NaNoWriMo 2011 Story 5 - Day 30




 


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.