanging it against the heavily scented pine trees over hanging the party. A few raised their own weapons but the deprived warrior, over his surprise, commanded them to hold still.
“You have Ath’s sword now boy. And what are you going to do with it?” Ath said blandly.
Harl gave it some careful swings, feeling it pull on his shoulder muscles as it tried to get away from him. “Hmmm, it’s a bit of a disappointment.”
“Oh is that so?!”
“I suppose it just looked bigger in the scabbard.” He said, sweetly and innocently.
One of the women sniggered, but quickly stifled it with a wry smile.
“I mean you never really know how good they are going to feel until you get a chance to do something with them. The grip’s not as wide as I’d thought either.”
“Wide enough for your small han- I mean, it’s not like woods-voln ever wield swords! Everyone knows you stick to taking down your enemies from behind like cowards!”
There was some muttering from the women in the party that Harl couldn’t make out but some of the men, including the tattooed one, could. He steamed with anger.
“Shut it Hemnis!” He snarled, “No one cares want you like.”
Harl practiced a few more wide sweeps. “Not a precision weapon either. Unlikely to do what it needs to do with any elegance or… skill.” He could tell that he had the women on his side now, but the men were taking his insinuations too personally. He’d have to change tack. “But then… there’s nothing like it in Bara. The men of Bara wield these terrible thin blades. Bloody fragile as well. You can barely draw them without them snapping at the hilt and swinging down, broken and useless.”
Sniggers again. This time from the men too.
“Aye.” Said one, his voice rumbling deeply. “Heard the ones at the front in Tralis break so often that the city-voln have to rest them on each others’ backs to get them up again.” More laughter, and Harl stood back for a moment to let them enjoy mocking city-voln for a moment more. Then he upturned the greatsword and offered it back to Ath.
“Perhaps you were right. It might be too much sword for me.” He said honestly.
Ath looked him over, wondering for a moment if this was some new kind of joke at his expense. “Aye, well, maybe when you’re full grown we can try again…” A few more laughed at the double meaning. “I di’n’t mean it like that! I am no boy-lover! Hemnis, tell them!”
Hemnis looked thoughtful, “Well…”
“Hemnis!” He growled and she shrugged, laughing again.
“Peace”, said Harl, spreading out his hands. “I meant no disrespect.” A strange dark cloud alighted on him and his thoughts grew grim suddenly. But he shook it off with a wide smile for his companions, which most of them returned.
“Woods-voln, you can try this blade.” Said the other woman. “I took it from my daughter when I saw you were to hunt with us.”
There were a few attempts at laughter at the thought of him wielding some young girl’s blade, but they died in silence as Harl took the sword from her. It was certainly a better size for him and he swung it experimentally to see how it felt.
“By the gods lad, have you never used a sword before?”
“Nothing larger than a dagger.”
“Your father should have taught you. He has good Emphon steel with him.”
Harl had gone to correct him about Cole but then saw no good in it. Let them think that the dark haired woods-voln was his father. That way they wouldn’t suspect him of anything more ‘disrespectful’ happening with the man, which might earn their anger and disgust, if their earlier reaction to his jokes was any sign.
Talk of other conquests continued as they resumed the trail to the far slope. Fights with farm-voln who’d tried to take the lands at the foot of the mountain-range. Battles against button men who’d come to ‘enlist’ them into the god-king’s endless damned war. Fights amongst themselves when boredom had pushed them to it. Harl listened with only half an ear, wondering how Cole was doing back at the village without him, looking back over his shoulder towards where a far green suggested the terraces of the mountain-voln’s ‘farming’ there.
Eventually their path took them to the base of a slope dotted with trees and large boulders, their path forward crushed at several points by collapses of what the mountain-voln told him was called ‘scree’, the loose stones of the slope that moved as they willed and ended up at the bottom of this part of the mountain’s angles. Up somewhere above them was the last place that they’d seen the creature from their vantage point in the village, almost a whole day of sunlight ago. They agreed in the growing grey of twilight to camp for now and to head up the slope in the morning. The mountain-voln lay down fur lined sleeping bags around in a circle, allowing Harl to pick which scratching and belching warrior to sleep nearby to as they settled in for the night, drinking from mountain goat horns and chewing on salted goat meat. He chose a space by the women of the party.
“Lad! Don’t think because you are carrying Aelthna’s sword that you are Aelthnes’s bloody- I mean ‘beautiful’ daughter!” Ath barked at him.
“Perhaps he seeks to wet his blade with a real woman!” Joked back ‘Aelthnes’.
Some of the other mountain-voln hissed their disapproval. Aelthnes made a crude hand gesture back, “Fuck you, I’m no goat-hag! It was only a bloody joke!”
“What does that mean? I heard Nirayne being called ‘goat-hag’.”
Ath ripped into some dried deer flesh and handed the rest to Harl. “Goats are impure creatures lad. They roam the mountains but they’ll also stand and be milked by the farm-voln. They’re neither of here nor there. And Nirayne is a goat-hag because she let herself be petted by a farm-voln once a time. Had a babe with him too. Not that the bastard survived the birthing, being half n’half.”
“And she’s an outcast because of that?”
“Aint that enough?” Ath said, with a challenge in his voice.
“S’pose.” He remembered the anger of the people of Bridge, the rage at their town having burnt because of the volns mixing. And in Emphon too, the prophets decrying the impure that were born from mixing the volns. And that had led to fire as well. But given his mother had suffered from nomad-fever and ended up a whore in Bara, wasn’t he more than likely a ‘half n’half’ as well, red hair and green eyes or not. Conversations continued that went over the problems caused by the goat-hag before she’d been cast out. The souring of a good quality rice wine in the barrel, the voln who had fallen sick with strange maladies, the avalanche that had wiped out six good tents and had showed them clearly the rage of the mountains.
“So the bastard gods were angry?” Harl said confused, trying to follow who was to blame. Lios loathed the merging of the voln, but the bastard gods were silent on any question of their sins. Or were they? The mountain-voln worshipped the bastard gods so would they blame them?
“The mountains were angry, there was an avalanche.” Ath explained, with the patience would one have explaining things to a child.
“But you worship the bastard gods, like the woods-voln do…?”
“Yes and no, lad. Yes and no. You’re not mountain-voln, you wouldn’t understand” Said Ath, with a superior tone.
“That’s enough doctrine for tonight! Sleep damn you!” barked one of the others, and after a few grumbles the party turned over to sleep. For Harl a night’s rest came reluctantly. It wasn’t the hardness of the cold ground beneath his back. It was the whir of thoughts in his mind as he thought about all the talk of the party. Gods, impure voln, man-lovers, the ghosts, the goat-hag. Round and round all of his thoughts whirled.
When he woke the next morning, stirred by the movement of the warriors, his mind was full of clouds, and his eyes clogged with dust. A mountain-voln cuffed him about his head as he stumbled from the sleeping bag.
“Sharp eyes, get to tracking.” He said loudly.
Harl thought about protesting, that he wasn’t a woods born woods-voln. He had no idea how to track normal beasts across the slopes of the mountains, let alone a ghost. They didn’t even always have feet to leave tracks… but he held his tongue and just nodded mutely. The party moved up the slope, Harl in the front as the ‘tracker’, but feeling like a fraud with every step he took. His eyes scanned the sparse groups of trees, watching for movement at least. From where they’d stood watching in the village, the two ghosts had been somewhere about a third of the way up the slope. But that had been a day of walking and bragging about sword prowess ago. Sweat began prickly his brow as the chill of the mountain air gave way to the effort he was putting in to walking up the steep slope. The mountain-voln about him seemed unconcerned.
That changed however when movement caught all their eyes, sharp or not. It was higher up the slope, and a small cascade of dust and small stones tumbled down towards them. The warriors fanned out, and continued their climb, greatswords at the ready. Harl drew out his own smaller blade from where he’d jammed it in next to his dagger, but he suspected it was more than useless. Falling to the back of the hunters, he concentrated on pushing a fog from his skin that might calm both the ghost and the mountain-voln. “Peace,” He whispered, “Peace.”
The fog flowed quickly about him. Too quickly. It took him a moment to realise that not all the fog was coming from his flesh. But by then it was too late.