Harl made the change so slowly and subtly that it was only when the priest was shouting up his introductions to the guardsmen on the wall that he noticed the difference in his ‘mistfoundling’. What was the difference really? A roundening of his face, a dulling of his eyes? His hair was already slick with mud so turning the red to dark grey was little difference. His build was slight, his bones were sharp, but a starving city-voln was thin as well. The priest was in his city-spun clothes, while Harl had stripped off the thick furs of the mountain-voln long ago when the mire had been trying to suck it into its depths. His plain shirt was city-voln once, a present from Tersia. He could pass enough to get by the guardsmen. Only Orrin was startled a little that the woods-voln he’d found near drowned in the mists of the Front was now a slack-jawed city-voln.
“And ‘im?” A man in a rust-speckled helm asked, his pike resting lazily against a wooden three drawered piece of furniture slung on the barricade. “I know you, Orrin Garoth. You’ve got the ear of the she-king, and if she wants to let you in and by the walls, that’s her right and power. But I don’t know that one there.”
“Bodyguard.” Orrin shrugged. “Guessing that she wants to prevent me from dying on the Front.”
The guard laughed, and others drew closer to hear what merriment was to be found on the edge of the swamplands and the Front. “Eh, you ever seen a bodyguard like that’un?” He asked of another of the men, who mutely shook his head, wet mud stained locks of grey slapping into his eyes.
“As you say, she has the right and the power.” Orrin nudged them, “So let us by?”
“Sure enough.” The second guardsman said, “But make sure you see Marchan this stay around. The lord protector sent word that he wanted your smug face in his presence on yer returned.”
Orrin nodded, and the two of them scrambled over the fallen rocks that made a path between two heights of the barricade. It took them right past the guardsmen, and Harl noted the ill-state of their armour and gear. Their coats were overlaid with a grey coloured plain-spun cloth that, even with its holes and patchings, matched grey flags on nearby poles. There was not enough breeze to see the symbol on them, but Harl assumed that the eye of Lios would be watching them from their heights, as it always was. Each man was haggard about the face, and as he hoped, his woods-voln thinness did not mark him out as a pretender.
Once they were beyond the men and had descended down a little way to the level of the lowest streets of Tralis Orrin pushed him suddenly into the shadows of an alleyway.
“You changed your face!” He said in a sharp whisper, “How? The bastard gods took you away with her. Did they teach you to use powers like her? To heal and to harm?”
“I cannot heal… at least I don’t think so. I’ve tried before… But what I can do, it’s because of the castle. And the creatures there. Because of one of them.”
Orrin sighed and grabbed him firmly by the arm to pull him from the alleyway. “A tale is brewing on your tongue boy, and I would hear it. But not here, not now.”
The priest led him through the dark streets of Tralis just as a stormcloud broke itself on the barricades and water was tipped out in thick waves onto the already wet stones. The only other city-voln about were soldiers, walking in small groups with no urgency. Harl saw a few wearing the fake golden buttons of the officers, but most were infantrymen, seemingly wandering the city while waiting for their next commands. Some hid in the dry places and shared tin flasks of drink as Orrin and Harl walked by. Lewd comments about the priest followed them, but Orrin did not slow his pace.
Eventually, they reached Orrin’s tenement building. Rammed full of soldiers’ wives and mistresses, the central wooden staircase was teeming with arguments and washed clothes. It was familiar in so many ways to the housing of Bara that Harl almost thought to take a trip to the Light of Lios later on. But that was leagues away.
Amidst the washing was something else though, something he’d never seen in Bara. Hung from the walls were grey flags like the ones on the barricade. Though it was not the eye of Lios that watched them from the centre of them. It was a hand in a pale flesh colour with a round shape of green material in the flat of its palm.
Harl went to ask what it meant, but Orrin hushed him until they were safe within his attic room at the top of the building, and their words would only fill the sloping roof and not the ears of the bustling city-voln of the building.
Orrin settled himself onto a worn wooden chair. There was very little furniture in Orrin’s rooms. Harl wondered if perhaps the rest had been taken for the barricade walls. He answered Harl’s interrupted question finally.
“The she-king’s sign,” Orrin said darkly.
“The guards said, but I wasn’t sure I had heard them a’right. She-king?!”
Orrin sighed. “She calls herself Eris Atta-Sutith. But that isn’t who she is. You might have known her at the Light of Lios tavern as Estille, the stiletto knife of Jerekyn’s firm. Jerekyn who nearly died that night at the Light of Lios, but who somehow made it to Tralis as Marchan.”
Harl’s head swam. Estille was pretending to be Eris?! Estille was pretending to be a king?!
“Look, lad, we both have tales on our tongues now. And I don’t know about you, but if I’m going to force myself to be Orrin Storyteller again, I’m going to need a bath and some fresh clothes first. There’s a hand pump in the courtyard” He flipped a small dull coin to Harl who snatched it out of the air, “Give this to the girl playing there, and she and her friends will bring up buckets enough for us to wash. Keep your city-voln face as long as you can though. The she-king might be pretending to be a dark-haired woods-voln, but the people of Tralis’s goodwill towards your voln is very fragile.”
In the courtyard, Harl found a bunch of near-feral children playing boisterous games that seemed to involve at least one of them being picked up until they sprouted tears. The ringleader was a slightly older girl than the others who used her greater size against the smaller ones. Harl was a little pleased when she paled under his shadow and almost had to strain her neck to look all the way up to see his grey city-voln eyes.
“Aye, sir?” She asked timidly. A few of her cohort laughed at her demeanour, but she near enough snarled at them.
“Orrin Prie- Orrin Garoth wants water for his room.” Harl pointed towards the hand pump where a naked toddler was happily splashing in the mud about its base. “He gave me this for you.” He flipped the coin towards her just as Orrin had done to him and the girl caught it just as swiftly. It disappeared into a pocket in her raggedy dress. Quickly, she poked and prodded her ‘team’ into a chain of water collectors and carriers. Harl was impressed by her efficiency but found himself stifling a laugh as some of the buckets were sloshed about ineptly by some of the younger ones and water was lost on the wooden stairs, leading to screeches from the grown women hanging out around the bannisters.
Eventually, they were both washed redressed in Orrin’s spare clothing, and Harl sat at an unevenly shaved and varnished table eating hard cheese and dry bread as Orrin paced, nodding as he heard Harl’s tale between his large mouthfuls.
“She was not made a-like you.” He said finally. “What she could do. What you can do. Different. But perhaps akin? You talk of thinking through the trick of things. Perhaps… perhaps…”
The man took a handful of already scribbled on paper from a pile resting on a windowsill and started scribbling on it, leaning against the table as Harl tried to read the man’s letters upside down.
“Eris’ mother was a healer. And you say that this Rickarn, some relative of the old High General no doubt, encountered her and killed her for being ‘impure’. She had some of the same power perhaps. But Eris learnt to heal and ‘harm’. You learnt how to trick and charm. As you had always done on the streets of Bara, but now with this wyrdling power. Like hers, but gained through a wound, not blood. You are kin, but not the same.”
“Could we be another kind of kin?” He asked, the thought appearing in his head suddenly. “I don’t know my greening, but perhaps I did not go mad like the other creatures of the castle when Fysiwon marked me because I have blood in kind with Eris?”
Orrin paused, and the man’s usually expressive face was stone still, unreadable. “Perhaps.” He said eventually, but there was uncertainty in his voice. “You have changed yourself as she has… you are kin in that way if no other.”
Harl nodded, lowering his eyes to his meal again. He remembered Eris leading him from the tent, away from Cole and into the place beyond the snowy mountain plain. A place where the gods were. Why had he even followed her? She’d walked right past the boundary and ignored the clear warning of doom there, and he’d followed. He’d left Cole behind and all that he meant to stand with her among the skulls and bones. Was she family? Were they the same in wyrd ways he was still only beginning to understand?
Later Orrin let him sleep in the man’s simple cot bed while he made himself as comfortable as he could on the warped floorboards. The attic room reminded Harl of the space above the tavern that he’d shared with Cole in Emphon, and he fell to unquiet dreams wondering where the tall man was now.