The robes were heavy, the weight of them were strange on Henry. He wasn’t used to the feeling. He realized how cold he was now, how he had adapted to a harsher world where he couldn’t think about the child that had seeped inside of him. He couldn’t worry about things like that when his life was on the line. It was more important to keep moving—to survive. But now, the reality of his circumstances was sinking in now.
He wasn’t a fool. As he sat in the small stone chamber, the room that the rigid and stoic Sister Vermina had placed him in, Henry knew others were not so fortunate. He knew the damp, unkind world that the rest of his people were forced to live in, to call home. He also knew that those who were not so fortunate were dead, or lost out in the hills and swamp. They were forgotten and beyond saving at this point. Henry had found sanctuary, after all was lost.
He would not squander it.
The knock at his wooden door was soft, followed by two sharper knocks. He turned to the candle and blew it out. The table that held his wash basin was also used for a desk, should he need it. The only other piece of furniture in the room was a bed that was large enough for him now, but would not be if he grew anymore, which he was certain he would. The window he had was made of tainted, smoky glass that let the pale light into the room, making it eerie and cramped feeling. He opened the door and fussed with his robes.
Tyla stood on the other side, waiting for him. She smiled at his appearance and gestured to the pitcher of water. “You can use that to wash, you know?” She said.
“Right,” Henry felt flustered. He poured the water into the basin as Tyla leaned against his doorframe and watched him turn the crystal-clear water into a murky sludge. Henry dabbed his face with a towel that was course and ancient before running his fingers through his wet hair and turning to Tyla. She pulled at her hood and Henry quickly covered his head. She studied him for a moment and nodded to him, gesturing him to follow.
“Brother Hubert will be the one who takes over your training,” Tyla said. “He’s more informed than I am, but most of the Initiates are running the Chant or searching for supplies before the Woodlanders arrive. The last of the travelling merchants and Wandering Jacks are preparing to leave the city. Soon enough and you’re going to feel like you’re reliving a memory.”
Her word burned more than she could have known, but Henry did not say a word. He followed her down the metal, spiral staircase that led down into the bathhouse. From above, the world was far more humid, but it was cooler. The high windows opened and the steam vented out, covering the stone in a slimy coating that Henry refused to touch. The chambers were higher up for the Initiates, keeping them away from the lower, larger dormitories of the higher-ranking Brothers and Sisters.
Downstairs, Henry followed Tyla off the trembling iron and wood staircase and through the foggy world. She moved with the kind of familiarity that Henry could only afford to his home back in Umberlyn that was nothing more than cinders and ashes now, probably. He hurried to keep up with her. His boots still slipping on the slick stones of the bathhouse. She smiled and waved at everyone who wore the black and brown robes of the Mirnans. They smiled at her and offered quiet hellos. They looked at Henry with a welcoming confusion, identifying the robes, but not the wearer.
When they finally reached the far end of the sprawling bathhouse, Tyla pushed open a door and held it open for Henry. The room was illuminated by tall, bright windows. There were enormous tables and benches, along with hearths that warmed the room when it was cold. There was a small number of robed members gathered in the room, sharing a mug of something strong. They laughed freely and Tyla grinned at them, offering a gentle wave as they passed.
The door on the far side of the room led them out into the city, on the far side of the Chapel, to the south. The sky was covered in a pale gray blanket clouds, making the whole city look like a gloomy world. It looked as if the whole world was aware of what was coming, what was looming on the horizon. Henry remembered the feeling in the air, the sense of despair and prolific despair that had come from the Woodlanders marshalling outside of the city. It was a tension that was as thick as the mist in the bathhouse. The end was coming and Henry hoped that they could survive it.
“People have started hoarding resources,” Tyla said, slowing to walk beside him. “We continue on with our lives, but your people have shaken us. The Woodlanders wiped out Umberlyn, almost a complete extinction. If they besiege Trennon, we have nowhere to run but the steppes. There’s no hiding out there. Some say that it would be a slower death.”
Henry didn’t say anything. For the way that they had embraced his people, shackling them to Boglin, Henry thought they might deserve that fate. Tyla had been kind to him and the Bishop seemed decent, but that didn’t excuse the numerous others that had treated him horridly. Tyla looked to him for a response, for some kind of reaction, but he didn’t give her one. He had nothing to say on the matter. The Woodlanders seemed unstoppable, like the coming night.
Tyla let out a sigh. “Well, I supposed I should talk to you about the order,” she said. “You’ll be assigned duties as a Lay Initiate. Mostly it’s cleaning or labor that you’ll be assigned to. You can work the furnaces, kitchens, or cleaning. When you become a full Initiate, you’ll be assigned to the Chant, Manuscripts, or Service. Most Initiates remain that way for years. But, if you study with Brother Firat, he’ll help you. He only believes in the diligent, so prove yourself and he’ll teach you what he knows. Hubert is with him now, so I’ll introduce you to all of them.”
“Thanks,” Henry said, looking at the fronts of shops that seemed hauntingly quiet for an afternoon. “I’ve never been a Faithful before. What are the rules?”
Tyla smiled and shook her head, like she was trying to get rid of the giggle that was coming out of her. “There aren’t really any rules. Be upright and adhere to the Tenants that Brother Firat will teach you. You need to be in service if you’re not laboring. Help anyone who requests it of you. No flirtation or fighting, no foul language. Boys must stay in the Boy’s corridor and girls in the girls’. Why? Do you have anything specific in mind?”
No, Henry shrugged. He couldn’t think of anything. The monks and the Faithful in Umberlyn always seemed so sullen and somber when he had seen them in the city. There were no Mirnans, but there were other Orders. They had the Julians and the Laurentines, but they didn’t do much then host services and shout their spiteful declarations. They seemed like a sour lot to deal with.
“It’s not bad,” Tyla said, as if she could see that he wasn’t too thrilled, that it felt more like a sentence than an opportunity. “We all get along and we have a good time. Service to the Silent One can be a blessing as much as a calling.”
“But, we do this forever?” Henry asked.
“Not necessarily,” Tyla shrugged. “As long as you are an Initiate, you’re free to leave before taking the Higher Vows and selecting your Calling. Once you take the Higher Vows, though, you’re required to remain in service.”
“Or what?” Henry asked, sensing the ominous underbelly.
“Or the Tiberians come searching for you,” Tyla grinned. “You’re sharp, Just Henry.”
“I told you not to call me that,” Henry grumbled.
“And I answer to a Higher Power,” Tyla nudged him with her elbow.
Much like Umberlyn, Trennon had a city Archives that served as a library and academy for those citizens who could read and who were interested in picking the minds of scholars and scribes that worked within. The city officials had clerks there as well, hunting through the most prominent section, the tax records. There were also those who were interested in debating the higher levels of thought outside the building on chairs and tables, but today, they seemed more content with lower voices and hushed tones. Henry could hear the whispers of Umberlyn and the Woodlanders. There was also talk of a Forlorn Centurion that Henry had come to know too well.
Tyla opened the door for him and inside, Henry noticed the numerous men in robes that walked silently like wraiths through the halls of the Archives. Henry had looked at the Archives in Umberlyn numerous times, but he’d never went inside. He was an apprentice and not William, why would he need to. But, he had always thought that the Umberlyn Archives were enormous. Here, the building seemed smaller on the inside or at least, less grand than he might have hoped for.
“Before the siege settled in,” Henry said to Tyla, looking at the rows of books on shelves, “the Mayor and City Council evacuated the Archives. Some went to Valen, others went to Dorothea, and some are here.” Henry turned and looked at her. “Do you know where they are?”
“Probably being sorted by the clerks,” Tyla whispered. “They’ll keep what’s valuable and sell the rest to Wandering Jacks or travelling traders. The city’s taxes pay for the Archives, but the City Council isn’t too concerned with culture as of late. They probably won’t be on the shelves for a while.”
“Tyla,” a man with a scraggly blond beard approached her. He was wearing the brown and black robes of an Initiate for the Mirnans as well. He bowed to her slightly and turned to look Henry over before eyeing Tyla once more. “The hedonists have been pillaging the shelves again. Brother Firat is furious. Who is this?”
“Brother Hubert,” Tyla said for the benefit of Henry, “this is our newest Lay Initiate, Henry.”
“Henry,” Hubert reached out to shake Henry’s hand. “You’re an Umberlyn? Strange that the Bishop would risk the wrath of the Watch and take one of your people in. You a noble’s son?”
Henry shook his head.
“The Centurion brought him to the Bishop,” Tyla answered for him. “He’s all the rage at the Chapel—talk of the Order.”
“A celebrity?” Huber grinned mischievously. “Well, let’s have Brother Firat teach you some humility and keep you grounded. Come with me.” Henry looked over his shoulder at Tyla who smiled with a kind of nervous pride that made Henry feel like he was waltzing into the jaws of a wolf.
The Archives were busy, a bustling tangle of clerks who went about their tasks with a sort of annoyed haste while scholars and students occupied the benches and tables, pouring over dusty tomes in the light of day before the Archives were locked shut for the night. However, their scorn seemed to be reserved in the large part for the men and women in robes and hoods who continually moved through the room, back and forth with their selections, discussing objects of interest and curiosity with the others around them. Even Henry, who was following Brother Hubert, could understand the annoyance. Every aisle they squeezed through was pronged with jagged elbows and swaying tomes. Henry nearly hit his head twice before Hubert finally slowed and turned to him.
“Bit of a brawler?” Hubert asked. He cut Henry off before he could respond. “I do a bit of betting on the boxing ring, now and again. You brawl much? Short, but you look like you could hold your own in a fight.”
Henry couldn’t get a word in, not necessarily because he was a fast talker, but because Hubert didn’t seem interested in the answers that he might have. He talked with a confident sort of tone that made him seem completely satisfied with his own voice and no one else’s. Henry didn’t find it offensive or bothersome, but rather amusing that this man seemed to have a full conversation with just himself in his head. Henry was just there to admire.
While Hubert spoke, Henry let his voice drown into the full bodied roar that bubbled inside of the Archives. It was the sound of dozens of voices all speaking at once, all discussing a dozen different topics and different ideas. There were discussions about the coming storm that was approaching Trennon and how it was stressing the city. It was a burden that Henry remembered, that sounded painfully familiar. It was something that Henry remembered Percy and his uncles discussing with Father. The thought of them felt like a stab in his heart. He blinked and let all of it wash over him, drowning the memory.
Henry blinked at the word and turned his head, searching for the source of the word, hunting for the sound. He had recognized the word, but it was formed with strange lips, formed with a tongue that wasn’t used to Landerline. It was a word that sounded foreign, but Henry could understand it. Vark. He looked for the person that looked different, that looked like he was from a far away land where words were formed differently.
The man who owned the words stuck out as brightly as if he had been dressed in flame. Henry saw him, his eyes locking on to him and consuming him. His skin was dark, darker than the deep tan of the Tyrantines that he saw every day. No, his skin was the darkness of night, with penetrating eyes that pierced through Henry when they casually turned on him, looking over him and then moving on. His hair was almost made out of thick ropey braids that went halfway down his back, like black snakes that were bound together with leather and adorned with shells, bones, and beads.
He wore the attire of a Tyrantine, but he wore it with the customizations of an outsider. His formed robes were made of vivid and bright cloth that contrasted with his dark skin. The leather that formed over his shoulders and around his ribs was tooled and decorated with beads and bones. On his chest, the skull of a predatory hawk was fused into the chest guard. On his wrists, he wore bangles of gold on his right arm that went all the way up to his elbow and on his right arm, he was clad with a silver vambrace, set with sapphires. His fingers were studded with rings, each a different metal or stone.
What Henry noticed last was the man’s feet. He did not wear the pointed boots that the Tyrantines wore, or the curled pointed shoes of the Paythians. These were dessert sandals, the kind where his dusty feet were visible between the gaps in his thick leather and rope bindings. Henry stared at him and knew that this man was neither Paythian nor Tyrantine. He was something else, someone from the heart of the Barren Wastes or beyond. He was one of the Great People. The Empire Beyond the Desolation. He was either a Numbawi or Hawathi. Henry had never seen someone with such magnificent skin or muscles so large or who towered so tall. He stared with perplexed confusion.
“Keep ‘em in your head,” Hubert wandered back over to Henry. “That’s Nabu. He’s an ambassador to the House of Ascension in Tyrantium. Man’s a powerful Magician.”
“He said something about the Vark,” Henry said.
“Don’t tell me you believe in Fairytales,” Hubert said. “He’s talking to Albros, the fat Bernardine. All those boy-lovers care about is art and poems. They’re a waste of time, if you ask me.” Hubert nudged Henry. “Come on, Firat isn’t one to be patient.”
Henry followed Hubert without stopping again, his eyes staring at Albros and Nabu as they spoke to one another. He knew that he had heard him talking about the Vark. His eyes lingered on the book that Albros was holding. He wanted to know what it said, what they were talking about. Nabu’s arms were folded as he tapped his chin with one finger, looking at the words as he nodded.
Before he had his run in with Baldwin and the sudden death of Red Hair and Bully, Henry had thought that the Vark were fairytales. He was just like Hubert and everyone else in the world. But, Baldwin had picked him out of a city and with unnatural speed and skill killed two people Henry had been with, only for the reason that Henry had black blood on him. Even Henry was skeptical of the black blood, even when he was drowning in it, his legs tangled in the entrails of one of the Vark. He’d thought he was a pale man, nothing more. But things were different now. Baldwin had changed all of that. The Vark were real, or at least he had thought so.
But Henry was putting the pieces together. If Baldwin had found him and seen blood on him that was black from an unnatural killer in the hills and found it compelling enough to go investigate, then the Vark were real, or real enough to be a threat. But, if the Vark were in those hills, then that meant that it wasn’t bandits or the Woodlanders that had set the hills ablaze and killed the hundreds of unarmed Umberlyn citizens who had fled into the night. It had been the Vark.
The fire in Henry’s veins began to burn brighter than it ever did for the Woodlanders or the Trennonites, or anyone else who had harmed him or taken away from him. It was the Vark who had lit the hills on fire and slaughtered everyone heading to Dorothea or were unfortunate on the way to Trennon. That was a fire that Henry couldn’t lose.
Baldwin would have been his best source of information, but Baldwin had called him useless, at least in the state that he was in presently. Henry couldn’t fight and he couldn’t read, so he would need to change both of those and pray that Baldwin came back through Trennon after investigating the Vark in the hills. But, if he never came back, then Henry would find others like Baldwin. There had to be more out there.
But, before he did any of that, he wanted to find out everything he could about the Vark. He wanted to know what Albros knew or what Nabu knew. He wanted to know everything that he could, because when Henry closed his eyes, all he saw was Mother and Quinn, screaming for mercy and in horror. He saw William twitching, hewn in a pool of his own blood as flames licked at his feet. He saw Claire, lifeless in the darkness, forgotten by even the nightmares that had slain her.
He would have his revenge.
Brother Firat was a tall man with bushy eyebrows who wore a robe that was different from Henry’s or even Hubert’s. He had a hooked nose and a deep, sun kissed skin tone that Henry equated to Tyrantines. His dark hair was long and slicked back, but he did not wear a hood in the presence of the half a dozen other Initiates before him. He looked to Henry with cold, uncaring eyes and stared at him for a moment as Hubert grinned mischievously.
“This is what the Holy Order of Mirna has become?” Brother Firat snapped in a voice thick with Tyrantine accent. “Urchins from the street? I have educated the Order of Mirna for twenty years and I have seen some of the greatest minds of physickers, apothecaries, and thinkers of a generation spread across the Dominion of the Faithful. But now I am presented with gutter trash, riffraff from Bogland who looks as if he was squabbling with the hounds before those robes found him. Urchin, why have you come to waste my time? What good are you to me?”
“I am here to learn,” Henry told him honestly.
The words hit Brother Firat with a magnitude that Henry had not anticipated. The harsh frown and glowering stare was pierced by something powerful, something profound. The man’s features softened and he looked at the disciples who sat before him and waved them back before looking at Henry. He stared at him with a gaze that lured Henry, telling him that he didn’t have a choice. He had to join them.
“Then so you shall, my child,” Brother Firat warned.