The Price of Good Fortune (First Draft)

 THE PRICE OF GOOD FORTUNE

 by Gordon S. McLeod

 

The road seemed never-ending, eternal, always one bend after another. It passed through wood and town, field and hills, crossed river and valley. Other roads came and went, leading off to their ultimate destinations, but this one just went on.

The traveler stopped for rest in the daylight hours. Farms and fields offered haystacks that well suited the need for rest. What they lacked in refined comfort they made up in other ways. They were quiet, insulated, and most important, kept one out of the prying eyes of others on the road.

When night would finally fall, she would move onward by moonlight. She ignored the inns others frequented, and moved quietly out of her way to avoid travelers’ camps when she came upon them between inhabited areas.

There was a doggedness, an intensity to her travel that suggested not quite urgency, but a fierce determination. The road might not have an ultimate destination, but she certainly did.

 

* * *

 

 

Flagons clanked and beer spilled while the pub air was filled with the usual sounds of revelry, Academy students venting their stresses into deep pitchers while regulars clustered around tables, talking loud over the din. The windows lit briefly, throwing the pub interior into sharp relief, and seconds later a clap of thunder punctuated the night.

 

Huddled alone in a corner a figure slouched in a booth, shying away from attention. A traveler’s cloak was pulled tight about his spare frame, a mug of dark ale on the table in front of him. The candle on the table sat unlit; those seated near him seemed almost to have forgotten he was there. Now and then a deep, wracking cough would remind them, and they stole uneasy glances his way.

Lynna, a serving girl at the pub, moved to his table, hesitancy clear in her gait. “’Scuse me, sir, you’re running a bit low there, can I get you another?”

He said nothing, waving her off with a weak gesture. Just as he did so, his body shook with another powerful wave of coughs.

The girl stepped back uncertainly. “Are … Are you okay, sir?” She untied the rough kerchief that bound dark blonde hair to her head and wiped her hands; she’d been misted a bit by his spasm. “You don’t seem well …”

He simply waved her off again, and she retreated. His coughing got worse, sounding raspy and deep. An air of unease and uncertainty crept among the tables surrounding him. Finally he stood and half-shuffled, half-staggered his way to the door; the pub was hushed, people watching the thin apparition leave. He hadn’t paid, but he was such a sight that neither Lynn nor the proprietor made a move to go near him. He pushed out the doors into the storm; as he left, a nervous rush of voices picked up, slowly at first, then with more enthusiasm.

Lynn stared after the man for a moment and shivered slightly. She retied her hair and grabbed a cleaning rag from the bar, returning to his table. She grimaced; spilled ale darkened the table, and he’d been coughing up a storm. She set about wiping the whole thing down.

 

* * *

 

 

Constable Durk picked his way through the alley carefully, eyes watchful, his partner close behind. “Which way’d ‘e go?”

 

“Took a right further down.” Smoak kept his voice low to match Durk’s. “I know this area, we got ‘im bagged. He’ll have no place to go in a minute.”

Durk nodded, but stopped. What was … “’Old up, what’s that?”

The alley was trash-strewn, covered in slops and discards and worse. “It’s a drunk. We got bigger issues on hand, mate.”

“Don’t look drunk to me.” Durk bent over the figure laying in the waste. “Ain’t breathin’. Man, ‘e smells, too.”

The figure was terribly thin, and curled in on himself as if freezing and trying to keep warm. He was wrapped in a long traveler’s cloak so soaked through with filth it was impossible to tell the color, but the man’s skin was a pale blue, and distinctly cold to the touch.

“Oh … Oh, no.” Smoak stepped back. “He was sick! Look at him.”

“He’s just dead. We need to find out who he was. The cut-purse can wait.”

“You’re not going to … search him, are you?” But Durk had already gone into the cloak.

“No wallet. Smoak, why does this guy make you so uneasy? He’s dead. You’ve seen plenty ‘o dead guys before. Made some of ‘em that way too as I recall.”

“Only in the line of duty. It’s the way he’s curled in like that. It reminds me of stories I’ve heard, people getting the chills. Thousands died, years ago. It was a full-on epidemic. They called it the Blue Chill back then. Sounds silly to me, but the undertakers didn’t think so, and neither did the families that were putting their own underground.”

“Eh, that was 20, 30 years ago. Ancient ‘istory. As like he drank too much and ‘it his head, drowned in that crap. Nasty way to go, that. We gotta report this. You want to run it in, or am I doin’ it?”

 

* * *

 

 

“Chief Inspector Hew! Word just came across the communicator from Holdswaine of a growing problem in the city. Some sort of epidemic is sweeping the area up there, they’re posting alerts to outlying communities.”

Hew looked up from his desk, a worried frown creasing his face. “Epidemic? How bad is it?”

“No word, sir. It was a rote broadcast, they’re not acknowledging transmissions.”

“Keep trying, Sergeant.” Hew rose and grimaced. Rosston Hew was in his early 40s, a bit on the old side for his relatively low rank of Chief Inspector, and he’d only just earned that in the last year at that. The price one paid for making the unpopular choices, he thought. On top of that, he was the highest ranking officer in Dolesham, the admittedly small town he presided over.

Officially, Dolesham was due to receive an officer of sufficient rank to maintain authority. Unofficially, Hew was certain it would never happen, and was just as glad; he could cull the ranks of the police at low levels, which was precisely how he’d gained the ire of his superiors, but if a ranking officer were assigned there’d be little he could do.

He rounded up several of his men. “Constable Huxby, we need to get word to the mayor’s office. That’s your job. Hughes, you’ll take the word to Doctor Maulden. They’ll have questions, and I’m afraid we have no answers to give them yet. Inspector Greene, I’ll be out; you manage things here until my return.”

 

* * *

 

 

Dr. Maulden greeted Constable Hughes at the door to his practice. “Good morning, Constable. Come in, what can I do for you?”

“I’m here on business I’m afraid, Doctor,” Hughes said, stepping in. “We got word not an hour ago that Holdswaine’s got some sort of epidemic on their hands. They’re informing outlaying regions like ourselves. You seen signs of anything out of the ordinary?”

“Epidemic? No, can’t say that I have, officer. What else can you tell me about this epidemic? What sort of illness it is? How fast it spreads? How lethal it is?”

Hughes looked a little puzzled. “Not real sure I’d even know how to guess how fast an illness spreads, doctor, and they didn’t say anything about that on the communicator that I’d heard of.”

“No, I guess you wouldn’t.” Maulden was something of a renegade in medicine, a doctor who didn’t believe in bloodletting and festering, leaches and amputation and scalding as the forefront techniques of the medical trade. He studied illness and the many causes it had in attempts to eradicate the illness without killing the patient in the process. This was a large part of the reason he’d moved to Dolesham, a place that was becoming known for acceptance of unusual modes of thinking.

“Sorry Doctor, we’ll be sure to let you know when more information comes through.”

“Thank you, Constable. And I’ll be sure to be watchful for any patterns that might be helpful.”

The officer nodded, another puzzled expression crossing his face, and left. Yes, there’s much work to be done yet, Dr. Maulden thought to himself.

 

* * *

 

 

Lynna feebly reached for the pottery cup, hands jittery and shaking even when she wasn’t coughing. It seemed to be so far out of reach, and the effort stole her breath away. So … cold … 

A spasm of coughing shook her, knocked her hand into the cup. It clattered to the floor and rolled away, spilling its contents to the ground. Nobody would notice, if there were anybody to notice. Lynna lived in a tiny room in a dirty, run-down Holdswaine tenement that was all she could afford on the pub’s pay. She’d been on her own since the last of her family passed a few years ago.

She tried to groan, but the coughing wouldn’t let go of her lungs and throat. She felt like she was going to suffocate. She managed to turn herself onto her side, intending to chase after the cup, but that was as far as she got.

All she could do was curl into a ball and try to preserve warmth. The coughing came again, and again the strangling feeling, stronger than before. There was nothing to do but ride it out, and so she did, and lay still at last, the world going to dark.

 

* * *

 

 

The early autumn night was cool, but the storm drove the temperature down until the traveler wished for nothing more than a chance to get out of the rain and the cold for just an hour. Her cloak was soaked clear through, and the cold water was working its way into every gap in the warm clothing she wore underneath. She’d been on the road for days, passing through smaller communities in the darkness until she’d come upon Holdswaine in the south. That city she’d had to skirt, passing around to remain unchallenged; a city that large never truly slept.

Ahead of her a faint light beckoned off the edge of the road. Embers from a fire, or a fire banked low perhaps. She started to skirt around, though she felt more reluctance than usual; the fire light looked welcoming, a temptation on a freezing night.

She almost got too close to be sure she’d avoided being seen when she heard a choking cough from the vicinity of the camp. She froze, indecision warring within her. The coughing intensified, great wracking barks, then went quiet.

She cursed to herself and changed direction, heading toward the warm light, afraid of what she might see there.

The fire was burning low, logs reduced almost to ash, with some low flames flickering over the charred remains of a few. Embers glowed red and orange across the bottom of the fire pit. 3 men lay sleeping around the fire, or so it appeared at first glance. She knew they would not be waking up any time soon, though, and noted the curled in position the bodies were huddled in. The weather could certainly account for that, but she knew that wasn’t it. She also knew it wasn’t safe to stay in their vicinity; she’d lingered too long already. She turned her back and vanished into the night, headed south.

 

* * *

 

 

Archerd Dolet ran a hand along the superstructure admiringly. “She’s really coming along, Waldon. You’re sure the brass isn’t going to be too heavy?”

“She’ll be fine, boy, ‘n it’s only a thin coverin’ for strength anyway. Biggest problem with it is expansion when it gets hot, ‘n constriction when it gets cold. M’boys took that all inna their thinkin’ when they put ‘er together.” Waldon Sias was an old, old family friend, and certainly looked the old part. In spite of his age, he was still tough as a bear and was Archerd’s first and only pick for the head of the construction team building the Skyward Bound, the air ship he’d spent the last three years designing.

“I’m sure you’re right, and I can’t fault her appearance. This will put typical air ships to shame.”

“Y’done a fine job designin’ her, Arch. We’ll ‘ave her up and ready fer a trial run in time for the spring, or I’ll kill ‘n eat a bear with my bare hands.”

Archerd was sure the old man could do just that, and grinned. “How’re the gas bags coming along?”

The old man stopped and rubbed at his back thoughtfully. “Gas bags are about done. It’s the rigid structures that concern me. We got a few guys off ill the last few days, it’s settin’ us behind schedule. Not to worry though, we’ll get ‘er done.”

“I have no doubt. Thanks for the tour Waldon, I’ll come again in the next week.”

He left the construction yard, eyes scanning the roads of Dolesham. His father was waiting out by the yard gate. “How’s she looking, son?”

“She’s a thing of beauty. I can’t wait to get her into the air. Soon all of this—” he swept his hand along the road, where people walked, or rode horses, or in horse-drawn carriages, or some few even rode carriages driven by steam engines, “all of it will feel so antiquated. We’ll be looking down upon it all from comfortable seats in the sky!”

Air ships were nothing new, but they were uncommon and as a rule poorly designed and built. Archerd aimed to change that, much as his father and he himself and worked to improve train designs. It was a bold move; trains were a very familiar sight throughout the land, but airships were far less common. Drastic improvements were sure to be seen as a direct challenge to the Conclave, throwing Dolesham’s technical prowess in their faces.

They were past the point of hiding though; the Conclave knew full well who and where they were and the concentration of talent in the area was becoming too high for any sort of concealment. Far from just engineering and power and material sciences, the town was growing at a fantastic rate even in just the last two years, and welcoming pioneering thinkers in medicine, politics, philosophy, mathematics … it made Archerd’s head spin to think about it.

They walked out to the road, where their own steam-powered coach waited. It was big, easily able to seat 6 or 7 people straight across the seat, with wide-spaced wheels. Archerd helped his father up and in, then sat beside him at the controls. “Father, could you put the roof up? The sky’s a bit gray, it’ll probably rain again shortly.

Autumn was often a stormy season in that part of the country, but this year seemed more so than anyone could remember. The Ralladran river was broad and flowed low in high banks where the town was built, so they weren’t too concerned about flooding, but the farmers further down river might have a tough time of it if the rains continued as they had.

His father cast a glance out at the sky, then walked down the central aisle to unlatch the waxed canvas roof and draw it over a folding framework to hold it in place. Archerd had no sooner started the carriage and driven it out into the street than the first misty rain started falling. He flicked a switch on the instrument panel to connect electricity from the electrite generator to the lights mounted on the front of the carriage. Despite the great size of the carriage, the generator was nearly silent, and on top of the rain, it was getting dark.

The ride was smooth and quiet, and while not much faster than walking would have been, given the other people on the road, they were infinitely more comfortable than they would have been on the muddy streets. Before they’d been 10 minutes on the road, they saw the first boys rushing about, climbing street lamp poles with speed and agility, lighting the gas lamps and hurrying on to others. Without ever taking his attention from the road itself, Archerd found himself thinking about how one might design self-igniting gas lamps.

“Electric street lamps.” His father had his own musing expression on his face. “Save all that manual climbing and lighting the lamps. Though the light tubes would have to be changed eventually …” 

“I was just thinking self-igniting gas lamps. Electrically igniting them, however — flip one switch and an entire street is lit!”

“I like it, son. We must draw up plans and a proposal over the winter.” He coughed, cleared his throat.

The rest of the trip passed uneventfully, the rain growing in intensity, dripping down from the roof as they passed the lamps, aglow in the growing dark. Thunder booming in the distance announced the imminent arrival of lightning.

It held off just a little longer though. The sky lit bright as noon with lightning just as they passed through the gate to the family home and parked the carriage off beside the house. They quickly retreated inside just as the real rain began, a pouring mass of water that could as easily have been the river draining right on top of the house.

They were met inside by Archerd’s sister Annis and the gentleman she’d been seeing for the past year, Dr. Tristram Maulden. “Father, Archerd, you were lucky to miss most of the rain! How is the Skyward Bound?”

“Mr. Dolet, Archerd, good to see you again.”

“And you, Doctor,” Archerd nodded, “Good to see you again. Ann, she’s shaping up remarkably well, old Waldon should have her ready as planned by next spring. A lucky thing too, seems he’s had a few of his workers get ill this past week.” He removed his overcoat and hung it in the small cloakroom off the main foyer, then took his father’s to hang as well.

Altman coughed and chuckled. “I may have picked it up myself, but I wouldn’t worry about Waldon. When he says he’ll get something done, he’ll have it done one way or another. He’s been working here with me for years.”

“Dinner’s ready,” Ann said as she led the way to the dining room. The rest followed.

“That’s Mr. Sias at the construction yard on the edge of town, is it not? The one with sick workers?” Maulden’s face was a bit more grave than Archerd was used to. He’d known the man for months now, since his sister introduced him to the rest of the family. They got along well enough, though their different fields meant that they had little opportunity to see one another save at dinners and events.

“Yes, he mentioned several workers have come down with something the last few days. Is there a problem?”

“Hmmm … I was visited by a constable from the police department earlier, apparently they received word of an epidemic that has broken out in Holdswaine. There was very little detail, so I don’t know that it’s of any relation to the sick workers, but I’ll have to keep an eye on the situation, and examine them if I can. You’ll want to keep an eye on your father too, just in case, and bring him to see me if he starts getting bad.”

They retired to the dinner table then, and to the parlor after that for an evening of conversation by the fire. Dr. Maulden said his goodbyes and returned home, and then the family drifted upstairs to bed, first Archerd’s mother, then Ann. Altman was rising to his feet, about to excuse himself when they heard a soft tapping at the front door, difficult to hear for the rain and the still crashing thunder. “Curious … Who could be calling at this late a time?”

“I don’t know, I’m certainly not expecting anyone.”

“I’ll get it son, you stay where you are.”

Archerd nursed a drink, hearing the front door open and muffled voices. His interest was piqued when the cloakroom door opened. He set his drink down and was rising to his feet when his father entered the room. “Archerd, there’s someone here to see you.”

He was just opening his mouth to ask who when suddenly he found his arms were full, the breath being squeezed from his lungs, and his nose filled with a powerfully familiar scent of jasmine. His startled eyes met those of his father, who simply smiled and left the room.

“Sunniva!” Worldly, serious green eyes met his with a sparkle that had an unaccustomed look to them; she hadn’t had much cause to smile in the past few years, he found himself thinking.

“Archerd. I’ve come a long way to get here.” She looked it, he thought with concern. Even with the traveler’s cloak hung away, her travel clothes were worn, dirty and damp, her eyes were black-circled with fatigue, and she looked drawn, and hungry.

“You look exhausted! Let me get a room set up for you, we have a spare.”

“Thank you, Archerd.” She was on the verge of collapse, exhaustion closing in fast; he could see it in her face. “We must talk, first thing in the morning, it’s vitally important.”

He led her upstairs to the guest bedroom; Altman, who had been anticipating this, was already finished dressing the bed. “Ms. Witherow will be staying then? As I expected. Wait just a moment, I think Kaylene has some bedclothes that will fit you.” With that settled, they retired to their respective beds.

When the morning sun rose, the rain remained, though the thunder and lightning had moved on to other lands. Sunniva had passed out before they’d had a chance to even offer food, so she tore through breakfast as though she were starving, somehow managing never to lose her decorum through the whole process. When they were done, which took some time since Kaylene and Ann insisted on meeting and fussing over the storied mystery woman of Archerd’s much-talked about train incident, she asked Archerd and Altman both to speak with her in the parlor.

“Mr. Dolet,” she exclaimed as soon as they were assembled, “I’ve heard all about you. Arch told me some of course, the night on the train, but in the three years since then I’ve heard much, much more.” She smiled. “Archerd, after we parted I spent a long time traveling, coming to terms with what I’d had to do, and what it meant for me and my future. A lot of that was about … well … killing those men. But more than that, it was also about betraying the Conclave.”

She sat down by the fire; the two men took their queue and joined her. She stared into the flames in the fireplace. “It would have been so very easy to simply return to them and go on as if nothing had happened. Or that’s what I believed at the time. They had no reason to think I was involved after all, and every reason to think you’d done it all. You certainly had reason. I could have slipped back into the ranks, resumed my post as a junior researcher studying physics and writing equations and all would have been well with the world, as far as they were concerned.

“What I found was that I couldn’t do that, Archerd. I went to the academy out of an intense need to know, to understand, and it seemed like that was my only route to that understanding. When I encountered you on that train, you opened my eyes to many things, but perhaps the most important was that the Conclave is wrong. They’re wrong to seal the knowledge of the world off from that world itself. They’re wrong to keep it locked away, accessible to only a few, leaving it unused, unknown, except when it suits their need for power or wealth.

“You showed me the possibility of knowledge escaped, of knowledge used, of practical uses that can make a difference in people’s lives. It’s a shockingly easy lesson to learn when the evidence is contraband technology that saves your own life. It took me time to accept it, but once I did, I knew I could never go back to them. At least, not as I had been.”

“As you had been?” Archerd’s brow raised.

“Yes. Many things about the incident on the train bothered me; chief among them the part where they tried to kill ever one aboard, of course. But beyond that, I wanted to why they handled the situation the way that they did. It was stupid, Arch, clumsy and stupid, and if there is one thing the Conclave is not, it’s stupid. The same can be said of their second attempt to reach you a year and a half ago. More ham-fisted brutality, throwing power out uncontrolled and half-blind.”

Altman was nodding. “I must confess the same thought has occurred to me.”

“Well, I realized I was in a position to at least find out, if not do something about it. About 2 years ago I got back in touch with friends I had there. Not people I’d worked with; people I’d studied with and who had moved on to other assignments after graduation.

“It was a dangerous game I played; you know the suspicion I held you in when I learned you weren’t with the Conclave, Arch. Things were made a bit easier by the fact that I did know these people, they knew I’d been in the academy, and they knew I’d gone on to work with the physicists afterward. It took a long time to start getting useful information about other areas of the organizations—”

“Organizations?” Archerd had thought it was just the one.

“Yes, the Conclave is often spoken of as a single organization, I know, but it works more like a … union of unions, I guess you could say. And that in fact was part of the reason for their ham-handedness. Information simply does not flow well within the Conclave, and they often find themselves facing situations where their left hand is acting without knowing what the right hand is doing.

“That brings me to why I’m here. That problem of information flow is beginning to change, and you — we — are going to have to be ready for it. The Conclave council recently elected a new chancellor, a man named Raedan Sholl. Everyone I know inside is in an uproar since he assumed primacy; he has the entire organization in a state of confusion. He’s implementing changes across all the individual unions and in how they inter-operate with one other.”

“It rather sounds like we should find this Raedan Sholl and thank him. They’ll be far less of a threat if they’re in a state of confusion, don’t you think?”

“For a time, yes, but maybe not for much time. His changes are attempts to improve efficiency and communication within the whole structure. He is also the picture perfect representative of Conclave policy with regards to renegades like yourselves … Like us.”

Altman sighed. “Yes, it would be best not to let our guard down too quickly, as nice as it is to hear that they Conclave is in disarray for the time being. If this Sholl is working to bring us more trouble, and do so more efficiently, we’ll have to use the time he gives us to be prepared. But Ms. Witherow, you said earlier that the flow of information was only part of the problem. Have you identified the rest?”

“Yes, and that’s the part that troubles me. I started looking into the history of the Conclave and their works; not a difficult task, they’re eager to let the whole world know how good and wonderful they are, after all. In that research, one thing became very clear, and that is that they have never faced a serious level of resistance to their ideas before. They’ve had the odd individual or two to deal with over the last few centuries, but never anything on the scale of Dolesham, an entire guarded community in a remote location with natural defenses resisting their ways. That is why they’ve handled their attempts to deal with this place the way they have; they’ve never learned how to deal with a threat like this. The approach they took with Archerd has always worked before; the approach they took with Dolesham was someone’s frightened “Get rid of them quick!” bungle compounded by poor communication with cooler, wiser heads above.

“With Sholl in the chancellor’s seat there’s a very real threat that that will change very shortly. As I said, the Conclave is not stupid. And they’ve studied their mistakes in handling you. They’re learning from those mistakes, and they’re not going to repeat them this time … and I am I afraid I know what it is that they’re planning to do this time. Have you had news out of Holdswaine lately?”

Archerd looked at his father. “Yes, a little. We discussed it over dinner. Ann’s man Dr. Maulden informed us that he’d been warned of an epidemic in Holdswaine. The doctor thought it might make its way down here, but he didn’t seem too concerned.”

“It’s possible it will, and it is a terrible illness so we should certainly be on guard for that. But more, it’s not just Holdswaine; many cities further north have been ravaged. It just arrived in Holdswaine recently and already thousands are sick, hundreds dead. I saw other travelers on the road myself, dead where they lay for the night.”

“I don’t understand; how does this help them deal with us? Are they going to send sick people here to make us all die of plague?”

“No; indeed, it would work better for them if we were spared entirely. They intend to strike at our credibility. They intend to blame Dolesham for starting the epidemic.”

“Blame us! How can they blame us? You said it started way up in the north!” Archerd’s face was flushed with anger, his stomach a chilled lump.

“As far as anyone knows, of course. But the facts won’t matter if they can make it sound plausible. How many will question the wisdom of the Conclave if they’ve got what sound like solid answers and someone to blame?”

“Did they start it then somehow? Did they create the epidemic to throw the blame on us?”

“I am pretty certain they did not. I heard the first whispers of people getting sick several weeks ago. I was up north myself, and there was talk of a small village that had been struck with it. Unfortunately the illness spread along with word of it, and it was already well established in Rillforth, the city I was working in, the first time I started hearing talk of it from anyone in the Conclave. Then it was days after that before I caught wind of the suggestion of placing the blame on this place.”

Archerd was on his feet and pacing, a frown plastered over his features. “This makes no sense. I can not believe they think blaming us for an illness will get them anything.”

Altman turned troubled eyes to his son. “We’ve seen over and over the power that reputation can have. In these many years, it has worked largely in our favor. What happens if they’re able to convince the people that we’re a force to be scorned, or worse, an enemy to be destroyed? It will be far worse than simply an end to the benefits we’ve reaped up until now.”

“Then … What? What can we do about it?” The frustration over the injustice was plain in his voice.

“I’m afraid you haven’t heard the last of what I have to tell you.”

He stopped his pacing and turned to face her, expression hard. “I can’t wait to hear this.”

“In my last days in Rillforth, before I came here, one of my friends inside the Conclave contracted the illness. It is a terrible affliction, Arch. If you get it, your odds of dying are four in ten, and nobody knows any way to improve them, though there are plenty of ways to worsen them. I’ve never heard of a doctor able to treat it, let alone cure it. If it doesn’t kill you, it leaves you weak and sickly for weeks, even months afterward.

“Most of this I learned from that same friend, days after he came down with it. I saw him after he’d contracted it, and it was terrible. His skin was like ice, he was shivering and coughing, and weak, so weak. When I saw him again days later, it was as though he’d never been ill!”

“But I thought you said no doctor could treat nor cure it?”

“No doctor that I know, no, but I hardly know every doctor in the Conclave’s employ. They must have a treatment, or even a cure. There’s no other explanation! Not once did I ever hear of a Conclave member dying of it, though he was far from the only one to contract it.”

“That doesn’t prove that they have a cure …”

“I know, but is the only explanation that makes sense.”

“But if they have a treatment, or a cure, why aren’t they using it? Ahh, but I forget myself, it is of course the Conclave we speak of. It’s not in their nature to share their knowledge or the benefits of it with anyone outside themselves unless there’s a clear benefit to it.”

Altman nodded. “I have to agree there. But Ms. Witherow, that suggests a possible avenue of defense. If we could learn enough of this treatment or cure, even get a sample of the medications required, perhaps we can cut this Chancellor Sholl’s plan short preemptively. We do have a small window of opportunity before Sholl will be able to get the organization running at full efficiency.”

She pursed her lips in contemplation. “There is that possibility, but the question then becomes how we’re going to get the information we need? We can’t just go up and ask them.”

“Improving efficiency.” Archerd’s pacing had stopped once more, his eyes distant.

“Excuse me?” Sunniva sounded non-plussed rather than offended.

“Improving efficiency! That’s a process I’m more than a little familiar with in my own work. Generally it’s done by making something work smoother and better by using fewer parts. And what do you do with the parts that aren’t needed anymore? You cast them out of course. Discard them.”

“So you’re saying …”

He smiled. “I think it’s time we started recruiting.”

 

* * *

 

 

The remainder of the day was spent planning the trip. Holdswaine was selected as the destination of choice, both for its proximity and because as the largest city in the nation, it was the easiest to blend into. Archerd insisted he should be the one to go, but Sunniva wouldn’t hear of any plan that didn’t include her.

“How exactly do you plan to learn who to approach, Arch? You need me there, and there’s no way around it.” The fury in her eyes at the idea that she might be left behind flashed green sparks at him, and he physically backed away, hands raised. Altman couldn’t help but laugh.

“She’s got you there, son. I wouldn’t try to leave this one behind if I were you.” Archerd wasn’t sure if there was a double meaning in there or not, but he took he hint as gracefully as he could manage.

About midday they were joined by Dr. Maulden and by Inspector Hew within minutes of each other.

Maulden’s face darkened at hearing of the potential treatment the Conclave possessed. “I wish I could say I was shocked, but I’m not. I am frankly disgusted though. If it is true that they have a cure or even just a treatment, they are ethically required to make use of it. Archerd,” he continued, “I came with bad news I’m afraid, and it’s just as well you’re here, Chief Inspector. It saves me a trip to the police headquarters. I examined the ill workers Mr. Sias mentioned yesterday, and two of them are showing early stage symptoms similar to those Ms. Witherow describes. A third was much further along, and I regret to say he passed away over night. His body was discovered in his home this morning.”

Sunniva clapped her hand to her mouth, eyes wide; Archerd closed his, letting out a deep breath. “So it’s here then.”

“Do you have any recommendations, Doctor?” Hew’s voice was subdued but not surprised. “I came with similar news, actually. We’ve been questioning people at the docks and those who live near the border of town on the roads, as well as local inn-keeps. A traveler with a cough did pass through town about a week and a half ago, and the three workmen all started showing symptoms late last week around the same time.”

“That matches what each of them told me.” Maulden frowned. “Which means there’s no sure way to know how long—”

Altman coughed then, with a hoarseness he’d lacked yesterday. Maulden rushed to his side and began to check him over. “Inspector, I’d like a word about how we can deal with this. Archerd, I wish I could go with you, the sooner I can get my hands on the information needed for treating or curing this, the better, but I’m needed here much more. Go, and quickly, and get back here as fast as you can with whatever you learn.”

“We can do better than that, Doctor.” Hew held up a communicator, small enough to fit neatly in his palm. “Archerd invented this several years ago. We can stay in constant contact while they’re away. Archerd, do you have one we can give the Doctor?”

“Absolutely. I’ll get one for you right now.”

He left to run upstairs, but Maulden followed after and set a hand on his shoulder when they were out of earshot of the room.

“Do me a favor, Archerd. Keep your mother and my Ann away from your father as much as you can. They’ve shown no signs of having caught this yet, and I think we’re going to have to move your father and all others showing signs of the illness into an isolated place. It’s a technique I’ve had some success with before.”

“How will that help him get better?”

“It won’t. But it may keep others from getting ill.”

Archerd frowned, but nodded. “I understand.”

 

* * *

 

 

“You’re sure about this?” Sunniva looked at the steam-driven carriage doubtfully.

“It’s no Skyward Bound, I admit, but she’s still perfectly reliable, and you’re still exhausted from your trip here. Do you really want to go back on foot? Or even on horse?”

“Not especially, but won’t this attract an awful lot of attention?”

“We’re just travelers on the road. Steam-powered carriages aren’t so unusual that it will automatically mark us as being from Dolesham unless someone takes the time to examine the inner workings, and that would have to be a detailed examination by an expert, at that.”

She sighed. “Alright, fine. I may not agree, but my aching feet certainly do. Since I’m outnumbered three to one, I admit defeat.”

Archerd grinned. “Look on the bright side. At least this time we’re stuck together on transportation that works, and there’s nobody trying to kill us.”

“True. At least not yet.” But she smiled.

Kaylene and Annis had not been pleased at Dr. Maulden’s insistence on moving Altman, and Archerd winced at the thought of the dressing down the good doctor was likely to get from his dear sister in the near future, but in the end they had accepted it, albeit with poor grace.

Archerd had then spent an hour making sure everyone was acquainted with the operation of the communicators and that everyone knew how to contact anyone should the need arise. He had spent some time further refining the capabilities of the devices in the past year, adding a simple form of address one could use to determine who was to be contacted, eliminating the need for mechanical manipulation of the devices’ internals.

“When this is over, Archerd, I’m going to put you to work equipping my entire staff with these,” Chief Inspector Hew had threatened admiringly. Several of his senior men already had their own and it had transformed the performance of the entire team.

Finally the carriage had been packed with everything the two would need, from clothes to food and even weapons, just in case. Sunniva still carried a pistol, though the one she had now was larger than the tiny piece she’d used years before. Archerd had staff and spear, and of course his unarmed proficiency. He’d maintained his training over the last year and a half until Kaylene admitted her son was damned impressive and he beat her consistently in every contest. She still maintained that in her prime she could have wiped the floor with him though, and Archerd didn’t doubt it. “Of course mother, but then, in your prime I hadn’t been born!”

His head still smarted after that one, but it had been worth it.

They set off with the roof up and lights on, and the rain pelting the canvas above them made for an oddly soothing start to such a serious journey. Sunniva stretched out on the front bench and slept a while as Archerd drove them out of the town and onto the road. As they passed the second tower, Archerd’s communicator lit a small electric bulb. He keyed on the receiving switch. “Archerd?”

“Yes, Doctor. How’s my father doing?”

“So far he’s doing fine. He’s not very happy mind you, but he sees the logic in it. The Chief Inspector was kind enough to send a constable for some of your father’s books and I’m keeping an eye on his condition. It’s difficult to say without more patients to compare him to, but if it’s any consolation, he does seem to be progressing at a much slower rate than Mr. Sias’ workers.”

“I’ll take that news gladly then. And how are the workers?”

“One is unchanged, but the second seems to be improving. It’s slow, mind, but I think he’ll recover.” Archerd breathed a sigh of relief. He didn’t know those men, but it was very easy to hear talk of this illness and forget that people did recover from it more often than not.

“I wanted to ask you a favor, Archerd. Keep an eye on anyone you pass. If you see anyone obviously sick and headed toward Dolesham, avoid them of course, but let myself and the Chief Inspector know about it. We’ll meet them before they get into town and make sure they’re cared for.”

“We certainly will, doctor.”

“One more favor; please, call me Tristram. It will give me some hope that your sister may speak to me again some day.”

Archerd chuckled. “Very well Tristram, but you’re on your own in dealing with her!”

Their progress was steady. The trip from Dolesham to Holdswaine was two days by horse at a typical pace on the road, and Archerd figured they’d probably make about the same time in the carriage. He could go faster, but Sunniva still needed rest and if they pushed it, they really would attract far more attention than he wanted to draw to them. Sunniva had been right in that the carriage did tend to draw eyes. Steam carriages were known on the roads, but still limited primarily to those wealthy enough to be able to afford them. That was the main reason they were bringing weapons; they weren’t expecting confrontations with the Conclave so much as the possibility of someone trying to make off with their carriage.

While Sunniva slept, Archerd did keep an eye on the road. There were relatively few travelers this time of year, and especially this year with the storms, but they did pass one small group of 4 on horseback when they were several hours out. They waved cordially as they passed; one of them was wrapped tightly in blankets and coughing. Archerd slowed the carriage down.

“Excuse me! Are you looking for medical attention in Dolesham?”

“That wasn’t the purpose of our trip, but our friend has taken ill along the way, yes. Is there a doctor there?”

“Yes, and he is working with those who have come down with the illness that’s taken Holdswaine. Keep on ahead, you’ll find help.”

“Thank you, sir. A good day to you!”

“Likewise!”

He clicked on the transmitter of the communicator. “Tristram, it’s Archerd. We just passed a group of four on horseback; they’ll be looking for you, one of their number has taken ill, and it does look and sound like it’s the same illness.”

“I’ll let Hew know and meet them on the road. Thanks, Archerd. You’re father’s still doing alright. There’s no sign that he’s getting any better, I’m afraid, but he also hasn’t gotten any worse.”

“I’d much rather hear that than that he’s getting worse, so my thanks to you as well.”

They didn’t encounter any other travelers on the road that day. After a few hours Sunniva awoke and Archerd taught her how to drive the carriage, a task that occupied them until the sun was low in the sky and they turned their attention to finding a place to set up camp for the night.

It was almost dark by the time a suitable clearing presented itself, and Sunniva pulled the carriage in with Archerd’s guidance. They were well stocked for camping, and quickly had a fire blazing in a pit left by previous travelers.

“We’ll likely arrive tomorrow around nightfall.” Archerd poked the fire with a branch while a pot of stew simmered.

“We’ll have to find an inn and likely stay for a few days. Will the carriage be a problem?”

“No, I know several that are accustomed to storing them, and I’ve got money to ensure there’ll be no problems. How do you plan to get in touch with the Conclave once we’re there?” She had been vague about that part of the plan back at Dolesham.

“I told you, I’ll get in touch with my contacts.”

“But who are these mysterious contacts?” He couldn’t help it; a touch of irritation hit his voice. She arched an eyebrow at him.

“Would you like a list of names, then? Maybe their home addresses?” She drew away a little, and the coolness in her voice had nothing to do with the rain.

“No, I …” He trailed off, unable to fully articulate it. In his mind, he was replaying the conversation they’d had in the parlor; he remembered vividly how she’d referred to you several times, as though she weren’t really a part of their group. As though she were still part of the Conclave. “Forget it, never mind. I’m being ridiculous.”

“You certainly are.” The coolness was diminished, but not gone. They ate in silence, and slept apart shortly afterward.

They spent the next day in strained conversation, taking turns driving the carriage; they passed nobody living on the road, though they did pass a couple of unfortunates who had left Holdswaine and not made it to their destinations. Archerd called these in to Dr. Maulden, more for an update on his father than because it would be helpful. “I’m glad you contacted me, Archerd. I’m afraid the news isn’t good. Altman is getting worse. It’s progressing very slowly, but the sooner you can get me information, the better.”

“Alright Tristram, Sunniva will be in touch with her contacts as soon as we can manage.” Something in his voice must have grated on her; she gave him an icy glower.

Just before nightfall they reached the city. Guards at the gate stopped them as they approached. They’d prepared for this possibility with false names. Archerd assumed a look of blank boredom, and Sunniva smiled an empty smile.

“Hold, travelers. This city’s fallen to a bad illness; surely you’ve heard the news by now?”

“The epidemic, of course. But cough or no cough, business does go on, doesn’t it?”

“You’re free to enter, but it’s on you, sir. Don’t say you weren’t warned. Off with you then.” He stood aside and the gates opened; they drove in and navigated the wide, empty streets to the inn Archerd had referred to.

 

* * *

 

 

Raedan Sholl wrote diligently, one crisp, well-formed letter after another. He had a mountain of paperwork in front of him that would have turned other men’s stomachs to ice, but he was methodical, precise and efficient, and less than an hour later only a fraction remained. A knock interrupted him as he was beginning the final paper; frowning in irritation, he promptly shouted, “Yes? What is it!”

A minor functionary poked a young head in the door, visibly pale. “Sir, a communication came in through the box and I’ve been asked to ask you to come with me to the control room.”

Sholl frowned. His frown carried the weight of 50 years, most of that with the Conclave, most of it with authority that brooked no wasting of time. “Very well, but this had better be important.”

“Yes sir!” the young man virtually squeaked.

“Chancellor, you asked to be alerted of suspicious activity? We just received word from Holdswaine of two new arrivals in town. They came from the south; nobody has arrived that way in days, and they were in a steam carriage.”

“That’s unusual perhaps, but suspicious?” The frown remained firmly in place, and the man, a senior Conclave mechanist of some years, paled just as the younger man had. It made his skin look almost white even up to the top of his balding head.

“We-e-ell, sir, the lack of traffic is the thing, Holdswaine has been hit hard by the epidemic, and the nearest community of any size is … is Dolesham, sir.”

The chancellor nodded. “Very well. Put out the word to report anything unusual to this office immediately.”

“We’re not to put the city on alert?”

“We won’t jump at every shadow, no. If anything unusual does come of this, then it will be worth reacting. But I won’t have an entire city getting jumpy because some rich brat with more money than sense took a joyride somewhere he should have avoided.”

“As you say sir.”

Sholl snarled as he returned to his desk. His schedule was now off by several minutes. He almost hoped something did come of the interruption, if only to make it worth it.

 

* * *

 

 

“Everyone must be trying to avoid getting sick.” Archerd found the sight of the empty city strangely unnerving. Sunniva made no comment.

They checked in, taking separate rooms. Archerd found it difficult to sleep with the cloud of tension between them; he wished he could just forget his misgivings, but his thoughts went round and round and round his head until he couldn’t even pretend to sleep anymore. Hours before dawn he found himself drinking in the inn’s common room.

As the sun began to rise, Sunniva appeared. She looked much improved today; clean clothes, lack of rain, and adequate food and sleep had done wonders. The only problem was the disgusted glare she threw his way. “Up early to enjoy the local night life, I see. Or morning life? I’ll be off then, you won’t be of any help in that state. I’ll contact you when I learn something, if your head is still working.”

He hadn’t been drinking so much that he was out of his mind, and was about to protest but she was gone. He cursed to himself. He was tempted to go back to his room and use the communicator to reach her, but that would draw attention to her, especially if she were around Conclave representatives. Of course I don’t really know she’s not telling them all about us anyway, he couldn’t help but think, and then hated himself for thinking it.

 

* * *

 

 

Sunniva stormed away from the inn, trying to quiet her thoughts. What had gotten into him? She’d spent weeks traveling through dangerous territory, avoiding the sick and dying to bring vital information to him and his family, only to be treated like she couldn’t be trusted?

She quivered with anger, and stamped down on those thoughts before they could get her in trouble. The weather was clearer today than it had been in a week; there was no rain, and even a hint of sun in the sky. There were more people out in the morning, if only a fraction of what you’d expect in a city this size.

She reached her destination, a large building of stone and brick not far from the Academy. She remembered the area well, and sighed internally at the knowledge she’d acquired in the years since, knowledge that now made her feel these people were an enemy she had to fight even while some of them were genuinely friendly.

The building housed the Academy’s primary research facility, housing labs for medics, physicists and many others. She had several friends who worked in the physics faculty there. One in particular had been sweet on her during their Academy days; she was hoping she could convince him to part with any rumors that might be floating around about the epidemic; exactly what illness was it? Why were Conclave people recovering so well while so many others died?

She pushed all that out of her mind and straighted herself out; she entered the front doors headed for the physics department.

There weren’t too many people around at this time, but she’d expected that, and knew that a lot of the researchers kept odd hours. They scheduled themselves to the pulse of their experiments rather than the rising and setting of the sun.

She found the lab she was looking for; last she’d heard, this was where Manton had been working. She hung her heavy overcoat on a coat rack outside the door and stepped into the room.

As she’d hoped, Manton was there, as were several other researchers. They looked up in surprise at the unexpected interruption.

“Sunniva?” Manton was tall and lanky, and apparently hadn’t outgrown his adolescent awkwardness yet. He was well dressed though; the Conclave was taking care of him well it seemed. Dark hair was bowl-cut around his head and he peered at her in astonishment. “What a surprise! And to see you here this early.”

“Yes, I just got in last night, I wanted to surprise you. It’s been AGES since we talked, Manton! I’ve been in touch with several of the others in our little group. Why have you never tried to get in touch with me?” She added just a touch of pout to this last, and it was genuine; he’d been part of a close-knit group of friends she did in fact miss dearly at times.

“Um … Well,” he started. She’d clearly caught him off-guard.

“I can guess. They do keep you busy don’t they? I know I hardly have time to sleep myself.” She smiled.

“Yeah, they do at that.” He ran his fingers through his hair. “And especially lately with the illness going around … There should be twice as many people here today, but everyone’s in medical.”

“It’s that bad here?” She grimaced. “I’d heard Holdswaine had it, but didn’t know it was THAT bad.”

“They say you’re fine as long as you don’t spend time around sick people. You can get it if they cough on you or if you touch their fluids. Disgusting, I know.”

She mentally nodded to herself. So Dr. Maulden’s idea of separating out the sick from the healthy would at least work to keep the healthy from getting sick. That was something, anyway. “Yes, they told us as much in Rillforth, too. Manton, if you’re free later, maybe we can catch up?”

“Yes, of course! I’d love that.”

“Great. While I’m here, I’d like to see Seaver as well. Is he still here?”

“Seaver? Yes … but he’s in medical. He started showing symptoms yesterday.”

“Oh, the poor dear … do you think they’d mind if I stopped in to check on him?”

“That’s usually not …”

“I won’t bother him long, I promise. I’ll see you later, Manton!” She closed her eyes after turning and leaving the room. She hated using a friend like that, but couldn’t think of a better way. She collected her coat, squared her shoulders and marched off toward the medical wing.

 

* * *

 

 

Manton stared after Sunniva in shock and wonder. “That … was weird.”

The senior researcher on duty narrowed his eyes at the younger man and nodded. “Yes, I should say it was indeed.”

He walked back into his office to the bulky communicator unit there. He pressed Transmit.

 

* * *

 

 

Raedan Sholl was in a particularly good mood; he’d finished a record amount of paperwork in a record amount of time, especially for the early hour, and no interruptions this time. Things were running smoothly. This pleased him immensely.

“Chancellor, sir! We’ve got the senior researcher at the Academy physics lab on the communicator. I think you should talk to him directly, sir.”

“The Academy? Holdswaine again?”

“Yes, Chancelor.”

His brow furrowed, he nodded. “Very well.”

 

* * *

 

 

It took Sunniva a few minutes to get to her destination; Physics and Medical were on opposite sides of the fairly large building, and on different floors to boot. When she arrived there, she asked the first medic she found about Seaver. The medic looked at her strangely a moment, but directed her to a room that wasn’t far away.

When she got there, another medic was setting a tray down on a table next to Seaver’s bed. He looked awful; his skin was bluish, and he couldn’t stop coughing. She gasped involuntarily; he reminded her vividly of the corpses she’d run into on the road to Dolesham days earlier.

The medic looked up in surprise at her gasp, but Seaver didn’t seem to have noticed. When the coughing subsided, his eyes remained closed, his breathing fast.

“Who are you?”

“I’m a friend of his. Is he … okay?” She walked in closer; the tray on the table held a small container of some yellowish liquid and a syringe. She kept her eyes on Seaver though. It wasn’t hard to do; she almost felt like she couldn’t take her eyes off him.

“He will be once we get some more of this into him.”

“What is it?”

“Penicillin. Something new they cooked up in medical research a few years ago. It works amazingly well on this bug.”

“Bug? I’m sorry, I wasn’t expecting him to look this bad …” She picked up the container of liquid and examined it with a look she tried to make as vacant as possible.

“Hey! I’m sory miss, you can’t—”

There was a commotion further down the hall; a distant sound of booted feet in a hurry. Without a second thought, Sunniva ran, fast, pocketing the container, ignoring the shouts from the medic behind her. She tried to draw on her experience of the last few years avoiding suspicion from the Conclave, but there wasn’t much chance of that right this moment; she was too out of place in the medical wing dressed as she was.

With sudden inspiration, she dove into an empty door away from the nearest exit, finding herself in another hallway. There was nobody running down it, so she rushed down a few doors and slipped into a room, and took stock.

The sound of booted feet passed by the hallway she was in, but she didn’t have long, maybe only seconds, before someone returned to check it out. Closing her eyes and hoping as hard as she could, she rushed the rest of the way down the hall. As she’d hoped, she spotted a plain door at the end marked Stairs. Throwing it open, she rushed in, then froze; she heard nothing. She closed the door as quietly as she could.

The stairs led in one direction only, down. She fought to calm herself and slow her breathing. Downstairs at this end of the building was … Was … I should know this, she thought in frustration. She reached the bottom of the stairs and heard booted feet, but it was distant, and rushed. They’re confused, she realized. They were alerted to my presence, but they don’t run into this kind of situation every day. 

That could only help her, she knew. The one lesson about infiltration she’d had to learn and learn well was that blending in required you to look like you belonged, and if they were confused, maybe they didn’t know exactly what she looked like.

Materials. That’s where she was. The materials labs were much easier to blend into than medical. Materials researchers looked almost exactly like her own physics people. Taking a deep breath, she opened the door at the bottom of the stairs and stepped out.

So far so good. She was tempted to make for the main entrance and leave as she’d entered, but it was still early and there weren’t that many people in the building. She was a long way from there and there’d be time for word of her appearance to spread to security men who hadn’t seen her in Medical. Maybe not then. Better find some way out around here.

The ground floor was laid out very differently than the upstairs. She found herself in a hallway running perpendicular to the one she’d been in up there — and there was an exit marked at the far end. She took a quick look around, secured her coat over her arm, and started walking as normally as she could manage.

She’d gotten about halfway when the door to the stairwell behind her burst open and a loud “HEY!” reached her. One split second of panic undid her resolve to blend in, and she found herself racing for the door. The echoed pounding of feet told her someone was chasing, and she redoubled her efforts. She was a few steps away when suddenly the trailing footsteps stopped; she pushed open the door and a loud —CRACK— rent the air, her arm exploded in pain. Half stumbling, half running out the door, she kept running as fast as she could.

Cold started to overtake her as she raced down the street; she wasn’t sure if it was shock from her arm, which was a mass of hot pain, or if the morning had gotten a lot colder since she arrived. She started to pull her coat on and found it covered in blood; she’d been shot, and the bullet had passed through it to get to her arm.

She struggled into it anyway, knowing it was going to make her stand out like a sore thumb; it was a light color, and the blood showed clearly, making her look like a victim of some terrible accident. Not so far from the truth, she supposed. Except for the accident bit.

With the coat on, she did in fact feel warmer, which she thought was a good sign; with her good arm, she fumbled her communicator out of a pocket. It was already set to talk to Archerd. “Ar— Archerd …” She sounded drunker than he’d looked earlier, she remembered with a flash of anger.

“Sunniva? What’s wrong?”

At least he sounded okay now, and he was answering quick enough. “Shot … Academy labs building. They shot me, I’m a mess, get the carriage and get here now! I have the medication,” she added almost as an afterthought, and checking her pocket to make sure it was still true. The container was safe and secure, at least as long as she was.

“Shot! The Academy labs building, on my way.”

She left the device on but slipped it into a pocket. There still weren’t many people around, but there were enough that that device would stand out almost as much as her coat did. She ducked into an alley and tried to look drunk. It wasn’t difficult. Her head was clearing a little, but her arm was throbbing and she knew she was still in shock.

She’d made it several blocks away from the building, and when the alarm bells sounded she heard them clearly. She forced herself to ignore them, as though they were the furthest thing from her mind. Hurry up, hurry… she thought. Then risked using the communicator again. “Hurry up Archerd, the alarm bells are ringing!” She thought she’d done pretty well to keep her voice to a whisper.

“Almost there,” she heard in reply.

 

* * *

 

 

“Almost there,” he replied. There. She was just inside an alleyway, stepping out to meet him. Archerd started a turn as he slowed, and she ran out and clumsily clambered up and in. “How bad is it?” His voice was tight with tension and worry; his doubts seemed even more petty and unreasonable in the face of this. “Are you okay?”

She shot him a look, but he couldn’t tell if she was angry or just in pain. “I’ll be fine. Let’s go!”

He finished the turn and took off back the way they’d come. “Sorry I was delayed. I grabbed as much of our stuff as I could out of our rooms, including your ID.”

Some of the tension left her then. He almost thought she smiled. “Thanks. I was afraid you’d have left those in your rush.”

“Not a chance. Now let’s leave this place behind, shall we?”

He concentrated on driving the rest of the way out of the city; he was going fast, faster than he’d ever gone in a carriage. Must be almost half again as fast as the fastest horse he’d ever seen, he thought, and immediately part of his brain started thinking about the best way to gauge the speed the carriage was moving. The gate out of the city came into view and he shut that part of his mind down; the gate was still guarded, and they weren’t slowing nor stopping.

 

He hit the acceleration pedal and the carriage surged forward. He wished for a moment that carriages weren’t so wide; the mass made them accelerate slowly. It also gave them a lot of momentum though, and that was about to be really helpful as they approached the gate full of guards gesturing wildly for him to stop. The wheels clattered over the cobblestone, raising a racket that set his teeth on edge; they were going far too fast to stop anywhere near the gate. He was able to see the whites of the guards’ eyes as they cried out and scattered, and they were through.

Sunniva was white-faced beside him, eyes screwed shut, hanging on with her one good arm for dear life as the carriage bounced and jolted along the road the rough road. He risked a glance backward and his own eyes widened. Behind them were several more carriages rushing through the gate, and following them riders on horseback.

“I’m sorry, I have to maintain speed. They’re coming after us.”

The horses were the bigger threat right now. Their carriages didn’t have the advantage of a running start and would take several minutes to get up to speed. The horses had no such problem, but were also limited in how fast they could go. One wheel of the carriage jolted the whole carriage then, having bounced off a large bump in the road with a —CRACK— like a gunshot; he grimaced, but held the acceleration pedal down. “Keep it together, we need more distance … Just a little more, just a little more …”

He breathed a sigh of relief when the road took a turn downhill and they started picking up speed. Even better, the road smoothed somewhat; his hands were cramping from holding the steering wheel too tight for too long.

The road leveled out and he started breathing more normally. “I … I think we’re going to be okay now.” Sunniva opened her eyes at last, her own hand loosening from its death-grip on the carriage frame. He looked back again; he knew they were there, but too far back to see, for the moment at least. “I don’t know the top speed their carriages are capable of, but let’s hope it’s lower than ours.”

“Yes.” To say her voice sounded strained was an understatement.

“Sunniva … I—”

She looked at him without expression, but just then his communicator came to life with Tristram’s voice. The doctor sounded grave. “Archerd, are you there? Archerd, please answer if you can.”

“I’m here, Tristram,” he said.

“All thanks,” he said with relief. “Look, I don’t mean to press you, but have you learned anything yet? Your father … His condition is getting worse. Frankly, a lot worse. And it’s not just him. A lot more people have come down with this illness all over town; we haven’t seen a new case in a few days, my isolation ward appears to be helping contain the spread. But I’ve got over 30 people in here right now, and that’s not counting the 10 who have passed on. Please, tell me you have good news for me.”

“We do, Doctor. Sunniva got in and out of their medical research labs. She said she had an actual sample of the medication.”

“Here, give that to me,” she said.

“Doctor Maulden, Archerd’s right. I got in and I have a sample of the medication for you. They call it penicillin, and he referred to the illness as a sort of bug which I didn’t understand … Could it be some sort of insect?” Archerd looked over at that, but quickly back. They were still flying down the road at an amazing rate, the normally near-silent steam driven pistons churning audibly, and this stretch of road featured a prominent down-bank to a river below on one side, and a thick tangle of dense woods on the other.

“A bug … No, it’s a strange term but I’ve heard it before, usually referring to some sort of virus or bacterial infection. This penicillin must be a type of antibiosis agent.”

“Does this help you at all?”

“Maybe. You’ll have to get me that sample as fast as possible, but there may be something I can do in the meantime. It’s enough for some hope. Thanks to you both, you have been an invaluable help, but hurry as qui—” The whole carriage jerked as another wheel, this one on the other side, struck a bump Archerd hadn’t been able to see. They bounced on the bench with the force of the blow, and their possessions shifted in the back with a clatter. Sunniva cried out as her arm was jolted.

“What was that? Are you alright?”

“Yes,” she replied to the doctor through gritted teeth. “I was injured getting away. Shot in the arm.”

“All the more reason to get back here as fast as you can. I’ll need to look at that too.”

“Doctor, do all you can for Mr. Dolet. We’ll get there.”

“Good. I’ll see y—” Another —CRACK— followed by the sound of splintering wood as the large wheels of the carriage bounced once, twice, and one broke apart, pitching them around the bench. The communicator flew from Sunniva’s hand and vanished out of the carriage to the road; the broken side of the wheel came around again and the carriage lurched, still trying to speed on, pivoting around the wheel and slamming sideways into a tree growing up off the slope. Archerd slammed into the steering wheel, the breath knocked from his body; Sunniva tumbled into him, her weight throwing him halfway off the bench. With a creak, the carriage shifted downward, half clinging to the edge of the road, the other hanging over the drop, held only by the tree it had smashed into.

It took Archerd a minute to regain control of his body; Sunniva was frozen against him, afraid to move. In sudden panic, he gripped the wheel; one of the front wheels moved against the tree; in terrible, gut-wrenching slow motion, the carriage began to tip and fall.

 

* * *

 

 

Mr. Coll slowed the carriage down to a stop, the city guard next to him gesturing for the other carriage to do the same.

“There’s an awful lot of debris here. Get your men to check the area.” Broken, splintered wood and what looked like part of a carriage wheel were scattered on the road, and turning his eye to the sides of the road, he noted one trunk that looked as if it had been hit badly very recently. “There, have them check over there.”

He climbed down as the guard was having his men sweep the roadway. He’d never seen a carriage as fast as the one they’d been chasing, but that might not have turned out to be the advantage they’d counted on. These roads were awfully rough. Looked like they’d shattered a wheel. He smiled. Maybe finding them wouldn’t be so difficult after all.

“Sir,” the guard captain called from the road’s edge, “looks like they’re down at the bottom of this drop. They went off completely and landed in the river.”

“Is there any sign of the driver or passenger?”

“We’ll have to go down and check, and that’ll take time. It’s an awful long way down, an’ dangerous.”

“Get to it then.”

He turned back to the road, sweeping the opposite side with an idle gaze when a glint caught his eye. Crossing to it, he found a small wooden and brass box covered with knobs and switches. It was badly broken.

Coll represented the physics labs; he recognized the device’s importance. It must have fallen off the carriage when they lost their wheel. He was no expert on devices, however. He’d have to turn it over to someone who could examine it and determine exactly what it did.

He returned to the broken tree and waited for a report from the guards climbing down the side, turning the device over and over in his hands. Interesting … very interesting.

 

* * *

 

 

Archerd and Sunniva staggered through the woods next to the river one pain-filled step after the next. He tried not to breathe too hard; they’d been tossed around inside the carriage until the canvas ripped on the way down and they’d spilled out into the water. His chest was on fire; he had counted 3 broken ribs, and the rest of his body felt like one large bruise. All but his leg; he’d wrenched it. He could walk, but he was slow.

Sunniva was no better. Her arm was in bad shape after the fall. The bullet wound wasn’t too terrible; the pistol used to shoot her hadn’t been very powerful and the coat draped over her arm had offered some minimal protection. It was certainly very painful, but Archerd was sure it would heal well before too long. During the tumble down the hill though, she’d gashed the same arm, a long tear along her forearm that went deeper than he liked to see up towards the elbow. More distressingly, she’d knocked her head upon landing, and Archerd wasn’t sure how bad it was.

The worst of it was they’d managed to lose both communicators. Sunniva’s had flown out of her hand up on the road, that much she remembered. Archerd’s must have been lost on the way down, but he had no idea where it had ended up. Most likely it was down at the bottom of the river.

No, he thought. The worst of it is the cold. Even in the sun, they were cold. They’d salvaged warm clothing from the wreckage of the carriage, but both they and the clothing had been dumped in the river and were soaked through. They didn’t dare stop to try and dry off or warm up; they didn’t know how long it would be until their pursuers found the carriage, but they knew they’d better be long gone when it happened.

So they traveled with little more than the clothes on their backs, and, thankfully, the sample Sunniva carried. It had somehow survived the fall, probably because it had gotten tangled up in her clothing, which had kept it from falling loose and offered it some padding against the landing as well.

They kept to the far side of the river. Archerd would have much preferred to avoid having to cross it, but the ground on the other side was still far too steep.

It took several hours for them to reach a point where the land on the other side of the river was traversable, by which time the sun was high in the sky and they’d finally started to dry and warm up a bit. Sunniva was starting to come around a bit too, seeming much more alert.

“Come on, looks like we can cross over once we find a place shallow enough. I don’t know about you but I think I’d prefer to avoid another swim today.”

“No argument on that.” He looked at her in concern; he wished he could contact Tristram. He knew blows to the head were tricky things, but aside from what he’d learned in his combat training, he knew nothing else about them. The full extent of what he’d learned with the staff and his fists was how to avoid getting hit in the head, not what to do when it happened.

He had to settle for keeping her moving, which they had to do anyway. They followed the river for another hour before finding a shallow point they could cross barefoot. The water was so cold Archerd was surprised it hadn’t started freezing over.

“Well, we’re back on the right side now … But do we follow the river back and regain the road, or try to cut across?”

The shock of the cold water must’ve done her some good. “I hate to lose any time, especially if things are getting bad for your father, but if we get lost or hurt on the way back we won’t be of much help to anyone, including ourselves.”

He looked at the river, pulling his socks and boots back on. “Alright then. Backtrack it is.”

Once they were both set, they retraced their steps on the opposite side of the river. “Once we’re back up on the road, I’ll be able to increase our pace. There are places we can save some time on foot.”

“Alright. I’ve never been this way on foot before. How’s your head?” She looked better, and definitely seemed more alert, though her arm was obviously bothering her a great deal. She’d had to take an extra shirt they’d scavenged from the wrecked carriage to tear up and use as a bandage for her wounds.

“It’s clearing. I’ll be okay.”

They made decent progress for an hour and finally came upon the steep hill that lead to the road once more. The hillside was just over rocky toward the bottom, grading to hard-packed dirt further up, and the road lay just over 6 meters up. They stood looking at it apprehensively. “I think we’re going to have to follow the base of it down here until it’s not quite so steep.” He was pretty certain his ribs and leg would make trying to climb that impossible, to say nothing of her arm.

They continued along, paralleling the road from the bottom of the hill. Very slowly it started to level out, though not quite enough that they were willing to try climbing it. Archerd’s slight limp was becoming more pronounced, and each breath was an effort of will, which was doing his broken ribs no favors. By the position of the sun, it was well into afternoon. The mid-day warmth, if you could call it that at this time of year, was fading fast, and while the clothes they were wearing had dried, the few heavier clothes they had with them were still damp.

“Come on, keep moving,” Sunniva said. Her voice was resigned somehow, a bit flat, but lacked any sign of anger. “We’re going to have to be cautious. We’re near enough to the city that we’ll be passing several guard towers. We passed them on the way in, remember? They keep the roads clear of thieves and bandits. Like us.”

“Guard towers. Yes, we passed several on the road, I remember.” She shot a sideways glance his way.

“What are you thinking? I know that tone of voice, you have an idea.” The ghost of a smile lit her lips and there was a welcome flash in those green eyes.

“I am thinking … we should not be in such a rush to get back onto the road. If I were stationed in a guard tower, the road is where I would be watching. I am also thinking that the guards will have horses.”

A thoughtful look crossed Sunniva’s face, and she rubbed her chin with the hand of her good arm. “I’m glad you’re back to thinking in ways I can appreciate, Archerd. The going will be slower down here, but yes, they’re unlikely to watch this direction, and if we can get a horse or even two, we might still make it back to Dolesham.”

Archerd nodded. “Exactly what I was thinking. And Sunniva … I am so sorry for how I’ve acted the last few days.”

She stared at him a moment. “Let’s just keep moving. There will be plenty of time for explanations later, and,” she said with a hint of a smile, “I can make you pay at my leisure when we’ve gotten this sample back to Dr. Maulden.”

He nodded. “Deal.” All his doubts about her loyalties had fled him after her ordeal to secure the sample and learn what she had of the illness. He almost wished she’d just tear into him though. As bad as he had felt for doubting her, his guilt now was far worse. She was right though, they didn’t have time to waste with their speed reduced as it was.

For another hour they made their way through the woods parallel to the road, routing around trees and thick scrub and rocks, climbing over fallen branches and avoiding thorn bushes. Archerd’s leg was getting worse. When it reached the point that he could do little more than hobble, Sunniva slipped under his arm to take some of the weight off, and they pressed on.

The first guard tower came into sight several hours later, for which they were both grateful. They hadn’t gone nearly as far as they’d have liked, and both were nearing exhaustion. The sun was invisible behind the tree and the light was beginning to fade, and temperatures were beginning to drop. They were shivering, clinging together now for warmth as much as to enable Archerd to keep moving.

“There it is.” The slope was much reduced, though would still be awkward with Archerd’s bad leg and cracked ribs. It was also a shorter slope, only 4 meters here.

“We should come up on the tower from behind. It’s our best chance for remaining unseen.”

“Where do they keep the horses?”

“Usually these towers have pens and stables off to the side and a little behind the tower itself. We won’t know for sure until we get closer.”

They spent another third of an hour carefully making their way directly behind the tower, partly to avoid making noise that might give them away, and partly because it was getting very dark. The tower had a ring of windows near the top that glowed against the growing darkness with a welcoming light; it made for a very visible beacon.

Finally they were in position. The trees were old here, with large, thick trunks and a good canopy. A breeze stirred the air, adding to the evening’s chill. “I haven’t seen any movement around the tower. Granted, we can’t really see the base of the tower from down here, but I haven’t heard anything either, have you?” Archerd’s voice was a bare whisper; they were close enough that they didn’t want to risk their voices carrying.

“Once or twice I thought I heard horses, but it is awfully still. I passed all these towers on my way the first time and there was definitely more activity then.” She paused. “I think I can make it up using just my good arm. It’s not so steep here. I’ll keep my distance but get a look around then come back down.”

“Okay.” No hesitation anymore.

She paused, nodded, face obscured in the darkness, then started making her way slowly up the hill. It was slow going, and she froze every time she knocked a rock loose and it tumbled, or snapped a twig, or rustled some leaves, but still there was no noise from above. At least not from people; listening close, Archerd thought he heard the horses Sunniva had mentioned, though it was hard to be sure. The breeze picked up; he hunched at the base of a tree to keep out of the wind as much as he could. He was cold enough as it was; at least this will help mask any sounds we make, he thought.

She was out of sight for several minutes. He was starting to worry that something had happened when she reappeared at the top of the hill and started scrambling down as quietly as she could. “Come on, let’s get you up. There’s only one guard here, the others are all elsewhere. They must have been alerted to our escape. There’s one horse left in the stable. We’ll have to get it and go as fast as we can.”

“Only one? Okay. One horse certainly beats walking. We can ride together. Do you have your pistol in case the one guard spots us?”

“I’m afraid not, that was lost when we crashed this morning. I jammed the tower door shut though. It will take him some time to get out.”

They made their way back up the hill, Archerd biting his lip with every jolt to his leg or ribs. Finally they reached the top; Sunniva had done a bit of preparation in her trip up previously. The horse was still in the stable, but it was otherwise ready to travel with several large blankets over his back in place of a saddle. Together, the two limped their way over to him and approached slowly. “Guards change mounts regularly, he should be okay with strangers … I hope.” Sunniva moved close to the horse and patted him, then motioned Archerd closer. The horse looked more curious than concerned, and let him approach.

Giving him a pat, Archerd smiled. “Okay. If the rest have been called out, we have no idea when they might be back, so let’s get moving.”

With a bit of struggle, they both managed to get up astride the horse. The guards often wore armor and many were very large men, so the horse was strong enough to carry both riders without trouble. Archerd took the reigns and Sunniva held on behind him and they set off quickly.

The sky was dark, the moon a thin crescent, so they couldn’t travel as fast as they’d have liked. They were less than a half an hour’s travel from the tower when Sunniva tugged his cloak for his attention. “We should stop for the night, the light’s too poor to keep going.”

“We’re too close to the tower, though, aren’t we?”

“If we keep going, either we’ll run into another tower with more men, or we’ll run into some of those who are out looking for us. We’ll have to go off the road and into the forest, then come back to the road tomorrow.”

Archerd led them off and into the woods a ways. If the road had been dark, off the road it was pitch black, and they had to proceed very carefully. Within a few minutes they dismounted and led the horse on foot until they found a gully that offered good obscurement from the road.

They set up quickly; there wasn’t much to set up. Sunniva tied the horse to a tree near some grass, and took down two of the blankets they’d used in place of a saddle. These they used to huddle together under by the gully wall, trying to find some warmth.

“I wish we could risk a fire,” Sunniva commented once they were as warm as they were going to get.

“Yes … I wish we even just had the means to make one.”

“Arch, about your doubts about me.” Her voice was beyond tired, but serious.

“I’m so sorry about that, I shouldn’t have doubted.”

She jabbed him in the ribs with an elbow; he clamped his jaw shut tight to avoid crying out. “You’re forgiven. Just don’t be that stupid again.” She settled against him, head on his shoulder while he tried to regain his breath.

 

* * *

 

 

As the morning sun rose, they followed suit with far less grace; they’d managed to sleep but were stiff, achey, cold and by now, very very hungry. Archerd watched the horse grazing on autumn’s long, dry grass; It’s a shame it’s not that easy for us, he thought wistfully. At least they were dry.

Leaving the horse tied and contently grazing, they quietly crept out to examine the road. Neither of them happened to be expert trackers, so they couldn’t do anything clever like examine the myriad of tracks all over the surface to determine when it had last been traveled, by whom or how many there had been, but they were at least able to confirm that there was nobody within sight right then. That would have to be enough.

“We’re going to have to be cautious. We don’t know if they’ll be patrolling the roads looking for us. Did you see any active patrols last time you came this way?”

“They do, but it’s not something they do a lot of. When I’ve traveled in the warmer seasons they patrol more often. But if they’ve been actively looking for us, they may be out there in force, for a day or two at least.”

“Without food or the means to hunt, we can’t wait around for them to call off the search, unfortunately.” He started searching the gully floor; numerous broken branches littered the area where they’d gathered in the depression. He found a solid one of an adequate length and started cleaning off small twigs and leaves. It would make a decent staff to replace the one he’d lost, he decided.

They untied the horse and set off onto the road once more, riding at a quick but manageable pace. “Any guesses how long it may be until we reach the next tower?”

“On horse, at this pace, no more than two hours maybe.” She held on tightly with her good arm; they’d checked her wounds on rising and found the first signs of infection starting to set in.

“It’s a pity we didn’t get closer last night. How many men would you say there are per tower?”

“Anywhere from a half-dozen to a dozen? We’re getting farther from the city so more likely a half. Why do you wish we’d gotten closer?”

“Their horse will be fresher than ours. If it comes to a chase, we could be in trouble. When you came this way before, you used the road, right?”

“Mostly, yes. I ducked into the forest to avoid anyone else I saw on the road though, and I traveled at night.”

Archerd thought for a moment. “We can’t wait that long, they need the penicillin as fast as we can get it to them. We have to keep going. We can stick to the very edge of the road though. Keep your eyes open for anyone else on the road. With both of us watching, we should be able to spot anyone in the middle of the road faster than they’ll be able to spot us.”

“Then we make our way through the forest until we’re well past.”

“And we do the same when we reach the tower. There’s only the one left between us and Dolesham, correct?”

“Only one affiliated with Holdswaine, yes. The next ones we run into will be Dolesham’s towers.”

“That’s what I wanted to hear. Let’s go.”

 

* * *

 

 

Dr. Tristram Maulden paced back and forth, eyeing the communicator with a worried frown. He’d been unable to get any response from either Archerd or Sunniva for a day, and the lack of contact was disturbing. It seemed incredibly unlikely that they’d both just happen to lose their communicators at the same time, so the both of them going quiet simultaneously suggested something bad had happened. There was no way to know if they’d been captured, or lost the sample of that penicillin they’d told him about.

Annis Dolet entered the temporary work-space he’d set up. In order to isolate those who had come down with the illness, he had enlisted the help of the police and taken over half of a small warehouse they kept carriages and equipment in. It was secure, a little work made it relatively warm and comfortable, and there was plenty of space for at least 75 people. They were up to 50 patients now, and finding bedding was getting to be a challenge, but they were holding on for the time being.

“Tristram, have you heard anything yet?”

“I’m afraid not, no. I know you don’t want to hear this, but for the sake of the patients I have to work on the assumption that they’re not coming back to us, at least not in time to do these people any good.”

Ann’s face tightened, but she nodded. “I … understand. How is father doing?”

Tristram looked away. “Your father’s a strong man, my love. He’s fighting.”

“He’s not winning, is he.”

“We still have the antibiosis treatment left to try. It will be ready to test in a few more hours.”

“A few hours? He could be gone by then!” Her eyes were starting to go red, her jaw set, but her gaze was steady and intense.

He gently took her hand in his; her fingers clenched, then relaxed. “I know. But if it’s not prepared correctly, it might kill him faster. It’s much better to be sure.”

“Is there any way I can help?” 

“Of course. We can use all the help we can get right now.”

 

* * *

 

 

They rode in silence as close to the trees as they could without actually running into the trunks or catching themselves on low-laying branches, alert for any sign of travelers or guards alike. The rain had started again some hours before, soaking them again, but it was something of a mixed blessing. It made it more difficult for them to see anyone who might lie ahead, but it made them that much more difficult to see too, and further, made it almost impossible for anyone passing them by to hear them in the woods.

The constant drip of the rain and rustling of the leaves, the motion of the horse moving at something not quite a walk but just shy of a trot, all conspired to make them sleepy. Only their hunger and pain kept them alert.

Sunniva squeezed Archerd’s arm abruptly. “Stop!” He jerked on the reigns, confused.

“I don’t see anyone; what is it?”

“No, not anyone else. In the forest. I remember this area from last time, look over there.” She gestured with her good arm. It was difficult to make out, but he did see some small shapes on the ground around the bases of several trees.

“Mushrooms?”

“Yes, and they’re edible. Let’s stop for a few minutes. We’ll eat what we can and bring the rest.”

They were white balls, or actually caps once they got closer, some almost as large as a closed fist, while most were considerably smaller. They led the horse into the woods a short way and took one of the blankets off to use as an improvised sack. Archerd laid his improvised staff on a rock and they set about picking all they could get their hands on. There was a huge number of them. “All the rain lately has done them some good,” Sunniva commented almost cheerfully.

“First thing I’ve heard in years that’s made me welcome excessive rain.” Archerd pulled a particularly large one from the bag and took a bite. His face wrinkled a bit, but he kept chewing, slowly at first, then finished and swallowed. “I don’t know that I’d recommend this place to my friends for casual dining, but in a pinch it’ll do.”

“They are better cooked, but you do what you can with what you’ve got.”

They sat down to the serious business of filling their stomachs, talking in low voices. “How is it that every time we’re together, we end up trapped in a dreadful situation in only the coldest, most miserable weather possible?”

“Just lucky I suppose. It’ll make for quite a story to tell your children some day!”

“Yes, I suppose it will at—” and then they heard it. Further up the road, the faint sound of hooves clopping along at a slow pace on the hard-packed road, and a jingle of metal clanking on metal that suggested it was not just a fellow traveler. Eyes widening in sudden fear, Archerd grabbed up his staff, and they swiftly untied the horse. Very slowly, very quietly, they moved deeper into the woods while trying not to panic.

They had gone several dozen meters when the horse brushed against a thorn bush they’d failed to notice in the gloom under the forest canopy and let out a loud pained cry. They froze for a moment; the sound of the guard advancing got suddenly louder as he increased his pace.

“Go, go!” Archerd whispered urgently. He hefted his staff and put his back to a tree trunk on the far side from the road. “Keep moving ahead. I’ll catch him by surprise.”

Sunniva’s face radiated shock, but also understanding. “Be careful Arch, he has to be armed with more than a stick!” She grabbed the reins and increased her pace, leading the horse deeper in.

Archerd didn’t have long to wait; less than a minute passed before he heard a gruff male voice call “Who’s there? Show yourself!”

After a short time and the sounds of an armored man dismounting, the voice came again. “Don’t make me come in after you!”

Archerd closed his eyes a moment, gathering his breath, trying to center himself. He hadn’t been on his feet much that day, and that plus the rest the night before had helped his leg somewhat. It was still sore, but it would hold his weight again, at least for a while.

Loud, clanking footsteps approached from roughly the same spot they’d gathered mushrooms. A pause; Archerd could guess he was examining the many signs they’d left during their foraging and eating. After a minute, they resumed.

Archerd relaxed himself from head to toe, standing as still and silent as a part of the tree’s trunk. He ignored the rain dripping on his head, running down his face; his focus was on the footsteps, slower now, wary, approaching from behind. One after another, they came closer until they were beside him, and just past.

He was decked out in a banded mix of leather and metal, with a heavy staff strapped to his back and a pistol holster at his belt, currently empty; the pistol was drawn and ready in his hand. He wore a helmet, which was foolish, Archerd thought. Had he removed it, he might have spotted him.

Archerd didn’t give him that chance. Just about the time the guard saw or heard Sunniva and the horse ahead, Archerd shoved his own improvised staff in front of the man’s feet and braced it against a tree trunk. With a crash and a cry, the man toppled; Archerd tackled him, grabbing the staff from his back and pinning him in place.

He grabbed the helmet and yanked it from the man’s head, then brought the staff down on the back of his skull with a thump. He stood and waved to Sunniva, who was just visible in the distance and looking back; he didn’t want to call for fear anyone else was around. She turned and started back to rejoin him.

He took the pistol and was just considering what to do about the man when Sunniva caught up. “Leave him. Take his weapons and his horse; we could use a second. Leave the armor, keep any food and water he’s got. We’ll make better time with two horses than with one.”

A quick check told her that the man would be okay. “He’s going to have a walloping headache when he comes to, but he’ll be able to make it back to a tower.”

They quickly set about stripping the horse of its armor; they didn’t find any more food, but the horse was a treasure. A check of the road turned up no sign of any other guards near by so they resumed the original plan.

They rode out single-file to stay close to the trees. After half an hour they both saw it; the final tower rising in the distance, just visible over the treetops. Nobody else was in sight. Sunniva rode up next to Archerd. “We can’t afford to delay long. We have to go into the forest; there’s no way around that. But we’ve got to do it fast, we’re taking too long.”

“I know.” His face was grave. “Alright. We pick up the pace and go as fast as we can in there. Ready?” At her nod, they turned under the forest canopy once more. They did their best to stay within sight of the tower as it was their only real landmark in this shadowy world once they’d gone beyond easy sighting of the road. The towers weren’t designed for use as woodland travelers’ landmarks, though, and they had to keep a constant vigil for any sign of the tower top through breaks in the treetops.

The forest interior was very rough country away from the road, too. The land was rocky and broken between the great trunks, with only rare animal trails to ease the passing. None of the trails they found paralleled their course, so they picked their way through the rough terrain as best they could.

It took them several hours, during which time they stopped to eat again and Archerd had to awkwardly climb a tall tree with a lot of strong, low branches. “We’re okay… We need to keep going a bit further and then we can turn back toward the road.”

Sunniva’s arm was definitely infected, ugly purple spreading from both wounds. “We have to get back fast for your sake too.”

“Let’s worry more about the people who’s lives are at stake, shall we?” An edge was back in her voice, but it was the edge of strain and suppressed pain, not anger.

They took a shallow angle back toward the road; by the time they regained it, the tower was out of sight and they’d been in the woods so long the light was starting to fade. The rain, however, continued to fall.

They continued their practice of riding single file next to the tree line for another hour. They pulled abreast of one another to talk again after that. “We have to continue through the night.” Archerd’s voice was weary, but resolute.

“I was going to suggest the same thing. I doubt I’d be able to sleep anyway.”

They took back to the road again, returning to the much easier center of the road. It was going to be a long night.

 

* * *

 

 

The moon was at its highest in the sky, barely visible through the grey clouds above. The road had branched an hour before, leading them toward Dolesham and safety. Every clop of their horses’ hooves lifted their spirits just a bit higher, but nothing cheered them as much as the sight of the first of Dolesham’s watch towers.

The welcoming light pouring out of the guard station was sorely tempting with the promise of warmth, dryness and decent food, but with a resolute iron will they pushed on past it. Archerd waved to the guard on duty on the upper level as they passed; he was familiar with many of them from his martial training. The relief on the young man’s face made Archerd think for a moment.

“I really need to equip these towers with communicators of their own. Traditional units are too expensive to waste on the towers, but mine—”

“Come on Arch, mind on the job. Let’s get this penicillin back to Dr. Maulden before we worry about communicators and towers, hmm?”

“You’re right, of course. If they had communicators though, they could let them know ahead of time that we’re returning—”

“Come on and ride, Archerd! We’re almost there. Let’s go.”

The remainder of the ride home passed much faster. A half hour’s travel brought them to the next tower, and a half hour after that, the familiar lights of Dolesham finally lay before them. It was right then that they realized they didn’t know where Tristram had set up his isolated care center.

“We’ll have to return to the house.” He cursed himself once more for losing both communicators, but at least the house wasn’t far.

Upon arriving at the Dolet family home, they tied the horses off outside and climbed the steps to the front door.

Without a pause, Archerd strode into the foyer, noticing as he did that the house was well lit for this time of night. A crash and the sound of breaking china greeted him a moment later, and a shrill “ARCHERD!” split the air.

His mother Kaylene threw herself out of the kitchen where she’d been working, practically flying through the air to grab him in a tight hug. “Archerd! You’re alive! We’ve been so worried about the both of you! Why did you go silent! What happened to your communicators?” Her eyes widened as she took in the dirt and grime covering both of them, and she pressed a hand to her mouth in shock at the state of Kaylene’s arm, roughly bandaged and clearly in bad shape. “Oh my, dear, what has happened?”

“Mrs. Dolet, we’ll have time to worry about us later. We have the sample Dr. Maulden needs to finish his work, but we don’t know where he set up the patients. Can you take us there?”

“Of course, I was just getting ready to return anyway. Ann and I have been helping as best we can. Many people in town want to help, but Tristram, he won’t allow anyone who hasn’t already been exposed inside the place, and there are very few of us who’ve been around the ill who haven’t also come down with it.”

She took a moment to gather a collection of cloths and other supplies from the kitchen and led them back outside. She took the presence of the horses in stride, and didn’t ask about the missing carriage; Archerd supposed these details were nothing compared to the scenarios she must’ve had going through her mind.

“Mother, how is father?”

Kaylene’s face drew tight. “He’s still with us, but it’s been a terrible day. We’ve lost almost a dozen more since we lost touch with you, son. Tristram’s antibiosis treatment is helping, and keeping those who are ill separated from everyone else does seem to keep it from spreading. At the very least it slows it a lot.”

“If you don’t mind my asking, Mrs. Dolet, why were you back at the house if you’re supposed to stay separate from the rest of town?”

“We can’t stay completely separate. We still need some supplies after all. That’s why I was out so late, so I could at least avoid other people.”

They reigned in outside the warehouse where Dr. Maulden was set up. “Tie the horses out here,” Kaylene said, dismounting from behind Archerd and heading for the entrance. She knocked sharply several times while they dismounted and tied the horses off.

A very exhausted-looking Tristram opened the door. Archerd was shocked at his appearance; he was a little older than Archerd himself, but he had gained noticeable gray in his dark hair in the several days since Archerd had seen him last, and even his skin had a grayish cast to it. His blue eyes bore dark circles, and though he held himself with strength and assurance, something about his posture spoke loudly that it was all willpower keeping him going.

All of that changed when he glanced behind Kaylene and took in who was with her. A surge of energy filled him and his tired eyes sparkled. “Archerd! Sunniva! You made it!”

“Good morning, Tristram,” Archerd said with a tired smile of his own. “Yes, and Sunniva has the penicillin.”

“That’s not all you have, Ms. Witherow.” Tristram’s eyes had gone dark again as he spotted her arm. “Would you mind …” She nodded and unwrapped the bandages. Tristram’s face remained neutral. “It’s good you got here when you did. I need to take a look at that and soon.”

“How bad is it?” She was too tired to put a lot of feeling into her voice, but she sounded scared by his demeanor.

The doctor smiled reassuringly. “Nothing I can’t handle, don’t worry. But I can only handle it if we do it soon. Those wounds are infected, but there doesn’t look like there’s any gangrene. This makes it doubly good that you brought the penicillin. It’s a type of antibiosis agent, much like I’ve been using to treat the illness. Colleagues of mine have used such treatments for illnesses and infected injuries for the last several years with great effect. While you were gone, I contacted several of those colleagues for more information on antibiotes. One of them had heard of penicillin; it’s the most effective form we know of.”

Archerd put his hand on Sunniva’s shoulder. “Will you be able to help her with it?”

“I should be able to, yes. The infection is spreading, but it hasn’t gone far yet.”

“Can we enter? I’d like to see father, if that’s possible.”

“I … really don’t recommend it. I’ll allow it since you’ve already been exposed, both here and likely in Holdswaine, but I must ask you to avoid contact with those who haven’t shown symptoms yet. Sunniva on the other hand, I insist that you enter. You need treatment.”

Archerd nodded. “Alright.”

Sunniva headed toward the door. “I’m okay with that as well, doctor. I’m too tired to fight you about it anyway.”

Kaylene smiled in relief. “No worries about that, I think we can find you a bed.”

They entered the isolation area and Archerd was awestruck. Some 40 people were spread throughout the space with as much distance between each other as could be provided in the limited area they were kept in. Most looked to be sleeping, laying still on cots, shifting occasionally in place. Others looked worse off, hunched in on themselves and shivering.

Tristram had 5 people working there with him; 2 junior medics in their characteristic brown leather robes and 3 volunteers who had been exposed but who hadn’t shown any symptoms. Ann was among the latter.

“ARCHERD!” she shrieked, unintentionally mimicking their mother a short time before. She almost knocked him down with a hug and a furious glare. “What happened to you? Where is Sunniva?” Her eyes widened as she saw Sunniva laying on a cot, Tristram holding her arm for inspection with the crude bandages removed. “Oh… will she be okay?”

“It’s good to see you too, Ann.” Archerd smiled tiredly. “Tristram says she’ll be alright, but it’s a good thing we got here when we did. Where is father?”

“He’s recovering, but it’s going to take time. You brought the … what was it?”

“Penicillin. Yes, thanks to Sunniva. She risked her life to get out of the Conclave’s labs with it. That’s how she got shot.”

“Tristram will take good care of her, don’t you worry brother. He’s the best doctor she could have.” There was something in her voice as she said that that made him smile.

“I don’t doubt it for a moment. Don’t you let that one go, Ann. I think he’s good for you.”

She nudged him in the ribs at that, which doubled him over. With a gasp, she led him to his own cot.

 

* * *

 

 

Chief Inspector Rosston Hew paced back and forth in his office at the Dolesham Police Headquarters as the sun threatened to rise. He should have been home and in bed hours and hours ago, but he knew he wouldn’t be sleeping anyway; he was too wound up. A surprising number of his officers were still present too. The frustrating part was his inability to identify why he was so stressed. There was nothing specific he could point to aside from the silence from Archerd and Sunniva, and he couldn’t be sure of exactly what had happened there.

He was about to pour himself a drink to calm his nerves when the sound of pounding hooves outside drew his attention.

“Chief! A rider from the watch towers!”

The rider had just dismounted and was rushing up the building’s steps when Hew met him. “What is it, soldier?”

“Chief, a traveler from Holdswaine is here in a steam carriage. He has guardsmen from the city with him; they’re demanding to see you in the name of the Conclave. They’ll be here in minutes.”

“Are they now … If they want to meet with me, a meeting they’ll get. Back to your post now.”

“Yes sir!” He was back on his horse and riding faster than Hew would’ve thought possible. Ahhh, for the energy of youth.

He turned back to the station and strapped on his side arm, heavy coat and badge of office. That done, he turned to all assembled.

“Men, attention please. I’ve been summoned to a meeting at this most inhospitable hour, a summons in the name of the Conclave. I can’t think of a better way to greet them than in company.”

The men took their cue from Hew himself, dressing warm and armed.

“Excellent. Let’s go meet these people and hear what have to say.”

They were aboard their own steam carriages and moving within minutes, an impressive show for such an early time of day. They drove to the edge of town on the main road in time to meet a small caravan of 3 steam carriages. The two groups stopped in facing columns. Hew gestured for his men, and they dismounted smartly; the other did likewise.

“Chief Inspector, what manner of hospitality is this? I’ve always heard that Dolesham was a welcoming sort of place. How disappointing!” The man was dressed in an expensive and warm-looking suit with overcoat and top hat, and an ornate walking stick in his left hand. His right hand was adorned with a large ring.

“We mean no trouble, Mr. …?” Hew’s voice was cool, deliberately empty of emotion.

“Mr. Coll, sir. On behalf of the Holdswaine Conclave Laboratories. And you are?” A touch of pleasant amusement touched the man’s words.

“Chief Inspector Rosston Hew.”

“That’s more like it! Well met, Chief Inspector Hew. I wish the circumstances were more pleasant though. I wish to lodge a complaint.”

“Mr. Coll, I’m sure you’re aware that we both have communication equipment; any complaint you wish to lodge could have been done without requiring a trip all the way out here, especially at such a terribly early time.”

“He who hesitates is lost, Chief. You don’t mind if I call you Chief do you? No sir, the nature of this complaint is much too serious to conduct over a communicator, no matter how convenient such devices may be.” An unpleasant look came into the fellow’s eyes then. “We suffered a break-in at our facility several days ago, sir, and the culprits were followed back to Dolesham.”

“That’s a very serious charge, Mr. Coll.”

“Oh, but it gets worse. The interloper made off with some very sensitive material with bearing on the epidemic our fair city has been suffering. As a direct result, sir, our researchers have been set back months on their work to find a treatment for this terrible malady.”

Hew felt his blood pressure start to rise, and there was a growing sense of anger from his men, as well. This Mr. Coll knew full well … “I see. And I trust you’ll want our help in tracking this criminal down?”

“Your full cooperation is expected according to law, of course. I’ve done what I can to keep the people at our institution from spreading any undue rumors, but it would be very much in both of our interests to apprehend this thieving criminal before stories start to spread of a treatment delayed, or … dear me … even lost for good. That certainly would turn the tide of public opinion against whoever was responsible, would it not?” He almost seemed to gloat.

“You’re right, of course, Mr. Coll. I assure you I and all my men will do our utmost to ensure the criminals behind this outrage are brought to all the justice that they deserve.” His tone was flat and his message clear in his eyes. Coll didn’t miss it.

“Mr. Hew, it has been a pleasure, but we’re needed back in the city. If you don’t mind, we’ll be going now. You know what’s at stake. Be sure that you act accordingly.” With a curt nod of his head, his men boarded their carriages, leaving Hew and his men standing in fury on the road.

 

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