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.”
Continue to NaNoWriMo 2011 Story 5 - Day 26
Continue to NaNoWriMo 2011 Story 5 - Day 26