Damn it! In the nearly two years they had been here, been now, he had accomplished almost nothing. Waking up to the day was always a mixed blessing. That hopeful feeling that naturally came with rising to consciousness, then that oppressive frustration. We’re still here. I haven’t fixed anything. Yet.
Edward turned thirteen on a day when a thick blanket of snow covered the RizenValley. Waking that morning, he felt the cold air snap around him, even inside the frigid stone walls of the monastery. He shifted himself on a pallet on a low wooden frame, that was rough-spun material stuffed with straw that left marks on his skin. The sun was already up, it was unreasonably late for the monastery, they had obviously let him sleep in as a treat. His foot touched the stone floor and he shivered, it very possibly had a layer of ice over it. He reached for his crutch and moved to the high, narrow window, leaned his elbow on the cold stone sill, and looked out. Snow on the Rizen Valley. He had always thought it was so beautiful, when he was little. Now, although it made him smile a little in spite of himself, it just meant another few weeks that he and Al were trapped at St. Amery’s. They couldn’t leave when it was so cold.
He had known since the day they had arrived here that they would have to go. There was nothing here for them but comfort and protection, and they had spent enough time hiding from the world. Edward had to fix the damage done by his crime, the damage done to his brother, and the self-made disaster that had brought them through the Gate into this younger version of their own world. How exactly he was going to do that, he still had little idea, even after two years of planning that led in circles and to more questions. The only power he possessed was Alchemy, and that he could not even practice within the walls of the monastery, so his protection was also a prison.
It was beautiful, this pre-industrial world, with its white snows and ever-visible rainbows and the dazzling night sky. But it was also dreadful, seething with ignorance and man-made horrors. Ed had to pretend to his brother that he wasn’t terrified of going out into it, but he figured that two years of postponing their departure from St. Amery’s might have tipped him off. He was afraid of what was out there, in that strange, savage world, afraid of failing to right his wrongs, afraid of being left alone and helpless, if something happened to Al...but he had to appear stronger, and braver, than he felt. For Al, he had to. His brother had been patient long enough.
He shivered by the window and drew himself away, back to his bed, and sat down, letting his crutch clatter to the floor. Everyone had left him alone as a gift, but now he felt slightly abandoned. Ever since he had lost his arm and leg, it was difficult, and sometimes impossible, to do everything by himself. It would take him a while to wash and dress and take himself down to the kitchens, so he figured he might as well get started.
It was so tedious to have to do everything one-handed, sitting down, with his clumsy left hand. How he hated having to be slow and methodical, when he was naturally wired to be quick and impulsive, when he knew how his body wanted to move, purposefully and swiftly, it was how he always saw himself in his mind. Instead here he was, with all his little adaptive methods and tricks, and his forced, forced patience. He grit his teeth all the time as he redid things again and again to get them right, to stop himself from screaming in frustration. Even putting on his clothes took thought and planning, straightening and adjusting. He couldn’t fasten buttons or tie strings or even carry something without some tremendous application of effort.
Think of Al, he told himself at least ten times a day. Think of how he is now, because of you. Being like this is nothing compared to what he has to live with.
He would never admit this to anyone else, but sometimes he wasn’t so sure about that
Thirteenth birthdays meant you were grown up here. Alphonse clattered around the monastery’s kitchen, making Edward’s special birthday breakfast. Brother Matthew was helping, but since he liked to talk so much, what he was really doing was reminiscing about his own thirteenth birthday—
"...which meant I was about to leave home to become a novice at St. Amery’s!" he said. His walk down memory lane was elaborate, with descriptions of brothers and sisters, cousins, a great extended family that made Alphonse feel lonely. If they’d had all that, he knew, they wouldn’t have been driven to try what they had, and been left alone to do it. And he and Edward wouldn’t be like they were, and they most certainly would not be here. Or now. He was always forgetting that now part. Because really they were close to where they had always been, where they had been born and grown up. It was so strange that the place could seem like a foreign land, even though the view from the Rizen Valley was exactly the same.
The rest of the brothers had eaten their plain breakfast hours ago, and everyone was out working. Brother Matthew had given Alphonse permission to use extra eggs and flour and molasses and together they approximated pancakes, of which Al was very proud. He was certain his brother would be pleased, and then he might see him smile, with his eyes and everything. Al arranged the pancakes and molasses on the wooden plate with several strips of bacon, he was very impressed with how appetizing it seemed, and feeling that familiar pang, I wish I could eat, I miss that. The food around here wasn’t very appetizing, usually, but this really looked good.
"That will appeal to him so much," said Matthew, "that I think you are in danger of his demanding seconds."
"I wouldn’t mind," said Alphonse, taking up the plate, ready to bring it up to their cell. "I think my brother looks a bit thin lately, don’t you? I’m worried about him..." And then he wanted to pour out his concerns to Brother Matthew, because they were so rarely alone together, and Brother Matthew knew them so well, and as he took care of Edward, he was sure to notice everything. Al could not, however, express his deepest fears without revealing the central thing, the real reason they were here, and as always he stopped short of addressing it. Edward’s eyes weren’t so bright, sometimes, as he thought they should be, something like strain or despair (please don’t let it be that) showing on his face. In some ways, he had changed so much, and not entirely for the better. Matthew nodded and gave that thoughtful look that let him know that he knew there was more than he was saying, as always. Still, Alphonse could only say, "I’m afraid he isn’t getting any stronger."
And then we’ll never be able to leave here and we’ll never find out how to get me back to my body, and we’ll never be able to go home and see the people we love again. I hate it here, everything is terrible. I have to live in this awful, empty armor, my brother is crippled, and the world outside is full of horrors.
But as sure as he was about all those dreadful things, he was practiced at pretending to be patient and brave, and at insisting that he had faith in his brother, if only to himself, and, mostly, he did. Don’t think that way, it’s not allowed.
"Never mind, I know I shouldn’t be worried." He sighed, taking up the plate again.
Brother Matthew said nothing, only placed his hand on Al’s metal arm as if it were real, warm, flesh, which Al appreciated. Nobody else ever did that, not even his brother
The going was slow, as Edward had to be mindful on every step not to slip and fall. The steps were ancient, narrow and steep, and curved in many places. The stone was smooth and shiny, absolutely treacherous. Nobody liked for him to come down by himself and he was constantly reprimanded for it, but he had to draw the line somewhere—he wasn’t an invalid, and he wasn’t a prisoner of his room, he was a free person. If someone came down behind him they would invariably feel compelled to subject him to the indignity of being thrown over their shoulder and carried down the rest of the way, but this morning no one descended behind him, and he made it to the bottom without any mishaps.
He knew Al would be in the kitchens, so he crossed the open courtyard, after pulling his hooded cloak around himself, and, careful of the small patches of ice and snow over the paving stones, he followed the smell of cooking bacon, his mouth watering.
"Brother, you came down all by yourself!" exclaimed Al as Ed entered the kitchen. Smiling, he noticed, looking quite happy, actually. Bacon could do that.
"Huzzah for me," said Edward, his gaze locking on the plate that Al still held in his hands.
"I was just going to bring it up to you."
"I got bored waiting up there." Ed sat down on the bench at the long table, as close to the fire as he could get.
"Good morning, Edward," said Brother Matthew from his position bent down before the large fire in the hearth, poking it to keep it burning strong.
"Happy birthday!" Al put the plate down.
Ed began to eat with his hand and Alphonse watched him, gratified at his appetite and how much he was obviously relishing the food. Stray thoughts of jealousy filtered through his consciousness. He was rarely jealous of his brother, but watching him eat sometimes did the trick, making him feel what he was missing, making him feel hungry to be hungry. Sometimes it made him feel downright irritable and he would want to be alone for a while, to go off and hit something so he could appreciate what he had instead—strength. It hadn’t always been something that he cared to prize, but he had to make the best of what he had. His brother could eat and taste things, sure, but his body, which Al could still sometimes not bear to look at without feeling sad, was not something to envy. Still, there were the familiar stirrings, when Edward licked his lips and then started sucking molasses off his fingers. It might be worth it.
"I don’t suppose there’s any more?" asked Ed, looking up at Al with those big appealing eyes.
"Don’t move, I’ll make some more. Pancakes, that is, I used up all the bacon we’re allowed. Extra molasses, though, since it’s your birthday!" said Al in the cheeriest voice he could manage.
Brother Matthew placed two wooden cups of steaming hot tea on the table and sat beside Edward while Al began making more pancakes.
"I find it interesting that birthdays are celebrated as such important events between the two of you."
Ed shrugged. "That’s how we always did it."
"A strange custom," said Matthew. "I wonder, wherever did your family pick that up?"
"It wasn’t just our family, it was everybody."
"In Rizenbul, really?" asked Matthew, raising an eyebrow. "Just a few miles from here and they have such strange customs. That’s so interesting."
Ed turned his head to look at him. Matthew was always trying to catch them out like this. It was usually a battle of wills. Ed knew that some of the other monks were still unsure about them, thinking them strange and suspicious, but Matthew had always been good to them. They had never hidden from him that they were planning to leave some day. Ed had only to get up the nerve and declare the time to be right. He knew that the realm was seething with unrest and there was constant friction between the church, which was closely allied with the current King of Amestris, and the neighboring countries. The church’s persecution of everyone different worried him. They were anything but inconspicuous. And Edward knew, now that he was thirteen, as he had been told a dozen times before, he had to become a novice soon or leave the monastery. There was no question that he would be leaving, and of course, his brother with him. He knew, at least, that they would leave in better circumstances than they had arrived.
Part of him could not wait for them to begin to really fix their mistake, and part of him was afraid.
His brother’s birthday meant that they would soon be leaving St. Amery’s, and Al was of two minds about it himself. He would miss the place. His brother found it boring and stifling, but Al had to admit to liking the gentle pace of life, the gardening and the submission to the seasons that marked the pattern of life here. Being away from the world like this it was easier, sometimes, to forget that it was all wrong, and that they didn’t belong here. If they couldn’t fix their mistakes, then living here was their best option.
Brother Matthew liked to tell them that they had made quite a spectacular entrance at St. Amery’s. When they had first arrived their conditions—Edward, severely injured, Alphonse, disoriented—prevented anyone from finding out their circumstances or how they had come to be in their present states. For the first several days, the matter at hand had been keeping them alive; for while Edward hovered between this world and the next, nearly succumbing to blood loss and fever, Alphonse’s mind seemed unhinged and sometimes barely anchored inside that absurd armor that his soul wore, so that many times Matthew and the other brothers had to rap on the metal and startle him, to make sure that he was still with them.
He had sat and watched Brother Matthew and Brother Sebastian try to save his brother’s life. At the time, Brother Matthew had cheerfully informed him that he would have prayed for the Creator to take his soul to Heaven, if it had not been that he would leave a grieving brother behind. Matthew had said he did not fancy his chances in this world, should he survive. But he and Brother Sebastian had worked hard with their herbs and cures and prayers to save him, and for Alphonse, they did.
Al supposed he should be forever grateful to Matthew and Sebastian, but sometimes he wasn’t so sure. Sometimes he thought that it might have been better if his soul had been allowed to lose its anchor—Edward—and free itself. He wondered if his consciousness would persist if the soul was detached from the armor. He wondered if there really was a Heaven and a Hell, as the brothers of St. Amery’s insisted. He wondered if maybe there was a God who had seen what he and Ed had done, and wondered if this god felt pity for them, or whether their sins had damned them to Hell. Ed was having none of that; not even the gentlest mysticism convinced him that there was anything other than alchemy.
He wouldn’t say exactly why, but, he said, he’d seen the Gate, and it wasn’t Heaven. He was sure of that.
When they had first arrived at St. Amery’s, Al’s vague and stunned recollection was that everyone had wanted to see them. The monastery housed fifty or sixty souls at any given time, and its location several miles from the nearest villages meant that the arrival of anyone new was something special. The summer night that a boy wearing a suit of battle armor carrying another bleeding and torn to pieces was the most excitement St. Amery’s had seen in years.
Brother Matthew had taken charge of them. It wasn’t clear to Al why it had fallen to him, but he was the only man among them who hadn’t just kept standing in the great stone hallway gaping at the sight, and the sound of a young boy’s voice coming from the armor, Please, help him. Al could only remember how his voice cracked and shook, how his consciousness floated inside that metal shell, a puzzle, he could think of nothing but his brother’s bleeding body in his arms. Also, that it was a dream, a nightmare, he was sure of it, but he went with it because that was what one did when having a dream, you just went with it and see where it took you, even if it was to a terrible place. He couldn’t not go on with this charade, even if it wasn’t real.
While they had tended to Edward, other curious men kept wandering into the room asking What happened, what happened? Who are you? Where are you from? What happened? Were you attacked? Who was it? Was it the wolves? The highwaymen? The outlaws in the woods?
Al found that he could not answer. He still did not quite understand where they were, and when they were, but it was beginning to dawn on him, slowly, as that black night unrolled into day, when sunlight revealed their sin, and proved to him that this was no dream. The Gate. But to the ones who questioned him he could only say, I don’t know, I don’t know. Brother Matthew had to shoo the gawkers away.
But Brother Sebastian, the herbalist and resident surgeon, needed to know.
"You have to tell me how this happened. I have to know whether these wounds are clean," he said to Al.
But he couldn’t give much, only what it was not: He said no when they asked. Not an animal, not a highwayman, mercenary, desperate knight or some other criminal with a knife or sword. What else could sever limbs like this, quite clearly torn off, and cleanly too, from what he could see?
"This is very odd," Sebastian had said to Matthew as they sat grimly by their patient. They both stared at Ed as Matthew rinsed the blood from the ends of his hair with a cloth.
Dread was not the word for what Al felt. He could not feel dread, not as he had known it. He had no skin to crawl, no stomach to feel squeezed, no hair to stand on end, no heart to beat too hard. He felt despair and dread in an abstract way, in a way that suggested, if he were lost, he would sit down and stop moving and there would be end but no end, ever, to the emptiness and misery of his lonely soul.
"Will my brother die?"
"Not if we can help it, and we will do our best," Brother Sebastian had said. "But if God wants to take him, we cannot help that."
Al couldn’t quite understand how he could sound so cheerful as he said that, so certain that whatever happened, it would be right.
It had only ever been Brother Matthew, really, who had completely trusted them. Everyone else had at some time or other feared or mistrusted them. As he cleaned up after Ed’s thirteenth birthday breakfast, Al remembered how Matthew had tried to keep the curious away as best he could those first few weeks, and to protect them from prying eyes and interrogations. Al told them their names and that they were orphans from Rizenbul. As they had tended to Ed and prayed over him they seemed to have forgotten about Al as he sat and sat on the floor of the little cell, near the pallet where his brother lay. He almost forgot to show signs of life unless someone spoke to him—because otherwise how did he know that he was alive at all? But then, maybe on the second or third morning, Brother Sebastian noticed that he hadn’t been eating the food they had set out for him, and began to insist that he take off “that ridiculous armor”, but Matthew had argued with him and insisted that they leave the boy be, that he had obviously suffered a shock of some kind, and probably felt safer wearing it, and Al had thanked him for that. But after Sebastian had left the room, Matthew had come before him and without warning pulled up the helmet.
Al would never forget how terrified he looked, and how his hands shook as he replaced the helmet, and how he had run off as if Al were some kind of monster, and not returned for hours, even to tend to Edward.
When Matthew did return, he got on his knees and prayed to He who made Heaven as well as Hell, and asked to know what evil had touched those children.
"My God," he said. "Why did they do this?"
"Why are you crying?" Alphonse asked.
"I know what happened to you!" said Brother Matthew. "You don’t have to hide it from me, I know."
"You do? But how did you—"
"How did they get to you? Who are they? Did you know them? Are they from your village?"
"What? Who?" Al asked haltingly.
"The witches, I know they did this to you and your brother. Did they seal your tongues with a curse?"
"Witches?" He almost could not check the measure of levity that crept into his voice. "You aren’t serious? Witches?"
"Of course I am serious." Brother Matthew seemed a little offended at his tone of voice.
"But there’s no such thing as witches."
"Alchemists, then, are you saying they aren’t real?"
Al paused, and if he had had a heart, it would have stopped.
"Oh. Those witches," he said quietly. Then he would say nothing more.
So it was how Alphonse learned that the witch fever was on, even amongst the mostly gentle and lettered men of the monastery. Once the others heard that the boys had been the victims of witchcraft...some of them stayed away and would forever give them sideways glances, as if fearful to look at their faces. But most of them forgave them as victims. Still, wickedness had touched them, tainted them, and they would never be forgiven that.
And then, after all, they were partly to blame. In no time at all the monks would be openly wondering how such heathens, who knew not one prayer between them, could have come out of Rizenbul.
The fear had worn away with time, and the brothers of St. Amery’s had accepted the victims of witchcraft. Al had always thought it was a convenient story, but he also felt guilty in perpetrating this lie. The monks were good to them, but Al knew that the truth could cost them their lives.
“Heathens,” Matthew called them, affectionately, before he instructed them. They learned the bare minimum of liturgical and ritual requirement; their true interests lay in the forbidden section of the library, the ancient alchemy texts. Al would sneak them away, one at a time, in the dark of night, and the two of them would pore over them, hoarding the precious information that would further the only education they needed.
“Now where did you learn to read?” Brother Sebastian had said. “Your parents must have been gentle folk and yet Edward at least is as wild as a child raised by wolves.” This became a common joke, that they were raised by wolves, and this plausibly explained their lack of religious training but not their ability to read. Still, Brother Matthew once took Al aside and said, “Your brother is badly crippled, he will never be able to do very much, so it is a lucky thing he was educated, and you as well. Perhaps, you should both stay here and become novices, if we could only persuade you to have faith.”
No, no and no, from Edward. Al almost wanted there to be a God, and that the God would be stronger than the Gate, and could get his soul and his body together again, if only they could pray hard enough.
But they both knew that that was a fairy tale.
Matthew would often sit with them and tell them about his life; he had been born and raised in Central Palatinate, in the very shadow of the greatest Church in all the known world, the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart of Amestris.
"You would not believe its size, it is so vast," said Matthew, and his eyes sparkled. "The windows are enormous, as large as suns, with glass all the colors of the rainbow. At noon the sun’s light pours through the great rose windows onto the floor of the Cathedral, casting a pattern like a great wheel, with all colors, the most beautiful thing. It is like seeing into the Eye of God, glorious."
“I hope we’ll see it some day,” Al had said.
“Maybe you will,” Matthew had said. “But it is very far away,” he added gently. And there were no trains or even paved roads in the land, it would take weeks to ride there. It was like hearing about the geography of another planet.
Alphonse had a secret that he kept and nurtured over time, to become a lump in his proverbial throat, a thorn in his proverbial side, a thing that he did not like to think about. Everyone fussed over Ed, and feared himself, and how much more suited to their personalities would a reversal have been? Why did he have to suffer, for suffer he did, even though Ed was the one who had the body that felt hunger, pain, fatigue, he was the one who suffered more, who hungered, not for food but for sustenance; it was himself who was tired, not for lack of sleep, but for lack of dreams.
Ed was certainly not one to complain but Matthew was full of what he seemed to think were inspirational tales.
"You know," Matthew told them, rapturously entering into his favorite subject, "St. Amery himself was martyred right here on this spot, they say. Soldiers cut off both his hands and put out his eyes, and he lived forty days like that, wandering and fasting and being tended by the Blessed Mother who caused wellsprings to appear at his feet for every mile he walked, before being captured and having his heart cut out and buried where the sanctuary now stands. So, try thinking of poor old St. Amery sometime, and see that you don’t have it so hard."
“St. Amery sounds like a sap,” said Edward. Brother Matthew had seemed slightly offended at that, so Al had nodded reverently. That tale wasn’t entirely inspiring, however. It didn’t exactly have a happy ending.
Two months after they had arrived at St. Amery’s, Ed and Al had been put to work by the brothers. The devil finds work for idle hands, they said. They knew what work they wanted to do, they wanted to raid the locked library for forbidden texts, they wanted to make and practice arrays and sharpen up their alchemy, rusty with misuse. But no, Brother Matthew had decided that they would apprentice Brother Sebastian. Perhaps study to become apothecaries? It was a useful trade, and gentle gardening was good therapy for Edward, and so they then spent much of their day sitting in the herb garden, digging and watering and watching things grow, and learning the properties and uses of plants.
"We can’t let them see us doing this," Al said nervously, looking behind and around them, squatting amongst the small bushes and plants of Brother Sebastian’s herb garden. His brother sat beside him on the ground, drawing an array with a stick.
"Of course we can’t, they’ll burn us at the stake, the idiots. But we have to practice..." Edward bit down on his lower lip as he completed the array, leaning forward with concentration. "Now give me something, a big stick or something...okay now snap it...put it here. All right. That looks good, right?"
Ed paused and looked at the array with the broken stick in the center. "Here goes," he said, before touching his hand to it. There was the familiar blue glow, the satisfying snap as the stick’s two parts came together. Supporting himself once again on his hand, he looked up at his brother, his face flushed pink, and smiled.
"Now your turn," Ed said. But before Al could finish the array he was tracing in the soil, voices could be heard approaching the garden. They were so transported by the alchemy that they nearly didn’t stop themselves in time. It was all they could manage to hastily rub the array away before Brother Sebastian and Brother Ossan were standing over them.
"Boys, Ossan does not believe that we’ve been able to bring out that coriander so quickly. Show him, Alphonse." Al obligingly directed him to the small patch of coriander. Meanwhile Brother Sebastian bent down to have a look at Edward.
"I see, very nice. I’ll be expecting that in the kitchen before the month is out."
"We planted it for you." Sebastian put the back of his hand against Ed’s face. "Edward, you are awfully flushed, let’s get you inside. Too much sun is as bad as too little, don’t you think, Brother Ossan?"
"Oh, yes, Brother Sebastian, I’d say so. Alphonse, why don’t you stay down here with me and help me pull up some of that coriander?"
In Sebastian’s arms, Ed looked back over his shoulder to give his brother a meaningful look. This couldn’t go on much longer, their alchemy was getting rusty and the worst thing they could imagine was that it would fade altogether.
It was a safe distance from the monastery, or so they hoped. No one would see them down here, but still, they went as deep into the edge of the forest as they dared, hoping to hide any alchemic flashes from anyone looking out from the monastery. It had been difficult to explain these excursions at first; they were expected to contribute to the daily work of the monastery, which made an income on copperwork, spices, herbs and its small goat dairy. Aside from that, their interest in wandering about the countryside was not understood. There was plenty of fresh air closer to the monastery. Edward couldn’t walk, and the suit of armor certainly didn’t crave to feel the grass between his toes. They insisted that they enjoyed being in the fields so much that they missed it, and Edward had exploited himself—he reasoned that he had better learn to work with what he had—and insisted that it would just make him feel so much better, to go for a wander like he used to, even if it was in his brother’s arms, and how much stronger he would get if he practiced walking distances with his crutch...and so on, with his eyes wide and appealing, because who in the end could say no to that? Matthew relented and the boys went on their rambles—right into the forest, and tore into their alchemy.
Whenever they could get away, when it wasn’t too cold or raining or there was an excuse that kept them at St. Amery’s for the day, Ed and Al drew arrays and transmuted soil, rocks, trees, diverted streams and constructed tiny bridges, fancied up beaver dams and created shelters from debris on the forest floor. Over just weeks they had reached their previous level of skill and tried hard to surpass it. They knew they needed some instruction, some books, desperately in order to get to the next level. But they practiced and sharpened their skills. Edward struggled to draw arrays with his left hand—the improvement was slow but it came and he worked hard to control his frustration. If they didn’t improve, he couldn’t ever make things right, and access the Gate. The thought of it right now made him shudder—losing the two limbs he had left to the Gate, if it left him here, would mean the end of his life. But he had to know how to at least get Al’s body back, and get Al through the Gate back to their time, and for himself...it seemed a lot to ask, but he wanted it all the same.
In fact, Ed was very pleased with the advancement of his arrays. They were increasingly intricate, more so than he thought he was capable of. At first he was almost afraid to activate them, not being entirely sure if he wasn’t out of his mind for thinking they would work. But they did, mostly, and it was a thrill to pull a staff from a rock, and he used it to help himself stand up. It was cool, and it was useful.
Al was very impressed the first time he did that. The next time he alchemized all the crystallized elements in a large rock, and pulled out the most beautiful amethyst spear, this time with an obsidian point. They both drew their breath as Ed held it in his hand, marveling at it. Had he made this? Neither of them had even thought of making a weapon before, but somehow Ed knew that they were going to need them, in this life.
It was a shame to have to leave it behind, but before they headed back to the monastery, Ed regretfully returned the spear to the rock from whence it came.
Their nights were by candlelight, the ancient texts, still new now, some of them, handwritten, texts that would be hundreds of years old in their own time, barely decades old now, some of them. Some, older, already ancient, smelling of decay and dust, filled with secret code. It took them days to decode each one, before they could even start on the actual text. They devoured the books hungrily, searching for what they needed, a way to restore Al’s body, Ed’s body, and return through the Gate. To do all those things, they needed to find a way to cheat the Gate, to give it without giving.
Valerius, Piers of Collins, Elias of Creta...some of them mentioned the Philosopher’s Stone, but none told how to make one. Many referenced the work of Caelius Magnus, but they could not find a book by him in the monastery’s small collection. After they had finished each book, Al would regularly exchange one forbidden alchemy text for another, searching for the one that would reveal to them the formula that would make right their world. The Caelius Magnus remained elusive, and Ed knew now that at least they had something they needed to look for when they left St. Amery’s.
"Goddamn fuck this thing, it sucks! I hate it!" He kicked at the clumsily made wooden leg Brother Matthew had given him on the occasion of his thirteenth birthday, and it made an emphatic clack and clatter against the stone wall before it fell to the floor.
"That thing is useless," Edward said, looking at it with disgust as he sat on his bed. "I’m not wearing it to go into town."
"Ssh, just be quiet, you don’t want them to hear you swearing like that," said Alphonse. "Nobody said you have to wear it."
"But...Brother Matthew...." He'd spent a lot of time making it, Ed knew, although he wasn't skilled in that way, and it was absolutely a failure, painful and impossible to walk on.
"I know. He understands, though. He doesn’t want you to be in pain."
"It’s just so ridiculous....I can’t stand it! Two miles away is the best automail mechanic money can buy..."
"Two miles and four hundred years," Al clarified.
Ed glared at the wall and then at the floor.
"If I could just transmute it..."
"We can’t risk it, he'll notice...I feel so bad about lying to him," Al said. "Not so much the others, I don’t know, except Sebastian maybe...Maybe we should tell them, before we go. Maybe it’ll help them see that all this fighting and killing should stop—"
"They might get it, but you’ve seen how ignorant everyone here is. They might just turn us in."
The brothers considered this quietly. They had discussed this many times before. Somehow they couldn’t bring themselves to right their lie, for two years allowing everyone at St. Amery’s to believe that witches had attacked them, and pretending to not be able to remember what happened. It inspired awe and fear and pity, and made most of the monks and novices even more afraid of witches and alchemists than they had been before.
They hated that their lie fed the fire that was burning this world to the ground.
The first time they had been brought to market day in ancient Rizenbul, the Elric brothers had been awed by the sight of their home town, with the small row of shops, the one café, the post office, the newly-paved main street lined with telephone poles, the train depot...at the exact same site, with the identical view of the Eastern Mountains from the RizenValley, was a muddy village square ringed with wattle-and-daub longhouses, huts with roofs of straw, and thronged with loose livestock—pigs, chickens, geese and goats. The town was dominated by a tiny church only one storey high, an edifice which in their own time was marked only by a small stone slab on the place where it had stood, and which had become the telegraph office. Now on market day the square was teeming with people from surrounding villages, settlements and farms. Ed and Al enjoyed these visits very much, hungering for contact with the world outside the cloistered monastery. Each time they made this trip, they promised themselves that they would soon leave St. Amery’s. But there were limitations: they had no money, no means of making any, and no one to borrow it from. They were strangers in a strange land, and on top of that, they were strange. It would always be so, but sooner or later, they knew they would have to hit the road.
Today the throngs were thicker than usual. As they drew closer to the square, Ed sitting in front of Brother Sebastian on his horse, Brother Matthew and Al walking beside them, they noticed that there were soldiers in the square. They could see and hear more horses than usual, and the occasional snap of a whip and shouts that suggested violence, crowd control, and trouble.
Brother Matthew’s hand grabbed the horse’s mane. He was a tall man and craned his neck to see into the crowd gathered around the square.
"Maybe we should turn back, this worries me. What do you see, Sebastian?"
Even sitting on a horse, Edward was not tall enough to see, but Sebastian had a better view.
"It’s the Crusaders, the army of the Church, and someone..."
—his breath hitched—
"The Inquisitor," he finished. Ed felt him tense against his back and the arm he had wrapped around Ed tightened. Ed turned his face to look up at him.
"I want to see him,” he said. "Since we’ve heard so much about him."
But Matthew’s voice was stern when he said, "No, this isn’t good. I don’t want you boys to see what they’re going to do."
"Why not?" asked Al. "This is your church. Don’t you support their inquisition?"
Matthew looked away. "Don’t ask me that."
"Take me down," said Edward. "Even if you can’t look, I can."
The crowd ringing the square was a dozen people deep all around. Ed and Al started toward it, looking for a way in.
The crowd suddenly gave out a collective gasp and then muttered, something was about to happen.
"What can you see?" Ed asked as they paused. All Ed could see was people’s backs, but at his height Al had the panorama.
"They’re bringing a bunch of people into the square, their hands are tied, and they’re roped together."
Ed looked up at his brother. They both knew what was about to happen. They both knew they didn’t want to see it, but they also both knew they couldn’t walk away. This was part of their world, their history, and if they were going to understand where they were, when they were, they were going to have to watch.
"They’re lining them up...This is going to be bad," said Al. "We should do something."
"If we try to stop them, they’ll get us too. But let’s have a look at that idiot Inquisitor. Maybe we can get to him later."
As Al ploughed through the crowd, making way for Ed, people grumbled and protested at being jostled aside. “Sorry, sorry, excuse me,” he kept saying as he made his way to the front. Ed came along behind, barely noticed in his brother’s wake.
“You big bully, you’re big enough, you don’t need to stand in front!” a woman complained sharply at him. “Now I can’t see!”
“Who do you think you are?” someone else chimed in. “Pushing people around...”
Al cleared his throat apologetically and gently pushed Ed in front of him.
“Sorry, he needed to be in front, so he could see...”
“Oh! Look at this poor child,” the first woman said, her voice changing completely. She patted Edward on the head. “Of course he can stand in front.”
A man beside them said, “Of course. Why didn’t you say, big fellow?”
The woman went on, “How nice of you to help him, the poor little thing. What pretty hair he has!” She decided to take the liberty of touching it again.
Ed gritted his teeth flinched away and seethed for a moment, but at least he had a good view. He wasn’t sure he would ever get used to it: in public now everyone was so deferential to Al, and so patronizing toward him, he could hardly stand it. Why that woman thought she could pet his hair and talk about him like he wasn’t even there...but he had long ago learned that people tended to assume that because he was missing part of his body, he might be missing part of his brain, too.
He tried to discern what was going on in the muddy square. There were about twenty people, whether men or women it wasn’t easy to tell, they were all stripped bare but for rough-spun knee-length shifts that left their arms and legs bare, bare feet, bare heads...and some of them had had their hair roughly cut or shorn. They were of all ages, a couple perhaps as young as himself, and one quite small child who looked to be only eight or nine, and a few old and gray. All of them looked stunned and terrified, and he could not say he blamed them one bit. They stood tied together, all twenty of them, by a long rope looped loosely around each neck, and their hands tied behind their backs. The persecutors had obviously beaten them and thrown them about, as they were all covered in welts and bruises. The color of their skin, ashen grey, and their sunken eyes, suggested that they had been kept locked away someplace dark, possibly for a very long time. All in all, thought Edward, they looked like they might be happy to be dead quite soon, for they all looked thoroughly miserable.
Some in the crowd seemed to be enjoying the sight of these unfortunate people, and the prisoners flinched and tried to hide their faces as the occasional tossed stone or rotten potato came their way. Others looked on with obvious trepidation. Ed felt his own heart hammering hard, and his hand shook as he gripped his crutch. Something really, really bad was about to happen.
He looked up at his brother. He couldn’t read his expression of course, but when he looked down his eyes flashed.
Suddenly Ed felt a tap on his shoulder and the woman next to him, the one who had felt so free as to touch his hair, was holding out her hand to him. A copper coin was glinting in her palm.
"Here, my little pet," she said. "A cen for you."
That was too much. Edward recoiled from her and opened his mouth wide to shout.
"I’m not your little pet and I’m not a beggar, you stupid cow!"
"Mind yourself, you wretched boy!" the woman scolded. "I was offering you charity, don’t be ungrateful, before God!"
"I didn’t ask you for any money!" Ed shouted back. "Why don’t you mind your own goddamn business?"
"Brother..." Al admonished him.
"You leave him alone!" someone said behind them, then another voice said, "Be quiet, the Inquisitor is coming!"
But the woman wasn’t done with Ed. She pointed her finger at him.
"Did you hear him? What a foul mouth he has. And right before the Inquisitor comes to punish the wicked. You should have more respect!"
"Scr—-" Ed felt Al’s huge gauntleted hand clamp across his mouth.
"Please excuse him," Al said, his voice all apology and sweet good will. "He’s not right in the head."
The woman’s face lapsed into pity again but Al held his hand over Ed’s mouth and whispered down to him, "Please, brother, stop before you get us into trouble. Take the stupid coin and say you’re sorry."
Ed took a deep breath and pushed Al’s hand away.
"Okay, fine." He turned to the woman.
"Sorry," he said. She held out the coin again, and he took it.
Suddenly murmurs swept through the crowd. Soldiers of the Church—the Crusaders—draped in crimson with white crosses on their shirts and shield, cut a path through the crowd across the square, and lined it with their bodies, pushing back the crowd, as an obviously important man came down the newly formed aisle. He wasn’t particularly tall, and he wasn’t particularly fierce looking—perhaps fifty years of age, still-dark hair, neatly cropped beard, slightly soft around the middle, although his body was mostly hidden under a vast red mantle. He wore a large gold cross that dangled over his stomach by a long, thick chain, so big that it looked as if it could be used as a weapon. His head was bare except for a small silk cap. The only other adornment on him was a huge gold ring on his left hand. He didn't have the bearing of one who relied on trappings to make himself seem powerful, Ed noticed. He walked as if he knew no fear, and as if he owned the world, and it was his to dispense with as he pleased.
People crossed themselves as he passed them, moving feverishly behind the Church’s soldiers as they blocked him from their reaching hands. Still, as he walked he squeezed hands here and there, closing fingers around fingers, sometimes bending to kiss them, and people could then be seen flushing in ecstasy, pressing the hands the Inquisitor had kissed to their lips.
"Twenty-one heretics!" the Inquisitor shouted, extending his hand and gesturing to the trembling captives. "Three times seven of the most wicked people in your province! We’ve caught these, and we’ll catch the others, because we know there are others. You all know there are others. Some are your neighbors, your associates, perhaps even those you believe to be your friends. But people hide their evil deeds and practices from the eyes of the righteous, we know that. It is our job, all of us, you and I and these Crusaders here, to root out all evil, to find the dissemblers amongst us. Here they are."
The Inquisitor stepped forward and approached the prisoners. Most of them quivered at his approach, but a few were defiant, it could be seen in their stance.
"I’ve spoken to every one of them, good people. To each and every one I have offered the chance to admit their sin and repent, so that when they die they will go to Heaven and not have to spend eternity in Hell. Some of them confessed their sin, some did not. Some renounced their wicked blasphemies. Some did not."
He stepped forward again and stood before two people, a man and a woman, of indeterminate age, who in looks seemed to have nothing in common but their large, wide-open eyes.
"These two are followers of the Cult of Leto, found in this very square spouting their blasphemies and seeking converts away from the one true Church. They would not renounce their wrong faith, and when their life’s blood spills here today, their souls will remand in Hell. NOT"—and here he leaned forward and roared into the two heretics’ faces—"WITH YOUR FALSE PAGAN GOD! Repent now, repent now," he hissed at them, loud enough for his voice to reverberate throughout the square. "And maybe you will be allowed entry into the gates of Heaven!"
The two trembled and closed their eyes but said nothing.
"They know they’re already dead," Edward said to his brother. "Why would they bother?"
"He’s just trying to humiliate them," Alphonse whispered. "And scare everyone else."
The Inquisitor moved along the line of prisoners. Most hung their heads so that he would not catch their eye. He intoned their transgressions as he passed them.
"Witch, witch, practitioner of the black arts....heretic and revolutionary... " He pointed at a man with a graying beard... "Rebellious priest who criticizes the Inquisition, sympathizer with the Reformation...Do you renounce your blasphemy, brother?"
"No, murderer. I do not," the man said, raising his head.
The Inquisitor set his mouth grimly and walked on. He stopped again before the two youngest prisoners, the two boys. A few people shouted protests that these were just children, and the Inquisitor turned to the crowd to respond, gesturing to the two.
"I know these are just boys, but they are not innocents. These brothers are Alchemists, the children of Alchemists themselves! ...You shouldn’t pity them, they are not real children, they cut their milk teeth on transmutations and scientific anathema, they are hardly human!" he said, dramatically and with relish. "I’ve spent many hours with these two, trying to learn their secrets...unlike the witches who commune with the Devil to obtain their power, these heretics pervert the power of nature...they manipulate our world, our world that God made and gave to us, they use their wicked science to destroy and to create as if they themselves are above God!...but, Believers, what they create are not natural things...the Alchemists have the power to create creatures made from people coupled with beasts—I’ve seen these abominations, and they are terrible to behold, like demons from hell! They can use the elements to create disasters, create beings out of dirt that will do their evil bidding, turn water into fire and fire into water, freeze our rivers and turn our crops to dust..."
"Now he’s just making stuff up," said Edward.
"...they claim they are people of science and reason who only use the laws of nature, but I’ve seen the destruction they can cause with their so-called science, and the people of Amestris are not safe until every last Alchemist is destroyed!"
The crowd cheered for that, and the two boys before the Inquisitor trembled.
Al bent down so he could speak in his brother’s ear. "They’re brothers, just like us."
Edward just swallowed and nodded. It was too close to home. If they were found out, they would find themselves in the same position. It didn’t matter that they were children, or that they were under the protection of the monastery. Nothing could make them safe.
Their helplessness oppressed the brothers as they watched the Inquisitor finish his rantings about the prisoners. He gave all of them one more chance to repent, confess, humiliate themselves, although he made it clear there would be no mercy from the punishment. None responded, and they all stood there, staring blankly and resignedly as a column of Crusaders stepped from the ranks ringing the square and came forward with their swords drawn. The Inquisitor explained what was going to happen to the “criminals.” The soldiers were going to cut off their heads, and then their remains were going to be carted to a place outside the village where they would be burnt on a pyre, ringed with rocks to put a border upon their evil spirits, which would linger in purgatory or hell until the End of Time, when the Apocalypse would bring final Judgment upon all. The crowd shuddered at the horrible fate, but still no one made a move to leave. Everyone wanted to see.
The killing began. One by one, a single soldier advanced from the column to hack off the head of each of the condemned. They each killed only one. Was it to lighten the burden of killing on each soul, or was it to afford a treat to each soldier? They wore helmets so it was impossible to tell what expression the men wore on their faces as they swung their swords and took off a head. Three, four...the sound of a sword slicing through a neck made a dull, percussive sound. It soon became clear that most necks would require two or three strokes to sever, and by the time the head came off, the body would already be slumped on the ground, soaked in blood. Blood flowed from the necks and began to spread in an ever-widening pool on the dirt, so thick that it didn’t have time to seep in before it mingled with more, so that soon the Inquisitor was ankle deep in blood and mud, and the prisoners who were next were too.
It was terrible to watch. Even a majority of the crowd, so recently filled with righteousness and blood-lust, began to cover their faces and hide from the sight. Edward squeezed his eyes shut somewhere between numbers 4 and 5, but he still felt a wave of nausea wash over him, just hearing the sounds of the hacking, and the screams of the formerly inanimate prisoners, who had begun to struggle, seeing the fate that awaited them come so near.
Ed turned and pressed his face against Al’s middle. "Don’t look," he said. "Stop looking."
"I can’t," said Al. "Unless I turn around, I can’t close my eyes."
It was not something Edward wanted to hear at that moment. He felt himself begin to come apart. He had been wrong in thinking he could stand to see this carnage. He squeezed his eyes tighter and tighter but still, he couldn’t help it—he felt certain he was about to be sick.
Al looked down to see the top of his brother’s blond head, his big brother so small and trembling against him, he couldn’t help but pull a protective arm around him. At the same time, he didn’t listen to his brother’s command to stop looking. It was horrible, but he couldn’t feel sick, and he didn’t feel fear in that physical way that made one dizzy or sick or paralyzed. He could look, no matter how much it hurt to see. The thirteenth and fourteenth prisoners fell and the pool of blood was practically a pond of red, in which some soldiers, the Inquisitor, and the remaining prisoners were standing, while the dead lay in the bloody mud. It looked like how Alphonse had imagined Hell to be, and he wondered at how the Inquisitor had managed to create Hell right here before their eyes, to stand as some kind of dreadful warning to the rest of them.
Some people in the crowd had fainted, and now people really were reeling away, disgusted at the sight, though most still remained, transfixed, looking through their fingers, praying with their eyes shut. Prisoner number fifteen fell and a fresh soldier stepped forward with his sword drawn. His target was the young child, who stood thin and shivering, eyes wide and staring. Even the Crusader could not help but pause. He stopped in his steps and people in the crowd began to shout, "Stop! Stop! He’s just a child!" The older boy standing next to him suddenly tried to throw himself in front of his brother, bringing the prisoners bound to him on the other side to reel and fall against each other. The youngest fell down, led by the rope still looped over his neck and trailing through the bloody mud, tangled with the bodies of the dead. The crowd went crazy, and pushed from their misery the remaining prisoners came to life and began to scramble.
Pandemonium broke out. At first, Alphonse thought it was just the rest of the soldiers rushing into the center to restore order, but it soon became clear that a group of riders were descending into the square. They were not Crusaders, and the colors they wore were not of the King or any others Al had ever seen. Swords drawn, they bore down onto the crowd. They weren’t many, but they were fast and had powerful horses. The crowd dispersed and ran in all directions as the riders approached, slashing their swords and bearing down in the direction of the Inquisitor. Al felt the crowd surge behind him, and immediately he scooped his brother up into his arms and broke out in a run, away from the center of the square, where the riders had reached and metal hitting against metal signaled a battle had begun.
Al stopped in a narrow lane lined with houses to hide. Only a few more paces would have brought them into open fields. They were still close enough to the village square to hear the sounds of fighting, and people were now running and shouting, some passing right by them to go into their houses or leave town altogether. He put Ed down.
"Did you see who it was?" Ed asked breathlessly.
"I didn’t get a good look."
"I hope someone kills that damn Inquisitor. I'd do it myself..."
They both headed for the opening of the lane and peered around the corner house. Part of the square could be seen from here; there was a battle going on, crusaders, mounted and on foot, were fighting with lightly armed men, most on horse, but it seemed some were on foot as well. The Inquisitor in his red robe was nowhere to be seen. The prisoners who had been alive when the fighting started were also gone.
"Who are those guys?" Al wondered. "They’re not the King’s men."
"Invaders?" Ed offered. "Maybe from one of the border states they’re always going on about?"
There was a percussive noise, a roll like thunder, and then an explosion right in the middle of the square that threw several soldiers in the air. The light that accompanied the explosion had been blue.
The brothers both gasped. Before another moment had passed, a horse screamed as a sword was driven into its neck. The horse reared high, and the man seated on top of it raised his hand, snapped his fingers, and with a crack and another snap of blue light, fire flew from his fingers and fell upon the soldiers ringing his horse. He pulled the horse back and ran to the other side of the square.
"They’re using alchemy!"
Edward experienced a surge of hope. They had found fellow alchemists! So there were alchemists who were practicing freely—and using it as a weapon against the Inquisitor and the Crusaders.
There were at least two alchemists among the riders, maybe more. There were more alchemic flashes and explosions as the Crusaders were repelled and began to fall back around the square. But the invaders were still too small a force to completely overpower them. They began to pull away from the square themselves, and scatter through the streets of the village, taking off through lanes and paths leading to the South and West, toward the forest. As a few horses pounded by them, the brothers saw some of the people who had been slated for execution, dazed and covered in mud, sitting behind the riders and clinging for their lives. Had the whole thing been a rescue mission, or was there some other purpose?
Ed sat down on the ground and, pulling the copper charity cen out of his pocket, began to scrape an array onto the slate walk they were standing on.
"What are you doing? Someone might see!" Al moved to shield Ed's work as best he could.
When he was finished, Ed placed the coin in the array, and, quickly groping around, found a thick stick and placed that into the array too. He touched the edge, a quick blue flash that made Alphonse rush forward to hide it from sight, and then reached out for the rather nice, if small, wooden knife he had made, with a sharp copper tip. He let Al help him to stand and then held the knife in his hand.
"Al, you go find one of those Alchemists, let them know we want to come with them. I’ll wait here."
"I can't leave you here alone."
Ed brandished the weapon. "I have protection now. I won’t let anyone take me. Go!"
Al rushed off but not without glancing back at Edward. A little crippled boy leaning on a crutch with a tiny copper-bladed knife in his one hand was not exactly the most threatening sight in the world, but his brother somehow managed to look a little fierce, as he motioned for him to go on.
Al ran straight for the square and watched as the last contingent of intruders began to tear away from the Crusaders. He saw the alchemist who had thrown fire before—a man with ivory skin and black hair—do it again, repelling a small cluster of Crusaders with a wall of flame, before his horse rose on its hind legs and turned to bolt. Al tore as fast as he could around the edge of the square, following the horse and rider down towards the lane that led north, like a spoke on a wheel from the center of the town.
"Wait!" he shouted, running as fast as he could. "Please, wait!"
The rider turned around and shot a glance over his shoulder, but then turned again and snapped his reigns, making his horse go faster. When Al turned back to the square, all the insurgents were gone, it was just Crusaders milling around, examining their injured comrades, and cursing up a storm. Men on horseback continued to wheel around the square and into the lanes, looking for straggling, detached prisoners, or, likely, for new ones. But the alchemists and their party were now gone. His heart sinking, Alphonse turned to go back to Edward.
His brother was still in the same lane, but sitting on the ground near the second house in, and still holding his little weapon. As Al drew closer he could see that he was splattered with mud and dust, as if someone had knocked him over, and he quickened his pace again. Ed didn’t seem hurt, but his eyes clouded immediately when he discerned that his brother had failed in his mission to make contact with the alchemists.
"What happened?" asked Al. "Are you hurt?"
"Nah...a bunch of riders tore through here and didn’t even see me, I got out of their way in time, but I kind of had to dive for it..." He looked up at Al. "See, I’m fine. Just, help me up."
Standing again, Edward drew himself up and made that fierce face again, the one that Al rather liked, because his eyes seemed so bright and sharp, like they had always been, before. "So now we know. We have a goal now. We can leave—and go find them."
"I guess there’s no better time," Alphonse agreed, emboldened by his brother’s resolve.
"Tomorrow," said Edward. "We’re leaving tomorrow."
"So soon? I thought we were waiting for spring."
"We’ve hung around here long enough, it’s time to get moving, so we can make things right. Right?" Again Ed looked up, and Al’s questions dissolved.
"Right," he said.
At that moment, Brother Matthew and Brother Sebastian ran over, Sebastian leading his horse. They clucked and fussed over the boys like mother hens. Sebastian climbed onto the horse, and Matthew lifted Ed up to sit in front of him, Sebastian’s steadying arm around his chest once again. Ed even allowed himself to lean back and relax onto Sebastian for a while, knowing that after today, they were going to be on their own, with no adults to hold them up.
"You’re freezing and covered in mud," Brother Matthew said as he lifted Edward off the horse in front of the monastery’s stables. He hurried him inside, while Al helped Brother Sebastian unpack the bags tied to the horse. "You’ll need a bath before you do anything else," he said as they entered the courtyard. Ed followed him to the bathhouse, where there were two large wooden tubs and several buckets, bath or shower, cold or cold, a fireplace, currently unlit. Ed sat down on a bench and examined his dirty fingernails, waiting while Matthew lit the fire and heated a series of metal pots of water, thinking all the while how easily he could heat them with alchemy.
The bathwater was nice and hot and Edward tried to relax into it, but his mind would not stop circling around the events of the day, and the fact that they had to tell Brother Matthew that they were leaving.
"Don’t fall asleep, now," said Brother Matthew, laughing, misinterpreting Ed's closed eyes. He handed Ed a piece of soap, large and rough, and Ed scrubbed at his face and chest with it. Without being asked, Matthew soaped his back, then poured water over his head to wash his hair. Edward kept his eyes closed, his savoring of the comfort of being cared for at war with his usual demand to be left to struggle by himself. Tonight however he had to concentrate on trying to organize his thoughts.
"You’re awfully quiet tonight," commented Matthew, kneeling by the side of the tub. "Thinking about what you saw today?"
"I was hoping that you and Alphonse did not get to see that. It was terrible, such a disgrace. I am ashamed for what the Inquisitor did in the name of our faith."
When Ed looked up at him from his place in the bath, he could see Brother Matthew’s eyes cast down, so unlike him.
"It’s no wonder to me," Matthew went on, "that you don’t believe, when you see something like that."
He opened his eyes and met Ed’s.
"I’m sorry you had to see that. If you’re anything like me, those sights will never be erased from your memory. I remember the first time I saw such horrors, when I was a boy, I saw twelve men hanged for treason, and I could never forget it. To know that your innocent eyes have now seen such an evil thing...it breaks my heart."
Matthew looked down again.
Ed touched his sleeve and Matthew raised his eyes again.
"I’m not so innocent," he said, so moved by Matthew’s misery that he was about to confess. "I’ve committed a sin. A big one."
Matthew smiled. "What could that be? I’ve heard you take God’s name in vain many times, but I think we can be forgiving of that."
"No," said Edward. "I’m serious. It’s the reason I’m...like this"—he looked down at his maimed body—"and why Al is....it’s why, I have to tell you...we’re leaving tomorrow."
"I see," Matthew said, his face becoming shadowed. The usually talkative Matthew then went quiet as he got behind Edward and pulled him from the bath. Sitting him on the bench, he began to dry him with a piece of linen. Finally moved out of his torpor, Ed pulled the flannel away and began to dry himself.
Matthew stepped back. "So you’re leaving us?"
Ed couldn’t look at him as he nodded yes. He rubbed awkwardly at his hair with the flannel.
“We have to. We don’t belong here. We’ve taken advantage of your hospitality long enough.”
Matthew watched him and Ed tried to ignore the attention; he wanted to help, but he couldn’t let himself be coddled. Not when he was about to confess to him. But although he was clearly troubled, Matthew remained his kind self.
"We’ll comb your hair upstairs, all right? Come."
Ed felt a knot in his stomach as he followed Brother Matthew inside and up to his room. Still unusually quiet, Matthew sat down on the bed while Ed went for the comb. He held it out to Brother Matthew awkwardly—how many times had he combed his hair? The last time for that, they both knew. The last thing that Ed had said hung between them. Ed wondered how much he had surmised from that, and what he was thinking he was confessing to. He sat down on the bed and pushed his wet hair behind his shoulders.
"Are you at all sorry to leave?" asked Matthew, working the comb through Ed's hair gently.
"Yes, a little. Excited, too, you know..." Ed finished lamely, guiltily. It had always been understood that they wouldn't stay, hadn't it? Still, he felt guilty now. Part of him wished he could repay Brother Matthew's kindness by being what he wanted. A good, pious boy who wanted to be close to their god and become an apothecary.
"Of course. I was just your age when I left Central Palatinate to become a novice...that long journey before me seemed the greatest adventure I could imagine..."
Ed smiled. He’d heard this story a hundred times before. "You’ll have to point us in the right direction."
Matthew worked the knots out of his hair more gently than Ed could ever manage himself.
"So, you’re a sinner, like the rest of us," Matthew said finally.
"You’re not a sinner."
"Do you think just because I live here that I am perfect? I’m not. In my heart I am like every other man. I wasn’t born good, or better than anyone else."
"But you haven’t—"
The combing stopped.
"Haven’t what? Used the devil's arts? Is that what you've done?"
Ed turned to look at him over his shoulder.
"Alchemy isn’t evil. It’s just science, I could explain it all to you, it all makes perfect sense, it has nothing to do with the devil—"
"It is unnatural!" interrupted Matthew firmly, so that Ed was obliged to turn his face away again, as Matthew tugged slightly harder at his hair with the comb. "But I don’t think all alchemists are evil, and if you are an alchemist..." Matthew’s hand stopped again. He got up and moved to sit before Edward, and looked at him with his warm, serious brown eyes.
"If you are an alchemist, then you’ve paid dearly for your tampering with nature," he said, touching the stump of Edward’s shoulder gently. His eyes began to shine with tears. "Surely you’ve paid enough to get to Heaven, if you live the rest of your life well."
Suddenly, Edward found himself holding back tears. Mortified, he took a deep breath and mastered himself. When he spoke it almost sounded like choking.
"I can’t just sit around and wait to get to Heaven! I have to make things right, now. And no god is going to help us."
"Only God can perform miracles," said Matthew. "You would be foolish to try."
"I have to try again, for my brother. It’s the only way."
Matthew sighed. "I will miss you and Alphonse, very much." He began twisting Edward’s hair into a braid. Clearing his throat of emotion he said, "This will keep it clean for a while."
"Thanks." Ed felt his throat tighten.
"You’re very strong, remember that. I’m proud of you." Matthew squeezed his shoulder, and Edward reached up and put his hand over his.
"Thank you for everything," he said. "And...I'm sorry."
"Don't apologize to me," said Matthew, his voice a bit choked, as he rose from the bed and handed Ed the comb. "It's your maker you have to answer to."
Alphonse and Brother Sebastian had brought the last of the provisions into the kitchens and were making their way back upstairs to the dormitories. As they crossed the courtyard, shouting could be heard. Sebastian immediately stopped and placed his hand on Al’s arm. Suddenly, pounding could be heard from above as several brothers came down the central steps, shouting that a group of horsemen were approaching. The bell rang, and panic began to break out.
So, there was some confusion in interpreting the provenance of the riders, but in any case, some were definitely coming towards St. Amery’s.
Some men began to fall to their knees in prayer, while others went to find weapons. Al stood still, listening as the pounding of the approaching horses grew louder. The ground did not begin to rumble, so he didn’t imagine it was a very large contingent. Still, he felt panic rise in his mind.
"Sebastian?" Al turned back to his companion. "We have to get my brother, and Matthew, now!"
They ran off together, up the central stairs, pushing against men running the other way to pray in the sanctuary, hoping, no doubt, that whoever the horsemen were, they might fear to kill men at prayer in a holy place, but knowing that it probably wouldn’t help.
Alphonse reached their cell first, finding Brother Matthew looking frantically out the window. From there the approaching riders could be seen.
"It’s a small group, maybe ten men," said Matthew breathlessly. "Not so many. I think we can defend ourselves if they mean to do us harm."
"Of course they mean to do us harm. I don’t know who they are with, I don't see a shield or banner." Matthew peered out the window again.
Ed rose from the bed and hopped to the window, caught in Matthew’s arms. His eyes narrowed as the group of horsemen approached, and then he lost sight of them as they reached the monastery gate. Now all that could be heard was their shouting to be admitted. It took nothing more than a single blast of something explosive, because that was all he could hear, and then the sound of the horses rampaging into the courtyard. Ed’s heart pounded.
"What are they here for?" Sebastian demanded. "Father Gilles had better speak to them before they do any damage. Maybe all they want is provisions. They can take what we bought today, it doesn’t matter, as long as they leave without—"
"I see no colors! It might be outlaws, here to take revenge for today," Matthew said, his face draining of color. "Kill a few monks in retaliation for that savage display in town. They’re not above it."
"Or below it," said Sebastian. "It would seem fair if it wasn’t lives involved. A fair trade."
Ed said, "You’ve all created this, everybody’s guilty. Nobody stopped the Inquisitor today."
"We are too, we didn’t do anything either," said Al.
There were shouts and screams, clatters and bangs coming from below. Every heart beat fast.
Sebastian ran to the door. "Just stay here, they won’t want anything up here. I’ll see if I can find out what they want. I’ll come get you when it’s safe."
"I’ll help," Al said, following him to the door.
Before they made it to the door, however, it was kicked inwards and a huge man advanced into the tiny room, filling it immediately. He scanned the occupants, his small blue eyes resting on Ed, then Al. He seemed almost serene and not in any hurry as he nodded his head and turned to the door.
"Crimson, I found them!" he shouted. "I'll take it from here, no need to come up...stop that mayhem!" he shouted toward the stairs, but there was more scuffling, and another explosive sound. Smoke curled through the doorway as the large man stepped aside. Edward found himself covered by Matthew who now pressed him against the wall by the window, protecting him, but not entirely hiding him from the man who entered the room. Like the huge man, he wasn’t dressed as a soldier. He held a sword loosely in one hand. He narrowed his yellow eyes.
"How could I miss this, it's too much fun," said the man to his partner, who now stood looking aggrieved and annoyed. "Your brothers have panicked," he said, looking straight at Brother Matthew. "They’ve made things rather more difficult than I would have liked." He pointed his sword toward him and gestured for him to move aside. "That boy behind you, he’s coming with us." He turned to Alphonse. "The armor too."
"No!" Matthew said, pressing Ed so hard against the wall that he could barely breathe. "You’re not taking them!"
"Step aside, holy fool, and I won’t have to send you to your Heaven just yet," said the man.
"What do you want with him? He didn’t do anything. He’s a cripple, can’t you see? What use can he be to you?"
"He may look useless, but he’s an alchemist, the armored one, too." Then he smirked. "Or didn’t you know that?"
Alphonse stepped forward now between the man called Crimson and Ed, and Sebastian stepped closer as well.
"What are you going to do with them?" Matthew demanded. "You can’t execute them, they’re only children!"
"Of course I’m not going to execute them. I’m going to execute you."
And then the man sheathed his sword, and lunged for Brother Matthew. His hands were against Brother Matthew’s chest in an instant, and suddenly there was an explosion, and blood rained down on the room. Sebastian backed away in terror, crossing himself.
"I’d love to kill that one too, but we’d best get going," Crimson said to his partner. "Grab the boy and let’s go."
The man took two steps, and bent down to pick up a struggling Ed. Ed was no match for the man, who just slung him over his shoulder without the slightest effort. Alphonse stood looking at the remains of Brother Matthew, a burst, burnt rib cage, smears of blood, charred bones. Edward raised his head, coughed and gagged, and squeezed his eyes shut.
"Come on, Armor," the big man said, turning around so that Edward swung like a cat by its tail. "Don’t try to run or things will just go harder on you."
Alphonse acquiesced to his wrists being tied and the rope was held by the towering blond man who looked apologetic as he took the other end and began to walk. They followed the train of men on horseback. Some, like the Crimson one, galloped ahead, while others went more slowly, but all in the direction of the forest. Anxiously, Al kept an eye on his brother, who was propped up against another man who sat slumped in his saddle, looking tired and disgusted. This one was tall and slim and sleepy-eyed and had an unlit pipe dangling from his mouth. He kept one arm around Ed’s chest as he rode.
When they entered the forest even the moonlight was lost, and the torches held by some of the riders lit the way. The trees were tall, ancient and eerie, towering overhead in a column, deepening the surrounding darkness. It was almost like walking through a tunnel, Al thought, as he trudged behind the huge man, who kept glancing back at him occasionally with an inscrutable look.
“What are you going to do with us?” he finally asked of the man, unable to take the suspense. His worst fear was that they meant to kill them, but of course, would probably only succeed in killing his brother, leaving him alone. He couldn’t think of a worse fate.
The man glanced back again and twisted his mouth, as if he wanted to reply but couldn’t. After a moment he sighed. “You’ve come to the attention of someone important, and he wants to meet you, that’s all.”
It wasn’t much of an answer, but Al tried to make himself feel content with it. It didn’t sound like something someone would say if they were about to kill you, but he still couldn't push the image of what they'd done to Brother Matthew from his mind.
They walked for quite some time, deep into the forest, until Al could see some firelight farther up ahead. As they approached he saw a camp in a clearing. Rough tents circled the perimeter, with one noticeably larger one near the center by a roaring fire. There were a few people about, sitting in front of the tents, tending to the fire, and a couple cooking at a smaller fire. A dog approached the group as the men in front began to dismount, sniffing around. It approached Al and stood at his feet, looking up quizzically as if deciding whether to bark or not. He had this kind of effect on dogs. His depressing surmise about this was that they could not tell whether he was alive or not. But when the tall, slender young man slid off his horse and then reached up for Edward, the dog came bounding up to scent the new arrival.
Seeing that his brother was in the uncomfortable position of having nothing to lean on but the stranger, Al quickly went to his side. Ed looked down at the dog and then up at Al.
Someone in a black hood and cape strode toward them, calling off the dog. It was a woman’s voice, and when she took down her hood Alphonse saw she had cropped blond hair and wide, amber eyes, pretty but serious.
“How did it go Havoc?” she asked to the slender blond one.
The man sighed and chewed on the end of his pipe. “The usual bloodbath, when Crimson’s involved. I don’t know why it had to be him in charge.”
“He does have a heavy hand.”
“To say the least. I don’t think we needed that kind of force to wrest a cripple boy from a bunch of monks but who am I to say?” He shrugged and started to unbuckle the saddle on his horse.
“So, these are the two he wanted?” the woman asked.
“I sure hope so. I can’t imagine there’s another pair that fit their description.”
“We’ll see,” she said. When she turned around to take her dog by the collar and gently push him away, Al saw a bow and a quiver of arrows slung across her back. When she faced them again, she gave them an appraising look before motioning for them to follow. “Let’s go. Mustang wants to see you.”
“Dammit.” Ed hesitated. He was still shuddering, trying to push the vision of Brother Matthew's murder from his mind. It made his very bones shake and he realized with some surprise that he was terrified. If these people could do something that violent and cruel, who knew what would happen to him and Al?
Even though the man called Havoc hadn’t told him anything on the ride into the camp, he already recognized the work of the Crimson as one of the alchemists they’d seen in Rizenbul that day. They alchemists were going to be their safe haven, their ticket home, but instead they were crazed murderers. They'd just stormed the monastery and killed Brother Matthew—and maybe others, he hadn't had the chance to find out. Why had they gone through so much trouble just to get at them? He was fully aware of how tiny and useless he looked, but tried his best anyway to look alert and fierce as they followed the woman with the bow into the large tent.
“Mustang, sir.” The woman stood aside and let Al pass; he stopped beside her and Ed tapped on Al’s chest to be let down. He stood, as best he could, leaning against Al, trying to stand straight and look formidable as he could, given the circumstances.
A man stood with his back to him, facing the lantern in the center of the floor and looking at a map, before turning. He was tall and ivory-skinned, with dark, smooth hair that fell over his brow and nearly obscured his dark eyes. Al recognized him as the man who had used fire alchemy in the square that day. It was dim in the tent, and the lantern gave off a quivering orange glow. Mustang walked forward, kitted out, Ed noticed, in shiny tall boots and a dark blue surcoat, well-cared for but weathered. His expression as he looked up at Al and down at Ed was one of appraisal. His face betrayed no expression as he rolled up his map.
“Well,” he said finally. “Why don’t you show me some alchemy?”
Ed looked up sharply. "Your men are murderers. One of them men killed our friend, and maybe some other innocent people."
Mustang moved his lips as if thinking. "I regret that there was violence—"
"You regret?" Ed repeated angrily. "That one they call Crimson, he's a murderer. I thought that when we found some alchemists..."
"What did you think?"
"I don't know! We were going to come find you anyway, we saw you in the town square today, with the Inquisitor. It didn't have to be like that."
Mustang drew himself up and spread his arms. "As I said, I regret what happened. The Crimson is unpredictable. But it's not your problem, it's mine. You're both alchemists, are you not?"
Ed nodded in affirmation, as Al did beside him.
"And you were in Rizenbul today, you saw what the Inquisitor did. He's the murderer, he and his Army of God are the ones who are the criminals. They were slaughtering innocents by the dozen. You saw that. You were spotted doing alchemy today and we had a scout follow you...we need all the help we can get, and frankly, it had occurred to us that perhaps you were being held by the monks against your will." He gave them a serious look. "Did they try to turn you away from science?"
Ed hesitated, glancing at Al. "They didn't know."
Mustang nodded. "The only reason you still live, you know that." He paced a bit as he spoke now, hands clasped behind his back. "These are dark times, and superstition and ignorance rule our world. We think it's time for that to change, for a new world."
Al finally spoke, sounding timid. "So...you're revolutionaries?"
Mustang nodded, a fierce look in his eye. "Yes, we are. We want you to join us."
Ed snorted at looked at Al. "They're the outlaws everyone’s always talking about!"
The size of their group hadn't been particularly impressive, from what Ed could recall of their performance in the town that day, and he was still repulsed by the violence at the monastery. "How many are you?"
"We have a half dozen alchemists, and thirty-six soldiers in our unofficial army."
"And you're they're leader?"
Mustang nodded curtly. "Yes. We are growing, we won't be a small band of outlaws for long."
Ed looked up at Mustang. He was torn...this was what they had been looking for, and yet, the idea of being a part of a group that contained people like the Crimson was revolting.
Mustang reached into the pouch at his waist and pulled out a cloth glove. He pulled it on ceremoniously—almost pompously, Ed thought—then blinked, drew up his hand, and snapped. A small flash of fire erupted and disappeared in an instant.
“There. Now you.”
Ed felt his leg begin to shake under him, he was tired and standing like this was hard. He took this directive as a cue to let his ass hit the dirt, then leaned forward and began to scratch an array into the dirt. After years of hiding, an invitation to show off their alchemy overshadowed all other doubts. Al crouched down next to him, helping to finish the far side. They worked in practiced silence; they’d done this one a dozen times in the woods themselves, away from the monastery. Activating it, they both fed it power as it glowed. A moment later, Ed pressed his palm to the ground, summoning the metallic elements into a small spear, and drew it from the earth. He held it up.
“Well, well, very nice,” Mustang said. “So you two aren’t amateurs, are you?”
“No sir,” said Ed, rising to the compliment. “We’ve been out of practice lately, though.”
“Yes, they frown on science at the monasteries, I know.” Mustang came close, and crouched down before them. “So tell me, how did you come to be there?”
Ed looked at Al, hesitating. This might be their chance. It was obvious that here was the place to be. They were with other alchemists, and maybe they could help them, but still, doubt lingered, over the violence they had just witnessed.
“It’s a long story,” Ed decided to say.
Mustang stood up and crossed his arms. “If you’re going to ride with us, we have to know your true intentions. Not all alchemists want to bring the light of science to the world. Some want to use it to gain power of their own.”
Ed nodded. It was cold on the ground and he was close to shivering, but he didn’t want to show any weakness to this man. He wanted him to see him as a warrior, someone who could be a help, not a hindrance. It occurred to him that if he were found to be useless, he might end up like Brother Matthew. But the fact was, if they stayed with these outlaws, they could develop their alchemy. It was their only chance.
“Let’s get more comfortable first,” Mustang said, his voice still dispassionate but not unkind. “Hawkeye, can you please have someone bring in some soup?” Mustang bent down and gently helped Ed to stand, bracing his shoulders with his hands.
“They just grabbed me,” Ed said. “My crutch is back at the monastery.”
Mustang frowned. “Really, Crimson didn’t have to be so...impetuous. We’ll make you a new one.”
“I can do it with alchemy if someone can get me some good wood.” Al came to his side to help him stand.
“Of course, I’ll see to it.” Mustang crossed his arms and regarded them with more scrutiny now, looking from Ed to Al and back again
"Listen...this is a rough business, and it's not for everyone. We'd like your help..."—-here he looked at Al as well—"...but it's not going to be pleasant, or easy. If you're not strong enough..."
"I'm strong!" Ed shot back, meeting Mustang's eyes with a glare. "I may not look it but I am. I just don't want to be a part of things like what happened today at the monastery."
"That's now how we do things," Al affirmed quietly.
"I can't promise you there won't be violence, that is the nature of our mission, as I said. You'd be a soldier, of sorts. You'll learn to fight, to use your alchemy in battle, and make weapons for us."
"To destroy things," Al said.
"To destroy the order of things as they are now," Mustang amended. "We need enlightenment and progress, and people are going to get hurt in the process, that's the way of things."
Ed stared at the slender spear in his hand.
"What are you waiting for, divine intervention?" asked Mustang, sounding exasperated. He began to pace. "Look at you...this country has nothing for you now, you're fugitives anyway, aren't you?" He looked meaningfully at Alphonse. "Human transmutation, hmm? Anyone who cared to pay attention would figure it out in a moment, and without the monks' protection, you're off to the Inquisitor."
Ed stabbed at the dirt with the spear and sat down again, no longer able to stand. He stared at it, thinking.
Mustang stepped closer again so that all Ed could see were his weatherbeaten boots. "Since you were at the monastery I'm assuming you're orphans. You have nowhere else to go...you'll be a beggar on the streets of the nearest town within a fortnight, I guarantee it, and without protection your brother will have to go into hiding. You need us, and we need you."
Ed squeezed his hand into a fist and contemplated it for a moment. Their only hope was here, and he knew it. He looked up and held Mustang's glare. "All right, then. On one condition."
He was sure he saw Mustang's eyes spark a bit, amusement perhaps, that he dared to try to strike a bargain in his current position of helplessness.
"And what would that be?" Mustang asked, crossing his arms, still towering over him.
"We want any information you, or any of these other alchemists, has on the philosopher’s stone, and on accessing the Gate."
Mustang paused, knit his brows, then nodded. "I have nothing, and I can't insist that others share their secrets, but when I come across any such information, I'll let you know. How does that sound?"
Ed looked at Al. "Are we in?"
Al responded with quick nod of his helmet. "We're in."
Mustang uncrossed his arms and smiled. "Good."