Cole set a quick pace heading down the broken corridor, deftly avoiding a pounding wave that the muleteers and boys had to pause for. Then they were walking after him… or limping. Some were trying not to cry, some were crying freely. Harl was as numb as his skin. He’d survived this watery scourging, but what would be next?
Next was a long walk into the castle. Up spiralling staircases and past endless rows of wooden doors. Now they were closer to them Harl saw numbers jaggedly carved into each wooden door. He had his numbers, so he tried to follow their order, but they changed floor and corridor so often there was no logical progression. All he could was that there were hundreds, if not thousands, of the pitch stained wooden doors, and each one was closed tight. Sometimes they found themselves by broken exterior walls again, and Harl could look down onto the sea from a great height. Sometimes he saw the inner courtyards of the castle, squares of bleak grey where tiny distant figures walked like ants. Sometimes the corridors were windowless, endless, black tunnels that only Cole seemed to understand. They were in one of these when suddenly the tall man opened a damp-warped door at the far end and light blinded them. Then they were shoved in, the wood of the door screeching behind them before it thumped shut.
When Harl’s eyes calmed he saw that they were in a dull red and brown room with shelves and shelves of books as high as the distant ceiling. At the far end from the door was a great segmented window of bubbled glass that let in a low afternoon glow. Candles dripped from wrought iron stands, and onto a great desk with lion’s feet that took up much of the room. A gaunt, bald, man with copper skin sat behind overflowing piles of books and parchments, squinting at some great volume through strange circular shapes of glass hooked onto his head. He looked up as they entered, eyes bulging through his spectacles, taking in the two score of weary boys and Cole, one boy still carried on his shoulder as though he weighed nothing.
“You’re back.” Said the man abruptly.
“Yes.” Replied Cole, just as plainly.
“Well then, have them line up!” he was impatient.
The boys started to move in front of the book cases even before the tall man and the wretched muleteers could bark orders at them. Cole dumped the body of the unconscious lad on a couch, ignoring the bed of papers he fell on. The bald man looked horrified at the lad’s nakedness. “Cover him up!” he near squeaked. Cole moved some parchment over him and shrugged.
“Is he broken?! I told you that I wanted them in a good condition!” snapped the man from behind his desk.
“And I told you that the water was too dangerous.” Cole threw himself down on a dusty chair, sending a grey cloud into the air which he swept at with his wide brimmed hat with a sneer, sprinkling more water about. Harl tried to sneak a look at him from the corner of his eye. Long pointed face. Dark straggling hair. And dull, almost green eyes. Was he woods-voln?!
“You’re the one who wanted them scrubbed clean” Cole continued in a flat voice, as though this was an old familiar argument long past interest.
“They have bad humours… the water purifies… it is a science I would not expect someone of your ilk to understand Cole!” The bald man sneered dismissively. Then he got up from his desk to walk down the line of them, rubbing his hands together. The great sleeves of his thick, heavily embroidered, robe slid back to show long scrawny arms and weak muscles. Harl steeled himself as the man got closer and peered at his face, bad breath near gagging him.
“I told you I wanted more woods-voln! Two?! You brought me only two!”
“And I told you,” began the tall man, boredom thick in his voice as he began his answer in the same way again. “Woods-voln are hard to come by. They don’t sell their sons.”
Harl flinched. That weren’t always true.
“You could have gone and got them!”
“If I wanted to end up hanging by me throat from a tree, punctured all through by poison-greened arrows, then maybe I could’ve, Orinius!”
Orinius huffed and moved on from Harl, still muttering, but Harl heard him with his attentive ears. “We used to get boys of the royal blood. Not this trash. City-voln trash!”
Harl could feel the other boys near him tensing in anger, even in their exhaustion. Orinius sighed dramatically. “Very well. This is what you’ve given me, this is what we will have to work with.”
“And what have you given me, Orinius?”
Cole glared at him until the bald man went back to the desk, unlocked a wooden box sitting there and threw him a bag from it. Harl noted the box well as Cole counted out the coins. Coins with the yellow glint of king’s gold. And Harl’d been paid for in dull stinking copper!
Cole flicked a few to the stinking muleteers, one of whom went to bite his coin and then thought better of it under Orinius’ glare. Then they nodded and left, leaving the warped door to screech closed behind them.
“Will you be going back to the cities?” Asked Orinius, as he stared intently at Dresick in particular. The bigger boy was sporting a bleeding cut over one eye and a dazed look.
“Not Bara, nor Emphon, again for a while. Maybe Tralis.” He shrugged. “I can’t over mine the nearest cities for too long or they’ll be as barren as the fields near here.”
Harl was confused. The land had been unworked as they neared the castle, but it had been wild, not barren. Did he mean he had already taken boys from there? And if so, where were they now?!
“And decades of oh-so-bloody-humble-fields-voln did little good, now did it?” Cole finished, burying the pouch into the dark of his long coat. “Or do your books tell you otherwise?”
“Enough Cole. You’ve done your work here, and now I set to mine.” Orinius moved back towards his desk, his heavy robes marking a trail in the dust on the wooden floorboards. He picked up a long thin candle wick and pulled at it, the white line of it snaking up and along the shelves to a small bell that sang out.
Cole grabbed at his hat and stuck it down on his head again, hiding his face once more in shadows. Then he walked the line of the boys himself, staring into each one’s eyes until they looked at their feet again. Not Harl though, not this time! Let this ‘Cole’ remember his face if Orinius was going to butcher him for meat or sell him onwards to sea-captains or boy rapers… let him remember!
Cole gave a noise that might have been a wretched laugh. “This one Orinius. This one will be here when I get back.”
“Hmmm.” Orinius was distracted, pulling a large volume from a pile on his desk and opening it, reading with an ink stained fingertip. He didn’t look up. “You’ve taken to prophecy, is that it? You’ve never done that before.”
“Prophecies are mother’s milk stories for the feeble minded.” Cole spat on Orinius’s rug, making the book-man harrumph angrily. Cole moved closer until Harl could see his dead man eyes under the brim of his hat. They were definitely green. Woods-voln green. “But this one’ll be here when I get back. Won’t you, lad?”
Harl could neither nod nor speak under the tall man’s glare, but Orinius laughed sarcastically. “You cannot possibly know that! I have not even measured-” But then he was interrupted by the arrival of four men through a door that had been hidden in an alcove to the left of the boys. The men were similar in appearance to Orinius, also gaunt and bowed, but paler of skin and wearing dull grey thick-weaved robes that swept the floor of its dirt behind them. Cole laughed coldly, and pushed his way through the boys and out of the door, before they too were shoved back through to the dank corridor by the robed men and made to line up. Harl took his place obediently but his eyes followed Cole’s back as the tall man loped away into darkness, his long coat merging with the shadows.
“Eyes front boy!” hissed one of the grey-robes, and Harl snapped to attention. “Eyes front, and wait right there!”