Chapter IX: The Centurion’s Gambit

The man did not answer. He reached behind him, through the folds of the cloak that had been thrown over his shoulders, looking more like a cape now than a cloak. He withdrew a cloth, tarnished and stained with what looked like the blood of numerous other misguided attackers. He wiped his blade with a calm appreciation that translated into a terrifying gesture for Henry. When the man had finished, he sheathed his sword and strolled past the dying Bully whose head slumped forward, his eyes wide and staring off into the void.

Henry stepped backwards, but the man closed the gap between them too quickly, grabbing Henry by the collar of his last remaining shirt and slamming him against the wall of the shrine hard enough that Henry saw stars.

“No,” he answered calmly before jabbing a finger at Henry’s shirt. “You’re covered in black blood. Where’d you find that?”

“What?” Henry asked.

“See that?” the man withdrew his finger and pointed at the blood covering Bully. “That’s called the color red. It comes out of normal people.” His finger returned to Henry’s chest with painful speed. “That’s what we call the color black, it normally doesn’t. So, where’d you find it?”

“In the swamp, on the way from Umberlyn,” Henry stammered. “I was attacked. I killed him.”

“Bullshit,” the man answered, but it wasn’t an accusation, just a comment. “Heard there was a raid in the hills. Thought it was Woodlanders. You saying it was the Vark?”

“Vark are fairytales,” Henry stumbled over the words.

“And I’m the Queen of Starlight,” the man slammed Henry against the wall again. “He make you drink his blood? Make you drink anything?”

“No,” Henry shook his head. “He tried drowning me and I… killed him.”

“You paused,” the man caught him sharply. “Why’d you pause?”

“It was messy,” Henry replied.

“It always is,” the man let Henry slump free from being pinned on the wall, but his hand snatched Henry’s wrist before he knew what was happening. Henry opened his mouth to protest, but before he could let a single sound escape, the man had a dagger drawn and slashed the tip of Henry’s thumb, coaxing out a bead of blood that began to trickle onto the floor. The man watched the blood hit the stone and studied it with a silent gaze that frightened Henry. He had been in the water and the darkness had surrounded him. He was certain that he hadn’t swallowed anything, but this man made it sound imperative that he didn’t. What if he had? Was there something wrong with him? Henry watched, ignoring the sting of the cut at the tip of his thumb.

When the man released Henry’s wrist and sheathed his dagger, Henry quickly recoiled, sticking his thumb between his lips and sucking to seal the cut. The man took a step back and looked at Henry.

“You’re good,” the man diagnosed him, though Henry hadn’t asked. “Said you’re one of the Umberlyn refugees? Sad business there. Woodlanders are a damn blight. Trennon’s not bad—not good, but not bad either.” Henry would beg to differ, but the man terrified him. If he said something wrong, he might get to know that dagger a little better. “What are you doing with this riffraff? They’ll get you killed.”

“I hate Trennon,” Henry told him. “They treat us like dogs—worse than dogs.”

“No, the world treats you like dogs,” the man replied. “You think this is bad? It’s not. Things get a whole lot worse than this.”

“They killed my family,” Henry snarled, his fingers coiling into fists. The rage was returning, for the Woodlanders, for Trennon, for anyone who took anything away from him and left him stranded in life, alone and forgotten. The man watched Henry and studied him for a moment longer, taking in the sight of the twelve year old boy seething in rage at an unjust, callous world.

“Don’t say the world didn’t do you any favors,” the man said.

His hand shot out like missile, catching Henry by the ear and tugging him violently forward like a Hill Cat dragging off a deer. Henry let out a cry and stumbled forward, a puppet to the man’s will as he stumbled after him. He was helpless, clawing at the man’s hand and clamping on to his wrist so that he couldn’t jerk too hard and rip his ear off. Henry followed him, out onto the street, through markets where people stared and watched him, past members of the Watch who looked with disapproval, but did nothing to stop the man. They took one look at him and decided that he could do whatever he wanted.

“Where are you taking me?” Henry cried as they crossed one of the bridges that spanned the lazy river.

“To your favor,” the man answered.

Soon, Henry was on familiar territory, walking into the shouting range of one of the holy men on their shouting blocks and the Chapel of Mirna loomed over him. Henry looked at it and felt his stomach churn and his heart sink. He had hoped he would never have to see this place again. Henry could feel everyone watching him now, the whole world staring at him with confusion and wonder.

The man’s grip on Henry’s ear released and Henry collapsed onto the cobbles and rubbed the aching soreness away from the side of his head as he looked around, shrinking inside of their gazes. The man before him with his thumbs hooked into his belts casually stood by Henry, looking at him as he stood up.

“Come with me,” the man said.

“Thanks for that,” Henry glowered.

The man looked around at the gazing people. “If he makes you stop and stare, you owe him coin,” the man shouted at them. “So, pay up or piss off!” That was enough to get everyone moving. They looked away and continued on their way, going about their duties. The man was fully visible in the light of the dreary day. He had tan skin and looked like he was old enough to be Henry’s father. He bore a personality that made Henry envious. He didn’t care about the opinions of others or their looks. He was a man of confidence who knew exactly who he was. Henry wished he felt the same way. “Better?”

“Sure,” Henry grumbled. “What are we doing here?”

“Know how to read?” The man asked.

“No,” Henry followed him toward the entrance of the Chapel.

“Know how use that dagger, besides killing fairytales when no one else is looking?” He asked.

“Not really,” Henry said.

“Then you need to start somewhere,” the man said. “Learning is survival. So we’ll start there.”

The man threw open the doors to the Chapel and waved his hands as the misty hands clawed at him, reaching out for both of them as they entered the bathhouse. Henry followed, timid and nervous for whatever this man was leading him into. The man walked with a sort of casual familiarity with the Chapel that made Henry wonder if he was a regular here or if he was a member of the Order of Saint Mirna. He didn’t think they had warriors, but Henry didn’t pay much attention.

There were old people in the baths, half submerged as others walked around in towels or their small clothes. He looked at the boots of the man in front of him through the misty veil of the enormous bathhouse. He could hear their whispers swirling in the fog around him, but he ignored them. The man didn’t seem to notice them, so Henry would ignore them too.

At the far end of the bathhouse, they came to another pair of doors that opened up into the sanctum where the sermons were delivered to the Faithful five times a day, should they decide to attend. It was lined with pews and there was no hint of the mist or the heat from the bathhouse just beyond the wall. It was cool and quiet inside with candles twinkling around the room at the stations and chandeliers or tall candelabras that were stationed everywhere. Men in robes went about the room, preparing it for the service that was coming.

“Baldwin, you desecrate this sanctuary, yet again,” a voice boomed through the room, rolling like an unforgiving tide.

The man chuckled and kept walking. “May the Silent One strike me dead,” the man answered. “Another Pagan in the house of the Saints.”

“Your mockery will not salvage your soul from the depth of your sins,” a bearded man approached wearing a black and brown robe. His was different from the others in the room who ignored the conversation that was happening. His was embroidered and emblazoned with the Flame of knowledge and the corona of enlightenment. The golden embellishments made him stand out as the overseer of the Chapel. His long, gray beard was more of a silver than it was a white. His hair was long, slicked back and his eyebrows were bushy, but his eyes were kind and understanding, his features calm and soft. When the two were standing close enough, the man’s stoic features cracked into a chuckle as he spread his arms to embrace the man named Baldwin. “How are you, my old friend?” He asked.

“Doing my best,” Baldwin answered. There was no word about the two men that he had killed. “The Bogland criminals just coordinated a strike. Stopped two of them, found this one and saw potential in him.”

“A criminal?” The old man looked at Henry. “We’re not in the habit of picking up strays from Boglin. How’d he catch your blind eye?”

Baldwin looked at Henry. “Didn’t flinch at bloodshed, didn’t run from defeat, and didn’t strike out in panic,” Baldwin summarized. “Could have done any of those, but he kept his head. Besides, I can tell. He’s been through a lot.”

“From Umberlyn?” The old man asked. Henry nodded to him. “A shame. This city has met your people with less compassion than I would expect. Highborn are permitted to Overlook and all the rest to Boglin. Brogans will have them cutting purses and prying open shutters in no time. Avoidable consequences for the watch, but do they listen? No.” The man sucked in a deep breath through his crooked nose and stared at Henry. “The boy can be an Initiate, but I assume he lacks any skills of value to your people, so he’ll report to Brother Firat in the town Archives to start his education. We’ll see if he has a brain between his ears.”

Baldwin clapped Henry on the shoulders heavily. “He’ll be trouble, but the best are. Don’t teach him any of that dogma you fill the others with. This one is a practical one. Don’t spoil him on me.”

“Are you coming back for him?” the old man asked.

“Doubtful,” Baldwin answered. “He claims he killed a Vark near the hills. I’m going to investigate. Could be that the strike in the foothills wasn’t Woodlanders or bandits. If it was the Vark, then Tamalyr will need to know. Might not see each other again, old man.”

“Then may the Silence embrace you and still your restless soul,” the old man beamed.

“If there’s a pub on the other side,” Baldwin grinned, “I’ll buy you a round when I show up.”

“Blasphemy,” the old man said. “Need to say anything to the boy?”

“Nah,” Baldwin said, looking at Henry. “Be the best you can, and when you can’t, make sure there aren’t any witnesses.”

“Away with you!” the old man shouted. “Pay his words no meaning, boy. Forlorn Centurions are rogues at the best of times.”

Baldwin threw back his head and chuckled as he walked away, tossing them a curt wave before he threw open the doors and strolled into the bathhouse. Henry stared after him, eyes wide and blood cold. He was a Folrorn Centurion? He was a Vark killer, a monster hunter, a Shield against the Scourge, a defender of all humanity. Henry’s shoulder tingled where his hand had been, where the hand of an immortal hero had touched him.

That explained everything. That explained why Henry could hardly see the man move when he had killed Red Hair and dealt with Bully. It explained why he had cared about the black blood on Henry’s shirt and pants. It all made sense now. Henry felt light headed at the thought of it all.

“He was a Forlorn Centurion?” Henry muttered.

“Yes, and think nothing more of it,” the old man said. “The man is a foul soul. He must be, to do the things he must. His life will end in shadow and misery with pain unlike anything you or I can comprehend.” The old man cleared his throat and looked at Henry. “Now, I am Bishop Albert of Trennon and this is my Chapel. Baldwin has asked for my help and I will see it through, but I will not tolerate misbehavior on your part. I expect you to adhere to the tenants that will be laid out for you by Brother Firat, is that understood?”

Henry nodded.

“Vocalize,” Bishop Albert demanded.

“Yes,” Henry answered.

“Good,” Bishop Albert responded. “Now tell me, can you read?”

“No,” Henry answered.

The Bishop frowned. “You seem old enough, were you under an apprenticeship in Umberlyn?”

“Yes,” Henry answered. “My father was the tanner and I was his apprentice.”

“Well, that’s something,” the Bishop nodded. “Were you any good at the trade.”

Henry nodded, “Quite.”

“And you were diligent in your training?” The Bishop asked.

“Yes,” Henry answered. And he was. He had loved the work. He had loved the smell of the leather, the feel of it, the sense of creativity he could have with the tools, the weight of the mallet and its potential. It was all so intoxicating.

“Then I am not worried about your studies with us,” the Bishop replied. “Brother Firat will teach you to read and will show you the Canticles and you will study the Holy Tome of Silence. Brother Robert will help you with the memorization of the sermons of Mirna and he will have you shadow him on his proclamations. When you show promise, we will designate districts for you to patrol and chant the holy scriptures and hopefully bring the unfaithful to the light of Mirna. Other than that, your daily tasks will include cleaning and working for the Chapel as needed. Your clothing will be provided by Sister Vamina and Initiate Hubert will be your direct superior with the other Initiates. The schedule and routine of day to day life will be outlined as such by him. Do you understand?”

“Sort of,” Henry muttered.

The Bishop grinned at that. “You will, my child. Return to the Bathhouse and seek out Initiate Tyla, she will help you find Initiate Hubert.”

Henry felt his stomach collapse in on itself and his mind catch fire. Tyla? That was the last person that he wanted to see. His life had turned into a whirlwind, the kind of manic speed that he associated with gales and predator birds. When was it going to slow down and make sense again. Right now, Henry knew that the only way to survive was to adapt, just go with it and he might survive. That included running into the girl that he had snuck away from like a bandit in the early morning hours.

“You’re dismissed, Initiate,” the Bishop cleared his throat.

Henry started at the sound of the man clearing his throat, a clearer dismissal than the actual words. He awkwardly bowed to the man, unsure what he was supposed to do in before a Bishop before scampering off toward the doors. The other men with their hoods over their heads, watched from the wings, studying him. They stared at him like hawks, watching a rabbit move through the grass. He didn’t like the feeling and the relief was cleansing as the doors closed, separating them from him.

There were people in the baths, misty figures of flesh within the swirling gray. If it weren’t for the pillars and the benches, Henry would be lost, lost like he had been out in the swamp, in the hills, praying for a sign. But here, here there were signs. He kept his eyes on the markers that led him through the cavernous chamber, the pillars and stone beneath his feet. He walked until he found a young man, older than he was, standing with a towel open and ready for an old man stepping out of the pool.

“Initiate Tyla?” He asked.

The man said nothing, nodding in the direction that Henry was set to follow. He walked through the mist tentatively, feeling like it was thicker here than it had been before. His feet found their footing, shakily picking his way through the fog. Pulling back, the fog revealed the wall of enormous bathhouse, like finding the edge of a map. Henry let out a sigh and reached out to push open the door.

Much like the sanctuary, the room was clear of mist, but completely gloomy. The candles in the room kept the light low, making Henry squint to see what it was that he just entered. The room had tables, thick slabs of wood that were stained black in the light of the candles. Henry stared at the thick legs and the wooden pales at the base of the legs. The room was cold, the air outside curled down from above, making Henry shiver from the change. The weight of the door closed freely behind him and Henry’s eyes began to adjust. At the far end of the room. He could hear something that sounded like sawing as a figure approached him.

The person walking toward him was a woman, only in her narrow shape and the hood that she wore hid her features from him until the pale, orange light of the candelabras near the doors chased away the shadows and revealed the pale, almost sickly looking face of Tyla. She wasn’t the stoic, faintly joking sprite that he had vexed by early in the morning. She walked with a gentle sway, almost as if her mind was in a different place, in a different world. Her eyes were glazed over, but as she looked up Henry’s legs, climbing until she saw his face and the look in her eyes began to melt, like frost breaking down in the light of the sun until a smile spread across her purple lips.

“Just Henry,” she said with a sigh. “Did you finally come back to give me my goodbye?”

Henry couldn’t help it. The soft, beaten grin spread across his face and he shook his head. “I was brought here, actually.”

“By the Centurion,” Tyla nodded. “I thought that man was a legend Bishop Carbrey made up. Guess you’re an interesting one to pique his interest.”

“Well, he left me here,” Henry shrugged. “You’re supposed to help me find some robes or something.”

“Well, then,” Tyla took a step toward the door, opening it again and letting the curling locks of mist that could hardly wait to invade the darker room. As it pushed inward, coiling over Henry, he felt the strangling pressure of it all around him. “Welcome to the Chapel.”

 

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