There was no warning. One moment Altman was climbing the short flight of steps to the front door of the house, and the next moment found the world a blur of pain and hazy mist.
After what felt like several weeks he managed to get his eyes open, though he couldn’t quite bring them into focus. He was lying down, of that he was fairly sure. It felt like a bed, with some sort of cover on it. The room walls, what he could see of them, were too light a color to be his bedchamber; Kaylene had had dark wood paneling installed shortly after they married. The medics’ wing then.
He shifted his arm, or tried — the movement caused his head to explode into bright whorls and spots of brilliant color and even more brilliant, blinding pain that quickly faded to black.
An indeterminate amount of time later he faded back into consciousness again. This time he could see a bit better; he was in the medics’ wing, as he’d suspected. This time there was a hazy shape at his side; he thought it might be Kaylene. There was a gasp as she recognized his awakening.
He shifted his eyes in her direction; definitely Kaylene. He didn’t try to move his head, mindful of what had happened last time he moved anything.
His wife laid a hand on his shoulder; he winced inward, but there was only the faint twinge of pain in answer. He’d been unconscious for some time, he guessed. Then he noticed the lead medic in the room; Cranford, her name was. He couldn’t recall her first name, and hoped that was due to whatever had happened to him.
He brought his focus back onto Medic Cranford. She was in her middle years, stout and strong, still slim of figure. She moved with purpose and stood next to Kaylene by his side. She was speaking, though it took him a moment to sort out her words.
“… his head. He’ll be fine now, though it was a nasty hit and he’ll be feelin’ it for some weeks I imagine.”
He had no doubt she was right; his head hurt fit to burst, and his stomach churned as he willed it to quiet. “How long?” he tried to ask. What he heard was little more than an incoherent slur.
“How long?” he tried again. This time the words were recognizable. Kaylene’s eyes had widened at his slurred speech, but Cranford seemed to take it in stride.
“You’ve been out the better part of a day, and scared me with it y’did too. That was a nasty crack on the head. Found you myself, lyin’ sprawled out on the steps right by the door, bleedin’ something fierce an’ a big stone fallen right from the roof beside you. Turns out the cut was worse than it looked, but y’got a good crack on the skull. It ain’t broke, mind you, but you’ll be feelin’ like it did for a while.”
“It’s a good thing you’re so hard-headed, Altman. Never thought I’d have to admit to it bein’ a good thing, mind!” Kaylene smiled reassuringly. “We’ll have you out of here in no time.” Her eyes, chestnut brown in a heart-shaped face, warmed him and soothed away the pain.
“She’s right, Mr. Dolet. You’re in better shape than poor Claver. Oh don’t be so worried,” she exclaimed, seeing his eyes widen. “He’s recoverin’ fine so far, and we’ve kept his arm free of infection. But he’ll be long in the healing, as we discussed the other day.” Her voice dropped low as she said the last, casting a significant glance at the far side of the room where Claver lay. His arm was immobilized, held fast with a series of strong, thin brass rods wrapped tight to upper- and fore-arm with wide leather belts to prevent movement. He looked to be asleep, or unconscious.
“He was fine. Just a li’l cut on ‘is arm is all. Painful mind you, he won’t be cuttin’ any trees any time soon I’m afraid, but no permanent harm.”
Three accidents in two days, two serious and one hardly worth mentioning. And the message. He’d almost forgotten the message; his head was still a little woozy. An ugly suspicion began to take shape in his mind then, and he closed his eyes. “Claver, is he awake? Can I talk to him?”
“’Fraid not, Mr. Dolet. He’s in a lot of pain so I’m keepin’ him on the poppiate.” Derived from poppy flowers, poppiate was a very effective — and popular — painkiller that in large doses was a powerful sedative as well.
“And Waldon, then? When can I go? I must speak with him.”
“You can go now if you must, though I’d rather you stayed. You ain’t gonna do that though, are you.” It wansn’t a question.
“No, I’m afraid not. Dearest, with your help…?”
Kaylene shot him a glance and took hold of his arm. “I’ll help you up and get you moving, but only to take you back to your own bed. If you need to talk to Mr. Sias, I’ll bring him to you!”
“That … that would be a relief.” His stomach was doing somersaults within him and he felt he must be showing a spectacular shade of green on his face. “But first I’d like to examine the stone that fell and hit me. Is it still where it landed?”
“The stone? Yes, it was there last I saw it. What of it? I told you when we moved in that roof was in need of repair.” There was some heat in that last.
They passed through the central hall and out the doors into the fresh air; it did wonders to clear his head. The stone lay near the top of the staircase in a small pool of dried blood.
He sucked in a breath and let it out slowly. He knew stones well; any geoscientist worth his salt would. He knew their composition and colors, their wear patterns and the effects of tools upon them. He knew their cuts and cracks. And he knew this was no stone from their house; it was too new, too unmarked by the elements. This was a stone from the tower construction site.
Someone had dropped it on him intentionally.
* * *
After some heated debate, Kaylene and Altman stood near the scene of Mitchell’s cutting accident. There was no sign of Waldon or his workers. “The sun is high; they may have stopped to wait out the heat and take lunch?” It was hot, even in the shade of the trees.
“Likely.” It was indeed likely, but Altman still had a bad feeling that had nothing to do with his injury.
“Indeed they are.” The voice, male and gruff, came from behind. “Mr. Dolet, I’m delighted to see you up and about.”
Kaylene whirled around; Altman turned more slowly. The figure was large, though not so large as most of the workers Sias had hired. He was dressed as they were, save a large dressing on his left arm. “Ahh. Mr. Mitchell. I should have guessed. I got the message you left … both of them, in fact.”
Mitchell’s eyes narrowed. “Ahhh. Yes, I am sorry about the latest … message. I’m afraid it’s cold comfort, but that wasn’t intended specifically for you. You surprised me in leaving your usual rounds so early, you see.”