Richard strode away from the rapidly dispersing caravan with powerful steps. This was it, he was done with military service. Now and forever, he thought with relief. Besides the sooty looking guard who had saluted, there was no hero’s welcome. I suppose that only makes sense, given how little was accomplished, he thought. As the sun cast its light over his tall frame his shadow looked vaguely menacing, but he shrugged it off.
He looked up and beheld the city before him. The use-worn city gates were set on a point of high elevation, and they allowed him an overview of Dolinsk. Richard was surrounded by a vibrant city of deep ringing bells, purple dyes, and sandstone. Here the softness of dyed silk was exchanged for the tinkle of coins, and the movements of passion intermingled with the actions of commerce. Life clung to every nook of the old stone, as birds nested in belfries, and ivy engulfed pillars whose paint had long chipped off. Beneath crumbling archways, and between stained towers, people lived. But in the midst of all this, Richard’s mind was focused on a single prospect.
Ala was petite, to use her own description, but she held herself with such poise that she seemed to fill the vacancy around her with a certain fullness. Richard smiled at her, framed in a curved doorway.
They were as different as snow and earth. Her complexion had remained creamy after all the years, his had matured under the sun and the weather. Her hair was light and golden and fell to her shoulder, his was black as coal and sprang in unruly thick curls. She was light, and he solid and steadfast. And he loved her with all his heart.
“I missed you,” Richard said. He smiled, eyes crinkling up. But Ala didn’t return his smile. “What is the matter?” he asked as she turned away.
“Richard, it’s over. I’m not seeing you any more,” she said, pausing.
“What? But why?”
“You were away for too long, you were never there for me,” she said with a little more emotion than she had intended.
“Ala, I’m here for you now. I won’t be going away. I’m done with the military for good,” he said.
“And how do you expect to support me, much less yourself?”
“I—”, he paused. “I hadn’t thought about it,” he finished at last, but without shame.
“Of course you hadn’t thought about it. You don’t. I’ve been supporting myself here all this time,” she snapped, the daggers flying.
“How did you manage?” he asked. He didn’t care to take a guess, the obvious answer hurt too much. Her silks whispered of a comfortable life, a pampered life, the kind of a merchant prince could provide.
“Oh, I certainly have my ways,” she laughed as she walked away. That laugh, he had lived for it, it was like the melody of a chime as the spring breeze blew past. Ala gave him one last look over her shoulders, and he admired the elegant arch of her neck and her round face, and quickened her pace.
Sighing, he leaned against the sandstone door frame and watched her green skirts sway off. Suddenly his rough–spun and unkempt uniform seemed shoddier than usual. The proud maroon had long since faded away, and was now just a tired brown. It’s no wonder, he thought dejectedly. But the earth will always wait for the snow to fall even after its embrace melts away.
As he drudged home he cursed to himself. So my uniform is a bit worn, but it has certainly been of more service than silk could’ve been, he thought. He walked through the streets with tunnel vision, not bothering to glance at the stalls of tingleberry or fragrant nutmeg, despite the hawker’s best efforts. I’m being absurd. After everything, what I have trouble dealing with is my clothing? It had been so much worse. It wasn’t uncommon for the army to suffer heavy casualties, and Richard had buried more than his share of friends.
But this time had been different. For every ten soldiers who embarked on the deadly northern campaign only two returned. I’ve been lucky enough to have the honor of burying my fellows, what luck, he reflected darkly. At first spirits were high. The fighting had gone well, and the daily skirmishes against the hillmen and their animal shamans weighed heavily against the hillmen’s favor. But it changed when the army advanced up the plains and into the mountain slopes. They were unfamiliar with the landscape, and the hillmen, whose nimble horses were bred for the steppes, were able to kill and injure many in hit and runs. The fighting was slow and toilsome, each inch was hard won, and important areas such as valley passes were slaughter grounds.
But that was nothing compared to the terror of the plague. It had appeared out of nowhere, and cut through both armies like a searing obsidian blade. In three days fighting had become impossible, and the dead burned on scattered pyres, the smell of burning flesh pervaded everything. Blacklung, they called the plague. The victims coughed and coughed and coughed up blood and specks of their lungs. And their lungs and blood turned as black as unadulterated sin. It was as if they coughed all the pigment out of their bodies, and along with it, their lives. It was even worse on the battle field. Those with blacklung found their wounds did not seal, and the leaking black blood leeched all their strength. The battlefields stank of death so vilely every carrion scavenger in the area congregated to eat their last meal, a giant feast of celebrated death.
They had beat a hasty retreat. Too scared of an ambush, they didn’t bother to bury the bodies, instead they left a macabre black trail, like an inkline across a map. It was little surprise no one stuck around long after the caravan had finally reached Dolinsk, everyone was dying to put the experience behind them, or dying.
Richard was of the former category, and he arrived home shortly. The apartment he shared with his younger sister, Milli, was in a squat three story redbrick building with generous windows that welcomed the light. As he stood in front of the courtyard entrance he noted that the gate still hadn’t been repaired. Everything is back to normal, I suppose, he thought, with more humor than he knew he had in him. He had to crouch to get up the stairs, but he did get to the third floor hallway.
Richard reached for the brass knob, but before he got there the door busted open and there was a flurry of soft brown curls. He laughed as Milli barely reached her arms around him. She had their mother’s figure, where Richard had his father’s figure. Small, pretty, and slim, Richard loved his little sister to death. Their only common feature were their deep green eyes, which met briefly.
“I’m so glad you are back, I missed you dearly. I saw you coming through the courtyard, and I just had to surprise you,” she said, breaking the embrace. Now that Richard had a better view of her he was surprised. I’ve forgotten she is almost seventeen, she has always been that sweet little girl with dirty kneecaps in my mind, he thought, she will be popular with the boys no doubt. This was the reason he never had her see him off on a new campaign; he didn’t want any of the shadier fellows getting any ideas.
“I’m glad too. I tried writing you a letter, but the riders were ambushed,” he said.
“Don’t worry about it. But you look a bit unhappy. Did you see Ala?” she asked.
“Maybe we’ll talk about that sometime later, please.”
“That’s fine. Come on in, I’ve cooked a lamb stew with carrots, onions, and roundroots. All fresh, or so Tambly tells me,” she laughed. He followed her in, and closed the door, happy to shut out the world. He took a deep long breath.
“That stew smells fantastic.”
Michael darted out the doorway, into a corner, and emerged walking nonchalantly. There was no point in becoming associated with the Murky Lantern if you could possibly avoid it. His plain black hair and only slightly handsome features let him blend back in with the crowd with ease, and he slackened his pace to think a little.
Michael figured he was a good judge of people, and based on that assumption, something was definitely going on. Some recently returned veteran (or sucker, as Michael liked to call the volunteers) had blabbed a fine tale after a few drinks of ale at the Chipped Tankard, and it had been a popular story, if only a story. But he wasn’t the only one, and the alehouses were awash in the stories, if the Murky Lantern was any indication. So something must be up, thought Michael, and I’m going to profit out of it. He scoffed at his fellow lowlifes, they lacked so much imagination. Sure, they had invented wondrous tales of the plague’s origins. It was born of a demon prince’s recurrence, or a shaman conjured it from the stomach of a stripedback spider, or it was the result of an incest between a man and a goat, never mind how the two could have been related. Wonderful storytellers to be sure, but they lack that certain criminal touch. Which is why Michael was headed to the nearest southern herbwoman’s tent. The methodist surgeons were great for some things, sure, but when it came to remedies that could be carried and sold, they couldn’t compete with the stingy collection of midwives and quacks that were the herbwomen.
Michael slipped his slender form into the crowd, and emerged on the other side of the busy market. He surreptitiously eyed some trinket stalls, but he made the calculation that he had better things to do. Now was the tricky part. He was still concealed by the flow of people around him, so there was no hurry. A bit of a problem here. How am I going to get the specific remedy? Never mind, he thought as he figured it out.
He strode up confidently to the tent, changing his posture and his stride. He was a different person by the time he reached the tent flap.
“Hey granny,” he shouted as he stuck his head in the tent.
“You! Get out! I’ll talk to you outside, no peeking,” the thin and aged herbalist squawked at him. He waited for her to shuffle to the door-flap. She hobbled all the way out of the tent to talk to him.
“What do you want, you?” she asked snappily. I suppose I won’t feel guilty, the way she is acting, Michael thought to himself.
“It’s like this, granny. Suppose there was an illness that caused your lung to shrivel and blacken, and your cough to bring up your blood, which was now black. Would you be able to cure it?” Michael ventured. Hopefully she is egotistic in addition to just bitchy.
“Bhah. To be sure. You northerners have no idea what sickness is like,” she scoffed. “Fifteen king’s coins, that’ll be.”
“Look here, grandma, you prepare it, put it in a leather poach, and call me in to get it when you are done. For that I’ll give you 18 king’s,” he said rapidly, looking her in the good eye. She faltered for a moment, then grumbled as she wobbled back into the tent. Once she was out of sight he darted to the back of the tent and waited.
Not seven minutes later he heard her.
“Yoohoo, come in and get your damned powder.”
This is it. From his belt he extracted his dagger in a practiced motion, and whipped it across the back of the tent. He slid into the new opening of in the tent, relieved to find the old lady still outside calling for him. He easily found the bag on top of the table. It’s almost too easy, he thought as he scooped up a sack of coins as well. Turning, he dashed out the tent and waltzed madly into the streets before the herbwoman could here the faint jingle of coins lost in the distance.
Richard sweat slightly under the damp heat, and beads of perspiration collected under his curled hair. It was too hard to think in the damn heat. Up in the north, during the campaign, was different; there the evergreens seemed to steal all the warmth, and the place was in a constant chill. That hadn’t been bearable either, he supposed. There were a lot of things he had supposed. Home was supposed to be better than this, not just a continuation of the killing fields. His thoughts were both interrupted and accentuated by Milli’s cough. It was a sharp, red, wet, and long cough. The kind that came with blacklung. The rumor was that blacklung was spread by some eastern trading caravan, but Richard knew better; he knew far better, and the guilt crushed him.
Richard shifted his large frame uncomfortably in response to Milli’s discomfort, and his tiny stool creaked in sorry protest. It was disconcerting feeling so helpless. There was nothing he could possibly do for Milli, yet he felt like he must try. There had to be a cure, he thought, but then, it would be very expensive. Soldiering didn’t pay nearly well enough, he thought sullenly. Ala was right about one thing, he wasn’t ready to support anyone. He felt listless.
“I’ll be back Milli, I’ll try to find something for you, and maybe things will be better”, he said, but his heart wasn’t in the words. Words of encouragement, although he didn’t think that they were the least bit encouraging. His sister couldn’t speak, all she could do was weakly nod her head.
The markets were not as crowded with merchants as usual, but those that were open made up what they lacked in numbers with intensity. The gloom of disease hung over Dolinsk, and those assembled in the market wanted nothing better than to sell and get out as quickly as possible. Richard watched the market carefully. Force of habit, perhaps. Little of interest occurred, because Richard wasn’t interested in the desperate selling going on. An entire fruit stand, stocked with sticky berries, was sold for fifteen gold king’s coins. A trained monkey was bought for what was thought to be a bargain, until it began coughing. But something, or rather someone caught Richard’s eye among the market activity. Richard spat as he watched a black haired youth plunder a stall under its owner’s nose.
Petty theft in a time when the city is dying from the inside, Richard thought. Richard felt angry at the youth. But then, at a time when the city dying, what difference does it really make? Richard wasn’t sure how to answer his own question, but just then Michael strode past. Not missing his opportunity, Richard leaped and lunged at Michael. Michael only had the time to be startled when Richard bore him straight into the ground with an audible impact. Mostly audible was the bag of gold clashing with itself. Michael drew his dagger, but Richard caught his wrist and twisted it until the sinews strained. Michael cursed and dropped the dagger, and quit resisting.
“What on earth are you doing?” Michael demanded.
“Don’t be sly. I saw what you were doing. A thief are you?” Richard said through gritted teeth.
“Not so loud! So I’m a thief, what about it?”
“It is wrong. You are coming with me,” Richard said as he hoisted Michael up.
“What? You can’t be serious,” Michael said in disbelief. One look in Richard’s eyes told him otherwise. Richard grabbed Michael’s arms and folded them behind his back, into an arm hold. Michael winced slightly as Richard applied some pressure.
“Look, you don’t have to drag me around like this. I’ll come willingly if you just let me go. I won’t try anything,” Michael said with less composure than he had hoped. Ridiculous that I can’t compose myself in a time like this, my profession considered, he thought to himself. He honestly didn’t think there was much point in trying anything, since he was quite sure Richard was capable of running him down.
“We’ll see about that, if I get tired of it,” Richard said as he marched Michael down the streets. The plague had definitely taken its toll. The streets were quiet except for the occasional worried parent rushing to be somewhere. The birds still sang, and the plants still grew, but children no longer played in the courtyards or explored the tops of archways. Richard was dismayed as he walked through Dolinsk. So many alleys and backways now lead to vacant and inviting stone. Meanwhile Michael grew increasingly uneasy.
“Just where are you taking me?” he ventured, a bit after Richard had loosened his grip on Michael’s arm.
“To the dungeon, where else?” he said as they walked past a dry fountain, the granite king no longer gushing water from his helmet.
“No, no, no, you can’t take me there,” Michael said, panic in his words.
“And why not?” Richard asked, genuinely curious.
“It’s no longer a place where people are held. It is a place where people go and die. It isn’t even guarded anymore, it’s so filthy. They say that the stench of death is so strong that you faint when you are first put in. And it’s only a matter of time until you get sick, coughing away with everyone else down there, your screams echoing on the walls again and again,” Michael said, a shiver running down his spine.
“And what is the matter with all that? You committed a crime, it’s where you have to go.”
“No, it shouldn’t be like that. It isn’t fair.”
“You are one to speak of fairness. The stand owner must not think it is fair you took his produce.”
“No, you are correct. I committed a crime. But the degree of punishment has to match the degree of the crime. Proportionality, and so forth. You wouldn’t cut off a child’s hand for taking a biscuit, would you?”
“No, I wouldn’t, I suppose.”
“Right. And this is the same. What you caught me doing was stealing, and for this you sentence me to die? It makes no sense. Heresy, murder, treason, those are all things punishable by death. But not petty theft.”
“And you think being put in the dungeon would be a death sentence? Then what do you suggest I do with you then? Set you loose? No punishment at all is hardly proportional to your crime.”
“Truly, I think having to endure your company has been punishment enough for one day.”
“I don’t suppose you would fancy having your hand cut off, would you?”
“No. I absolutely would not like that. So if it’s giving you any ideas, please forget them.”
Richard stopped in place. “I just had a terrible idea,” he said, a bit incredulously.
“Do you happen to have honor of sorts? Just maybe?”
“Suppose you made a contract with someone. Even you wouldn’t break it, would you?”
“No, of course not,” Michael said lying with gusto.
“Hmm. Come this way then,” Richard said, leading them back the other way.
“Alright, so you are letting me go right? I just have to agree to be a better person?”
They stood in front of Richard’s apartment. Michael looked it over with a discerning eye. I’ve robbed worse, I guess, he thought.
“What exactly are we doing here?” he asked.
“You are staying here with us,” Richard said with some steel in his voice.
“Us?” Michael asked. Richard responded by walking him into the apartment.
“Oh. Who is she? For that matter, what is your name?”
“She is my sister, Milli,” Richard said, indicating with his head, “and I’m Richard.”
“Charmed, I’m Michael. Nice to meet you both,” he said sarcastically, “so what exactly do you expect of me?”
“I figure a rogue like you must have some good stories of misadventure. Maybe you can entertain her while I try and prepare a meal,” Richard said.
“Er. Alright,” Michael said after a moment. It must be sort of boring having him as a brother, I’ll see if I can’t make things more interesting around here, he thought.
While the evening approached Michael stuck around. He felt ridiculous, he could have easily climbed out a window and disappeared, but he stuck around. He decided when you came down to it, they were decent honest folks, the kind he had little association with. He told all manner of tale, but they definitely had a common flavor. He told of the man with the invisibility ring, who wantonly slept with all the royal princesses. Or of the con artist who convinced a church his donkey was the savior reborn. And the merchant who made his fortune selling rocks with gold paint, but was eventually beheaded by a King’s order. Then of the sly fellow who convinced a town he was a dragon living in the nearby cave, simply by projecting his voice, and convinced the town to send forth all their virgins. He would pause patiently to let Milli finish coughing, before resuming his tales. Sadly, her attempts at laughter mostly degraded into coughing, and Michael felt extremely bad about this.
As the evening went on Michael felt worse and worse, and more attached to Milli. Richard was smug.
“Okay, that’s it. We are getting you taken care of,” Michael declared.
“What are you talking about?” Michael asked.
“I’d do whatever I can to hear her laugh without the horrid cough,” he answered, as he pulled out the bag of powder he had acquired. He drew back the draw string and took a whiff of the fragrance. His head swam, and his sinuses burned. Damn, I was never told how you were suppose to take this powder, Michael thought. He had been planning on simply selling the bag at a tidy profit, not actually making any use of it.
“What is that?”
“Oh, I got it from some herbwoman. It’s suppose to cure blacklung, except I didn’t exactly hear how the patient is suppose to take it. Let’s try mixing it into water.”
Richard and Michael looked out at the city. It was quiet, all too quiet.
“It’s so empty. I feel like we should leave too,” Richard ventured.
“I know what you mean. It makes me uneasy being here, when everyone else is going.”
“Do you think we can risk it?” Richard asked, gesturing at Milli. The medication had worked initially, and she had been better. But after two weeks it ran out, and she relapsed.
“You ought to know. I’ve been here all my life,” Michael said.
“I’m afraid we can’t. The roads would be rough, no doubt. All those people walking down the paved path are probably encouraging bandits too,” Richard mused.
“We had better just wait then, although food is getting to be a problem,” Michael said. With all the merchants gone food was no longer being supplied into the city, so Richard and Michael were forced to scavenge for food in people’s abandoned larders.
The night sky seethed with malevolence. The clouds roiled, then boiled off completely. The sky was as dark as a curtained stage, and ghostly lines of green light appeared out of the heavens and descended towards the earth. The lines wormed into the soft earth, and into the slightly decomposed corpses. Then the lines stood taunt, and like so many marionettes the corpses were pulled from the grave. Each corpse was jerked by five lines. Two lines punctured the arms, right at the wrists. Another two pierced the ankles. And the last was wrapped tightly around the heart, and emerged from the corpse’s back. The corpses were tugged along in a jerky puppet gait, and thus they exited Dolinsk, like a macabre army in a puppet show. The lines faded into the distance, still dragging their meat puppets with. To where, no one knew, and no one cared follow the promenade of death.
“You think it is deep enough?” Michael asked. He and Richard stood on the grounds of a crowded cemetery. The ground was pocked with many shallow graves, dark clumps of overturned dirt, like so many recent scars. In the pit they had dug was Milli. Her skin was pale and lifeless, but she looked serene.
“I don’t know. How deep should it be?” Richard wondered out loud.
“Six feet,” Richard and Michael turned to face the speaker, “she needs to be buried six feet deep,” said the cloaked figure. He was short, hardly over five feet, and his cloak all but concealed him. Besides the obvious reasons, he was mysterious.
“And why six feet?” Michael asked.
“So that the puppeteers can’t use her. A pretty girl, no? Then keep her body safe,” the stranger answered, in a slightly foreign accent, which sounded as though it had been worn away with practice.
“What are you talking about?” Richard demanded.
“Look around here, how many corpses do you see in the streets? A few days ago there were many. Check these graves. They are empty now. The necromancers are rallying. They’ve emptied the city of its dead.”
“So what has six feet got to do with it?”
“They can’t claim bodies buried that deep. Those are the bounty of the earth, for the earth to reclaim what it once gave up. Those bodies the puppeteers must fight the earth for, and they can’t win. The rest though, the sinners and the unburied, they are damned to walk the earth as puppets. No rest for the wicked.”
Michael and Richard looked uneasily at each other.
“To what end?” Michael asked.
“Why do necromancers do what they do? The same reasons anyone does. They seek power, wealth, security,” the stranger spat.
“How do they achieve that?”
“They’ve gathered their army. The surrounding cities are weak with plague. The cities will all be entirely empty by the time they walk in and help themselves to it. It’s a pity only a small force would be required to defend a city.”
“What can be done?” Richard asked.
“You can run,” the stranger replied curtly.
“But you said something about defending the city,” Michael put in. The stranger chuckled.
“That’s what I plan on. Each necromancer will bring with him ten or so puppets, but once the puppeteer falls, so do the ten. It’s a weakness easily exploited.”
“So what are you planning to do about it?”
“Wait for enforcements,” the figure said as he drew back his hood. He had fine black hair, thin lips, a sharp nose, and a refined chin; he was unmistakably spriggan.
TO BE CONTINUED