Chapter XI: The Switch

Brother Firat’s method of instruction was not the method that Henry was used to, but when the switch slashed across his knuckles, Henry found himself remembering the letters a lot faster. The desk that he was assigned to had confused him at first, the strange marks where it looked like wild animals had been clawing at the wood and the unusual stain of the top of the desk. Everything was made abundantly clear when Henry was instructed to sit before a chalkboard marked with dozens of symbols and told to keep his hands flat atop the table.

“You may keep your fingers in a fist,” Brother Firat had said in his thick accent, “if you find it easier to manage the pain.”

Henry didn’t understand until he misdiagnosed the letter “B” for the letter “D” and the switch struck like a viper, causing his fingers to swell to a crimson color almost immediately. Henry’s teeth clenched together, enamel grinding against enamel as his eyes widened in shock and pain.

“You will need to try harder,” Brother Firat said as Henry fought the urge to rub his knuckles. “Again, recite them to me.”

Each time Henry earned a smack from the switch, the other Initiates who were behind him, supposedly reading the scriptures. Firat would give them a sharp look and the stare would linger just long enough to make sure that they didn’t make another sound before his drills began again.

When the sun sank into the horizon, Henry thanked Mirna, the Saints, the Path, and the Gods of Tyrantium and Malon just to be free of the old sage. As they gathered, the Initiates talked gleefully, casting amused looks over their shoulders at Henry as the clerks ushered everyone out of the Archives. Henry slowed as Firat and the other Brothers made their way out a different door, heading to the tavern for a meal and lighter conversation. Henry’s eyes searched the room and noticed Nabu still speaking with Brother Albros, candles brought to the table where they stood, looming over ancient books. Even Henry, an illiterate foreigner, knew that this was forbidden.

“You’ll need a salve for that,” Hubert nudged Henry and pointed to his knuckles. “Mother Glenda oversees the Physicker studies and she’ll have something for you. The woman can string a poultice out of anything. She’ll have your knuckles ready for tomorrow.”

Henry’s introduction to Mother Glenda was less than glamorous as well. After the long walk home from the Archives, trailing in the back of the pack as he went, Mother Glenda and the humid baths was waiting for him. Henry followed Hubert who joyfully waltzed through the baths, leading Henry on a trail that led him straight to Mother Glenda. The woman wore a habit and hood that made her look quite menacing, only her pale face and drawn lines of wrinkles was exposed. Her pursed lips and cunning eyes studied Henry’s knuckles for a moment and then looked to him, flicking with dizzying speed.

“It would do your knuckles a kindness to press your studies,” Mother Glenda warned him. “Let this be your first lesson under my tutelage. Honey for infection, comfrey for your bones, and tummeric for inflammation. Henry sat silently in a dark chamber where dark figures languished on heavy wooden beds, rough sheets over their bodies as they writhed and rolled. Henry didn’t like looking at them, thinking that they were watching him.

Mother Glenda formed a paste with the ingredients, adding more than just the three ingredients that she had mentioned, but Henry didn’t bother to ask. He didn’t want to press his luck any more today. When she was done, Glenda coated his knuckles with the soothing paste and wrapped his knuckles in linen. She looked at her work and let out a sign before reaching into her robes and withdrawing a slender piece of white and handed it to Henry.

“Clean your walls every morning,” she warned him. “But perhaps a bit of studying might do you some good? Wouldn’t you agree?”

Henry took the chalk without hesitating it and clutched it tightly. It was the only thing in the world that Henry owned. With the pain in his knuckles, Henry was certain that he could remember most of the letters, more than half of them. Well, he knew most of the beginning, some in the middle, and those at the end. There were some gaps, but Henry thought he might figure it out.

Hubert was no longer waiting for Henry on the other side of the door and Henry was left to pick his way through the foggy chamber, finding his trail among the naked bodies in the mist. While the thought of naked bodies all around him might seem alluring, the majority of them were the sick and the elderly. Anyone who was young was sickly looking and pale, no one that Henry would ever want to see naked in the bath waters. So, he kept his head down and moved through the chamber until he found the staircase that led up to the male Initiates’ chambers.

There was no one around and the silence was palpable as he picked his way along the corridor, finding the room that he had been shown earlier. Henry walked into the room, throwing back the hood he’d been forced to wear all day and scratched his flat hair, feeling the cold air wash all over him. Still gripping the chalk, Henry stared at the gray stones of the walls of his room and set to task recalling every symbol and letter that he could think of. He scratched and formed them on the wall, closing his eyes and trying to remember each and every one of them. He didn’t even care if they were in order, he just marked them.

Henry stared at them, looking at each of the symbols and knowing that with any combination, he could form his own name. He could form Claire or Father, or William, or Quinn, or Mother, or Percy. With the stroke of each letter, their memories would live on and their names would exist. He looked at them, whispering and reciting their names over and over again, ignoring the cramps in his stomach, the churning and the twisting. He looked at them and sat down on the hard bed and looked over them. The only light coming through the chill of the cracked window.

After hours of repeating the letters and trying to conjure up the missing symbols, Henry heard a knock at the door and looked up. He hadn’t been expecting anyone. Was there something that he missed? Had he screwed up the rules? Henry felt a chill run down his spine as he quickly rose to open the door.

On the other side of the door, Hubert was waiting with a mug and a trencher of something that looked warm and smelled delicious. Henry didn’t even care what it was. The other Initiate grinned and presented Henry with the offering.

“You survived your first day,” Hubert said, handing Henry the food and mug. “Didn’t see you in the hall. Figured you’d come up here to do exactly that,” Hubert pointed to the wall. “Let me see here. You’re missing a few of them. Mind if I round out the collection?”

“By all means,” Henry gestured toward the wall and handed Hubert the chalk.

“Firat’s a crotchety old bastard,” Hubert said, “but he’s got one hell of a mind. Only reason I’m here is to learn higher arithmetic from him and rhetoric. A few more years and I’ll be Master of Taxation and Treasury here.”

“Really?” Henry asked.

“No,” Hubert chuckled as he finished marking symbols on the wall. Some of them were painfully obvious to Henry, but others looked completely new. “I’ll probably end up a clerk and end up running the finances of someone in Lord’s Hill. But, at least I won’t have to wear a damp robe the rest of my life.”

“You’re not going to be a monk?” Henry frowned. “Or a priest, or whatever?”

Hubert laughed. “Saints, no! My father is Master of Commerce and the only way to get a decent education is with the Faithful, and the Saints know that no one up North is going to respect anyone who wasn’t educated by the Faithful. So, I’m spending the next four years here as an Initiate and then I’m breaking free. Girls, wine, and the finest clothes you can imagine. It’ll be brilliant.”

“Wow,” Henry grinned. He didn’t know much about girls, except that he liked them, and wine tasted like piss, but he could imagine it would be nice.

“Tyla said the Centurion dropped you off,” Hubert placed the chalk on Henry’s desk, next to the basin. Henry shoveled the last of his food into his mouth and washed it down with water. All he could remember was the taste of salt and maybe beans. “How’d you get caught up with him?”

“Long story,” Henry lied. “He said I wasn’t much use to him if I can’t read or fight.”

“Well bully for you,” Hubert pointed out the window. “All of our rooms look over the Watch training yards. You can hear those knobs smacking each other with sticks all morning long during our morning Contemplations.”

“Really?” Henry looked out the window over to the walled complex across the street. From how high they were up, Henry could see straight into an open yard that was bathed in pale light. The Centurion had said that he’d need to know how to fight. Henry was going to have to figure that out as well.

“Here,” Hubert stepped forward and took the trencher and mug from Henry. “I’ll take those back for you or Gaullie will beat you with a ladle. Borden will come pound on all of the doors at Rising Hour and you have ten minutes to get down to the hall for breakfast. Me and a bunch of the lads are heading up to fill the tanks and bring water back for the baths. You’ll meet Firat at the Archives while the others scrub the pools. Praise the Saints you get out of that.”

“I will,” Henry said, not sure how to Praise the Saints just yet.

“Hang in there, kid,” Hubert said to him with a grin. “You’ll figure it all out.”

After Hubert had left for the night, Henry could hear the sounds of dozens of young Initiates in the rooms all around him, talking and joking before someone with a booming voice marched down the corridor and announced it was time for Nightly Contemplation and Prayers. Henry didn’t know what that meant, so he stared at his wall and recited the letters that he knew and memorized the order that Hubert had placed them in for him. He looked at them over and over again. Firat would test him tomorrow and Henry would know each and every one of them.

He didn’t remember passing out, but when he awoke, he was slouched against the wall in a crooked positon that made his neck and back ache. It was still dark outside and the candle still flickered and filled the room with gold light. Henry looked around and forgot where it was the he actually was. Everything looked foreign and strange to him. He thought about calling out to his Mother or for William. He blinked and felt the tears welling in his eyes.

He wept for what felt like an eternity.

By the time the heavy booms pounded on the doors down the corridor, Henry was out of tears, staring out the window with his head leaning against the wall. His knuckles stung, but he didn’t care. His mind was numb and he stood up and opened the door before Father Borden could reach his door. Henry looked at the elderly man and recognized him from the sanctuary the day before. His thick, bushy eyebrows raised at the sight of Henry. He looked over Henry and then his eyes moved to the markings on the wall behind him.

“Clean that off,” Father Borden growled. “And wash yourself, my child.”

Henry nodded and rubbed the chalk off with the sleeve of his robe and then washed his face and hair before donning his hood again and joining the flow of Initiates through the corridor and to the stairs.

For the first time, Henry saw the cavernous Chapel without a thick veil of fog. It was vast and enormous, holding what looked like twelve pools, all of them still and the steam cleared out. There were Brothers in the water, draining it and preparing the Chapel for the cleaning that all of the Initiates were grumbling and complaining about. Henry didn’t understand, but it did look like a lot of work. Just to sweep the floors, it would take a full day. Strangely, Henry felt excited to go face the wrath of Firat.

The breakfast was cooked potatoes, eggs, and a mealy bread that they were offered salted butter for and preserves. Henry was still starving from his journey and the horrors that he had endured. He didn’t mind that he sat alone at the corner of the long table, ignored by the entire hall. At first, he had looked around with hopeful anticipation for Hubert, but when Henry saw him laughing with a group of older Initiates, his heart sank. He’d glance over, hoping that Hubert might turn and at least spare him a glance, but he never did. Everyone liked Hubert and he was always in company.

That left Tyla, whom Henry also looked for, but she too was surrounded by Initiates who looked to be her age or a little older. All of them were talking in hushed tones with somber expressions on their faces. When Henry had been looking at her, she glanced his direction once. His heart fainted a beat, but she quickly looked away, almost embarrassed that she had been caught looking at him. The warm, swelling feeling inside of him soured and he felt like he had gas. Henry hated this.

“How fares your knuckles?” Mother Glenda asked in passing.

“Well, Mother Glenda,” Henry answered quickly.

“Very well,” she replied. “Good day to you, Initiate.”

“Good day, Ma’am,” Henry mumbled.

He finished his meal and placed the crude plate that he had been given on the table in front of the crooked nosed man known as Gaullie, who looked like the kind of man who relished kicking cats. He watched Henry with vulture like eyes as Henry walked away, moving swiftly for the door that led out to the street.

Henry passed along the side of the walled complex that he now knew was the Watch’s training yard and listened to the sounds of shouting and there was indeed the familiar sound of wood crashing against wood. It was an inspiring sound and an exciting sound for him, but he was remorseful that he was going to learn letters again. He passed a group of the Watch recruits who stood around in their green tabards and leather armor, watching people pass. Yesterday and the day before, he had been met with scornful looks of hatred. Now, with the robes and the hood, people nodded politely to him or offered him a smile, clueless as to who he really was.

Henry passed a strawberry blonde woman, maybe a few years older than he was, seated on the steps to the Watch training yard. She was alone and had a bruise on her cheek, but she wore the attire of the Watch all the same. She looked up at him and offered him a nod. “Good morning, Initiate,” she said. “Saints be with you.”

“Thank you,” Henry said and continued on his way.

The Archives were quieter today. There were less of the green and black clad Bernardine Initiates and there were no Mirnan Initiates. The clerks and other literate members of the city doing research occupied the tables and benches, enjoying the relative calm of the facility while the monks were away with their own tasks. Henry took a deep breath and smelled the scent of the books and let it linger in his nostrils as he closed his eyes. He knew that there was knowledge here. He knew that he could learn and that when Baldwin returned, Henry would be able to of use to him.

The desk in the alcove where Brother Firat had introduced himself to Henry was empty and Brother Firat was already busy marking the slate board with chalk, preparing himself for Henry. With purposeful movement, Henry placed himself in his seat and continued to run over the letters in his head again and again.

“I trust you had a restful night?” Firat asked without turning to face Henry. This spooked Henry a little. He had been silent taking his seat. “Yes? Good. We will test your comprehension.”

Brother Firat picked up the switch from the table next to the board and pointed it to the first letter. “Hands on top of the desk and recite this letter for me.”

Henry’s knuckles only reunited with the switch twice.

For the rest of the day, Henry learned the sounds of letters when they were combined together and the sounds they made. He also learned how to write small words, basic words that Firat said were vital to understanding and building sentences. Henry stared at the chalk board, wishing that he could memorize all of it. He wanted to know everything that Firat could give him. He wanted to keep learning, keep consuming things. His eyes burned, but he didn’t want to blink. When Firat tested him, Henry pushed, giving him everything that he had, telling him all that he could remember. He felt the switch less and less and Henry found himself dreading the sun sinking into the horizon.

But, the time came when Henry watched Firat place the chalk on the table next to the board. “This concludes today’s lessons,” Firat said, stretching his back. “You are dismissed.”

“Thank you, Brother Firat,” Henry said reverently as he stood up.

“You will forget much of it,” Firat told him calmly. “But do not stress. If you are determined, you will learn faster, faster than many. Faster than the others.”

Henry couldn’t help but smile at that. The thought of doing better than the others made him feel good, probably the best he had in a while. But the feeling faded and vanished when Firat left. There was no one to share this with, no one who would care or celebrate with him. The left the Archives without bothering to look for Nabu or Albros to ask them questions. He made his way through the streets of Trennon, past shops where he was smiled at and nodded to. He walked past tea shops where workers and traders all relaxed and enjoyed the setting sun across the city.

As he made his way toward the Chapel, he watched as a crowd gathered around the Watch training yard. A man was standing at the center while others shouted and threw rocks at him, calling him names and cursing him. He slowed at the sounds of the insults and the curses that were being hurled at the man. Henry stopped, standing in the shadows of the chapel, staring as the man was trying to escape, but a familiar figure in a blue coat shoved him into the center of the ring and silenced him with a punch to the face, stunning the man as he toppled over.

“Boglander,” Tyla uttered under her breath next to him. “You might not want to watch this.”

“Why?” Henry whispered.

“He was from Umberlyn,” Tyla answered. “The Brogans claim he tried stealing from their cart in the Penny Market. The Watch will hang him.”

“What? How can they do that?” Henry felt his fingers twisting into fists. “Isn’t there a magistrate?”

“There is,” Tyla nodded, “but Lord’s Hill doesn’t care about Boglanders. The Captain of the Watch will do as the people demand.”

“No,” Henry shook his head. “He’ll be reasonable.”

The following morning, from Henry’s room, he could see the Boglander swaying from the gallows as the crows circled. No one shouted or jeered. Henry noticed the woman that he had seen the day before standing near the gallows with her staff, ready to keep people from molesting the corpse. He watched her as she looked over her shoulder and stared at the corpse before turning away from it. Henry kept his hood up and refused to take it down.

In the morning meal, Henry didn’t sit by anyone or talk to anyone. He didn’t bother looking for Hubert or Tyla. He wasn’t going to make friends and he wasn’t going to make enemies. His days were left in the hands of Firat and he took his meals in silence before turning in for the night and studying the markings he made on his walls to avoid the switch.

Henry was not welcome in Trennon, and he kept that at the very front of his mind.

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