Copyright © 2017 by Byron Cornell Bellamy
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means without written permission from the author.
For The Family.
[_ You people of the future living endless lives in your impermeable domes on planets you control spinning around suns you damper -- you cannot grasp the thin edge of chance that ruled the generations of your earthbound ancestors. Take, for instance, the current preoccupation with the bastardized legend of the Mechanical Man. The truth of it is impossible, but if I could tell it a different way, if I tell you the under-tale, perhaps the taste of that time will at least drift across your lips and lend you the barest flavor of sweet life with its roots in stone, of twisted and scarred branches of knotted wood lifting thick green leaves laden with fruit up to a sun that shone differently than any sun you have ever stood beneath. _]
— Fabrizio Vivolo, Scribe of Venice, Il Primo Record di Venezia, April 4^th^, 1771
In his day the sun made everything and ruled everything. The air hummed with life, every sense sharp with survival, every moment full of power -- the way things feel at the beginning of a world. The Mechanical Man was not the product of a mechanical age; he was brought to life by a spring storm, a monster that raged over the English coastal village of Gillingham for three days during a difficult year in the most horrible decade of the worst century Europe would ever know. At midday on April the thirteenth in the year 1364 the ocean roared as if mad, the ground trembled with lightning bolts, and the wind sought the safe places of the little village like a bloodthirsty demon, flipping the baker’s cottage into the deep forest, flattening the gnarled open shack of the captain’s ancient widow, and snatching up the drunken wheel-smith when he finally left the public house to leave him in some still-undiscovered land never to be seen again.
Thirty-five of the fifty or so inhabitants of the tiny village survived. The waters receded; they buried the dead they could find and began to scavenge among the ruins for materials to patch their bashed-in houses with. The sun came out, the ground dried somewhat, and livestock came wandering back to the fields they had been born in, nosing curiously at grain troughs that were full of water. A week passed, then two, and the familiar patterns of life began to emerge once more. The baker was dead; the baker’s wife had survived her tumble through the sky, and who would she marry to rebuild the oven? Wat Pepper, or perhaps John Tinsley from Bridgeford. John was younger and stronger, they said. But Wat had once remarked on the charms of the baker’s wife, and had a face that drew women’s glances -- who would she choose?
Five days later, everyone was dead. The lurking horror of the Great Pestilence had crept up on them in the midst of their speculation and ended the argument forever. Only one villager survived, a boy of eight who had panicked and fled into the deep forest at the sight of his father gasping with his last breath, his body covered in terrible pustules and black boils. His mother had been taken two years earlier by an outbreak of smallpox, and this latest and much worse event broke the boy’s conscious mind so that he ignored the pleadings of his suffering father and plunged into the bramble at the back of the house, skittering through the thick woods like a crazed beetle until he fell into the Crack.
The Crack was a deep ravine cutting through the thick forest beyond the fields, and it was a place that all the villagers generally avoided. The children were told that it was the gateway to Hell; even the bravest older males of the village shunned the place, except as a dumping pit for some particularly noxious load of garbage, or for disposing of murder victims and so forth. No one living in the village had ever been to the bottom of the dark cleft and returned. Now the helpless and doubly-terrified boy found himself tumbling down through the rotting vegetation and unmentionable slime to the very, very bottom of Hell.
At this very bottom was the rushing stream that had carved the ravine, cutting down over eons through a long vein of softer rock, one of those geological oddities of magma flow. He managed to slow his descent by scrabbling for handholds, finding a few but losing all of them – he landed hard on an almost-flat stretch of dead roots and had the wind knocked out of him but somehow stayed out of the stream.
The normally slick and steep sides had been made much worse by the recent storm, so that the boy could not climb them no matter how hard he tried. He had no shoes to dig in with, and was wearing only the coarse woolen tunic he had worn all his life, now matted and torn from his flight through the forest. His toes could find no purchase, his fingers no firm holds, and he fell several times before surrendering. The last climb had been the highest and therefore the farthest fall. He hit his head on a rock on this last attempt and landed in the icy stream, dazed and paralyzed by the freezing water.
At that moment, being thoroughly traumatized and still stunned with terror from the horrible manner in which everyone he had ever known or loved had died, he gave up. The water was too cold to bear, and so he crawled out of the stream and into some thick bushes at the water’s edge to wait for death.
Night at the bottom of the crevice was the worst kind of freezing cold, the remnants of his soaked tunic growing stiff with frost. He shivered until his teeth clacked; still, he did not die. The next day he moved around a bit in his small patch of wet underbrush, drank from the stream, watched the sky. He was waiting for the pustules he had seen festering on his father to appear on him as they had on everyone. Surely they would, but they did not.
By the third day he became mortally hungry and bored with waiting to die, and decided to find a way out of his tomb. He began to follow the stream down, climbing carefully over the rocks but falling in many times anyway, his feet numb, his stomach crying, his eyes like dark stones. In some places the gap was no more than a few feet wide and crisscrossed by roots, and he would have to crawl up the wall and work a path through the web of gnarled wood like a spider (added to the thousands lurking in the thatch), feeling his way through the impenetrable bracken in the unnatural darkness.
The movement became automatic, and he lost all track of time. There was light -- some eons later the ravine widened and spilled down through a steep cliff into a deeper forest, a place he thought he had been before. In fact he knew exactly where he was, and he knew how to make his way back home -- but he could not. The trauma had been too much, it would be dangerous to try, he was certain everyone was dead. So instead he plunged down the trail and away from his village with his heart full of guilt and shame, and turned west and inland as soon as the fork presented itself. Soon he was as far from his birthplace as he had ever been without an adult in his presence.
He thought about his receding home as he stumbled exhaustedly down the trail. He tried dimly to remember what his father’s face had looked like before the outbreak. The man had never been kind to his son, and preferred the stick to harsh words; but at least he had never sold the boy into servitude or damaged him in some way that could not heal, two fates not uncommon to other children in villages everywhere. The man had named his son Nicholas, after himself and his father and grandfather, and many grandfathers before that. Here was yet another Nicholas Owen of the Gillingham Owens, fisher folk, farmers, hell-raisers, hard drinkers. His extended family had always made up about a quarter of the village for many hundreds of years, and already he had been filled with many stories of family legend, the rise and fall of the family fortune, and the rumor that the original Nicholas Owen had been the illegitimate son of King Edmund, forced into hiding and anonymity after Edmund’s murder.
Nicholas the boy who had run away from his pleading father was now the entire surviving population of Owens in the area. He could sense this somehow, and he found an easy path to the logic of staying away from any other villages, at least for awhile. He tried to think of a way forward, of a way to stay alive. For all he knew other villages might know of Gillingham’s fate and condemn him for fleeing, or kill him outright from fear of the Pestilence – this being something which happened every day all over the world -- or they might all be dying horribly at this very moment themselves. Whatever the case, he decided to stay away from all people for the time being. After all, every one he had ever known had recently turned frightful colors and perished in a lunatic frenzy. He felt as if he might never want to see people again. It seemed to his deeper sense that they all eventually turned to monsters.
Nicholas settled at length on the basic plan of stealing food and perhaps some more clothing and supplies before taking shelter in the Crack for a few more nights. Now that he had plumbed its depths, the ravine seemed more inviting than it had when the baker’s wife had told the story about the witch who lived at the bottom and loved to catch and cook little children. He knew now that no witch would ever want to live in the Crack, but Nicholas was also certain that no one else would know that for sure. If he avoided any of the nearby familiar fields, no one need ever know. He thought he might be able to scout the edges of his own village after enough time had passed, maybe retrieve some of the family heirlooms. There wouldn’t be much to be had; a mirror and some drawings, a few leather tokens, a little bag of crystals his father had always treasured. Still, it was all they had ever had. Something urged him to seize any semblance of continuity he could summon up.
Right now he was growing desperate for food, and Maidstone would be his best bet, a larger town surrounded by many small farms that he would be able to steal from, no more than six miles away through the forest. His father had taken him there many times, since it was the primary market town in this part of Kent. His father had said there were relatives of his mother’s in Maidstone. Some long-ago family feud had created a permanent estrangement, but since Nicholas couldn’t even remember his mother’s maiden name, he thought there would be no point in trying to find them. He didn’t want to right now, anyway. Right now he only needed food and some warmer clothing, and when he let that become his primary focus he felt the deep grip of his recent horror loosen somewhat, so he followed the impulse to plan instead of ponder the harsh realities of his new life.
At least he was no longer splashing around in a freezing creek at the bottom of a deep ravine. The sun filtered through the trees and warmed him while he walked, although his shredded tunic would be damp for hours still. The strangeness of a walk in the woods, listening to birdsong and the rustle of branches above his head when he had just escaped a world of death and the depths of hell -- he grew dizzy, and shook his head to ward off the fuzziness of his exhaustion and hunger. ‘Stay off the trail, stay off the trail’ he heard himself whispering, and he thought he heard himself agree. So he forced himself to climb from the well-traveled path to the thickly-forested and rough slope above it.
Here in the underbrush his progress was slow and painful. For hours he slipped along as silently as he could, instinctively finding paths through the bushes, trying to avoid thorns and impassable thickets. He always kept the trail in sight if he could, but not so closely that he could not disappear from sight at once.
Eventually the trail merged with a cart-track. The forested low hills gave way to the hedged farms above Maidstone. Hiding became much more difficult now, and his progress slowed to a crawl. Worse, people began to trundle by on the cart-track, forcing him to lie still in open fields, shoving his face down into the loam between the furrows to escape detection. His instincts to remain hidden and avoid contact were screaming at him, and he trembled in the loose earth with fear and stress. After each near-contact passed his heart would continue to pound, and he remained pressed into the dirt long after the people were gone.
He had to get away from all this. He knew he was too weak to stay stuck for long. He waited for a break in the sporadic traffic and backed away from the cart track along a furrow, deepening the trench with his wriggling body. The field was recently plowed and perhaps thirty yards wide, with a low hedge dividing it from another field behind it.
He worked his body through the low dividing hedge instead of climbing over it, and emerged bleeding and even filthier from the other side. He waited there without moving for a very long time to make sure he was undetected. He peered through a gap as wagons and slowly walking people made their way toward the town. After awhile he began to creep along the hedge, staying low. He realized that he was now perfectly safe from being seen from the road if he just crawled on his hands and knees through this back row of fields.
A few fields on, however, he ran up against a low stone wall. He rolled around so that he was pressed against it, listened for awhile, popped his head up over the edge -- and realized that he was a few feet away from a stone house set in a grove. It looked empty, but he couldn’t know for sure -- and he was familiar with the local penalties for thievery, which was exactly what he was doing. His father had told many tales of the horrific tortures of caught criminals, always relishing in the sadistic details of the punishments.
He could smell bread. His desperate hunger pulsed through him as he laid against the wall and listened for an eternity, then finally pushed himself over the stone barrier . He moved in slow inches, so silently, until finally he stood to once side of the open doorway of the house, peering around the edge of the wall at a most amazing thing.
Bread. A pile of fresh loaves of bread. The place was some sort of bakery, with a domed oven forming the far wall -- the coals were still glowing, he felt the heat on his face from the doorway. There were barrels stacked into the corner, and a long table covered with cloth-wrapped bundles. And sacks. Big heavy sacks. One was all he would need, if he could just get it out quickly enough. Without further thought he snatched up one of the sacks and stuffed several of the other sacks into the very bottom. Then he filled the rest of the space with bread loaves and a knife left lying on the kneading table. Six, seven -- the sack began to bulge, a few more just because and he twisted the end closed and threw the burden over his shoulder. It felt light as a feather. Out the door, off through the fields heading for the deep forest and the Crack like the wind. Shouts behind him -- he did not turn, or think about it. He just ran.
A few hours later he was back in the ravine, but this time lying on a thick dry layer of sacks used to line the invisible nest he had made just above the last cliff of the Crack, his stomach full to bursting of the most delicious fresh bread he had ever tasted, and as close to bliss as he had ever been in his entire life. He slid into one of the middle sacks and fell asleep feeling lucky and safe. He had no dreams at all that night.
He woke in the tree-filtered light of morning to a plethora of itching bugbites, the worst from the spiders he had shared the narrower crevice of the Crack with. He forced himself to bathe in the freezing stream and emerged completely numb and shivering, but grateful to no longer feel the itching. He sat in his nest and worked on a few of the sacks with the knife until he had made himself a new rough tunic and pants, even wrapping his feet in leftover strips and tying them so that they stayed on when he walked.
It was afternoon by the time he finished, and he decided to descend into the deep forest on a sort of walkabout to test his new clothing and look for things he might need, marigold for his scrapes and scratches as his mother had once shown him, and a flint or good firesticks as his father had once shown him. The bread would last a week at least, he thought, and then there were other villages, other farmsteads within a day’s walk. Farther ahead than one more stealthy foraging expedition he did not think. Life was good for the moment, and he needed it to be, if just to recover his courage.
Six days later he emerged from his cocoon in the high ravine and made for the farmlands to the south of Gillingham. This time he returned with a sack of oats and a few meat-pies, grateful to have something other than bread. The expedition made him more confident; he was good at sneaking, he discovered, and began to sally forth more often. He took more than just food now -- cloth, small tools, an axe, cooking oil, rope, whatever he came across that he might use to make his hideaway more comfortable. He built a roof for it, arranged an excellent camouflage of bramble bushes, and went to great lengths to make the sleeping area particularly dry and warm.
A month later he was a different boy. He ate well and slept well, and his wounds had healed. He began to feel lonely, wondered about his relatives in Maidstone, and decided it was time to scout his ancestral village. This took a great deal of courage to contemplate, and he delayed another week with fretful cowardice. But he kept returning to the idea that there would be his family things to bring to his new home, even some stored food. And if anyone was still alive --
So one morning he descended from his cliff and turned north on the path. He knew the trail to Gillingham like he was born to it, which he was, and although he hugged the edge of the trail, he didn’t bother with stealth for some reason. It was home territory, after all -- he might even see a familiar face, although a voice in his head whispered that this was not true.
This impulse to return to his home proved to be a terrible mistake almost instantly. A half-mile along the trail he heard a whistle from somewhere ahead of him; a moment later, an answering whistle from behind him. Nicholas stopped, shocked by the clear sound of humanity – and he plunged into the underbrush without another thought.
He had to make it back to his nest without being followed somehow. Clearly there were two men -- were they hunting him? He could hear someone behind him, and a fluttering of birds to the left. He zigged and zagged, paused to listen and changed direction, circled, hid --
To no avail. He heard rustling from his direct left and bolted away from that direction right into a very large net. Within moments he was irredeemably bound and captured and his two pursuers stood over him. One was very large, rotund and hirsute in the manner of a village bully. The other was tall and skinny, sallow and pockmarked, with an overly large Adam’s apple.
“Oooo ee was quick. Weren’t ya, lad?” said the rotund man. “No wonder no one’s caught ya yet.”
“But we did, we did, we did,” said the skinny man, in a birdlike voice to match his darting eyes.
“Yes we did, Tum. And now let the bidding begin.”
Tum frowned. “The baker has first claim, Quinn. He’d a be mad if we took him to Jolly.”
Quinn slapped the taller man, who cringed. “Shut up, ya muggins, or I’ll sell you to Jolly.”
Tum insisted, still cringing. “You shouldn’t give the boy to Jolly. It’s a bad thing, Quinn, and you know it to be. You do so know it to be.”
Quinn raised his hand again, but didn’t strike. “The baker has first rights, but Jolly’s got the coin for such a pretty one,” he said. His shaggy face peered down at the boy, who was listening to his fate being debated in silence, still breathing heavily from the chase. “No one said he was such a pretty little lad, did they. I’d get a pound for him from Jolly.”
“It’s not right, you know it’s not right,” Tum insisted, edging away from another possible blow.
“Ya got to stop thinking about these things, Tum,” said Quinn gently. “Didn’t I tell you I’d take care o’ ya? And haven’t I taken good care o’ ya?” Tum looked down at the ground in sullen defiance. Quinn nodded. “Well, then, to the baker and we’ll see if he’ll match Jolly’s price. We’ll see what the fates bring, hey, boy?”
Nicholas grimaced at him from within the heavy shag-rope of the net. He tried to speak in as fierce and manly a voice as he could. “My father’s in Gillingham, and he’s looking for me.”
Tum and Quinn both laughed at this. Quinn shook his head. “Nobody from Gillingham’s looking for anybody, not ever again. There’s naught but ghosts in Gillingham. But we’ve been looking for you for some time, now, my little thief-boy, and we’re going to eat well tonight because we caught you. So keep your tongue and we won’t knock you in the head, right?”
The boy answered him with a glare.
Quinn smiled, a very bad man’s smile. “Right,” he answered for the boy.
Tum hauled the net and its captive a few hundred yards up the road to a small cart hidden in the underbrush, heaving it up but letting the load down gently.
Quinn bent to examine their prize through the net with a professional eye. “I did tell, you, didn’t I Tum, that he had to be somewhere in these woods? You made a mistake, you see boy. All your little raids have a center point. And we know you’re on this side of Gillingham, because that’s not passable, you know. The Black Death rules that town. That and the many ghosts it left behind.” He tapped his temple. “I think, that’s what I do. I’m a natural philosopher.” He clapped his hands together. “And I think a pound will do for it!”
Tum shook his head nervously. “Ah, we cannot get a pound for him, Quinn. The baker’s not got a pound for him.”
Quinn smiled wickedly. “Then he loses. Because I know a man -- one of this boy’s many victims, to be sure, he’s clearly been at this awhile -- who’ll pay me a pound purely for the right of vengeance.” His leer was not hidden, and the boy began to feel a cold place grow inside of him.
Tum stood his ground, stuck his neck out. “You can’t take him to Jolly. The baker has first rights to him. His brother’s the Sheriff, and we daren’t cross the man.”
Quinn leaned forward now. “And who’s to tell the baker we even found the boy? We could take him to Jolly now and none would be the wiser.”
Tum didn’t shrink this time. “I can’t take it since the last one. I saw inside. I saw what he’s doing.”
Quinn frowned, relented. He spread his hands. “We’ll see if the baker can’t match Jolly’s price, then. Just business.”
Tum relaxed somewhat. “We’ll take him to the baker then.”
Quinn gave him a quick glare, and Tum flinched. Quinn smiled sarcastically. “Well, push the bloody cart then, Sorry Sad Sally,” he said. Tum glowered, but took up the cart handles and pushed through the underbrush to the road. The boy lay still inside the net as the cart jostled forward. To him, it didn’t matter where they were taking him. He was a caught thief. According to his father’s wisdom, this was the end of his life. Well, the tortures first.
He curled into a ball inside the net and gave up.
The baker was even more rotund and far larger than Quinn, and hairier as well. He was soaked in sweat and wearing only a sort of diaper made from one of the flour sacks, standing with a wooden paddle in his hand outside the stone bakery. He peered through the net at Nicholas with a skeptical eye.
“It’s not him,” the baker said.
“It’s him! He admitted it to us, sir,” Quinn said, taking up an affected sort of sales pose. “I did not,” said Nicholas from the cart. Quinn cuffed him through the netting, but the boy just glared back.
The baker leaned close to Nicholas. “Are you the boy who made off with my bread?” he growled.
“Yes,” said Nicholas, and braced himself.
“Why did you steal from me?”
“I’m from Gillingham. My father died a month ago and I had nothing to eat.”
“Why didn’t you beg for it?”
“I don’t want anything more to do with people. They all turn black and die.”
The baker looked suddenly serious, and nodded. “That’s not untrue. Probably why you’re still alive. The Black Death has been everywhere this season. You’ve got no boils? No spots? No sign?”
Nicholas shook his head from inside the net.
The baker stood up and glared at Quinn, who jumped a little. “What do you want for catching him?”
Quinn smiled coquettishly. “Sir, a pound. He’s handsome and healthy. I could get that for him from any of his other victims, sir, to be sure, victims who suffered far more at his hands than the loss of a few loaves of bread.”
The baker’s face grew sour, and his lip quivered with suppressed anger. “I’ll tell you what, Mr. Quinn, I’ll give you sixpence for your trouble, and if you say yes and nothing else at all, I may be persuaded not to tell my brother about your adventures in child-stealing for Mr. Jolly, although that is not a promise. And now, your answer is --”
Quinn’s shocked face revealed a mind that was working at triple speed. “Yes,” he managed to mutter out at the end of his interminable pondering.
“That’s correct, and not another word or you’ll wish you died of the Scourge,” the baker said in a harsh tone. “Come by the shop tomorrow for your pay. And leave the cart.”
Quinn moved as if to protest, with Tum reaching for his arm -- the baker held up his hand. “Yes? You wish to lodge a complaint? I beg it of you, please. Say anything you will.”
Quinn glowered, gave up and turned away. As he trudged through the field away from the house, he turned to shoot a murderous look at Tum, who dragged along behind him as slowly as possible.
Once the two were out of sight the baker found the relevant knot in the net and began tugging at it. He peered at the boy through the shag. “Do you know what the penalty for thievery is in Kent, boy?” he asked, not unkindly.
“Yes,” said the boy sullenly. “That’s right,” said the baker. “And so, when I tell you that you’re going to be worked harder than you’ve ever been in your life, you know what your choices are.” He finished with the rough knot, loosened the cinch rope and opened the net. The boy wriggled out and rolled stiffly off the cart with wary eyes.
“I can work,” said the boy mistrustfully. The baker nodded. “We’ll see if you can hold up your end,” he replied. “You’ll do everything I tell you without a bit of groaning, you’ll eat what I eat, sleep where I show you to sleep. You work dawn until dusk, and you won’t ever have to see anyone but meself and Rohesia. She minds the shop and does all the cooking.”
The baker looked at the boy with serious eyes, the question unasked. “I can work,” said the boy, solemnly.
“All right then,” said the baker.
And work Nicholas did. He had thought his family had been hard laborers but the baker kept him running to the point of exhaustion. He never complained or slowed down, always chopping wood for the ovens, farming, hauling barrels of water and flour. He rose with the sun and went to bed after sunset and dinner, which was the high point of his day. Because it was at dinner that he could be near Rohesia.
Rohesia was older than him, probably ten, and the first time he saw her he thought he had never seen anyone so beautiful in all his life. She ran the store in the village, did all the cleaning, and was an excellent cook. Nicholas spent his dinners in a mixture of exhaustion and ecstasy, stealing glances at Rohesia as she bustled around the table in the bakery while he and the baker ate by the light of a few candles. Sometimes the baker instructed her to bring water out to him during the hottest part of the day as he was working in the fields, and these visits were the most important of all to him. They could be somewhat alone together, even if just for a moment, and it was during one of these stolen moments that Nicholas spoke his first words to her: “My name is Nicholas Owen, and I would like to marry you.”
She laughed, which made him blush with the awful sting of rejection -- but she was not laughing harshly, and when she realized he was serious and had been mortally wounded, she stopped. “Oh,” she said. “I’m sorry for laughing.” She thought for a moment, looked him over. “All right,” she said. “We’ll be married.” And she smile a beatific smile at him that made Nicholas nearly faint, and that was the end of that, period. After that moment he found the hardest and dirtiest work to be an absolute pleasure, and he thought dinner to be the definition of heaven.
Rohesia would often cast small secret glances his way that made his heart pound like a bass drum. The baker seemed not to notice, being far more interested in the art of consuming a great deal of butter, gravy, and beer. As the seasons began to change Nicholas and Rohesia found new and clever ways of meeting in places where they could be alone. For a precious five or ten minutes they would hold hands and talk quietly. Once Rohesia kissed him, which seemed to make his whole body go numb for days, in a good way.
Winter was difficult for them, since most of the work was done inside, and they found less time to be alone. The baker was always present, and only the rare trip out to the storage barn for another barrel of flour or a trip to the nearly-frozen creek to fetch water gave them any chance at all. Still , they were warm and well-fed, and life could have been much, much worse. The moments they managed to steal together became even more thrilling, often causing Nicholas to be seated at the table struggling to stop the spinning in his head as the baker returned.
Spring came, and the hard labor of farming began again. Nicholas didn’t mind this at all; Rohesia found more ways to visit him in the field at various times during the day, to bring him secret treats and whisper in his ear. He thought he had never been so happy in all his life. He was growing stronger everyday, inside and out. He loved the smell of fresh-baked bread, and he was becoming good at the craft. The baker never struck him and sometimes even complimented his work, which always made Nicholas exceedingly proud.
One day the baker asked Nicholas to take the bread cart into town and stock the store by himself. This was a great extension of trust, and Nicholas resolved to earn this gesture. He nodded a serious goodbye to Rohesia and, carefully piling the cart high with baskets full of freshly-baked loaves, began to trundle along the well-worn cartway that led from the bakery and farm to the store in town.
Halfway there, disaster struck. The cart threw a wheel and overturned, the baskets tumbling into the mud. The bread loaves spilled out and bounced all around in the brown mush of the tracks, and Nicholas gave out a strangled cry as he realized how much work and time had gone into this load. It was irreparable. He was mortified. The baker would be apocalyptic with rage, anything could happen -- and what would Rohesia think of him?
He had nowhere else to go, he would have to face up. He finally mustered up enough courage to fix the cart wheel and gather up as many of the less-filthy loaves as he could from the muck. The walk back home was slow and painful, and he felt lower than he had ever felt in his life, at least until he actually walked through the door of the bakery and found the baker sitting on the bench by the table with Rohesia on his lap, his hand probing between her legs, his lips working against her neck. Her eyes were wide with fear and shock, and when she looked at Nicholas, it was with a pleading helplessness that broke his heart.
Nicholas did not know what to do. He stood inside the doorway and stared at the horrifying tableau until the baker suddenly realized he was in the room. The man quickly withdrew his hand and pushed Rohesia away from him, first acting guilty and startled, then growing angry. “What are you doing just standing there? What happened? Where’s the bloody cart?” the baker barked at Nicholas.
Nicholas did not answer. He was looking at Rohesia, who wasn’t looking back at him now, but at the ground. He could see that she was crying, and it made him grow grim with rage.
The baker waited for only a moment before acting. He stood up and walked at Nicholas with a clear intent to strike him, but the boy backed out of the doorway and in the direction of the cart. As fast as the baker strode forward the boy backed away, until they finally reached the cart and he slid around the handles, grateful to put anything at all between him and the baker.
The baker had stopped and was now looking at the mess piled on the cart, a full day’s labor covered in mud. “What?!” shrieked the baker. “You dolt! The entire load? I’ll horsewhip you for this! You bastard --”
Nicholas replied with a strong voice, crouched low behind the bread cart, ready to dodge any fist that came flying his way. “The wheel came off in the worst place. I couldn’t stop it. I saved what I could,” he tried to say in an even voice.
The baker was so exasperated by this comment that he was struck speechless. For a long moment the man and the boy regarded each other; in the end, it was the man who broke the gaze.
“A full day’s work,” the baker said. “Wasted.”
Nicholas now had a hard face, however, and said nothing. The baker flinched at this open rebellion and held up his hands.
“Be that as it may. Whatever you thought you saw, I think you should know now that Rohesia and I are to be married, so all is fair and proper, you understand,” said the baker. He had transformed from raging monster to a fair and gentle man of reason in the space of two sentences, and Nicholas knew why.
“She’s only ten,” said Nicholas.
The baker hardened his face now. “These are bad times, and we have to replace the people who’ve died. Now, I’ve asked for her hand in marriage, and she’s said yes. I’m as much the law in this land as any man, and I say it’s done. So you’d best keep your mouth shut about it, or I’ll turn you over to the constable for your thievery. He’s a friend of mine, you know. Works for my brother.”
Nicholas responded by baring his teeth. This infuriated the baker, and he moved to charge around the cart -- but his round head suddenly appeared to vibrate as if it had been rung like a bell, and he collapsed and fell to the ground.
Rohesia was revealed behind him, pulling the big firewood axe out of his head with a strange squeak, its blade dark with blood. And grayish streaks --
The baker now lay crumpled and completely still on the ground. Nicholas moved around the cart and looked down at the body cautiously, but for nothing -- the man was clearly dead. Rohesia had swung the axe blade into the back of his head with all her might, and it had been more than enough.
She was still gripping the axe with traumatized fury when she realized that Nicholas was standing next to her, asking her for the axe.
“I would have found a way if you hadn’t,” he said. “And I’ll protect you now, Rohesia. I’ll never leave your side again, not by any man’s word,” he said in his deepest voice, and she let him take the bloody weapon from her grip. He tossed it aside and put his hands on her shoulders, turning her towards him so that she had to look in his eyes.
“We have to go now, dear,” he said. “His brother’s the lord high sheriff and they’ll be after us. We need to pack up everything we can and run.”
She nodded and looked down into his eyes, then looked over at the body on the ground next to them. “We’ll have to hide him somewhere,” she said shakily. Nicholas nodded.
“I’ll do it,” he said in a no-nonsense voice. “You go get some food together. I’ll fix the wheel. We can pack everything we need on the cart, take the small roads around Maidstone along the Medway to get to the Thames, get across somehow and head north out of Kentish country into Essex. My father once said it was nicer up north. We’ll find a safe place there.”
Rohesia nodded, still trembling. “All right,” she said. “I love you, Nicholas,” she suddenly added.
“Will you really marry me then?” he asked with a slight smile.
“Every day,” she replied, and turned to go back into the bakery.
When she had gone inside Nicholas looked down at the body of the baker. He picked up the axe, examined the blade, looked back at the dead man with an odd gaze. “Neither of us was expecting that, were we?” he muttered. “Right. Rope. I need rope.”
He stepped over the body and headed for the storage lean-to where the farming tools were kept. Before an hour had passed no trace remained of the baker, the cart had been loaded, and they were ready to leave. Rohesia let the chickens go free and locked all the doors while Nicholas added a few last-minute additions to the load, including most of the baker’s clothing and rough-weather gear, a few knives, and an ancient short sword the baker had kept by his bed. He also added the axe, after washing it off in a bucket.
Both of them dressed to make themselves look older. Rohesia was wearing a dark hooded cloak, Nicholas the baker’s slouch hat and boots, both of which were ridiculously large on him but there was nothing for it. They gave each other a long look, then set out on their journey without another word.
It took them a week to work their way around Maidstone, moving only at times that most people were either still asleep or sitting down to dinner, hugging the Medway until Nicholas thought it was time to strike out north for the Thames. They hid most of the time, carefully scouting out the best spots and camouflaging the cart with great care. The first few days spent huddled beneath the wheels seemed like heaven to Nicholas; his situation was far worse than it had been when he had built his nest in the Crack, but he had someone with him now and it made all the difference. Someone he loved like this, even more.
At first, both of them felt nervous about their new proximity. They had never spent so much time together, or in such close quarters, and it was very much a new thing for both of them. They would lie beneath the well-hidden cart and quietly talk the day away, and as the time passed Rohesia discovered that Nicholas was a kind and gentle soul that she could trust, and Nicholas discovered that she was a strong and wise person that he could trust, and in this fashion they slowly grew their first secret pledge into something deeper and more real.
Crossing the river was a necessary but difficult proposition. The crossings were generally populated and tolls were charged; they had money they had taken from the baker, but they couldn’t risk contact with other people. The two of them scouted along the river for some other place to cross without success. They finally decided that they would have to build a raft somehow and cross from upriver at night. They would have to pole across before the current carried them down to one of the ferry crossings or populated quays. None of the boats they could steal would carry the cart, but Nicholas had seen how a raft was made before and thought he understood the principle.
They hid themselves in a brushy forest beyond the traveled paths, carefully disguising the cart so that it could not be seen unless someone walked into it. Once their hiding place was secure they began to go out at night to steal fence-rails and any other long pieces of wood that that they could carry off. By shielded lamplight they used rope to weave the pieces into the large raft they began building next to the river. They disguised the construction area as well as they could, although it would clear that it would not escape more than a casual search. Nicholas knew from a trip with his father that they were south of a crossing called Gravesend, and just below a narrow section of the Thames. Ten miles downriver near his hometown the Thames widened to over a mile across before reaching the Channel, and they would only had a few miles to drift before they would be in sight of the next ferry crossing.
Of the two of them only Nicholas had ever been free. Rohesia was a baby dropped off at an orphanage in London after a wave of the Black Death had swept through and decimated the population of the city; the baker had literally purchased her eight years later, and for much less than he had paid for Nicholas. Children without parents were everywhere, of all ages, and generally inexpensive. Pets cost more than a child, and a child who was bought but would not or could not work could soon be replaced. What happened to the replaced child was of little concern. Often they just disappeared. People were dying everywhere every single day in these troubled times, and who could keep up with it all?
Now, Rohesia and Nicholas were suddenly free together. It was exhilarating, terrifying, sobering, transformational. Their joy was always tinged with terrible fear; murderers were often publically tortured, to the great glee of the citizenry. Nicholas had once seen a man hanging in a cage in Maidstone; his father had told him he had committed rape. Quartering, disembowelment, roasting -- both of them had all this beneath their minds as they built their raft and hid their days away beneath their cart.
They were surrounded by death and expected death, and this made their time together burn more brightly than normal human lives. By the time they were ready to cross the river the promise of marriage had become a fact of life, and even though no cleric had pronounced it so, they knew it to be true in their hearts that they would always be together.
The afternoon of the night they planned to cross changed all their plans for them. They were sleeping well-hidden beneath their cart when Nicholas awoke to the sound of someone stepping carefully through the brush. He stilled his breath and looked to Rohesia -- she was awake as well now, and listening in silence. The step circled around them, no more than five or six feet away, surely whoever it was had seen them -- but they did not. The sounds wandered past them, and Nicholas allowed himself to breathe again. A moment later, however, they heard a voice -- a man’s voice, and another answering him, and the sound of the voices froze Nicholas to his bones.
Tum. Tum and Quinn, his captors, the men who had caught and sold him to the bakers. They were professional manhunters; of course the Sheriff of Kent would place a bounty on the heads of his brother’s killers. Of course Quinn and Tum would be scouring England for them. Nicholas had not thought it all through, had not realized that private forces would be competing for the prize. They should have hurried more, he realized. Their closeness had been an intoxicant, and now they were trapped on the wrong side of the river.
“They’re around here somewhere,” Quinn was saying quietly no more than fifteen feet away from their hiding place.
“We should just wait by the raft,” Tum whispered. “It’s theirs for certain. They’ll try to cross.”
“But when?” replied Quinn. “Let’s split up. You stay hidden by the raft, and I’ll be searching this back brush. They’re hidden somewhere close by, I can smell ‘em. Go quiet as a mouse.”
Nicholas heard Tum leave, less by his footsteps than the swishing sound of the brushes he couldn’t slip through. Soon there was only Quinn, and his steps grew so quiet that Nicholas quit breathing again. After awhile he could hear nothing at all; either the man had moved on past their hideaway or was waiting in ambush. There was no way for them to tell.
Rohesia stayed utterly still. She leaned over and barely whispered into his ear : “We have to swim.”
Nicholas nodded at her in the near-darkness. “We should take what we can carry,” he said, barely more than moving his lips. Rohesia answered back in the slightest murmur. “The food, and the axe,” she said. He raised his eyebrows at her, and she made a funny face and kissed him, and suddenly Nicholas knew they were going to get across the river somehow.
There was enough space between the cart-handles for one of them to reach their supplies without being seen, and they slowly assembled a tightly-wrapped bundle for each of them. Nicholas rigged up a makeshift harness to strap the old sword and the axe to his body. Rohesia made a separate bundle for things that she didn’t want to do without, but that she could abandon in a pinch. Within half an hour they were ready, and listening for any sign of Quinn with tense anticipation -- but they heard nothing.
Rohesia crawled through their wall of camouflage first, and tried to keep the disguised cart between them and where they had last heard Quinn. No one interrupted them as they wriggled through the brush, sometimes pausing to listen for sounds of pursuit. Before long they were within sight of the river, downstream from their raft-building area. A long fifteen minutes later they were at the water’s edge, hidden behind a small stand of overarching trees watching the sluggish flow of the wide river with sudden doubt.
“It’s a long way,” said Nicholas. “We can make it,” she replied. “Don’t worry.” She smiled at him, and they made their way into the shallows as quietly as possible. The water was cold, but not freezing. Nicholas lost his footing after a bit, and then Rohesia, and they began to float down the river. “Kick,” said Rohesia quietly, and with their bundles bobbing ahead of them, they began to swim across the waterway.
When they were twenty yards from the shore Tum finally saw them and shouted. Nicholas turned to look back and saw the thin man joined by the much rounder one. Quinn didn’t shout; he just stood and watched, thinking. Once Nicholas was certain the men weren’t going to follow he turned back and began to swim again. Rohesia hadn’t stopped, and he had to kick hard to catch up with her and her twin bobbing bundles.
“They’ll run for the bridge,” Rohesia said through drawn breaths. “We have to hurry.” Nicholas pulled up alongside of her and settled into a steady stroke, his eyes on the far shore. “It’s a few miles up,” he replied, “and they’re not runners. We’ll make it.”
She said nothing, but when he looked over at her she was smiling at him. He smiled back, and they swam the rest of the distance without another word. They had drifted several miles down the river by the time they reached the far shore, and although Nicholas thought the distance made for a safe margin, he agreed with Rohesia’s insistence that they work their way north for awhile before stopping to dry off or rest. Off into the trackless woods they plunged, pushing through stands of oak and fir, bramble and brush. Within a few hours they felt temporarily safe enough from the long reach of Kentish justice and its two mercenaries to stop and find a safe place to rest.
That night the stars shone bright above their new-made hidden bower, and they held each other close for warmth beneath a pile of everything they owned, even the still-wet things. The night air was sharp and crisp, but their combined body heat soon warmed their impromptu nest, and they slept as well as they ever had in their short lives. During the morning they stayed hidden and talked in their quietest whisper about where and how they were going to go. Before long a clear plan emerged: north.
Nicholas managed to get a small fire going, just enough to dry their clothes. Before noon they packed it all up and set out through the woods once more. They were looking for a safe place to stay permanently; somewhere the baker’s brother could never find them, and where they might keep themselves out of the reach of any more adults who might try to force them into another term of servitude or separate them. Their newfound freedom burned so brightly that they swore to keep it at all costs.
Always well-hidden by day, moving before dawn or just after sunset, they worked their way through the less-traveled forest paths. There was some food to find in the deep woods, and reasonably safe places to sleep in the boughs of the larger trees far from the trail. It was hard living, but they were together. When they were hidden safely away the warmth between them was as spiritual as it was physical, and this closeness kept them strong and committed each day to their shared vision of a new free life.
Nicholas had thought it might take a few weeks of careful searching to find the right place. In the end it took three months of narrow escapes and harrowing, dangerous adventure before they found safe haven. The Kentish had not given up pursuit in the slightest, and they often found themselves stuffed into insect-infested bushes for hours while the sheriff’s men searched every inch of the forest around them. It became clear that they must travel beyond all reach of the Sheriff of Kent, or they would certainly be caught, tried and executed.
Hide all day, crawl through the pitch-black forest at night, day after day, mile after mile. Not until August did they exhaustedly stumble onto what would become their final home, a farm on the coast of the northern part of Essex whose inhabitants had all died in the same wave of the black Death that had taken Gillingham. The farm was quite remote and ringed by a particularly thick wood, but the plague had found its way in somehow. No one had ever stopped by to check on the place since the family that had cleared the land was known to be markedly hostile to all outsiders and quick to violence. It was a perfect place for two fugitives to land, and they both knew they had finally arrived when they saw the clearly empty house.
There were a few early problems. Nicholas and Rohesia spent many of the first days tripping over long-dead corpses, which necessitated the digging of many ditches for the disposal of the remains. The smell lingered for awhile and made the house unpleasant at midday, but with the fall rains and Rohesia’s incessant attempts to clean every surface, the simple one-room farmhouse and its domain became their own after a time.
The winter was long, and their survival quite narrow. Nicholas fished in the nearby ocean and hunted in the deep woods. Rohesia dug for roots, and finally found a cache of stored dried food left behind by the surly former farmers that saw them through to the thaw. A well dug inside an attached room provided water, and there was plenty of wood stacked beneath a collapsed lean-to to burn in the main fireplace. In the early spring Nicholas discovered a buried stone vault behind the house full of stored seed of all types, and resolved to return to farming. He resurrected the plow, tilled, sewed, and watered -- and the first harvest was enormous, beyond anything they could consume themselves. Soon the grinding wheel Rohesia refurbished was producing a fine flour that Nicholas used to bake flatbread.
At the height of spring the surrounding forest was full of berries, the little inlet down by the shore full of fish, and a newly-uncovered old garden spontaneously sprouted vegetables. The farm began to seem like their own little magic kingdom and by the following fall they knew they were certainly going to survive, probably quite well.
Sometime in October, Nicholas left the farm with a tall backpack full of the best of their bounty to try to find a local trading spot where he might acquire certain things they desperately needed. This turned out to be the village of Colchester, some twenty miles through deep forest from their farm. Large enough to have a castle keep and a central trading market full of strangers from all over Essex, it was perfect for their needs. Fifty or sixty merchants of all things imaginable haggled and bartered in an area made up of some rickety wooden booths and aged tents on the edge of town. Nicholas sold everything he had in his pack for what seemed like a fortune, and no one said a word about his age or his overly large boots. He began to make the journey often, sometimes more than once a month, and by the following spring he was able to purchase a small but sturdy cart that increased his income considerably, allowing him to carry far more of their produce to the market. He began to go weekly, and quickly developed a group of steady buyers.
By late fall he was bringing home bolts of fine cloth and all manner of tools and sundries and seeds and spices. One afternoon Rohesia declared that she had at that moment realized that she was happier than she had ever been in her entire life. Nicholas replied that this was true for him as well, and that night Rohesia made a sumptuous feast which Nicholas declared the finest ever experienced on earth by anyone. When they went to bed that night, they burrowed beneath the covers and held each other tight, their body heat radiating in the darkness, their joy beaming out like an electric current through the depths of the ancient forest as it would every night for the rest of their lives.
Another year went by, and then another. They worked hard to restore the farm, and for the most part succeeded. Winters were difficult to bear because of the frequent coastal storms, but the summers were ecstatically beautiful. They would do their chores in the morning and retire to the seaside to swim everyday. They slept well in a proper bed they had built, ate the freshest and best-tasting meals made from things they had grown, and had all the time in the world to be together whenever they wanted to.
Nicholas brought home a massive new kettle and a great wooden half-barrel to fill with hot water for baths. Rohesia’s culinary skills grew with each week as she experimented with spices from the village, and the house was often filled with the dream-inducing scents of cinnamon and thyme. Nicholas built a larger bread oven while Rohesia expanded the vegetable garden, and soon they were supplying fresh produce along with their legendary bread to many neighboring hamlets and estates.
Nicholas began to know a few people from the Colchester quite well, especially the man who served as his main local distributor, but he never offered to invite anyone home. Both Rohesia and Nicholas still felt vulnerable and had agreed to take no chances, none at all. Only Nicholas would travel, and only then to deliver to Colchester and return with supplies. They disguised the turnoff to the farm, replanting shrubs and blocking the path with bramble and fallen trees so that only they knew the true path. It was enough. No one invaded their privacy, and the months went by in heavenly pastoral solitude.
Another few years passed them by as they lived in their very-nearly-perfect private dreamworld. The winters became easier after they rebuilt and insulated the house, and built a neatly-designed stone fireplace/stove based on one Nicholas had seen in the Colchester Arms. It even had a little door for scooping out ashes from outside the house, and a kind of iron heat-screen that would grow hot and radiate out to every snug corner of their little villa. A massively thick down comforter Nicholas had paid dearly for kept them absolutely warm all night, no matter the severity of the weather battering at the eaves.
Nicholas grew tall and strong from the rigors of his farmwork while Rohesia grew more beautiful and lithe from hers. When she began to show her pregnancy they were alarmed. Neither had any experience with such things, and a great deal of fear was felt by both until Nicholas took Rohesia with him to the village for the first time to ask the advice of an ancient woman from whom everyone sought potions and healing poultices.
The old woman laughed when she heard the source of their panic, and sat them down to calmly explain how it all worked, and what was going to happen, and how long it would take. She promised to help, and assured them that she had presided over hundreds of births for many generations. Almost everyone alive in Colchester had passed through her hands on their first day, she assured them, including the current Lord of Colchester.
By the time she finished telling them the facts of their condition, Nicholas was beaming and Rohesia was flushed and radiant. They returned to the farm excited and full of plans, and started in on everything all at once, fixing up the house and making room for a new arrival some five months before the fact. Rohesia began to make all journeys to Colchester with him – he found he could not bear to leave her alone for another moment. And this was just fine; everyone was pleased to finally meet the woman whose boysenberry jam was the most stupendous substance on earth. The wife of the distributor even threw her a baby-gift party, and Rohesia found herself in the company of other women for the first time since her childhood.
By the fifth month of her pregnancy Rohesia still worked as hard as Nicholas, but in the eighth month she agreed to retire and spent her time walking around the garden and napping. Nicholas thought she looked more like an angel everyday, beatific and glowing, the very center of his universe. He declared that she could no longer travel; he arranged with the distributor to pick up the loads at a predetermined place on the road much nearer the farm. The man was more than happy to comply; business was better than ever, his wife was happy, his children were healthy, and this young couple was responsible for it.
A week later the ancient woman from the town emerged from the forest to check on them. She appeared to have had no trouble finding her way to the farm without any help. “I knew these people,” she said ominously, and sniffed as she looked around. “Not the kindest cut, but they worked hard. It’s good land. Close to the sea, good and bad in that.” She looked piercingly at Nicholas. “All were dead? And you buried them?”
Nicholas nodded solemnly. “They’d been dead a long time,” he said.
The old woman nodded. “Aye,” she agreed. “Had to be in the last wave, I saw them between. None as bad as the old years, though, that one winter took the whole town, never so bad as that. Felt like the end of the world, it did. But all my life I’ve seen it come, again and again, until you think that there must be a curse on this life, something we did to made it happen.” She shook her head. “None in the world can know. To live is to be ignorant of the truth.” The woman smiled her toothless smile. “But you’ve done a fine job with the farm, I can see. Young as you are, you work hard. Good on you, I say.”
“Will you stay with us?” Rohesia asked, trying not to plead. The woman nodded at her with deep wisdom in her eyes. “Won’t be but two weeks more, might be sooner,” she said, “and I’ll stay with you until then.”
One beautiful summer night two days later Rohesia gave birth to twins, baby boys who were big and healthy and loud. Nicholas was trembling with joy and stress by the time it was all over (he had never imagined anything like that), and the old woman put her hand on his shoulder. Her touch was warm and instantly calming. “You’ll be fine now. Remember what I’ve told you, do it all exactly like I told you, and you’ll be just fine,” she said. “I’ll be back to check on you in two days time.” Nicholas could only nod. Rohesia lay on the bed holding her newborn sons, pale and exhausted. “Thank you so much,” she whispered hoarsely to the old woman. “We’ll repay your kindness however we can for the rest of our lives.”
The woman held up her hands. “I know true love when I see it, and I know good people. It is in my charge to help for no reason. Perhaps the next time you come to town you could bring a loaf of bread to an old woman.”
“I shall bring you a cartload of bread,” vowed Nicholas, and so he did the following week, along with a stream of other goods and gifts. To them the old woman was the first person they felt they could trust besides each other; she had rescued them and helped them become a family. So it was that they resolved to drop off a box of bread and vegetables every week from then on, forever. They agreed to name one of the boys Nicholas, in the Owens of Gillingham tradition; Rohesia insisted that the old woman name the other boy. The ancient healer thanked them for the honor and chose the name Bartholomew, after a childhood friend. Thus did Nicholas and Bartholomew Owens enter the world in the steady care of their loving parents, and their names were inked upon the Colchester Tally by the ancient village scribe.
The first few weeks were harder on their nerves than they expected. Whenever the boys cried they seemed to wail in harmony, making the sound seemed to triple in volume. One would cry and the other would start, and Rohesia had trouble with breastfeeding them until the old woman reappeared at the farm as if summoned, and gave her a few bits of advice that helped enormously. A month went by before they slept through their first night, and when Rohesia woke the next morning it was with a bolt of panic. She sat straight up in bed and hyperventilated until Nicholas checked on the boys in their handmade crib and assured her that all was well.
When the twins were three months old, Nicholas and Rohesia brought them to town for the old woman to examine after a particularly bad night. The malady proved to be nothing more than the early onset of teething, for which the old woman prescribed a white powder to be rubbed on the gums with a fingertip. She showed them how, and the boys quieted down and stared at her entranced as she made funny faces for them.
After another month they personally delivered their gifts for the old woman and then dropped by the market to pick up an important load of supplies – this time with their boys safely buckled into a special seat on the wagon. This minor act brought trading at the Colchester market to an abrupt end and instantly changed their future. All of the traders who normally dealt with Nicholas viewed him favorably and made a large demonstration until he presented his sons to them, which he finally did with no small amount of pride once Rohesia agreed. They were all rough men, some honest, all of them fathers, and Nicholas became now fully accepted into the ranks of Colchester merchant life. The babies were passed around, and Rohesia was admired and complimented by all.
And that would have been the end of the matter but for one shadow -- the darkly obscure man watching them from the unseen edge of the happy, uproarious event.
His name was Ger, pronounced with a soft ‘G’, and he was not a man like the other men. No one paid any attention to him at all; it was as if he were invisible. Even Nicholas had never ‘seen’ him, though their paths had crossed a hundred times. Ger’s heavy hood and the insignia on his greasy robe marked him as invisible to anyone who recognized their meaning: Here Stands A Leper. And true enough, he was a leper. The growths had begun during his thirteenth year and had resisted all cures and surgeries. Now scarred and discolored skin grew in dramatic sweeps and folds across his face and body. He could still see and hear, and feel for the most part, unlike many other man afflicted with the disease.
Certainly inside he felt a great deal. He had been an intelligent and inquisitive boy, an artist, and had been taught to read by his father. His rejection by his family and humanity had not left him bitter or angry, but instead somewhat mystified. What sin had he committed? He had done nothing. Why then had he been afflicted? At some length of pondering and study he had come to the conclusion that it didn’t matter. It had happened, it was unalterable, and he would have to walk this path somehow. As bravely as he could, and with any amount of joy he could discover or produce.
The first lesions had been mild. When a barber had identified it as leprosy, his mother had fainted and his father had cried. They cast him out after consulting the abbot of St. John’s, a corpulent and beady-eyed little man who had solemnly stated that the church held that leprosy was a state of mortal sin, and that Ger was now a pawn of the devil and must be shunned for it. His father had doubted this advice, but his mother had grown hysterical and demanded that Ger be murdered for the shame brought upon their family. Ger’s father had instead reluctantly led his son out of town and told him to never return. A constable was waiting there bearing the marked robe and the clapper Ger would be required to carry and sound loudly at all times, so that travelers might know a leper was about. The constable’s distaste for the matter was clear as he beat Ger senseless with a metalled club over the mild protestations of his father, and that was the last time Ger was ‘seen’ by anyone. He had awoken painfully some hours later in the dark with horrible wounds, cast around on his hands and knees for his robe and clapper and crawled into the woods to hide until daylight.
The morning light revealed that he was covered in blood and filth, and could no longer see out of one eye. Ger thought about trying to kill himself; he could not. The shame of his cowardice drove him to act. He shadowed the road until he found a creek where he could clean himself and think about where he could go to be safe and still comply with the law. And the answer he arrived at had proven to be quite good in the end, essentially. South of Colchester was the reeking garbage dump used by the inhabitants of the town for centuries; all manner of foulness made the area little-visited and free from casual observance, and he found that as long as he stayed near the back of it no one bothered him at all. The stench did not bother him overly, except for the spring after one terrible winter many years ago during which the corpses of more than fifteen hundred local victims of the pestilence had been stacked beneath an inch of dirt and left to rot. Ger had eventually been driven from his camp and into the forest for the rest of that year. He still carried the awful scent in his memory. So sharp it had been, and deeply horrifying to some basic creature inside him.
He had not been unhappy, just lonely. He discovered that as long as he was wearing the robe and hood, people pretended not to see him; as long as he avoided the constables and kept his head down Ger had the run of the village. And even though no one would ever look at him, he often found parcels of food shoved at him from arm’s length. He accepted these gratefully. He managed to survive in this manner, had even watched his parents in the market without them knowing, and had almost accepted his fate as it was when Fate intervened and brought him Gul.
Gul was Ger’s wife. She was also a leper, somewhat older and more encrusted with scar tissue than Ger. She had not come from the town but had grown up in a leper house some miles to the north, abandoned there by someone before she was old enough to remember. The nuns in charge of the house had been quite cruel in their kindness, and Gul had run away often, always to be brought back by the constables and punished for her wickedness with restraints and the strap. Her final attempt had been about to fail when she was spotted in Colchester by Ger, who acted immediately to distract the constables and hide Gul beneath a pile of wool cuttings until he devised a way to smuggle her out of town. When he succeeded in this and had taken her to his camp behind the dump, she had declared him the kindest and bravest man she had ever met, and they had fallen instantly in love. Gul’s terrible disfigurements meant nothing to Ger, who saw her as quite beautiful, and he came to feel in time that perhaps his condition had meant something after all, that he would never have met her otherwise.
They could not have children. They tried, but Gul’s age and their condition had apparently made it impossible. A child was the only thing Gul had ever wanted that she did not already have, and so Ger had promised that he would provide one somehow. It had so far proven impossible for him; no one would sell a baby or a child to a leper. So it was that when Nicholas and Rohesia had shown off their incredibly healthy-looking twin boys, Ger had resolved that one of them would be Gul’s. He banished all thoughts of guilt from his mind by reminding himself that they had two, and focusing on the image of Gul cradling one of the babies. He was the man, it was his role to provide for her, and he would become a father if he had to lift the world to do it.
It was nothing for him to track the young couple to their hidden farm; he was used to being the shadow. Once he knew where they were, he began to plan, and scout. He spent many hours watching the farmhouse from the deep wood, hoping for a moment when the babies would be left alone, and he could simply snatch one up and disappear with it. This moment did not arrive. He began spending long hours through the night hidden in the wood just at the bottom of the small hill the main house sat on. The house was the half-timbered masonry style, with large shuttered windows in front and back that Ger could see movement through when the candles were lit. The gaps in the slats were enough that he could always hear their conversation clearly.
They never left the babies alone, not for a second. Nicholas worked in the fields, but never so far that he could not hear Rohesia call for him and dash to her aid. They went often to the sea, but Nicholas always took a small sword with him. Ger was larger than the boy, but not by much, and the sword looked real. Ger had seen Rohesia chopping firewood with an axe; she would not be defenseless. Together they were a match for any single man, and so weeks went by while Ger tried in vain to think of tricky plan. Everything he could think of was too dangerous either for himself or the baby.
In the end, it was not trickery that let Ger succeed, but catastrophe.
One late afternoon Ger was watching an empty house. Rohesia had taken the babies down to the shore, and Nicholas was still working in the fields. The sky was growing dim, and a slight afternoon breeze blew fresh air through the trees he was hidden behind. He heard Rohesia screaming probably at the same time as Nicholas, but Ger saw her first. She was running as fast as she could up the trail from the shore carrying the bundled infants beneath her arms and shouting for Nicholas as loudly as she could. From Ger’s vantage point behind and below the house, he could see a short stretch of the trail to the left around the hill, well enough to see the terror on the young girl’s face.
Rohesia disappeared from his view racing up to the house. Behind her, seven men in dark leather jerkins, some with Spanish features, others Italian, one Moor -- Ger’s blood froze. Corsairs. The worst kind of pirates, and a harbinger of absolute disaster. The Black Death could take a whole village; Corsairs would take the whole village and enslave them, selling the women for sex and the children for servitude, and torturing and murdering the men for sport. Once he looked for it he could see the tips of their masts through the treetops behind them, and even though he had never seen such a thing before, he knew exactly what it meant for the young couple.
The little Aegean island of Minorca had for hundreds of years now sent forth fast raiders to pillage and plunder the coasts of France and England. Slaves, livestock, food, bounty -- they rounded the coasts of Spain and Portugal to scrape the coasts of the Channel for anything of value, constantly, mercilessly, and with great success. Too fast for either the French or British navies, they operated with impunity in coastal waters, striking hard and fast at small farms and villages lining the coast, rotating in order every few years to allow the inhabitants to rebuild from the last raid. They were a frequent and unavoidable hazard for any coastal dweller. And today they had come here.
Ger could do nothing but witness the horror. He heard the Corsairs break down the door of the farmhouse, heard the girl’s screams, and the dark laughter of the men. He saw the back shutters of the house fly open, and the two shapes that arched out from the window and tumbled halfway down the slope. More cruel laughter. He heard the girl shout, and the roar of pain from one of the men inside the house -- the girl had struck back somehow. Then Ger heard the boy father’s shouts echoing across the valley, racing to rescue his mate and reach his end.
The two forms that came to rest on the back slope were making noise and moving. The Corsairs had thrown the bundled babies out the window. One of the boys was no more than twenty feet up the hill from Ger; the other had rolled down sideways and landed a few dozen yards to the west, close to the forest.
From the house came horrible sounds of brutality and murder. Ger could almost see what was happening, but after a moment he had to turn away. He had to force himself not to flee into the forest; the stories filled his heart with dread, but the babies -- Gul would be so happy, he had to stay, he had to succeed -- he would have to stay hidden, wait for the moment, certainly they would have no use for the infants --
The silence that followed was punctuated only by the groans of several men and sharp orders from a leader; clearly the child parents had taken a toll before they were cut down. Now cabinets were being opened, tables overturned, hampers emptied. Below the back window in the deepening shadows the babies were squirming, still in their wraps, crying weakly. Ger was amazed that they had survived the fall and tumble at all, but it would not do for the sounds to attract any further attention from the men in the house. He realized he would have to act now, before darkness could cloak him, and his heart began to race. This was the Moment, and Gul was depending on him.
A sound, in the trees to his right -- Ger edged forward as far as he dared and peered through the bushes down the line of the forest. He saw a shape pushing out from the tree line, realized it was a large animal of some sort creeping out to examine the one baby closer to the trees -- Ger looked up at the window, thought quickly, acted instantly. He pushed out from the bushes and stayed low to the ground, crawling quickly on all fours up the hill until he reached the infant closest to him. Tucking the child beneath his arm, he turned toward the other one and slid down the hill toward the trees. His intent was to frighten the animal away, grab the second baby and disappear into the woods as quietly as possible.
Ger hissed at the creature -- he could not see it clearly against the deep shade of the forest, but he moved towards it threateningly, trying to seem as large and dominant as possible. As he got closer, he realized that it was a wolf of some kind -- no, not a wolf, but a giant dog of some kind, with thick fur and a massive head --
The big canine stood with the writhing bundle between its paws. When Ger hissed it raised its head and looked calmly at him, then issued forth a growl so deep that it sounded like some sort of mythic monster. Then the black dog bared its teeth, and Ger realized that he was more than overmatched, that this dog could easily kill him and take both babies. He stopped in his tracks, tried to think of something. He failed. There was nothing he could do for the other child.
Ger glanced up at the farmhouse window, saw a face staring down at him. Caught! The corsair had seen him, was looking right at him. At that moment cannon fire boomed from somewhere off shore, then an entire orchestra of cannon fire, and suddenly there were men shouting from the beach. It sounded like they were shouting “Free!”, a strange word for Corsairs to use, and then Ger could see the sails being hauled up the masts behind the treetops.
Now there was more shouting in the house. The corsair disappeared from the window, and Ger saw his chance. He whirled around and plunged straight back into the woods. He glanced back to see if the dog was charging him, but the nightmarish creature was heading off to his left, trotting away through the trees casually, calmly, with the other infant clasped in its jaws.
Ger had never seen such a massive dog, had never witnessed such casual slaughter of innocents, had never held a baby in his arms, and the strangeness of it all gave wings to his feet. He dodged through the oaks and conifers. The bundle was held in front of him, but he lowered his head as he raced to protect the child from the rushing branches.
He changed directions several times and ran another few hundred yards before ducking into a clump of hawthorns to pause for breath. He listened, scanned through the dim trees trying to divine any follower -- no one was following. He had made it away somehow. And now to make it back to Gul without being seen by anyone -- Ger held the baby up and looked at it closely. Its eyes were wide, its face pale -- clearly the child was in shock, it had made no sound, seemed to be paralyzed, was barely breathing.
When it opened its mouth and emitted the high-pitched wail Ger was stunned by the force of it, and then shocked by the echoing wail from somewhere far to the west. The other baby was still alive? But he had to make this one be silent somehow -- he held his hand over the baby’s mouth, and the horrible sound ceased. He took away his hand -- and the boy stared at him.
“You need to be quiet, baby,” Ger said. “We have to go fast, and you need to be so quiet.”
The baby watched him in silence from within his cocoon of cloth. Ger tucked the boy securely beneath one arm and made his way out of his hiding place. The other child had stopped crying as well, somewhere so far away -- had he imagined that? No, he knew he had heard it. Ger began to make his way northwest now, trying to find main road so that he could shadow it all the way home. It would be slow going in the underbrush but there would be no Corsairs and no Hell-dogs to deal with. And at the very end, the joy of his beautiful wife at the gift he was bringing her – it was the best day of his life if he could just get home.
He shook off the horror of the afternoon and settled into an easy lope through the forest. Before long darkness began to fall, and he hurried.
Gul was more astonished and full of questions than overwhelmed with joy. She cradled the infant tenderly and listened to Ger explain how he had saved the one baby from the pirates and the dog but could he could not save the other baby or the parents, and the many reasons why they should just simply accept fate and become the child’s parents instead of turning him over to the authorities.
Gul frowned skeptically at this reasoning, but Ger insisted. “No one will ever take better care of him than we will, you know that,” he repeated patiently. “He’ll go to an orphanage, or end up working his life out in a mine or going to Mr. Jolly. We have to take him. The parents would want us to.”
“Did you know them?” Gul asked. “No,” Ger admitted. “But I know they would want their baby to go to someone who would care for it, and love it.”
Gul had undone some of the cloth wrappings, and was examining a myriad of bruises along the boy’s neck and shoulders. “Oh my word! He’s so bruised and battered!”
“They threw him out of a window,” Ger said. “The corsairs threw him out and I rescued him. I saved him, and so now he’s our baby.”
Gul was still not certain of the logic, but her mothering instincts were kicking in, so she changed the subject and began making a list of the things they would need. The next day Ger left her fussing over the baby and slid quietly into town to try to bargain for the things Gul had listed. He wandered around the market with his ears open; no news of the massacre, that was good for him. In fact, it was not until a week had passed that the rumor began to bounce around -- and it took another week for Ger to piece together all the different versions of the story into some semblance of fact.
The old healer woman had gone out to the farm and found the two young parents murdered. She had buried them, and looked for any trace of the infants but found none. Everyone knew how corsairs operated, and what the signs were; empty farms, missing women and children, dead males. They never burned the buildings; they wanted new victims to take up the farm and prepare the next bounty some year or two down the way, it was their method. Had the former farmers not already died of pestilence they would have been the ones massacred.
Ger heard a cobbler say that the old healer woman had been stricken ill by the tragedy, and that she had paid men from the town a good bit of coin to look for the infants. One tracker found signs of both man and animal behind the farm house. This statement made Ger’s heart freeze until it was concluded that all trails had disappeared, and that no trace of either baby remained.
Gul heard none of this, of course; she was still technically a fugitive and never went to town. She was busy with the child, and Ger did not bother her with the news. Soon enough she and Ger had made their burrow behind the dump more weatherproof and comfortable, and soon enough she learned how to feed and take care of the baby. Within a few months the child was calling them ‘ma’ and ‘fa’, and Ger felt light shining within himself that he thought had long since been extinguished. All of Gul’s doubts had vanished with her growing love for the infant, and with time their home grew happier than most of the era.
Ger had never heard the boy’s name. He and Gul called him ‘Boy’, and never thought of him any other way. A year went by, then two; in the third year Ger began teaching the lad to read, and by his sixth birthday, ‘Boy’ was already literate. He would read pamphlets and public announcements aloud to his mother, who would rock back and forth in rapt attention as if the fate of the world hung on his words. Boy was sharp, inquisitive, and logical. He mastered everything Ger could teach him, and began to ask questions that were beyond Ger’s ability to answer, which made both his adoptive parents exceedingly proud.
Ger began to take Boy out and teach him trail-scrying, trapping, hunting, how to spot useful and dangerous plants -- everything a medieval lad needed to know to survive in the English forests. Gul would always express concern at the risk of these lessons. Many long conversations were had concerning their necessity, as has and always will be the case whenever two parents are involved. Ger assured Gul they would be careful, and he meant it quite seriously. The boy was his son; he felt it in his bones as a force of nature. He would protect the child with his life.
Miraculously to them, the child never developed any signs of leprosy. His skin remained clear of lesions or scabs even though both Ger and Gul were in daily physical contact with him. This made Ger wonder about the nature of leprosy. He did not believe in the Abbot’s warnings to his parent’s about lepers being guilty of mortal sin; still, why was the boy not marked? It was a puzzle. Gul was more religious than Ger, and was sure that it was because the boy was pure and could not therefore ‘catch their sin’. The boy once asked Ger about his condition and why they did not look alike, and Ger explained as much of the truth as he thought the boy could handle, even going so far as to describe his latest thoughts on the probable source of their disease.
When the boy turned eight, Ger took him to Colchester for the day. Gul had fashioned a proper hood for her son, so that he might be made invisible like his father; it would not do for any in the town to learn that the leper was keeping an unafflicted child close to him. The two of them walked through the edges of everything, Ger teaching the boy how to keep a certain distance from the crowd and never making eye contact with anyone. And thus it was that Boy first learned of other people, and learned that none of them looked like his parents at all. This was a major revelation for him.
The visit to town altered the boy. He was fascinated; the town was a marvel that he wanted to revisit at all opportunities. Ger patiently explained the reasons why this was not possible, but the boy was, for all his blossoming intelligence, still a boy. At his first opportunity, he slipped away from his parents and their hovel behind the dump and crept into town alone.
The first few times he was very lucky; he did not wear his hooded cloak, but no one noticed him anyway. He became bold, walking right into town after telling his parents he was going to the river to fish. He began to steal treats and food, darting through the alleys to escape. He once ran right into the ancient healer woman, nearly knocking her over. She had stared right at him through her bleary eyes and called him ‘Nicholas’, but he dodged around her and made good his escape.
When his luck finally ran out, it ran out in the worst of ways. He had nicked a small bread roll, just one. That afternoon, however, the market had an influx of special visitors: one was an actual knight with his retinue. And not just any knight, but Lord Audley, veteran of Crecy and Poitiers, friend of the Black Prince, and governor of Aquitaine. He had no men at arms, just his servants and family with him, and he wore only a mail shirt, but his bearing and horse markings left no doubt as to his identity.
For the boy, the man with the horse and his friends were merely obstacles to thread, and this he did with great supposed skill, a bit of the roll already in his mouth and a feeling of freedom in his heart. He did not hear the horse’s hooves behind him until he slowed down outside of town -- turning, he realized he was being chased on horseback by several grim-looking men, and the burst of speed he put on was fueled by the pure adrenaline of absolute fear.
The horses were the heavy English war stallions required to carry a heavily armored knight. Solidity was their expertise, not speed. Still, by the time the boy reached the dump his pursuers were still directly behind his panicked heels. He plunged into sunken doorway of his home with Lord Audley himself dismounted and on foot close behind him. The rest of the party remained on their horses and waited; this had been the lord’s adventure, they knew better than to interfere. The man had a certain moral vision he would often carry out, Arthurian in nature but dangerous to be around in general. Once Lord Audley had his sword out, anything could and often did happen.
From inside the home, shouts and screams. The parents were clearly trying to defend their child -- the sound of a series of heavy blows silenced them. After a long minute the knight emerged carrying the struggling boy under one arm, his drawn and bloody sword in the other.
“Take this boy,” he commanded one of the young armed squires still on horseback, and thrust the boy up and over the saddle of the young man, who fixed the boy with an inescapable grasp. Lord Audley wheeled around and raised his sword dramatically.
“Foul leprous vermin! This sword shall teach you the lesson of your sins!” he bellowed as he ducked down into the doorway. From inside came a shrill keening cry shut down by the awful sound of the hacking and hewing of human flesh. The boy struggled and squealed on the saddle, but he could do nothing but listen to the hot murder of his parents. The knight continued for a full minute after the cries had stopped, hacking away far longer than was necessary to ensure death. At some point the boy stopped struggling and grew paralyzed with tearful quivering, overwhelmed.
When the knight emerged he was covered in blood, as if he had paused at the end to wash his hands in blood and bathe himself with it. At this moment he looked not so much the noble English lord but rather like a victorious psychopath. When he held his sword up and turned his face to the sky his eyes were open far too wide for a sane man’s, and his smile was a nightmarish mask. His party issued out some sort of halfhearted cheer at the pose, recognizing that the lord was pausing to wait for his cheers of glory and must be satisfied.
Lord Audley mounted his horse looking like a red-stained demon, and sheathed his entrail-coated sword.
“Men,” he said in the most solemn voice ever, “we have rescued this boy from demons, indeed we have snatched him away from monsters dwelling in the very pit of hell. We shall put him in the St. John’s Box on the way to dine with my brother, and count ourselves finely acquitted for this glorious day.”
“Amen, milord,” muttered his entire retinue, knowing the required response.
Lord Audley led his procession back down the road to Colchester with the squire holding the boy riding directly behind him. The boy made no move to escape, his body flopping carelessly against the hard saddle. His face was screwed up in a frozen, traumatized grimace beyond tears. For hours he was no more than saddle baggage for the squire, who treated him as such.
As the party passed through Colchester, an odd moment occurred. Lord Audley halted his horse before the ancient healer woman, who had wandered out to block their path. The entire party halted to watch. Clearly the lord and the women knew each other; just as clearly, she liked him less than he liked her. His eyes never left her face, and her eyes never left the boy slung over the squire’s saddle.
“John,” she addressed the lord by his first name, an act for which many in the party assumed she would pay for with her life, “where are you taking the boy?”
“I have slain the demons that held him captive, and intend to place him with Friar Humbert of good St. Johns before this day is out,” said Lord Audley in a deep and regal voice.
“You might leave him with me,” she suggested. “I know the boy. I knew his true parents.”
Lord Audley shifted in his saddle. He looked toward the boy, and then back to the woman. “Violet, although you have had no kind words for me in a score of years, I would be inclined to agree. However, the cause of justice requires that the proper authorities be consulted first. You may claim him from the friar.”
The woman grimaced. “Jolly shall have him.”
Lord Audley looked suddenly angry. “I cannot turn the lad over to a witch. You may claim him from the friar.” He turned and urged his horse forward. As the party passed, the woman kept her eyes on the boy. Just before the lord passed out of hearing, however, she uttered one last comment that made the old knight flinch, although he neither stopped nor turned back.
“That blood will never wash from you, John. Your soul is stained black with it,” she said.
The squires reined back slightly, expecting Lord Audley to turn back and do what he always did and strike her down or murder her. The lord, however, kept riding on so that they had to hurry to catch up. The old woman watched them disappear with a deep frown on her face, then turned back toward her home with a snort of frustration.
“Stupid old brute,” she muttered. “Not the pretty one anymore, are you.”
The party reached Brentwood to the northwest of London by the late afternoon, and arrived at St. John’s Orphanage before nightfall. The walls of St. John’s were high and ancient. Artfully set in the stone was a child-sized rotating wooden box quartered into compartments, and Lord Audley gently placed the trembling boy inside it. The blood of Ger and Gul had long since dried, but the lord still vibrated with the delight of his act as he shoved the boy further back into the corner of the chamber.
A bell rope hung down by the edge of the portal, and the lord gripped it in his bloody hand and pulled mightily. “There, boy,” he said in a theatrically kind voice. “Someday you may seek me out and thank me. You are safe now from the grip of the serpents of Satan, and may go about your life with God in your heart and the Psalms on your lips. You are safe from the devils.”
And with this somber pronouncement, the lord spun the round box with the edge of his hand so that the boy rotated through the thick stone wall and found himself facing a courtyard on the other side enclosing a series of other stone structures, towers, houses and halls. A friar and a young brother stood waiting for him, both dressed in the dark robes of the mendicant orders.
The friar regarded the boy in the box for a moment. “My, he’s a dirty one isn’t he?” he said to the young brother in an acidic tone. “Well, take him to the washhouse and scrub him down before dinner. Get all the lice off of him.” He looked down scornfully at the bitter expression on the face of the young brother. “All the lice, do you hear me? Or there’ll be hell for you, I promise.” The friar turned and walked away down the alley between the wall and the buildings.
The brother turned back to glare at the boy in the box. “Get out.”
The boy shivered, but he did not move. His eyes said he was elsewhere.
“Get out! Get out!” shouted the brother. “Don’t make me get the stick, I will! And it cuts! I’ll make it cut!”
The traumatized boy’s eyes looked up at last, and he finally realized he was being told to move. He did, haltingly and not quickly enough for the brother, who took a step forward and raised a fist. The boy flinched then pulled himself out of the box and tumbled into the alleyway. He stood up as if his body was numb.
“This way, you git,” the brother said nastily. “Now I’ll have last takings. Rot you. Stupid boy.” He walked off down the alley, and the boy limped after him – but then the brother turned and swiftly walked back to the boy and punched him so hard in the shoulder that he fell down again. Without saying anything the brother turned back around and resumed his pace. The boy got to his feet and scrambled to keep up after that.
The washhouse was a dark and rotting structure with a well next to it. The brother pulled the boy up next to a bench with a long brush and a wooden box on it, and gestured at the boy’s stained woolen tunic. “Get that off. We’re going to burn it.”
The boy just shivered and stared back at him.
“Get it off! Get it off!” the brother shouted. He raised his fist.
The boy pulled his tunic up over his head and stood trembling on the shadowed cold stone. The brother picked up a large wooden bucket from next to the well and dropped it into the well. When he hauled it up, he immediately poured it over the boy’s head, who gasped and started to pull away.
“Stand right there, git,” the brother snarled. “Don’t you move or I’ll strike you down where you stand, you bloody bugger. Last takings!” He turned and opened up the wooden box, seized up a handful of white powder and threw it directly at the boy, who was instantly blinded. “Stand still!” the brother shouted as the boy began to wail. The brother dropped the bucket back into the well and hauled it up again, set it aside. He picked up the long brush from the bench and began to scrub at the boy, who shrank from the rough bristling and turned his face away.
The brother lost his patience entirely now and began to strike the boy with the long heavy brush as if it were a club, striking him over and over. “You stupid git!” he shouted at the naked boy each time, smacking him harshly until the boy was curled into a fetal position on the stone slab. Once the brother had exhausted himself he repeated the exercise until the catastrophically shivering boy was forced to hold himself upright and bear the rough brushing or be beaten unconscious. He was scrubbed and rinsed three times, after which the brother left the boy to air-dry in the darkness of the shed while he retrieved a pair of shears from the rectory. The boy’s hair was cut around in a circle, and more than a few times the shears poked the boy’s scalp and drew blood.
Truly, the boy had quite lost himself. He had never before been treated like this in his life. His parents had been unerringly wise and kind, and now they had been murdered in front of him for his crime less than an hour ago. The abuse he was suffering could not suppress the constant echoing of the fact that he had brought this horror upon his family. The grief welling up inside of him made the brother’s blows and slaps drive more deeply into his heart.
Soon enough the brother was satisfied with the scrubbing and powdering and declared the job done. The boy was dressed in a rough but newish brown tunic with a belt and led down to the main hall for dinner. The brother led him past rows of table full of children to an empty seat near the back and gave him a last shove toward a chair.
The friar was sitting at a large table taking up a third of the space, with perhaps twelve younger monks and a few brothers in lay robes. There were at least fifty children arrayed around the rest of the tables, all of them dressed in the same brown cloth and belt as the boy, and all with the same haircuts. In front of them were set bowls of soup, each with a piece of bread set next to a spoon.
The boy took his place and stared around the tables at the other children, who were all staring at him. The friar cleared his throat, and spoke in a mellifluous and gentle tone. “We have with us tonight a new boy, who’s name is -- what is your name?” he asked.
The boy realized the friar was expecting an answer, and tried to think of what his name was. “My name is Boy,” he replied, in a quiet, shaky voice. The rest of the children tittered at this, but the friar held up his hand in kindly remonstrance. “Now,” said the friar, “let us not judge the lad. That is for a higher power than us. ‘Boy’ he says is his name, and this we must accept and honor, although I shall urge you, Boy, to choose a different name anon.”
The boy had no idea what he was expected to reply to this. The friar smiled at his silence, folded his hands, and bowed his head. A bell rang somewhere -- one of the brothers rose quickly from the table and left to deal with it. “Tonight we read from the Book of Ruth,” the friar intoned. “Entreat me not to leave you, or to turn back from following you; For wherever you go, I will go; And wherever you lodge, I will lodge; Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God. Where you die, I will die, and there will I be buried. The Lord do so to me, and more also, if anything but death parts you and me.”
The children as a whole murmured “Amen” -- except for the boy, who had never heard the word before, and had no knowledge of the ritual. “You may eat now,” said the friar, and everyone immediately reached for their bread. The boy was sitting across from a brother and sister who looked so alike that with their hair cut similarly they looked like twins. The girl smiled at him, and her brother nodded. The boy nodded back, grateful for any grain of benevolence from any quarter. The two children across from him both had blond hair; he had never seen this before and found it startling. When he finally looked down at his soup he realized that his bread was gone.
A disturbance at the front of the hall quieted the general chatter of the children. Everyone looked to the friar, who had risen to greet a visitor to the hall, a large man dressed in a fine black velvet and silk suit. The boy craned his neck to get a better look -- and what he saw was startling. The large man in the fine clothes didn’t look like a man at all. The mottled gray skin of his amphibious face bore a sheen of grease, and his completely black shark’s eyes seemed to have no lids at all. He was speaking in a smooth, noble language, but his teeth were like gray pegs set in brown flesh that his lips rarely covered. He had bulges beneath his coat where there should have been no bulges, and his hips were a series of odd angles that defied imagination.
“No, thank you very much, Friar Humbert, I’ve supped already this evening,” the creature was saying ever so politely. “I need two. Two nice ones. And I’ll be on my way.”
He turned away from the Friar toward the children, and seemed to look directly across the room to the boy. As he did he seemed to change; now the boy saw that it was indeed a man after all, merely an obese, sweating, harried businessman.
“Mr. Jolly,” the Friar said. Mr. Jolly turned from his penetrating look at the boy to confront the Friar once again, who shrank from the eye contact.
“Yes, Friar Humbert?” Mr. Jolly intoned sweetly.
The friar mustered up every ounce of his courage. “Where are the three children you took last week?” he asked.
“Well, they’ve run away, the ungrateful wretches,” said Mr. Jolly. His voice was still cultured, but changed. Something was different. Every child in the room flinched at the new tone. “Feed them, clothe them, give them a good Christian education and a warm place to sleep, and they steal the silver candlesticks off the mantle,” he continued, his voice sharpening and growing louder with each word. “I should make you pay the losses.”
The friar frowned and stood his ground. “There have been so many, Mr. Jolly. I think --”
“I’d best speak to the bishop about your mead bill, then. Sort out matters,” the strangely rotund man said in a grim tone.
“No -- I -- uh --” the friar stuttered out. Mr. Jolly leaned in closer, and his voice became like a rapier. “This place wouldn’t exist but for me,” he grated at the friar. “This fine food you dine upon would be ratflesh if you had to depend on the townspeople.”
“I know, and we thank you, Mr. Jolly, but --”
“BUT BUT BUT BUT BUT BUT BUT!” Mr. Jolly shrieked at the cowering friar. “I’ll have it out with the Bishop about your mead bill, and a few other things no one knows about. I’ll see you roast on the spit and carved up for a dog’s supper, and shat from the orifices of a dozen lepers who’ll eat him after he dies ‘a the black death, you pederastic priest of Sheol!”
The friar surrendered. “I’m sorry, I meant no harm, sir. Please.”
Mr. Jolly immediately brightened up. “None taken, good sir. Fine, fine. I’ll be going.” He turned back to look at the boy, who was as frozen with terror as every other child in the hall. Mr. Jolly’s final tirade had paralyzed everyone.
The strange, giant man-shape walked purposefully through the aisles, heading directly for the boy. He stopped on the opposite side of the table from the boy, directly in front of the brother and sister.
“Someone saw us,” Mr. Jolly was muttering to himself. He looked directly at the boy, who could neither breathe not think at that moment. Then Mr. Jolly’s shark eyes snapped down and beheld the siblings. He smiled, the most frightening smile any who saw it had ever seen.
“Well,” he said ever so nicely. “A matched pair! How interesting.” And with those words he reached down and grabbed the two terrified children by their wrists, shaking them from their seats and hauling them down the aisles. The boy watched as the little girl looked back toward him in mute terror. “Good eve, friar!” cried out Mr. Jolly in a happy tone. “A fine day to you! Goodbye, all the dear children. See you soon!”
As Mr. Jolly left the hall the boy caught a last glimpse of the mortal fear on the little girl’s face as she finally disappeared through the dark doorway.
The friar said nothing more, just stared down at the table. The room was cloaked with ghastly silence. No one finished their dinner.
The sounds of nightmares filled the children’s dormitory all night long. The boy could not sleep, and the shrieks and screams punctuated the awfulness of his new situation. The food had been good and the bed was comfortable, but his parents were dead and he had learned too much today, things his parents had not spoken of to him because he was too young. He was still too young, and his head was ringing with horror from it.
In the daylight, the children wandered the dirt expanse of the center yard like the dead come to life. A cadre of robed brothers stood watching, each alone with his own dark thoughts. The friar was missing altogether, and every child knew why -- he had been revealed as all too human, mortified, humiliated in front of all of them, and he could not yet meet their gaze. They felt this to be true as a single unit, as a doomed herd, as a community of abandoned children. No one here could or would ever protect them from anything.
The boy sat in a dusty corner of the yard by himself, playing distractedly with a rag ball, thinking about the brother and sister who had been taken. He wondered what was happening to them, and then suddenly did not want to know. He wondered if he would ever sleep again, and if not, how long he would live before he died of it.
A bell rang; a monk ran to answer. A few minutes later the boy heard another monk shout an order to open the gates. The missing friar appeared in the yard just as a team of draft horses pulled in through the open gates, followed by ten noble-looking men on finely dressed horses. The friar bowed low to their leader, a tall, thin fellow in his forties with a long nose and intelligent face who dismounted and placed his hand on the friar’s shoulder in a friendly gesture. He was mildly handsome with a carefully trimmed beard and a healthy complexion, dressed in the comfortable but expensive-looking casual wear of the wealthy off-duty knight.
“Your lordship, we are immeasurably honored and blessed by your presence,” the friar said fulsomely. “If I had but known of your coming. I pray, reveal your will, my lord, and it shall be done instantly.”
“Yes. Very well. I need ten of your best boys. I shall choose from all you have,” the tall man said, in a calm but commanding tone.
“Of course! I shall assemble the candidates at once, your lordship.” The friar frantically gestured at two of the brothers standing near the children, all of them gaping together at the fancy carriage and the fine-looking company. “Assemble the children in the dining hall at once!” he barked sternly at them. “And bring wine for the lord.”
“Please,” said the man. “Just the boys.”
The brothers had already begun driving the orphans away from the carriage, shoving them none too gently toward the dining hall as if they were sheep heading for the slaughter. The remainder of the mounted men now dismounted and secured their reins to the carriage wheels. “If you will, your lordship, let me escort you to our humble hall,” the friar said. He bowed again and gestured, and the nobleman followed him toward the main building, accompanied by a few war-scarred fellows with a multitude of blades strapped to their bodies.
“I understand, Friar Humbert, that you have an influx of children from the recent pestilence,” the man asked amiably as they walked. “Do any have the sign? Have your holy walls kept you safe from the black rot?”
“We are indeed protected by the will of God within these walls, sire,” the friar assured him. “All are healthy, and there are some fine strong lads among them. Are they to be raised as servants, my lord?”
The man shook his head. “It is past time that young Richard trained with his personal force. Edward has outlived all of his, and the Black Prince has lost almost all of his in battle, but it is a family tradition and Richard’s time has now come.”
“Ah, my lord,” said the friar, nodding, “they shall count themselves lucky that you choose, then. It is a great honor to be chosen.”
“I trust they will eventually agree, although the training will be hard. Quite severe, actually. I have contracted Dos of Brittany as their master,” said the man. “At great expense, I can tell you. A very difficult matter.”
“Ohh,” said the friar approvingly. “He is a famous man in these parts.”
“I had to be quite persuasive. He is unhappy with the charge, but I hope he will make the best of it. Richard must have only the finest, both in his men and master.” The man held out his hands and shrugged with faint disapproval. “The title demands it.”
“I quite understand, your lordship.” The friar led them into the great hall and to the front of a long line of all the boys at the orphanage. The nobleman passed down the line, slowly, lingering on a few, kneeling to ask questions, even going so far as to examine their teeth and feel their arms and shoulders.
He chose the first by nodding at one of his men, who pulled the lad from the line. The boy was joined by a second, then by a third after long consideration. Seven boys had been chosen by the time the nobleman reached the son of Nicholas and Rohesia. The man knelt down and studied the boy carefully for a very long time; he did not look at his teeth or feel his arms but instead just stared directly into his eyes.
This made the boy exceedingly uncomfortable, but he maintained the gaze. The nobleman nodded. “I am named John of Gaunt, boy. Do you know the name?” he asked.
“No,” said the boy politely. “I do not, sir.”
The friar spoke up. “My lord, this is a new boy, one we have taken in only yesterday.”
“And his name?” John of Gaunt asked.
“He tells us his name is ‘Boy’, my lord,” the friar replied. ‘That is all we know of him. There was -- an old witch who tried to claim him this morning, a hag from Colchester. She said she knew his parents. Of course, she’s quite mad. She probably wanted him for a magical stew or some such horror. We would of course never surrender a child to such a person.”
Every child who heard this statement instinctively understood the terrible irony of it.
“‘Boy’, is it?” said John of Gaunt to the boy. “Well. That will not do. I see a soldier in your eyes, and I have just chosen you to be the sergeant. Therefore, let that be your name. Sergeant.”
“Sergeant,” the boy said, testing it out. A strange name. The boy and man looked at each other for a few more moments.
“Join your crew, then,” John of Gaunt said, and the boy was led from the line to make a total of eight. Two more were eventually selected, and John declared himself satisfied. He motioned that the boys be loaded into the carriage, handed the friar a small bag of money, and mounted his horse. As the carriage passed through the massive gates of the orphanage the boy now known as Sergeant looked back at the courtyard, and the last glimpse of the great hall. He would never see it again, and that was not a bad thing
The ten boys were alone now in the monstrous bouncing carriage, looking each other over, wondering what had just happened to them. No one was overly concerned for the future; all of them had witnessed Mr. Jolly’s performance. Whatever this was, it could possibly not be as bad as that.
Most of the boys were interested in getting a good look at the black-haired boy the man had named Sergeant. The attention was palpable, and very strange to him; he had never been pondered before by a peer group, and he found it anxiety-inducing. He did not understand the purpose at all, and wished they would stop.
Over time the open windows of the carriage became more interesting, and some of the boys actually managed to drift off to sleep regardless of the rough ride. Sergeant felt relieved and let his attention wander to the panoramas passing by the window. For awhile they rode in deep forest, then through fields; now they were passing through a string of villages, with occasional glimpses of huge estates behind them.
When the outlines of London appeared on the horizon, all faces were watching. None of them had ever seen anything like this metropolis in their life -- almost fifty thousand human beings lived in this maze of buildings and alleyways, an unthinkable mass of humanity. Most of the boys in the carriage had never been outside the borders of their village, and had been orphaned by the plague or given up for famine. The city might as well have been a mystical fairy-kingdom to their senses.
The ride across the Thames on a massive barge was a thrill, but the ride through the city left them all breathless. The crowds parted for their carriage and stared back at the boys looking out. The smells, the sounds – they would be processing this information for many months, if not for the rest of their lives. Cobbled streets, merchant stalls, hawkers, beggars, stalking servants bent on errands – delicious odors of meat-pies and vegetables of all kinds mingled with the worst imaginable stench – could people live like this, so concentrated that the very air seemed to be at risk of being consumed?
But it was the other side of the river, the approach to the royal residence at Rotherhithe made them all begin to wonder just who it was they had been chosen to serve. The expanse of tended lawns and lakes, the massive stone towers dominating extensive buildings -- none of their grandest childhood stories could ever match such splendor. They arrived at a rear entrance, where they were whisked out of the carriage by a legion of servants dressed more finely than anyone the boys had ever seen.
They were taken to a marble-floored bathhouse streaming with delicately-filtered light. None of them had ever had a hot bath before; now they were all plunged into steaming tubs after having their heads completely shaved. A physician examined each of them far too thoroughly and then they were dressed alike in stiff white matching tunics, hose, and boots. The end of the process saw them all huddled together in the corner of a great room, utterly transformed in appearance and utterly ill at ease.
Now a different legion of servants descended. They were fed the most amazing meal of their lives and then shown to a sleeping hall lined with actual beds. The torches were extinguished, they were told to be silent and go to sleep, and then they were left in the darkness to contemplate the day. No one fell asleep at first except for one boy who began snoring, which made the others feel more at home. Within the hour all of them were sound asleep, including Sergeant. He had a long dream about Ger and Gul that was not unpleasant -- they were not angry or sad, it just another day in their pleasant home behind the dump. He woke to sunlight streaming into the chamber, groggy but feeling peaceful.
They remained at the residence for three more nights. After the first day they began talking amongst themselves, mostly chatter about the incredible wealth and majesty that surrounded them. Sergeant was pressed to talk about why he had been chosen and named sergeant, but he had no answer for them. He had never heard of John of Gaunt, but advanced the idea that he must be someone very important to have such a house, perhaps a mayor or a judge. The other boys agreed -- they were to serve someone very important. Since there had been no beatings or mistreatment so far (except by the physician), they all began to feel that perhaps fortune had smiled on them this once in their orphaned lives.
This opinion wavered in more than a few of them one particular day as they were driven in the carriage to a London wharf, walked up the gangplank of an enormous galley and directed to an empty corner of the dark hold. The wood smelled like rot and feces, urine and vomit, and there was neither light nor air. They were told sternly by one of their guards that the journey would only take an afternoon, so they were not to be provided with any sleeping areas or food.
The journey ended up taking them nearly a week, an ordeal during which they found places to sleep lodged between barrels and reels of thick hemp rope, and during which none of them had any interest in food anyway. The antique square sails of most English galleys made them prey to unfavorable winds, and they had been blown far south of their eventual destination. The time stretched into one long nightmare for Sergeant, a dark, rolling, stinking, nightmare from which there was no waking.
Their destination appeared one morning off the starboard bow, and they were allowed up on deck to see it. It turned out to be a castle complex perched on a high cliff. One of the friendlier guards told them all about it, saying that it was the main castle guarding the shores of the English foothold in France, a province known as Aquitaine. None of the boys listened to much of the guard’s extensive lecture; they were only interested in steady, dry land.
They disembarked at a long wharf that extended some hundred feet into the harbor. The castle was enormous but not luxurious; no English king vacationed here. The weather was pleasant enough (the guard had said) if foggy and quite cold at times, but it was isolated and generally supplied only by sea. It did support a coastal garrison, and had been built with a large training area set against the inland wall, complete with trainee quarters and indoor facilities.
The boys were led by a grim-faced gray-headed soldier through a large room occupied mostly by a series of training rings and equipment racks to a long room filled with spartan bunks. The beds were solid wooden slabs mortared into the plain stone walls, set three high and supplied with thick woolen blankets. Somehow this simple arrangement still managed to radiate power and wealth, and the boys were silent as they were each assigned to their particular bunks.
They were allowed to recover from the voyage for the afternoon, after which they were issued brand new training outfits and fed the first meal any of them had eaten in days. Sergeant managed only a few bites before he thought it might be coming back up; all of the boys were feeling the same, and most of the meal was broken up into cautious and steady light snacking.
Garrison soldiers kept watch on them as they roamed about their new home. They climbed the rear wall tower and looked out into the vast forests of Southern France. Then they were fed yet again as darkness fell, and when they returned to their bunks they found that they had been provided with wonderfully comfortable thick cotton sleeping tunics. All of the boys still felt the earth moving beneath their feet like the rotten hold of the giant ship had moved, and the wooden slabs and blankets felt like the height of luxury after their time spent wedged between wet barrels in the galley depths.
Several days went by before the older soldier who had shown them to their quarters returned to inform them that their training was delayed and would not begin until their new trainer arrived, possibly as long as a week. The soldier warned them to get as much rest as possible; he apparently knew something about the trainer. This ominous but vague warning didn’t seem to bother any of them, and they all slept perfectly well.
The boy had decided by now that he liked his new name well enough, and he began to think of himself as Sergeant. The other boys had begun to call him that as well. He wondered why his parents had never given him a proper name; all the other boys had real names but him. It made him feel strange, and a little lost. Still – he had been given a real name now, and he had been chosen to lead other boys who had always had real names.
He dreamed of Ger and Gul almost every night, and only a few times did the dream turn into the nightmare about the bloody knight who had chopped them down. He missed his parents very much, and his carefree childhood running around in the woods behind the dump -- but he knew now from experience that such things were transitory in this world, and that he must count himself lucky to have escaped much worse fates. The clear vision he had had of Mr. Jolly lurked at the corners of his mind. Sometimes he saw the face of the little girl as she had been hauled out the door, and he tried to forget it.
Once the others had fallen asleep, Sergeant would generally make his way to one of the arched windows and watch the stars for an hour or so. Ger had taught him the names and points of all the constellations, and when the fog permitted the recognizable patterns gave Sergeant comfort as he traced them over in his mind, remembering his father’s gravelly voice describing the stars that made up each one. Even when the fog cast its shroud over the sky he would still stay and stare out at the treetops, and wonder what creatures and men were out beyond these castle walls and above the heavy dark clouds.
He had never even heard of Aquitaine, although he had read about France. The other boys congenially shared their limited knowledge of the province, each in turn, and as the time passed he found that he was beginning to like them. No one was cruel, none were bullies -- John of Gaunt had chosen his boys well. They were all of similar age and size, but Sergeant was the only one with black hair. He wondered if that was why he had been chosen to be sergeant. He also wondered if he was going to be treated differently because of it.
Their trainer did not arrive until the middle of the following week, by which time they had all settled into a comfortable routine, a realm of habit from which they were rudely awakened. He appeared in their barracks doorway, a thickly-muscled giant with a shaved head and a sour expression wearing some sort of war-kilt with a thick leather vest outlining his massive shoulders. His coarse features were highlighted by numerous facial scars. The boys had been strictly instructed by the old soldier to salute the man when he arrived; this they did, drawing up into a ragged line and trying to remember the posture the old soldier had shown them.
The giant’s face grew even more sour now, but he did not look at the boys. When he spoke he ignored them completely, as if he were speaking only to himself. “I am Dos of Brittany,” he said in a frighteningly deep voice with a thick accent. “This task is punishment for me, you understand. I am to miss the Lists at Saint-Inglevert for this, and the Trial at Limoges, at which I was destined to defeat Klavier himself in personal combat. This is the season I was to become the champion of the world. I cannot possibly express to you how much I hate you for depriving me of this honor, which I have worked so very hard to achieve for so many years. So -- it is my quiet hope that the training will kill you off too swiftly to be replaced, and they will have to end this pathetic charade for lack of lost boys and release me from servitude so that I may return.”
Now he looked at them. This made them all sway backwards slightly, as if there was a physical pressure to his gaze. “Which one of you did John of Gaunt name Sergeant?” he asked, in a terrible voice, as if he were suppressing virulent rage.
Nine of the ten boys shrank back from the tone; only Sergeant remained in position, though he felt his legs threaten to buckle. “I am he,” he answered, his voice trembling.
Dos strode forward purposefully until he towered over the black-haired boy. Somehow the boy managed to hold his ground, but this did not appease the giant. “Do you know what it means to be a sergeant, boy?” he growled.
“No sir.” Sergeant’s heart was pounding in his chest. Up close, Dos smelled like leather and sweat, and something else -- blood? Death? The man was enormous, and seemed composed entirely of thick slabs of muscle.
“I intend to break you first. Your training will be special, far more cruel than the rest of your men. Do you know why?”
“I was once a sergeant, you know,” Dos said menacingly. “Commissioned at Poitiers. When the Black Prince withdrew to set his trap, my company trailed behind as a rear-guard. King John cut us off completely. I made it back, of course, but everyone one else in my company was hacked to bloody meat. So. I became the sergeant. To keep that title I had to kill many men, and do many terrible things. You have been named Sergeant, but you are not a sergeant. You mock the rank of sergeant. You are a child’s plaything. A soon-to-be broken doll.”
Sergeant remained silent, having no idea how to respond to the man. Dos made a sound like a piece of wood breaking; and then he began to walk slowly down the line of boys. “Your name is One,” he said, pointing at the boy next to Sergeant. Then he counted with an outstretched finger pointed at each boy. “Two, Three, Four, Five, Six, Seven, Eight, Nine. Training begins at dawn. I’m going to run you until you want to die. If I were you, I would run away tonight. I promise to mislead all who follow you, I will tell them you fell down the well. If you do not run away, I swear to break you in such a way that I have still fulfilled my duty. Welcome to Hell. You are to refer to me only as Dos, never sir or master. Make your plans, and run. Good night.”
The giant strode out of the doorway without looking back. The boys watched him go and waited several long breaths before breaking formation and crowding around Sergeant. The boy who had been named Six asked what they were all thinking. “What should we do?” he whispered. “Should we run away like he said?” The others all echoed this question, and every one of them was asking Sergeant, who had no idea why they thought he should have an answer.
But he thought it through for a moment, frowned, and spoke his mind. “My parents were lepers,” he said, “who lived in the town dump. They were killed by a knight, a man with a big sword who chopped at them until they stopped moving. I saw it, but I couldn’t do anything, even though it was all my fault.”
The others didn’t understand this answer, and scrunched up their faces with concentration. Sergeant saw this, and continued. “If I run away, and get away, even if all the soldiers in this whole place can’t catch me, I’m still just a weakling who can’t protect anybody, not even myself. I didn’t get picked by Mr. Jolly. I got picked to be a soldier, and I’m glad of it. I want to learn how to fight, so that I can go find that knight who killed my mum and pa and kill him. If this Dos man is a great fighter, then he can teach me to do that. And if he can’t kill me, he’ll make me a fighter.”
The other boys mulled over these words. They all had similar feelings, and no one wanted to be cowardly, but Sergeant had put it all into words that made them feel like sticking it out was the right thing. The boy named Six finally nodded. “The food’s the best I’ve ever had,” he said. “And I’ve got my own bed. I’ve never had nothing in my whole life. I’m going to stay with you.”
Sergeant nodded, and the others all joined in, and it wasn’t until late the next afternoon that they all knew they had made a terrible mistake.
Dos came for them before dawn. They began the morning with a hard ten-mile run that ended at the top of a steep hill, Dos screaming at them the entire way, kicking the laggards and shoving the others. Sergeant led the pack; he didn’t know why, he just knew he had to. He collapsed at the top of the hill like the others, though, nearly weeping with exhaustion. Other boys vomited, mostly dry-heaving because they had not been fed breakfast. Dos continued screaming at them, stalking back and forth and abusing anyone within kicking distance. The enraged giant kicked Sergeant harder and more often than anyone, as promised. Sergeant learned quickly to protect his head and testicles by curling up and turning his legs toward Dos, even though each of the man’s kicks sent him spinning across the hilltop.
The run down the hill was worse. Boys collapsed, crying and vomiting and fainting while Dos inflicted continuous punishment on every one of them. Sergeant held up as best he could but finally blacked out for a moment a few miles from the castle. When he came to, Dos was standing over him with a mocking glare on his face.
“Is the poor toy soldier gone to sleep, then? Would it like to sleep?” Dos’s tone was bitingly sarcastic, but at least the kicks had stopped for the moment.
“No sir,” Sergeant replied. He rolled over and started to struggle to his feet, expecting to be kicked again at any moment. Dos allowed him to stand up before aiming another boot at him -- this time Sergeant dodged, which only made Dos laugh. He chased Sergeant around the other boys until it seemed like the boy might actually outlast the man; but it was not so. Dos caught him by his neck, threw Sergeant down into the dirt, and kicked him hard several times. As the boy lay there gasping for breath Dos sneered at the group.
“Wilting flowers,” he said. “Weak and fat little Englanders. If you don’t run away tonight I’ll kill you all tomorrow.”
Dinner that night was a very different affair than those of the past few weeks. All of these boys had led somewhat hard lives, and had experienced the severities of the parental discipline common to the age -- but none had ever been abused like this. Sergeant was almost certain he had a broken rib; he had trouble breathing, and swallowing was agony. The other boys were all bruised and banged and mortally exhausted. The boy called Three wept quietly and continuously over his bowl of stew without taking a bite. Four and Five were little better off, one with an eye swollen shut and the other holding his wrist gingerly. At least they were able to bring themselves to eat.
Six looked over at Sergeant, watched the spoon tremble and spill most of the broth on its way to his mouth. “We have run away tonight,” he whispered. “We’ll all die tomorrow.”
Sergeant shook his head grimly. “You can have my bread for the trip. I’m not going.”
Nine was aghast, even though he was the least injured of the group. “Sergeant, you’re not going to make it though another day like that,” he said. “You’re already crippled. And he hates you worst of all of us.”
Sergeant glared defiantly around the table. “He’ll have to kill me. I’m not leaving. But you should go, and feel no shame. I’m -- I just can’t run away. I don’t know why anymore. Maybe I just won’t give him what he wants, not until I’m dead.” He managed to get a spoon of the stew into his mouth, winced at the sting, tried to keep it away from the loose tooth. “He’s a big bully. I’m not giving in. I don’t have anywhere to go anyway.”
The other boys all contemplated his statement, and watched him unsteadily slurp another spoonful.
Six straightened. “I’m not leaving either, then.” A few of the others nodded sullen agreement. The remaining few thought it over, murmured agreement -- and then looked at Three, who was still weeping.
“I can’t,” Three said. “I can’t take it. I’ll die.”
Sergeant nodded. “You go on, Three. Don’t feel bad. I’m just a little mad right now, tomorrow I’ll probably be wishing that I’d gone with you. Take my bread, and wait until the lights are out.”
Six frowned. “It has to be all of us. He can’t succeed in picking us off one by one. Three, I’ll help you through tomorrow.” Ten echoed this sentiment. “Me too. We should all stay.” Others joined in. “You can do it, Three.” “One more day.” “We’ll keep him off you.”
Three mustered enough spirit to smile, though tears still ran down his cheeks. “All right. If you’re all so brave, I’ll be like you.” He looked at Sergeant for affirmation.
“Don’t look at me,” Sergeant said. “I think you’re all crazy.”
This made them all smile, some wincing from facial injuries, but recognizing that they had all now become part of something larger than themselves. Crazy or not, it gave them the strength to stand.
The look on Dos’s face when he entered their barracks before sun up again made their decision worth it. He appeared to be utterly flabbergasted that they had not fled during the night. It took him several long moments to compose himself, and when he managed to call them out for the morning run, his voice was oddly low and unmenacing. The run was just as brutal, but they were expecting it now and found a rhythm of collapse and return that resulted in fewer kicks and was therefore survivable. Sergeant’s ribs never allowed him to breathe properly, and his other injuries all screamed like fire, but he pushed himself with such fury that he led the group all the way up and down the great hill without fainting. Near the end Dos seemed to grow tired of kicking them, and this heartened everyone considerably. They finished the run together, with Three bent and wheezing in the center of their ranks.
They spent the rest of the morning learning a vast range of new exercises, all of which hurt very much and caused a great deal of new suffering. Immediately after three hours of this, Dos declared that it was time for their first weapons session. They were all more than happy to sit on the ground and watch Dos demonstrate various weapons. Dos went through all the basics quickly and professionally -- quarterstaff, arming sword, short sword, mace, morning star, lochaber axe, pike, hammer, dagger -- and then announced that they would begin with the quarterstaff.
Dos looked down at Sergeant, who was sitting on the left side of the group. “All right then, go pick out your staff,” he said. It took a moment for the boy to understand what he meant, but Dos just kept looking at him, calmly waiting. Sergeant finally rose, trying not to wince, and made his way over to the wall to select one of the staffs, all similar to the one Dos was now swinging around.
His hand touched the wood and then slid into a grip. He pulled it away from the wall and hefted it -- it was heavy, too heavy for a boy, but he felt its power anyway. He glanced at Dos, and then tried to swing it the way the giant was swinging it, twirling it from the middle, using it to thrust with -- it felt good. He liked this weapon, even though it was far too large for him. With each second that he held it in his hands he felt more confident, stronger. Something about it --
“Let’s go, then, Rumpy,” Dos called out. Sergeant hesitated, then started forward. “Rumpy and I are going to spar a little for your benefit, boys,” the giant said in a wickedly sarcastic fake brogue. “Let’s hope his rumpy little face doesn’t get bashed in, hey? And then each in turn after him. All right now, Rumpy, just do your best. Don’t start yer weepin’ yet, me lad. You’ve got months of this until the little lord arrives, and every day’s going to be worse than the day before. So, let’s see what you can do with a stout piece of oak.”
Dos assumed what looked like to Sergeant to be a defensive stance, whirled his quarterstaff expertly behind his head, and nodded at the boy. Sergeant thought about what to do, and finally decided to keep it simple. He swung the staff from one end as hard as he could, and the hardwood cracked against Dos’s staff so loud that the seated boys flinched. Without pausing, Sergeant recovered from the recoil and swung from the opposite direction, again driving the staff down onto the other man’s as hard as he could and then thrusting forward with it just like he had seen Dos do --
Dos was unprepared for the thrust. Sergeant had nipped one of his fingers on the second blow, and then the butt of Sergeant’s staff poked him in the throat hard enough to knock the giant man back. Sergeant froze, uncertain of just what to do next. The look that flashed across Dos’s red face made him think that perhaps he should bring his staff up in front of his body to try to deflect any counterblow. Just as he managed to do this he saw Dos whirl his staff into some sort of exotic cloud, and out of this cloud came something that flew right past his own staff and right at his forehead, and that was that last thing Sergeant knew of his second day of training.
It was dark when he woke up, and only a single candle was burning in the barracks. He was lying on his bunk -- what had happened? His head was on fire. He couldn’t turn it to see the light -- slowly he did, and realized that Six was sitting on the bunk next to his, watching him.
“Ho!” Six called out quietly. “He’s awake!” Sergeant heard the rest of the boys echo the call, and soon all nine were gathered around his bed looking down at him. “We thought you’d never wake up,” said Three. “What -- am I doing?” Sergeant whispered unsteadily. He couldn’t think straight. Something was wrong with him.
“Dos hit you in the head so hard you went back six feet,” said Six. “You’ve got a bandage on your head the cook gave us. And we got food for you.”
Sergeant groaned. He remembered now. “I could be hungry if I didn’t hurt so much,” he said. “I can’t think.” The boy named Nine leaned forward into his view. “The cook gave us medicine for you. To make the pain go,” he said solemnly. Sergeant tried to roll up on one arm, failed. “Stay right there,” commanded Five, “we’ll bring it over here.” Three brought over a small cup. Several other boys reached to help Sergeant lift his head toward the cup, and he drank the foul-smelling preparation in small doses until the cup was empty.
He managed to sit up a few minutes later. His head was clearing, and he was provided with his bowl of stew and his bread, which he slowly ate as he talked to his fellow toy soldiers. “You still not going to run away?” asked Three quietly. “I’m not dead yet,” replied Sergeant.
“He got nervous after you went down, called for the cook to take care of you,” said Six. Nine nodded. “The rest of us were barely hit at all,” he said very seriously. “It wasn’t bad after you went down,” added Eight. They stayed up and described the rest of the training day until Sergeant had finished his meal, and then Six blew out the candle and Sergeant collapsed back into his bunk with an exhausted groan. He didn’t think he would be able to sleep, but he fell quickly into a long and complicated dream about his parents, and their little shack behind the Colchester dump.
Dos woke them before dawn, but there was no yelling or kicking involved. He saw that Sergeant was awake, and stared at him for a moment with a strangely uncomfortable look on his face, but then recovered and barked at the boys to get a move on. Sergeant left the bandage in place as he struggled on the run up the great hill, but it began to slip off as he sweated, so he discarded it on the run down. Dos yelled at them but only kicked a few of them. Sergeant was left alone; Dos seemed hesitant to abuse him.
This only lasted for awhile. In the afternoon weapons training session Dos chose Sergeant once more to demonstrate the quarterstaff. This time the blows were not aimed at the boy’s head but at his elbows and ribs, and soon enough Sergeant lost his grip on his staff and fell to the floor completely defeated. Dos stood over him and sneered.
“‘Sergeant’ you are not. Rumpy is your name. Get back in the line, Rumpy. Next!” Sergeant pulled himself to his feet and limped from the floor as One rose and walked over to pick up his staff. Sergeant hurt everywhere, but counted himself lucky to be conscious. The other boys all looked over at them, and he nodded that he was all right, and somehow that seemed to strengthen everyone. Dos released them after dark to their quarters, and they sat around the table in the dining room talking in low voices about events of the day. Three was bearing up well considering his state after the first day. Every boy was nursing injuries and absolute exhaustion, but they had lived through yet another day of sheer hell.
This cycle continued for another week. As the time went by Dos seemed to grow irritable again and began to strike harder and harder at practice, enough so that several of the boys were knocked momentarily unconscious. The wooden practice swords and maces still packed a wallop when wielded by a full-grown man against boys. As the hours went by their growing fear of him drove them to develop their skills with a fierce speed just to survive the oncoming blows. Sergeant seemed to have the most success, especially with the quarterstaff; with the staff in his hands, he could deflect the worst of Dos’s cruel blows and often found ways to set the giant on the defense, although he was careful to avoid striking the man’s fingers. The last time he’d done that he’d woken up in the dark.
One afternoon they were heading for the training hall after the run when Dos stopped them. “Can all of you swim?” he asked, a clearly devilish look on his face. “I hope not.” The boys all shuddered. The giant was not a complex fellow, but he had a low cunning to him that made his physicality all the more horrifying to the boys. They knew by the tone in his voice that something bad was coming. Sergeant had never even been in water of any sort, was terrified by the concept, and had no idea how to swim. His stomach clenched up and began to hurt. He could take the blows and the running, but water -- he did not imagine he would survive. He had once read a story about a tragic drowning with lurid descriptions of rotted corpses waiting just beneath the water, and the image had stuck firmly in his mind. Water meant death.
Dos led them down a long series of stone steps to the ocean shore, then along the beach and up over a series of rock outcroppings until they reached a very large shelf of rock that butted out into the deeper ocean, its surface mottled and slimy. Clearly the shelf was underwater at high tide. There were many small tidal pools dotting the dark gray rock in which small creatures of all variety darted about, and Dos led the uncertain boys on a weaving thread between them.
They reached a hole in the rock expanse, a six-foot wide vent that was different than the tidal pools in that the water was gray like the ocean, and surging with tidal currents eight feet down. It was clearly connected with the ocean somehow, although the rock shelf still extended another thirty or forty feet out into the water. Dos smiled an ugly smile and invited them all to stand around the edge of it.
“This is called the Lethe,” he said cheerfully. He pointed directly out into the ocean. “It is a passage that goes through the rock into the ocean. So. You dive down, swim through the passage until you get to the ocean, then you climb up the rocks over there and come back until I am sure that you all know how to swim properly. And guess who gets to go first?” He looked right at Sergeant. “Strip.”
Sergeant’s heart dropped even further than it already was. The hole looked exactly like the sort of place described in the book. He was going to die, and became paralyzed with fear. He could not do this thing. Dos would throw him in, he would sink, and there he would remain for all eternity, a rotting ghost in a hole.
“I’ll go!” said a voice, and all the other boys watched with shock as an already naked Six arched out from the edge and plunged into the foaming gray surf at the bottom of the hole. He surfaced, spluttering. Dos jabbed a finger at the ocean. “That way!” he shouted, and put his hands on his hips to wait. Sergeant’s relief was quite visible, but everyone was looking at Six.
Instead of diving Six dog-paddled in the water, looking up at the other boys. “Swim by pulling the water behind you with your hands like this, and kicking like a frog,” he said.
“Get moving or I’ll start chucking rocks down at you,” Dos yelled down. Six glanced nervously at the giant, but then looked directly at Sergeant. “Just hold your breath and swim like this!” he shouted up. The boy swam in a little circle to demonstrate, which made Dos erupt in a roar of anger and look around for a loose rock. Before he could find anything Six took a deep breath and dove beneath the surface of the water like a fish.
Sergeant and the other boys waited an eternity. Dos said nothing, just watched the far edge of the rock shelf with mild interest. After what seemed like several minutes, Six’s head popped up over the rocks. As he worked his way back to the vent, the others saw that he was cut in many places, especially on his back. “There’s sharp rocks everywhere,” he stuttered through chattering teeth. “There’s a current that’ll suck you through, and when it does, watch out for the --”
“They’ll figure it out for themselves,” Dos growled. He looked again directly at Sergeant. “Get going!” he barked. “Coward! Move it, Rumpy, or I’ll just throw you in headfirst!”
Sergeant stripped off his tunic, trembling. “You can make it --” Six started to say, but a kick from Dos silenced him. Sergeant looked down into the dark gray churn with a sense of horror. “Like a frog! Hold your breath!” said Six, while dodging another kick. Dos closed in on him, but before he could get ahold of the boy, Sergeant braced himself and jumped in.
The water was incredibly cold, cold enough to shock him into movement. He flailed at the water, went under, bobbed up, went under again, and then tried to do the things he had seen Six doing. ‘Like a frog’. Sergeant began kicking with his legs and pulling the water down with his arms, bobbed up and worked at it until he found a suitable rhythm, suddenly found himself swimming for the first time in his life. “Use your hands flat, like paddles!” shouted Six. Dos roared to cut him off. “Get moving, Rumpy, or I’ll throw this rock right on your fat head!” Sergeant glanced up from his concentration to see that Dos was indeed holding a large ten-pound stone in his hand. He looked around the circle’s edge at the other boys, nodded, took a deep breath, and plunged his head below the water in the direction he thought the hole might be.
Like a frog. He kicked, and pushed the water behind him with his hands, and found himself suddenly submerged in pitch-black nothingness. After a few more kicks he felt a rock scrape along his back and tried to angle down a little only to scrape along the sharp rocks of the bottom of the passage. It hurt, and he let a little air escape -- this made him panic at the thought of running out of air, which made his heart pound faster and use up more air. He became disoriented several times, striking first a left wall and then a right wall that seemed to be made of nothing but sharp rocks, careening through the darkness with growing dread and a mind full of bad images.
The water surged around him and threw him into more sharp edges, and then suddenly he was gripped and pulled forward at high speed, rocketing through the passage all the way to the ocean in a matter of seconds and picking up a dozen more wounds along the way. He plunged into the light and space of the open ocean with a gasp of relief that almost drowned him as a wave smashed into his face and tumbled him back into the rocks before pulling him out into the deep water again.
It took him a long time to struggle up the edge of the rock shelf, but when he stood up straight he saw the other boys watching for him. He was shivered and bleeding from a dozen places, but he was alive, so he gave a little wave and started walking toward them.
Dos was making someone else go. Whoever it was -- Nine? – had become the focus of the group surrounding the hole. Sergeant said a silent prayer for whoever it was. Dos was really trying to kill them this time, and it seemed a certainty that something bad was going to happen to at least one of them.
Sergeant stumbled up to the edge of the hole with completely numb limbs, trembling so hard that it was difficult for him to stay upright. He stood by his tunic and looked around the circle. Nine. Nine was missing. The other boys all looked up from the depths of the hole at Sergeant now, their faces ashen. Sergeant looked down at himself and realized that he was bloody all over. He reached for his tunic -- “Hold there!” shouted Dos. “Stand up, Rumpy! You won’t need that, you’re all going again. And again. Until I’m satisfied.”
Fury boiled up within Sergeant. He knew it was foolish, but he didn’t care, they were all going to die anyway.
“It’s dangerous down there! Someone’s going to die!” Sergeant shouted, his pent-up rage driving his voice into an edge as sharp as a knife.
“That’s right!” screamed back Dos, at the top of his lungs, a force that assaulted all of their senses and made them shrink from the force. “Life’s dangerous! Combat is dangerous! Everything is dangerous! Get used to it! You’re all going to die, and it might as well be today if you can’t handle it! So shut your mouth or I’ll toss you in right now!”
Sergeant subsided into a sullen silence. “That’s right! Shut up or swim, you coward!” screamed Dos, just to drive his point home.
No one said anything for a long time. The boys kept their eyes on the far edge of the rock shelf, alert for any sign of Nine. Finally, after many long minutes, Sergeant saw a hand weakly wave over the edge.
But the moment Nine’s head appeared above the rocks, Dos ordered another to go, and then another, and soon they all swam the channel twice, and then a third time. Boys began to suffer exhaustion and hypothermia; even Six collapsed and vomited after his third run.
In contrast with the others, Sergeant felt himself adapting to the new skill. He was exhausted but getting better at swimming with every passing minute, almost as if he had done this before. The third time through he kicked his way along the center of the passage and down the rushing pull of the last stretch with only a few minor scrapes.
He climbed the rocks and stumbled over the shelf to stand with the group, checked the faces. Six. Six was missing.
“You made Six go? He was half dead!” Sergeant shouted at Dos over the roar of the surf from the hole. Dos made a mock face of horror and then smiled widely. Sergeant looked around the circle at the hopeless misery on the faces of the others. The moment flashed into him -- eight naked, exhausted and shivering boys, some in tears, some in shock, and the man who massed as much as half of them standing in the circle gloating over the death of one of them. Sergeant turned and watched the rocks at the end of the shelf for a few seconds -- there was no sign of Six -- and then he took a deep breath and jumped into the hole. He heard Dos shout, and after that he heard nothing but the roar of the surf.
He swam the length of the first part of the passage, but felt nothing in the blackness except a few rock protrusions that grazed his back and torso. He felt the pull of the last part, the rushing tunnel, and turned around to swim back to make sure Six wasn’t hung up somewhere. He worked his way forward again slowly, reaching past rock spikes that had already scarred him to feel inside the little caves and crannies of the wall, searching for anything that felt like a Six. He kept his head until he felt himself near the fast part again -- he was running out of air and time. Nothing below, nothing to the left, nothing right, nothing above, forward toward the sucking entrance to the surf-driven speed tunnel.
Near the end he had to hold on whatever he could to keep from being drawn in. He thought that perhaps Six had already been pulled through, and was floating unconscious in the ocean -- and then his foot touched something human, something not moving at all. Sergeant was losing his hold, and a particularly intense surge was dragging him forcibly into the speed tunnel. He knew it was now or never, and so he reached out with his hand to grab whatever he had felt -- it was an ankle -- and held on with all his might as the surge pulled him down the tunnel with impossible power. He was backwards this time, thrashing against rock walls that tore at his tumbling feet, the pressure of the water growing and the speed increasing until the light burst into his eyes once more, and he found himself flailing in the ocean gasping for breath, holding on to --
Six. Unconscious and bleeding -- Sergeant’s struggles to get the other boy onto the edge of the shelf were gargantuan. He had to climb the rocks with one hand while holding on to the floating body with the other, and then to pull, and pull, and pull until he was too exhausted to pull and knew he had failed. Then he felt hands lifting him up and reaching to take Six from his grasp. Sergeant let go of the other boy’s wrist with a gasp of release.
He became aware of Dos shouting from far away at the top of his lungs. “Get back over here now! The lot of you are going again! Get back here NOW, DO YOU HEAR ME?” None of the boys moved to obey; they all looked to Sergeant instead.
“Six,” he croaked. “He’s not breathing.”
In their time together, the boy named One had always kept quiet, and had always seemed to be just in the middle of them, another number, one more boy, just the first to be numbered. Now he sparked up and his eyes came alive. “Oh!” he said. “That’s me! I know how to do that!” And as Dos continued to bellow, the other boys parted and let One do whatever it was he said he knew how to do.
First, he turned Six over on to his back. He skittered around to the boy’s feet, gripped him by the ankles, forced his knees to his chest. A fountain of water gushed from Six’s mouth, but still he did not breathe. “Heaven’s Breath!” declared One, and crawled up and around Six until he could fasten his mouth to the other boy’s and breathe into it. One took another deep breath, did it again, once more -- Six came alive, vomiting up water directly into One’s mouth and coughing.
Sergeant managed to roll to his side to see this final success, and then the shadow that loomed up over the entire group.
Dos stood above them now, on the high lip of the shelf. He sneered down at them. “He’s fine, you see? Ready to go again. Let’s go. Let’s get a move! Move it up here! Up!”
None of them moved an inch. Dos was momentarily startled by this mutinous display, and his brow furrowed with astonishment until he thought about it and his rage began to build again.
Before it could erupt again Sergeant struggled to his feet, found solid ground, looked up the small slope at the giant above him. He couldn’t even see the man’s face clearly, but he could imagine his expression well enough.
“We’re done for the day,” Sergeant said in a measured tone that penetrated through the dull roar of the ocean. “You’ve tried to kill us, and now we’ve finished with that. We’re taking Six to the cook, and we’ll say nothing more to anyone about it. But if you try to make us jump in that hole again we’re all going to split up and run back to the castle. You might catch half of us. But at least one of us is going to get back, and all of us are going to scream bloody murder that you’re out here trying to kill us. John of Gaunt paid good money to the Abbey for us, and I don’t think his castle soldiers like you very much to begin with. This day is done.”
Sergeant said all of this without any interruption from Dos; in fact, the boy’s tone had truly surprised the man, and as he listened he grew more surprised with every word. As Sergeant was speaking the other boys had immediately and silently agreed, and began to spread out along the rock edges, seemingly preparing to dart in different directions. The overall effect was enough to make Dos change from surprise to humor; he laughed. “Ha! That’s good, Rump. A good one. Salient tactic. Very well, the exercise is concluded for this day. Take Six to the cook, and be quick about it lads. And put your clothes on, for Christ’s sake. You look like a herd of wet hairless monkeys.”
With these words the laughing giant disappeared from view, taking his shadow with him and leaving the ten boys in disbelief as to what had just happened.
They looked around at each other uncertainly. Six was conscious, but clearly in no shape to walk. “What happened to me?” he asked One, who was still kneeling over him.
“The Sergeant went in after you and pulled you out,” One said effusively. He was feeling particularly heroic, a thing he had not felt before in his life. “And then he told Dos to leave us alone and stop trying to kill us.”
“That was amazingly brave, Sergeant,” Three said, “and I think it would have worked.”
“It did work,” said Two, and the other boys enthusiastically agreed, enough so that Sergeant held up one hand and shook his head. “Hold on,” he said. “Six, you’d be dead right now if it wasn’t for One. What was that thing you did?”
“Breath of Life! I saw it done once, there was a Gillingham fisherman that knew how and saved a man,” One replied. “I just remembered.”
“Six, you threw up right in his mouth,” Sergeant said with just a hint of amused disgust. “I think you should apologize.”
“Ohh, that’s horrible,” Six said, wrinkling up his face. “Sorry, One. Thanks, One.”
“It was great -- I finally knew how to do something!” One was clearly excited by the attention.
Six smiled weakly. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard you talk before. You should teach us all how to do that.”
One beamed, and the group leaned in ever so slightly to share the bond. Then One looked at Sergeant, and then they all looked at Sergeant, and when Sergeant realized they were all looking at him he shrugged.
“Let’s get Six to the cook, then,” he said, and without another word they moved as one body to accomplish the task he had set for them.
The cook was a large formerly red-haired woman with a bit of a mustache and a harsh manner concealing a heart of gold. She took one look at the group of boys and began to curse like a sailor, promising to feed Dos a good dose of final cure if he ever set foot in her kitchen. She shouted for her helpers to fill a kettle and build up the coals, ordered Six to be placed on one of the tables, and lined them all up for general inspection.
She ordered them to disrobe, and spent a few minutes asking questions and looking the worst of their wounds over. When she reached Sergeant, she gasped, He was reluctant to explain what had happened to them until Three broke in with a cleverly abridged story of the Lethe that did not directly indict Dos. The cook was unconvinced by the tale, however, and repeated her threat concerning the giant’s food.
Soon enough the water was boiling, clean cloths were brought out, and the cook and her helpers set to cleaning the worst of the boys’ wounds. Sergeant was hovered over for a long time, as there were very few places left unscarred on him. The cook went back to tending Six and ordered one of the helpers to continue cleaning Sergeant’s endless series of gores and slashes.
The helper was a young girl, only a few years older than he was. He had never been near a girl his age before, although he had seen them from a distance at the town market. She was not particularly clean, but she had a pleasant face beneath the drudgy hair and a way about her that caused Sergeant to glance at her more than once. He suddenly remembered that he was naked, and blushed a deep red.
“Meredith,” she said.
Sergeant jumped a little. “What?” he said, more uncomfortable than he had ever been in his life.
“My name is Meredith.”
“Oh,” he said, thinking furiously. “That’s a very nice name. I’ve never heard it before. What does it mean?”
“I don’t know. Usually it’s a boy’s name. What’s your name?”
She frowned as she moved to clean a long, bloody valley along his right shoulder blade. “What’s your real name?”
“That’s my name. I didn’t have a name, and when they picked us out the John of Gaunt man named me Sergeant. I was only called Boy.”
“Sergeant’s not a proper name,” she said.
He looked down. She saw that he was hurt by her statement.
“You’re very brave,” she said, trying to regain his trust. “To save your friend like that.”
“He saved me first,” replied Sergeant. “Jumped in and showed me how to swim. I’ve never been in water. I would have died. And Six too, without the thing that One did. The -- Heaven’s Breath. I’ve never seen anything like that.”
“Why are you so -- bloody? What happened to you? The others are bad, but you’re the worst.”
Sergeant looked up and realized the entire room was now watching the two of them. He shook his head and looked at the floor.
“I’m slow,” he said. “Slow to learn.”
“Fast enough for me,” said Six weakly from his prone position on the table, where the cook was just stitching up the last rip. The other boys took up this chorus and showered congratulations on Sergeant, all of which made him blush deeper red. Suddenly Meredith dabbed at a bad spot, and he drew away from her touch with a quick intake of breath.
“Sorry,” she said, looking at him with wide eyes. “It’s all right,” he said looking back at her, and relaxed to allow her to continue. “Slow and sensitive,” he said, looking at the floor, almost talking to himself. He could not see it but the look on Meredith’s face was clear to everyone else; she liked him.
The other boys fell silent and turned away to give them privacy, but the cook looked over and caught enough of the moment to bark at Meredith for being a slow learner herself. Meredith finished quickly and went on to the next boy, while Sergeant was relieved not to have her standing so close to him, at least until the cook turned around with the stitching needle in her hand. His wounds ended up taking her the better part of an hour to work over, and when she was done he felt like one of the Egyptian mummies he had read about, trussed and stitched for eternity.
That night he dreamed of his parents again, that he was home asleep on his little platform in their single-roomed hutch behind the town dump. It was a long and pleasant dream from which he awoke naturally, a thing that had not happened for him since he had been taken from his home. Dos did not arrive for their morning run until the sun was already bright in the sky, and the man was strangely quiet for the rest of the day as he led them through their normal training routine, with none of the customary kicks and curses. In fact, he was downright absent-minded.
The next day, however, he was back in form. The training settled in to a moderately hellish routine, sixteen hours a day, seven days a week. Each weapon against every other weapon, unarmed combat, unarmed combat against every weapon. Dos still abused them, but definitely less than before, as if his heart was no longer truly in it. He still chose Sergeant for training demonstrations, and Sergeant still got the worst of everything, but after a few weeks the boy had found he was starting to be able to evade most of the worst blows.
At least they were using wooden swords and maces -- he’d be missing most of his limbs by now if the weapons were real. Dos was more than three times his size, but he moved faster than Sergeant, always faster -- only the boy’s growing intuition kept him intact and still standing. He began to know how Dos fought, and how not to be at the place his staff or sword was striking. This irritated Dos to no end, of course, and sometimes the sessions ended with Dos comically chasing Sergeant around the room until the inevitable catching and cuffing.
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The lost child of a plague orphan is purchased for training as a young prince's bodyguard. He barely survives the training only to be captured and sold as a slave in Barcelona. Eventually his martial skills make him valuable, and he becomes a champion of the international ring. This fame proves dangerous when he is forced by a medieval mad scientist to become the perfect combat machine.