“Well, well, well! What do we have ‘ere?”
Edward turned around to face a much larger boy. His blazer strained across his bulk, and acne peppered his pale skin. A mop of orange hair tumbled around his lumpy ears. The boy planted a squat hand on Edward’s shoulder and steered him into the yard.
The games in the yard stopped. All eyes fell on Edward. He gulped at the sudden attention. A small blond boy to his right caught his eye. An ugly bruise coloured his cheekbone purple and blue. A pleading look haunted his eyes as he mouthed the word, “Run”.
Other large boys peeled away from groups scattered across the yard. They formed a loose cordon around Edward and his guard. Edward sensed the other boys forming a wider ring. They struggled to see. Edward’s hands shook, and a bead of ice cold sweat trickled down his forehead. It made his eye sting.
“You’re the new boy, aren’t you?”
The tallest boy looked down at him. Greasy black hair fell over his forehead into his dull grey eyes. The ghost of a scar twisted his face into a snarl.
“Yes, sir,” replied Edward.
“He calls me sir!” said the older boy. He brayed, and the other boys added their own uneasy laughter to the chorus. The black-haired boy clapped his approval.
“You know your place. I like that. I can see that we’re going to get along famously. But you can call me Simmers.”
The laughter died away. Silence descended on the yard, Edward felt time slow to a crawl. He thought of his father, fighting the armies of Napoleon in the killing fields of northern Spain. If Papa could be brave, so could he.
“Do you know where you are?” asked Simmers.
“Ch-Ch-Charterhouse School,” replied Edward.
“That’s right. But do you know what was here before the school?”
Edward shook his head. The district of Clerkenwell confused him. London was too big to take in at once.
“Didn’t reckon you would know, you being new, but that’s alright. I’m here to tell you. This place was built on a plague pit. You know what they are?”
“Of course you do. Everyone knows about plague pits. Only this one was especially despicable. They didn’t always wait for you to die before they threw you in.”
Edward stared at the older boy. He didn’t want to believe him, but truth lay in the lines of his ugly face. Sadness gripped his heart. His father’s tales of human cruelty echoed in his ears.
Two of the boys grabbed Edward’s arms and forced him to the ground. Simmers pressed his head down, his right ear against the cold cobbles of the yard. He heard nothing except the silence of the watching boys. He wondered if the teachers could see. Would they care, even if they did see?
“Can you hear them? The cries of the ones they buried alive?”
Edward tried not to listen, his ears filled with pounding of blood. A cloud parted in the darkness, and a muffled sob reached through the veil of years. A sob, a wail, a plaintive plea. Edward gasped, but his lungs refused to breathe in. More cries, howls, and weeping added to the lament of the dead. They called his name, asking for help. They begged to be free.
Edward yelped and struggled, forcing himself up. Simmers fell back, his eyes wide. The two captors released his arms. Air rushed into Edward’s lungs and a scream bubbled up in his throat. Terror forced the cry loose. The boys backed away in the face of naked despair.
Edward still howled when his geography master dragged him inside, away from the alarmed stares of the boys. He only fell silent an hour later through exhaustion. He passed out in the headmaster’s office and his mother came for him twenty minutes later. She cradled her unconscious son on the way home.
The headmaster hauled the small blond boy into his office. The boy answered his questions about the Newcomer’s Ordeal. The headmaster asked to see Simmers. The black-haired boy expressed admiration that Edward survived his ordeal, but sorrow that he would never forget those eternal cries.
Edward never returned to the Charterhouse School.