(Go back to Part 38)
“Who is my enemy? The Plague? No.
I am but a vessel for the sacred fire.
Those who oppose me are not my enemy. Those who betray and ensnare me are not my enemy. Those who would feed me to the fires of destruction are not my enemy, for in the end we all become the flame.
My only enemy is my weakness.
The sacred flame will cleanse the world, if only I can carry it.”
–The Lexicon, Sunrise Doctrine 57:12
Life in the cave soon settled into a predictable pattern. Osmund would drill them every morning, while the afternoons were free for study or leisure as the Acolytes preferred. The only restriction was that they could not leave—there was no other supervision.
Most of the other Acolytes shunned Alex after her fight with Garth. She didn’t mind—what she did mind was being in the furthest cot from the fire at night, but there wasn’t much she could do about it. An extra blanket stolen from the storeroom helped.
Her only friend was Darrin the Bookbinder. They stayed up late talking most nights—Darrin knew a lot about politics and history, two subjects that McCann had done little to instruct Alex in. He explained the family histories of each of the Acolytes, detailing convoluted intermarriages and lines of succession.
“It’s all so complicated,” complained Alex one night. “We don’t have anything like this in the North.”
“There hasn’t been an outbreak here in a hundred years. What else is there to do?” replied Darrin.
Other Acolytes joined them every few days. Sometimes they came alone, and sometimes two or three at once. They were usually immaculate, with oil and perfume in their hair and gleaming white tunics. Alex envied their cleanliness and fine equipment, but she was especially jealous of the beautiful swords they carried. Most were new, gleaming with inlaid silver and etched patterns on their blades. She still was unarmed.
To vent her frustration, Alex continued her practice with the quarterstaff. She found a suitable piece of wood laid against the wall in one of the storerooms; she practiced with it whenever she was sick of talking with Darrin or reading books in the small barracks library. Mostly she worked in the evening, because it was harder to find her then. She practiced during the day a few times but soon stopped when the other Acolytes came to laugh at her. “Alex No-Sword!” they called her, “Alex Red-Hand!”
One evening, as Alex was starting to think about fetching the quarterstaff from under her cot, Sir Osmund summoned them all downstairs.
“The Grand Master has returned to the citadel. The trials start tomorrow, so get a good night’s rest, you lot.”
They did no such thing, of course. The Acolytes stayed up half the night, talking amongst themselves and speculating as to what the first trial would be. Alex did not add to the conversation, but they allowed her to sit at the edge of the circle.
“I hear we’ll have to fight Sir Osmund!” said one.
“Ha! Old bastard—that’ll be easy.”
Alex doubted Osmund would be an easy foe, but she kept her thoughts to herself.
“Nah, maybe we’ll have to fight each other.”
“Well, we all know how that’ll end. Garth’ll beat us silly.”
“Maybe the last ten will get it?”
“You know, it’s not just skill at arms,” piped up Darrin. “There are exams, too—”
“Aw, shuddup, Bookbinder, no one makes knight because he can read and calculate!”
“They’ll make him a librarian for sure, he doesn’t even want to be a knight!”
“He’ll probably wet himself when he goes to draw . . .”
And so went the conversation.
Despite the Acolytes’ fevered anticipation, the first day of the trials was a major disappointment. Sir Osmund assembled them on the dirt floor of the cave and gave a long speech about the history of the Curate and what it meant to join the knighthood. Three vague shapes were visible in the latticed balcony, but it was impossible to tell who they were. After Osmund finished, they spent the entire day in drill without swords, moving through the motions of different routines again and again. Some of the boys began to get bored and started adding extra little gestures here and there when Osmund wasn’t looking and whispering to their friends. Alex didn’t have any friends, though—Darrin was on the other side of the block—and so she kept working through the movements. Sometimes she thought of McCann’s strange variations . . . Alex would’ve welcomed the change.
After a disappointing first day, the Acolytes sprang to the racks of practice swords the next morning when they were bidden by Sir Osmund. Soon they were divided into pairs and sparring with each other. Alex did well, or at least she thought so. Many of the perfumed, beautifully-groomed Acolytes did not seem to be such good fighters, although some of the others who’d arrived bald and flea bitten like Alex were as good as, or better than, she was. One new arrival from the Western Isles fought like a cornered animal, while another from the Black Forest defeated her through pure grace and speed. Garth defeated everyone, of course; his attack when facing Alex was so fierce and sudden that the fight barely lasted a minute. He is afraid of me, thought Alex—Darrin was right! All the same she was glad to yield if it spared her nose additional punishment.
In the afternoon they fought Osmund, one at a time, as one of the boys had predicted. The first few went up smiling, expecting an easy victory against the old man, only to be thrown into the dust after barely an instant. Others were more cautions after that, but it only prolonged their defeat.
Alex approached Sir Osmund when it was her turn. The old man had fought a dozen already without breaking a sweat. When he saw her, the barest hint of a smile crept into the corners of his eyes and he shifted his stance. Alex couldn’t believe it—it was the stance of the Southern duelists, the one she’d used against Garth.
“So you were watching . . .”
He ignored her. “Are you ready yet?”
Again, she did well, or at least she thought so. Osmund forced her to yield in the end. She could feel the old knight guiding her, pushing her gently from one path of attack to the next, inviting her into various defenses, gradually speeding until Alex couldn’t keep up. It’s not a battle, thought Alex halfway through, it’s a demonstration. He’s showing them upstairs what I can do. Instead of fighting him, Alex followed the old knight, and found the tip of the practice blade at her neck just as she exhausted her knowledge.
Osmund was chuckling. “Someone finally figured it out,” he muttered. And he motioned the next Acolyte forward.
Garth went last. Alex began to worry—skilled as he was, Osmund was old and weighed half of what Garth did. The strength of the young man’s attack was ferocious, and Sir Osmund was so frail . . . she didn’t want to see Garth beat the old man. When Garth was finally called, the others crowded around to see what would happen.
Alex needn’t have worried. As soon as Garth was ready, the swords flashed. One, two, three strokes—and it was over, with Osmund’s blade at Garth’s throat. The Acolytes gasped; it was the shortest demonstration of the day. “Too predictable,” said Osmund in the silence of Garth’s defeat. The big Acolyte reddened and dropped his sword, but said nothing.
The next day they awoke to find a herd of goats in the cave, staked individually at an even distance from each other.
“What is this?” asked a few.
“We are to do battle with them,” joked others. “The battle of the goats.”
Darrin remained silent, though, and was white as a sheet. He was even more nervous than he’d been the day before. Alex didn’t take this as a good sign.
“What is it, Binder? You know what this is?”
He shook his head but didn’t reply.
Osmund appeared before they could question him further. “Each one of you pick a goat.” Alex did so, and took one near the edge of the group. The animal was dirty and thin, staring back at her with beady eyes, and it stank. It shat onto the dirt floor of the cave as they stared at each other, a thin stream of loose black pellets. “I’ll name you Garth,” said Alex to herself.
Osmund moved from one Acolyte to the next, leaving a pouch with various herbs, strips of cloth, thread and needle, and a small knife. Alex examined them, wondering what they had to do with the goat . . . her question was answered when Osmund reached the front of the cave again and drew a long jagged knife from his belt. Comprehension dawned on Alex just before the blade slashed down into the first goat’s abdomen.
“Oh, shit!” yelled the first Acolyte. “Why did you do that?” Blood spurted all over him.
“Don’t just sit there, save it!” yelled Osmund back at him. The old knight struck willy-nilly at the animals tethered around him. Soon the air was full of the sounds of screaming animals and panicked Acolytes. The air stank of blood as it soaked into the floor.
Alex’s goat got a deep slash across the flank as the jagged blade tore at its muscle. The animal screamed in pain, tearing at its tether. Alex had to wrap its torso between her legs to keep it still, but even then it was a struggle to pin it down and stop the bleeding with a bandage. She forced some bitterweed between the animal’s jaws to dull the pain and calm it before taking up the needle and thread. A kettle of water was boiling over the fire in the center of the cave—she sterilized the needle quickly before returning to the goat.
The bitterweed had done its job—the goat lay moaning with lidded eyes. It started again when she poured alcohol over the wound, but remained insensible even as the needle stitched flesh together.
By the time Osmund came back, the wound was bandaged again. The old knight peered underneath to check the stitches. Osmund nodded once, and Alex sighed with relief—until Osmund stabbed his knife in the goat’s belly and tore downward. Blood and gore spattered everywhere—the animal screamed again—Alex gasped. It was a terrible wound . . .
When Osmund returned a second time, the goat was still. Alex was covered in blood, forehead to knees, and it pooled all around her. “What did you do, Acolyte?”
“The only thing I could, with its bowls slashed open like that.” The goat’s neck was slit. Osmund frowned, but moved on.
By the end of the morning, only Darrin’s goat still lived, patched up in a half-dozen places and rendered unconscious from a potion. The Bookbinder looked worse than his patient, pale white underneath the spatters of blood, and he’d vomited at least twice off to the side. They had the rest of the day off, and roast goat that night for dinner.
As they ate that night at the long trestle tables, Sir Osmund appeared with a small wooden keg.
“What’s that?” asked someone.
“A present from the Grand Master. A bit of wine to calm your stomachs.”
There was a round of cheers from the tables, and Acolytes mobbed Sir Osmund with their cups.
Alex got a third of a cup and returned to her seat. She waited for the others to return, and Garth hoisted his cup in a toast.
“To the Grand Master!”
“The Grand Master!” they echoed, and drank.
Something troubled Alex as she brought the cup to her lips. She paused before drinking, trying to put her finger on it. McCann’s voice popped into her head, from the barge on the way to Dunheim. “Let nothing pass your lips that you didn’t prepare yourself . . . especially if it comes from a friend.” She sniffed the wine . . . it smelled fine, rich and dark. Alex pretended to drink and set the cup back on the table. As she reached for more roast goat, she knocked the cup over with her elbow.
Wine spilled across the table.
“Oops—I’m sorry!” Alex reached to grab the glass and bumped Darrin’s as well, spilling it everywhere.
Curses followed her down the table, but soon the incident was forgotten. Alex looked back—most of the others were drinking, but the Acolyte from the Western Isles and a few others did not.
That night many of the boys were particularly drowsy when they went to bed. Alex wondered if she’d been right to be suspicious of the gift . . . the proof would come in the morning, she decided.
It came earlier than that. Alex woke halfway through the night. She didn’t know what woke her at first, except that it was that same old tickle that McCann told her to listen to. She held herself very still, waiting and listening to the other Acolytes snoring.
There it was—a noise, the whisper of leather on stone. A sandal on the staircase, and another. There were many of them . . . Dark shapes entered the barracks, armed and armored. Their helms were shrouded in gray, lit by the light of dying embers on the hearth. Naked steel blades were in their hands.
There was still time, but only if they acted quickly. Alex leaped from the bed, shouting as she did. “Attack! Intruders! Wake! Attack!”
Garth was one of the first out of bed—he was always fast to rise. His sword flashed from his scabbard, and he moved to attack one of the intruders, clad only in his nightclothes—
—and stopped after a single step. Alex saw his eyes widen; the sword clattered from his hand. He doubled over, both hands wrapped around his stomach. There was a gurgle and a moan before a jet of warm brown liquid spurted from under his shorts. Chunks of half-digested food streamed down his legs as Garth’s bowels erupted into his underclothes. A sour stench filled the air.
I was right about the wine, Alex had enough time to think to herself. Most of the other Acolytes who had woken up were experiencing similar distress, and brown liquid ran all over the floor. The men in gray were ignoring those who were sick, attacking only those healthy enough to fight. Already there was the sound of steel ringing on steel from the Western Isle Acolyte’s cot.
Another took notice of Alex at the end of the room and started coming toward her. Alex still had no sword, and it wouldn’t do to fight with a knife . . . she thought about trying to reach another Acolyte’s sword before having a better idea.
The stick she was using as a quarterstaff lay under her cot. She knelt and snatched it up, just in time to surprise the gray knight advancing on her. A hammering blow to the side of his helm threw the man sideways into another cot, causing him to stumble, and his guard faltered as his footing did the same. Alex landed several unanswered blows before the knight regained his feet and parried her next attack.
Alex caught the knight’s counterattack on her staff, but it wasn’t the seasoned wood of a true quarterstaff. The re-purposed broom handle shattered at the knight’s blow. Alex retreated, holding two useless sticks, but soon her back was against the wall and the sword at her throat.
“Come,” said the knight. The fight was over.
Alex and the others who weren’t sick were led downstairs and out into the cavern. It was dark and cold—only the stars above marked the hole in the ceiling; the rest of the cave lay in shadow. The half-dozen of them who hadn’t drunk the wine were seated against a wooden pillar, feet out in a circle, and tied to it with several lengths of sturdy rope. The knights left them there and went back inside the barracks. Soon a bright fire was burning inside the common room.
It was cold, and they were all in bedclothes. Soon Alex was shivering, along with Darrin beside her.
“T-t-thanks,” said Darrin.
“W-w-why?” asked Alex.
“F-f-for spilling my w-w-wine.”
“H-h-how d-d-did you k-k-know?” he asked her.
“D-d-didn’t. Took a g-g-guess,” answered Alex.
The islander was on her other side. They hadn’t met. She introduced herself.
“I’m A-a-alex. Who’re y-y-you?”
“Cragson Sarth,” said the boy, trying not to shiver.
“Why d-d-didn’t you d-d-drink?” she asked him.
“My f-f-father was killed by p-p-poison,” the boy replied.
“Oh.” Alex felt bad for asking.
“This is o-o-one of the t-t-tests, right?” asked Darrin.
“I d-d-dunno,” said Alex.
Alex craned her head up to look at the stars. It was still hours until morning. She didn’t want to spend the night out in the cold. The ropes around them were tight across her chest, and she couldn’t move her arms, but her legs were free. She tried to get them under her body, but she couldn’t. There was no way to stand.
“W-w-what are you doing?” asked Darrin.
“T-t-trying to escape.”
“No. Too tight,” she said.
A minute passed in silence as Alex tried other directions. None of them worked. Cragson Sarth nudged her.
“What?” she asked.
“I f-f-found a rock with my foot. It’s s-s-sharp, but I can’t use it,” said Cragson.
He pushed something with his toes to Alex’s leg. Alex could feel it—a flat stone, with one jagged edge, about as big as her palm.
“Can you reach it? You’re s-s-smaller,” asked Cragson.
“Maybe . . .” Alex strained, “. . . if you push your side out a little . . .”
Cragson took a deep breath. His chest was wide and powerful, even if he wasn’t as tall as Garth. The tension made Darrin gasp on the other side, but freed Alex’s hand enough to grasp the stone.
“Got it!” she said.
“C-c-can you cut?” asked Cragson.
“I think so . . .” by twisting her wrist, she was able to push the teeth of the stone against the ropes. She started to saw back and forth, slowly.
One of the boys on the barracks side of the group kept watch as Alex kept working. He reported that nothing was moving inside, and the gray knights were just sitting at the fire with their backs to the door.
It took most of an hour, but the rope was soft and soon the bonds were looser. Alex was the smallest, so once she wriggled free the others were able to escape, too. They slunk through the darkness, moving according to the plan Alex had hatched while working on the rope.
A minute later they slipped through the door of the barracks clutching the cold, blunt wood of the practice swords. The knights were still staring at the fire; they would be blind to the boys in the dark—foolish of them, thought Alex. She was confident that they could raise a few good bruises before being disarmed again. With a bit of luck they might even take the knights prisoner themselves—Cragson was a fierce fighter, and the others were strong as well. It would be nice to tie the knights up and leave the Grand Master a present in the morning.
They moved silently on bare feet—the knights didn’t show any sign of hearing them. Once they were in position, Alex raised her sword and exchanged a look with the others. They nodded, and then shattered the silence with a yell, charging at the knights—
And their blows crunched through straw and cloth. The knights were practice dummies made for archers, and the group of Acolytes had ambushed them with great success. They lay in pieces on the floor, bleeding straw, the real knights long gone.
“Well . . . shit,” said Cragson, staring at the carnage.
There was a sound on the stairs, but it was only Sir Osmund bearing a pile of blankets. He surveyed the scene. “Good.”
They took the blankets and slept outside, away from the stench of the other Acolytes.
(Go on to Part 40)