He stared around the bare walls of his cell. He missed his own cell, where he had lived for nearly six years now. But since he was to take the Final Oath, he had one last week in seclusion to pray. In this ugly, barren, enclosed little space.
All of his possessions would be disposed of or distributed to other members of the Order, should they prove useful. Topher didn’t believe such would be the case, save perhaps his blanket. They did not keep possessions.
He was supposed to be in deep, fervent prayer with The One God, casting off the unholiness of his soul in here. Topher sighed. Four bare walls did not induce any sort of commune with The One God now any more than they had before. He expected his flippancy over the last six years toward this religious aspect was now catching up to him. When he took the Final Oath in two days, The One God was surely going to exact his penance. Topher, you fool….
Being locked in this cell for the last four days hadn’t shed any more illumination into his soul than he’d seen when he’d first arrived here.
Topher remembered sitting alone at his parents’ table when he had heard a deep voice outside bellow, “Callon, son of Storran!”
Topher had been ten. He’d immediately frozen and looked around for his parents.
The deep voice bellowed again, “Callon, son of Storran!”
Topher stepped outside timidly. He glanced all around, but neither his parents nor his siblings were to be seen.
A wooden wagon stood ominously in the dusty road. Topher recognized the man calling his name as one of the men from the County, who dispensed Healing, business services, and educational needs to the people, but Topher did not know his name.
“Callon, son of Storran, approach!”
Topher was suddenly very nervous and wanted to run away. In the back of the wagon, he saw three lads of his own age. Had he done something wrong? Where were his parents?
A man suddenly appeared from behind the wagon, dressed in black robes.
Topher’s parents appeared behind him. His father patted Topher’s head. “You be a good boy, son.”
His mother bent over him and enveloped him in a hug, crying. “Always remember, Callon, that we love you,” she whispered.
Now he was truly afraid. “Mum?”
The robed man stepped forward, a stern expression on his face. He raised his eyebrows expectantly.
Callon’s mum pushed him forward. His little sister appeared at his Mum’s side, her thumb in her mouth. She started to trot after him. “Callon?”
“No, baby girl, you stay,” Callon’s mum grabbed her hand.
“Where’s Callon going, Mummy?”
Callon was forced to look forward as the County Elder took his hand. “Callon, son of Storran.” He then handed him to the stern man in robes, who nodded. He gestured for Callon to step up into the back of the wagon with the other lads.
What had he done? Where was he being taken?
His parents watched as the wagon suddenly hitched forward with a rickety jolt.
“Callon!” His baby sister was crying. They turned around and walked into the house without a word.
He pressed himself against the wooden slats, trying to see his house and the cornfields as the wagon rolled away.
“No use, Callon,” said one boy.
“Yeah, better say your good-byes while ye still can, Cally boy,” said another. He snickered. “Get it,” he winked at the other boys.
“Lay off him, you were a bloody mess when they collected you, weren’t you, then,” said the third.
Callon stared at each of them. “I – I don’t understand.”
“What’s to understand? You’ve been collected.”
Callon shook his head. “What’s collected?”
The three lads looked at him with pitying expressions.
“Wow. You really are rural, aren’t ya?"
“Lay off the lad.” The largest boy seemed to be in charge.
“No. I want to know, what does collected mean?” Callon insisted. He had never heard of it.
“Well, outside of the cornfields, in the big, wide world –”
“Don’t be a wad!” the largest boy kicked him.
“Fine, you tell it, then!”
A cough from the robed man driving the horses suddenly got their attention. They looked up to see the man staring at them with a baleful glare. Chastened, they quieted down and the robed figure turned around again.
“Look, Cally boy, you know as you’re ten, you mostly apprentice out.”
“Not me. I’m working my da’s fields.”
The largest boy snorted.
“And ye told me not to be a wad.”
“Who are all of you?” Callon demanded.
“I’m Sechaill, from Roarden North. That’s a city, in case ye don’t know what one is, country boy,” laughed the obnoxious lad.
“Just shut it.” The second boy, who had said very little until now, introduced himself as Gilroy, and told them he’d been living in an orphanage in West Mabon. He said, “Lots of orphanages give collections to the Order. Some of them need to clear out the space, and some of them just need the money. Some of them might just want to get rid of a boy or two.” Gilroy shrugged. “I don’t care one ways or another. As long as it gives me three squares and roof.”
Callon stared. What did that mean for him? What was The Order?
The largest boy spoke up then. “I’m Alden. From ArkenHeights –”
“That’s also a city, in case ye didn’t know, country boy,” Sechaill couldn’t resist interjecting with a laugh.
“Wad,” and “Prig,” came Alden and Gilroy’s unison reprimand.
“Aye, well, and why not? I might as well get it in now while I still can, shouldn’t I?”
“I still don’t understand. I’m supposed to work my da’s fields –”
“Callon. Got any siblings? Lot of mouths for your mum and da to feed?” asked Gilroy.
“Any crops go bad lately? Need help in the fields?” asked Alden.
Callon stared between the two. “I’m the oldest, I have two more brothers an’ a sister. And we lost our crop last year, but my da says it’ll come in just fine this year.”
Alden looked disgusted and stared out the slats of the wagon. Gilroy said nothing, just looked away.
Sechaill, however, jumped in. “Cally, boy, ye been bought and paid for. Ye see that now, don’t ya’. Your da put up a notice in your village, or whatever that was that we just left, for The Silent Order to come and collect you. The Village sends notice to nearest Order and they come and collect you. After they buy you, that is. Wonder what we cost in today’s world, do ya think? How do ya word a message to get rid a’ kids, aye? “Ten-year-old selfish prig, runs like a loon through the streets, come and collect ’im before I hang him from the rooftop?”
Alden and Gilroy snickered in spite of themselves.
“Really, Cally, boy. Ye’ never heard of the Collection?” asked Sechaill, as serious as he could be. He leaned forward with interest as he saw that Callon was did not comprehend.
“They’re the Silent Order. Everyone knows them. For being, well, obvious.” Gilroy nodded his head up toward the driver. “They’re monks. It’s a religious order.”
“They’re not all bad,” said Alden. “They rescue slaves, and they work with the Royals. Healing. Stuff like that.”
“Maybe I’ll get to work with a Royal. Ye think?” Sechaill’s face turned merry.
Gilroy and Alden boy snorted. “Fat chance of that.”
“Why, what’s wrong with me?” he demanded.
Alden said, “Well, for one, the Royals, they don’t want assholes.”
“Pfff. The Royals are assholes. I’ll fit right in,” quipped Sechaill.
Even Callon smiled weakly at this.
The robed monk turned around and glared at each of them. The three of them assumed properly respectful demeanors until he turned around again.
As soon as the wagon moved forward, Sechaill sent a profane gesture forward in the direction of the monk. All three boys snorted laughter, covering their mouths to keep from being overheard.
“Seriously, I head they whip ya if ya don’t behave there,” whispered Sechaill behind a hand.
“They whip anyone if they don’t conform,” said Alden. “I knew a friend who had both brothers collected. He came home twice and they were gone. He’s still there,” Alden mused.
“We must be worth a good copper, maybe two then, ya think? They always scare us as kids, If ya don’t behave, I’ll have the Silent Order come and collect ya. If ya don’t shut that mouth, I’ll have the Silent Ones shut it for ya!” Sechaill said.
Alden and Gilroy both nodded, remembering the same warnings.
“Silent?” asked Callon. He swallowed. He really was a country boy. He could count the amount of times he’d been to the County Market on two hands, for otherwise, he’d always stayed at home, helping his da in the fields or else his mum with the chickens and the other chores.
His three new companions stared at him.
“Cally, boy, let’s just say, today is the last day anyone will ever hear from us again.” Sechaill winked.
“No one will ever need to tell him to shut up again,” said Gilroy, nodding at Sechaill.
“Aye, so sad. The world will have lost such a great –”
“Shut up!” Gilroy and Alden both laughed at him.
“Callon! You’re so thick, boy. You’re joining the Silent Order. As in, Silent. You’re never going to speak again, not after today. Got it now?” Gilroy told him, exasperated.
Callon stared at him in shock.
“Did ya hear him, Cally boy, because it’s the last ya’ll hear of again, I guarantee ya.” Sechaill was for the first time, entirely serious.
“But, but why?”
“Because. You swear your vows, you’re trained up, and finally, after you’re trained up, they take your tongue out. Silent forever,” Alden explained.
Callon shrank back against the wooden slats of the wagon. “No!” How could he get out of the wagon? “No! I need to get out!”
Gilroy leaned over and shushed him immediately, while Alden pushed him away from the back of the wagon. “Stop. You don’t get to leave now. You’re the property of the Silent Order!”
“Leaving the Silent Order is punishable by death. If you run away, and they find you, they will execute you. Anyone will. If anyone recognizes a member of the Silent Order who deserted, they execute the member, then keep him ’til a monk comes to get him. Then they’ll be paid by the Order.”
Callon was horrified. How had this happened to him?
Topher had read that everyone remembered their Collection vividly. He certainly did. They were rounded up no differently than cattle, their heads shorn, and then the induction began. They lost everything from their prior lives, including their names. Callon seemed such a strange name to him now. Sechaill, Alden, and Gilroy were now Brothers Ewan, Kegan, and Levvan, though, Topher thought darkly, and each of them had taken the Final Oath already.
Inductees received a very rigorous education, far more so than most Royals, Topher knew. Scribery, arithmetic, Healing, history for hundreds of years of all the land, heraldry, agriculture, animal husbandry…. Some who were better with their arithmetic focused on accounts, while those who worked best with writing worked in scribery and history. Some orders produced soaps and waxes, honeys, and other such items that they occasionally sold to the Markets. Many of them, after they were trained, were sent to a village, county, city, or Royal, who had need of The One God’s services.
Inductees took their Initiate Vow after their first week was completed. After five years, they took their Second Vow, during which they were assigned a group of Brothers to focus more directly their abilities for the next year.
And then, like Topher, they were assigned a small cell for one week, to cast away the last six years, and before that, all of his entire life, to become as one with The One God before offering his soul to him forever.
Topher was no closer to communing with The One God now as he had been four days ago, nor a year ago, nor six years ago. He truly believed in The One God, and Topher believed that The One God believed in him… but he just was not ready for his tongue to be burned out of his head. Perhaps he liked the taste of food too much, or just the idea of speaking. Becoming a verbal eunuch scared him more than anything else.
For the final week, they wore navy colored robes. They were only allowed to leave the cell for prayers, at sunrise, noon, and sunset, as all the Brothers did. He, however, had to return to his cell. His food was brought in to him.
He occupied his time with exercise. Meditation was impossible, for he was unable to concentrate at all. He barely slept. Topher saved two of his pears and taught himself to juggle, but after two days, even that held no attraction, and, of course, the fruit was so bruised from their several falls upon the stone floor, that he’d needed to eat them.
All he could do to pass the time was recite dates of important events in history, but this morning, Topher finally snapped. The cells, of course, were not guarded. But he had to get out. He opened his door quietly, so that it would not creak.
Glancing around, Topher waited for one Brother to pass by upon the green before he swung his door open.
He snuck around to the back of his building and cowered in the bushes, breathing in the fresh air as if each were his last.
When finally Topher had enjoyed enough of the sunlight and the breeze, he stood and stepped cautiously toward the corner of the building to peer around.
A wizened Brother stepped in his path suddenly. Topher almost dropped to the ground with shock, his heart in his throat.
The old Brother observed Topher’s navy robes and then looked at Topher’s face. He traced what Topher knew were dark circles beneath his eyes with a finger, and then, with a kindly smile, patted him on the shoulder gently, almost as if he recognized Topher’s struggle. And then he continued on his way. Topher knew many other Brothers would not have been so accommodating.
Topher could still hear his heart pounding. He immediately slipped around the building and back into his cell, before any other Brother could catch him.
Perhaps the Brother recognized that he looked like all members of the Order did before they took their Final Oath. Miserable and scared and half mad….
Topher knew from reading that he would only become a Brother if he took the Final Oath. But how he would miss the taste of raspberries, and cherries….
He’d also read that quite a few Brothers died while taking the Oath or immediately after. The Healers were always present for the Oath, and Topher and the others knew that during the Oath, many broke their Vow of Silence by screaming. Not a good way to start off your service to The One God, Topher mused. He wondered if he would scream. He kept biting his tongue, probably because he wouldn’t be able to in a few days.
Those who screamed during their Oath were heard across half the facility, both due to the sound of the voice, and because there were so few voices heard at all. But heads everywhere looked up, listened for a moment, nodded with realization, some with sympathy, and then all the Brothers returned to their task at hand.
Some Brothers did not survive after taking the Oath, for it took at least two weeks to fully heal, if not more, during which the new Brother was sequestered. If a member did not survive the Oath, or a Brother took an infection or fever and passed on immediately following, then they were considered by the Brothers as unworthy to serve in The One God’s view.
Members could refuse to take the Final Oath, Topher knew. But they were seen as unfit to serve, and made to carry out the worst of jobs, live in the worst of living conditions, shunned on the grounds. Most of them eventually gave in and took the Oath.
Topher sat there on the floor. He’d seen Brothers yawn before, seen them with their mouths open, and just seen a scarred stump for a tongue. He was just not able to envision himself tied down with a pair of red-hot tongs inside his mouth….
He drew his knees up to his chin and took a deep breath.
That was it, then. He would run.