Orrin found him there as he dozed, and he decided to face the man’s fury rather than to try to slog through the mud to get away from him at some ridiculous slow speed. There was blood on the man’s long coat, and a new black eye, but he was whole as he walked towards him, a slowly growing dark figure on the dull sheen of the flat mud and water.
“You didn’t get far.” The man said in a flat voice as he crouched by him and passed him some dried meat to chew on. Hunger exploded in Harl’s belly along with the saliva in his mouth, and he wondered how long it had been since his last real meal? Memories of dried strips of mountain hare mingled with the farm-voln made beef jerky he was working over in his mouth.
“You deal with that button man?” Harl asked, mumbling around it.
“Yeah. It’s okay, Jayk’s limped off to the mending tents with the rest of his Lios-loving gang. We go way back, and I won’t kill him unless she tells-” He stopped himself. “Where were you headed to anyway? Tralis?”
“To be honest, I thought I’d better go around it and avoid the barrage of roarers on the barricade if that’s okay?”
Orrin nodded, the damp lengths of his hair covering his eyes until he pushed them back. He narrowed his grey eyes at him. “And then? Which greening do you aim for?”
His mind skimmed over names he might have heard from cursing city-voln in Bara or Emphon. He grabbed at one and blurted it out. “Lastleaf.”
The man sighed. “So, you’re a Lastleaf then? Is that so?”
The man obviously knew he was lying and giving him enough rope to hang himself with.
“Aye. The woods about the East of Bara. Lastleaf.”
“And you were unconscious in the swamps of Tralis, because…?”
“Nomad fever.” He said weakly.
“Of course.” The man said wryly before looked up at the barricade surrounding Tralis, staring off into the distance as he spoke. “It’s perfectly understandable that you’d come to Tralis and its delightful surrounds to find lovely woods-voln ladies to woo. Perhaps that was also why you came to the Light of Lios tavern in Bara too? Hmmm?”
Harl held out his hands in the sign for peace. “So, you remember me.”
“To be fair, it took me a moment or so. And you were lucky your face came back to me when I was busy putting Jayk back in his place. Otherwise, I might have too quickly served my god and taken your life just as she wished back then.”
“And now..?” His hands were still open, palms up in peace. But he could charm him if he needed to…
“And now my lady is lost in the mists. And you came out of them. Isn’t that right? You never walked your way to Tralis, did you? Where were you last?”
“In the mountains.” Harl though back to the cold and the girl who’d led him into nothingness. “She was there too. Just before I-”
His words were stopped by the man grabbing him by his collar and dragging him with him as he got to his feet. “She was there?!”
“I… I think so.” Harl frowned, trying to remember. “I think she led me to where they were.”
He realised what it sounded like as he said it, “The bastard gods.”
“So she’s there, maybe, with them?”
“I don’t know… maybe she turned up somewhere else too.”
“The mountains.” Orrin was saying, looking north and west to the jagged distant grey line that was the mountains on the horizon, just above leagues of woods and cities. “She could be there then. Gods know she isn’t here, whatever they pretend.”
There was a particular bitterness in his words that Harl didn’t understand. Who was pretending that she was still here?
“Okay, Harl Mistfoundling, this is what will happen next. We will go into Tralis to get supplies. I have been patrolling for two weeks, I have near nothing left with me. Then you and I will travel northwards and hope the Atta will let us use the king’s road on that path. Your red hair might buy us passage, but they’ve little reason to let me through. And then we will find her.”
Harl looked at the stranger, still holding on tightly to the material of his jacket, bunched up in his fists. He didn’t want a different travelling companion. But perhaps… if Orrin had waited for his god’s return… just maybe Cole was waiting for him in the mountains still? And there was a strange need inside him, calling him to the north to where the tall man might also be.
He nodded his assent, and the man smiled. So far, the stranger had been a dark and furious figure, but when he smiled widely something almost boy-like about him shone through that shadow. Harl remembered him a little from his time in the tavern. Orrin Storyteller had been a handsome and cheerful figure encouraging his small circle of listeners into feeling the great romances and adventures he was giving them. Of course, Harl had been more shocked at discovering Cole there, of all places, and his thoughts had mostly been on the man and his drinking, and whether he was going to drag him screaming back to the castle… but the man telling stories had seemed to have a light heart. And now Harl could see it once more.
“Come on. The way in we can take is a near full turn about the edges of the city. I’m afraid we slog onwards through the muck for now. In the end, though, I can promise you adequate lodgings and a cold bath, most like.” The man’s grey eyes were alive again as he joked about Tralis.
“Tell me,” he continued as they walked slowly and carefully through the mire, avoiding the worst of it and ignoring how wretched with sticking mud their breeches were. “Tell me of the path that took you to Bara and the Light of Lios.”
Lies were at the tip of Harl’s tongue, and Cole’s voice was in his head, warning him not to tell.
“I was born in Bara.”
“Ah, so your father did have nomad fever?”
“My mother was a whore in Bara,” Harl said bluntly.
The man paused, “A woods-voln whore in Bara?”
Dread that the man might have known her flooded his veins. “Aye. She was Aril Woods-voln. Red hair. She’s something- somewhere else now.”
The man looked apologetic. “I’m sorry. That must have been a tough life for a young boy. Woods-voln and… and…”
“Did you know of her?” He asked the priest bluntly, who looked away awkwardly.
“Not me. But word gets about. A woods-voln whore was among those who used to be brought to the temple. For the senior priests. It was unusual.”
The thought that his father might have been a Beloved of Lios had never even occurred to Harl before. He concentrated for a moment on his slow passage across the expanse of mud. One foot after another.
“But you didn’t stay there. Eris wasn’t in Bara when you first met her. When you-”
“When I maimed her. No, she was in the woods near the castle. A man bought me from Aril and took me there.”
Orrin nodded. “I know something of that place from Eris. And from a man she met who’d been a master there. And from the ghosts who escaped it. There’s one who haunts the Atta-woods. It was a memory of him that reminded me of who you were.”
Harl must have looked confused.
“For a little while, back when Eris and I first travelled towards Tralis, he wore your face. He doesn’t any more, and I’d forgotten whose face he’d borrowed in the first place. But something about you was familiar when I found you seemingly dead in the muck.”
Harl felt a chill down his back as Orrin told him so calmly of a creature that had mimicked him. It must have been one of the ones that he’d seen on their flight from the castle. One by the crashing sea and the treacherous path away from that cursed place?
“And after the castle, you went to Bara. And then?”
“Bridge. Then westwards to Emphon. Stayed there for a while. Managed to get some work and a bed in a tavern. It was a place a little like the Light of Lios, but they hadn’t got themselves a bell yet.”
“You were there before the fire?”
“I was there during the fire. We escaped, with some others, and headed north to the mountains.”
He looked at the man keeping pace with him. There was no way he could trust a priest with the whole story, Lios-lover or not. “One of the masters from the castle escaped with me.”
But Orrin’s eyes narrowed. The storyteller knew when a tale was missing key elements.
“The older woods-voln at the Light of Lios. The dark-haired one. Dark like Eris.”
“A… a friend.” The word came out weird from his mouth. “Eventually he was a friend. I must have left him in the mountains when I went where I went. I don’t really know what happened to him.”
Orrin was quiet for a short while after that. Then suddenly he spoke again. “You know, I haven’t told the tale of a bastard god all these years that she’s been gone. They’re still inscribed on my heart, its just that when I go to speak them, the air is suddenly gone from my lungs. Just like it was when she kissed me.”
Harl listened in silence, remembering another kiss taken too quickly before he’d chosen to walk across the barrier. A kiss that would get him killed in the lands of the volnen.
“Every single tale spoke of great friendship. Sometimes lost. Sometimes friendship becoming something more. And then being lost. The bastard gods lived and loved. How could I tell tales so full of life, when I was dead inside?”
Harl looked to their right where the barricades still rose above them, uncomfortable with the man’s confession. There, above them but still a roarer’s shot away, death was a permanent stink on the roughly pushed together bricks and broken furniture. The city was lost Orrin had said. Maybe the man had been too, without Eris.
“But the bastard gods want life. And suddenly I can feel my heart changing, coming back to life.” He laughed ruefully, but there was genuine hope in the sound, “Gods, I sound like the young fool I was in the Light of Lios! Escaping my priest cell every night to delight in my own voice once the bell was rung. Gods know how she ever put up with me with my constant declarations of her divinity and my gods-damned poetry!”
Harl found himself smiling too. The man, a stranger until just hours ago really, was charming in his honesty.
“So…” the man began cautiously, “So if the bastard gods call us to life, we should never deny it. Life and love. That’s what their stories tell us, life and love.”
Harl desperately sought a trick to get him out of the implications of those words. But nothing came to his usually quick mind. He stayed quiet. It only seemed to inspire Orrin to speak more.
“My friend Pierson has two wives. It sounds like the start of a terrible joke. But he does. Two wives who have a heartful of love for him… and for each other.” Orrin added carefully, as though making sure Harl understood his meaning. “Although, theirs is a tale they might be able to tell you themselves, once we make it to the Atta-woods. If they are still with the others… and the Atta don’t kill me on sight.”
Harl looked at him in confusion, but the man merely smiled and pushed ahead through the mud with a strange enthusiasm.