A lone hand came up to touch the numbers on the door, his long fingers stopping just in front of them.
“It’s still in there, isn’t it? The thing in the dark.”
Harl was silent, but he guessed so. If Fysiwon had been around for years… perhaps the creature in Cole’s room had been too.
“They all thought I would die. I thought I would die. It clamped right around me, here.” He shifted, bending to angle his torso towards Harl with a wince. Harl’s kick had left its own mark there too, some bruises to colour deep and black and to remind Cole of him later on, the boy thought. Good.
“Two hours it held me there, gnawing, letting me bleed. Finally, some bald master dragged me out when it was time for mid-day meal. I had less blood left in me than… than wine left in this skin.” He drank again, the skin sagging in his left hand. His right curled into a fist and he drew it back, but he slowed his hand before it made contact with the door, groaning in deep frustration. Memories kept on flowing.
“Didn’t die though. First day I’m back on my feet they put me back in there with it.”
Harl had seen that. The white terror on the faces of the boys returning from whatever infirmary the castle had, patched up roughly and forced to carry trays back to the numbered rooms. The moment that they could walk again. If they still could. Some were missing legs and… feet. Harl remembered one lad who’d had to walk with a wooden crutch, a master walking behind him with his tray, still herding him to his room. Did she use a crutch now, could she get about now that she didn’t have…?
“Do you like his robes, boy?”
“What?” Harl was surprised out his thought of Eris and returned to the dark corridor where the broken man was glaring at him with green-fire eyes.
“Do you like Orinius’ robes? Do you like the think satin, and the fine embroidery? The colours and the entwining patterns? Do you like the warmth of his room? It must be better than the bone freezing stone of the great hall, right?! Do you like the candles, and the desk, and the books, and power he has over the masters?! Do you want all of that, boy?!”
“I-I-I…” Harl stammer, feeling that taller man tower over him, stinking wine spittle flying about his face as Cole’s anger grew.
“Skylin wore larger robes, but then he was a fat man. He’d gotten fat off of Lios’ golden coins. Skylin had a method too. I stood there naked while he and his torn apart men measured me. Wrote me in the fucking books. They’ve always had a method. Another way of looking at the numbers, another new way of understanding why some die, some are torn, some survive, and some chang-” He stopped himself. “Why some used to change. So, boy, do you like his fucking robes?!” he emphasised each of the words, separating them with a chilling pause before pressing the next word into Harl’s mind.
“No! No, I don’t want any of it! I just want to find…” Harl stopped himself then, cutting away the rest of that sentence with a clamped mouth. But Cole was too wrapped up in himself to notice, too drunk to hear anything beyond his memories.
“They came for him one night, a month or so before Skylin took him for his ‘training’. They tried to cut parts of him away, make him like them. I stood between them and him, took a shank to the hip for it. Fucking Orinius. Should have let them do it. Should have let them do it.” He was moving, pushing past Harl to head off down the corridor, his long coat making him a haunting shape against the faint torchlight.
Harl followed after, hating himself for trotting after the tall man like some kind of dog, but there was still a chance he knew where he was going, a chance that they could find their way back to the great hall. His stomach rumbled in agreement.
But Harl was also needed to support the drunk again, finding his hands inside Cole’s coat where their clever fingertips found familiar shapes. Tucked in at Cole’s waist, the roarer that he’d not had in the woods – why was that? Also at the top of his leathers a rustle of the same silvery paper Cole’d lit before. And there hanging in a large inner pocket, a small box of matches. He took both of those, sneaking them into his own tunic. A dagger at the other side of Cole’s lean waist was more tempting than the complicated and dangerous roarer, but both of them were likely to be noticed in the morning by a green and sickly Cole. Whereas the paper and matches could be assumed to have fallen somewhere in the labyrinth of the castle as he staggered back to… back to where?
A non-descript door in a better lit corridor, which Cole stumbled towards and unlocked with a key from on a leather strap at his wrist.
Air. The night sky. Stars.
Harl drank it all in. The bitterly cold air that drifted through the corridors of the castle, and swept over them at night in the great hall was not the same as this freshness that surrounded him and buoyed him up. They were in one of the courtyards, but not the first one that had led them to the gate and out to the woods in the cart. It was smaller and bordered on its left and right side by box stalls for horses and a walled space, just under the height of a grown man. Cole stumbled past the cart mules and a bay mare taking up only three of the many stalls, and paused by the lower space. Harl heard the happy barks of several dogs and walked after him to see him leaning heavily against the wall of this kennel, looking in.
“If a master finds me here…” Harl began, whispering.
“You’re with me. And besides, Orinius has pretty much anointed you as his successor, right?” Cole spat out the words, bile and venom in them, but when he looked down at the dogs even his sharp face softened. They were large wolfhounds, shaggy of fur and long tailed. Each was large enough that when they raised themselves up against the pen to welcome Cole they were almost of a height with him.
“Come, let them greet you, lad.” Cole was waving his arm into the muddle of happy dogs and licking tongues, and Harl did likewise. In Bara he’d only met dogs when trying to creep past them or when running from their bared fangs. The guard-bitch he’d charmed was the exception, but still his heart was pounding as the dogs snuffled his hand and wrists as he reached in among them.
“This is Harl, boys. Say hello to Harl.”
“Who’s there?” It was a master and Harl withdrew his hand quickly and turned to face the punishment that was coming.
“It’s me, Cole.” He said, still slurring. “Heading to the stables to bed down with the mules.”
“Why do you have a boy with you?!” the master came closer, holding up a lantern to shine the bright light in both their faces, suspicion showing there with his ugly thoughts. “You can’t just take a fair one about with you whenever you fancy! He should be in the great hall!!”
Cole paused, his usually sharp woods-voln mind apparently slowed by all the strong wine and memories. Harl stepped forward, his own sharp mind whirring as he tried to work out the trick of this moment, the trick that would get him what he wanted. Get him back to Fysiwon and then onwards, out of this dead place and to the girl in the woods.
“Orinius showed me the book. Had me read from it.”
The master paused. “You’re five, six, one?” It was odd hearing his friend’s name being given to him, but Harl nodded.
“I’m unmarked. Orinius has confirmed it and he is even now considering beginning my training in his method. And Cole was just showing me about the parts of the castle I am unfamiliar with. But now you will escort me back to the great hall now.” He put authority in his voice and the master nodded sternly.
“This way then.”
Harl went to follow and suddenly felt Cole’s hand about his wrist. He looked back at the tall man, bent down by liquor.
“I hope the weight of those fucking robes cracks your fucking spine.” Cole snarled, his face twisting, and then he walked quickly to the box stalls, disappearing in there.
Harl shivered all the way back to the great hall, not from the cold, but from Cole’s murderous anger. He tried to put it, and his hunger, from his mind as he found a bed roll to sleep on.
There weren’t many boys at the moment, and much of their competition had died away. However, he was still off to one side, out of the centre of the mass of sleeping bodies. That and his late arrival must have made him easy to find, because moments later the sharp edge of something was pressed against his throat, and Cole’s face was above him again, the same killing intent there in his flat grey eyes. The grey eyes of a city-voln.
It wasn’t Cole. It was Dresick. And he wasn’t alone.
“Cut him, cut parts of him away.” A young boy said from behind Dresick and others egged the pastry maid’s boy on.
“Take away an eye!”
And Dresick leant even closer, pushing the blade harder against Harl’s throat.