Harl dipped the carved quill nib into the clear jar of water and watched the black ink tumble and roll as it sloughed off of the end and flowed into the liquid. He’d once seen Jerekyn stab a man in the back once for doing kind of the same thing to him – dropping the idiot’s body into a shallow Summer’s canal in full view of the rest of his firm. Harl and the rest of Jerekyn’s occasionally useful street boys watched as he tumbled in, surprise on his face. Blood had flowed out of the man, gracefully flowing into the unusually clear, for Bara, water. The ink was like that blood. But then quill after quill was washed and cleaned, and the water was then as dark as the ink. He uncrossed his legs and nodded to the grey-robe, who came over, collected the ink full water and disappeared somewhere into the castle to fetch more. If Cole disliked his new role he gave no sign of it in his slender, stern, face.
While Harl waited he knelt and set to carving more quills over a cracked bowl, his quick fingers nimbly turning over the long feathers as the small knife whicked away at their broken ends, making them into sharp writing tools.
Out of the corner of his eye he watched Orinius at the desk above him. The man was intently staring at one of the numbered books, muttering a little to himself as he peered, insect-like, through his distorting eye glasses. Harl knew now that many of the books on the shelves had tiny silver numbers embossed on their spines, relating to the hundreds of rooms of the castle, their occupants and the fates of the boys assigned to them. But three days into this ‘apprenticeship’ he was no closer to having a chance to read any of them. He especially burned to read the one with five, six, one pressed into it. Instead he’d cleaned, carved and obeyed.
Although, it was a far easier life than the one being had by the rest of the boys. Harl still slept on the floor, in a corner of the study. But it was warm, and he had good quality blankets to pull about him. He had to be up before Orinius to light the candles, but Harl often awoke early anyway, dreams of Eris and the woods bringing him to sudden awakeness. So being active before the slight morning light was a mercy. Not that the great window ever let in much light; between the distortions and the years of dust and dirt, but Orinius had dismissed Harl’s suggestion that he could clean it. Tools for writing were to be kept spotless, but the study itself was a confusing mass of dust, papers, and old furniture.
Cole returned with a new pot of clear water, as well as a full bucket to spare him more journeys. But he didn’t complain. Or even speak.
At first Harl had assumed that Cole becoming a master was a sign of his vileness; that the child buyer finally wanted to see the boys he had delivered over the years actually suffering. Instead of returning to the cities as he always had, and to wine and whores Harl supposed, to collect even more. But Orinius acted as though the change in Cole’s role was a punishment. He had delighted in making the tall woods-voln specifically responsible for responding to Harl’s needs as the new apprentice. Cole took the jobs on his shoulders without complaint, making Harl wonder if he actually preferred his new role to his old job as a thief and buyer of children.
“Thank you.” Harl said reflexively to Cole.
“You don’t need to thank the masters, Harl.” Orinius said, without even raising his eyes from the book that had captivated him since Harl had been brought here by Cole just days ago.
Orinius had at first been displeased that the apprenticeship, and the interruption of Harl to his great work, was beginning earlier than he had planned. Then he had heard about the deaths of the five boys by some mysterious poison, and seen the need of protecting him. Harl had of course been intensely interrogated to Orinius’ satisfaction. But he had managed to hold his tongue about Fysiwon speaking with him.
He missed his friend. Orinius barely spoke to him for hours, and then might blurt and rambling about his ‘method’ and the importance of ‘their’ work, without really telling him what it was he was meant to learn – apart from how to clean quills and prepare ink. He turned to an ink block beside him and set up some new pots to fill with the water from the bucket, using the small knife to grate some of the block into the water to stir in. It was not dissimilar to Eris’ herb gathering blade, and he wondered for a moment if it would make a weapon for him. At night he was locked in the study as Orinius slept in his chamber, which was through a hidden door he had never let Harl see. There was nowhere for the boy to use a blade, especially one so small.
He felt Cole’s eyes on him, and realised that he had paused to contemplate the knife. He got back to the task of making yet more ink.
Then a grey-robe entered, and darted quickly to the desk to whisper something to Orinius, who paled suddenly. He gestured dismissal to the man, and then glared down at Harl near the feet of the desk.
“A master has been poisoned and now lies dead! The same greening was used as on the boys who attacked you. Are you still certain you know nothing of this?”
Harl looked up through his lengthening fringe at the copper skinned man. “I have been here for three days! How could I have done anything?!”
“Perhaps something in the food or the water?”
“The boys have no access-” Cole began but was cut off by Orinius.
“Of course I know that! And you should know your place Cole! Now that riding the cart is too hard for you. Know your place!” Orinius shrieked.
Cole nodded and folded his hands into the sleeves of his grey-robe.
Orinius grumbled to himself and returned to his book, trying to concentrate again. “By Lios! I can have no peace!!” He fumed, and stood. “I shall have to examine the master’s body I suppose. Cole, watch the boy!”
Cole nodded as Orinius disappeared out of the main door of the study, and went back to looking blankly as he stood, arms still followed. Harl thought how best to proceed. There had to be a trick to this as well. Surely, if Cole was a master now, then…
“I want to look at his book.” Harl said, with authority in his voice. The same tone that had worked on other masters.
“I am to make sure you behave, and Orinius has not allowed you to read his books yet.” Cole’s hands were released from the sleeves and seem to twitch about his thighs, as though craving missing weapons. Harl knew they were locked away in a trunk in the room; numerous daggers, the crossbow, and the precious roarer. Part of Orinius’ gloating control of the woods-voln in his new role.
“You were told to watch me, and you can watch me reading.” He carefully got to his feet, waiting for Cole to move to mete out any punishment with his fists that he thought fit.
Silence and then. “True enough, lad.” Cole nodded and turned his eyes back to simple observation. Harl began to breathe again, and near crept to the desk to look at the book that had captivated Orinius.
On the spine the three silver numbers: five, six, one.
“Five, six, one. Why?” The question was to himself, so he was surprised when Cole volunteered the answer, although still staring almost blindly ahead of himself.
“He wants to know why you are not harmed. He wants to know why he wasn’t, and Skylin before him. And before Skylin, Greff. And before Greff…” Cole intoned the names.
“How many have there been in charge here?” Harl interrupted.
“Tens. Hundreds maybe. Orinius has all their histories.”
“If I asked you what is happening here, would you tell me?”
Cole paused. “Perhaps. Perhaps even I do not know everything. Perhaps only Lios knows it all, and that’s why he sends so much gold here. I think I have the edges of the mystery, the shape of it, but I think there is still more.”
Harl flicked through the book, finding the last entry. Details of a woods-voln called Harl who’d been brought to the castle by Cole who’d paid a few copper for him in Bara. And before him, a city-voln lad who’d died of his wounds after two years in the room. And before that lad another city-voln who’d died on his first day. And another who’d made it to two weeks. And a farm-voln who lost an arm before finding a way to kill himself. And on and on, description after description. Looking at the dates he saw years and years of boys in five, six, one. Many died. A few survived and became masters in time. And in all the years, only one who was entirely unharmed. Harl. There was no obvious pattern even among those who had survived, they were of different volns, cities and sometimes even countries – from a time before the war, Harl thought. Some were bought, and some were stolen. He didn’t have the book of numbers but each entry had a reference made up of numbers and signs, all beginning with the symbol for Lios, making Harl think that there was a way to cross-reference the boys to their figures – the measuring of them that had been done on their first days.
Finally, he reached the first entry, and worked out the difference in years and dates to know that Fysiwon had been locked away for at least ninety-seven years in all. And that he had killed hundreds of boys.
He realised he was crying when the first tear splashed onto that first entry and blurred the ink in a spreading pattern. “Oh by the bastard gods!” he yelped, panicking and drawing up his shirt to gently dab at the page. It was a badly done job, leaving behind a tinge of black ink. He looked up, expecting Cole’s punishment to rain down on him at any time, but the man was still just silently staring. Harl returned the book to the page Orinius had been looking at, and went back to his chores, focussing on a quill as though he could pretend that nothing had just happened. Pretend that Fysiwon hadn’t…
“Did you find what you were looking for, lad?” Cole whispered so softly, Harl wasn’t certain for a moment that he’d heard him right. Was that concern in his voice?
“I found… I found…” tears threatened again, and he held them in. “Why me? Why am I different?”
“Don’t know. Orinius doesn’t either. No matter how he plays with the numbers and tries to divine why one boy lives and so many others are hurt or die. His bloody ‘method’ is a nonsense, just like Skylin’s.”
Harl thought back. “When you were in your cups, you said you could get me out of here.”
Cole’s face broke its mask then, and there was panic there. “I was drunk. There’s no way out! Forget I said that!”
Harl was about to push it further, as was his nature, but Cole’s face was as blank as a statue’s again, his usually alert green eyes cast over with a shadow of docility. Instead Harl continued with his task, losing a sense of time until two things happened that jolted him back to the now. First, a spider ran from under the desk and past him towards the main door, seeming to stop however for a moment when it reached him before darting of again on its urgent travels. He remembered the spiders that had been squashed under the boys’ feet in the low rolling fog, but before he could think on it further, the second thing happened. The return of Orinius.
He was in a foul mood, the loss of a master an inconvenience that required him to seize upon several books and bring them to the desk in order to make notes and cross-references. The book of five, six, one was buried under numerous others, and Harl was pleased to see Orinius turn away from that task, even for a moment. Harl was commanded to bring ink and quills of a ‘better standard’ than last time, and Orinius set to making his chicken scratches on the pages of the books. And Harl realised suddenly that once, that master, now dead of poison, had actually been a boy. His numbers were in one book and the room he’d been allocated was in another, along with the scars he’d borne. And perhaps there was a book for detailing all the tasks he’d fulfilled as a master.
“Who was he?”
“Hmmm?” It was a disinterested noise. A noise that should have told Harl to keep his nose out of it, but he found himself pushing. Yet again!
“Who was he?”
Orinius looked up, dragged over a book and read the last entry quickly. “Today he was a key-master. It was the seventieth eighth day of him overseeing the rooms between five, five, zero and five, seven-” He stopped himself. And then he breathed out the familiar numbers. “Five, six, one. He would have been opener to the door to five, six, one, today.” His suspicious eyes were on Harl. “Bite marks were found on his body after a careful examination. Tiny punctures that had swollen up in reaction to a poison. The same bites that were found on the bodies of the five boys who died attacking you-”
Within seconds he was around the desk and lifting Harl up by the tops of his arms, the thick robe dragged upwards as the frail scholar seemed to find a hidden strength in his anger, and his… jubilation.
“It did it, didn’t it?! It did it to you?! It has happened again!” Orinius spat into Harl’s face in his fevered excitement, and Harl cringed away. “After all these years I’ve made another one! Finally! By Lios!! Finally!!” He put Harl’s feet back to the floor and began pawing at the boy’s clothes, opening his shirt and pulling up his sleeves. “There should be a mark, the beginning of the spread of the impure magic!”
Cole was stepping forward, seeing Harl’s fear at being mauled in this way. But Orinius just hissed at the tall man, without even turning to see his steps. “Stay back. No, wait. Go to the armoury. Fetch the chains! We must contain him immediately. The change is early, he is weak still, but the strength will come. Oh yes, it will come!”
Then he turned to look where Cole was still standing stock still. “I said go!”
Cole seemed on the verge of some kind of decision when a growing, horrific, noise made all three of them look towards the study door. It was a sound unlike anything Harl had heard before and it took him a moment to connect all the parts of it to familiar sounds from his life before the castle. The screech of metal. The boom of crashing wood and stone. The sudden screams of men, cut off but coming again. And again. And coming closer.
Orinius was as pale as a Lios cursed ghost as Harl looked to him for… something. Cole was moving towards the chest where his daggers, roarer and crossbow were all locked away. But then a great force hit the study door, and pushed it right through, billowing stale dust into the air that blinded them all for a moment. Then they could see again.