“I need to find her. The girl in the woods.”
Silence in the darkness. Harl thought perhaps he was sleeping again, his friend seemed to be able to switch from awake to sleeping – to dreaming – in the space of a bloody moment. He seemed to prefer dreaming, and Harl’d had to force himself not to take offence. Harl thought he’d likely be the same if he had nothing to do or see or day. Except speak to you. He quashed that moment of petulance. Harl knew it was different for him. Harl made allowances because everything was different for him.
“I said, I need to find her, the girl in the woods. Eris Atta-Sutith.”
A stirring in the air. His friend was moving at least.
“She might be dead.” The voice in the dark was quiet and misshapen, as though coming through a difficult mouth.
Harl’s stomach knotted at his words. She was very likely dead after what he’d done to her. He still remembered the feeling of his short sword cutting into her flesh. The spatter of her blood. The feeling of her bone under the blade…
“She might be, Harl.”
“Yes. She might.” Harl agreed, feeling a chill in his blood again. “Maybe all I can do is give her a proper burial. Out in the woods. I don’t know, I have to do something.” He shifted on the cold stone floor, adjusting his stiffening legs crossed underneath him.
“In the woods. Outside?”
“Yes, I’d have to get outside.” Back to the woods where they’d left her. He’d have to go back along the road where, on their return to the castle, Captain Rickarn had heaped praise on him while Cole had near enough disappeared into the shadows of his large coat and wide brimmed hat. Until Rickarn had offered Harl the ride on his horse. At the time the words had not even sunk in, Harl had been numb and deaf. He barely remembered them until days after. And even then it was mostly Cole’s reaction he recalled.
“An equerry should know the beast he’s to care for.” Rickarn had said, making as if he was going to dismount. Harl was in the cart, white and shaking still, eyes red and swollen from tears. At that moment he could only see her face and not the smug city-voln looking down at him from his fine mount.
“Fuck you, Dren!” Cole had barked then, turning suddenly towards Rickarn and in doing so showing a face almost as pale as Harl’s. “Stop playing with the boy! Sure as blood is blood you aint going to take on a woods-voln equerry. You’d be the laughing stock of Liosinium and they’d string him up! So stop your fucking games!”
It had been the angriest he’d ever seen Cole. But almost as quickly as the rage had blossomed on the man’s sharp features, it passed. His lips were still pressed thin as he looked at the Captain, but his anger was contained again. Rickarn merely nodded and clicked his tongue at his horse, who picked up his hooves and fair pranced ahead to a few paces beyond the cart mule. Rickarn stayed up front like that all the way back to the Castle, a stiff back turned to Cole and the boys who dreaded their return. Harl only dreaded thoughts of what he’d done. And still they came to him; in the night, in the dark of this room. When he dreamt.
“Don’t go outside Harl.” There was whispered pain in that broken voice. “Stay here, with me.”
Harl paused, returning to the darkness of the locked room. “We could both leave. You could help me find her…”
A low laugh, bubbling through that broken mouth. The voice sounded young, but he’d told Harl he’d been here for years. Decades even. Not that he could measure the span of time by anything other than the boys and the meals the masters brought him. Wounds flashed into Harl’s mind. Dresick’s missing ear. The masters’ missing limbs. The scars on Cole’s torso. He put that question from his mind again. He was getting good at locking things away in the thousand rooms in his mind, a version of the castle made small in his head. If only he could contain memories of the girl in there too.
Harl sighed. “Fysiwon…”
“They’ll kill you Harl. The masters.”
“Fysiwon, I can’t be here forever.”
“Tell me the story of Kur Gyreblack again.”
“Tell me the story!” The madness was in his voice, echoing about the black room. Movement in the dark, something large stirring. Harl sat still. The movement slowed.
“Sorry Harl. Sorry.” Pain again in his broken voice. Once Fysiwon had admitted that his body hurt. Seconds later he was begging Harl never to try to see him. As he had done every day for weeks after he first spoke. Please, please don’t try to see me, he’d whispered. No matches snuck in, no lamps. Please, Harl. Promise, Harl. And Harl had promised.
“It’s okay, I understand. But I have to find her. I can’t stay here. I can’t…” He stopped himself. He couldn’t tell Fysiwon about the looks he was getting. Couldn’t tell the broken thing in the dark that because he hadn’t hurt him that the other lads hated Harl now. They hated him to the point of violence, even if under the eyes of the masters they hadn’t dared to do anything to him yet. But soon they might.
And he needed to find the girl. Fysiwon might be able to escape to his dreams – of the past? Harl wasn’t sure – but when he closed his eyes he only saw the same butchering done over and over again. His hands bloody with it. If he could find her, he could try to make amends. Or lay her to rest. And then he might be able to rest too.
A low moan from Fysiwon, pain and frustration, coming out of him in tortured tones. Harl tried to calm his rapidly beating heart again.
“Friend. Please, friend.”
“Harl is my friend.” He said quietly, calmness returning once again. The dangerous madness came in waves like this some days. The bastard gods only knew how Harl’d survived so long before the poor thing had first spoken to him that day. Now he knew that he could calm Fysiwon. But before… it was pure luck that the creature had not raged against the intrusion in his room like the others had done and taken his ears, or eyes, or limbs straight away. Or his life. Something about the woods-voln boy had caught the poor thing’s attention and kept him safe from his madness and pain. Perhaps it was his charming personality, Harl thought with a smirk. Or his many creative bloody ways of saying ‘piss pot’.
“How long left?”
Harl sighed. “Not long now friend. You ate a long time ago. My legs ache enough, so that it must be soon. But you dream until I’m back tomorrow morning, alright friend?
“No Harl. How long until you go outside?”
Harl paused. “I don’t know, Fysiwon.”
The name had evolved over the early days of his new friend trying to speak with Harl. When Harl had explained where he was held captive, the shape in the dark had been amazed, seeming not to know or to remember that there were other things like him in other rooms just nearby, or that there were numbers on his door, marking him out as different. After all that time alone in the dark without a name he’d been so overjoyed that he’d repeated the numbers through his broken mouth over and over again. Five, six, one. Five, six, one… ‘Fysiwon’.
“You can’t tell them that I am speaking. You can’t let the masters know.” That was something else he’d repeated over and over as well. Silent for so many years, only barely aware of the grey-robes locking and unlocking the doors, he still knew to fear them. To fear them knowing that something different was happening between him and Harl. Friend. None of the other lads knew their fellow captives like this. None of them had anything other than fear for the things in the darkness of the rooms allocated to them. The bloody masters couldn’t be allowed to know that in Harl’s room someone was talking to him. Friend.
Harl stood and stretched. “Until tomorrow, Fysiwon.”
“Tomorrow, Harl.” He already sounded sleepy, falling into the safe softness of dreams. Memories? Harl didn’t know, but he hoped that they were better than here. Although, by the bastard gods, anywhere was fucking better than here!
Moments later the door was being unlocked. His body truly had a sense now of when it was going to be. All the use that bloody was.
The master brought him, his barren tray, and his piss pot, out and relocked the door. Five, six, one. Harl went to follow after the few others walking sluggishly up the corridor, heading back to the great hall for food, their eyes flat and dead.
“Not you, Orinius wants you.” The master grabbed his arm quickly. The man’s other arm, a twisted mess of muscle and flesh, had long ago healed in the shape it’d been left in, moved painfully to point the other way, down the corridor. “You come with me, down here.”
Harl nodded and walked with the man. They passed other corridors. In one a master was mopping up a trail of blood that led from one door to half way up the corridor. He looked up at Harl and his colleague. An ear and an eye were both missing, violent scars covering much of his face.
Finally, Harl and the master reached the door to Orinius’ study where the grey-robe knocked and then left Harl alone.
“Come in.” Orinius’ voice chilled Harl’s blood. He’d been so used to blindly and mutely following orders from the masters, he hadn’t yet thought through why Orinius might want to see him. Could he know that Fysiwon was talking? How could he know though?! The walls and doors were so thick only the worst of the screams made it through. Fysiwon sometimes yelled, as he’d done earlier, but even so… it could be any moment of madness, not the anger of a poor broken thing in the dark who just wanted the same bloody story about Kur Gyreblack for the hundredth time. Harl held his breath as he walked in, trying to calm his thrashing heart.
In the warm room he saw Cole, lounging again on one of Orinius’ chairs. He wasn’t entirely surprised; some new lads had arrived the day before. Already some of them were broken and some were… gone.
“Ah, there you are.” Orinius smiled like a snake. “Come, sit.” He gestured at a spare chair facing the two of them and Harl slowly lowered himself into it. For months he’d been sitting on cold stone floors, in the great hall or in room five, six, one. It was like sitting on a cloud.
“I’ll have your dinner brought here presently. Perhaps you would like some water while you wait?”
Harl nodded cautiously, looking at Cole out of the corner of his eye. The woods-voln had one leg slung across the other, his mud stained boot showing its patched sole to the room. He was more than half way through a bottle of some liquor that one hand rested on possessively as it sat by him in his chair. The other hand brought a horn tumbler to his lips. Again. And Again.
Orinius was behind his desk. He steepled his finger tips and looked closely at Harl.
“He’s not what I would have asked for.”
Cole just drank.
“You should be smug Cole. You were the one who predicted he’d still be around.”
“When I got back the first time after. Not now.” Cole’s words were slurring slightly, although he was still a ways off of sounding like Fysiwon. Who they hadn’t mentioned. Harl’s heart heaved in his chest. Maybe they didn’t know.
“Well. This is what I’ve got. Twenty years of waiting, give or take, and I get a woods-voln.”
Cole drank, and silently refilled his cup.
“Could be worse… could be worse. A farm-voln would be worse. Some dirt loving dullard. You have your numbers and letters, boy?”
“See, could be worse.” Orinius stood and moved to one side. “Come sit here.” He gestured towards his desk and the now empty chair there.
“Orinius.” There was a warning in the man’s voice. It was hard to see his eyes for his long dark, straggling hair, but Harl imagined their emerald fire. This wasn’t just the anger of a drunk, something he’d seen many a time before. Bastard gods, what was going on here?!
Harl stood and walked to Orinius’s desk, taking his seat and seeing the room from behind the ornate wood for the first time. There were small drawers built into it, quills dipped in pots, and piles and piles of books that almost blocked out his view of Cole. The man was looking away, staring to where Harl had been sitting just seconds before.
Orinius laid a book out before him. It was easily three feet wide, a great ledger of numbers running down in columns. This is where I was written down, Harl thought.
“Read, here.” Orinius pointed a yellowing nail at a line of numbers. He understood them, but their meaning was unclear. He read.
“Three Li-measures and a half. Seven Li-measures and three quarters. A measure. Five lengths.”
Cole stood suddenly, stood and watched. His thin lips getting tighter by the moment.
“Now here.” A page before, fine handwriting describing something. “Start from here.”
Harl stuttered a bit under Cole’s fierce gaze, and as he realised what he was reading out. “Orinius. A D-Denosian. Copper of skin. Ten years of age. B-Brought by Ellus, sea-voln of the Western Cape. Captured at sea. Sold to us for two silver coins.”
“Excellent. The rest, the Science of it, can be taught. But I could not bear to have to go through teaching the numbers and the letters. Return to your seat.”
Harl had to walk past the slightly swaying man on his way back to the fine chair. Orinius arranged his thick robe and sat down carefully, oblivious of Cole’s closeness to Harl as he passed him. Cole seemed to be about to say something, but he just grabbed at his bottle again and just flopped down onto the chair instead, releasing a plume of dust.
“Will you tell him now?” Cole far spat out the words.
“Not all of it. Not yet.” Orinius was cold and detached to Cole’s barely controlled anger. And neither of them seemed to care that they were bloody well speaking right in front of him! Tell him what?!
“Unmarked. Fucking unlucky bastard.”
“Do be quiet, Cole. There are far worse fates in this world Lios has shaped.”
“Oh yes, far worse. Rickarn wanted him for an equerry.”
“Ridiculous. A woods-voln equerry?! Liosinium would lock all its stables, hide all its fine silver horse ornamentations…”
“They’d just have hung him.” Cole supped again. “But this?” He gestured about at the room, the shelves, the books.
“That’s enough. I’ve never seen you complain about the gold that my position brings you, Cole.” Orinius sneered. “Never seen you turn down a chance to remind me that you stood between me and them.” Orinius turned his attention to Harl. “Have they started hating you yet, boy?”
Harl started. How did he know?!
“You aren’t the first to be unmarked.” Orinius pushed the thick embroidered sleeves of his robe back, revealing the light brown skin of his thin but normal arms. “But they won’t hate you when you are granted Lios’ protection. When you… eventually… replace me.”
Cole scoffed. “They still fucking hate you Orinius. They just know better than to show it to Lios’ last hope.”
That comment confused Harl, what was Lios hoping for? What could the god-king need from Orinius. From this bloody place?
“Fuck this, and fuck you.” Cole stood again, even more unstable. “I’ll not sit and wait for him to be prancing about in your fucking robes when you’re gone.”
“You belong to this place as much as I do, Cole.” Orinius sounded bored. Had he heard Cole speak like this before, wondered Harl? “Take your rest. But then be back to your work on the morning. The last boys you brought are already used up.”
“In a day?!” Cole slurred.
“You only brought six this time. You must do better.”
A grey-robe quietly came in from the recessed door in the alcove, bringing a tray with Harl’s dinner. Suddenly all the blood was gone from Cole’s sharp face. Then he whispered raggedly. “You will go in. You will be locked in. You will deliver the food. You will stay inside.”
Orinius sighed. “Cole, there’s no need for these dramatics-”
But Cole was moving, stumbling past Harl and charging into the grey-robe, knocking him and the tray flying. And Harl’s dinner with him. Then Cole was gone, off down the dark corridor where the red rope led to the great hall.
“Oh dear.” Said Orinius flatly, unimpressed. “Clear that up.” The grey-robe got to work, scooping up the ruined dinner and depositing it back on the plates with his bare hands. Harl watched him, with a sick feeling in his stomach. Was he… was he meant to become this man’s master, like Orinius was?! He could not command them to do these things!
“Go back to the great hall. They can still find you a meal, I suppose.” He waved his hand dismissively, and Harl walked past the grey-robe still cleaning the floor with his hands. Beyond him was the door and Harl let himself into the darkness beyond, his hand finding the red rope easily, and starting his path towards the hall.
Moments later he was on the floor, hands and knees smashing into the hard stone there and complaining loudly. A groan in the dark. He’d fallen over something, someone.
“Ne’er said you could say m’name.”
It was pitch black but he realised that from the height of the voice Cole was sitting on the floor, most likely with his back to the wall. He heard movement from the man and a match sparked to life, showing the dark straggle of the man’s hair over his bowed head. Cole put the match to a bundle of papers and then threw them across the corridor to lie and burn on the stone. The strange silvery paper burned slowly, casting light so Harl could see as he got to his feet.
“You never said I couldn’t neither.”
Cole laughed. “Sharp tongue, sharp death, woods-voln.”
“That’s you too, yer know!”
He was quiet. Then he ran his fingers through his hair suddenly, breathing out. “Once maybe, not now. Sit with me awhile, lad.”
Harl felt rage building in his chest. Memories of Eris came burning through his mind like acid. “Fuck you!”
It was hard to see the man’s eyes, even in the firelight, but Harl hoped there was pain there, even a small amount for everything this man had done.
“You’re a fucking monster! You feed children to monsters! And you drink and eat, all on the coin they give you. Fuck you!!”
He expected anger in return, but there was only defeat in his voice. Even as he offered him another role. “I could get you out of here. Get you back on the carts-”
“Make me like you? Make me steal children too? Fuck that!”
Cole looked up at him, sharpness returning to his booze-addled eyes. Green eyes. “Didn’t steal-”
“Woods-voln don’t sell their sons, you said!” Harl was bringing his hands into fists.
He kicked him then, putting all of his burning hot anger into that quick, forceful movement. He landed the blow right where under his clothes Cole was scarred. Where he had been bitten by something like Fysiwon. Harl fell to his knees, tears flowing.
Cole didn’t even groan, even though he clasped a hand to that side.
“You still cry though.” Cole said hoarsely. “Good.”
Harl took deep breaths and tried to stop the tears. “Fuck you.” It was a weaker curse, so he added some colour. “May the poisoned one never take your grief. May the shadowed one never hide the light from you. May-”
Cole laughed. “The bastard gods. Of course. These walls remember the bastard gods well.” He was slurring again, and Harl noticed, even in the fading light of the small fire, a small wine skin in his hand.
“Does that even help?”
“Not a fucking bit, lad. Not a fucking bit.” Cole paused. “I meant… I just meant I could get you out of here. Not get you working on the carts.” His green eyes were surprisingly earnest, and Harl almost, for a very brief moment, thought about it. Somehow, under a horse blanket maybe, he could get out. There would be a trick to it. He would be able to work it out. Somehow. But what about Fysiwon?! Harl quickly changed the subject, and sure as blood was blood, the drunk man didn’t even notice “And I can get you back to your bloody room and out of my bloody way. The visitor’s parlour, is it?” He pulled at the man’s arm, getting him to his feet with some help and then waited expectantly in the fumes of his alcohol brewed breath.
Cole nodded and started to stumble forward, Harl struggling to keep him upright as the man seemed to be leading the way. They marched together down numerous corridors, and Harl began to wonder if they were getting deeper and deeper into the castle, and deeper and deeper into being lost. Then finally Cole slowed, and pulled them to a stop outside a plain wooden door, one among many on the corridor. It was nothing like the fine door to the visitor’s parlour where Rickarn had been waiting for the lads. It was just another door.
Just another door. With numbers.
Cole slurred, reading them aloud, even though his eyes were closed behind the length of his tangled hair, his head lolling down. Knowing them anyway. “Two, nine, one.” His 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. But the first day I’m back on my feet they put me back in there. With it again.”
Harl had seen that happen too. 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 very 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 the girl, Eris, 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 own 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, and 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.
Harl found that he 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 fire feeding 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 out 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. The star-voln.
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 was 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, panicking.
“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. “Just 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 out and 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 back 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 Science. 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.” 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 ugly 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 and much of their competition had ‘gone’ away. However, he was still off to one side, out of the centre of the rows of 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.
But 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, until 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 gof-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 hurried 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 arrivals; of city-voln, the odd woods-voln, a farm-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, even before he 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 towards him and whispered, his eyes on Harl the whole time. The first master nodded and Harl felt every one of his muscles 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 half-heartedly at the floor, a folksy tune he vaguely remembered his mother humming on the rare days when the sun was shining through the Bara stink and she’d made enough for the weekly payment of rent to their vile landlord. 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. Ssince 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 his mare, find the way to the main courtyard and the great gate.”
“You have a 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 even more different? Was riding a horse even 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 never to do that. Harl shook his head, pushing that thought away. “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. Once 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, 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 old, but also very young. “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 we could tale 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, it’s too narrow. 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, where he could watched 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 faces 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 to the roof with 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 that 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 god-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 frantically 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, his 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 cut away?! Where are you bleeding?!”
Harl looked up, dazed, into Cole’s intense searching 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, then realised what must have happened. “You got them from me 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, his long fingers bruising his skin, and marched 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 had said. He’d have to stay with Orinius now, learn whatever his method was. He would never go back into room five, six, one. He would never talk to Fysiwon again.
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 traitor’s body into a shallow stagnant 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 spilling out into the unusually clear, for Bara at least, water. The ink was like that blood. But then quill after quill was washed and cleaned, and the water was 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 as water bearer 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 still being had by the rest of the boys in the castle. Harl still slept on the floor, but now in a corner of a warm study, 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 screaming in the woods bringing him to sudden waking. 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 actually suffering, instead of just returning to the cities as he always had. Returning to wine and whores, Harl supposed, or to collect even more lads. But Orinius acted as though the change in Cole’s role was a punishment. He had delighted in making the tall woods-voln personally responsible for responding to Harl’s needs as Orinius’ 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 stealer 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 suddenly blurt and ramble on 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. Harl 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. But 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 even use the blade.
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 thick 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. Taking them had been a part of Orinius’ gloating control of the woods-voln in his new roleas just another master.
“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, and cities and sometimes even other lands – some were Denosian like Orinius. 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, but 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. Scratching out lives. And Harl realised suddenly that the master now dead of poison had once 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. Today 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 running 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.