My writeup about Zach Weinersmith’s panel is in The Austin Chronicle:
My writeup about Zach Weinersmith’s panel is in The Austin Chronicle:
Good news first: I’ve finished compiling my beta feedback for the new manuscript.
The bad news? It needs a near-complete rewrite. I’m hoping to have the next draft done by the end of 2016. To make up for it in some small measure, I’d like to talk briefly about the biggest thing that’s broken in this manuscript. Hopefully that will keep someone else from making the same mistakes that I have.
The external genre of this story is action, and every action story needs three things:
To reduce an action story its most simplistic, the hero risks all to keep the villain from harming the victim.
I have a hero and a villain in the manuscript, but my only real victim figure is rescued at the end of act I. Without a solid victim, the hero and the villain have no reason to come into conflict, and so the rest of the manuscript feels contrived and flat. I’ve had to rely on coincidences and unrealistic grudges to keep the hero and the villain in conflict with one another. Why should the hero bother fighting the villain when there’s nothing at stake?
There’s no easy fix here except rethinking the victim role entirely.
Thanks a ton to my beta readers for helping me figure out what’s going right (and wrong) with the new book!
Those of you with an analytical bent may find this interesting. Here’s my scene sheet for Patrick Rothfuss’s hit first book, The Name of the Wind:
I’ve been working from Shawn Coyne’s book The Story Grid, and a big part of his analytical method is breaking books down into their component scenes. I spent about a week doing this for TNotW; a few conclusions:
More thoughts to come, but I think that’s enough for now. I’m thinking about which book to do next, and I’ll be continuing my focus on the Fantasy Epic genre. Suggestions welcome in the comments, of course.
(Go back to Part 42)
“There is only one Cure.”
–The Lexicon, Sunrise Doctrine 1:1
Alex rode through the forest, holding Brutus to an easy walk. McCann followed close behind on his dumpy-looking brown mare. They were both wrapped in long cloaks—winter’s grasp on Goodhollow was loosening, but the village had yet to see a single shoot of green come up through the snow. Horses and riders alike were spattered in mud from the half-thawed road. Alex’s staff was strapped to the saddle next to her, while McCann carried his own sword as well as another wrapped in oilcloth.
The path turned and they came to the small gate. Alex dismounted and led Brutus through. The apothecary’s cottage was just as she remembered it, a wisp of smoke curling from the chimney.
Alex knocked on the door. Joseph opened it. “Who is—” He stared, gaping. “Alex! Alex! It’s you!” They embraced.
“Damn, it’s good to see you,” she said.
“You too, Alex. I didn’t know if you made it or not!”
The apothecary’s smile vanished when he saw McCann, armed with one sword and carrying another. “You brought someone—I didn’t expect—”
“It’s all right. He knows,” she said.
“Ah.” Joseph’s face fell further. “Well.”
“How is she?” asked Alex.
“She . . . well . . . you should come and see for yourself.”
Dalia was under the blanket just as before, although she’d been moved closer to the hearth. She was thin, wasted, and her hair was brittle and thinning. Worse than that, though, was the gray pallor that crept up her neck and along one cheek.
“What’s that?” asked Alex.
“The Plague moves on its own, somehow. It has its own mind, independent of the body. It’s much slower on its own, but I had to adjust the dosage,” said Joseph.
“Show us,” said McCann.
Joseph pulled back the blanket. Dalia’s entire arm was ghostly white, except where black veins snaked through under her skin. The skin itself was cracked and dry. Her arm was dead, and the plague was creeping up her neck. Even the jugular was black.
“I’m sorry. No one’s ever been under this long before. I don’t know if it’s possible to come back . . . Alex, if you brought a cure, give it to her soon. It will be more complicated now, since the mortification is so far gone in her arm. I don’t even know if she should wake up; the pain would be unimaginable, with all of that dead flesh.”
“Don’t worry. I brought the Cure.” Alex laid a hand on the sword wrapped in oilcloth. Joseph bowed his head.
“I was afraid of that.”
They built a small pyre in the field behind the hut, on the opposite side of the vegetable patch. Dalia lay on the logs, wrapped in a cotton blanket. McCann stood by with a torch.
Alex drove her staff into the snow and unwrapped the sword McCann had carried for her. The scabbard was plain black leather, trimmed with steel and silver. When she drew the blade, it rang out with a clear note. It was fine steel, well-balanced, and deadly sharp.
Alex turned to McCann. “Do I have to do it myself?” She already knew the answer.
Alex turned to Dalia. She touchedDalia’s cheek one last time with her left hand . . . the wasted red fingers brushed against Dalia’s decaying gray flesh. She sighed, remembering. “What have we become, Dalia?” she asked herself.
Alex laid the blade against Dalia’s throat. One swift cut and it was done. Blood seeped from her neck, red and glistening, but so did something else. It was gray and white, the consistence of curdled milk, and it clogged the veins in her neck. The stink was instant and terrible.
She was already dead, thought Alex. She was dead months ago.
McCann set the torch to the logs. A minute later, and the pyre was aflame. The sergeant said a prayer, and they left Alex to sit by the flames alone.
They rode back to the Goodhollow chapter house in silence, McCann in the lead. The sword was clean and strapped tight to McCann’s saddle—Alex would not wear it until Barrius gave her the precepts.
Lost in her own thoughts, Alex didn’t notice McCann slow until the sergeant was right next to her. They rode this way in silence for a while.
“Her name was Elaina,” began McCann without preamble. “I met her at Matthias’s wedding, the year after he was discharged from active service. She was a friend of Maria’s—not a particularly close friend, but a friend. We fell into what some people might call . . . love.” He said the last word like someone admitting a terrible crime.
Alex was too stunned to comment. McCann continued.
“We were together every minute that I was there. Finally, it was time to go. We said goodbye. It was torture. After a week’s march, I couldn’t take it anymore. I deserted.
“I left everything behind; it took far longer to get back without a mount and avoiding all patrols, but I didn’t want to steal from the Curate.
“Three weeks later I was back in the city. I showed up on her doorstep, muddy and exhausted. She was with someone else—one of the other Curate brothers. Elaina pretended not to know me.” He looked away, into the woods.
Alex didn’t comment. She sensed that the story wasn’t over.
“I came back to Rochelle and Desdemona. I went to them, broken, and begged for mercy. The Grand Master gave me these lashes, and the name Oathbreaker, but he let me live. And so I still serve.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
“Why do you think?” McCann spurred his horse and pushed on ahead.
Alex’s feet were heavy as she walked up the hill to the fort. She felt the stares of passersby; she even knew some of them, but everything seemed strange and out of place. Images and voices pressed for attention in her head—Dalia’s blood, choked by white gunk, McCann’s story, the conversation with Rochelle a month ago . . .
A few of the Acolytes pointed as she passed through the gate. No one approached—she could feel their stares on her hand, even though it was covered by a leather glove. Everyone had heard of the red claw by now. She ignored them.
Alex’s feet carried her through the barracks, up the stairs, and down the hall. Finally she stood in front of Headmaster Barrius’s door. She hesitated for a moment, as she had that first time in September, before pushing her way through.
Barrius rose to his feet when Alex appeared. The sword from the citadel was there on the desk, although there was no sign of McCann. Instead, the two knights of the chapter were there to witness. Alex went to one knee.
“It is done, then?”
“Yes. She is dead.” She was dead already. She was dead in September.
“Are you ready to take the precepts?”
“Yes,” said Alex.
“Then rise, Acolyte, and hear your oath.”
Alex rose and took a look at Barrius. The headmaster looked as strong as ever, although the reading glasses looked ridiculous on his nose. The desk was as she remembered it, too, although the large document bearing the Grand Master’s seal was new. Barrius began to read the vows.
It was a lengthy process. Alex tried to concentrate, but she heard the words no better than she had before in the chapel above the citadel. Instead, her thoughts were crowded with the events of the morning. Dalia’s lifeless gray skin. Fat worms of white gunk bursting plump from her jugular vein. McCann’s story of oathbreaking . . . his face appeared again and again in Alex’s mind. “Why do you think?” Why, indeed? Why had McCann told her that story now, of all times?
“Acolyte?” Barrius’s voice called her back to the present with a start.
“Have you heard these words, and do you understand them fully?”
“Yes,” lied Alex.
“And are you ready to take these vows, and bind your life to the Curate and the service of the sacred flame?”
“I . . .”
“If you are, bow, and you will rise a knight.” Barrius held the sword in his hand, and was looking at her with a raised eyebrow. It would be Alex’s sword, if she would only kneel now. Kneel now, and for the rest of her life.
“I . . .”
McCann’s face appeared again. “Why do you think?” And everything clicked together in Alex’s head.
“I do not.”
“You—what?” Barrius stumbled over the word.
“I cannot take the oath. I will not.”
The three of them stared at her. “You . . . won’t? But the knighthood . . .”
“Is not a path that I can follow. I’m sorry, Headmaster. The fault is not with you, but with me.”
“I . . . see.” Barrius sheathed the sword. “Will you be going?”
“Yes. Thank you for everything.”
“Good luck, Alex. And God bless.”
She met McCann outside the fort’s gate.
“Well?” he asked her.
The shadow of a smile flickered across the old sergeant’s face. “Why?”
“Because you’re right. I would’ve broken my oath for Dalia, given the chance to. And the Curate doesn’t need two oathbreakers.”
“She’s dead, you know.”
“Yeah. I know.”
McCann grunted. “Rochelle suspected that this would happen.”
“He did?” Alex was surprised.
“Yeah. Said it didn’t much matter—said that you’d be useful either way.”
“Useful.” Alex spat. “I don’t know if I want to be useful to Normand Rochelle.” She thought of Baron Sinclair, General Clovis, Minister Turin, and the young soldiers she’d befriended below deck. They were all dead now.
McCann guessed her thoughts. “He doesn’t always kill them, you know. The ones who look for cures. Some he handles differently, like you.”
“Like me?” asked Alex, surprised.
“Aye. You’re not that different than the baron, after all—both of you were looking for a cure.”
“And now the baron’s dead, and I’m ‘useful.’” Alex shook her head. “I hope Rochelle isn’t right. I want no part of this.”
“So what are you going to do?”
Alex fingered the reins. “I don’t know. Can I come north with you?”
“Without taking the precepts? Best not.”
Alex nodded. “South, then, maybe, or west. I don’t know.”
The two of them shared a look. They embraced. “Take care of yourself, Sergeant,” she told him.
“Aye. You too, Alexis of Goodhollow. Good luck.” And Alex watched McCann ride off to the North. She turned Brutus the other way.
“Well, Boy? Where to next?”
(Go back to Part 41)
Alex followed the Grand Master out of the chapel. They emerged into a neat garden of white gravel footpaths and trimmed green hedges. Trees arched over the path, branches bare against the slate-gray sky. She fell in step next to the Grand Master, not sure where to start.
“Do you believe us?” she blurted out finally.
“About the Weeping Tree? And the baron?”
“Of course,” he said.
Alex was surprised by this answer. “Why?”
“Because Tobias McCann is one of the finest knights the Curate has ever seen. One foolish decision and Desdemona’s machinations do nothing to change that.”
Alex sighed in relief.
“Also, I’m quite familiar with the book that you describe,” added the Grand Master.
“Is it a Curate book?” she asked.
“Yes,” said Rochelle.
“Then how did the baron get it?” asked Alex.
“Why, I gave it to him, of course.” The Grand Master’s voice was light, and it took Alex a moment to realize what he had said.
“You—what—a Curate book, but—you gave it to him?” Alex spluttered.
“Well, not personally. I arranged his finding it. And it was a clever forgery—the original is safe in our vaults, where your friend The Bookbinder may stumble across it one day. The complete original,” he added.
“. . . You removed the pages at the end—the pages that warned against using the Weeping Tree to cure the Plague?”
“Yes,” said Rochelle.
“Why would you do that?” asked Alex.
“Ah. An excellent question. And to answer it, we must go very far back into the history of the Curate. Right to the beginning, in fact,” said Rochelle. He sat on a small bench under the bare branches of an oak tree. “Alex, do you know why the Founder formed the Curate?”
Alex sat next to him. “The Founder started the Curate when he saw humanity would not survive the Plague. That’s what the history says.”
“Yes,” agreed Rochelle, “and the history is wrong.”
“Wrong?” asked Alex.
“Yes. The Founder created the Curate because he discovered a cure.”
“Listen to me carefully, Acolyte, because this is not a truth that many have the privilege of hearing. Seven hundred years ago, the Founder was the champion of his village. One day, the Headman of the village was bitten. He was like a second father to the Founder, whose parents had died when he was very young, so instead of putting him to the blade and burning the body, the Founder went searching for a cure.”
“And he found it?” asked Alex.
“He found it, brought it back to the village, and the Headman was cured,” said the Grand Master.
“It doesn’t matter, because a week later the Plague tore through the village again, starting from the Headman. It was no normal Plague, not just the zombii—it was a virulent strain, like what you saw at Weeping Tree. I have seen it like that, too—three times with these eyes—and it is always a nightmare made into flesh. You and I have that in common, now.”
Alex shuddered as Rochelle continued.
“The Founder defeated that outbreak, too, but at terrible cost. The Founder’s adopted brother, wife, and entire family died in the carnage, and after the last of the infestation was burned out the villagers exiled him for bringing such destruction upon them.
The Founder wandered for many years, bearing the scars of his battles and the loss of his family. Finally, he found the great lost library of Ongressi and began reading the histories of the Ancients. There he learned something very important.”
“What?” asked Alex.
“Every time a cure has been found, destruction and bloodshed have followed in its wake. Sometimes it comes quickly, like at the Weeping Tree, while sometimes it takes years, but one thing never changes—whenever the Plague is ‘cured,’ it only returns again in a more terrible form. There have been no exceptions. And that is why he founded the Curate—to search for cures.”
“Wait—to search for them? Why search for them if they only destroy?” asked Alex.
The Grand Master stood again, and resumed walking. Alex followed suit.
“Imagine for a moment, Acolyte, what would happen if a cure was found. A cure different than the Weeping Tree’s tears, slower, one that actually seemed to work. Imagine if people found that cure—what would they do?” the Grand Master asked her.
“Spread it. Give it to everyone, of course,” answered Alex.
“Exactly it. Far and wide, everyone would take it, sick or not, just to be safe. And when the inevitable doom came . . .”
“They would become zombii? All of them?” asked Alex.
“Hundreds of thousands. Millions. More than the Curate and all of humanity could hope to face, and strengthened with unspeakable demons erupting from the soil and falling from the sky. It would be the end of us all. And that’s why we seek out the cures—to destroy them, not to use them. There is only one real Cure, in the end.”
“The sacred flame,” Alex finished for him. Her skin had gone cold as she followed the Grand Master’s argument. “You gave the baron that book on purpose. You sent him to the Weeping Tree to kill him.”
“Most of those who seek cures will never find them, and are no threat. The baron was different—he was on the cusp of finding something truly dangerous, and so I sent him a present.”
Alex was horrified. “You sent him and all of his men to die. Boys—farmers—hundreds of them—”
“And they were a small enough price to pay to offset the deaths of millions. The very virulence of Weeping Tree makes it one of the least dangerous cures in existence. In a few years it will be back much as you saw it when you first arrived,” said Rochelle, unmoved.
Alex could not believe what she was hearing. “How many times have you sent innocent men to die there? How can you—”
“I use the dead to keep others from unleashing the dead on us. It gives me no pleasure, Acolyte, but our swords are stretched thin enough as it is. Even without the cures, we stand closer to the edge of destruction than you know.” The Grand Master looked suddenly weary. Alex caught a glimpse of something else behind his eyes before they hardened again. “It was done in the name of survival, and it will be done again in the name of survival. Enough of this; it is time for me to ask you a question. You did not come here seeking knighthood, did you?”
Alex hung her head; she’d sought the Grand Master to learn how to cure Dalia. That would be impossible now. “No.”
“Tobias suspected as much. So did Barrius—he knew a bit more than you thought, as it turns out.”
Of course, thought Alex. “I . . . should’ve guessed that.”
“You should know that your friend Dalia was not wrong.” Rochelle reached inside his robes and removed a small object. It was Dalia’s journal. “She made some small errors in translation, but was essentially correct. The older texts do make a few passing references to other cures discovered early in the history of the Curate.”
“How did you get that?” asked Alex, not without some hostility.
“It was delivered to the citadel along with Knight-Sergeant McCann’s dispatches when your horses arrived on the Lysia. When it was discovered what was inside, we could not leave it out in the open. Dalia was a very smart young woman; I am sorry we have lost her.” He gave her the journal. “The librarians removed the sensitive passages, but I believe the rest of her writings now belong to you.”
“Thanks,” said Alex. She took the journal and tucked it away.
“Do you understand, now, Alex, why I cannot give you what you desire? Why our mission is so important, why it is the most important mission there is?” His eyes were burning into hers again.
“Then, even though you did not come here seeking knighthood, I hope that you depart seeking it. Complete one last task for me, Acolyte, and you will be granted the precepts.”
Alex knew she should feel elated, but she just felt weary. “And what task is that?”
They were nearing the edge of the garden. One turn remained in the path. “You must return to Goodhollow. I will send one of my own testing-masters with you.”
As they turned the corner a person came into view slouched on a bench. The tattered clothes, the plain scabbard—
“Sergeant!” Alex couldn’t believe her eyes.
“It’s about time.” McCann rose and went to one knee before Rochelle. “Master.”
“Tobias. You know the girl’s last task?” asked Rochelle.
“Good. Go with her—take the dispatches north. It should be easier this time without the baron’s interference. Your orders are with Desdemona.”
Rochelle turned to both of them. “Now, receive my blessing.” They knelt, and the Grand Master blessed them. Then he was gone.
McCann rose, but Alex remained on one knee, lost in thought.
“You coming?” asked McCann.
“Sergeant . . . what is the final task?” she asked him.
In her heart, Alex already knew what the task would be. That didn’t stop her from weeping when McCann told her.
(Go on to Part 43)
(Go back to Part 40)
Why must the Plague persist?
Why does the sacred flame always burn those who carry it?
Why do we fight the eternal battle against the darkness of our ancestors?
Why does the Curate endure, year after year?
Why do we shed our blood in a fight that will never be won?
Someone must answer this question.
This is the Master’s task.”
–The Lexicon, Mastersbook 1:1
They were high in the citadel, lined up in two lines in the Grand Master’s chapel. Alex knew that it was a place most Acolytes only saw once, when they took the precepts. An octagonal room, the dome-shaped roof was held up by round marble pillars. Rich red and green stone alternated in the floor, separated by bands of gold. Alcoves alternated with windows around the outside, though most were closed this time of year. Braziers smoldered in the center of the room to keep the chill away, while an altar on the far side of the room held a candle and a simple sword, both lying on rich white cloth.
“The Founder’s sword,” whispered someone when they entered, before someone else nudged them. “Shh!”
The unknown knights left as soon as they ushered the Acolytes in, and doors shut behind them. They waited in silence for a minute, listening to the sounds of candles guttering in the alcoves before a different small door opened. The Grand Master entered.
Curate Grand Master Normand Rochelle was the 86th Grand Master of the Curate, Alex remembered from her conversations with Binder. He was clad in rich white velvet and satin, cut through with gold thread. A neat beard and close-cropped hair were as snow white as his tunic, and the sacred flame was embroidered on one sleeve. Two eyes glittered beneath his brow like chips of ice.
The Acolytes bent their knees as soon as he appeared. “Rise,” said the Grand Master in a smooth tenor. They did.
He stood silently, eyes moving from Acolyte to Acolyte in turn. Alex fought the urge to look away when he got to her, but his gaze betrayed nothing. They stood like this, in silence, for another minute.
“You are here to take the precepts,” he began, “or to join the service of our order. All work is useful; all service to the flame is sacred. Our testing masters, in their wisdom, have lain before each of you a path by which you may serve according to your abilities.”
He paused in front of them, looking from face to face in turn. “Those who would be knights, though—take heed. Your vows are more perilous than most. To violate them means death. Do not bind yourself lightly.”
Rochelle stopped again in the center of the room. “Make no mistake about it. We ARE the servants of the sacred flame, and we ARE the only thing that stands between the world of man and the shadow of the plague. If we fail, the world will fail, and it has been so since the founding of our order. Our swords keep the darkness at bay, yes, but also our quills, our hammers, our scythes, our sails, and our prayers. There is no more vital calling, even for our humblest brothers, and we must not fail because—do you know why?”
“There is but one Cure!” said the Acolytes as one.
“Exactly,” said Rochelle, “and WE are the keepers of that Cure. Sir Osmund? The list, please?”
Sir Osmund appeared at his side with a roll of parchment, backed by a priest from the Credo. “If I call your name, please step forward.” He cleared his throat once. “Garth Tolley, of Tunbridge . . .”
Name after name was called, bringing colytes forward to take the precepts. Garth, Cragson, and most of the best fighters were called to the knighthood. Darrin became a librarian, just as he’d predicted; the tall boy sighed in relief.
Alex waited and waited . . . it was strange that her name would be so far down the list. And then—but no, that couldn’t be right. Surely some mistake had been made. Osmund was rolling up the list without calling her name. Alex nearly said something, but restrained herself just in time. Not in front of the Grand Master . . .
Her cheeks began to burn in shame as the realization set in. She had not passed the trials; she would not take the precepts or become a knight. She had failed, and would not even get a chance to speak to the Grand Master about Dalia. She’d slain more zombii than any of the Acolytes, trained hard under McCann’s eye, and yet still it wasn’t enough. She couldn’t even pass the trials, much less save Dalia from the Plague.
She was a failure.
Alex barely heard the Grand Master lead the other Acolytes through their vows. She barely saw Rochelle take up the sword of the Founder and dub the new knights. She didn’t smell the perfumed oils or the incense; she didn’t hear the priest recite the Credo, and she didn’t watch them walk from the room. Everything was a blur as hot tears threatened to spill from her eyes.
She only noticed what was happening when the double doors slammed shut behind Sir Osmund. The others were gone; her name had not been called for anything. She was alone in the chapel except for—she almost jumped when he realized it—the Grand Master. He was looking at her, right at her, staring into her face. Alex’s despair gave way to confusion, at least for the moment.
“Acolyte Alexis of Goodhollow . . . and now, it is your turn.”
“Master.” She bowed her head.
The two ice-blue eyes of the Grand Master were focused on her, like he was trying to read Alex’s mind. “You came here underage, half-maimed, swordless, and escorted by one of the most notorious oathbreakers of the past twenty years. You’ve been bloodied in battle, seen your comrades die, and you’re suspicious of unfamiliar wine.” Half of a smile showed itself for an instant. “You know the horrors of the Plague beyond what all but a handful can imagine . . . if your story is to be believed.”
Alex gulped. The word ‘if’ hung heavy in the air.
“You’ve come through all of that . . . and yet still I do not grant you knighthood. Tell me, Alex, is that why you stand there pretending not to cry? Tell me truly.”
Alex said nothing. The Grand Master looked at for a moment more before turning to one of the doors. “Come. Walk with me.”
(Go on to Part 42)
(Go back to Part 39)
“Are you afraid, Acolyte?
I hope so. Because your study is fear.
Make yourself master of it, and you will be an Acolyte no longer.”
–The Lexicon, Vorhall’s Letters to the Acolyte 1:1
Other tests followed over the next several days, more conventional than the midnight attack. They took a history exam on long rolls of parchment, placing kings and patriarchs in order along chains of succession. They were tested on languages (where Alex did well), religion (she was not so sure on this), and mathematics (where Alex was fairly hopeless). The poisoned Acolytes were pale and wan for a few days, but gruel and broth kept them alive.
They talked amongst themselves every night by the fire. Alex’s victory with the wine had not brought her into the group; rather, it only reinforced her status as an outsider. Cragson nodded to her now when they passed, but other than Binder she had no friends among the acolytes. This didn’t bother her much; she hung on the edge of the circles, slouched in the darkness, listening to their conversations and trying to work some flexibility into her stiff red claw of a hand.
The talk that night was of the final test. There was only one day left, but the last test remained a secret. Speculation was rampant.
“I heard we have to fight the Grand Master!”
“You idiot, if you can’t even beat Osmund, what chance do you have against him?”
“Maybe it’s an obstacle course.”
“Pfft, that’d be a disappointment.”
“What about riddles? Or a maze?”
“I heard they’re going to blindfold us.”
“Aye, and plug our ears with wax.”
The Acolytes continued, each suggestion more outlandish than the last. Finally Alex broke in.
“You’re all wrong.” She was in a foul mood from the mathematics exam and feeling reckless.
Silence fell. “Yeah? And how do you know, Clawhand?” This was her newest nickname.
“What does the Curate exist to fight? And what haven’t we seen yet?” She paused. “The zombii. You know I’m right, Garth.” She stared straight at the big Acolyte, who alone among the others had yet to put forth a theory. “There is only one Cure.”
“The flame.” Garth met her gaze with less animosity than usual. “No, No-Sword’s got the right of it for once.” He stood. “Come, it’s time to sleep.”
The next morning Sir Osmund gathered them all at the far side of the cave. Here there was a small door in the rock, ancient and scarred. Half-faded words in the old language surrounded it, carved into the stone but so faded and worn as to be illegible.
“Today,” began Osmund, “you face the final test. Drink from the chalice,” he gestured to a large ornate cup sitting on a stool nearby, “and enter the tunnel. The precepts await you on the other side. You will not return here.”
“Is it dangerous?” asked one Acolyte.
“Yes. Not everyone survives. You will need your weapons.” A few Acolytes looked askance at the cup, remembering the poisoned wine. “And don’t try to pretend. I’ll know if you don’t drink.”
Osmund called Garth forward first. The big young man took a sip from the chalice. Osmund made him kneel, stared into each of his eyes in turn, and then blessed him once before sending him inside. Garth disappeared into the tunnel, sword drawn.
They heard nothing more of the big Acolyte. The minutes dragged by; the Acolytes huddled together, apprehensive and afraid to speak. Alex sat apart from them, feigning indifference, while she puzzled over a different problem. She had no weapon.
Ten minutes passed without sign from the tunnel. A flash of light made one of the Acolytes gasp—a flaming arrow streaked down from the lip of the cave’s open roof to bury itself in the sand. Osmund rose. “It is time for the next one.”
One by one they went, sipping from the chalice and receiving Osmund’s blessing. Cragson Sarth went with a bounce in his step, humming an old war tune under his breath. He was followed by Darrin the Bookbinder, pale and quaking but gripping his sword all the same. One Acolyte after another went until Alex was the only one left.
Osmund looked up after sending the last of the others into the tunnel. “So.”
Alex met his stare. “So.”
“You’re the last, Alex No-Sword.”
“I prefer Clawhand. It’s a little more fearsome.”
Osmund grunted. “Hrmph. Claw or not, you need a weapon. Wait here.”
Osmund walked off to the door that Alex had first entered by and disappeared inside. He was gone only a minute, and returned bearing something wrapped in cloth. He gave it to her.
“What’s this? A blade?”
The old knight laughed. “Ha! Blades are dearer than that; it’s not for me to go around handing them out. No, this is something I found in the back room . . . go on . . .”
Alex unwrapped it. It was a long black quarterstaff, oiled, banded in iron, and heavy. “I . . . where did you get this?”
“Found it lying about. It’s no Curate weapon, but I think the Grand Master will approve, seeing as how you left him with quite a bruise from that broomstick the other night. He blames his visor, the old goat!” Osmund laughed to himself, while Alex paled. “No, it’s no Curate weapon, but it should serve for the trial.”
“Thank you.” The wood felt good in her hands, smooth and strong.
A flaming arrow struck the ground nearby. “And now, Alex from Goodhollow-North-of-Dunheim, it’s your turn.”
Alex laid the staff down for a moment and moved to take the cup. There was only a swallow of liquid left—she tipped it back and drank. It was warm and rich, not at all what she expected from the clear water, and burned through her nostrils with a rich autumn scent.
Alex set down the cup, bent her head, and received Sir Osmund’s blessing. “Now go, Acolyte, and remember—there is only one Cure.”
Alex already felt different as she reached for the staff. The wood felt alive under her fingers, warm and almost glowing. Her good hand felt like it was sinking into the grain, each finger lost amongst the individual fibers . . . the sunlight was brighter, and all shadows stark and deep. Smells blossomed in her palate—she could taste the chalice’s liquid again, burning in her throat, along with the dry dust underfoot and the cold, dank air of the tunnel. She gave Osmund a questioning look, but the old knight’s face was all a blur. An arm beckoned her on; Alex stepped into the tunnel.
The darkness was palpable around her. She groped her way forward, feeling with her good hand as the burned one clutched her staff. Raw stone passed under her fingertips, the sensation of rough granite so intense to her heightened senses that she shuddered. These are the bones of the mountain, thought Alex, deep and wide and old.
She passed several twists and turns before a light appeared ahead. It glowed bright as the sun to her altered senses, throwing a maze of confused shadows around her. As she neared it, she realized that it was a torch, and Alex pulled it from the old iron wall bracket and pushed onward.
She could not say how long she walked. The tunnel wound on and on, sometimes rising, sometimes falling. Finally it opened up into a large cavern. Her torch didn’t cast enough light to illuminate the walls; they fell away on either side into darkness.
Something metallic glinted in the twilight ahead of her. She walked out into the cave toward it, footsteps echoing around her again and again until they sounded like a flurry of other feet. When she stopped, the sound quieted . . . she shook her head and kept walking.
It was an ancient brazier, set on a low stone pedestal and stained with the soot and grime of a fresh fire. It was warm; a pitcher sat beside it, reeking of lamp oil. She poured some on the brazier’s dish and touched her own torch to the liquid.
The flame leaped up, blinding her for a moment. It threw a great deal of light, but still the far reaches of the cave were indistinct. A flat dirt floor stretched around her, sloping away from the brazier—
A shuffling step caught her attention. It was real, not a product of her own echoing footsteps or the sense-altering liquid from the chalice. Alex whirled around to see a stooped figure shambling into the light. It was a zombii, she was sure.
And it was slow. She was in no immediate danger. “Only one?” she wondered aloud.
Alex laid her torch down next to the brazier and gripped her quarterstaff in both hands. She took a few steps toward the creature, keeping her ears alert for any others, but she heard only the single set of footsteps. Up close, the zombii didn’t appear to be any different than the others she’d seen, but it refused to raise its face.
That’s funny, thought Alex. Against her better judgment, she pushed the end of her staff against the creature’s chin and forced its head back, casting light on its face.
Alex’s heart froze. It was no zombii—Dalia’s face stared back at her.
It wasn’t Dalia’s whole face. Her cheeks were open, gaping to show smiling skeletal teeth where the flesh had sloughed away. One eye was missing, replaced by a gaping socket that seeped brown pus and was decorated with half of a yellow graveworm. The other eye, though it was intact, with the soft brown color that she remembered. She didn’t have the glazed, unfocused stare of a newly-raised zombii, but instead looked at Alex with recognition and interest. She knows me, realized Alex, as she scrambled backward.
Dalia cracked her mouth open in a horrific smile and leaned back, spreading her arms to the side. Her ruined abdomen erupted with a thousand flying black shapes, streaming from her in a thrashing cloud of leathery wings. They streamed from rents in the taut skin of her belly and from her open mouth, filling the air and surrounding Alex. Wings tore past Alex, scratching her skin with a texture like sandpaper. They beat at her eyes, nose, and mouth, filling her world with the sound of scratching leathery skin. She covered her face with her ruined hand, still scrambling back from the Dalia-creature.
“No! No! NO!”
Her back thumped into something solid and hot—the brazier. Here the winged things were less thick; a pair got too close and went up in flames like dry parchment. A shrill scream pierced the air as they died.
Another shambling figure emerged from the swirling black wall in front of her. This one was missing a foot, and stumbled forward on the splintered end of a leg. It raised its head and Alex saw the baron’s wasted face. His clothes hung in tatters around him, torn to shreds. As she watched, the baron misstepped and fell forward. The ruined creature shuddered once and started pulling itself forward on its belly with one arm . . . its jaws clacked together again and again as it reached for Alex’s foot. She couldn’t move—she was paralyzed with fear. Her brain screamed at her limbs to move, but they were frozen in place as the zombii’s jaws widened . . .
The pain was intense when it bit into her foot. Alex screamed; the pain broke her paralysis and she dealt the zombii a mighty kick with her other foot. The baron’s head snapped around; the swirling black wall surged forward, and when it retreated the zombii was gone.
She looked at her foot. Maybe if she cut it off in time she could stop the Plague . . . but the Plague was already taking her. Black blood raced up her veins, skin flashing gray on either side as it went. Flesh crumbled and dripped from her bones as the Plague raced past her groin—huge blisters rose on her shins and burst, splattering slime and pus over the ground. Alex tried to scream, but the Plague already had her chest and she could taste was burning bile in her throat. Her hair fell out in great chunks, and she felt the skin pull back from her eyes, withered and dry. Her teeth tumbled out at the touch of her tongue, drowning her voice like a mouthful of rotten nuts. The swirling black cloud pressed around her, closing in, preparing to take another as their own.
Worst of all, she felt the itching again in her left palm. “Oh, no, no, no, please, please, no,” begged Alex, but when she raised her hand to her eyes a river of spiders was pouring from the egg sacks buried in her palm. They streamed down her arm, tickling her with their hairy legs, dripping off of her fingers . . .
That was strange. Alex looked again at her fingers. They were gray and dry with the Plague, but they still had flesh clinging to them. They were not the withered claws that she’d had ever since McCann burned away her flesh outside the Weeping Tree. She squeezed her hand into a fist and then opened it again, expecting to see it filled with the blood of dead arachnids. Instead, she was greeted with five red, scarred fingers and a skeletal palm. She looked down—the rest of her body was untouched by the Plague. Her foot was unmarked.
This is only fear, thought Alex. I can fight this.
The fliers shrieked in anger. Alex stood up, gripping her staff. Other creatures pushed through the wall—other zombii, wearing the faces of people she knew. Darrin, Cragson Sarth, Garth. Osmund. Headmaster Barrius. She smashed them all, breaking skulls and shattering joints with her staff. McCann’s zombii leered at her, as if he was in on the joke—Alex leered back before breaking its neck.
Finally, the zombii stopped coming. There was a pause . . . Alex kept her guard up. The Dalia-creature emerged, still filling the air with fluttering black fliers. Her single eye stared at her from the remains of her face.
“You were too late.” The voice came from her and from the black winged things surrounding them.
“You’re not real. I’ll kill you like I killed the rest.”
“You were too late.” It grinned. “And you ARE too late.”
Two black arms whipped out from inside of her chest, impossibly fast, and ripped Alex’s staff away from her. Two more emerged, then two more and two again, until a halo of spider’s legs surrounded the Dalia-creature in an arc behind her back. They were long, furry, and jointed. Wicked talons dripping with poison decorated their ends.
Alex stood, facing her, unarmed. The Dalia-creature took a step toward her, smiling her skeletal smile. Her single eye burned. One step, another—the creature was nearly upon her. The flames in the brazier dimmed as she leaned over Alex, twisted lips pulled back to reveal sharp, black teeth. She grinned in anticipation, preparing to bite.
“No.” Alex drew her knife from her belt and in one smooth motion stabbed it up and through Dalia’s single brown eye. The creature shrieked once, fell back—
—and Alex was alone. The cave was as empty and silent as it had been when she entered. A single short zombii lay at her feet, twitching. She turned it over with her foot and removed her knife from its eye. It was not Dalia. The staff lay a short distance away where she’d thrown it.
A few minutes later Alex emerged, blinking, into the sunlight. The tunnel ended in a small grotto, where brown trees arched over a fountain. The other Acolytes were there, sitting in a group around it. A knight Alex didn’t know asked her name.
“Alexis of Goodhollow,” she told the knight.
“Are you the last?” asked the knight.
“Then come. It is time to see the Grand Master.”
(Go on to Part 41)
(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)
(Go back to Part 37)
All Acolytes want to know about the trials, and how they will be tested. What are the trials about?
They are about skill at arms, but they are not.
They are about the techniques of healing, but they are not.
They are about cunning, they are about bravery, they are about intelligence . . .
But they are not.
Who are you, Acolyte? And what are you afraid of? The trials are my answer.”
–The Lexicon, Vorhall’s Letters to the Acolyte 129:3
The old knight led her out the back of the office and down a torchlit corridor. Another wooden door stood ajar here; he pulled it open and a blast of cool air struck Alex in the face.
They emerged in a huge cavern. The floor was loose dirt, smooth and dusty, and an opening high above let in the sun. The sound of wooden practice swords clattering against each other echoed in the chamber as a pair of boys sparred in the far corner. A latticed box ran high along one wall where observers could watch them, unseen, while a low barrack was half-built, half-carved into the cave wall opposite them.
Osmund led her across the floor to the barracks. Once inside, two big servant women got a hold of her. Despite Alex’s protests, they stripped her bare and dumped ice-cold water on her before attacking her body with soap and stiff-bristled brushes. Her hair was shaved off along with the lice that had accumulated in it. They left her eyebrows, at least, although Alex half-expected to lose them as well. The hopelessly soiled travel clothes went into the fireplace, and she was given a plain white tunic, breeches, and a belt.
They shooed her away into the bunkroom with her boots under one arm and her swordbelt under the other. She fumbled with the belt—it took some time to buckle around her waist again, with her stiff left hand. The scrubbing left her scars red and seeping blood again. When she looked up again, other Acolytes had gathered around.
“Who’s the new guy?”
“It’s a she, idiot.”
“She looks young.”
“What happened to her hand?”
There were nearly twenty boys and a half dozen girls, all bald and in white tunics. “I’m Alex,” she said, startled by the group’s focus on her. McCann was right; they were all older, taller, and more muscular than her. “Alex, from Goodhollow.”
“Michael, of Wroth.” A pale boy with thick black eyebrows.
“Ellsworth Tocklsey.” A stout figure with a pockmarked face.
“Karl McKribbens, of the Emerald Hills,” said a tall figure with dirt smeared on his face. A dozen more introductions followed; Alex soon lost track of them all.
“What’s all this? Another new one?” A loud, brash voice filled the barrack. The others moved aside for a hulking young man. His chest was wide and his face sported a full beard. The young man outweighed Alex by at least fifty pounds, but he moved with an easy, fluid, dangerous grace. His eyes were brown and quick.
“Alex, of Goodhollow.” Alex held out her hand.
The young man didn’t return her gesture. “Who’re your sponsors?”
“What?” she asked.
“Your sponsors! The knights who sponsored you for the trials?” He made an impatient gesture. “And where’s your sword?”
Alex answered the second question first. “I lost it in an accident—the same place I got this.” She held out her burned hand, hoping they would be impressed.
They were, but not in the way she hoped. Those who hadn’t seen it yet drew back in disgust, while the bearded giant didn’t move. “And your sponsors?”
“I rode south with Knight-Sergeant Tobias McCann.”
His eyes widened in surprise, and then he threw back his head in laughter. The other boys joined him; Alex frowned, uncomprehending the source of their sudden scorn.
“What? What is it?”
“Tobias McCann? What is this, a joke? He’s a disgrace!” The bearded young man made a show of wiping his eyes. “The Grand Master keeps him as far from the citadel as possible just so they don’t have to look at him, the worthless dog!”
“He’s not a dog!” protested Alex.
More laughter. “He’s an oathbreaker!”
“He saved my life!” said Alex.
“And I can see why you needed it—no sword, and missing half a hand! I don’t know why Osmund even let you in in the first place.” The bearded young man spat once on the floor. “That’s what Garth of Tunbridge thinks of oathbreakers.” He spat again. “And that’s how much I’ll have to do with you. Any friend of mine had better do the same.”
Alex felt her anger growing as she stood surrounded by scorn and laughter. Garth of Tunridge was far bigger than her, but so was Toro back in the hold of the baron’s flagship. Toro was dead now.
“Tobias McCann is no oathbreaker, and anyone who says otherwise is a damn liar!” The room quieted.
“Are you challenging my honor, Alex Red-Hand? Do you have any idea who you’re talking to?” Garth smiled and laughed once.
“You could be the son of the devil himself for all I care!” Alex had heard McCann use this particular oath before to great effect, and was not disappointed. Garth’s face reddened at once.
“Of course you’d have a dirty mouth, sponsored by an oathbreaker. Come outside and I’ll clean it out for you,” he said.
The other Acolytes roared their approval. Soon the group was outside on the cavern floor, formed up in a circle around the pair.
Alex reached for a wooden practice sword on the rack next to the barracks. “No, no, no, Alex Red-Hand. You challenge my honor? We use real steel,” taunted Garth. “That is, if anyone will loan you one.” The group laughed.
Another boy brought Garth his sword belt. It was made of fine worked leather, soft and wide. The buckle was silver, and the scabbard wrapped in inlaid silver thread. Alex looked at her own scabbard, stained with salt and crusted with swamp mud, the belt halfway worn through and notched. It was not much of a comparison.
Garth drew his sword. It was a flat blade with a single fuller, sharp and deadly. The hilt was wrapped in more soft black leather and studded with a pair of small jewels. She envied it even as she loathed the one holding it—it was a match for Headmaster Barrius’s blade back in Goodhollow.
“Will no one lend her a weapon?” Garth’s voice was mocking, laughing at her.
Alex looked around the circle. No one moved. Blades were in plentiful supply, but there were none for her.
“I will.” Another boy stood forward. He was tall, but thin, and had the look of someone grown a great height in a short amount of time. His eyes were large and expressive, dominating his face. He held the hilt of his sword out to Alex. “Here, take mine.”
She gave him a look of immense gratitude as she drew the sword. It was light, and a bit shorter than Garth’s, but solid and well-made. She swung it once or twice—the feel was different than her own had been, but her own sword was lying at the bottom of the river. It would have to do.
Garth frowned, but came forward to meet her. “All right, you oathbreaker’s whelp, are you ready?” He brought his blade up into a front guard.
“Yes.” Alex mimicked him.
It had been weeks since Alex had last handled a sword. She knew immediately that she was over-matched; Garth swatted aside her initial attack without a second thought and exploded with his own assault as soon as their blades touched. He was strong and fast, with no weaknesses in his technique—it was all Alex could do to keep Garth’s blade from her throat. Steel flashed and rang as they circled.
After a few minutes they paused. Alex’s chest was heaving, her arms aching from repelling the massive strength of Garth’s attacks. A line of fire ran down Alex’s forearm; she looked down to see a long shallow cut bleeding all over her fresh tunic. Garth was smiling, nodding to the crowd as they cheered him.
He’s toying with me, realized Alex. He’s toying with me, and this next attack will end it. I can’t win this way. And she remembered the fight on the deck of the Lysia.
Alex and McCann had talked about the fight with the Southerner for hours afterward, lying between decks on the baron’s flagship. McCann remembered every step of the duel and had walked Alex through it until she remembered it too. They’d talked about the Southerner’s strange stance, the ways his technique differed from the Curate tradition, and what was worth learning from it.
Alex shifted her posture, moving one foot back and taking the high stance of the Southern duelists. Garth noticed, although the others didn’t—they were still laughing and catcalling—and Alex saw a flicker of doubt in his eyes.
He’s never seen this before, thought Alex. “Now!” said McCann’s voice in her head. “Before he has a chance to think!”
They met again in the center. This time, her attacks had purchase—Garth was caught off-balance more than once as Alex appeared in places he didn’t expect. The bearded young man was still too large and fast for her to push back, but she wasn’t getting chased around the circle any more, either. His technique is flawless, thought Alex, but inflexible.
But Alex’s grasp of the strange Southern style was not as thorough as she’d hoped. When her foot slipped in the dirt—
There was a flash, and a twist, and Alex’s borrowed sword tumbled away. A huge hand grabbed her neck and smashed her face into the ground. The point of a sword pricked her neck.
“I . . . yield . . .” mumbled Alex into the dirt.
Garth’s face appeared next to hers. “Good. You know your place now, Alex No-Sword. And this is for that funny business at the end.” His face withdrew, and before Alex could move a massive boot smashed into the back of her head. There was a flash, a crunch, and blood began to gush into the dirt.
The others roared their approval and left Alex lying on the ground. A few spat on her as they went. She waited until the voices drifted away before hauling herself up on her elbows.
One boy remained. He sat on his haunches, watching Alex from a few feet away. It was the boy who had loaned Alex his sword.
“Danks for da sworb,” said Alex.
“Here, let me see your nose,” said the boy. He took Alex’s face in both hands—it was a strong grip.
“Wat bar you doeng?”
“Clench your teeth. This might hurt.”
Alex did. The boy grabbed her nose and popped it back into center.
“Argh!” Alex grunted.
“There. It should heal all right now. Sorry about the pain—there’s not much for it, but the sooner you set it the less it hurts.”
“Thanks.” Alex spat the blood from her mouth. “Now I owe you two favors.”
“Don’t worry about it.” The boy helped her to his feet. “I’m Darrin Leaf of Twinbridge, but they call me The Bookbinder. Binder, for short.”
“And do you think Tobias McCann is an oathbreaker, too?”
Binder shrugged. “I don’t much care, since I’m a bastard myself. Born of Garth’s uncle and a whore. There’s not much they can call me that isn’t true.”
Alex stared at him. “Garth’s uncle?”
“Lord Garin’s younger brother, Guy. Formerly of Westin, though he’s been dispossessed, and not just for whoring.”
Alex shook her head as they walked back to the barracks. “I don’t understand.”
“You’re a Northerner, right? Down here, it’s more complicated. You’ll get used to it. For now, just know that Garth has to cut me some slack because I’m of his blood.”
“Why don’t you challenge him?”
“Why do they call me The Bookbinder?” Binder shook his head. “I’m no knight; it will be the librarians for me, that’s for sure. The trials are mostly a formality.”
“The trials . . .” Alex spat up another gob of blood. “How long until . . . ?”
“Soon. Rumor has it that we’ll start when the Grand Master returns. He usually watches . . .” Binder gestured up to the grated booth, “. . . although who knows—maybe he’s watching right now, and the trials have already started.”
Alex choked out a laugh. “I’m probably not doing so well, then.”
“You did better than most. I think you scared him—he hasn’t broken anyone else’s nose.”
Alex paused, then shook her head again as they neared the barracks. “This is not what I expected. This is not how I wanted it to be.”
Binder shrugged. “Me neither.”
(Go on to Part 39)
(Go back to Part 36)
“The greatest threat to the living is the living.
The dead are implacable. Their minds are made up. They will act as they will.
But the living may not choose to survive.”
–The Lexicon, Mastersbook 34:12
The winds were good and two days carried them across the strait. Another pillar, the twin of Falcon’s Watch, rose on the headland here. McCann told Alex its name; Kingspillar.
There were many more ships on this side of the strait. Two coasters beat around Kingspillar as they passed by, while a huge three-masted trader stood further out to sea. A group of fishing boats had their nets cast on the Gulf of Rothos side of the cape, but the Olive Bough soon left them behind.
The headlands eroded quickly on this side of the strait, soon giving way to rolling hills wrapped in oak and beech trees. The leaves were turning and the harvest was in—they took on crates of apples and oranges along with casks of blackberry cordial, huge wheels of mild cheese, and tobacco, dried and packed. Sacks and sacks of peanuts were everywhere, but little cotton. “Boll weevil” was the story at village after village.
These were no simple trading posts, but proper villages with schools and churches. Curate chapter houses were not uncommon, but more usual were small stone keeps flying a pair of flags. The top was always the same—green on bottom, black on top, separated by a jagged line—while the bottom flag differed.
“Minor Knights, sworn to House Elaine. They raise the house’s flag over their own, and well they should. House Elaine has kept the peace here for a hundred years. There are grown men here who have never seen the zombii, or heard a sword drawn in anger.”
They spent three days anchored in the shadow of Ellenbern, a great city of brown timber buildings that sat on the edge of Bluefish Bay. Overlooking the city was a sprawling castle that flew the standard of House Elaine. “Lord Franklund rules there, head of House Elaine and Bern of the Black Forest,” explained McCann. “He’s friendly enough to the Curate . . . usually.”
From Ellenbern they sailed Northwest across Bluefish bay to the spit. “It won’t be long now,” said McCann. “We’ll be at Antioch tomorrow if the wind holds.”
The next morning Alex rose early. She came on deck at first light, bundled in a thick blanket. Mist lay heavy on the ocean, although the wind was still up and gray vapor was streaming through the rigging. The taut black lines dripped with moisture. Captain Eskar was on deck, too, along with most of the crew. McCann alone was absent—he’d been more sullen than usual since passing the strait.
The mist paled, and a brilliant white disk appeared behind them as the sun began to burn off the morning vapor. A yellow point of light rose in the darkness ahead of them as if to complement it, flashing once and then disappearing. A minute later it flashed again. Captain Eskar ordered a slight course correction. Alex’s heart jumped in her chest as she realized she’d just caught her first glimpse of the Citadel of Antioch.
As the fog continued to thin, the sun caught the tip of Isla Sancta’s peaked mountain. It dominated the island, sheer on the south side that faced them, but less severe to the north where a ridge stretched away for miles. A long stair on the east face led up to a garrison and a tower—the Flame Tower, where a flame was always burning to guide ships through the night.
All of this Alex had read before a hundred times in Goodhollow. To see it now, though, with her own eyes . . . it took her breath away.
The clouds continued to thin, and Alex shed her blanket as the sun fell on the deck. Masts and sails appeared all around them—coasters, traders, fishing boats, whalers from the ocean to the west, mail ships with raked masts and slim hulls, ponderous long distance merchantmen from the east—there were hundreds of ships, all passing through the narrows between the mainland and the Isla Sancta.
A squat fortress sat at the southern tip of the island, overlooking the narrows. Behind it, separated by a moat and narrow drawbridge, was the city of Antioch. Buildings, made of the same gray stone of the mountain’s exposed flank, melted into the grasping tendrils of fog that were still clinging to land. Blue woodsmoke rose over the city in a different type of haze as cook fires and kilns came to life for the day’s work.
The taller buildings were plastered brilliant white and lined the long wide street that cut straight north from the harbor fortress. It was crossed at right angles two-thirds of the way up by another wide street at the Founder’s Square. The west branch of this street ended at the docks, Alex knew, while the east ended at the Credo cathedral on its stony bluff. The cathedral’s dome was one of the tallest buildings in the city.
But the citadel was taller. A gaping oval gate stood at the top of the long road, staring down at the smaller fortress across the length of the city. Angular walls, punctuated with squat towers, ringed the citadel, sloped sharply back and polished smooth. Another ring of walls, taller and more sheer, ran just behind the outer layer. Both were anchored against the sheer rock face of Isla Sancta’s peak and formed a three-quarters circle. Inside was a maze of stone buildings, half cut into the stone behind them and connected with arched bridges. The footing for the flame tower ran down through it all, clinging to the cliff face as it widened.
An hour after daybreak, McCann was still nowhere to be seen. She found him below in the hold, propped against a cask of cordial with his sword naked in his lap. A whetstone sang in his hand as he sharpened the blade.
“We can see the citadel; Captain Eskar says we’ll be alongside in an hour,” she told him.
McCann grunted and continued sharpening his sword.
“We . . . won’t be needing swords, will we?” asked Alex.
McCann grunted again. “Unfortunately not.”
McCann was down the gangway as soon as the Olive Bough was warped into the pier. He didn’t even cast a glance up at the citadel looming in the distance, but bulled his way into the crowd. Alex had to run after him to keep up.
Their first stop was at a stable near the docks. Here they found the horses, just as Captain Tyrus had promised. The one-eyed, one-legged innkeeper who owned the stable had a voice like rusted chain being dragged over broken stones. “I thought to meself, that Tobias has finally got hisself et up by the zombii, an’ now I’ll never see the coin he owes me fer keeping ‘is horses. An’ of course he got two of them, somehow, so as they’d eat twice as much of poor Lothar’s grain . . .”
“Lothar, I’ll be back with silver once I visit the citadel, just write the damn bill already!” McCann scowled at him.
Lothar smiled, revealing that his luck at keeping his teeth was not much better than his luck with keeping his limbs. “Ah, I shoulda known you’d be too thin an’ gristly for ’em, Sergeant, an’ that they’d spit you right back up. No coin, either—well, no harm there. The Seneschel’s not like to be happy ta see ya even if you weren’t bringin’ ‘im unpaid bills.”
“Aye, but don’t you be writing any grain on that bill,” said McCann, feeling his horse’s ribs. “These horses have had precious little of that, by my eye.”
“Tha’s not Lothar’s fault, it’s those long sea voyages, bad for the digestion, you know?”
McCann collected the bill and went to leave, but Alex was still rooting through Brutus’s saddlebags. She couldn’t find Dalia’s journal.
“Acolyte! Let’s go!”
“I . . . uh, need my papers of recommendation from the headmaster.” Alex had found them already, but Dalia’s journal was gone. Everything else was still there—except for the journal. Alex didn’t know what to think of this.
“Well, hurry up!” McCann was growing impatient. Finally, Alex gave up. The big horse whinnied when she went to leave. “I’ll be back soon, boy,” she rubbed his nose once, distracted. Where could the journal have gone?
McCann jammed the receipt into his pocket. Alex tagged along behind him as the sergeant stormed off down the street.
Soon they were at the citadel’s gate, waiting in line for the sentry. McCann gave their names to the guard. “Knight-Sergeant Tobias McCann, traveling from Tyre with dispatches for the Grand Master. Acolyte Alexis, to take the precepts.”
“The Grand Master’s been away for a month. The council rules in his stead, but you’ll have to go through the Chapter Master,” said the sentry.
“Desdemona. Wonderful.” McCann swore under his breath. “Where can I find her?”
“The Island Tower.” The guard waved them through.
Alex and McCann passed under the thick outer wall, turned left, and followed the path a few hundred feet before reached the inner gate. Here they were waved through again into the inner plaza of the citadel.
The Island Tower was not actually an island. It was named because all affairs of the Isla Sancta chapter were managed from within. The blocky storehouses and offices of the Island Tower took up one entire side the citadel’s main square. McCann and Alex passed under its arched front into an interior courtyard, where he gave their names and again and was asked to sit down. They took a seat on a bench.
As they sat, Alex started to notice the veiled stares of passersby. A steady stream of knights, captains, and other Curate irregulars were flowing through the courtyard between the carefully trimmed shrubbery and the simple marble fountain. Most were clad in immaculate white tunics emblazoned with the single flame cut in brilliant red; those in armor were clad in shining oiled mail. Learned brothers, librarians, and chaplains passed by as well, some with gold chains hanging from their necks. Faces were scrubbed clean, beards were neatly trimmed, and rose petals were scattered around the base of the fountain to give off a pleasant smell.
Alex felt very out of place, sitting there filthy in her faded brown and gray, smelling of tar, sweat, and the sea. She didn’t even have a sword—the belt hung around her waist, empty scabbard rattling against her knees as she walked, reminding her with every step of the blade rusting in the river near the Weeping Tree. By comparison, a passing knight’s sword was decorated with a huge ruby set into the pommel.
At least McCann was armed, thought Alex; all she had was a disgusting withered hand and a useless scabbard. The sergeant was in his usual slouch; exaggerated a bit, Alex thought, although it could have been the ramrod-straight postures of everyone else around them that made it look that way.
They were definitely attracting stares; she was more and more sure of it each moment. Most people had the courtesy to pretend not to see them. A few hid smiles behind their hands; one knight laughed out loud. Alex’s stomach began to sink. This was not how she’d imagined arriving in Antioch.
Their names were called. “Knight-Sergeant McCann and Acolyte.” McCann’s name drew a few whispers from the other men waiting in the courtyard, but they were through the doorway soon enough and out of earshot. McCann knew the way—he led them up three levels of a wide spiral staircase, crossed a landing, walked down a long corridor, and stopped in front of an oaken door. A footman in a plain white tunic, iron mail, and a half-helm moved his spear aside to let them pass.
Alex was reminded of Headmaster Barrius’s office the moment she stepped through the door. Large arched windows looked out over the courtyard below, and a desk sat in front of them. The Chapter Master’s office was three times the size of the Barrius’s, though, and the bookshelves were lined with neat leather-bound volumes instead of practice swords and battered helmets. Two clerks scribbled away at their own desks in the corner. The only swords in the room were mounted on pegs, high out of reach, and were heavily gilded.
A woman sat at the desk writing a letter. Her robes were thick and lined with black fur. A red flame lined in gold pinned them together—the sigil of the Isla Sancta. She had thick black eyebrows on a long, thin face, and gave the impression of a small person wearing large clothes.
“McCann.” The voice was smooth, careful, and not without beauty.
“Desdemona,” he said.
“Chapter Master Artunian to you, Knight-Sergeant,” she said. “Tell me, how long has it been? Six months? Eight?”
“Near enough,” he replied.
“And yet never quite long enough to get the smell out of my office,” she said.
“Some things smell worse than a soldier in the field. It’s my pleasure to remind you of that,” replied McCann.
They glared at each other.
“So, Sergeant,” the Chapter Master steepled her fingers. “What outlandish story can you bring me this time? I assume you have a good reason for being,” she made a show of checking her calendar, “. . . what, three months late?”
“Sinclair. He blocked the passes to the Curate,” said McCann.
“We know. It really took you three months to get around?”
Desdemona blinked as surprise replaced her disdain. “Dead? Are you sure?”
McCann began to tell the story. After a few sentences, the Chapter Master waved to one of her clerks, who began to take down McCann’s account on paper. She didn’t interrupt, waiting until the sergeant had finished before saying anything.
There was a long silence—Desdemona ran her tongue under her upper lip once time, slowly. “And so your only witness to any of this is a one-armed Acolyte?”
“It’s only a hand, she didn’t lose the whole arm. And she’s still got her letter of recommendation,” said McCann.
Alex pulled the oilcloth packet from where it was stashed in her pocket. It was battered and worn, but Barrius’s seal was still visible.
“And I’ve got dispatches from Mudfort, and a half-dozen chapter houses between there and Ellenbern.” McCann added another few packets, forming a loose grimy pile on Artunian’s desk. The Chapter Master’s lip curled as crusted dirt crumbled from the pages.
“Well.” She tapped her steepled fingers together. “I’ll see that your story reaches the Grand Master’s desk . . . fanciful as it may be. He’s due back any day now. Until then,” she smiled, “I’m sure there’s some sentry duty I can find for you.”
“You’re too kind.” McCann’s voice dripped sarcasm.
Desdemona Artunian waved a hand and their interview was over. McCann led them outside, unrolling the orders that Desdemona’s clerk had scribbled for him. “Of course. Midnight watch. Seaward wall. That’ll be nice and chilly.” He cursed under his breath again, without conviction. “Come on.”
“Where are we going?” asked Alex.
“I need to drop you off at the Acolytes’ Tower. There you’ll stay until the trials. Then I need to see the Seneschel—”
“What about Brutus?”
“—if you’d let me finish, I’d explain that I need to see the Seneschel about stable space for the horses. Brutus will be taken care of until the trials.”
“Oh,” said Alex, somewhat abashed.
They followed a narrow street off the plaza, and then took a set of steps down into the roots of the mountain. In a dim alcove McCann rapped against a wooden door. It opened and they were brought inside a narrow room cut from the living rock and lit with torches.
A sleepy man sat at the desk inside. He wore the blue robes of an apprentice scribe and was nodding over a fat ledger. McCann roused him by kicking a table leg.
“Oy! You! Go tell Osmund I’ve got another one for him; unless he’s finally died, that is.”
“Ha! You should be so lucky, Tobias.” An old knight, short, bald, and spotted, appeared from the back room. “I’m like to outlive all of you. It’s been awhile since you brought me a fresh one.”
“More than a year. They only let me stay a day last time . . . not that I was complaining. Desdemona will probably have me a bit longer this time, just to remind me which part of my neck her boot sits on.”
“Hrmph.” The knight McCann called Osmund turned to Alex. “And who are you?”
“Alexis, sir, of Goodhollow, North of Dunheim.”
“Hrmph.” He looked her over. “Too young, too short, too skinny, too scared. What happened to her hand?”
“Accident,” said McCann.
“Hrmph. She hasn’t even got a sword.” He sniffed once. “By God, Tobias, she even smells like you.”
“She’ll be fine. Write her in already, I’ve got business to attend to.”
The scribe took down Alex’s name and home chapter in his book. McCann clapped a hand on her back once, and then with a nod to Sir Osmund he was gone. The old man turned to Alex.
“All right, Acolyte Alexis-Goodhollow-North-of-Dunheim. Welcome to the cave.”
(Go on to Part 38)