When the door was finally unlocked Harl was lying on his back, absentmindedly talking out the story of the great woods-voln bandit king Kur Gyreblack, a tale his mother had told him some years back. On the ending he was unclear. Either Gyreblack was hanged from a cankernut tree in front of his love, or he escaped hand in hand with her to start a life away from his city-voln pursuers. Harl supposed it didn’t really matter. His mother had likely made up the tale to entertain him one night before sleep. She had told tales like some people breathed.
The door opened just as he was deciding whether Kur would live or die and the half light of the torches in the corridor washed in. He blinked quickly, trying to clear his eyes to see what was in the room, but the grey-robe pulled him to his feet, stuck his tray in his hands, looked him over, and shoved him out.
“The piss pot.” Said Harl weakly, sick of the bloody words.
The grey-robe grumbled. He was a new one, ol’twist-mouth was gone. This one had but one arm and as he darted back inside to grab the pot with his one remaining hand yellow piss sploshed slightly onto his robes, unseen. Harl held in his laugh as the pot was set on top of his tray.
On top of the now near empty plate. No meat, no gravy. Only a few limp parsnips remained. That’s okay, thought Harl deliriously, I’ve never cared much for them either.
He stood as his door was locked and the next unlocked. The robed man spent scant seconds looking inside before he shut and locked the door again, a green cast to his dullard face. The smell of blood, iron hitting the back of his nose and throat, spread out from the next room. Eventually all the lads that were coming out of their rooms, all that were able, were out and standing with their trays and piss pots in hand, pale and shaking.
Some stumbled out, or were helped out by the grey-robe, blood streaming from parts of them. Other grey-robes appeared from their hidden posts about the castle and dragged or carried the wounded boys away in the opposite direction that Harl and the unwounded were being herded. They went back down the confusing corridors to the great hall where other lads were slowly filtering back from their rooms. Harl wondered if he was as pale as them, as dejected and dead eyed.
One by one they returned their trays to a grey-robe, took seats and counted the absences. There was no shoving as there was plenty of spaces for those that had returned, even when more came back as the first were silently eating a fine pie with mashed roots and tubers. The second wave contained the lame, the limping and the patched up. Harl saw Dresick, a bandage all about his head, blood seeping from where Harl thought his right ear had once been.
Of Weasel, there was no sign. Even when they were lined up again to receive another tray and another meal for the rooms, he was not there. Harl did not think he would be back. As sure as blood is blood, sharp pointed glass had not helped him this time.
Suddenly one boy wailed and threw his tray to the ground. He was dragged away screaming by two grey-robes and a third carrying a birch. The others were silent, defeated.
Harl thought on the plans for escape he had started to form in the room. There had been time enough to think even between reciting stories, singing sea-voln shanties he’d overheard from his mother’s gents, and drumming out woods-voln drum patterns on the floor to keep the dark at bay. His plans ranged from the crazily ambitious to those with not even the slightest hope of succeeding. If he could get a hold of a grey-robe might he be less conspicuous roaming the corridors, he wondered? But wouldn’t he get lost? Doomed to walk and walk and walk like the spirit of a man out of the light of Lios, afraid all the time of finding himself back where he’d begun. Room five, six, one. The dark place where something had eaten the food on the tray, without making a noise, without even disturbing the air hanging about Harl as he had filled the dense cotton-like silence with words. So many words.
Then he was there again. Outside five, six, one. He steeled himself for the dark, but no amount of steel he shot into his spine through sheer will worked when he was locked back inside again. The black was eating away his defiance even as he began to stumble madly about the room, frantically looking for the thing that had eaten the meal. But then he tripped over the tray on one of his shambling pathings through the room, knocking the meat skidding across the cold stone.
“Oh no. Oh no!” he muttered, bringing his hands and knees to the floor as he searched for the hunk of pork. When his fingers tips were made greasy and warm by its touch he smiled, then held onto the meat, cradling it like a newborn, as he scampered back to the tray on two knees and one hand like some strange misshapen creature.
“I’m sorry. I’m sure its fine.” He rubbed at the top of the meat, dislodging the odd fleck of stone and masonry that had become stuck to it. Then a whisper of air touched his hand, so slight he was almost certain he had imagined it. Perhaps he had. No other movement in the room betrayed the presence of its captive. Because if he was locked in here, then surely it was too. And not just for hours a day, but all day, every day.
“I want to escape. Do you?”
No answer. Harl sat down heavily by the tray, crossing his legs and staring blindly into the black again.
“I didn’t finish the tale of Kur Gyreblack did I?” He coughed a little theatrically and raised his voice. “My mother told me the tale of the bandit king Kur Gyreblack, and now I tell it to you. Then you can tell it to another, and another, and… well, perhaps you might. Because you are there aren’t you, in the dark? Locked away from everyone?”
No answer. He frowned.
“You haven’t maimed or killed me. I suppose that’s something. But I also suppose this doesn’t end until you end me, sure as blood is blood. The other wounded ones still went back to their rooms. If they were able. So does this carry on until you slit my throat?”
“Do I spend my mornings and days in the dark until you decide to kill me?”
He sighed in an over the top fashion and continued the story, but found his mind wandering the corridors of his memories. “And Kur Gyreblack was a woods-voln. Sharp of face and sharp of mind. He wore brown leathers and greened his arrowheads with Gyreblack, the strongest poison the woods-voln have ever known. My mother taught me that. But she would never tell me what our poison was. Perhaps you don’t know this quiet one, but families make their own poisons from secret recipes of woods found ingredients, and they take their names from them. So I should be Harl…. Harl something. But she never told me. How about that for an effing story. Got only one name when I bloody ought to have two. Cole was woods-voln, I’m sure of it. And Weasel. I think he’s dead. Never got to know either of his names. Wonder what his family poison was? I wonder if there are woods-voln out there greening their arrow heads with it right now about to avenge the theft of him by Cole? Or did they sell him, like my whore mother sold me? Sold into a dark room with a silent something inside that eats meat so silently. So silently.”
He took a breath. “And Kur Gyreblack was a woods-voln. Sharp of face and sharp of mind. He wore brown leathers and greened his arrowheads with Gyreblack, the strongest poison the woods-voln have ever known. And he was a bandit. He robbed the plump and stiff necked city-voln. Took their gold and their jewels on the roads that began to wind on through his woods, sent out by Lios from the centre of the world. Took them and strung up the stupid city-voln who’d thought they owned the land and the trees. Sometimes they were black and puffy of face from the Gyreblack he’d pierced them all through with. I could do with some Gyreblack now to be effing honest. I could… I could…”
He stopped and took a deep breath. What could he really do? What could he do while buried alive in this castle, so immense even the sea wanted to eat it up so it wouldn’t be such an abomination on the land anymore?
“Kur Gyreblack was a woods-voln. Sharp of face and sharp of mind. He wore brown leathers and greened his arrowheads with Gyreblack, the strongest poison the woods-voln have ever known….” He continued.
And the darkness was silent still.