“Wake up.”A small oil lantern dangled from the old man’s hand as he stood over the prisoner.“It’s time to try standing, but it’s best if the camp’s not astir.We leave for the coast tomorrow.”
The urge to believe the old man was trying to help him couldn’t overcome past events.Still, the prisoner turned on his side and dragged his legs over the pallet’s edge.Then he pushed up with his
arm until he was seated.The effort left him shaking.
The old man reached down and gripped his arm at the elbow.“Up you go.The camp will be astir soon.”The old man pulled him upright.
The prisoner’s feet and ankles hurt, but he was standing.The old man’s grip lightened, then vanished.He was standing. The urge to take a step was strong, but he knew he’d fall.
The old man smiled.“You’ll have to build up your strength, but your judgment’s good.Now take one step with your right foot.”
He took a step forward and stopped.He didn’t fall.But he felt the effort in his legs.He looked at the old man and smiled.
The old man smiled back.“It’s gonna take time, but you’ll walk again, and soon.Now, take one step with your left leg.”
The sun was directly overhead when the caravan reached the cut-stone walls of Bar Krouth. The cry of the sentry rang out, “Captain Tamir has returned! Open the gates!” A moment
later the coach passed over a wooden drawbridge and through a large set of bronze-covered gates.
Evaughnlynn caught a glimpse of strange-looking glyphs hammered into the bronze plating before the coach passed into the gate tower. But there were no images of lions as there were on the
outer walls of Anglia.
Bar Krouth reminded her of Anglia as the coach followed the main road toward the city center, but the crowds normally filling the streets were missing. Fear of the pestilence had brought
business to a standstill. The few people she saw hurried quickly about their business, many wearing strange masks that looked like a bird’s head with an elongated beak.
A huge temple surrounded by a twenty-foot-high defensive wall sat on the hill to the right of the main road near the city center. The temple inside the compound rose twenty feet above the
wall, and the visible portion of the dome glowed in the sunlight as if covered in gold.
The palace of the Elect was much less impressive than the one in Anglia, but it was still considerably larger than the hold at Hawk’s Keep. Also, there were no government buildings like the
ones in Anglia, although Evaughnlynn did see two parks.
Two men-at-arms saluted as the caravan pulled through the palace’s wrought-iron gate and stopped at the steps leading up to the palace entrance. Standing at the top waiting for them were
three well-dressed men and a half-dozen servants in livery.
“Welcome.” The tall, muscular man with a neatly trimmed beard and short cropped brown hair shot through with gray bowed formally. His deep, gruff voice fit his build, but not his loose
white silken shirt, complete with neck ruffle, or his black, stovepipe trousers of tightly woven wool, which matched those of the other two men. “I am Benami, the Elect of the
Freeholds.” He waved at the two men next to him. “May I introduce Matan, my closest advisor, and Akiva, our chamberlain.”
King Ragnon returned the bow. “Allow me to introduce my daughter, Princess Evaughnlynn, and her cousin and assistant, Lady Roselyn.” He waved at Beowyn, who had dismounted and stood
behind him. “This is Sir Beowyn, Lieutenant of my guard, and my nephew.”
The heavyset man next to the Elect bowed to Evaughnlynn. “Your Highness.” He straightened, then nodded twice. “Milord and Milady.”
Akiva bowed as well. Then he turned to Evaughnlynn’s father. “Your Majesty, if your party would be so kind as to meet our council of merchants forthwith, the matter of this pestilence
grows worse with each passing hour.”
Her father said, “Certainly. My daughter and her cousin desire to address this terrible illness as quickly as possible.”
The Elect led them up the wide marble steps and into a large rotunda with a curved staircase, wide at the base but gracefully narrowing as it climbed to the second story. The council chamber
was through a large set of stained oak doors at the top of the stairs.
A long, red-oak table where half a dozen well-dressed men were seated, interspersed with white-robed dru awaited them. The men in the room looked from Evaughnlynn to Roselyn, clearly
surprised at seeing two of her. The men fought grins as they looked to the dru to see their reaction to a couple of young girls being brought in to replace them. The dru, on the other
hand, remained blank-faced.
Evaughnlynn realized they intended to test her, but there were other more important matters to be attended to. She immediately asked, “Where is the high priest?”
The Elect’s face was expressionless.“He’s in the temple praying and making sacrifice that this pestilence be driven away.”
“He must come and publicly bless our efforts. Without the blessing of your god we can do nothing.”
One of the men at the table asked, “Is then our god your god?”
Evaughnlynn replied, “The nature and existence of god does not depend on the beliefs of men. This pestilence is no natural illness, but rather a deliberate attack inflicted on your people by
dark forces. These same dark forces will fight our efforts to defeat it. Already they are spreading rumors among your people that our presence here is a great sin against god.
Without the blessing of your high priest the people will resist doing as we ask.”
“She’s right,” another man volunteered. “On my way here several merchants I know warned me not to come to this meeting, saying I would face the wrath of God.”
“A friend of mine,” another interjected, “said he was told Princess Evaughnlynn was a dark witch who changed men into animals and that his cousin saw such an animal dressed as a man-at-arms when he
visited Hawk’s Keep.”
An elderly dru with long flowing gray hair and beard seated across the table from her said, “Leave off this nonsense. The Elect is right about the high priest hiding in the temple. Send
for him, Elect, and be done with it. Now, young lady, what do you propose to do about the pestilence?”
“Treat it. Find a cure if one exists, and identify those responsible for it.” Anger she had been suppressing for some time began to fill her mind. She fought against it. She
was a dru, not a warrior. Others would see to those responsible.
“This is an illness we have not seen before,” another dru said. “How do you intend to treat it?”
She turned to him.“What are the symptoms and the course of the illness?”
All the dru looked at the old man. He leaned forward with both elbows on the table and his hands crossed between them. “Most report feeling sick with a headache first, usually with a
fever, then pain in the back and legs, frequently with cramps. This is followed by severe back and joint pain. Sometimes there’s vomiting, diarrhea, or both. A few days later,
flat red spots appear on their face, hands, and forearms, and eventually, the trunk. Within a day or two many of these lesions turn into small blisters filled with clear fluid that then clouds with
“Scabs begin to form eight to nine days later and eventually fall off, leaving deep, pitted scars—if the victim lives—most do not—only a few strong men so far. Children and the elderly die
fairly quickly in such pain that death is a blessing.”
“I think I may know this illness,” Sorcha whispered in her mind. “But if I’m right, it’s an evil destroyed before the Old Ones came to this world. To be here now, it had to
have been made in a laboratory like the one under Tower Farm. Beware, Evaughnlynn. Fresh cut onion in a mask will not deter this disease. You must use extreme caution.”
Evaughnlynn looked at the elderly dru. “Have you lost dru treating the sick who used fresh cut onion in their masks?”
“Several.” Pain was clear in the lines of his face. “Nor have our usual cleanliness efforts helped. It seems that as soon as we get the illness under control in one area, it
breaks out in another.”
“I’ll need to examine the victims and, if I’m to treat them, they need to be in one location. Is there a place where the sick can be gathered?”
Her father put his hand on her arm. “Evaughnlynn, can you do this safely?”
“I’ll be as safe as I was in the Great Forest.” She glanced at Roselyn. “Once I’m sure I know what we’re facing, Roselyn can help me.” Then she turned back to the elderly dru.
“Is there a place where we can gather the sick?”
“We’ve been treating and quarantining the sick in their homes.”
“We could bring some of them to an inn,” the Elect said. “Children would be best—their parents could carry them. Getting anyone to approach the sick other than dru will be impossible.”
Evaughnlynn looked at the dru seated at the table. “I know you have questions you wish to ask me about my knowledge as a dru, but the sick are dying. Can you allow my treatment of the
sick to be part of your test and wait until later for your questions?”
All the men looked to the elderly dru seated at the center of the table. He smiled and nodded.
“Then,” Evaughnlynn said, “we can begin as soon as the high priest has blessed our efforts. It would be faster if he were to come to the inn, where Roselyn and I wish to go now. Word
should be spread that the sick should be brought there for treatment.”
“There’s no inn here large enough to treat all the sick,” one of men at the table said. “If even a fraction of the sick come, any of our inns will be overflowing.”
“We’ll need a treatment room where we can prepare potions, beds for the sick, and a kitchen. Any large, well-ventilated and clean place that has those will do.”
Benami rubbed his chin. “There’s a mansion near here that’s been empty for some time.We can bring beds and other items you need to it.” He turned to the chamberlain, Akiva.
“Get Rachamim to the Shahar’s mansion in full robes and ceremony as quickly as possible. Have him and his priests parade through the streets with bells ringing, so the people will know
what he’s about.”
He turned to his son. “Tamir, would you take the ladies and their escorts to the Shahar mansion and make the necessary arrangement with the caretaker? I need to speak with King Ragnon
Tamir bowed and turned to Evaughnlynn and Roselyn. “Princess, Milady, if you please.” He waved toward the door, now held open by a servant.
Benami gestured at a chair after the last merchant left the room and the door closed. “It is good to see you again, my friend, even under these circumstances.”
“I too wish the circumstances were better.” Ragnon dropped into a chair. “But it is nice to see you again. I should have visited long ago. It’s just…things have been
pressing in on us for some time.”
“Yes, first the attack at Tower Farm and then the death of poor Queen Bertha. But you did manage to save Cymru from attack and prevent a war.”
“You know about the orc attack?”
Benami smiled. “When you have as many enemies as we do, you have to spy, even on your friends. Sometimes for our protection, and sometimes for theirs. You should know that Prince
Lambert arrived safely in Jutland less than a month after he left you. Prince Erispoe’s son, Faolan, is here in the Freeholds, living under his own name.”
“You knew they were living at Hawk’s Keep all this time?”
“No. We learned who they were around the same time you did.” Benami smiled and rocked his head from side to side. “It seems they were on the same trail we were, the orcs in West
Mercia. Somehow the dark forces learned who they were from a source in Anglia. Fortunately, the dark powers didn’t learn they were on the trail of the arms being shipped to the Reeve of
Boggshire.” He put both hands on the table palm upward and open. “But that’s not why I needed to see you alone. Cymru was a softening attack on Ellisland. This attack on us
I suspect is the real attack. The dark forces plan an invasion, but they need to destroy us first.”
“Our fleet. To invade, they must land troops en masse. It’s not possible to keep such a movement secret for long. Even if they managed to pit Anglia against Cymru, our fleet would
be waiting for them.” His right hand tightened into a fist. “Which brings us to the other reason I needed to speak to you privately. Your daughter’s marriage. We have reason
to believe an Anglian plot is afoot to eliminate Prince Thrall. He’s leaving the city with a group of his friends on some kind of last fling before he travels to Hawkland to claim your
daughter. There’s a good chance the attack will come while he’s out of Anglia. We have not intervened, yet. I wanted your advice. We believe your son-in-law will be a poor
king for Anglia and a worse ally for both of us.”
Faolan watched the young men move quietly through the woods, surrounding the valley where the outlaws were camped. The Dwarf warriors were determined, but none of them had ever been in a
battle. The outlaws and warriors in the valley, on the other hand, were all experienced killers. If the dwarfs attacked from all sides, the raiders would rally and break for a point in
the line. Many would escape.
He looked at the bow in his hand, then at Badger sitting beside him. “It’s up to us, Badger. We have to hold them in the valley, give the outlaws somebody to focus on.” He turned
to Captain Medwin. “Hold your signal to attack until the raiders are fighting in their camp.”
Captain Medwin’s head jerked back. “Fighting in their camp? With who?”
“Me.” Faolan drew his sword and turned toward the spot where the lookout stood at the top of the hill. Then he glanced over his shoulder at the captain. “Remember—not until all
the raiders are involved in the fight, then attack from all sides.” He quickly strode uphill.
After several paces the lookout yelled, “Halt! Who goes there?”
“Death,” Faolan replied. “Prepare to face the judgment of the gods.”
A moment later Faolan saw the man standing a few paces uphill holding shield and sword. Faolan charged with a yell. The raider swung at his head. Blocking the overhead swing,
Faolan slammed into the man’s shield and knocked it to one side. Then he countered with a crosscut, laying the man open at the waist, to scream and crumple at his feet.
Faolan dropped his own shield and picked up the dead man’s broadsword. He hefted it in his left hand as he continued walking. The sword was well balanced. Noise came from the camp
in the valley below. Both the guard’s challenge and his death scream had been heard. As he came over the top of the hill a dozen men were running toward his position. They came to
a halt and one of them called, “Who are you?”
“Retribution,” Faolan replied in a calm voice. “Stand and die like warriors or be hunted down like game in the woods. Either way, you end here.”
These men had joined forces with goblins to murder women and children. They were no different than the men who raided Tower Farm, or those who rounded up peasants to feed to orcs in West
Mercia. Rage washed over him as the men below fanned out, waiting for him to reach the bottom of the hill. Others looked at the crest of the valley walls for more attackers. He
knew they would join the fight when they decided he was alone.
At the bottom of the hill he walked directly toward the center man, both swords held down and to his sides, their points forward and almost touching the ground. Badger trailed behind him,
growling softly. “Leave them to me, Badger. Just watch my back.”
They came at him from the sides, as he expected, but he rushed the center man before they could set a joint attack. A quick thrust to the throat cleared his way forward toward the camp’s
center. Two of the barbarians by the large tent loosed arrows at him. He turned to avoid the first arrow and batted the other away with one of his swords. Now, amid screams and
battle yells, the whole camp descended on him. Swords and faces surrounded him as they had at Windy Hill, only to fall away as he struck at them—face after face, sword after sword. He
was aware of Badger’s warnings from moment to moment and turned to strike as needed.
Then suddenly—silence. He was encircled by dwarves and the ground was littered with the dead raiders, only a few with arrows in their backs. He realized his two swords were still poised
to strike, one to the front, the other to the side, and he lowered the tips to the ground. Weight descended as if a giant’s hands rested on his shoulders and his knees and legs went
weak. He fought for breath as if he’d run a league. Sweat poured down his face and his arms ached with exhaustion.
He looked around for Badger and found him sitting to one side licking his fur where blood had spattered over him in the fight. When he looked at the dwarfs he saw fear and awe on their faces.
Captain Medwin stepped in front of him. “So, you’re a blacksmith...who’s been in a battle or two?”
“That’s right.” Faolan tried to gather the strength to sheath his sword after dropping the one he had taken from the lookout.
“Then so it will be written in our annals that Faolan, a simple blacksmith of the Accetani, stood against many and won the day. Thus will our children’s children know that a blacksmith was
one to be reckoned with.” He turned to the others standing around Faolan and exclaimed, “But we will not speak of this incident beyond our own fires until the youngest child of the Accetani
now living has children of his own.”
© Copyright 2020 R. M. Keegan. All rights reserved.