|Chapter Seven – The Council
The following day, Bricksen took his designated place next to Creeyl on a bench near the front of the Hall of Scholars. Two Purates flanked the bench, standing just behind each of Bricksen’s shoulders. He wore the same shredded clothes stained with blood and dirt. He had not been allowed even to wash his wounds with more than the rag Creeyl left behind. Stiff muscles hampered his posture on the backless bench, and Bricksen knew he looked offensive, like an unkempt and dangerous cotter rather than an apprentice set to ascend.
Straining to see through his less-swollen eye, Bricksen listened as Gaulus Lench, Chief of the Purates, called the judgment assembly to begin. Lench recounted the events in the Catacombs, sharing his interpretation of the confrontation with a scattered audience filling nearly half of the hall’s pews.
Arranged in a neat line on their elevated dais, members of the Council absorbed Lench’s arguments without reaction or expression. Two elected representatives from each sect sat on either side of the trio of Firsts, with the Chief of the Ministers perched at one end and Lench’s empty chair resting opposite. A few of the Council’s men had taught Bricksen in rote and survey classes, and he knew the Minister’s chief quite well from his ongoing headaches. But Bricksen counted none of them as allies, not as Creeyl was to him.
Lench shifted from gathered facts to extrapolations of evidence. “The apprentice translated a tome written in the recreant tongue, while keeping his discovery and activities hidden from his master scholar.”
Bricksen winced at the convictive statement. Beside him, Creeyl displayed no reaction.
“Evidence of the translation sits before you,” Lench continued. “Evidence of other writing, also in Betancourt’s hand, is submitted for comparison.”
Bricksen watched the Council shuffle pieces of parchment back and forth down the long table. His arms and legs felt heavy from fatigue, and he feared he might faint until Creeyl’s hand clasped his left forearm, crusty nails digging into raw skin, and Bricksen focused on the pain. In that moment, Creeyl’s harsh touch was his only encouragement.
“The apprentice wielded fire with deadly intent. Evidence by my own witness of extensive burns upon apprentice Kile Orseth proves the event did occur.”
Lench turned to character assessments, reciting a litany of recorded statements in a dull tone. While Bricksen listened to observations offered by scholars and apprentices, his lingering hopes for a just outcome faded. Scholars stood to describe his patterns as suspicious and his demeanor as secretive. Apprentices accused him of practicing herealdry in private, of spending time in the Catacombs to pursue forbidden studies.
Balking at the obvious lies, Bricksen struggled to hold his protests inside. He began to doubt the intentions of all the men who sat before him, not just Kilsart. Lench was at his home the night his parents died. Lench and his men chased away the recreants, rescuing Bricksen from a sure death. Now the chief Purate helped to tie Kilsart’s noose around Bricksen’s neck with a series of absurd accusations substantiated only by the men who issued them.
Rising slowly when Lench had finished, Arden Creeyl kept his promise. He delivered a restrained but well-crafted defense of Bricksen’s actions and character to the Council while all eleven members listened with the same intensity they had offered Lench. In an unusual turn, Creeyl asked the Council to also judge the victim, Kile Orseth. He recounted more than a halfscore of incidents where Kile had mistreated Bricksen, some of which Bricksen thought had escaped the old scholar’s notice. Creeyl’s presentation culminated with a description of a brutal assault from a few seasons before, where a gang of apprentices, with Kile as the instigator, had overwhelmed Bricksen and beaten him until he could not move.
“After that occurrence, this same Council forbade Orseth from entering the Catacombs again for any purpose. Whatever punishment you cast upon Betancourt, I urge you to consider that violation of your own verdict in the rendering. I also ask the Council to consider this.” Creeyl paused, then strolled the length of the dais while he addressed them. “I may be swayed by irrational emotions where my apprentice is concerned. I may be too biased to ever see this incident as anything other than vindictive plotting against an innocent man.” His voice softening, he halted before the First Acade’s chair. “However, I can say with absolute confidence that I know Bricksen Betancourt for who he is. I comprehend his motivations. I know his intentions. His patterns show no recreant activity, and I attest to that evaluation with confidence. He does not possess the ability to translate the old tongue. It is improbable for any man to learn such skills within these walls, and without detection, until his ascension. In Bricksen’s situation, serving as my apprentice, it is impossible.”
Heads turned and brows folded as Council members reacted to Creeyl’s emphatic statement. Few things were ever deemed impossible among men of the Tellacht.
Issuing statements of summation and thanks, Creeyl returned to the bench. Almost before Creeyl could sit, Donnous Kilsart rose from his chair and unrolled a scroll.
To his left, Bricksen felt Creeyl stiffen. They both knew what Kilsart’s actions meant. The Council had deferred its decision to the First Advisor before the proceedings even began. Its members had never intended to evaluate to Creeyl’s presentation, or Lench’s, and the abrupt response underscored their unanimous wish to see Bricksen gone, if not their belief in his guilt.
Kilsart read the scroll’s contents in a definitive voice. “We, members of the Council of the First Academy of Stonegate, have assessed and evaluated to a conclusive end the actions of one Bricksen Betancourt, apprentice to Acade Arden Creeyl. Evidence dictates the necessity of a response equal to the events which render this apprentice incapable of retaining and practicing the edicts of the Tellacht.”
Aching to apologize to Creeyl, Bricksen closed his eyes and let his head drop to his chest.
“We find evidence exists to implicate Betancourt of practicing herealdry. We find evidence exists to implicate Betancourt in embracing irrational and damaging reactions in response to an attempted confiscation of recreant texts, thereby inflicting severe injury upon Kile Orseth, apprentice to Advisor Cault Finnich.”
Bricksen clenched his sore jaw in aggravation. This time Kile would escape any blame.
“In accordance with the Edict of Just Punishment, Bricksen Betancourt is henceforth denied all rights as a member of the Tellacht, and his earned mantle of apprentice is retracted. Betancourt will be banished from the First Academy at sunrise tomorrow and refused entrance to any academy or aldersite within the whole of the realm of Kelta.”
Kilsart paused in his reading, and the silence caught Bricksen’s attention. He chanced a glance at the dais, and for the first time, Kilsart’s eyes wavered from the scroll’s parchment to Bricksen’s position on the bench. The First Advisor appeared far from pleased in his task, his visage cold but uneasy as he read the verdict’s final sentences with crisp precision.
“In addition, to reflect his destructive manipulation of ineffectual and irrational recreant practices, along with his intent to harm a fellow apprentice, Betancourt will be issued the mark of dismissal as due proof of his disloyalty in regards to his failed pursuit of logic and truth as a member of the Tellacht.”
As the First Advisor recited the spate of phrases which decorated such decrees, Bricksen decided he was trapped in a single, epic dream, a dream lasting the whole of his perceived life, which explained why he never dreamed otherwise, and he would awake finally in his family’s cottage on a snowy morning, with no fire to steal his home and life. Or the headaches, they drove him to hallucinate. Soon he would return to the normal world he’d known just one sunrise prior, perhaps lying in a faint upon the floor of the Catacombs, roused from a stupor by Creeyl’s gruff voice and the shake of rough hands. The hall would dissolve, its audience would vanish, and Bricksen would once again see the world as it should be, however it should be.
His confidence in those wistful theories faded when the two Purates yanked him from his seat and steered him away from the Council. Startled by the fast and rough removal, Bricksen jerked his head toward Creeyl, desperate for a final comforting word from the only parent he’d known since his ninth winter.
Creeyl’s eyes stayed anchored upon the dais, his face a vacant mask.
Chapter Eight – The Branding
Outside the Hall of Scholars, the empty courtyard tempted Bricksen to pull free of the guards. He could dash for the gates or escape through the Catacombs to the field behind the kitchens. Even as he imagined it, more Purates appeared from the corridors to ring him. Within moments a halfscore of men had shoved him back into the Cellar.
In the Cellar’s central room, the guards held Bricksen’s arms and used thick rope to bind his wrists to a wooden chair. They tied his legs also, though less carefully. To the left of the chair, an iron brand rested in the glowing coals of a small iron barrel that exuded a stifling heat.
Bricksen’s heart beat as if it would bolt from his chest. He wanted to protest, but he couldn’t gather the breath to make words. He had done nothing wrong, nothing he could remember. He fought to salvage any bit of memory from his confrontation with Kile, and the attempt only worsened his headache. While the incident in the Catacombs remained a blur, cruel clarity stained his looming fate.
Bricksen had seen the mark of dismissal only once, burned into the arm of a butcher who dropped in to visit Moyra. An inescapable symbol of failure, the brand had filled the man’s right forearm. It incorporated all four symbols of the Tellacht and its sects. A thick oval ring, its circumference fragmented by a jagged line, served as the design’s anchor. The branding left deep, defined rivets of charred flesh where no hair could grow again. That day in the kitchens, Bricksen had worked to avert his curious eyes, staring at the floor beneath his stool. Noticing Bricksen, the butcher had covered the scar with his free hand. The mark of dismissal was the single greatest dishonor a man could earn in Kelta.
Facing that scar on his own skin, Bricksen pulled at the ropes holding his arms to the chair. Drops of perspiration trickled down his forehead, and he desperately wanted to wipe them away.
One guard checked the brand for readiness and then nodded to another who slid a knife beneath Bricksen’s sleeve to cut away the shredded fabric. All watched Bricksen with wary stares. All were muscular and sunburned with no friendly faces among them. Their movements seemed easy and routine, as if they pressed brands for pleasure on a daily basis.
Bricksen looked down at his arm, its superficial cuts and bruises a pale comparison to what would soon wound it. He tried to calm his breathing by reciting a chant of control, one of the first he’d learned as a pupil.
“Watch yourselves!” Startling everyone with a shout, one of the guards left his perch at Bricksen’s shoulder. “He’s using herealdry to curse us.”
Another Purate held his ground, grabbing a handful of Bricksen’s hair and tugging. “Your hexes don’t scare us, Betancourt. We saw what you did to Orseth. Your punishment won’t end with this branding.”
“Let go of him.” Gathering the folds of his maroon cloak, Donnous Kilsart kept speaking as he moved down the Cellar steps. “We are not here to cause Betancourt unnecessary pain. We brand him only to warn others of his aberrant behavior. When we banish him at sunrise, he will suffer enough.”
“My apologies, Kilsart.” The Purate straightened as Kilsart approached. “With respect, he tried to use herealdry just now. He was chanting to curse us.”
“Herealdry is myth born of ignorance. There is no proof it exists.” Stopping in front of Bricksen, he smiled. “Chant of calming, was it? Trying to find your center?”
Aware he had already earned the Tellacht’s worst punishments, Bricksen abandoned any pretense of respect for the First Advisor. “Why are you here? I’m all but banished now, so you have what you wanted. Have you come for the pleasure of watching me suffer?”
Kilsart glanced around at the guards. “Leave us for a moment and wait outside.”
As he watched the Purates leave in dutiful silence, Bricksen felt more angry than afraid. “Why are you delaying this?”
Silent until the Cellar door slid shut, the First Advisor’s smile faded when he finally answered. “On behalf of the Council, I come to offer you a final and, might I add, rare opportunity to absolve yourself from a portion of your punishment.”
“Do all recreants receive this opportunity?”
Kilsart scowled down at him. “You are hardly a recreant. You are a scholar, Betancourt, and a brilliant one at that. You are destined to see your life pass in those Catacombs. You will make a superb Acade, and I am not anxious to see you leave the academy.”
Confused by words that sounded sincere, Bricksen fumbled for a response. “Then why banish me? Why do all this? It was your recommendation to have me branded.”
“That was before I heard Creeyl’s defense in assembly. He has forced me to reconsider the charges.”
“Charges which you judged as truth before everyone.”
“Yes, yes.” Kilsart waved away the reminder. “Charges which you adamantly deny. I find a flaw of logic in them and wish to pursue it with you.”
“A flaw you wouldn’t share with the Council?”
“If I had wasted the time to explore some roundabout thread of contradiction, it would have bored the entire assembly.”
“Is there a question in this?”
“An order.” Kilsart rested a gloved hand on the back of the chair. “Be forthright with me, Betancourt. You did not actually transcribe that text. This is another of Kile’s plots to have you banished. He meant to create the appearance of your guilt by planting that book on your workdesk. Then he threatened to falsely expose you as a recreant, and you attacked him.”
“You are wrong.”
“Why are you protecting him? What has he pledged to gain your silence?”
Bricksen allowed a deep laugh to slip from his throat. “The one person who will never receive my protection is Kile Orseth. Not him, or any who bear his name.”
For the first time, Kilsart looked frustrated. “I do not accept your claim about transcribing that text. It is impossible, just as Creeyl told the Council. Why continue to lie about this?”
“Because it isn’t a lie. I did transcribe that text. It is Keltan script from beginning to end. I have no explanation for what happened in the Catacombs, but I have no reason to lie about what I’ve done.”
“What you say cannot be true!” Kilsart began pacing in short, fierce strides. “Here, I will offer you a full retraction of both punishments. No branding, no banishment, and a statement of restoration to validate your ascension. And I’ll add to it a pledge that Orseth will never harm you again. No man of the Tellacht will. But first you must disavow your account here and now. Say you could not have transcribed that text, and I’ll make things right for you.”
As the First Advisor freely revealed his desperation, Bricksen was amazed by it. “Why does this matter so much to you? I thought you wanted me gone.”
Kilsart stopped pacing and folded his arms.
Bricksen focused on the Advisor’s silence. “If the book is a herealdic text, then why not burn it? Burn the transcriptions as well.”
“I intend to. But first, admit they are not yours. Say you purchased those pages from a recreant.”
“Why would I do that?” Not expecting an answer, Bricksen let the question play in his own cluttered mind. “All I did was follow orders. That is my role as Creeyl’s apprentice, to transcribe what he gives me.”
Kilsart leaned closer. “Creeyl gave you that text? He assigned it to you?”
“No, he didn’t.” Suddenly worried, Bricksen spoke in a rush of confession. “I found it in the Vault. I hid it from Creeyl, which was wrong, but I thought he might not approve. It is a strange book, with those drawings and verses I don’t understand. I disobeyed him and went into the Vault when he was gone to assemblies. I could not help myself, in truth. It was as if I had to read that text. But Creeyl has no fault in all of this. He says he cannot even understand what is written, and so you mustn’t blame him. He says the book contains an ancient recreant language. There is no explanation as to why I can read it…since no one has spoken it for ages.”
Pausing, Bricksen let himself fall back against the hard chair. He kept looking up at Kilsart’s face which had gone as red as the hood on his Advisor’s cloak.
“There is no explanation,” he whispered. “But one.”
“Silence.” Kilsart hissed the word through clinched teeth.
Bricksen’s head swam with disbelief, but the conclusion was there. What he had done was not impossible, for he had done it. His gaze fell to the ropes holding his wrists. If his punishment could not be a dream, then neither was his crime. Creeyl had said the language was not just recreant but ancient, something no scholar could teach any man. Something no man could learn at the academy, or anywhere in Kelta. His head snapped up when revelation hit him. “I am proof.”
Kilsart’s eyes widened. “You are proof of nothing.”
“I read that book. I translated its pages without knowing its language.”
“That cannot be! Confess it as falsehood, and you will go free from here. You have my vow of protection. I’ll give you anything you ask!”
Terrified by his conclusion, and yet thrilled that it could be, Bricksen almost smiled. “No wonder you want me to lie.”
Flushed with rage, Kilsart lunged forward and dug his fingers into a deep cut on Bricksen’s right shoulder. Bricksen threw back his head and cried out as his spine folded, shoulders sinking toward the floor until ropes stopped him. He felt Kilsart’s breath on his neck.
“I could kill you this instant, Betancourt, even without the death-rite to defend me, but then you would not suffer first. Remember, I gave you a last chance to live, and you refused it.”
The Cellar’s door opened with a clatter, and troubled voices spilled from the top of the stairs.
“Are you well, Kilsart?”
“We heard a man shout.”
When Advisor’s grip relaxed, Bricksen exhaled with relief. Wishing he could will himself to faint, he shut his eyes.
Kilsart stepped away from the branding chair. “I told you men not to enter until summoned. Come down here and finish this. Lock him in the cell after. He’s to have no visits from the Ministers or anyone else, nothing to eat or drink, no comforts whatsoever. Who has the pronouncement?”
Bricksen forced his eyes open to see one guard produce a scroll. Kilsart snatched it away and, unrolling the parchment with quivering hands, began to read.
“Punishment is assigned this day by the Council. It is based upon a fair and ready assessment conducted in public assembly by members of the First Academy of the Tellacht.”
A bevy of rough hands gripped Bricksen’s shoulders and head, the top and wrist of his right arm. Panic returned in a single, sickening wave as he realized the ropes would not be enough to hold him when the brand hit his skin.
His gaze shifting between the scroll and the branding chair, Kilsart kept reading. “The apprentice Bricksen Betancourt is convicted of practicing herealdry. He will receive the mark of dismissal and be removed from the First Academy on the first sunrise following.”
Next to the coal barrel, another guard tugged a thick glove onto his hand. He lifted the brand from its bed and held it aloft, a black handle of iron melting into its intricate orange design.
“Do you, Bricksen Betancourt, dispute this ruling as it is issued?”
As the brand hovered above his bare skin, Bricksen could feel its searing heat. Staring at it, he grappled with his answer. If he said the transcriptions were false, then Kilsart would stop the branding. He could return to the Catacombs, resume his routine, and prepare himself for Ascension Day. Life would revert to what it had been – settled and predictable, safe and easy.
“Do you dispute the ruling?” Kilsart asked again.
Unable to tear his gaze from the angry brand, Bricksen only heard what lurked in Kilsart’s words. Safety was a lost illusion, the sanctity of his prior life irretrievable. Had he simply complied and confessed to lying, Kilsart would have made good on his promises. But now the First Advisor was aware of Bricksen’s realization, of his own grasp that something improbable – something supernatural – had happened in the Catacombs. His mind cinched by fear, Bricksen listened to the intuition he could never fully quell. Accepting the brand, however gruesome, guaranteed him one more night of life. Refusing it guaranteed nothing.
“No,” he breathed. “I do not dispute it.”
A guard’s hand gripped his cheeks and jaw, squeezing until his mouth opened. When the man wedged a stick into it, Bricksen gagged.
“Let judgment be administered,” Kilsart continued. “Let the verdict of the Council be brought to bear through this action against the convicted. Through this, reason will prevail.”
The remainder was lost to Bricksen as the brand fell like live fire upon his arm. Blind to anything but the pain, he bit down on the stick until his jaw felt broken. The odor of scorched skin invaded his nose. With the brand’s heat seeping into his bones, Bricksen channeled the fragments of his fading strength into a single, violent scream. It echoed through the Cellar, lasting the length of one eternal breath until a barren darkness arrived.