Harl woke to grit in eyes and cold aches in his limbs. He blinked in the dimness of the hall, the light coming in from a low sunrise that was turned ghostly grey as it was filtered through the mosaic of window panes looming above them. Mounds of bodies were scattered about, holding defiantly onto fitful sleep, their faces buried behind hands, arms, and even turned downwards into the hard stone floor itself.
He spotted the red of Weasel’s hair, scab brown in the half light, greasily flopping down onto the same bedroll that he’d been pushed away from last night.
Harl’s eyes searched about quickly and found another larger body near the Weasel, this one lying flat, uncaring, on the ground. A pool of dark red blood had spread out towards other nearby bedrolls that had been hastily moved away from its creeping liquid fingers, a circle of sleeping boys who no doubt had seen nothing, would say nothing.
The tiny Weasel slept on peacefully.
Then they were all pulled to wakefulness by the arrival of the grey-robes who put them to dragging over the long tables and setting up bowls and wooden spoons for thick steaming porridge that was brought in great drums from a door in a dark corner. This was more than Harl’d had for his morning feed in a long time, and he savoured the sweetness of the honey that the boys splurged over their oats without anyone even shouting at them for being greedy or wasteful.
One boy tried to ask a question of the older resident next to him and got a fist in the gob for it. No one else spoke or made eye contact.
But in the faint morning light Harl surreptitiously looked over the lads. It was still clear that those who’d travelled with him in the carts were different to those who had already been here when they arrived. His lot were more… whole. He wondered if the others had noticed the wounds and the bandages. But they were like pigs at the trough, barely taking a breath let alone a look about.
A chill ran down his spine, one not brought about by the coldness of the hall. Were they being fed up like great porkers for a reason?
When the bowls were finally empty they were lined up again, facing the tables and beyond them, the patchwork window and the grey dawn. Harl’s sharp eyes spotted a smaller window, lower down, where some of the draughts had been coming through in the night. A shattered pane, broken into a spider’s web of angular pieces radiating out from the centre. Eight pointed pieces of a pie. Or rather, seven and a gap.
He looked at Weasel out of the corner of his eye. The lad was wiping milky oats from his chin with the back of his tunic’s sleeve. The small boy smiled at Harl.
“You have your numbers!” A grey-robe barked at them and Harl looked away from the woods-voln boy’s dead green eyes.
“Each of you will be given a tray. Each tray will be loaded up with food by the masters. You will not eat the food. You will not touch the food. You will follow the masters to where your numbered door lies. You will go in. You will be locked in. You will deliver the food. And you will… stay inside. At the height of the sun the door will be unlocked and you will return here for a mid-day meal. After that you will return to your room, until the sixth hour past the height of the sun. Then you will return and eat again. You will NOT eat the food on the tray. Is that clear?!”
The boys nodded, shuffled their feet. Harl felt as full as a ripe gourd at the moment, but he wondered if he would be able to resist the food as that changed later on in the day.
“If you need to relieve yourself you will find a pot by the door. Bring it out with you when you return for meals. Do NOT leave it in there.” The man spoke by rote, even if he was shouting at the top of his voice. He had only one arm, the left sleeve of his robe flapping emptily.
Harl felt the boy next to him fighting against questions inside him. Harl had enough of his own, but he whispered urgently to him, “Don’t… don’t… don’t”
“What’s in the rooms… sir?” the fool stammered.
The grey-robe’s eyes shot towards the poor city-voln and both Harl and the lad on the other side of him made as much space appear between them and him as they could.
But the grey-robe merely smirked and rolled up his sleeve to reveal a long ago healed puckering sump where his elbow would have been.
“If you’re lucky boy, nothing. If you ain’t… Well, best you can hope for is a life as a master. And that ain’t saying much.”
Harl thought back to the other grey-robes, the other men in Orinius’ study, had they also been lads like him before… before what??
Grey-robes came and passed out trays, followed up by plates of hot food brought out from the same doorway that their breakfast had appeared from. Rich gravy spread over prime cuts of beef, warm balls of floury bread, thick cut carrots and parsnips. Even though he was full Harl felt the starving street rat inside demanding that he take advantage of this meal, now. But there would be another meal waiting for him once he came back from five, six, one. If he came back.
The boys filed out of the great hall, filtered by a grey-robe just outside who snapped out “right” or “left” at them depending on the number that they gave him. Another was at another junction, and another, and another. Harl counted seven grey-robes until he reached what was a final turning and one told him to wait outside his door, his words falling through a crooked, broken mouth.
He took position in front of five, six, one. Behind him was another door and another lad facing it. They exchanged nervous looks. Another one from the carts, another new one. Other boys filled up the positions next to the doors to his left and right that were staggered all the way into the shadows of the corridors. One by one they were let in by the grey-robe at the head of the corridor, a heavy ring of keys at first the only noise as he let them in and then locked up behind them. Then Harl’s ears caught the sound of tears, of crashes and bangs, and then dreadful silences. The boy next to him on the room went into his room shaking his head, but only silence followed after he had disappeared. The boy behind him shook so violently ripples flew across the gravy on the plate on his tray. After he was locked in Harl thought he heard a terrible tearing sound that made his porridge rise painfully in his throat.
But then the grey-robe was unlocking his door. He walked in, holding the tray ahead of him like scant armour.
Pure blackness greeted his eyes as the door was solidly locked behind him. His cautious feet found the piss pot to the right of the door, although his nose could have led him to it too. He took three steps from it and carefully laid down the tray where he thought the ground might be, holding his breath, waiting for something to hit him, tear him, hurt him.
Nothing. No noise, no light. And no pain.
He sat down cautiously, crossing his legs and waiting just beyond the tray. He counted his breaths to slow his pounding heartbeat, and still his voice, before he whispered. “Is there anybody there?”
Harl found himself running his fingers over the stony ground, a distraction from the lack of sound and light. He craved them already, thirsted for knowledge he could use to get himself out of here. All he had was the light touch of cold stone and the smell of slowly cooling beef. His stomach sent its complaints to him, traitorously. But there was no way he was going to eat the food. No way!!
He went back to the play of his fingers, gently tapping out an old woods-voln rhythm his mother had taught him. When he stopped he almost expected a response, his heart trying to escape from his chest at the thought that something in the black room would respond, completing the beaten verse with its own reply. But there was no noise.
Boredom started to creep in. He stretched out to one side and then the other to feel along the ground to find the walls. If they were there they were further out than he could reach. He crawled to the right on hands and knees until he reached one side, pulling himself up to span it once, twice… seven times, using the stretch of his arms to measure out the length of the room. At the back of the room, where he expected anything hiding to be all he felt as he held one hand to the wall and swept about with the other was empty air. Again he measured the back wall as he had done the one to the right of the door. Five arm stretches. About the same distance he would estimate between the doors, which were roughly in the middle of the first wall. A long rectangular room. He tried to reach up to the ceiling and felt nothing which he expected. Well, it was much larger than the squat he and his mother had shared, and as far as he could tell he was all alone in here. So, in at least one sense his position had improved!
He stifled a madcap laugh at that thought but it slightly sneaked out past his tightened lips.
Eventually he gave up on standing aimlessly by the back of the room and traced the left wall back to where he had started, sitting down crossed legged again just behind the tray.
“So. This is all there is.” He spoke out loud, shocking himself with how loud his voice was in the dark.
“Very well. But I will not eat the food. I shall wait right here until my door is unlocked. I might use the piss pot at some point I suppose.” He didn’t know why he was still speaking outloud but the sound of the words piss pot amused him suddenly.
“Piss pot. Pissssss pot. Piss potototot. Poss Pit. Pit. Pit.” He played with the words, rolling them around the pitch black space, feeling his attachment to sanity wobbling. How long had it been? Minutes, hours? When, by the bastard gods, were they going to fetch them for mid-day feeding?
“Piss Pot” He said lamely, bored again.