NaNoWriMo 2011 Story 5 - Day 29

 


“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.”

* * *