Harl shivered, not certain if it was from the bitter wind that battered their hide tent, or from Cole’s careful examination of the spiked claws on his forearms. Slowly, gently, the tall man was turning his arms, first this way and then that, considering them again just as he had done immediately after Harl’s battle with The One Who Hungers.
“They do not hurt you?”
“And still you cannot retract them?”
Cole nodded, intent on looking closely at them. Sometimes Harl thought perhaps Cole was shivering from the cold too. His hands were shaking a little as he went about his task.
Around them slept the few mountain-voln who’d not shouted back at Alnim when he’d commanded them to go with the two woods-voln. They were the least of the village’s warriors. The best of them had died to The One Who Hungers, and the third-best had tole Alnim and Harl that they would not ‘place their own feet in the crushed snow their feet had left in their passing’. As mountain-voln expressions went it was a little less colourful than the answer given to them by the second-best warriors. Now Harl and Cole shared a large tent with the old and the slow. And many of them were asleep if their snoring was to be believed.
“I’ve never seen…” Cole began before pausing.
“You’ve never seen the change happen in front of your eyes before.” Harl finished for him. He could not have. It all happened behind the numbered doors of the castle. Once a boy was changed by his cell mate, he was moved into a space all of his own. And locked away forever.
“I wonder what number I would have had on my door… if Fysiwon had not taken me from there?” Harl said bitterly.
“I would not have allow-” Cole stopped himself again. Would he not have allowed it, wondered Harl? No of course he would have let them do as they wanted with him. He would have seen the monster locked away. Just as he had seen the thousands of boys he had bought and traded for locked away for the rest of their short lives. “Its different now.” The man finished both their thoughts.
“It is.” Harl nodded. “So, if I go mad like Fysiwon or The One Who Hungers there’ll be no cell to stop me from killing you all.” He said, smiling darkly.
“You won’t,” growled Cole, turning back to his consideration of the twisted and sharp shapes that had erupted from Harl’s skin. Amazingly they seemed to be less disturbing to him than this conversation.
“Think of it this way Cole. So far, I’ve caused the death of poor Ilv’Andri, numerous denizens of Emphon, some prophets, a bunch of mountain-voln warriors, and two ghosts. I charmed you into behaving against your will. I denied my mother in Bara. Who by the way is also near mad from prophesying… so it might well run in my blood! And even before Fysiwon changed me, I’d chopped off the foot of an innocent woods-voln girl.” He started off his list with a dark joviality, but by the end he was on the verge of tears.
Cole’s hand moved quickly from its careful hold on Harl’s forearm to grasp his hand tightly.
“Listen to me Harl, whatever you are you are not bound to the same fate as the creatures Orinius and his predecessors locked away! Merely by being free you are different!”
Harl nodded, still feeling tears forming near his eyelashes.
The wind picked up in force and pitch then, making the tent walls undulate like waves as flakes of snow made it through the ties at the entrance. The mountain-voln had taught them a little about surviving this weather, different tips and tricks. But on one thing they had been emphatic: they would only survive if they stayed together. Harl squeezed Cole’s hand slightly and then released it. Together.
In the morning they left the tent to the blinding whiteness of the mountain pass beyond. Their path had taken them upwards into ever thinner air, and yet still Harl felt the call to carry on up the mountain. The warriors had warned them that the very heights of the mountain range were impassible, but still Harl felt certain that what The One Who Hungers had been looking for was on the very edge of the known lands of the volnen.
When the clouds and mountain mist parted they could still sometimes see all the way backdown to the green grasses and patchwork fields of the farm-voln lands. Emphon was a black smudge near the horizon, linked by the king’s road that ran northwards and wound between the low hills of farm-voln country like a grey ribbon heading towards them. Beyond its end were the arches and the new arch where he had lain and dream of the bastard gods. Somewhere down there. It was hard to believe that they had come so far, so many of them and with so little. Cole joined him as he stood with his hand above his eyes, staring towards the horizon and Emphon.
“A clearer day today.” He said from within the folds of his hooded cloak and the furs bundled around his shoulders. “You can even see a few of the peaks.” He gestured towards the great stone giants above them. “Is the end of our journey in sight yet?”
Harl turned and looked upwards. The mountain-voln were spreading out in a line, tying ropes about themselves as they looked up at the slope ahead of them. Their path, they had said, would take them to a way between two peaks, and after that curl about to head even higher into the mountain range. In his heart Harl knew it was the way to go.
“It will be soon, I think.”
An hour or so later and between laboured breaths he began to wonder if he had been right. The path between peaks seemed no closer, and the air was even thinner than he remembered from the day before. The mountain-voln had given them strange flat hoops criss-crossed with goat gut to attach to their feet to make the walking easier, but even so at every moment Harl’s lungs burned. Cole did not complain, but the tall man was also near bent over with every laborious step. The mountain-voln did not struggle half as much, but still their words of complaint drifted back on the icy wind from their place in the line ahead of him.
They stopped around midday at a place where the thick snow had been blown from the stones in yesterday’s winds. They sat on the bare rocks and chewed on dried meats and drank near frozen water, the ice in it clattering against their teeth. A warrior, Miran, approached Harl and Cole and sat with them.
“Two or three days and we will see the summit.” He gestured above, and Harl spotted a grey stone on a length of braid dangling from his fist. Harl watched the plain pendant, remembering the one that he had stolen from Eris’ friend in Bara. This one however moved with purpose as it dangled beneath the mountain-voln’s hand. It pulled towards the mountain’s peak, angling against the man’s hold on it and the power of the ground to call it down to it. “Where do we go then?”
“Tell me about the stone?” Harl asked.
“Where then, woods-voln.” Miran said more firmly.
“What does the stone tell you?”
“Stupid woods-voln! It tells me which way my home is. It tells me where the mother mountain is.” The gruff man snapped. Miran was in his sixth decade, but the only sign was the greying of his hair and beard, and the wrinkles around his eyes. Both the good one and the lost one. During their journey so far he had claimed that he had lost his eye to a button man’s roarer, but behind his back some of the others had told Harl that it had been to the end of branch he’d not seen as he’d been too deep in his cups. He was, by default as none others had stepped forward for the responsibility, the leader of their expedition.
“But your village is far down the mountain range.”
“And the first place of the mountain-voln is at the top of the mother mountain.” He spoke as if to a child.
“Can I see?” Harl leaned towards the man and his pendant.
Miran growled. “The mother mountain means nothing to woods-voln. You were born in mud and fox shit among the trees!”
“Alnim and Nirayne think I am more than just a woods-voln. I have shown that I am” Harl said slyly, stroking the fox’s skull with his fingers. He’d tied it about his neck to get it above his furs, knowing what it now represented to the mountain-voln who heard about his trick in Alnim’s tent. “Let me see your stone.”
Miran laughed. “Nirayne is just a goat-hag and were I twenty years younger I would challenge Alnim and his wife would come willingly to my bed! Alnim might think, after many a cup, that you might be some kind of wyrdling, but you scare me not!”
Harl sigh dramatically and then pulled a wine-skin from within his furs, ignoring Cole’s sudden interest in it. “You know, I brought this from Alnim’s own supply, but I find my appetite for rice-wine gone at the moment.”
The trade was done quickly, Miran sampling the rice wine quickly before burying it beneath his own layers of cloth and furs.
As soon as Harl took the braided thread from the mountain-voln the stone flung itself to a horizontal position, pulling and dragging his fingers towards a point ahead of them. It was the same direction it had pointed at before, but it had not hummed and vibrated like this!
“By She Who Shaped the Skies!” Bellowed Miran and he stood quickly. “Come, see!” He shouted to his fellow voln. The others stumbled over, stopping as soon as they saw the pendant dancing in the air, the braid taut between it and Harl’s grasp.
“By She Who Shaped the Skies!” Breathed some of the others as well.
“The mother mountain calls him!” Said another.
“At least we have a path now.” Said Cole, his eyes and his mood hidden by his hood.
The mountain-voln packed up quickly as Miran explained to Harl and Cole that the first place of the mountain-voln was sacred and that none ever went there. He spoke in a reverent voice as he described how the bastard gods had once come together there, working to carve the tough bodies of the mountain-voln out of the very rocks themselves.
“This is the truth that the button men beat out of their slaves.” He hissed. “In time the ones they steal from us begin to believe that Lios was the first and that he made the other voln before the mountain-voln, and so we should be their servants and soldiers. But look how mighty we are! How strong and how tall!” He stood proudly, pushing out his chest, his dark eye gleaming as he continued. “Mountain-voln are brave. Braver than the city-voln who build walls of fake stone to protect themselves! We live on the stone and face the blizzard with no fear!”
Harl suspected from his bravado that Miran had already taken more surreptitious sips of Alnim’s rice wine, but he placated the giant man.
“You’re not wrong. I grew up among city-voln, and the mountain-voln are a hundred times braver!”
“A thousand times braver!”
Miran continued his boasting all the while they were trudging further up the slope. It was hot air, but it made a diversion from worrying about Cole’s current silence, or about what might await them at the place where the bastard gods had once walked in the mountains. All the while Harl held onto Miran’s pendant, as the man had refused to take it back all the while it still arced from Harl’s fingers and pointed strongly.
The One Who Hungers had wanted to go to the top of the mountain, to try to eat the bastard gods. Why had it thought that they might be there? Had it dreamt of them too? Had it a sense inside of it, like the pendant, pulling it northwards and upwards to the ends of the lands of the volnen? Harl’s thoughts tumbled over each other and he drew closer to Cole to try to see if the man had any wisdom he would share. But Cole seemed to be in a dark mood.
“Have I done something wrong?” Harl asked sincerely.
“Leave it be lad.” Growled the tall man from within the shadows of his hood.
“Speak to me, Cole.” He asked simply, allowing a space to grow between them and the rest of the party.
Cole huffed and sighed, “As if its not hard enough to breath up here, you want me to waste words on telling you… what? That I am sorrowfilled about something? Leave it be, lad.”
“No.” Harl insisted. “Tell me.”
Cole stopped, turning slightly, so what little of his face Harl could see under his hood was covered. “That wineskin you gave Miran.”
“A small price for-”
“I wanted it. I wanted it more than I have ever wanted anything. More than… you wouldn’t understand.”
Cole had stopped his drinking in Emphon, been free of it since then until they had shared Alnim’s rice wine, the hospitality of the chief of the village and something not to be rejected. And now Cole was back where he had started.
“I have a… need for it.”
If Harl could have snatched the wineskin back from the mountain-voln and handed it to Cole then and there he would have done, just to never hear that pain in his voice again. But what Cole needed was not more rice-wine. Nor more vernoush, or ale, or beer. He needed to be free of all of that as he had been for many months.
A dark thought entered Harl’s mind. Another charm would do it. It would be okay this time. He knew what to do to make it go right this time. And Cole needed him to do it, to help him. And he needed to help him!
Harl felt a sudden queasy sickness deep in his belly, as though the snow covered slope they passed over was actually one of the ‘crevasses’ that the mountain-voln had warned them about. It felt as though the ground had suddenly just dropped away beneath them just as they had described and his stomach lurched with his vertigo.
He needed to charm Cole.
He was becoming as dependent on his ability to change others’ minds as Cole was on the rice-wine. A shiver ran through him.
“No.” He said to Cole and to himself. “You do not need it. I swear to you Cole, you do not.” He took Cole’s hand this time, and, knowing that he could charm him at any moment if he wished, he merely held it for a moment concentrating making his promise to him.
“Aye, well maybe you are right.” Cole said, sounding not very convinced. “At least if we head onwards on this path there’ll be no taverns up here at the end of the world to tempt me.”
Cole turned back and gave Harl a weak smile, and Harl returned it with his own much stronger one.