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Chapter 33
By Setcheti Posted in Story on 3 April 2022 3239 words
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In the Land of Stories Old

Chapter 33


The Northern Rover left the harbor of Odinson as quickly as it could, getting the ship out far enough into deep enough water that hopefully none of the infected could reach it—although they were still keeping a tight watch on the sides of the ship, just in case. Merlin was sitting at the rail just staring out at the water, and Pino finally came over and sat with him. “This is not you being tired.”

Merlin shook his head. “This is me being in shock. The rumors said it was just a simple sickness, and then this…” He patted his jacket where the final letter from King Hugin was tucked safely into an inner pocket. “The king pledged unconditional alliance to the Black Isle for as long as his kingdom stands. Just because we were kind.”

Pino shrugged. “If it had been Vinci, I would have done the same—I have done the same. If someone helps your people when you cannot, that person is a good ally to have.” He looked down into the water, wondering briefly if any of the infected were down there, having been pulled into the depths by the tide. “I would not have thought, seeing them, that they would be able to swim.”

“I wouldn’t have either.” Merlin looked over the rail too. Everyone was paranoid now. They hadn’t expected, when they’d reached Odinson, that the infected would be in the water—or be able to scale the sides of the ship. “I know now that it’s not a regular sickness, though. It’s obviously from a curse, or maybe curse residue? Something. But there’s dark magic on the infected, tainting them. The physical symptoms are just a side effect.”

“The ones I saw on shore, through the glass, they had blood around their mouths,” Noki said, joining them. He, too, glanced over the rail. “And on their clothing as well, but in the way a child eating something messy would have that mess on themselves. Unfortunately the dead bodies I could see were too…well, they had been dead too long, so I could not tell if that was the cause of their deaths or if it had been something else.”

“So perhaps this taint drives them to seek meat? Or blood?” Pino pondered. “But that does not explain why they looked so sickly. If the taint causes them to crave blood…”

“It might cause them to crave it, but not allow them to digest it,” Merlin offered. “Humans can’t digest blood that way, it won’t sustain us and taking in more than a little bit is harmful.”

“Vampires are not harmed by it,” Jack pointed out, strolling over and glancing over the rail.

“The vampire curse changes the body,” Merlin told him. “This may be blood-borne the way that one is, though. And maybe when they bite, they pass it?”

“And if they are craving blood, whether they can use it or not, they would bite often,” Noki agreed. “That would explain how so many became infected so quickly, perhaps. No one expects a person to just come up and bite them.”

“No, they would not.” Pino was nodding. “So, that is one possibility: The infected crave blood, bite to get it, and so pass on the taint. And if it passes quickly from a bite, soon everyone is biting everyone.”

“And the people get sicker and sicker, because they’re basically starving to death.” Merlin was nodding too. “And the more hungry they get, the more…well, desperate they get, until they’re just feral.”

“It would explain the way they were behaving,” Jack agreed. “So what can we do about it? If it is a taint, can it be driven out?”

Merlin shrugged. “I’d think Alfred would have tried that when he first saw it starting on Odinson,” he said. “It can be difficult to cleanse someone of a taint, but it’s doable.”

“Maybe not if this was old magic?” Noki offered. “We know there are pockets of it, like the cursed wood where Hans met the ghoul. What if one of these remnants was breached, letting the dark magic within it leak out into the world somehow?”

Jack’s eyes went wide. “What if the mythical Black Arrow which supposedly began the infection which plagues the trading ships came from such a place?”

Merlin nodded slowly. “Perhaps. What little information we could gather tells us both problems began to be seen at roughly the same time. So perhaps if one of those arrows were to hit a person…but that makes no sense! One person hit with an arrow who starts acting strange is going to be thought to be dying of poison or infection, and carefully watched.”

“Meat,” Pino said suddenly. “Not a person, an animal. If the taint were spread from an arrow to the flesh of an animal, which was then eaten?”

“Then dozens of people could be infected in short order.” Noki grimaced. “And more after that for days, perhaps. How many people might share the meat of a single deer?”

“Too many.” Arthur had joined them. He did not look over the rail, but only because there were too many people already between him and the rail. “So, cursed meat?”

“Tainted meat,” Merlin corrected. “Contaminated by a tainted arrow taken from an old cursed wood. Possibly, anyway—as explanations go, it’s as good a one as any. Maybe the captain has heard something? He might not have connected it to the sickness, or the rot, but he might still have heard something that could give us a clue as to where this might have started.”

“We’re supposed to be puttin’ in at an island called Breyholm not too far away, just to refill the water casks and such,” Arthur said. “We could ask him then.”

But when they reached the little island—a very small one, with just a few fishing villages on it—they found that the sickness had gotten there before them. Luckily when no one had been seen moving on the shore someone had pulled out a glass to check, and they’d moved the ship away from the island as quickly as possible. The ship was carefully navigating around the small coastline now, the captain wanting to check the island’s other two villages for survivors. The second village appeared to have none, but at the third there was a makeshift flag flying from the upper story of a house, and a man on the rooftop who waved frantically at them. Kio took Noki’s glass to get a better look. “He does not appear to be tainted,” he informed the grim-faced captain, a sturdy man of middling age and height whose ash-brown hair and neatly trimmed beard were peppered with silver. “But should we risk bringing him aboard?”

“I want to say no,” was the captain’s answer. “But to leave a man in such circumstances does not sit well with me either. If someone were to go out on on a dinghy, and row to the shore…”

“I would be able to tell if the man was tainted,” Merlin said, and rolled his eyes when both Arthur and Jack glared at him. “Well neither one of you can do it! And I’ll be able to tell if the taint isn’t only in the bodies as well—we won’t even get out of the dinghy if it’s corrupting the land.”

“And if they are in the water?” Hans wanted to know.

Pino shook his head. “They aren’t. The ones at Odinson were still alive and functional enough to swim and climb, but they were not coming up from under the water.”

“That is true, they were not,” Jack agreed reluctantly. “They were splashing across the surface of the water, not diving through it.”

“That we noticed,” the captain was quick to add. “We were all a bit busy fighting them off, too much so to pay complete attention.” He looked around at his men, then shook his head. “I’ll go. That man may be known to me, and if he is I’ll be able to tell if he’s acting like himself or not.”

That prompted one of the sailors to step forward. “In that case I should go, Captain,” he said. “I’ve been ashore here many a time. I’m even more likely to know him than you are.”

“You’re willing to take that risk, Jordan?”

The man nodded. “When I’m sharing it with a mage who can throw lightning at people? Yes, quite.”

Merlin snorted. “If only that trick worked for everything. Let’s get on with it, then.” He followed the sailor to the dinghy, and once it was lowered into the water they each took an oar and quickly rowed to a part of the shore which looked to be clear of corpses. The man on the rooftop at once started screaming and pointing, and after looking around Merlin threw a slip at one of the bodies and immediately started looking around at the others. He threw one more slip and then called to the man, who came running out of the house a moment later with a small child in his arms and a slightly larger one holding his hand. Arthur swallowed hard and put his hand on the captain’s shoulder; the man looked like he wanted to be sick. Merlin met the three of them, spoke to the man for a moment, and then swung the older child up into his own arms and they both ran back to the dinghy. The fact that the sailor greeted the man with first shock and then an embrace told everyone that he did indeed know him, and then everyone was getting situated in the dinghy and they were rowing back to the ship much faster than they’d rowed out. More sailors climbed down to help once they got close enough, and in short order everyone was back on deck and the dinghy was hanging against the side of the ship by its ropes. “Give me a minute and I’ll check it for taint,” Merlin told the captain, doing his best to catch his breath. “This man and his children are clear.”

The man who had just been rescued had fallen to his knees on the deck, in tears and clutching his frightened children to him. “This is Roddy Nilsson, Captain,” Jordan said. “There’s no one else left. The infected…” He grimaced. “I don’t want to say it where the children can hear, sir.”

“My cabin, then.” The sailor and Merlin followed him into the cabin, also trailed by Jack, Arthur, and Pino. “You blew two of the bodies up, Prince Merlin. Were they not dead?”

Merlin took a deep breath, then blew it back out. “They were, and it was obvious they had been in the water for some time, but they were also moving, creeping along the ground in a way that was…I’ve never seen anything like it, Captain. Mr. Nilsson said they were found on the beach when the tide went out, and people thought they were victims of drowning, possibly a shipwreck. The taint was oozing from them, even into the water itself. It looked like black slugs swimming in the shallows.”

“Roddy’s littlest had been cranky and ill from cutting teeth,” Jordan told him, “so they’d been staying in the house. He realized something was wrong and barred the door when he heard people starting to scream. He took the children upstairs and barricaded them in after one of the infected grabbed his wife through a window. And then he says he just sat there and watched everyone die. He’s…I don’t know what to do for him, Captain.”

“Does he have family anywhere else?” the captain asked, and Jordan shook his head. “We’ll find a place. Once he’s…calmed down, he might have suggestions of his own. Anything else?”

Jordan swallowed hard. “The boats are gone, sir. And there aren’t enough dead, from what I saw. Roddy says…”

“He said some of the people who were sick left on the boats, heading north,” Merlin finished for him when he hesitated. “That was just a few days ago. We need to burn these villages and the bodies, Captain. I could do it…but I need to be able to burn those boats too, and I’m not sure I can manage both in a short amount of time.”

“I can do the villages,” Arthur said. “I have my bow with me. Flamin’ arrows would do it.”

The captain looked between the two of them. “What if there are other survivors?”

“Roddy doesn’t think there are,” Jordan told him. “But if there were, they’d run from the fire. If we start it on the verge…”

“That’s my thinkin’ too,” Arthur said. “The sea grass will catch easy, it’s dry. That’ll give anyone who might be holed up in a house time to get out of it, and then we can get their attention and go pick them up.”

“All right. And the missing boats?”

“May or may not have gone with purpose,” Merlin said. “We should easily be able to catch up to them…but they can’t be allowed to reach another island, and I only hope they haven’t already.”

The captain considered that, then got down a map and spread it out. “They shouldn’t have, not on a fishing boat and with all hands…not doing their best. And if they’re drifting…” He traced a path with his finger. “North would put them out here somewhere. There are a few islands, but hopefully we can catch up to them before they hit one of them. First, though…yes, let’s burn it all. Will that take care of any other infected that might have crawled up out of the water?”

“It’s been working to take care of the tainted wood on ships and docks,” Merlin told him. “There’s no reason it shouldn’t work on bodies as well.”

They all went back out on deck, and Arthur went below to get his bow. He came back checking the string, then strung it and shrugged out of his jacket. Merlin was busy with a quill and some small pieces of parchment, and he blew on one to dry it and then stuck it to the first arrow. “This works better than pitch,” he told their curious watchers. “Igniting a fire takes a lot less magic than creating one, and these will burn even if the arrow lands in liquid.”

The captain had instructed the sailors to move the ship closer to the shore again, and Arthur stretched once they were close enough and then nocked the arrow, drew the bow with a ripple of powerful muscles that strained the seams of his shirt, and released the arrow at its target. It flew straight and true across the expanse of water separating them from the shore and buried itself in the verge, whereupon a little blue pop of flame appeared and very quickly became red and orange flames licking hungrily at the sea grass. The fire spread rapidly in the dry sea grass, burning bodies as it went, and then crept up a wooden walkway and attacked the door of the nearest house. They watched just long enough to make sure a majority of the houses were going to catch fire, and then the ship went back to the first village. This one took two arrows, as there was no wooden walkway for the fire to follow up to the houses, but they did get to see a creeping, swaying body get consumed by it. The village at first appeared to have a survivor, but the woman who came out from behind a house and staggered towards the shore was quite obviously infected and also quite obviously not entirely conscious of her own actions anymore. She stumbled into the fire and died without even a scream, and Arthur buried one more arrow in the roof of the house she’d come away from just in case. Merlin had already checked the dinghy for taint and cleaned up what he found—‘like a very thin shadow crawling over the wood’ was how he put it—and they were very quickly back on the open water heading north.

The captain and Jordan went below for a while with Roddy Nilsson to see about setting up a place for he and his family, while everyone else saw to either sailing the ship or feeding and caring for the man’s children. The three men came back up on deck to find the Princes Vinci playing with the older child while the younger was sleeping in Prince Merlin’s arms and Princes Hans and Jack and Arthur were apparently making-over some spare garments to replace the dirty clothes the children were currently wearing. Roddy Nilsson just blinked. “So those are really the Fearless Seven?”

The captain nodded. “I’ve heard the fastest way to die on their swords was to harm a child,” he said. “Go back below and get some sleep, Mr. Nilsson. If these boys run out of ideas, I’ve four children’s worth of experience of my own I can use to assist them.” He made a face. “Children so young…they’ll remember, but in odd ways. My eldest two only ever remembered the raiders who came when they were small in their dreams, and that not even every night.”

“I…kept them away from the windows,” Roddy said hoarsely. “Millie saw Alicia grabbed from the window, but she didn’t see…the rest. And she didn’t know that one of the hands pounding against the door and the walls downstairs as they all howled for blood was her mother’s.”

The captain jerked his head at Jordan. “Get him a drink from the blue bottle in my cabin, it’ll help him sleep,” he ordered. “And get one for yourself as well, I’m sure you need it.” Jordan’s eyes flickered to the young men on the deck, and the captain shook his head. “They’re used to it, Jordan,” he said quietly. “I’m sure it affects them—how could it not?—but men who deal with that sort of thing on the regular find ways to think about it so it doesn’t drive them crazy. I’ll be after a drink of my own before bed tonight too, so don’t think less of yourselves.” Jordan nodded and led his friend to the captain’s cabin, and the captain sat down on a bench and watched the princes play and sing and debate over stitching and in one case fall asleep right along with the baby they were holding, and he smiled, thinking of all the times he’d distracted himself with his sons and their sister in the same way. “That’s one way to deal with it, I suppose—one of the better ones.”

 


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