The boys waited.
They shivered in the darkness of the corridor until their need for warmth outbid their fear of the grey-robes and Orinius and they finally broke the line to find others to huddle together with. Some seemed to know each other already, lads who’d run together on other streets, in other cities. They formed small conspiracies of whispering misery, but Harl stood close to no one. He still stared down the corridor after the long gone Cole, letting his eyes un-focus and his mind wander himself out of the present and into the past. Harl was just remembering the golden taste of stolen king apples when the warped wooden door was thrust open and a grey-robe suddenly revealed and then blocked the orange candle light spreading from Orinius’s room. The boys jumped to their feet, reshaping the line but moments too late. A thin hand snapped out rapidly and caught a near lad by his oversized tunic and yanked him inside against his struggles.
Harl braced himself for the boy’s screams.
But none came.
Instead time tortured them all until the same grey-robe appeared again and took in a more complacent child from the line. The first boy did not return.
Their line was slowly eaten away, one boy at a time,a over what felt like days but was most like only few hours. Legs aching, skin still raw, and frozen to his sharp woods-voln bones, Harl was almost relieved when the line was gobbled all the way up to him and he faced the warped wooden door alone. There were only a few more grim-faced lads waiting behind him. When the grey-robe grabbed at him he did not resist as some had weakly tried, gaining more welts for their efforts. He chose to walk in meekly, and smiling a hidden smile at the welcome warmth of Orinius’s study.
The door bumped close behind him, and Harl stood stock still on the spot the grey-robe indicated, just in front of Orinius’ desk. The copper skinned man had moved however, replaced by another grey-robe who wore much simpler versions of Orinius’ spectacles. Laid out in front of him was the largest book that Harl had ever seen, which was not saying much in Harl’s case! He saw tightly written short phrases of numbers laid in strict lines and grids, many of which were struck through with inks in varying hues of black and brown.
Orinius moved by his side and Harl jumped, trying to regain his composure fast. The scholar – Harl assumed he was a scholar – was however ignoring the boy, and instead was peering close at his collection of books, a crooked finger tracing the words written on their spines and muttering to himself.
“Begin.” Orinius said simply, not looking up from his task as three grey-robes surrounded Harl and reached towards him, one with a length of birch, one with a set of metallic pincers and one with… a piece of string? He almost flinched from the old familiar threat of the birch wood and the new sharpness of the metal, but he allowed them to use their lengths and angles to measure him. They figure out the length of his forearm, the differences in reach of his fingers, the space between his eyes. On and on the grey-robes measured, finding new aspects of him and speaking numbers to the spectacle wearer at Orinius’ desk who apparently noted down all of the dancing figures in some logical order – to him at least. When they stripped him he again fought the urge to pull away, knowing full well that the measurements would continue with or without his consent, and certainly after a beating if he resisted.
Orinius reacted to the numbers, huffing a little at those that seemed to displease him, darting towards a particular book to feverishly consider a few pages within it when a number or combination appeared to intrigue him. He scampered up a small ladder, hefting his robe with him, to reach for higher texts, or ducked down, the thick robe still keeping its stiff shape, to grab at a book on a shelf closer to the floor.
Finally, the men seemed done, and threw him his rough robe to redress himself. As he did, Harl looked to the book. In there was perhaps every number that made him… him.
“Tell me woods-voln boy, do you worship the one true god?” Orinius asked abruptly.
Harl paused. What would this man want to hear? Woods-voln were generally assumed to be blasphemers, living beyond the city and therefore away from the fine temples of the pure god Lios. But not all woods-voln paid duty to the bastard gods either. Harl though was city-born, and he should be subservient to the blood of Lios and the demands of his temples. He should be.
“No, sir.” Harl enjoyed the smugness in Orinius’s eyes at his manners, false as they were.
“Which do you follow amongst the impure? Which take your fervent prayers?” There was more than smugness, there was victory. Almost as though Orinius was pleased with himself, or pleased with having some unknown victory over Harl. What the scholar had won, the lad could not yet guess.
Orinius darted to the desk, dragged some loose leaves of cheaper paper towards Harl and pushed a basic cropped quill into his hand.
“No doubt you have their shapes to mind? Yes?!”
Harl nodded mutely, and brought the quill to the empty page to outline three figures. Outer wrist to shoulder, neck, head, and then down the other shoulder to the other wrist. On one he added a crown hovering above the simple, featureless head. On the second he drew three arrows, one above the head, one through the neck heading in the opposite direction, and one bisecting them both up through the middle of the body. On the last he shaded half the body and head black, occasionally returning the quill to a pot of ink to refresh it.
Orinius snatched the page from him even before he had finished the last scratch, and the gaunt man’s frame shock with sudden, vicious, mirth.
Harl’s eyes flicked to the three grey-robes around him but they did not react as Orinius had. They stood perfectly still, and for the first time, now he was not trying to block out the bloody weird experience of being measured by them, he had a chance to see them truly. All of three near him were deformed by an old and savage injury. One lacked an eye. One had a torn face that faked half a twisted smile for him. The third had three scars that began above his eyebrows and tore upwards and backwards through his scalp, his short cropped hair not growing where the indented pink skin marred his head. The last one spotted his curious eyes and grinned a brown toothed grin at him before sticking out the grey pink stump of a tongue. Harl shuddered.