In the Land of Stories Old
The small farms with their livestock were next and were thankfully also found to be clear of taint, and Merlin took the opportunity of being there to gauge the health of the gardens and orchards and to speak at least briefly with the people who worked them, letting them know they could and should request his help if it were to be needed. And once all of the farms had been checked and the village declared free of sickness, Magister George and the guards went back to town and Merlin, Arthur, Jack and Hans made their way across the land bridge to Calabrun to make sure no shadows had settled there.
The arrival of half of the Fearless Seven in the little port town drew a bit of a crowd, at least partly because Arthur was with them and everyone wanted a look at the famous sword he was carrying. Unfortunately luck was not with them this time, as when Merlin’s net of magic flowed out and sank over Calabrun’s small harbor several thin plumes of black smoke streamed up amidst the glowing bubbles. Merlin could not feel any taint remaining after that, but Jack and Hans still swam out to check and happily found nothing like the situation that had occurred in the Black Isle’s harbor, either in the water or on the land. The officious little magistrate of the town arrived while this was going on and tried to bluster at them for disturbing the peace—he was none too happy that Arthur had finally claimed Excalibur some months before, as his town had been rather well-traveled by visitors wanting to see the famous sword before that—but grumbles from the crowd forced him to calm himself. “Some ship must have brought the shadows here,” he insisted loudly, as though sheer volume would make his words more true. “There is no taint in Calabrun!”
“I’ve no doubt it came with a ship, but if anyone has been in that part of the water since the taint may very well be here now,” Merlin countered him. “And if we don’t catch it quickly, not only are your people done for but ours as well when it spreads. Which it will.” He turned his attention to the crowd. “Has anyone taken ill recently after swimming or fishing?” he called out. “The shadow sickness seems to begin like any other, but those afflicted eventually begin to crave blood and then become violent in their pursuit of it. They also may be driven to try to make their way back to the source of the problem, which is on Caray, the Isle of Deer.”
“What’s being done about it there?” someone wanted to know.
“Everyone there is dead,” was the grave response. “Once we tracked some of the infected there and realized what was going on, we burned the pier and dropped a yellow-flagged buoy to keep curious ships away. We’re still looking for a way to solve the problem permanently, but at least if any who are tainted make it to those cursed shores they can’t leave again.”
“Because they die there very soon after they arrive,” Hans said in response to some renewed muttering. “Quite horribly, in fact. Now answer the question! Has anyone here sickened recently, or become unusually violent?”
“Unlike the guards, who are usually violent,” Arthur muttered under his breath. He still hadn’t forgotten that the guards on Calabrun were bullies who had once tormented Snow for their own amusement, and he doubted Merlin had either. He cleared his throat, hoping none of the very large, strong guards had become tainted by the shadow sickness, as that could end up a fight more suited to seven men than four. “You must have heard what happened on Odinson by now,” he said grimly. “If you don’t want it to happen here, we need to know if anyone is sick!”
“And what will you do if they are, take them to Caray to die?” the magistrate demanded.
Merlin drew himself up, jaw setting in anger. “I wouldn’t wish that death on anyone, Magister Tomoy,” he said. “But nor would I wish the fate of Odinson or Breyholm on anyone either. If someone is sick, I will check them for the shadow taint and, if possible, cleanse them of it. I don’t know if it’s possible, especially if they’re too far gone, but I will try. And failing that, we’ll work out a way to contain them until the sickness runs its course.” The look on his face closed the opening mouths with a snap. “Past a certain point they won’t take food or water, and the blood they’re driven to consume doesn’t sustain them. They’ll starve no matter what.”
A shaking, white-faced woman pushed her way through the crowd. “My son…my son began to sicken, after he and his friends went swimming yesterday. I had told him not to, but…”
“Has he bitten anyone?” She shook her head. “Take me to him,” Merlin requested. “Hopefully there’s something I can do, but I can’t make any promises.”
She swallowed hard, tears starting in her eyes, but nodded. The crowd parted for them as she led him down into the cobbled streets of the town, to a very small house in a row of identical ones that all seemed to lean into each other as though for support. Arthur and Jack stayed outside, as some of the crowd had followed them, and Hans and Merlin went in. The little house was run-down but otherwise neatly kept, and in an alcove behind a threadbare curtain at the back of the main room a pale and sweating young boy of perhaps eight or nine was laying in bed. He appeared to be asleep, but he whimpered and they heard his teeth clack together when his mother stroked his lank hair. “This is my Timéo, he’s all I have left of his father,” she said simply. “Please, Prince Merlin, if you can help him…”
“I’ll do what I can,” Merlin assured her, taking her place when Hans gently moved her away from the bed. He laid his hand on the boy’s forehead, eyes beginning to glow. Using his mage sight he could see the taint, see it spreading through the young body like a choking vine, and he focused on finding that vine’s source. He finally determined that it led back to a small cut on the boy’s leg, and his instincts told him to push the taint back toward that opening. Magic swelled out into the room, making the woman gasp, and he was distantly aware of Hans assuring her that this was just what it looked like when a powerful mage called upon their magic. Merlin focused on the tendrils of taint, black and foul within the innocent boy’s body, and slowly they began to curl into themselves and wither back. It was slow going, but finally the taint was pooling behind the cut like an evil blister and a sharp slash of magic released and captured it in a small ball of blue light. He checked again, making sure it had all been expelled, and then allowed his magic to retreat and frowned at the blue ball until it condensed in on the writhing shadow-slugs and burned them into nothingness. He pushed himself to his feet, letting Hans steady him when his legs shook a bit. “It’s done, he’s free of the taint now and he should be fine.” The woman all but threw herself at her son, who woke up with a weak little cry of alarm, and he smiled. “Timéo, you’ve been sick but you’re better now,” Merlin told the boy, who was now struggling a bit to get out of his mother’s tight grasp. “Stay in your bed or close to it for a few days until you feel better, all right?” Wide-eyed, the boy nodded. “And no more swimming, right now it’s too dangerous. If you pick up the shadow sickness again I might not be able to help you.”
“He’ll stay home if I have to tie him by the ankle like a goat,” his mother sobbed. “Oh thank you, Prince Merlin, thank you…”
Merlin patted her shoulder. “You’re more than welcome, my lady. Take care of yourselves.” He and Hans made their way back to the door of the little house, and if both of them somehow managed to drop a few coins into the pocket of an apron hanging from a peg on their way out no one else was there to see it.
In the Land of Stories Old