Harl stirred, turning his right arm slightly to touch his hand to Cole’s.
“You bloody fool.” Cole whispered, “You stupid bloody fool!”
“You found me.”
“Aye, well we weren’t so far back behind you. The charm you put on Alnim drove him almost insane as he realised that you had left the village and gone far beyond his need to help you. But gods, if you didn’t give me… all of us, a fucking scare! When we got here we saw you face down in the dirt! What in the name of all the bastard gods did you do here? There’s near enough a river of blood flowing down to the valleys from the bodies of all the mountain-voln, and we found the remains of… something nearby.”
“We fought the ghost.”
“Aye?” He gave him a critical looking over. “And are really you certain that you won? Here, drink this. Alnim forced it into my hands as we left, I think it’s the same stuff that Nirayne gave the refugees. It should help.” He passed him a waterskin, and then helped him to sit up as Harl drank the brackish, gritty water inside. Instantly he felt strength flow back into his bruised and batter limbs.
“Cole, Fysiwon was here. Inside that thing.”
Cole’s eyes darkened. “Your pet monster? And he’s truly dead now?”
Tears prickled in Harl’s eyes. “Yes. Whatever was left of him in that creature is at rest now.”
Cole noticed his sadness and looked away awkwardly, focussing on the mountain-voln with him and their busy chatter about the camp. “Sorry lad. I can’t say I can understand how you feel. I’d happily see my own monster torn apar- I’m sorry.”
Harl thought back to how he had avoided telling ‘Fysiwon’ about his home with Cole in Emphon. He could not have explained to his ghost friend why he now travelled with the man who’d bought him for a few copper coins so long ago. And he could not make Cole understand how one of the creatures that had near killed the tall man could be anything like a friend to him. Both were monsters to the other one. But nothing in this life was as simple as that, Harl knew that now.
“These are new.” Cole gestured to the black spikes that had torn through Harl’s thin city-voln coat about his wrists and forearms. It was an obvious attempt to change the subject. “Can you retract them like the others? They’re going to gain us a few stares if we ever make it back to Bara.”
Harl tried, but nothing happened. “I can’t.”
Cole looked grim. “The mountain-voln have accepted that you are something different. Alnim near enough praised you as a bastard god when I asked for warriors to come find you. Maybe that was just the charm talking, but either way you’ll not find much of a welcome among those that would see that as impure or wyrd.”
Harl felt something that had been uncertain within him settle and solidify and become a plan. “I’m not going on to Bara with the refugees.”
“Oh, is that so?” Cole feigned casualness. “And where will you be going?”
Harl paused. “I will head up into the mountains.”
“The mountains…?” Cole narrowed his eyes. “You’ve grown board of nearly dying by the hands of voln and ghosts, so now you’ve decided to die by the snow and ice?”
“The One Who Hungers, the creature that had eaten Fysiwon, it spoke about meeting the bastard gods at the heights of the mountains. I think I need to speak with them again.”
Cole furrowed his brow. “Then travel back to the arches with me! You can lie down there and dream of them as much as you like. I will stand guard over you! The refugees can go onto Bara with aid from the mountain-voln and we can go wherever you want!”
“The dream I had… it was only the beginning Cole.” He held out his hands, making the sign for peace, and inadvertently showed off the curved spikes there at the end of his arms at the same time. “I am like the ghosts in some way, and I might end up like them. Perhaps the call that the One Who Hungers heard, to ascend the mountain, was the bastard gods seeking to help it. To help all the ghosts… and me.”
“But you have heard no bloody call!” Cole snapped, and some of the mountain-voln looked over, before chuckling amongst themselves. Cole’s hand strayed down to the Emphon steel at his waist, glaring at them all, and they shut up.
Harl gathered his strength and stood up, looking northwards to the rising sides of the mountain and the few paths that could lead from this lower slope. There were places where he could make out tiny plumes of grey smoke, far lower than the clouds covering the peaks. Other villages higher up, among the snow. Places where he could command aid if he needed it.
“You don’t have to come with me.”
“You know I bloody well have to!” Cole snapped under his breath.
Harl remembered Cole sickening while they’d been in the Ossuary. The result of that damned charm he’d put on him at the castle, the strange power had tied the man to him. But Fysiwon had also laid a quest upon Harl and he had never sickened, even though he had not even gotten close to Liosinium and to completing Fysiwon’s revenge. Perhaps… perhaps every step he was taking, every step he had taken so far, was somehow on a longer path towards fulfilling his quest? Prophecy was mother’s milk for the feeble-minded Cole liked to say. And yet…
“Please come with me.” He said quietly. “I think… I believe that we are meant to travel together. Not just because of the charm. Because we should.”
Cole was silent for a moment. “Aye. I’ll come with you, if that’s what you think we should do. But Tersia and Alisaya, and all the rest of the refugees cannot be called upon to head up into the snows and the dangers of the mountains. Command Alnim to send a vanguard with them. Get them back onto the roads and towards the cities.”
Harl nodded, and then thought for a moment. “Do you think Alisaya will still marry Dren?”
“There is a long road between here and Liosinium.” Cole smiled grimly, “Perhaps she will find her male cousin, and then her path with diverge from the king’s road.”
“I hope Tersia will help her find another road. Alisaya has a good friend in her devious cousin.”
“She’s a good, if sneaky, woman.” Agreed Cole.
“I did think she might… I think she’s interested in you.”
The tall man did not react. He stared out across the mountain slopes and took in the view all the way back to Alnim’s village below them.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to-”
“That kind of life is not for me, lad.” He said finally. “My path goes up the mountain with you.” He was silent after that.
The journey back to Alnim’s village was far slower and more sombre than the raucousness of the first party on their hunt for the ghost. Cole in particular was extremely quiet, and Harl began to worry that he had upset him by raising Tersia’s intentions to him. When they walked back into the village he was careful to note both her enthusiasm and his muted reaction to her greeting. It seemed as though he had been right. Her eyes lit up to see the woods-violn, but Cole was merely polite.
Later that night, they sat with the refugees in a circle about a campfire and discussed their plans for moving on. Alisaya cried a little and hugged Harl tight to her when she realised that they would be parting. Tersia dabbed at the corner of her eyes with the remains of what might have once been a fine lace handkerchief. Both had accepted the strange claws that Harl had initially tried to hide from their curious eyes. However, the scribe, Lorus Pierson, had flinched away from them, and Toria had shaken and cried in her guardian’s arms. The refugees were grateful for Harl’s efforts for them, but now they were whole and had full stomachs they had time to remember the morning they’d awoken to a new arch arisen out of the ground. Fear was in their eyes at first, and then relief as Cole explained that he and the other woods-voln would be walking their own path from here on out.
Harl found Alisaya after the circle began to drift apart. She clasped his hands, whatever fear she had of his newest physical change was well hidden.
“Oh Harl! I wish for only the very best of things to come your way!”
“Will you still marry him? Dren Rickarn?”
She stopped in shock. “I had forgotten that you knew him. Cole spoke his name in Emphon. I see darkness in your green eyes Harl. What is he to you?”
Harl set his jaw. “Captain Rickarn commanded me to do the worst thing I have ever done in my life.”
“You… you were a button man?”
“I was a child.” He spat out the word, “And Dren Rickarn used me and others as weapons against a woman he thought was impure and worthy of death.” He looked down at his hands in Alisaya’s, staring at the now obvious proof of his own impurity. “And I hurt her daughter very badly, at his command. He is evil Alisaya. As evil as the god-king he worships. If you go to him in Liosinium I fear that you will change and become like them.”
She clenched his hands tighter. “Bless you Harl. Bless you, by all the gods you worship! By whatever power brought us together in Emphon and allowed my life to be saved by you and your… by Cole! Yes, I have worshipped Lios my entire life. I took the gifts he gave my family. I took the golden keys he gave me.” She withdrew them from within her bodice and let the light glint off of them for a moment before hiding them again. “And I did not think about how the gold enslaved us to him. How they bound us to Liosinium. But I swear this to you Harl Woods-Voln, I am not his creature! And I am certainly not Dren Rickarn’s.”
Harl blurted out his next thought, “I hope that you find your cousin on the road.”
He saw her cheeks redden in the torchlight of the village.
“Thank you, sweet boy. But I fear that what I thought was between me and Terstrum was just a young woman’s fancy.”
“No! I saw how he looked at you-”
She smiled and laughed a little. “Goodness Harl, I never thought you to be a romantic!”
It was his turn to redden. “No, I just… well… in the gardens of the Ellinostrum estate I thought I saw something between you.”
“In a better world… perhaps. But not in Lios’s realms.” She smiled sadly. “Rarely we will be able to be with those we care for.” She looked beyond him into the darkness. He turned to see what she was looking at and saw Tersia and Cole deep in a conversation in the shadows between torches. A leaden weight landed on his heart as he saw them talking intently.
“She cares for him. But he has given her no sign…?” There was hope as she asked him a silent question. She must have assumed that he knew Cole’s heart!
“I do not think… Cole is… he has never shown interest in anyone. And he wants to travel with me, not the refugees of Emphon.” He tried to keep his tone neutral. He did not want Cole to change his mind because Tersia had whispered to him in the darkness this night! He then tried to reassure himself that the charm kept him bound to him, and then almost as quickly hated himself for the very thought.
Looking back at Tersia and Cole with guilty eyes he saw the tall woman lean in to kiss him on his cheek. Cole clenched her hands for a moment and then walked away, watched by the lady.
“Oh dear.” Said Alisaya, with sorrow in her voice. “I do not think she got the answer that she sought. Please excuse me.”
She spoke with a gentlewoman’s curtesy and Harl felt even more sorry for the Ellinostrum women. Torn from the world of clean sheets and gentle words that they had known in Emphon and other cities, now they were sleeping in sheep’s skin sleeping bags and trying to navigate a world where the men that they loved were either missing or did not feel the same way. He watched Alisaya greet Tersia and almost immediately take the distressed taller woman into her arms. Harl wished for a moment that his impure powers could do even more for Tersia, than keeping her in the form that she desired. Changing Cole’s mind… no, he could not do that! After taking away his freedom with one charm, he could never bend him to his will again. Not Cole.
Harl slowly walked back to the tents of the refugees. A dark shadow nearby one of them had a familiar tall shape.
“Cole.” Harl said quietly, not wanting to stir any of the voln within the tents.
“Lad.” The man was staring up at the stars above the mountain peaks. “You should sleep. Prepare for the path ahead of us.”
“I intend to ask Alnim for some warriors to accompany us.” Harl said, not even sure why he brought it up, but not wanting to end this night just yet.
“I expect he will say yes. He will have little choice.” Was there bitterness in the tall man’s voice?
“Cole. I want… I want to find a way to end the charm.”
Cole turned to him. “Is that so, lad?”
“I should have given more thought to it before. I really don’t know how to do it, but I must try.”
“And why’s that?” Cole asked, and Harl was smart enough to recognise steel in the edges of his voice.
“I want you to be free to choose your own path, Cole.”
The man swore under his breath, and for a moment Harl was certain that he’d even cursed a couple of bastard gods.
“Aye, well, maybe you’re right.” Cole said curtly. “But until then I’ll be needing sleep enough to keep up with you and your choices. Good night Harl Wyrd-Child.”
It was the first time Cole had ever given him a title, and the harshness of it slapped Harl’s cheek with more force than the bitter cold winds of the mountains.
He watched, still in shock, as the man ducked under the flaps of the tent and disappeared inside.