Jayk was circling Orrin, looking down at the slumped man with a cruel smile on his lips. “Guess she let you down too. In the end.”
“Damn you street-voln.” Muttered Orrin. Harl’s brow creased in confusion, but the men with the button man smirked. They were stopped by a hurled curse from Jayk before he turned on Orrin again.
“Don’t you call me that. I am city-voln! I am a button man!”
“And who are you reporting to these days? Rickarn? Brant? That fool Willem? Or none of them because you and your gleaming golden lads lost Tralis to the bitch-king?” Orrin laughed bitterly. “I’ve patrolled the edges of the Front for four or so years… aye, you’re right. Long enough to watch the rise of the barricade and the end of the god-king’s control over the city. Long enough to watch you and your fellow button-men stamp about the swamp like headless chickens. Sure, some of you still throw yourself into the fight, go deeper into the mist, but you’ve lost faith!”
Jayk’s cheeks bloomed red above that ridiculous moustache, and Harl was confident that the priest was about to get a beating of his own. But then Jayk calmed himself, pulled on his waistcoat to straighten it and running his fingertips along the greased lengths of his moustache. He was older than Harl by a few years, but even so, it was a poor growth. His was better… he realised he did have a decent sprouting of reddish-brown hair on his cheeks, more than he’d had shaved away in Emphon at the Ellinostrum estate.
But that was something to deal with later. For now, Harl was concerned that Orrin’s shaming of the young captain was going to end poorly for the two of them. Jayk was now glaring at them with cold murderous intent.
“Good sir. Excuse me, good sir.” Harl hazarded a trick, letting some charm drift from him and merge with the thin mist about them. He sent a calming sense of his trustworthiness towards Jayk and his men. “Could you see your way to letting me go? I ain’t really with this one.” He gestured with his shoulder, keeping his unbound hands behind him still, just in case. “I don’t have a dog in this race if you know what I mean. Let me be, and you lot can go back to waving roarers in each others’ faces without my fear it’ll go off in my face.”
He felt a stab of guilt at using the charm and ghosts of a memory teased at his mind. But then the soldiers’ eyes glazed over a little, and Jayk nodded his assent, sending one of them to help him up from the sinking mud. Harl tried his best to wipe it off of his dun-coloured britches, but they were a lost cause.
“Now, if someone could point out the way towards Tralis and the king’s road beyond, I’d be much obliged.”
“Wait. Wait.” Orrin said, his forehead creasing as though he was working something out in his head. “Wait, stay there!”
He seemed to be shaking off the effect of the charm somehow?! Harl’s eyes widened as he saw the priest raise the roarer again, and turn it on him.
“What are you doing to them?” Orrin asked, shaking his own head, the lengths of his dark hair falling over his eyes. “What are you doing to me? What greening is this…?”
Harl held out his hands, palms outwards, in the sign for peace. “Please, I just want to find my way back to Co- back to where I was.”
“Greening?” Asked a dazed Jayk, and Harl realised he had not been maintaining the charm. He increased his efforts and the man slipped under again.
“You’re doing this. Something like she could do. You’re something like her!” Orrin said, his eyes widening. “By her name!”
“Leave me be, priest,” Harl muttered. “I want no part in your faith. I have people I need to get back to. Someone I’ve lost too.”
Orrin was staring intently at him, a sharpness returning to his sad eyes. “I lost her into the mist. Lost her to the endless Front. Or so I thought. But she never came back hurt by the enemy. Never dragged herself into the dying tents like the other men. Of course, she would have healed herself, returned to m- to her Atta as soon as she could. Unless… where were you before you were here, lad?”
Harl looked to the soldiers, made dull-eyed and placed his charm. He shifted it a bit until anger swept across their faces. Jayk drew his own, more brightly shining, roarer from his belt.
“I want to go. Don’t make me make them hurt you!” Harl snapped at the priest.
Jayk pulled back the firing pin, and a smile that had nothing to do with Harl’s charm spread across his lips.
The sudden thunder of a roarer snapped Harl into action, and he fled across the shallow pools of swamp water as though guard dogs were at his heels, not waiting to find out which city-voln had taken the lead pellet from the golden lion’s mouth.
Hours later and he was sick of pulling his feet from the ever-hungry swamp’s mud. Every joint ached from the large steps he was forced to take to make his way over the wretched ground. And still, the mist swirled about him, eating his footsteps just as they filled with green-tinged brackish water. Tralis was nowhere to be seen, and he was afraid that in fact been heading further away from it, and closer to the depths of the Front where the eternal enemy waited.
Maybe he should have stayed with the priest. But his usual response to a Beloved of Lios was fear and distrust. In Bara, there was little good that ever came from drawing the eye of a Beloved. The thieving work he’d done for Jerekyn had brought him altogether too close. Perhaps he could have trusted a priest who’d told stories of the bastard gods after the bell at the Light of Lios tavern? But one who worshipped Eris Atta-Sutith of all people?! One who seemed immune to his charm?
No, he was sure his escape had been the only trick he should have pulled, even if guilt still gnawed at his belly. He’d left the man to die at the hands of that smarmy button man. Eris’ priest! A man still searching for her in the stinking mire of the Front? By the bastard gods, if she hadn’t wanted to kill him before!
But the priest and his death were behind him now. And there was nothing to do but seek out firmer looking ground for his next step, and then the step after that, and the one after that too…
Another night claimed him before he had sight of the city. It was a floating mound of lights, hovering above the horizon as though it was trying to escape the swamp as well. Harl, exhausted and muddy, breathed out a long-held breath only for the next to seize in his chest. Above the city, the stars were winking out in great patches as something flew across the night sky. He dropped down into the reeds even though the lights were never going to reach him at his distance. Whatever it was veered away from the city and disappeared to the south-west, swooping over the edges of the swamp and the beginnings of the water-soaked woods beyond it.
The Atta-woods, Harl reminded himself. Were they named for her?
But at least his path straight to the city was free for now from whatever had swooped through the air. Suspicion grew in him. Was a ghost was haunting the city? Emphon had succumbed in fire to prophets and ghosts. Was Tralis lost, as the priest had said, because of them too?
He decided to push on through his tiredness rather than risk approaching the city during the day. Even so, the grey dawn and the sounds of bombardment deep in the mist at the Front started before he got to the city’s limits. To the barricade.
Before the barricade, the swamp must have been the only barrier to the city on this side. Bara, Bridge, and Emphon had all long had their city walls. But Emphon’s was new, and made from tumbled down buildings, trashed furniture, and the city’s own refuse and waste.
Men patrolled the tops of it, somehow walking nimbly on the uneven heights of the mound. There was no way for Harl to get closer as the dim sun snuck its way towards the city from the Front behind him. He settled for the shade given by a tree half fallen into the water at its roots while he figured out whether the city could be circumvented before the relentless plodding through the grabbing swamp drove him insane.