Each breath was a struggle, the near flat edge of the thin shank crushing against his windpipe. Dresick wasn’t cutting him, at least not yet. But his eyes were darting about Harl’s body underneath him, as though picking a good spot to cut. And cut. And cut.
But Harl was Bara born and bred. Whoever his father had been, some gent or not, he’d inherited a few things from him that had served him well on those streets. A woods-voln leanness and swift silence, but also their capacity for sharp quick actions as taut muscles responded to the need to climb, to pull and release arrow after arrow, to dart into shadows away from the King’s button men as those dumb city-voln tramped heavily through their lands. Those muscles snapped into action, letting him push with two hands against the hefty apprentice blacksmith, as he twisted hips at the same time to topple him over. Dresick was larger, heavier, but he was unprepared for sudden explosive action, and his own weight carried him down onto the stone floor. Hard, his elbow crunching under him and his face crumpling up in a wince as Harl took that moment to scratch hard with his unkempt nails and yank the sharpened dinner knife away from him and to jab it into Dresick’s wobbling arse. Right in the fleshiest part, making him squeal.
The other boys backed away as Harl wrenched it from the wailing boy’s flesh and jabbed it at them as he crouched, flecks of blood arcing out towards them.
Torches. Masters hurrying in from side doors, forming a ring about the boys.
“What happened here?”
Harl glared at the boys. He couldn’t have told you, even under the threat of the same pain that Dresick was currently feeling, the names of these boys. A mix of newer and older, of city-voln, the odd farm-voln, a woods-voln or two. But he knew their faces now, watched them intently in the flickering light of the masters’ torches. He would remember them in the morning. And after that.
“Nothing sir. Dresick’s having a bad dream is all.” Harl shrugged.
The master’s eyes followed the spotting of blood from the shank, across the stone floor, to where Dresick was trying to hold in his sobs.
“He dreamt he could skin a fox, but the fox bit him. That’s all sir.” It was one of his mother’s sayings, one she’d catch him sneaking home with teeth marks from guard dogs, skinned knees, or black eyes. I know, Harl, she’d say, before he even opened his mouth, You tried to skin a fox, but it bit you instead. You should know better. For the fox is wily, and his teeth are sharp.
The master was about to say something, when another leant to him and whispered, his eyes on Harl. The first master nodded and Harl felt every muscle tense, preparing for it all to get a whole lot worse. Because if they didn’t punish him, then that meant he was special. And special was going to get him shanked eventually.
“A bad dream, very well. I’ll let Orinius know that everything is as it should be here. I’ll let him know that you are as you should be.”
That was it. That was the moment the fucking dumb master signed his death warrant. In that moment he admitted that Harl had the protection of the very man who’d brought all these boys here to be maimed and terrified. It wouldn’t be tonight. But very soon, he wasn’t going to be able to fight off what was coming for him in the night.
Harl drummed at the floor, a folksy tune he vaguely remembered his mother humming on rare days when the sun was shining and she’d made enough for the weekly payment to Grenick. Fysiwon was joining in, staccato taps from where he lay in the yawning blackness in front of Harl. He was regularly out of time, but he was enthusiastic; this was one of Fysiwon’s favourite activities. Second only to listening to Harl tell stories of Kur Gyreblack. Since the woods and Eris Atta-Sutith those stories had tasted like ash on his tongue, but he still told them to his friend.
He paused in the beating rhythm. “I have to make plans to go.”
“Cole has a key to a courtyard with mules and horses. I could take the mare, find the way to the main courtyard and the great gate.”
“Another key to that gate?”
“Well, no, but…”
Harl paused. He hadn’t thought through bringing Fysiwon. Could he ride a horse? Was he… like Harl? Two legs, two arms? Or was he scarred and broken like the masters? Or was he different even to them. Was riding a horse possible for him? Harl remembered the silvery paper and the matches hidden away among his clothes. Enough to make a light for a while in the dark. But he’d promised…
“We’ll find a way that we can go together. Soon, it has to be very soon.”
“Something’s wrong Harl?” there was concern in Fysiwon’s strange bubbling voice. Harl had stopped himself explaining before, but this time he gritted his teeth and began.
“You know that there are other boys, and other rooms, here.”
“You told me that. And others like me.”
“Maybe. The madness… those others like you, maybe they give in to it. And they hurt the boys. And now the boys are angry because I’ve never been hurt. You’ve never hurt me Fysiwon.”
“I don’t want to.” There was something in his voice then, a note of reluctance, as though he knew it was possible.
“Have you… have you hurt the boys that they’ve put in here. Before?” He forced the question out.
Harl nodded in the dark. He’d thought it was likely. But that didn’t stop his blood from freezing over at the thought. Somewhere in this dark cell a boy had screamed in pain. Somewhere blood had stained this very ground. He drew his knees up to his chest and wrapped his arms about himself.
“The other lads. They aint happy about me not being hurt.”
“I don’t want to.” That reluctance again.
“Nor do I want you to, friend. But they’re going to try to hurt me. They tried last night. Won’t be long before they try again. Tonight maybe.”
The was a turmoil in the day, a stirring of the air greater than any Harl had heard before. Something large was moving in the dark, parts of itself rushing over the floor and over itself in a tumbling tumult. Instinctively he started to draw away, scooting back on his behind, until the door was at his back. Then the air calmed, but not before something drifted against the flesh of his cheek, a whispery touch of something cooler than his own flesh but soft, maybe like the underbelly of a snake. As quickly as it had touched him, it was gone.
“No.” Fysiwon’s voice was calm, but there was an edge in it, a stubbornness that Harl recognised from the lads he’d known in Bara. Fysiwon was young, but also very old. “I won’t let them hurt you.”
“I don’t know what you can do, trapped in here. But we have to find a way to leave, and soon. Can you… travel? You haven’t left this room for so long. Perhaps the mule and cart, but then it would have to be a slow escape. The mare would be faster.” He was thinking it through. “And if we take her to the main gate we’ll be seen. The sea way in won’t help us if we need the horse. There must be some other path…”
“We’ll find a way. There’s always a way.” Fysiwon sounded thoughtful, and Harl assumed he was trying to think of ways of escape. But the poor thing seemed to know less about the castle and its layout than Harl. Locked away in this dark for so long, how could he know anything?
Time passed as he tried out ideas, disagreeing and correcting his own suggestions until it was time to be released for the midday. Harl made his exit, still buried in thought, not even hearing the master grumble loudly at another who was lethargically sweeping the corridor up behind the lads. He was bringing piles of red stained sand into piles, another boy had likely been wounded recently and the ground needed cleansing.
“Get rid of the long legs as well, I bloody hate them crawling over me in the night.”
The other grunted and swept the broom about above him, making streams of dust and cobwebs fall down onto his face. He coughed roughly, and cursed the first master in the name of Lios under his breath, but Harl was already walking on, turning his thoughts from escape to survival. He doubted the lads would try anything during the meals, preferring to try again under the safety of night’s darkness. But still, when the food was shared round he found himself pulling towards an end of the table, watching with wary eyes as the lads scoffed up the food and prepared themselves for the afternoon in their rooms. He saw ones he remembered from the night before, even if they kept their eyes intentionally away from him.
A strange low fog lay on the stone flagstones of the corridors as he made his back to five, six, one with his tray.
The masters stirred it with their robes, some making dark comments about the sea being behind it, saying that some of the lower floors nearest the churning waves were full of the thick white swirling air. Others, once farm-voln maybe, laughed at that, they knew that the fog was coming rolling off of the land, and plunging down into the sea through those corridors. It was the most that Harl had heard the masters speak, and it was strange to think that once they had been the ones being locked away in the blackness of the numbered rooms. Once they had been the scared lads, losing their limbs in the dark, and yet still having to go back in there. And they’d been through that… and they still made other boys do it too.
His thoughts were stopped by a sudden crunching under his feet. Through the thickness of the growing fog it was hard to see even his own foot let alone what he had stepped on. So, he lifted up one foot to look at the bottom of one of the two left boots he’d worn since going to the woods with Cole and Captain Rickarn. There, squashed against the worn down sole, was a jumble of innards and long legs, a plain brown body smashed but still recognisable as a spider. A vague memory of a master talking about ‘long legs’ came back to him, but was too indistinct to remember clearly.
The other lads were finding their path to their rooms through a trail of fog and crushed spider bodies, and sounds of disgust came echoing from further along as more stepped on the wanderers. Had the fog disturbed their homes? He thought it unlikely, it was laying low in the corridor, barely a Li-and- ten measure high. If they were up in the high corners of the castle then they shouldn’t have cared at all. But still, the small bodies were distracting the lads from their return to their rooms and the blackness. The masters started snapping out orders and shoving them onwards.
Fysiwon was quiet that afternoon. Harl was left to fill the space with new stories of Kur Gyreblack, ignoring the wretchedness he felt at his name. He took what little his mother had told him and then riffed on those details to make up new adventures for his friend to listen to. He found himself falling into his own description of how Gyreblack had used his cunning and his thickly greened arrows to cut a swath through the dread knights of the mad king, in order to save the fair woods-voln maiden. Occasionally he heard Fysiwon stirring, rearranging his painful body to get comfortable again, or perhaps falling into dreams. When their time together was over again, Harl walked out of the door, a plume of fog spilling about his feet. He stepped on no more spiders on the way to their evening meal, but when he was about to bed down – with a sickening fear in his belly about what might be about to happen – he saw some long legs skittering together across the flagstones near his head. Spiders he could accept, but if any of the boys came closer to him he was going to be more afraid. He watched them carefully.
It happened in the deep of the night. Dresick was missing, most likely not risking another stabbed arse. But there were still large lads, this time grabbing and holding his arms out to his side and forcing their weight onto his legs to stop him even kicking out. His eyes scanned the dark, trying to make out their faces, but they were just black shapes, hissing in their evil glee that they had him to himself. That they could do the things they wanted to do to him. The first rough blade skimmed his hip bone as he struggled, no doubt meant for something lower. He yelped in pain before a sweaty hand was clamped over his mouth. He closed his eyes tight, still struggling but knowing that there was nothing more to be done. Faces in his mind. His mother. Eris. The mental shape he associated with Fysiwon, the combination of his voice, personality, and those whispering movements in the dark. Goodbye, friend. Goodbye.
But then the hard grips were gone. Five loud thuds followed by a strange pattering, shuffling noise. He pulled complaining and bruised limbs under him and crouched, ready to spring into a hopeless attack. Around him, thrashing and fitting on their backs were the five lads who’d attacked him, their fingertips scratching at their necks as they struggled to breath. Other boys were waking, screaming as they saw the scene. Five boys bloating and retching as Harl crouched, watching.
Masters ran in, having heard their screams, and darted to crouch by the lads. One looked to another and shouted, “Poison!”.
Before Harl could say anything one of the masters had grabbed him under his arms and pulled him from the hall, dragging him down several corridors, before halting and pushing him against the wall to look him over.
“What did they take? Where are you bleeding?”
Harl looked up, dazed, into Cole’s intense green eyes. “Nothing. They got nothing.”
“There’s blood on your tunic!”
“Blade caught me on my hip bone. It’s not serious.”
“Your hip…?” He was surprised, but then refocused, his eyes flashing even more. “How did you poison them?! What greening are you carrying?!”
“Nothing! I’ve got nothing!!”
The man’s quick hands darted over him, searching through the tunic and trousers he’d given him months ago now. He found the silver paper and the matches.
“These are mine… How did you get these?!” He paused. “Last night.”
Harl looked over the man’s clothes. He was wearing grey-robes.
“You a master now? Not enough to bring the lads here, you gotta throw them in the rooms too?”
“Shut up Harl, I need to think.” He looked about the corridor. “I’m taking you to Orinius. He can start his Lios blessed training of you. You can’t stay among the lads any more, however you poisoned them. You’ll have to stay with him.”
He pulled him roughly by his upper arm, long fingers bruising his skin, marching him up the long dark corridor. Harl noticed that the fog had faded away. That fact caught his mind, and so it was a few moments before he realised what Cole was saying. He’d have to stay with Orinius, learn whatever his method was. He would never go back into room five, six, one. He would never talk to Fysiwon again.