Once they were out of sight of their home the children fell silent. They looked about them as the wagon moved into unfamiliar streets, taking them further than many had been in their lifetimes. After a few minutes one child began to cry. The wagon moved slowly, the driver forced to take a longer route to avoid the busiest roads and the markets. Night was falling before they finally stopped in front of a gray stone tower on the east side of the town, a guard house of the Royal Park. Nothing could be seen of the grounds or palaces as a stone wall encircled the whole, stretching into dimness on both sides and reaching higher than any house. The guard house was built onto this wall, facing the road.
"Down!" one of the soldiers called.
The children, rubbing numbed legs and kicking life into their feet, jumped down and lined up as they'd been taught in the orphan house, so tired that not one thought of misbehaving. The two gentlemen looked them over once more in the half-light.
"Very well," one of them said. He was the elder of the two; a tall, thin man with a pointed nose and receding chin. His eyes were dark brown and shone like new coins. He nodded at one of the soldiers, who went up to the guard house and tugged the bell-pull. The figure who emerged was a Lord. The children could tell this from his dress and their eyes grew round with surprise and fright. His shoes were polished, his buckles gleamed, his coat was thick and rich, heavily embroidered at the cuffs and collar. The soldiers stood to attention as he passed them and the two gentlemen bowed.
"Sir," the younger one said.
"What do you have for me?" the Lord said. He eyed the children with disgust and gave a sigh. "The usual dregs I see, but needs must I suppose. Don't we keep this orphan house well supplied? I'd have expected them to be fatter. You will investigate, Darrington."
"Of course Sir," the elder gentleman bowed. "But they are strong Sir. Fine, healthy children I've no doubt."
"You are not selling them to me. Be quiet," the Lord snapped. "Now, the King's kitchens need three. And a new boot-boy." He pointed at two girls and two boys. "This one, this one and those two. The others can report to Airin Cator, except for..." he paused, his eyes scanning the waiting children. "You, you, you and you!" he barked suddenly. "Come here. Organise those others, Darrington. You four, follow me."
Ivo Thern found himself falling into step behind Natty Robeson, Jame Rillen and Gilbert Lacklott. The Lord walked very fast, as if he did not like to be seen with them and the boys, with their shorter legs, had to jog to keep up. He led them along the wall a little way and then stopped, moving to one side so the boys could see what was ahead. In the shadow of the wall another wagon waited; covered, and much smaller than the one that had carried them from the orphan house.
"Get in," the Lord told them. His authority was so absolute; his tone so severe that the four boys got in each other's way trying to obey. They fell into the darkness inside, onto bare boards, sucking bruised fingers and rubbing injured shins, barely settled before the flap was tied shut and the wheels began to roll. This wagon went at a much quicker pace and all of them were flung about and bounced before they learned to grab what holds they could and hang on.
There was barely any light. Daylight was almost gone and in any case only reached them through frayed spots in the canvas and the eye-holes where ropes were tied. They stared at each other, or rather at vague outlines of shadow and form against a deeper black.
"Where are we going?" Gideon asked in a whisper.
No one said anything for a moment then Jame broke the silence, "I don't know."
"To be soldiers," Ivo said firmly. It was what he wished. He thought perhaps if he believed it hard enough it might be true. This approach rarely worked, but Ivo hadn't yet given up on it.
"Why?" Jame said.
Ivo explained his reasons. "We're the oldest ones they took and the biggest - and no girls. It makes sense."
"Unless they're sending us back," Gideon said, earning himself a kick from the darkness to his right. He hit back instantly but whoever it was had moved out of the way.
"No," Jame said. "We're not going back." He knew this wasn't true because it was the only place he wanted to go. Nothing, in Jame's experience, had ever happened the way he'd have liked.
"I'm hungry," Natty said. The other boys ignored him.
"Why would we be soldiers? There's no war," Jame said.
"Maybe there's one we don't know about," Ivo disagreed.
"If there was a war we'd know it," Gideon said.
"You know everything do you?" Ivo said with deep sarcasm. Gideon muttered something inaudible but otherwise did not retaliate.
"Maybe they're taking us to some big Park," Jame said to change the subject and keep the peace. "We're to be groundsmen, or gardeners boys, or...or maybe..." he racked his city brains for some other outdoor jobs and gave up ... "maybe run messages."
They gave up their useless speculating not long after - there were no answers to be had. The wagon rolled on and on. The pace slowed a little, the horses tiring. The boys, now hungry and thirsty, but most of all exhausted, lay down and one by one drifted into uncomfortable sleep, only waking when the wagon finally stopped.
It did not stop for long. The boys were allowed out for a few minutes to relieve themselves at the side of the road and were given a hunk of bread each and a drink from a flask. It was early morning but fog clung thickly, obscuring everything in veils of gray and black. The boys ate their bread and watched their breath rise in the freezing air to join the drifting cloud. They had an impression of trees all around them, tall and dank and dripping. With no wind to stir them they loomed with silent menace. What had begun as almost an adventure, a rite of passage into adulthood and freedom, was souring fast. The wagon drivers were large, grim men and after one of them split Natty's lip when he asked for more bread, none of the boys thought it worth asking questions. They all began to wish for home, for familiar rooms and the things and people they knew.
In the evening they reached their destination. The boys climbed down, cramped and thirsty and numb with cold. They were in a wide courtyard in front of a large keep. Though the building was old, it was well-kept, the stone clean, the courtyard swept, warmth and light evident in the glow of windows up above.
Ivo saw a place where his dreams of becoming a soldier might come true - where he would be given a sword and musket and a blue jacket with bright brass buttons. He saw himself victorious and proud, presented with medals and honours by grateful, humbled Lords and Ladies.
Natty saw warmth and comfort. He rarely thought of the future, lived solely in the present. He had no thoughts beyond hoping that the keep would contain cosy rooms and plentiful food and that no one would ask him to do very much. If it turned out he was expected to work hard he was an expert at slipping away unseen. He thought happily that the keep looked like it might contain many places a boy could hide and remain undiscovered for hours at a time.
Jame hated it, because he had known he would. Before he was orphaned, before his father, mother and little brothers had died of the River Fever; he'd been old enough to begin helping his parents with their work. They had been weavers and carpet-makers - Jame's father cutting and measuring and designing the patterns, his mother working the loom. He remembered the work-bench, the quiet rattle of the shuttles, the smell and feel of the bright cottons, linens and silks. Jame had never imagined doing anything else.
Gideon had no expectations, but he was prepared to do anything rather than starve. He looked at the keep and saw its possibilities and potential disappointments. If this new life was bearable he would stay and if not he would run away, as he'd done before. Of all the boys he'd spent the shortest time as a resident of St Cecilia's and so it was less a home to him.
Three people emerged from the keep. There was a stern-looking woman all in neat gray, a black bonnet flattening dark curls around her reddened cheeks. With her came a man who leaned on a stick as he walked, so lined and ancient it was a wonder he was alive at all. He legs were thin and crooked, his head bald and freckled like a thrush's egg. The third figure was dressed in a plain and humble robe of cream sackcloth with a nothing but a rope for a belt. His head was shaved clean to the skin, and he followed the others in a halting, hopeless fashion. His eyes were a simpleton's eyes - devoid of intelligence or even any sign of emotion but an idiot's mindless content. Though he did not seem young, his skin was clear and unlined and his features small, unformed as a child's.
The old man said something and the simpleton shambled forward. He made a gesture in the air and then touched each of the boys lightly on the forehead. Overawed and at the end of their small reserves of strength, the boys did not have the presence of mind to duck or flinch away.
The simpleton touched them, and they forgot.