“If everyone isn’t in a line by the time I cross the threshold then there’ll be no dinner for the lot of you.”
There was a bustle of feet as two dozen children ran through the drab corridor to line up before a simple stone fireplace. Their clothes were well worn and they all bore a uniform haircut regardless of their age or gender. At a glance they looked to vary in age from three to twelve, though all of them looked underfed and overworked. Their eyes weren’t the mature eyes of adults or the haunted eyes of soldiers, but neither were they the eyes of average children.
A nervous ripple ran through the line. Every head swiveled to the doorway where a tall man stood beside the rat-featured speaker who called himself the Orphan Master. The master’s given name of Ral Colcot was far less grand and suited him much better. The children examined the stranger with every inch of scrutiny that he gave to them.
“Listen well,” the orphan master announced. “This is Sir Theaspin Rothsgrave and he has graced us with his presence. None of you deserve to even share the same air as such an esteemed lord but he has gifted you all with just such an opportunity. Muster what dignity you have and obey his every word. Is this understood?”
“Yes, Master!” the children answered as one.
Rothsgrave sneered. This ‘orphan master’ seemed to derive great pleasure from his complete command of these children. He was lanky with thinning hair and sunken eyes. A failure of a man who took out his frustrations on the one group of people who couldn’t resist him. Pathetic. Rothsgrave took a step forward, his presence filling the room.
Some had described Rothsgrave as a giant of a man. The phrase had always struck him as uncoothe though. Broad shouldered and two heads taller than the orphan master, Rothsgrave drew in people’s eyes like a flame in the darkness. His black hair was long but worn tied back in the style of far away Dalgarddian nobility while his clothes were the dire black robes of Tann’olar scholars of the First Circle. All of this was lost on the children and master alike. On his shoulder stood a proud bird with deep red feathers trimmed with glossy black.
“Is this all of them?” he asked, his eyes slowly drifting across the meager offerings. His voice was cold, its depth reverberating through any listeners, compelling their full attention. It was a voice of command.
“Y-yes, my lord,” the master answered,ut there had been a moment’s hesitation, barely noticeable and quickly recovered, but definitely present.
“Really? That is most interesting. I should call in the guard then as I sense another presence within these walls. Or, perhaps, I should take care of the intruder myself?”
Light began to spiral out from Rothsgrave’s sleeves to wrap around his hands until a pulsing sphere of flame blazed in the centre of his palm. Colcot staggered back, pure panic racing across his greasy features.
“Wait! There’s no need for haste. Another child! I forgot to mention there is another child!”
Rothsgrave lowered his arm and the flames retracted, slivering back up into his sleeve. “How negligent of you, Colcot. Why is this child not here as I instructed?”
Colcot tried to recompose himself. He didn’t dare to take his eyes from Rothsgrave to see if the children had seen his fear. They had.
“He is a wretch of a boy, my lord. A worthless leech kept alive only because there is no alternative beyond death. He would certainly not be fit for any purpose that you could have in mind.”
“You presume to know my intentions? I didn’t know you to be psychic. The church would be very interested in hearing about your talent.”
“No! I just-”
“Take me to him.”
“Of course. Please, follow me.”
Colcot skittered ahead like a nervous rabbit. Now he was careful to avoid looking towards his wards. Rothsgrave knew that this humiliation would be repaid with anger towards the helpless saps as soon as he had left. It was always the same with such people.
The orphan master lead him through a shabby corridor and into a room rammed tight with rickety beds so that just enough space remained to shuffle from one side to the other. All of the beds were empty except for one in the gloom of the far corner. Light from the tiny window barely even reached it.
Colcot glanced between Rothsgrave and the tight cluster of beds repeatedly, the tiny cogs of his brain clearly working overtime on how to deal with this new situation.
“Give me on moment, my lord. I will get the children to clear a path for you.”
Rothsgrave lifted one hand, silencing Colcot. He waved idly, causing the beds to groan then spring up towards the wall, opening up before them like the maw of a great beast. He didn’t wait for Colcot’s thoughts to catch up, instead setting off alone. Colcot trotted along behind him like a small dog.
At the click of his fingers an orb of soft light materialised and floated idly over the occupied bed, casting away the shadows to reveal the wane face of a boy no older than eight. His brown hair was an untended mess and his brown eyes blinked against the sudden light. Other than the pale skin and gaunt cheeks of the long term bed-bound, he looked decidedly undistinctive.
“Why do you lay in bed when I instructed all children to assemble in the front room, boy?” Rothsgrave asked loudly, his tone hardened steel.
The boy adjusted his gaze as though only now seeing Rothsgrave. His lips moved with deliberate care but only a hoarse rasp left his throat. He coughed then tried again.
“Can’t leave here, sir. Can’t… can’t use my legs.”
Those unremarkable eyes were dark pools of hopelessness. They were the eyes of somebody who had hit rock bottom but hadn’t broken. Battered and trapped, unable to let go of the weight that pulls them under but equally unable to succumb to the inevitable suffocation.
“Just your legs?”
“Waist down, sir.”
“Just that? Barely an excuse for wasting away here. I presume you can sit? Articulate your hands? Think?”
“Yes. With help.”
“Ah. I see. Mr Colcot, I assume you are the help that this boy requires? You help him to sit in a chair beside the fire to enjoy the company of others and give him books and tools to occupy idle hands and mind?”
The look of panic grew, the colour draining from Colcot’s face then dribbling down his jowls as beads of sweat.
“Ah, yes. Well. I, er, help as I can. But I’m a busy man. I’m sure you understand. So many children to attend to, finances to secure. Yes. So little time,” he stammered.
Rothsgrave sighed. “Quit your jabbering if you have no constructive statements to add.” Colcot clamped his mouth shut and took a step back. Rothsgrave ignored him and leaned down closer to the boy.
“Speak your name.”
The boy met his stare without fear but still hesitated. “Virgil. Don’t know that I was ever given any other name.”
“Virgil the crippled orphan. Such a strong name for a tragic origin. Do you believe it a prophesy of power against adversity or an ironic joke from the gods?”
Virgil showed no sign of emotion as he answered. “I believe it to be a word that took the fancy of whoever named me. I don’t know that names really mean anything. How can they when common drunks and nobodies dole them out the most?”
Rothsgrave narrowed his brows but then burst into a booming laughter that flooded the decrepit walls of the orphanage. He clapped a giant hand on the boys shoulder, causing him to wince under the impact.
“Down beaten and hopeless yet with a cynical humour beyond your years. Yes. You will do. Gan!”
Another man appeared in the doorway, seeming to materialise from the shadows. He was old, his thinning hair grey and his face reminiscent of an old boot. He wore a smart suit of black but looked ill suited to it. Scars crisscrossed his pale skin and he eyed everything with thinly veiled scorn.
Rothsgrave stood back to his full height and turned to Colcot. “I am taking the boy. Send the papers to my residence. Gan, collect my new son.”
Gan grunted and moved across the room like a prowling tiger. He scooped Virgil into his arms with one swift motion, showing no sign of strain despite his age. Colcot stood to the side like a lost fish, his jaw opening and closing aimlessly as his brain struggled to stay adrift of events. He snapped into some sort of presence when Rothsgrave threw him a pouch that clinked metallically.
His business complete, Rothsgrave strode back towards the entrance with Gan keeping stride a respectable distance behind him. The other children were still standing there, nobody having told them to move. He grunted under his breath and drew a small object from his pocket. Without slowing he opened the door, slapping the object onto the wall as he passed. As his hand followed him through the door, a glass eye stared out at the children. Then they were gone. The door swung shut and a heavy silence descended upon the orphanage.
“You have a lot to prove, boy. Let us hope that you aren’t such a slacker under proper guidance.”
It took a moment for Virgil to tear his eyes from their surroundings. That he would see such wonder in a grimy terrace such as this was a testament to his sheltered existence.
“I don’t understand. Why would you chose me?”
Rothsgrave didn’t answer him. It was an overcast, day but they had been spared rain so far. The path they walked was unpaved mud flanked on both sides by a long stretch of weathered wooden facades that marked hundreds of houses for thousands of insignificant lives. Light barely touched them here in this valley of oppressed mediocrity. There was no greenery in sight beyond weeds and moss. It was a place of desperation, yet it was everything that these people had and represented a million memories, hopes and dreams.
“Why I chose you isn’t important.”
“But the others are all smarter and stronger than me. I can’t do anything!”
“Are you suggesting that I made the wrong decision? That with all of my intellect and experience I gathered knowledge and evidence and settled upon the incorrect answer. To say that I made the wrong choice is to say that I myself am wrong. That I am not smart enough to find the right decision. You dare call me stupid?”
“Then suffice it to say I have my reasons.”
Virgil didn’t press the matter further. Instead he returned to assuming that the world was a more beautiful place than reality provided. His eyes were quickly drawn to a gilded carriage a little way down the road. The local lords went for bright crimsons and golds but Rothsgrave preferred blacks and silvers. It put people on edge. Two black horses chosen for their grand size were tethered to the carriage.
As they neared, the carriage driver nodded to Rothsgrave and climbed down to open the door. Gan placed Virgil on one seat then stood back for Rothsgrave to step up and take the opposite seat. Gan joined them, sitting beside his master. Both men stared in silence at the boy, as did the bird on Rothsgrave’s shoulder. The three sets of eyes stabbed into him, causing him to shift uncomfortably.
The seats were padded with lush pillows for long journeys, not that the boy could appreciate it. The carriage shuddered then the grimy street began to slide past the windows. Virgil tried to maneuver himself up to see clearly through the windows but it was a losing battle. It was not designed for someone of his size.
“Where are we going?”
“Home…” A dozen emotions flitted across his small face before it settled back into passive expression. It was almost like the word scared him.
Rothsgrave ran a hand through his beard as he examined the boy. “Tell me, where does your sense of self-worth lie? You have protested your ability and questioned my decision yet you have never once enquired as to my intentions. I could be here to sell you into slavery, harvest your organs, anything. Do you not care what happens to you?”
Virgil considered this. “The Orphan Master always told me I wasn’t fit for slavery. That as soon as I was of age I’d be a beggar on the streets and nothing more. I guess, now that I think about it, I don’t care what happens to me much. Any future is better than I had.”
“We will see.”
A heavy silence fell over the carriage. Virgil shuffled awkwardly. “What do you want me for then, my lord?”
“Firstly, I am no lord. Call me Master Rothsgrave, for ‘Master’ is what all apprentices should call their mentors.”