“Where do we go, my lord?” he had asked as his father led him to the stable.
The tall man said nothing but there was the briefest pause before he hoisted the saddle onto one of his chargers. Accustomed to his father’s failure to respond to most questions, Vaelin thought nothing of it.
They rode away from the house, the charger’s iron shoes clattering on the cobbles. After a while they passed through the north gate, where the bodies hung in cages from the gibbet and stained the air with the sick stench of decay. He had learned not to ask what they had done to earn such punishment, it was one of the few questions his father had always been willing to answer and the stories he told would leave Vaelin sweating and tearful in the night, whimpering at every noise beyond the window, wondering if the thieves or rebels or Dark-afflicted Deniers were coming for him.
The cobbles soon gave way to the turf beyond the walls, his father spurring the charger to a canter then a gallop, Vaelin laughing with excitement. He felt a momentary shame at his enjoyment. His mother had passed just two months previously and his father’s sorrow was a black cloud that sat over the whole household, making servants fearful and callers rare. But Vaelin was only ten years old and had a child’s view of death: he missed his mother but her passing was a mystery, the ultimate secret of the adult world, and although he cried, he didn’t know why, and he still stole pastries from the cook and played with his wooden swords in the yard.
They galloped for several minutes before his father reined in, although to Vaelin it was all too brief, he wanted to gallop forever. They had stopped before a large, iron gate. The railings were tall, taller than three men set end to end, each topped with a wicked spike. At the apex of the gate’s arch stood a figure made of iron, a warrior, sword held in front of his chest, pointing downwards, the face a withered skull. The walls on either side were almost as tall as the gate. To the left a brass bell hung from a wooden crossbeam.
Vaelin’s father dismounted then lifted him from the saddle.
“What is this place, my lord?” he asked. His voice felt as loud as a shout although he spoke in a whisper. The silence and the mist made him uneasy, he didn’t like the gate and the figure that sat atop it. He knew with a child’s certainty that the blank eye sockets were a lie, a trick. It was watching them, waiting.
His father didn’t reply, walking over to the bell, he took his dagger from his belt and struck it with the pommel. The noise seemed like an outrage in the silence. Vaelin put his hands over his ears until it died away. When he looked up his father was standing over him.
“Vaelin,” he said in his coarse, warrior’s voice. “Do you remember the motto I taught you? Our family creed.”
“Yes, my lord.”
“‘Loyalty is our strength.’”
“Yes. Loyalty is our strength. Remember it. Remember that you are my son and that I want you to stay here. In this place you will learn many things, you will become a brother of the Sixth Order. But you will always be my son, and you will honour my wishes.”
There was a scrape of gravel beyond the gate and Vaelin started, seeing a tall, cloaked figure standing behind the railings. He had been waiting for them. His face was hidden by the mist but Vaelin squirmed in the knowledge of being studied, appraised. He looked up at his father, seeing a large, strong-featured man with a greying beard and deep lines in his face and forehead. There was something new in his expression, something Vaelin had never seen before and couldn’t name. In later years he would see it in the faces of a thousand men and know it as an old friend: fear. It struck him that his father’s eyes were unusually dark, much darker than his mother’s. This was how he would remember him throughout his life. To others he was the Battle Lord, First Sword of the Realm, the hero of Beltrian, King’s saviour and father of a famous son. To Vaelin he would always be a fearful man abandoning his son at the gate to the House of the Sixth Order.
He felt his father’s large hand pressing against his back. “Go now Vaelin. Go to him. He will not hurt you.”
Liar! Vaelin thought fiercely, his feet dragging on the soil as he was pushed towards the gate. The cloaked figure’s face became clearer as they neared, long and narrow with thin lips and pale blue eyes. Vaelin found himself staring into them. The long-faced man stared back, ignoring his father.
“What is your name, boy?” The voice was soft, a sigh in the mist.
Why his voice didn’t tremble Vaelin never knew. “Vaelin, my lord. Vaelin Al Sorna.”
The thin lips formed a smile. “I am not a lord, boy. I am Gainyl Arlyn, Aspect of the Sixth Order.”
Vaelin recalled his mother’s many lessons in etiquette. “My apologies, Aspect.”
There was a snort behind him. Vaelin turned to see his father riding away, the charger quickly swallowed by the mist, hooves drumming on the soft earth, fading to silence.
“He will not be coming back, Vaelin,” said the long-faced man, the Aspect, his smile gone. “You know why he brought you here?”
“To learn many things and be a brother of the Sixth Order.”
“Yes. But no-one may enter except by his own choice, be he man or boy.”
A sudden desire to run, to escape into the mist. He would run away. He would find a band of outlaws to take him in, he would live in the forest, have many grand adventures and pretend himself an orphan . . . Loyalty is our strength.
The Aspect’s gaze was impassive but Vaelin knew he could read every thought in his boy’s head. He wondered later how many boys, dragged or tricked there by treacherous fathers, did run away, and if so, if they ever regretted it.
Loyalty is our strength.
“I wish to come in, please,” he told the Aspect. There were tears in his eyes but he blinked them away. “I wish to learn many things.”
The Aspect reached out to unlock the gate. Vaelin noticed his hands bore many scars. He beckoned Vaelin inside as the gate swung open. “Come, little Hawk. You are our brother now.”
Vaelin quickly realised that the House of the Sixth Order was not truly a house, it was a fortress. Granite walls rose like cliffs above him as the Aspect led him to the main gate. Dark figures patrolled the battlements, strongbows in hand, glancing down at him with blank, mist-shrouded eyes. The entrance was an arched doorway, portcullis raised to allow them entry, the two spearmen on guard, both senior students of seventeen, bowed in profound respect as the Aspect passed through. He barely acknowledged them, leading Vaelin through the courtyard, where other students swept straw from the cobbles and the ring of hammer on metal came from the blacksmith’s shop. Vaelin had seen castles before, his father and mother had taken him to the King’s palace once, trussed into his best clothes and wriggling in boredom as the Aspect of the First Order droned on about the greatness of the King’s heart. But the King’s palace was a brightly lit maze of statues and tapestries and clean, polished marble and soldiers with breastplates you could see your face in. This King’s palace didn’t smell of dung and smoke and have a hundred shadowed doorways, all no doubt harbouring dark secrets a boy shouldn’t know.
“Tell me what you know of this Order, Vaelin,” the Aspect instructed, leading him on towards the main keep.
Vaelin recited from his mother’s lessons: “The Sixth Order wields the sword of justice and smites the enemies of the Faith and the Realm.”
“Very good.” The Aspect sounded surprised. “You are well taught. But what is it that we do that the other Orders do not?”
Vaelin struggled for an answer until they passed into the keep and saw two boys, both about twelve, fighting with wooden swords, ash cracking together in a rapid exchange of thrust, parry and slash. The boys fought within a circle of white chalk, every time their struggle brought them close to the edge of the circle the instructor, a skeletal shaven-headed man, would lash them with a cane. They barely flinched from the blows, intent on their contest. One boy overextended a lunge and took a blow to the head. He reeled back, blood streaming from the wound, falling heavily across the circle to draw another blow from the instructor’s cane.
“You fight,” Vaelin told the Aspect, the violence and the blood making his heart hammer in his chest.
“Yes.” The Aspect halted and looked down at him. “We fight. We kill. We storm castle walls braving arrows and fire. We stand against the charge of horse and lance. We cut our way through the hedge of pike and spear to claim the standard of our enemy. The Sixth Order fights, but what does it fight for?”
“For the Realm.”
The Aspect crouched until their faces were level. “Yes, the Realm, but what is more than the Realm?”
“You sound uncertain, little Hawk. Perhaps you are not as well taught as I believed.”
Behind him the instructor dragged the fallen boy to his feet amidst a shower of abuse. “Clumsy, slack-witted, shit-eating oaf! Get back in there. Fall again and I’ll make sure you never get up.”
“‘The Faith is the sum of our history and our spirit,’” Vaelin recited. “‘When we pass into the Beyond our essence joins with the souls of the Departed to lend us their guidance in this life. In return we give them honour and faith.’”
The Aspect raised an eyebrow. “You know the catechism well.”
“Yes, sir. My mother tutored me often.”
The Aspect’s face clouded. “Your mother . . .” He stopped, his expression switching back to the same emotionless mask. “Your mother should not be mentioned again. Nor your father, or any other member of your family. You have no family now save the Order. You belong to the Order. You understand?”
The boy with the cut on his head had fallen again and was being beaten by the master, the cane rising and falling in regular, even strokes, the master’s skull-like face betraying scant emotion. Vaelin had seen the same expression on his father’s face when he took the strap to one of his hounds.
You belong to the Order. To his surprise his heart had slowed, and he felt no quaver in his voice when he answered the Aspect, “I understand.”
The master’s name was Sollis. He had lean, weathered features and the eyes of a goat: grey, cold and staring. He took one look at Vaelin, and asked, “Do you know what carrion is?”
Master Sollis stepped closer, looming over him. Vaelin’s heart still refused to beat any faster. The image of the skull-faced master swinging his cane at the boy on the floor of the keep had replaced his fear with a simmering anger.
“It’s dead meat, boy,” Master Sollis told him. “It’s the flesh left on the battlefield to be eaten by crows and gnawed by rats. That’s what awaits you, boy. Dead flesh.”
Vaelin said nothing. Sollis’s goat eyes tried to bore into him but he knew they saw no fear. The master made him angry, not afraid.
There were ten other boys allocated to the same room, an attic in the north tower. They were all his age or close to it, some sniffling in loneliness and abandonment, others smiling continually with the novelty of parental separation. Sollis made them line up, lashing his cane at a beefy boy who was too slow. “Move smartly, dung head.”
He eyed them individually, stepping closer to insult a few. “Name?” he asked a tall, blond-haired boy.
“Nortah Al Sendahl, sir.”
“It’s master not sir, shit-wit.” He moved down the line. “Name?”
“Barkus Jeshua, Master,” the beefy boy he had caned replied.
“I see they still breed carthorses in Nilsael.”
And so on until he had insulted them all. Finally he stepped back to make a short speech: “No doubt your families sent you here for their own reasons,” Sollis told them. “They wanted you to be heroes, they wanted you to honour their name, they wanted to boast about you between swilling ale or whoring about town, or maybe they just wanted to be rid of a squalling brat. Well, forget them. If they wanted you, you wouldn’t be here. You’re ours now, you belong to the Order. You will learn to fight, you will kill the enemies of the Realm and the Faith until the day you die. Nothing else matters. Nothing else concerns you. You have no family, you have no dreams, you have no ambitions beyond the Order.”
He made them take the rough cotton sacks from their beds and run down the tower’s numerous steps and across the courtyard to the stable, where they filled them with straw amidst a flurry of cane strokes. Vaelin was sure the cane fell on his back more than the others and suspected Sollis of forcing him towards the older, damper patches of straw. When the sacks were full he whipped them back up to the tower, where they placed them on the wooden frames that would serve as their beds. Then it was another run down to the vaults beneath the keep. He made them line up, breath steaming in the chill air, gasps echoing loudly. The vaults seemed vast, brick archways disappearing into the darkness on every side. Vaelin’s fear began to rekindle as he stared into the shadows, bottomless and pregnant with menace.
“Eyes forward!” Sollis’s cane left a welt on his arm and he choked down a pain-filled sob.
“New crop, Master Sollis?” a cheerful voice enquired. A very large man had appeared from the darkness, oil lamp flickering in his ham-sized fist. He was the first man Vaelin had seen who seemed broader than he was long. His girth was confined within a voluminous cloak, dark blue like the other masters, but with a single red rose embroidered on the breast. Master Sollis’s cloak was bare of any decoration.
“Another sweeping of shit, Master Grealin,” he told the large man with an air of resignation.
Grealin’s fleshy face formed a brief smile. “How fortunate they are to have your guidance.”
There was a moment’s silence and Vaelin sensed the tension between the two men, finding it noteworthy that Sollis spoke first. “They need gear.”
“Of course.” Grealin moved closer to inspect them, he seemed strangely light of foot for such an enormous man, appearing to glide across the flagstones. “Little warriors must be armed for the battles to come.” He still smiled but Vaelin noticed that his eyes showed no mirth as he scanned them. Once again he thought of his father, of the way he looked when they visited the horse traders’ fair and one of the breeders tried to interest him in a charger. His father would walk around the animal, telling Vaelin how to spot the signs of a good warhorse, the thickness of muscle that indicated whether it would be strong in the melee but too slow in the charge, how the best mounts needed some spirit left after breaking. “The eyes, Vaelin,” he told him. “Look for a horse with a spark of fire in its eyes.”
Was that what Master Grealin was looking for now, fire in their eyes? Something to gauge who would last, how they would do in the charge or the melee.
Grealin paused next to a slightly built boy named Caenis, who had endured some of Sollis’s worst insults. Grealin looked down at him intently, the boy shifting uncomfortably under the scrutiny. “What’s your name, little warrior?” Grealin asked him.
Caenis had to swallow before he could answer. “Caenis Al Nysa, Master.”
“Al Nysa.” Grealin looked thoughtful. “A noble family of some wealth, if memory serves. Lands in the south, allied by marriage to the House of Hurnish. You are a long way from home.”
“Well, fret not. You have a new home in the Order.” He patted Caenis on the shoulder three times, making the boy flinch a little. Sollis’s cane had no doubt left him fearing even the gentlest touch. Grealin moved along the line, asking various questions of the boys, offering reassurances, all the while Master Sollis beat his cane against his booted calf, the tack, tack, tack of stick on leather echoing through the vaults.
“I think I know your name already, little warrior.” Grealin’s bulk towered over Vaelin. “Al Sorna. Your father and I fought together in the Meldenean war. A great man. You have his look.”
Vaelin saw the trap and didn’t hesitate. “I have no family, Master. Only the Order.”
“Ah, but the Order is a family, little warrior.” Grealin gave a short chuckle as he moved away. “And Master Sollis and I are your uncles.” This made him laugh even more. Vaelin glanced at Sollis, now glaring at Grealin with undisguised hatred.
“Follow me, gallant little men!” Grealin called, his lamp raised above his head as he moved deeper into the vaults. “Don’t wander off, the rats don’t like visitors, and some of them are bigger than you.” He chuckled again. Beside Vaelin, Caenis let out a short whimper, wide eyes staring into the fathomless blackness.
“Ignore him,” Vaelin whispered. “There’re no rats down here. The place is too clean, there’s nothing for them to eat.” He wasn’t at all sure it was true but it sounded vaguely encouraging.
“Shut your mouth, Sorna!” Sollis’s cane snapped the air above his head. “Get moving.”
They followed Master Grealin’s lamp into the black emptiness of the vaults, footsteps and the fat man’s laughter mingling to form a surreal echo punctuated by the occasional snap of Sollis’s cane. Caenis’s eyes darted about constantly, no doubt searching for giant rats. It seemed an age before they came to a solid oak door set into the rough brickwork. Grealin bade them wait as he unclasped his keys from his belt and unlocked the door.
“Now, little men,” he said, swinging the door open wide. “Let us arm you for the battles to come.”