“Are you a button man?”
The man only briefly glanced at Harl as he spoke. He was crouched by what passed for their campfire in the darkness of the swamp’s night. It had smoked and spluttered when the man in the long coat had sparked his flint towards it, the wetness that was seeping into Harl’s bones as he sat watching him obviously already deep in the wood. But the man’s dark grey city-voln eyes still returned quickly to staring into its feeble flames as though something he sought was hidden in their orange depths.
“Of course, I’m bloody not! I left your mouth free. Don’t make me regret that I did.”
Harl rubbed his wrists against the binding hemp rope. He could probably bring forth his dark claws to deal with the rough twist holding his hands together behind his back and free him. But he chose not to for now. Until he knew where he was. And what his captor wanted.
And what had happened to Cole.
At first, he had thought the masked shadow standing over him in the mist as he woke had been his companion, and Harl had pulled his weary limbs from the sucking mud all about him to sit up and to weakly hail him. But then the man had cursed at length, suddenly furious about some unknown slight, and Harl had heard the difference in their voices, even through the cloth the man still wore across his nose and mouth. The stranger was slightly higher and sweeter in pitch, even as he called upon the bastard gods themselves to cut him down as a bloody fool. He had none of the slow dry rasp of Cole, even if there was similar darkness in his profanities at finding Harl.
Seeing him by the fire now, as the mist wove and drifted around them, he could make out more and more of how he and Cole differed. He obviously had the dark grey eyes and hair of a city-voln, but there was also a world-weariness to him that seemed newer than Cole’s. The lines about his eyes and the sternness of his brow seemed a recent change. And as his hands had pulled together a few drier twigs from nearby bushes in the mud for the fire, Harl had seen a smoothness of skin that suggested that the man had lived comfortably in a city before his life had brought him here to this rank and sinking land. He did wear the long coat of a button man like Cole, but like him, there was no shining gold marking him as a button man. Harl’s eyes had also spotted the overlapping parts and bindings of woods-voln leathers underneath the length of his coat. So, he’d asked the question he already knew the answer to. To judge his hate for Lios’ men.
The man went on to mumble under his breath, apparently indignant at the thought of being a button man.
“What can I call you?” The man asked suddenly, his grey eyes taking him in from above the mask.
The man waited a moment before speaking with a tone of frustration. “Harl… Harl what? Of what greening are you?”
“Just Harl.” He smiled, wondering if he might be able to charm the man. All he got in response was the man’s lack of attention as he went back to poking the small fire with another stick.
“And who can I thank for my rescue?”
“Rescue?!” The man snorted. “Hardly. Your sleeping place was just in the way of my patrol.”
“Where are we?” Harl looked about at the darkness covering the pools of water and sinking mud about them.
“You don’t know?” The man’s eyes narrowed. “I thought at first you might be a recruit. Of course, Lios doesn’t trust woods-voln to serve, but perhaps he’s gotten desperate as Tralis is lost.”
“Tralis?” He knew the Eastern city of course, even if he’d only ever heard stories about it. Tralis on the Front. The stinking Eastern end of Lios’ great kingdom where thousands were churned up and spat out by his great war. The Front.
“The mist… we’re at the Front?”
“And the city… lost?”
“Lost to Lios. It stands, it just isn’t his anymore. But you should know that! You must have come here on the King’s Road and seen the barricade? Or through the Atta-woods? Your voln would have told you… How did you get here?”
Harl paused. Since waking in the mud and water of the swamp, he’d been trying to patch together memories. Snow. Freezing fingers and the softness of thick furs. A man falling to his doom. A girl calling him from a tent and into the whistling, skin stripping, wind outside. Cole.
“I don’t know. I was somewhere else. And then I was here. In the mist.”
“She was gone too.” He seemed to speak without thinking, and the pain in his eyes at his own words suggested a story he wasn’t going to tell Harl yet. Unless he could figure out the trick of it.
“I was travelling with someone. Did you see them…? A woods-voln. Tall. Thin. Dark hair though, not like most woods-vol-”
The man moved quickly, pulled at the collar of Harl’s coat and making him aware of things he’d woken in. Somehow, they were wrong, even though they were good plain travelling clothes.
“You know her?!” The man hissed, pulling the mask away from his face to speak more clearly. “You travelled with her?!”
“Her? No, no my companion was a man!”
Harl was dropped back to the soft earth he’d been dumped on earlier when the man had dragged him to this slight rise in the mire. The man collapsed as well, landing heavily on the dirt, and staring into the dying flames as he breathed heavily.
Now that the mask was gone Harl could see the hair growing raggedly on his face, unkempt, as well as a thin scar running through the dark grey hairs of it, from his jawline to his cheek. Pain was evident in the set of his mouth and in the depths of his eyes, even as damp lengths of his hair got in their way. There was something… familiar about him, but Harl couldn’t place him. He was handsome by most voln standards, Harl supposed. The scar and unkemptness only served to add some uniqueness to a face that was symmetrical and pleasing otherwise. If very unhappy.
“Who was she?”
He glared at Harl. “No one. She is lost. Gone.”
Harl tried again, “What is your name?”
The man sighed, “Orrin Storyt- Orrin Priest.”
“Priest? But not Beloved of Lios. I heard your swearing to the bastard gods.”
“No. Not Beloved of Lios. Hated by Lios. Cursed into undeath by Lios.” The man smiled wryly.
“And which bastard gods are you ‘priest’ to?” He was confused. Woods-voln did not have priests. City-voln had them. Lios had them.”
“Many used to get my curses and prayers. But there is only one I am priest to now.” Orrin admitted after a moment’s pause. “She Who Harms and Heals. The Lost One.”
Harl had not heard of her, but she was likely some other naming of She Who Once Healed, the Crowned One. The names changed and multiplied across the voln who believed in the bastard gods. But something the man had said gave him pause.
“She is lost?”
Harl thought of the bastard gods sitting about the campfire in his dream by the arches at the end of the road of clay worshippers. So many of them, impossible to count as they warped and shifted in his vision. Could one of them be ‘lost’? Weren’t they all lost in a world ruled by Lios the god-king? But… he had said his companion was lost. And hadn’t he said that his path here should have taken him through the ‘Atta-woods’.
“What else was she called?” He asked slowly, suspicions building.
The man shook his head. “I will not say her name.”
The man swallowed, his grey eyes holding and burning into Harl’s. “Eris Atta-Sutith.”
The name was a punch to Harl’s stomach. Eris. The girl he’d hurt so severely. The one who’d wanted him killed as a part of a deal with Jerekyn and his firm in a tavern in Bara. Where there had been a storyteller… a city-voln man who told tales of the bastard gods after the bell was rung.
“I remember you. You were there the night she wanted to-” He stopped. Eris had wanted him dead. This man followed her as though she was a bastard god. He served a word and a will that until recently he had been able to hear directly, instead of the usual silence of the bastard gods. But it was too late. The man’s eyes widened as he stared at Harl.
“You!” Orrin snapped, “I remember you too!”
The fist slammed his face into the mud and filth and set his ears ringing. He’d barely seen the man move, just a sense of a sweeping shape as his long coat had billowed out behind him. He spat blood as his vision quickly returned and glared at the man inches from his face who was breathing heavily in his rage.
“You hurt her!” Orrin snapped, drawing his bloodied fist back again. “You did it!”
He braced himself for the next punch, but it didn’t come. The man staggered away from him instead, walking right through their pitiful fire and sending dim sparks into the mud. Harl heard him mumbling, but the words were unclear.
“Please,” Harl said, spitting out more blood. “I never wanted to-”
“I should leave you here! Leave you with your hands bound until the Front claims you!” The man spat back. Harl hung his head as though defeated but slowly pushed his claws free to use their sharp edges against the hemp, working at it with as little movement as he could.
“Who goes there?”
The voice was distant, muffled by the mist but it set Orrin to cursing again before he drew a roarer from inside his long coat.
“It’s me. Orrin Priest.” He called out to the shapes trudging their way through the sucking mud and emerging from the mist near them.
“Aye, so I see.” The lead figure was another city-voln. But it wasn’t that that caught Harl’s eyes and raced his heart. It was the neat rows of golden buttons running down the front of his dark blue coat. The man was in his early twenties but wore the styled moustache of an older man.
“So, you’re still looking?” He said in greeting, ignoring the roarer’s lion mouth that pointed towards him.
“Yes,” Orrin said, ignoring the smiles of the button man’s fellow soldiers.
“She’s gone. If she was here at all. Its always sounded like a tall bloody tale to me, Orrin Storyteller.”
“I don’t tell stories anymore.” The priest said darkly, “I told you that, Jayk.”
‘Jayk’ shrugged. “Couldn’t care less, old friend. Who’s this you’ve got here? A woods-voln for all that mud on his face and in his fox-fur hair? Aw, Orrin… did you set out to find her and confused one woods-voln for another? I’m sure Eris wouldn’t be pleased to know how quickly you’ve replaced her with a ‘sweet-lad’” There was something in the way that this Jayk said the words that sounded like a severe insult. But Harl was smart enough not to react.
“Don’t you say her name!”
Jayk laughed, “You think I give a shit about what you want? The legions let you patrol for your lost ‘love’ because it amuses us. But even a joke like you gets old after a few years. What is it now? Three? Four? I mean, you were at it when I was transferred here, so its got to be at least four.”
Harl felt the rage pouring from the priest holding the roarer, but even so, he eventually lowered it in defeat. He slumped with the weight of it. The weight of his years of searching.
Four years? Four years searching?! But it couldn’t be more than a two year since their encounter in the tavern in Bara? He and Cole had spent just over a year in Emphon, and there had been their escape from Bara before that… How could he have been looking for Eris for four years?
Harl looked again at the man, looked at the heaviness of his shoulders and the defeat in his eyes. It was true. Eris had been gone for four years. And maybe… maybe so had Harl.