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       The Hollow, p.6

           Andrew Day
 
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on his feet, the darkness within ebbed, just enough for him to think clearly and get his bearings.

  “I hope you appreciate just how close to ending your pathetic mortality you just were, Hawthorne,” Holland told him.

  Serrel took a deep breath. “Yes, Sergeant. Sorry, Sergeant.”

  “Don’t be sorry, Hawthorne. Be-”

  “Be better,” Serrel finished. “I will, Sergeant.”

  “Good.”

  “Is that going to happen to us?” Justin asked, looking pale.

  “Not to you, probably,” Holland replied with a contemptuous look. “You don’t try hard enough. Astral on the other hand...”

  “You could have warned us!” Kaitlin snapped, momentarily forgetting herself.

  Holland let that pass this time. “I believe in learning by doing. And Hawthorne here has definitely learned a valuable lesson here. You can never appreciated the edge of your limits until you throw yourself over them. Better you find that out now, rather than in the middle of a battlefield.

  “I think that’s enough hand holding for one day, Pond Sum. Back to work. The Hollow will be the least of your worries. You’re in the Legion now! Oh, and Hawthorne? You fell twice, now. So get your breath back, because you’re going to be on cleaning duty for the foreseeable future, boy.”

  “Yes, Sergeant,” Serrel said simply. His voice was coming back, and he was beginning to feel slightly better. The yearning abyss of the Hollow was still there though, threatening to swallow him up. He spent the rest of the training session watching the others weave ineffectually against Holland. No one seemed willing to push themselves too hard now. Even Astral held back, which made Holland even more cranky.

  And as they were dismissed, a tiny light flared in the dark within Serrel. It was a small thought, but one that began to burn away the near overwhelming oppression that came with the Hollow. It went, I nearly knocked him over. I nearly knocked that loud, obnoxious sergeant right on his arse.

  Next time, I will.

  The day passed in a haze of weaving, strangely school-like lessons on the words of power, and for Serrel, over an hour spent mucking out the fort’s rather extensive stables with several other recruits as punishment for his weakness of strength.

  It was long after sundown by the time he had managed to clean off the stench of horse manure in the wash room and tramped wearily back to the men’s barracks. The empty feeling of the Hollow was still there, but fainter now. Serrel learnt to recognise the sensation of the ether filling him once more with its limitless energies. That was a good feeling, a return to wholeness.

  But the Hollow was still there. Like it was waiting.

  Serrel had let a great many things beat him in life. He wasn’t going to let his own body join in.

  The men’s barracks was a long chamber lined with simple wooden beds. When he first arrived at Fort Amell, his bed had been towards the doors. Sometime during the day, the other recruits had reached a consensus and the six trainee mages had found their trunks of meagre belongings shifted right to the far end of the room. They had been segregated from the regular recruits. And perhaps it was Serrel's imagination, but even the space between their beds and the other recruits seemed wider than the space between everyone else's bed.

  Only a few of the other recruits bothered to look up as he walked past. A few he had been friendly with the day before pointedly ignored him. One even cast a hateful glare in his direction.

  The other boys of Pond Scum were already there, killing time. Justin was snoring his head off. Edgar was slowly and carefully reading through a thin book, his lips moving as he silently sounded out the bigger words, forehead creased in concentration. Greasy Tim and Bull were playing cards. More accurately, Bull was losing at cards, and Greasy Tim was cheating and silently cursing that they weren’t playing for money.

  Victor sat cross legged on his bed, sewing something on his brand new Legion issue coat. He glanced up as Serrel sat down on the bed next to his.

  “How were the horses?” he asked.

  “I don’t know what a sick horse looks like, but from what was coming out of the bloody things, I don’t think they were well,” Serrel replied. He nodded at the regular recruits. “Do they think we’re plague ridden or something?”

  “Rumour went around that sometimes mages set fire to things in their sleep. Personally, I think they just wanted to get away from Greasy Tim.”

  “What’s wrong with me?” asked Tim.

  “I credit Bull with being able to stand the smell. Do you ever wash?”

  “I ‘ave a healthy smell, I do. Keeps away the bad humours.”

  Victor just shook his head.

  “Did they go through our belongings?” Serrel asked. He looked at his trunk.

  “They wouldn’t dare,” Victor said. “Just touching a mage’s trunk is a invitation for trouble. Serrel, we may not have the plague, but from the point of view of everyone else, we may as well have. Most people have a poor opinion of mages. Hell, I would prefer to be far away from you lot, and I am a mage now.”

  Serrel nodded in understanding. Then he asked, “Did Tim go through our belongings?”

  Greasy Tim looked up, scandalised. “I never! Where I comes from, we ‘ave a code, you know. You never steal from one of your own. Besides, it ain’t like you buggers has anything worth stealin’ anyway.”

  “Ah,” said Victor with an amused smile. “So you did look.”

  “Course I looked. Not like anything was locked in any meaningful way. You should do a better job, if you don’t wants no one looking. Nothin’ worth looking at, anyways. ‘Cept Vic, and all his knives. What you need all those knives for, anyway?”

  “Knives?” asked Serrel.

  “Shiny ones, too. Would have been worth a few bob back ‘ome.”

  The expectant silence as everyone looked at Victor was broken only by Justin snoring.

  “They were a going away present,” Victor said, nonplussed. He didn’t even pause his stitching. “From the Abbot.”

  “The Abbot at the monastery?” said Serrel. “An abbot gave you knives?”

  “Knives are useful things. I am in the Legion, after all. Even Tim brought his own knife.”

  “Sure,” agreed Tim. He pulled out his own knife, which was basically a small shard of metal, sharpened at one end and wrapped in cheap leather scraps at the other. “Never know when a purse string might need cutting. But what you need twelve knives for?”

  “Different kinds of string,” replied Victor.

  “What kind of monks were at this place, anyway?” asked Serrel.

  “They weren’t always monks.” Victor sighed, and stared intently at his needle and thread. “I thought everyone knew about Blackwood Monastery. It’s a refuge for soldiers and warriors. Old assassins. Killers, looking for spiritual enlightenment somewhere other than on a blade. You can imagine what a cheerful place it was to grow up in. Old knives that have been drenched in human blood weren’t exactly a rare commodity there.”

  “Still it’s an... odd gift.”

  “Maybe for some. Not for someone at Blackwood.”

  Serrel decided that at the moment he was too tired to be bothered delving into Victor’s dark, mysterious past. Especially if knives were involved.

  “What are you sewing?” he asked instead.

  “Pockets,” said Victor.

  “Pockets? You don’t think you’re going to have enough?”

  “You can never ‘ave too many pockets,” agreed Tim. “Especially if you’ve got twelve knives. Put your ‘and in a pocket with twelve bloody knives in it, you’d lose a finger.”

  “Apt,” said Victor. “Which is why I’m not going on a battlefield without more pockets.”

  “You’re quite the seamstress there, Vic. Always an underrated profession I thought, seamstressin’... You darn socks as well?”

  “Don’t start.”

  “I’m serious. Important garment, your socks. Wouldn’t ever joke about the well being of my socks. ‘Specially n
ot to a bloke with twelve bloody knives in his trunk. You don’t give them names do you?”

  “Why, do you?”

  “Course,” Greasy Tim gave him a mischievous grin. “Call mine Percy.”

  “Cute.”

  “Purse-ey. Geddit?”

  “I get it, Tim.”

  “‘Cos it cuts purse strings.”

  “Yes. Very droll.”

  “So you gonna darn my socks, or what?”

  “Are you going to wash them first?”

  “What a thing to ask.”

  “You can do mine if you’re doing his,” joined in Serrel.

  “Shut up.”

  “Darn my own socks,” rumbled Bull. He laid his cards down. He had a winning hand.

  “How did you manage that?” asked Greasy Tim in surprise.

  “You didn’t cheat,” replied Bull. He reached over with one mammoth hand and plucked the hidden playing card from Tim’s sleeve.

  “Heh... How did that get there...” Tim chuckled nervously.

  “Look at us,” Victor said as he tied a knot and cut the thread with one of his excess knives. “A truly magnificent bunch of youths to be playing with the laws of reality.”

  “I always thought of laws as, you know, sorta optional,” said Tim.

  “We have noticed.”

  “Besides,” Serrel said, lying back on his bed. “It isn’t as though we have anything better to do.”

  “Speak for yourself.”

  “And I don’t know about you lot, but I’m just starting to enjoy myself.”

  “You nearly died today,” Victor reminded him.

  “Nearly. But only nearly.” Serrel closed his eyes with a small smile. “I’ll do better tomorrow.”

  He did do better the next day. And the day after that, and the
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