(Go back to Part 5)
“Acolyte, you seeker of the flame,
You know not what it is to burn,
Not yet. But you will.”
–The Lexicon, Vorhall’s Letters To The Acolyte 13:1
Alex dismounted just inside Goodhollow’s timber barricade. She tied Brutus to a hitching post just inside the gate, near the village’s single inn. He snorted once, and shook his head, but consented.
“I’ll be back soon, Brutus.” She rubbed him once on the neck. “Don’t worry. With any luck, we’re finally leaving today.” She stepped out of the mud onto the timber sidewalk.
The sun was well up now and the town was alive with the bustle of traders and merchants hauling their goods into market. Alex mounted the curving cobblestone path uphill, nodding to the sentry as she passed into the courtyard. The chapel was on her right, buttressing the tall watchtower, but Alex turned her steps toward the long barracks on the other side.
Cots were cleared to the sides and trainees were busy preparing for the morning’s drills. Young men and women stitched fabric, worked at boots, or roughhoused with each other on the wide stone floor. A few paused and stared as Alex walked through, but most pretended not to see her.
She ascended a narrow spiral staircase to the second level, passing the quarters of the chapter’s two full knights. Neither were in. At the end of the second floor hallway was the headmaster’s office. The door was cracked open, and Alex could hear voices inside. She hesitated, and then knocked over-loud to compensate.
“Come in!” came the immediate reply. She pushed the door open.
The headmaster’s office was lit from above, via skylight, and by two large windows that looked over the courtyard toward the gate. The chapter records that did not fit in the archive downstairs were sitting in musty piles on bookcases, while a wide and deeply-scarred desk dominated the center of the room. A wooden practice sword was propped in the corner, marked with fresh chips and scuffs. It saw much more use than the records did.
Alex bowed before the headmaster. “Headmaster.”
Headmaster Barrius was a huge, barrel-chested man with a full red beard and thick, muscular forearms. The reading spectacles perched on his face looked ridiculous, as did the fragile quill trapped in one giant hand. A number of official documents lay before him, nearly finished.
“Ah, Alexis. Sit down. I was just telling the sergeant about you.”
Alex sat in one of the chairs. She recognized the man sitting next to her—it was the disheveled stranger from dinner three nights ago.
“Sergeant, this the Acolyte I was just telling you about. Acolyte, meet Knight-Sergeant Tobias McCann.”
She took a closer look at him. The sergeant was slumped in his chair, chin nearly touching his chest and legs stuck straight out before him until the tips of his boots clipped the bottom of Barrius’s desk. His traveling clothes were dull and bore no insignia – it was only by the red flame on the hilt of his dagger that he could identified as a Curate at all. Several day’s growth of gray stubble decorated his chin and a pair of dark eyes were buried somewhere in sunken red eye sockets.
Three days’ rest had done little to soften the man’s hard edges. Alex didn’t like him any more now than she had before.
“Sergeant McCann arrived three days ago with dispatches from the North. He’s headed to Antioch, and I’m sending you with him.”
Alexis glanced again at the sergeant. His dark eyes unsettled her, and he smelled like horse sweat and rotting leather. “Headmaster, I thought it would be someone from our own chapter . . . Sir Roundtree, maybe.”
“I can’t spare anyone right now, not with the outbreak in Beaumont. And if you’re going to insist on taking the precepts as soon as possible, then you’ll get who’s available. You want to go to Antioch? Well, this is your chance!” he said.
“I could make the journey by myself—”
“You need a guide, Acolyte. I’m not sending you out there alone.” Barrius sighed. “And I fought beside Sergeant McCann myself, many years ago. You’ll be in good hands.”
It was hard to imagine these two men paired on the battlefield – Barrius, huge, tidy, and commanding, along with McCann, slumped and unshaven. But there was only one thing she could say. “As you command, Headmaster.”
“Good. You leave today.”
“My kit is downstairs.”
“Good,” repeated Barrius. He heaved a long sigh, paused, and set down his pen. Alex saw him prepare for battle one last time and braced herself accordingly. She’d been expecting this.
“Acolyte, you know that I’m not happy about this. I do not—do not—think you are ready for the trials. I’ve made every argument I can think of to dissuade you, and you’ve given me nothing but silence in return. I hope you can understand how frustrated I am.”
“I do,” said Alex, hopelessly. She liked Barrius. He was tough and fair; it felt terrible to do this to him. But she had no choice.
“And so I want to give you one last chance to change your mind. Abandon this mad idea of yours, Alex, please. I’ve sent many acolytes to the Citadel, and I know what I’m doing. It you trust me, stay in Goodhollow for another year. Even six months. You’ll have a much better chance at the trials than you do now.”
Alex bowed her head. “I am going. It’s within my rights to claim the trials whenever I want to.”
“I have to let you go. You’re right about that. But you should know that I’m not letting you go willingly. It just . . .” he slammed one palm down on the desk. “It just doesn’t make sense, dammit! Why you, Alex? Why you? And why now?”
“You were always one of the easy ones, Alex, you and Dalia both. Half the acolytes I have to keep away from the whiskey bottle, the other half I have to keep from shagging every village girl they come across. Sure, you’re not brilliant with a sword, and you’re not into books like Dalia, but bless it I could always trust you to have a decent head on your shoulders! Until now!” Barrius was red in face.
“I’m sorry, Headmaster.” His frank assessment of her fighting skill stung even through the haze of other emotions filling the room.
“I don’t even care if you go at this point, Alex. You’ve got your heart set on that, clearly enough, and I’m not going to be able to stop you. I just want to know why! Why now? Why so soon?” His glasses were forgotten on the table as he pressed his point home.
“I can’t tell you, Headmaster. But I am going.”
“Yes.” Alex stood firm.
Barrius stared at her, lower lip pushed forward and up until his mouth was white, and then picked up his glasses again. “Fine. Very well. So be it, Acolyte.” He reached for his pen.
Alex glanced over at the Sergeant. McCann hadn’t moved through the entire encounter.
“The . . . eleventh . . . of . . . September . . .” muttered Barrius under his breath as he scribbled the end to each of the documents in front of him. He signed with a flourish before closing each with a dab of melted wax and the seal on his ring. He handed one to each of them.
“Sergeant, my report. Acolyte, your papers of recommendation. Don’t lose them!”
“I won’t.” Alex tucked them into the inside pocket of her coat.
“Is there anything else, Headmaster?” she asked.
Barrius gave her a long look. He was frowning. “Just my blessing, Acolyte.”
Alex knelt and received her headmaster’s blessing. He muttered the words from the Lexicon, making the signs with one hand before touching her on the top of the skull with two fingers. Then he returned to his desk. “Now, go and wait in the courtyard. I need to have a few more words with the Sergeant.”
“Thank you, Headmaster.” Alex rose to leave.
“Yes?” She paused. Barrius was giving her another searching glance. Alex waited for Barrius to try to change her mind. She readied the arguments in her mind as she had a dozen times before, but in the end the headmaster said just two words.
“Thank you, Headmaster.” And Alex shut the door behind her..
She didn’t mean to pause outside the door, but the sergeant hadn’t said a word through his entire interview and curiosity overcame her. After a second she heard Barrius speak.
“So, what do you think?”
“She’s young.” Alex strained to hear the sergeant’s voice; McCann spoke in a low rasp, barely more than a growl.
“They’re all young, these days.”
A grunted agreement. “She’s taking the precepts early?”
“Yes. I was going to offer to send her in the spring, but three days ago she came and demanded the rites early. It’s her right, of course, but . . .”
“So she’s ambitious? Or in trouble here? Debts? A Quarrel?”
“That’s just the thing—I don’t know! She’s a quiet one, Tobias. I delayed her as much as I could, but no one knows anything. It’s completely out of character.”
“Will she break? Because if she slows me down . . .”
“I don’t think so. She’s not as good as Ellsworth or Dawes, but I think she’ll pull through. Another six months would’ve been better.”
“If she breaks, I’ll send her back and she can go in the Spring.”
The Headmaster’s chair groaned as Barrius shifted his weight. “Fair enough. How is it in the North?”
Another grunt. “Bad.”
“Four hundred dead, two score of them Curate. Two hundred turned.”
“Mercy. Winter will be a blessing.”
“Aye. They’ll be lucky to have it any time soon, though, after a summer like this. More men would be the real blessing.”
Alex heard feet on the stairs, coming up. She moved away from the door, before anyone could see her eavesdropping. Knight Roundtree gave her a curt nod as they passed in the hallway, and she went downstairs to gather her kit.
Sergeant McCann was waiting for her when she emerged from the chapter house with pack and bedroll. Headmaster Barrius was drilling recruits on the parade ground; wooden swords moved in unison and massed feet stirred up dust as he called commands. He raised a hand to them as they left, but didn’t speak.
The two of them passed through Goodhollow in silence. At the gate, Alex mounted Brutus while Sergeant McCann saddled his own horse. She was an odd-colored mare, a little shorter than Brutus and with a dull look in her eyes. McCann grunted once at Alex without looking at her.
“Yes.” Brutus was loaded and ready to go. Her sword, bedroll, rain gear, and rations were all tied up or strapped down on the saddle
McCann flicked the reins and they set off through the town gate. Alex couldn’t help but turn in the saddle to look back a few times at her home before it disappeared behind them. She thought he saw McCann watching her out of the corner of his eye when she did.
And then, when she turned, Goodhollow was gone. There was nothing behind them but the autumn leaves and a winding dirt track.
Alex was on her way.
(Continue: Part 7)