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Unread 27th of January, 2009, 17:20
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Refusing to Sow [Epic GM]

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·····Subchapter 11b - Solace

Six days on the road. The stubble has grown in thick, making his neck itch with its black bristles. He scratches at it as he walks, failing to notice the dirt and grit caked into his hands. Calling this a road would be charitable. It is hardly more than a beaten dirt path used sparingly by those living in the country traveling from one hamlet to another, or perhaps making a seasonal journey to the nearest town or outpost. He wonders who rules here and whether or not they hold these lands in anything other than name.

The hall had gone up like a king’s pyre, consuming all in its cleansing flame. He had watched it for a time from a nearby hill, his muscles aching from the grim task. It had been the right decision, the noble one. It had given him no joy. Only emptiness lingered in his breast, unfilled by what had driven him most during his life—duty, honor, and service.

Nights were cold. His only company the faint autumn breeze and the stars staring down overhead. He looked up to them, spying the dragon, the hunter, and the fisherman. They twinkled in the chill air, holding secrets he would never fathom. Nothing disturbed his slumber in the wilds. He woke each morning, broke his fast on stale bread and cheese, before trudging ever onward down the road.

Being alone was a strange comfort, but he welcomed it. No words had passed his lips since the benediction, one that carried no weight or true blessing. It had been a farce; hollow words ringing from a hollow man.

So it is with a sense of reluctance that he approaches the second village. It is larger than the last one. Farms dot its exterior, surrounded by low stone walls. He pauses by one, looking at how the long sections of rock were piled on top of each other. It would have taken a long time to build this, even with the help of some oxen and a sledge. His life had been no stranger to hardship and work, but he could not imagine the effort it would take to build this farm, sew the fields, tend the livestock, and raise a family. He would never know.

The dusk comes and nothing stirs. No animals graze in the fields. No men gather the corn from their stalks. A cold trickle in his gut promises another village of the dead, and another job for a forsaken lychman. Yet he has no bell to ring, announcing the passing of the spirits into the neverafter.

But there is soft golden light spilling from the windows of one farmhouse. A dark silhouette moves past it, blotting out the luminance for a moment. Cadrius closes his eyes, relieved he would not be called on again. He hasn’t the heart for it.

The village does not draw enough traffic for an inn, but a tavern would be likely. As isolated as this place is, they would need drink more than most. Failing that, he could sleep within the stacks of hay in a barn and be gone with the dawn. Either way would bring more comfort and warmth than the past week. He quickens his pace, not wanting to arrive much after dark. A stranger clad in plate and maille would be met with apprehension.

His path takes him near the farmhouse, running close to its door. There is nothing elegant about its design. All things serve their purpose with nary an excess. No porch spreads out before it and no large windows to let heat out. A set of wooden posts are buried into the ground by a trough. They, and the trough, double as a place to spread wet clothes to dry. He starts as the door opens.

A man begins to set foot outside, freezing in place as the light glints off Cadrius’ dirty armor. Cadrius stops too and slowly raises his hands, keeping his hands open. Their breath steams in the air.

“Don’t know what you’re looking for,” the man says. His voice carries the weight of age, but still holds some strength yet. “But you’ll not find it here. This is a quiet place.”

Cadrius nods, weary but unsurprised. “Is there an inn?”

“No,” he says. “No inn.”

“Some place then? I just need a place to sleep that isn’t the ground. I would settle for a bed of hay,” he says, then adds. “I have coin.”

“Da?” A woman’s voice floated from inside the house. “Who are you talking to?”

There is a silence. They stare at each other. The man is uneasy, worried that Cadrius could be a raider or worse. He would make a queer scout, armored and armed such that he is, but these were strange times. For all this farmer knew, Cadrius could be looking for naught but blood. Yet the allure of gold is strong and tugs always at the hearts of men.

The man cranes his head back into the house. “Hush,” he says before turning back to Cadrius. “How much?”

“A dragon,” he says. It was enough to buy a week’s stay elsewhere.

“Five,” he says. “And you have a deal.”

Cadrius clenches his jaw. It is a ludicrous amount to ask and they both know it. That is the point. The farmer does not want Cadrius to stay, but will not turn him away outright. He’s driven by whatever his own conscience tells him. Cadrius understands that all too well.

“Five. Very well,” he says. “Can I at least trouble you for food and a blanket?”

“Aye,” the man says. “Can’t say we’re unhospitable. Come on in then. We’re sitting down now.”

He nods and approaches the farmer slowly. As he draws near he can make out the man more closely. He was taller once, before time and labor stooped his back and shoulders some. Yet even now he meets Cadrius’ gaze with a pride smoldering in his eyes born of some life left behind.

“Your sword,” he says. “You won’t be needing that in here.”

It is a reasonable request. The man does not trust him and does not want to risk Cadrius deciding that five dragons is far too many to pay for a night in the loft of a barn. Even so, Cadrius’ mind plays out a scene where he’s run through while supping on boiled beef. Perhaps it is he that should be wary. Mayhap this farmer lures travelers into his home and slits their throats or poisons their stews.

“If I wanted to rob you,” the man says. “I would have waited until I saw your coin purse.”

Cadrius gives him a look before complying. He unslings his bag from his aching back before his shield and blade. He hands the last to the farmer, noting the ease in which he handles it. A former guard or perhaps the rare mercenary who lived long enough to settle down.

“The dagger too, if you please,” the farmer says. He nods at the folds of Cadrius’ cloak, where the blade was tucked into his belt.

Cadrius hands it over. “I will have those back before I retire.”

“As you will,” the farmer says. “The coin.”

The fallen paladin fishes into his coin purse and plucks five golden dragons out. He drops them into the farmer’s calloused hand. They glitter in the light spilling in through the door. The farmer’s hand closes; the splendor disappears. He inclines his head.

“Come in.”

The interior is plain but cared for. The wooden table bears no lacquer, but is well-cut and bears no rough edges. The chairs surrounding it are the same. No elaborate carpentry and certainly no cushions. A fire burns in the corner, the flames chasing the smoke as it races up into the stone chimney. A sword hangs on pegs above the fire. The lower half of its steel pommel reflects the orange glow of the fire.

Standing by the table are two women, mother and daughter. The younger holds a wooden bowl in her hands while the older holds a ladle and a steaming pot. Both had paused at farmer’s conversation and the sight of a stranger at the doorstep. The simple wooden bowls on the table steam. It has been a long time since Cadrius has had a hot meal and the prospect of it makes him all the more weary.

“This is my family,” the farmer says. “My wife, Heleyne. My daughter, Sarra. I’m Eadgar.”

“Cadrius,” he says in reply, tipping his head.

“Aye, Cadrius. He’ll be supping with us and staying in the barn for the night,” Eadgar says, casting a look at his daughter before looking back at him. “And that will be all.”

The affront turns his stomach. Eadgar’s daughter is young—old enough to have flowered but still too early to be married off to an apprentice or farmer’s son. The threat hanging in the old man’s eyes burns like the fire in the hearth. The honor and pride left in Cadrius flames at the implication. The rest of him understands. Greed had allowed him a place to sleep, but it did not buy him trust. For all Eadgar knows, Cadrius could be a robber or a raper. When he retires to the barn he will be locked inside until morning.

Service to the Archpaladin requires many sacrifices. Some believe Heironeous to be so selective that there are never more than a thousand Fists in service at any one time. This is not the case. Many are called by the Invincible, but only few have the fortitude to answer. Of all that is required none is more costly, or prohibitive, than denying the pleasures of the flesh. Where other knights will whore or get the daughters of merchants with child, the cavaliers of Heironeous live only to serve. These men who answer duty’s call are truly instruments of divine will. Their souls and minds are their own, but their lives belong to another.

A select few are allowed to marry, but only when it is deemed to serve the Church’s interest. In these unions love is a blessing, not a right. The marriage is oft-times a political one, such as Cadrius’ betrothal had been. They existed to cement ties in material world with bonds that served the spiritual. Cadrius had been no different. The son of a Duke marrying the only daughter of a neighboring marcher lord would have strengthened the Archpaladin’s hand in the region.

That was before things changed.

“There’s a basin in there,” Eadgar says, nodding his head to a doorway across the room. “You can wash up and change in there.”

The three of them are a family. They fit. He can see it in the way they move about each other, the way they stand or look. There is a comfort and familiarity in their movement and interactions with each other. Sarra sets the full bowls at their appropriate spots on along with the wooden spoons. Without a word from Heleyne she fetches a pitcher of water and pours them into the tankards set upon the table. They both cast the occasional glance at Cadrius, uncertain of the stranger in their house, but they defer to Eadgar who seems agreeable enough to take Cadrius’ gold in exchange for a little shelter.

“Thank you,” he says, walking through the frame and into the dark room.

The meal is hearty, albeit bland, and between it and the hearth, Cadrius’ bones set to warming. His suspicions about the Eadgar being a former soldier or mercenary grow. The man rules his home. Heleyne and Sarra do not eat until he eats. They do not speak until he speaks. It makes for a quiet table. Cadrius keeps his eyes pointed toward his bowl, jabbing at it with a crusty piece of bread until Eadgar speaks.

“Where are you from Cadrius?” He asks the question around a mouthful of stew.

“Far to the southeast,” he says, careful to meet the farmer’s gaze and no other. “From the Hundred Duchies.”

“Far,” Eadgar says. He takes a draught from his tankard, mead not water, and wipes the back of his hand across his mouth. “What is a duchman doing so far from his homeland?”

“I am looking for someone,” Cadrius says, wondering if it is more lie than truth. He lifts another spoonful of stew to his mouth, savoring the way it warms as it travels down into his belly.

Out of the corner of his eye he sees Sarra look up at him, biting her lip. “Are you a knight?”

Tension and silence falls over the table. Cadrius keeps his eyes on Eadgar. The man’s face does not change save the briefest flicker that shows his displeasure. To his right, Heleyne holds her spoon, paused in mid-travel from the bowl to her mouth. Eadgar does not appreciate a child speaking out of turn. Perhaps later he’ll beat her, or perhaps not. Cadrius does not know him.

“I am not,” he says to Eadgar. “Just a simple man on an errand.”

“Forgive my daughter,” Eadgar says. “She sees armor and a sword and thinks anyone is a knight.”

“A flattering mistake.”

“Oh?” Eadgar snorts, taking another pull of his mead. Cadrius realizes the mistake is his. “Do you know anything of a real knight?”

The question should sting. It should whip his honor into a furor. Yet the wrath does not come. It is instead a queer tranquility that passes over him. Finality, long held at bay, wraps her now accepted arms around his shoulders. He does not serve the Archpaladin, and has not for a long time. A blessing from on high shall not come again. His spirit shall forever hold a hole bore into its center. The fall of Cadrius shall serve as a lesson to the acolytes and the squires about the dangers of pride and lust. The Church shall reconsider how often it allows courtly love. His father will die heirless and their name shall collapse in ruin.

But he will be remembered. That, at least, is assured.

“No, sir,” he says. “I do not.”

“I’ll tell you then,” Eadgar says. “It isn’t that they kill, or steal, or rape. All wicked men do that. It is that a knight will do it and seem princely. If a man kills a butcher’s boy or takes a tailor’s daughter, he is hanged. If a knight does it, none will harm a hair on his head. They’ll say the boy provoked him or the girl is lying.”

“Justice should be meted out to those that deserve it.”

“Aye,” Eadgar says. He juts a thick, calloused finger at Cadrius. “But it isn’t. The lords and ladies and their knights run the world. Us common folk just live in it.”

“We all make the world,” Cadrius says.

“Then you’re a bigger fool than I thought.”

It grows quiet again. Cadrius can feel Heleyne’s anxiety radiating off of her like heat from the fire. Eadgar is lord of this peasant’s demesne, but his wife worries he will overstep and get Cadrius’ blood up. She is more justified than she knows. A month ago, Cadrius had murdered three men in the dark streets of Karkas in a fit of rage. Two years earlier he had become a kinslayer. His pride and his anger have walked step for step over the years. They had ruled him. No more.

He has spent years railing against his fate. Walking in the wild places of the world he had looked for penance and salvation. Even while dwelling in the shadow of the mountain he had always sought a way to ascend back into the light. In despair he had faltered, but something in him had always brought him back around. Hope. The glimmer of redemption has always beckoned some part of him on. He lets it go, feeling it vanish into the ether. Cadrius accepts what he is.

“You are right, sir,” he says. “I am a fool.”

Eadgar’s brow furrows and he gives Cadrius a queer look, uncertain of his intent. Cadrius offers a smile and spoons another helping to his mouth. He feels Heleyne relax. Sarra stares at him. Finishing his bowl he gives his thanks to the three of them for their hospitality before gathering up his armor and having Eadgar lead him to the loft in the barn.

At the door, the farmer returns Cadrius’ sword and bid him good night. Cadrius hears the sound of Eadgar locking him in the barn. He sets his armor down by the stacked bails of hay and spreads out his bedroll and blanket. If it was his family, he never would have let someone like Cadrius anywhere near them.

In the thick darkness he lays back and stares up at the invisible eaves of the barn. The fantasy of family is seductive. In his minds eye he sees a wife, not the betrothed he lost, but another. Her hair is a soft chestnut and her eyes are warm. She isn’t beautiful like Elana was, but to him she is pretty. She has a good heart and a laugh that warms his soul. Their son takes after her, quick to laugh. Their daughter is like Cadrius—somber and serious. A small house, like Eadgar’s, shelters them. Cadrius and his son till the fields and tend the livestock. Their son becomes a farmer himself, having land of his own. Their daughter marries a soft spoken cooper. Cadrius and his wife grow old together. One winter morning he collapses outside the barn after feeding the animals. He stares up into the steel clouds. As the first snowflakes fall, he dies.

But that is not to be. Family is not for someone like him. His life is tied to blood; his only wife will be steel. When his fate comes it will be quick and brutal. There will be no peace, only pain and the fear of what void awaits the souls of the discarded. There is nothing to look forward to. There will be no room for him at the tables that seat the Noble Host. This life is it for him. Each breath, each heartbeat, all of it needs to be cherished.

Cadrius rolls onto his side. The smell of hay is comforting. If this is all he has, then there are some things he needs to set right. Making a vow, he closes his eyes and drifts off.

The screams don’t wake him for an hour.

He bolts awake and is on his feet in a moment. The only sound in the barn is that of steel scraping scabbard. Steel is in his hand and he freezes, listening intently. A second shriek tears through the air, sending gooseflesh rippling on his arms and back. He runs to trap door on in the loft and leaps through it into the pile of hay below, feeling the sharp ends of straw scraping and poking his skin. By the time he reaches the door he can hear it being unbarred from the other side.

Eadgar is there. He clutches a lantern in one hand, its weak light fighting against the deep shadows. A wild fear gleams in his eyes and he pants, sending gusts of steam into the cold autumn night. With his free hand he seizes Cadrius, grabbing his tunic. Cadrius staggers back a step.

“What is it, man?”

“Heleyne,” he says. His voice quavers. “She’s sick.”

“I am no healer,” he says. “Do you have one here?”

The screams were still unaccounted for. Had a fever gripped the farmer’s wife in madness, or had Sarra seen her mother delirious and wretching? The thought conjures the disease that swept through the ranks after the Battle of Grisigion. ‘The sick breed sickness,’ a young captain, and fellow knight, had said. They had watched impassively as plague swirled through the air but would never light upon their shoulders. Cadrius questioned why the Archpaladin would save him but not these men who had just fought for him. If it was to serve as a lesson, Cadrius had wanted none of it. The moans of the sick were as disturbing as the screams of the dying, but instead of setting his nerves on edge they wormed their way into his gut, infecting him with misery.

Yet he had not let the wrenching in his gut keep him from keeping watch over the sick and dying. He used it as penance for his weakness. Rather than flee, he embraced it. Holding the hands of the delirious and maimed, he offered soft prayers to Heireoneous to spare them and bring them swift health. Most of the time his prayers were not answered.

“Sarra. I sent her.”

Cadrius nodded. It is a good decision. Get the girl out of the house and away from her mother and make her feel like she is helping. However, the terror lurking beneath Eadgar’s misty eyes is unnerving. It extends beyond the fear of losing his love. There is something else that has frightened him.

“Show me.”

Nothing stirs in the depths of night. They move in silence, eyes fixed on the farmstead. The light cast from its small windows seems lonely and futile. The world is consumed in darkness and cold. Cadrius can feel his heart quicken its pace as they draw near. What pestilence lurks within the breast of Heleyne? Any number of sicknesses could prove fatal not just to the two men approaching. When he was a boy the pox had swept through the duchies. It was one of the few times in recent history where no wars or skirmishes were fought anywhere within the land. They were too busy burying their dead.

Eadgar pushes open the door and Cadrius pauses on the threshold, steeling himself for what is to come. He is hale and doughty. If any here are strong enough to fight this pestilence it would be him, but he’s seen stronger men than he fall before the crimson fever and Whitman’s Plague.

The fire, once bright, now smolders low in the hearth, bathing the room in its orange glow. It feels like another house, belonging in some other life. Several of the stools have been overturned. Cadrius frowns, striding past the table where he had felt the sting of jealousy at the warmth and wholeness of a family. It feels broken now, sullied by some capricious whim.

Eadgar leads him through the black arch and into their room. Fetching the lantern from him, Cadrius steps toward the bed. Helenye’s breath is so faint that for a moment Cadrius thinks her already dead. The stench of sick hangs thick in the air. Even in this weak light she looks pallid. Something has leaked from her eyes, streaking her face with a dark color.

“Gods,” he whispers. “Is that blood?”

He takes a step forward, then another, his fear replaced by morbid curiosity. As a squire part of his training had involved instruction by both a physician and a hedge healer. He learned of the four harmonious seasons that resided in every man and what happens when one became out of balance. When the body possessed too much of the winter Enza would often strike, sending the man into bouts of coughing. His body sought to rid itself of the excess phlegm in order to restore balance.

Those that possess excessive temperaments are more likely to fall victim to disease. Excessive wrath was rewarded with fever and cholera. Cadrius wonders what is out of balance in Heleyne. Blood is a sign of spring and is typical of the light-hearted. Perhaps she is capricious or struggles to accomplish anything. Yet sanguine is usually treated with leeches to draw the blood out. It would be dire indeed if her body is doing the letting on its own. Still, he hopes their healer keeps some leeches on hand for an occasion such as this.

Drawn forward, he kneels down by the bed staring at the tracks drawn down her face. The blood is very dark. He frowns. Reaching out he runs his thumb along the trail running down her cheek. Her skin is cold. So is the blood. Cadrius draws his hand close to the lantern and rubs his thumb and forefinger together, smearing it. It’s black. It isn’t blood.

Eadgar’s face is a grim visage, warring with the fear and terror threatening to overwhelm him.

“She will be fine,” Cadrius says. The lie comes all too easy. “We need to make her comfortable while we wait. Bring me some warm water, some cold water, a mug, a cloth, and any betony if you have it.”

The farmer disappears into the kitchen and Cadrius can hear him collecting the items. Cast iron pots clank against one another and he hears the stirring of coals as the fire is rekindled. Cadrius reaches out and smooths the hair from Heleyne face. She does not stir.

He wracks his memory for any such mention of a disease like this. Perhaps it is not too much blood after all, but bile. Yet why it would worm its way out through her eyes as onyx tears is a mystery to him. For not the first time in his life he wishes he had avoided knighthood in favor of the caduceus. There were rumors of those in the far south lands that combined the sword and the salve. How odd it is, to tend the sick with one hand and slay with the other. Perhaps it is not so different from being a servant of the Invincible.

Eadgar returns, thrusting the purple sprig as well as some cold water and a tankard into Cadrius’ hands. Placing the cup on the floor, Cadrius takes the dried plant between his hands and grinds it between his palms, letting it flake down. He pours water in, filling it up to the brim. It is the only sound in the room.

Heleyne looks fragile, her spirit ephermal, and Cadrius moves with great care when he reaches forward to tilt her head up. Raising the mug to her lips he pours a small bit of the mixture into her mouth, waiting for her weak swallow before tipping it forward again. He hopes the healer will be here soon. Eadgar drags a char over to the side of the bed and clutches his wife’s hand, his strength and watchful eye useless against such a foe. Cadrius understands the feeling of being powerless when it is your duty to protect.

Hope lights in the farmer eyes when they hear the thunder of hoofs. Eadgar leaps out of his chair and rushes outside. Cadrius prays they won’t all die.

He returns with Sarra, her eyes like huge and scared, and an older man with snowy hair and a close cropped beard. His face is kind but his eyes are sharp and piercing. It lends the impression that he became a healer to do good, but is unable to ignore the frailties and imperfections of flesh. Perhaps it is inevitable. There is no lasting victory in the face of time. The lines on his face crinkle and deepen as he catches sight of the bowl and mug.

“What have you given her?” he says, his voice is gruff.

“Betony and water,” Cadrius says. He moves away from the bed giving the healer space to work.

He gives him the barest of nods and removes the rucksack slung over his shoulder. Glass clinks within. He produces several vials as well as a larger jar. Cadrius can’t see what lies within them, but he sees the glitter of dark or light colors in each. He sets them on a plain wooden chair.

“How long has she been like this?” His voice is as level and even as if he had asked Eadgar how his crops were faring.

“An hour,” he says. “Maybe more. I don’t know.”

“And had she been ill before this?” Another jar comes out, this one sloshing with liquid and holding dark shapes. Cadrius mistakes them for olives. The healer presses the back of his hand against Heleyne’s forehead and frowns at the chill touch. He leans in, his face drawing closer to the black oozing down her face. Brows knitting, he stares at her with an intensity that makes Cadrius think he’s trying to summon understanding through sheer force of will.

“Has anyone touched her face?”

Cadrius exchanges a look with Eadgar. “I did. I thought it was blood.”

“Go outside and wash your hands,” the healer says. “Do not come back inside until I say so.”

Eadgar shoots a glance between the two of them. “What? What do you mean you ‘thought’ it was blood?”

“Outside,” the healer repeats.

Cadrius nods and obliges him. He walks past Sarra, but can’t find the courage meet her gaze. He’s afraid she’ll see the fear mirrored in his eyes.

The chill settles around his shoulders like a cloak and he walks quickly over to the trough by the side of the house. A faint breeze rustles the dying leaves in their beds. It is the only sound to disturb the cloudless night. Cadrius plunges his hands and arms into the icy waters, scrubbing them with intensity. He had been fool enough for going in there, but he knew better than to touch the sick. Her humours might be out of balance, but being in tune does not make one immune, only less vulnerable.

He clenches and unclenches his fists, trying to keep his fingers from freezing, and briskly strides over to the barn to fetch his cloak. He pulls up the hood and returns to the front of the house and sits upon the steps, resting his chin upon his hands. It isn’t long before the healer returns. Cadrius gets to his feet, already feeling the cold setting into his bones.

“How is she?”

“Sick.” His voice is flat. “But with what I don’t know.”

“Her skin is cool, but looks like she has a fever,” Cadrius says.

“Yes,” he says. He stares out into the dark. “And there is the matter of the bloody tears, or whatever they are.”

“You do not know?”

“No,” his voice is curt. He’s angry at not knowing how to help. It’s a feeling Cadrius understands all too well. “What I do know is that it looks serious, and I can’t have you seeing anyone else in town in case you’re infected.”

Cadrius nods. “What is your name?”

“Jon,” he says. “That was a stupid thing you did.”

Cadrius nods again. “I was not thinking. What will you do?”

“I made a tonic with a tincture of sleeping root. It will keep her still and hopefully buy me—”

The screams cut him off. Cadrius is first through the door and finds Sarra scrambling backward. She bumps into the wall. Cadrius looks to the door and sees Eadgar, on his knees, with jet black tears trickling from his eyes. He has already sicked upon the floor. He sways and falls, his head striking the floor with a dull thud. Healer and fallen paladin rush to his side. Jon darts into the bedroom and fetches his supplies. Cadrius rolls Eadgar onto his back and sees that these aren’t tears at all.

The black is coming from the center of his eyes.

Its movement is slow and if not for Eadgar’s head having tilted at an awkward angle would not have noticed it. He had missed it with Heleyne because of the dim light and her normally dark eyes. But Eadgar’s are blue and are now blotched with the black. Cadrius cannot imagine what malady causes this.

“What’s wrong with them?” Sarra’s voice quavers. Cadrius can’t imagine how she has not succumbed to hysteria. It is bad enough to have just met them, but if they were his parents he would be out of his mind with fear.

“I do not know,” he says. “But Jon will do his best to help.”

“What is that black?” she asks and then her voice drops to a whisper. “Is that his soul?”

He wants to say no. He wants to tell her that they will be fine, but the lie does not come easy now. She sees the hesitation on his face and knows what it means. Sarra begins to weep. Her back still braced against the wall she slides down into a sitting position, rivulets of clear tears making their way down her cheeks and dangling precariously on her chin before dropping to her arms and lap.

Jon returns. “Help me get him into bed. Do not let it touch you again.”

Eadgar’s eyes are open but he seems unconscious and is little more than dead weight as Cadrius sticks his arms beneath the man’s armpits while Jon grabs his legs and then take him in to lay next to his dying wife.

Something inside Cadrius breaks. The sight of them there in bed, their life running out, is tragic. These are good people. They deserve a better fate. They share their bed as they had so many other nights, but neither is aware of the other. And it is here that Cadrius realizes the awful truth. We spend our lives reaching out to others, bonding, connecting, changing them and being changed in turn, but there is no avoiding it: everyone dies alone.

For the first time in a very long time Cadrius prays. It isn’t to the Archpaladin. It is a simple plea for him to die in the company of those that love him best. He prays to no longer wander in the wilds. He prays for the life of steel to end. He prays that he can find a way to still the sword in his heart and soul. He prays he can be worthy of being loved.

But if none of his prayers come true and he dies here then at least it will be a house where others loved and were loved in return. It will not be his home, it will not be his love, but it will have to suffice. At the least it will not be in the mud on the field of battle, writhing in agony while the screams of the dying usher his soul into the nothing. A warrior should want to die there, sword in hand, spitting in death’s eye. Maybe Cadrius isn’t a warrior.

It takes five minutes before he or Jon notice that neither Heleyne nor Eadgar still draws breath.

Sarra reads it on their faces before either has a chance to say anything. Her arms are folded on top of her knees and her head slumps onto it, her body wracked by silent sobs. Cadrius opens his mouth, but doesn’t know what he could say. So he closes it and looks to Jon. But before the healer can speak, they hear the sound of hoofs coming at a gallop.

Two mean swing down off horses and run to the house. Jon meets them at the door.

“Jon! You’ve got to come quick. People are sick.”

The healer looks at Cadrius. He suddenly looks much older, and a grim resignation haunts his eyes. He can already see the end of things unfolding. This village will be snuffed out by sunrise and there is nothing Jon can do now but try and lend comfort where he can.

“I will be outside in one moment,” he says to the men, sending them back to their horses. He turns to Cadrius. “A word with you.”

They leave Sarra to her mourning and walk into the small pantry off the kitchen. Small jars of flour and oats and other sundries sit here. Each possesses so much more significance now that Heleyne is gone and will never touch them again. Cadrius wonders why he is so haunted by their passing.

“This is spreading,” Jon says. “I don’t hold much hope for figuring out what it is, let alone treating it. My suggestion is to make yourself as comfortable as you can. I’ll come back if I have time and if…if I have time.”

They shake hands. The healer leaves. Cadrius stands in the pantry still, looking at the shelves. On a chance, he spots a small clay jug on one of the top shelves and pulls it down. Unplugging the cork he takes a sniff—it’s brandy. It will do. He fills a tankard with it and takes a slug, feeling it burn as it goes down his throat.

Footsteps are outside again. Cadrius looks up, expecting Jon to come back through the door. But something is different. The footfalls lack urgency. The door is not latched and Cadrius moves toward it. It shudders as it opens revealing a man, but Cadrius does not need to see its jet black eyes or the streaks running down its cheeks to know that he is dead, and that damnation has fallen upon this quiet town. It does not breathe and a chill wafts from its form that sets the hairs on Cadrius’ neck on end.

Sarra is quiet for a moment, stunned at the sight of one of her neighbors shambling into her home, but the horror creeps upon her face all too quickly. She cowers, pushing herself back along the wall toward the pantry. Cadrius rushes to the fire, yanking the sword down off its pegs and hoping Eadgar had the mind to keep it sharp. The blade sings as it is drawn free, and Cadrius loathes admitting that part of his heart sings with it. He takes several steps backward, holding the pommel with both hands, and putting himself between the dead and Sarra.

But it does not stagger toward them. It walks with purpose several paces to Cadrius’ left and pauses beneath the arch to the bedroom. It bows its head and then shuffles inward. Cadrius follows, transfixed by its strange behavior, and stops in the doorway as well. The dead man stops, staring down at the bodies of Eadgar and Heleyne. One hand reaches out and strokes the side of her face. With a tenderness that Cadrius cannot fathom, it leans over and kisses her briefly. It rounds the other side of the bed and repeats it on Eadgar.

Cadrius swallows, afraid of what this means. His fear manifests itself when Heleyne’s hand twitches and her head lolls to the side. Every inch of her eyes are covered in the black, and the tears have run all down her face and neck.

“Sarra,” he forces his voice to remain calm. “Fetch what traveling clothes you have. Now.”

Her voice, strained from her cries, is raspy and faint. “What?”

“It is not safe here. We are leaving,” he says, stepping further into the bedroom. “When I come out, I want you to be ready. Can you do that for me?”

He doesn’t wait for a reply. The door closes behind him.

There is work to be done.
Unread 17th of May, 2010, 22:23
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