“Cole and his mother’s milk story! There’s nothing remarkable about your numbers. Plain, old numbers I’ve seen a hundred thousand times before” Orinius was muttering to himself, peering over the shoulder of the seated grey-robe and frowning at the summary of Harl in numbers that the man had written. “Nothing remarkable at all!”
Orinius’s eyes snapped to Harl through their spectacles, boggling through the warped glass.
“But I will give you a new number to take with you.” He moved closer, and hunched close to Harl’s ear. “Five, Six, One.” He stared into Harl’s eyes. “You got that boy? Have you even got your numbers?! Or was your whore mother too busy to teach-”
“Five. Six. One. Sir. Five hundred and sixty-one.” Harl recited back abruptly, and Orinius nodded.
“Good. Now, go through the recessed door. Find the red rope and keep a hand to it until you reach its end. Don’t stop. Don’t take another path. And don’t come back here.” Orinius smirked. “I don’t expect I will see you again, no matter what Cole the blessed prophet thinks.”
Orinius turned his back on Harl, returning to his books, and the lad left the sneering circle of grey-robes to walk alone to the door in the alcove. Stepping into its cooler darkness he immediately spotted the dyed red rope, really no thicker than his little finger, that wove its way through metal rings hammered into the stones of the walls. It swept away into the black ahead of him.
The fingertips of his right hand touched the fine line before starting their path along the undulating length of it, pulling the reluctant boy behind them. The door remained open behind him, but the warm orange light of Orinius’ room shrank and shrank and shrank away to nothing.
Sometimes in the darkness Harl knew that the thin rope was a snake, and any minute it would turn and jab thin bone needles into the back of his hand, just as Bara’s hissing Stone Scales were likely to do when an incautious lad disturbed their sunbathing on the flat rooftops.
Sometimes, it was a rope leading him to a noose his head would go into, and the darkness would be with him for ever.
Sometimes though, the thin rope was a line leading him back to his mother, a line of her blood that she had woven with woods-voln cunning. It had found him here, and as sure as blood was blood, it would bring him back to her.
But most of the time the rope was just a rope, the corridor was just another part of the maze of the castle, and Harl was just another lad sent along it after a strange experience of being measured and written into a book.
So Harl followed it down long straight lengths of stone corridor and traced its path around their corners. He stumbled onto the bottom steps of stairs going up, and near fell to his doom the few times that it swept down roughhewn steps. In the darkness he could feel the emptiness often opening out into other corridors, but he was not stupid enough to get himself lost down those. His fingertips also skimmed across rock as the bricks and stones of the corridors stretched out towards the long rope. And interspaced with the reaching stone was wood, his nails dancing over the whorls and grains of yet more doors. Once he dared to let his hand leave the safety of the rope and trace fingers upwards over the door to where he remembered the numbers had been on those doors stuck fast by the crashing waves of the sea. Three, three, seven, eight, these numbers read, three thousand, three hundred and seventy-eight. But a deep line was scored right through them.
He found that he was relieved that this door was not five, six, one. But he wasn’t quite certain why.
A light caught his eye in the distance, flickering and waving. As he followed the rope and got closer he saw that it was a torch and in front of it was a line of lads, the same line that had waited for measuring outside Orinius’ study. One by one the boys had followed the rope and found themselves here at last. Although… Harl assumed that they had all made it. Perhaps somewhere back there, in the dark, there was a lad who’d left the rope for the dark open spaces of other corridors. And they had swallowed him up, greedily smug that it had taken the small boy shaped meal that its eternal enemy thee sea had failed to catch for its own supper.
Harl took his place at the back of the line, noting that not much had changed. There was still drying snot and red eyes, still shivers and whimpers. Dresick was there, somehow shrunken into himself and half the size he’d seemed on the sea road. Weasel, with no wooden cart to flee backwards, into was making do with the shadows another larger boy was casting. That boy threw a fist at the Weasel, less out of malice than frustration thought Harl, and the smaller woods-voln simply took it, the dull thud of it making none of the boys look around.
Then there was movement at the front of the line, and a flood of light blinding them as two great doors groaned open, now visible to Harl as they swung out into the torchlight. Noise followed the great doors, the clatter of bowls and forks and spoons, and people.
A grey-robe ushered them into an immense hall, long tables stretching off towards shadowy corners and a high ceiling lost to black. To Harl’s right hand was a black framed patchwork of large and small panes of glass taking up most of the wall, showing a grey and black night land outside, facing inland. Draughts swayed candle flames, pushing wax to drip down next to the hundreds of young boys hungrily scoffing from plain bowls and plates. They were ignoring each other as the food was swept down into bellies, and sometimes laps.
“Take seats!” The grey-robe barked and Harl and the line dispersed quickly to squeeze onto benches, fitting in snugly between other lads in the same dirty tunics. Harl found a small space and slide like a knife in next to two city-voln who thoroughly ignored him and chowed down. He was about to ask where the food was coming from when a grey-robe near threw down a bowl of stew in front of him, splashing his face. A wooden spoon in hand, Harl investigated the mix, and found recognisable root vegetables, meat without fatty gristle and a rich red-brown broth that smelled faintly of herbs his quick fingered mother had once stolen from a merchant and flavoured their own weak broth with once. This was good food. Far better than the crones had given the lads on the road. This was the kind of fare that working men got, hearty and fortifying. He ate quickly, not even looking about at the other boys until all the fine stew was buried deep in his belly like a chest of gems and coins he was hiding from his co-conspirators.
Then he did look. There was a range of ages, just as there had been on the carts. He wasn’t the oldest, wasn’t the youngest. But he, and the other new lads, were somehow still younger than the lads who had been here a while. There was no spark in their eyes, and as Harl looked with his own keen, alert, eyes, he started to notice how many were… damaged.
A missing clump of scalp here. A mouth puckering in over missing teeth. An arm in a sling. An arm…. gone. None of the lads who’d been here when they’d come in were entirely whole. Just like the grey-robes in Orinius’ study. Panic started to rise in Harl’s throat, along with the good stew. He fought it down, he weren’t going to waste food. Especially not now.
After the clatter of bowls had died away the boys were made to stand and lift the long tables, pulling them apart and stacking them against the far wall of the great hall. Then sagging grey bed rolls were brought from somewhere and laid out in rows across the cold stone floor. They were held back until all were out, and then let loose like dogs from a trap after a hare. The old residents went straight to those nearest the inner wall, the new lads were left with those lying underneath the immense patchwork of windows where wind whistled in to chill their bones, working with its friend, the stone floor. And that’s if they could get to one in time. Harl saw Weasel shoved away from a lumpy straw filled mess, falling back heavily onto his arse on the hard stone. The boy who’d claimed the small victory of a bed right underneath the chill coming off of the glass lay down and defiantly turned over as the smaller boy curled up where he’d fallen and tried to pull his oversized tunic about him.
Harl had made it to a bedroll further in from the window and was just crowing to himself about his success when he felt the light patter of a drip of water on his hip. He tried to shuffle to first one side and then the other, getting closer to two lads who punched and kicked him back to where he’d been. Back under the drip, drip, drip.
He tried to sleep.