An hour or so later, after thinking on many things, Harl entered the tent as well. The air inside was thick with the breath of the refugees, and he had to walk carefully between sleeping people to where Cole was. His back was again up near the roughness of the rockface that the tent had been pinned to. The worst and coldest place in the entire tent. The tall man had pulled his thin city made coat about him while others had the blankets given to them by the mountain-voln. Harl suspected he knew why the man deprived himself, why he felt he deserved so little.
He knelt beside him, sending forth a slow creeping cloud that insisted that Cole and any near him remained asleep. The man was a light sleeper, like Harl. Both had learnt the necessity of quick reflexes when danger came in the night. But as the fog swirled about them both Harl saw the man’s shoulder’s settle and the lines on his face ease for really the very first time. The little light in the tent came from rocks in a pile in the centre, smeared over with some strange blue green stuff that glowed softly in the darkness.
It was just enough light for Harl to see Cole’s face. It was in some ways a very familiar face. But Harl also felt like he had never really spent a long time looking at the angles and lines of it. Staring intently at Cole would never have ended well for him if he’d been caught doing it. But now he drank in the shape of his jaw, the stubble there, the darkness of his eyelashes, the line of his lips. Usually so cruel and thin they looked so different as he gently breathed and dreamed.
Harl shook his head a little to return to his senses. He had a task in hand and no certainty that he could do it.
Carefully he examined Cole’s position. Apart from his face, his only other exposed skin was about his wrist. His crossed arms hid his hands, but the sleeve on one arm, frayed and dirty, had pulled back a little to expose flesh. Enough for Harl place his hand about.
He settled down into a crossed legged sitting position and took deep breaths before reaching out to clasp his companions’ wrist. As he did he thought back to when he had pulled lady Tersia’s preparation out of her and Cole. If he could remove his trick from Cole, bring the charm back into himself, then the man should be free again.
It did not take long at all. He just had to think of his charm as a poison within Cole and draw it out. Bile filled his mouth again, tasting different to the preparation, and he spat it out onto the cold stones of the mountain beneath them. Cole never stirred.
But then he found himself reluctant to let go of the man’s wrist. Instead he rubbed a thumb over the skin there, feeling the bones underneath. So thin, so fragile. He shuffled over a little so that he could lean against the rock wall while still touching Cole.
He woke slowly as movement in the tent brought him back to consciousness. Opening his eyes, he saw just how close he had lain next to Cole, and more than that, how he was still resting his arm across the man’s body and touching skin to skin. Harl kept his breathing steady and carefully withdrew his arm as slowly as he could, worrying that the new claws might snag Cole’s coat and wake the man to the unasked for touch.
But Cole slept on, as peaceful as Harl had ever seen him.
It was an hour or so later that light entered the tent as refugees left to relieve themselves. Harl had by then shuffled a little further away from Cole, and had to look back towards him when he too finally awoke. The tall man gave him a brief nod and then made his own way out of the tent, stretching stiff and cold limbs as he walked. Finally, it felt, Harl could let out a deep pent up breath and relax.
Tersia came to find him there with a roughly made but fresh roll of bread from their hosts.
“You look as though you slept well.” She said, her voice gentle as others about them woke to the day. “Here, eat this.”
Harl ripped into the roll as Tersia watched him.
“How long until you leave?” She asked softly.
“Not sure. We’ll need supplies and warmer clothes fetched. Alnim’s promised us help of course. When will you head south again?”
“Soon too. I do not wish to see you walking away Harl.” She said with a voice full of regret. “By the bastard gods I do not!”
He saw the trick of this as well. A gentleman’s kiss placed on the back of her hand had her smiling again.
“Oh Harl, if you only you would wear a city-voln face all the days, then I have no doubt that you could charm an entire city! Bara could be your play thing. Or Liosinium, if you could avoid the god-king’s eye. Of this I am sure!”
“Perhaps when all this is done with maybe I will lord it over some place.” He smiled. “As long as you are there to escort me to all the balls that must be held in order to run the damned place!”
“It would be my purest delight to appear on your arm.” She smiled sadly, and kissed the back of his hand in return, pressing her lips there as tears threatened to fall from her eyes.
They left the tent together, appearing in the centre of the village arm in arm as though practising for those days when they would be in fine silks again and causing all heads in the ballroom to turn. This time however they only got the attention of their friends and the mountain-voln stood with them. Cole nodded at their arrival, showing no sign he knew anything about Harl’s touch.
“Just talking about supplies. The mountain-voln are having some thick furs and leathers made for us.”
“Aye, nothing we have is small enough.” Laughed Alnim, gaining a false smile from Cole, who truly was only half a foot or so shorter than the giant men.
“The tailor, Erskine, has agreed to help them.” Said Alisaya, as she jigged Toria, his ward, in her arms. Toria looked at Harl in fear and turned away again to curl into Alisaya’s chest. Harl ran fingertips over the new shapes that had erupted from his wrists and forearms.
“Perhaps I will need to speak to him about that.” Harl said and left the group to look for the man. He was sat with a group of mountain-voln, handling the dyed leather they were discussing. Getting into a conversation with them about how to work around his wyrd new claws was the distraction he needed from knowing that soon they’d be all going off in different directions, and that he had given Cole the ability to choose his own path. Even if it was a path that would lead onwards without him.
Two days later and the refugees were readying to go. At the head of the path out of the village and down to the south Erskine stood taller, healthy again, with Toria sat in a mountain-voln carrier that strapped her safely to his back. Lorus Pierson was standing by Pie, having helped two of the Emphon children up onto her back. Tersia and Alisaya were standing side by side, and hand in hand. Harl looked over their faces and the faces of all the others who’d made it this far with them, far away from Emphon and the fire and death. Cole was not among them.
The tall man walked up to Harl and stood by his side.
“You’re letting them have the mare?” He asked softly.
“If you disagree-” He started, knowing that the horse was as much Cole’s as his.
“No, lad. You do with her as you will. She’d not do well with us as we range over the high slopes looking for gods.” There was a mocking tone in his words.
“Cole. You can go with them too.”
The tall man laughed. “You know I bloody well can’t.”
Harl looked about them. There were mountain-voln about, helping the refugees with their final preparations, saying their goodbyes. Harl spoke in a low voice, “Yes, yes you can. You are free Cole.”
The man stopped, all sign of mockery draining from his face. “What did you do?”
“I took it away. The charm.”
“Bastard gods damn you, Harl.” The man snapped back, gaining the attention of a few nearby men, before lowering his voice. “And so now you think I can go.”
“I cannot!” He hissed, his green eyes blazing as he locked them to Harl’s. “I walk with you, and that’s the last bloody time we talk on that!”
The man turned and walked quickly towards the departing voln, clasping hands quickly with Alisaya and Tersia and some of the others before making his goodbyes and walking away. Alisaya looked to Harl with confusion and tears, but Tersia looked after Cole with a sadness.
Hours later and the refugees were gone. The village was quieter and most of their tents had been pulled down. Harl and Cole had been escorted to Alnim’s own tent, where one side had been made up with pillows and blankets for the rest of their time in the village. The two of them had sat there in awkward silence until Alnim had arrived with a great drinking horn and insisted that they share in the strong rice wine. The warmth of it had flowed into Harl’s bones and set his tongue free. Stories of their journey so far slowly leaked from him, and then faster and faster, until they were a torrent.
Alnim drank all of it up, nodding to his companions when Harl explained the various ways in which his wyrd powers had emerged from him.
“By She Who Shaped the Skies! That’s some tale! Nirayne, the old hag, was right to insist that we help you. Can you do the thing with the fox skull again?!”
The shadow and skull fox darted around the inside of the tent for a while, mimicking life for the entertainment of Alnim and his men. But when he paused in his enjoyment of their wonder and awe, he saw the grimness of Cole’s face and his ill-humour. He let the fox shadow fade away and the skull fell and rolled towards Alnim who swept it up as though he could peer within the empty eye sockets and see the remains of the trick.
“Can I keep it?” aske the giant man, “A treasure of the god who walked among us for a while?”
Harl paused, uncertain of what to make of the way he’d made the request. The One Who Hungers had called themselves a god. It was not a path he was certain that he wanted to set even one foot on.
“Take it.” Said Cole, and Harl realised that he was no longer passing the drinking horn onwards as he had been but had now paused with the strong smell of the wine under his nose. He was looking deep into its depths. “Take it, as a reminder.” He drank from the horn.
The mountain-voln cheered him for the long swig that he took, but Harl felt a deepening sickness in his belly. Cole had not supped on wine, ale, or vernoush for more than a year. Why had he started again now? But the sickness passed as Cole put the horn into his own hands and bid him to drink.
The rest of the night passed in a haze of crass mountain-voln jokes and rounds of both chargrilled meats and rice wines. Harl woke to a pounding in his head, even if it now rested on a soft farm-voln pillow. Cole was there too, sprawled over the cushions and blankets with a wine horn in his hand. Mountain-voln were all about the tent, snoring deeply as they slept off the night.
The next few nights passed in the same way, and each time the drinking horn came about Harl promised himself that he woud pass it on. But seeing Cole drinking again sent him into a sadness that craved the rice wine and the oblivion that came after.
So it was that on the day they finally left the village alongside a company of mountain-voln warriors that Harl was suffering under a deafening headache that every footfall, every stone hitting stone or twig snapping under boot, increased. Cole seemed to be suffering as well, and he’d pulled up the hood on his new fur-lined cloak.
As the tall man passed by him, Harl was startled for a moment, reminded again of how the his wide brimmed hat had once covered his green eyes in shadow. Under the hood, Cole’s eyes were in darkness once again.