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Chapter 70
By Goth Kitty Lady Posted in Story on 21 March 2023 2428 words
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In the Land of Stories Old

Chapter 70

The relatively short voyage to isle of Mendekua was a worried one. Elana had told them that Captain Roberts had not visited the Black Isle in several weeks, although he had been expected to do so during that time, so no one was sure what they were going to find when they reached the island he and most of his crew called home. And on arriving their worst fears were borne out, as the fitful wind was fluttering out a black-spotted yellow flag from the top of the pier, which was empty of people and so was everything else within view. The Rescuer docked not too close to the other two ships which were there—one of those being the Northern Rover—and as they started to disembark a youngish man came out of the dockmaster’s office frantically waving his arms and screaming at them to go back. It took them some time to get him calmed down enough to understand that they were there to help, and the story they managed to get out of him was chilling. A sick crewman from a visiting trading ship had gone mad in Mendekua’s marketplace, and in hopes of keeping the sickness from spreading the magistrate had ordered everyone to stay behind locked doors unless it was absolutely necessary to come out. He’d set the guards to patrolling the streets, looking at everyone who did come out for signs of sickness and locking away those who were suspected of having it. Which had been a workable enough plan until one of the guards had been bitten and then managed to infect the rest of them and the magistrate as well, leaving the the citizens of Mendekua besieged in their homes while the pack of infected men prowled through the town like animals hunting for prey.

While they were still speaking with him a figure came staggering into view, followed by several more, and all of the Seven drew their swords almost as one. A gasp from the dockmaster made Arthur roll his eyes. “Yes, this is Excalibur. Now get back in the office so they don’t come down here, if we need you for somethin’ one of us will come get you.” The man all but ran back to the office and slammed the door behind him. “I’m guessin’ he’s new to the job.”

“Possibly very new,” Jack said grimly. “We should meet them halfway, I think, so we will not have to drag the bodies as far.”

“Now that is a good plan,” Hans agreed. “In fact, if we can maneuver them in that direction,” he pointed out a flattish area above the verge which was almost bare of grass, “they will already be in a good spot for burning.”

“An even better plan,” Merlin said. “Just remember, the protection I cast on you all before we left the ship won’t protect against someone’s teeth. Let’s go!”

They charged the moaning, blood-covered men, luring them away from both the town and the pier. There were more than expected, but none were in any state to stand against one skilled swordsmen much less seven and as their condition had wiped away any sense of self-preservation it was more of a slaughter than a fight. Once they were all down and no more were seen to be coming, the nervous dockmaster was fetched and asked to make a list of names before the bodies were burnt; sadly, two of the downed men had been recognizable as crewmen from the Northern Rover. The Seven left him to it and ventured into the silent streets, hunting for any infected who hadn’t come out with the others.

Three more were found, one gibbering madly while he crouched in a corner gnawing on what was still recognizably an arm, and after dispatching him they followed the trail of blood he’d left back to a house whose door was standing open. The remains of two people, a man and a woman, were at least partially inside, but three terrified, silent and thankfully untainted children were found barricaded inside the house’s kitchen. Pino took the children back to the Rescuer for lack of knowing any other safe place to put them, and the rest of the Seven split up into pairs to follow more blood trails through the streets. Some of the broken-open houses these led to were thankfully empty, two had blocked doors behind which one of the infected could be heard whining and clawing at the walls, and in one a hollow-eyed Mr. Taylor was nursing a bitten arm and guarding a closed door. “Glad to see Your Highnesses,” he greeted them tiredly. “I’ve three women, two men and six children in here, sadly now I’m also protecting them from myself and not just from those animals prowling the streets.” He tried to wave Merlin and Arthur off when they made to come to him. “No, I’m bitten. I already…I can feel it in me, it’s almost like I can smell the blood in your veins.”

“You can, that’s the taint’s doing,” Merlin told him, and a flash of magic lit up the room. Arthur was quick to use this opportunity to get behind the startled man, using a piece of rope to hold him in the chair. “Please tell me you haven’t bitten anyone yourself, or eaten any meat at all.”

Taylor snorted. “I’ve not eaten anything in…two days? Three? I’m honestly not sure at this point.” Merlin grasped his arm just above the bite, forcing magic into his body, and he gasped. “What…”

“That’s the cure,” Arthur said. “You have to use magic to drive the taint out.” A ball of blue magic appeared, black slugs squeezing out of the bite into it, and one look at them saw Taylor’s eyes rolling back into his head. “Well?”

Merlin blew out a breath and nodded, his eyes glowing faintly. “He’s clear now.” He helped Arthur lay Taylor down on the floor, then went to the door and knocked on it. “Hello? We’re here to rescue you! You can come out now, it’s safe.” There was the sound of something heavy being moved, and of a woman crying, and then the door swung cautiously inward to reveal a pale-faced man with a stick of wood clutched in his hand like a club. Merlin bowed. “Prince Consort Merlin Emrys and Prince Arthur Pendragon, at your service. I’ve already cleared Mr. Taylor of the taint, have any of you been bitten?”

The man shook his head, looking like he was about to join the woman behind him in tears. “No…no, Remy got us all to safety before we could be. But…you say he’s cured?”

“He is,” Arthur confirmed. “It may take him a few days to get back on his feet, but he’ll be fine. Can one of you stay here to look after him, or should we have him taken somewhere else?”

That saw a young woman come rushing up to the door, her dark hair in two disheveled plaits and her equally dark eyes over-wide with fear and swollen from crying. “No, don’t take him! If they see he’s been bitten they’ll kill him!”

“The queen’s guards,” the man confirmed, swallowing. “Any time they came out, anyone who looked the least bit injured and even some who weren’t were cut down where they stood. But we’ve not seen or heard them in more than a week, and Remy said he thought they’d most likely barricaded themselves up in the castle to protect the queen.”

“That does sound likely,” Merlin agreed. “We certainly haven’t seen any sign of them. Will you feel safe staying in this house for the time being?”

The young woman’s answer was to push past him to hurry to Taylor’s side, and the man managed a weak smile. “Forgive her, Your Highnesses, they’re to be married in the spring.”

“Perfectly understandable.” Merlin looked past him into the room. “Who else is here? It would be my suggestion that you all stay put for now while we search out the rest of the infected and make sure no one else tries to go hunting through the town. Do you have food and water?”

“No one has food.” An old man came hobbling out, blinking at them. He made a short bow. “You should be careful, going to the houses. Not all the danger will be from the sickness.”

“We know,” Arthur assured him. “We’ll see what we can do about finding supplies for everyone once the immediate danger is past. Now, the rest of you? We need to confirm that no one else is tainted so we can mark this house as cleared.”

Two more women and a gaggle of frightened children later, they marked the door of the house and went on to the next. And the next, and the next after that, until finally they came to one where a familiar face showed in the window in response to their knocking. Captain Roberts eased open his front door and then stepped out, looking up and down the street warily. “Your Highnesses, I can’t tell you how glad I am to see you.”

“We’re just as glad to see you, believe me,” Merlin told him. “Has anyone in your house been bitten? We found a cure of sorts.”

“No, my family is clear—I haven’t let them out of the house since it started.” He shook his head, holding the door wider so they could come in. “Of sorts?”

“As in it’s not what we’d hoped for,” Arthur said. “It works, but…well, so far only Merlin can do it.”

“It’s a very long story, so it will have to wait,” Merlin added. “We’re clearing the houses one by one now that the infected men hunting through the streets have been stopped. There’s been no sign of the royal guard so far. And we came across your Mr. Taylor keeping guard over nearly a dozen people; he’d been bitten, but we got to him in time and he’ll be fine in a few days.”

“I’m glad to hear that. I know at least one of mine was with the pack roaming the streets.” Roberts sighed, shook his head. “It came on so fast. Mari and our eldest had been out to the market and came back at a run, white as ghosts—a crewman from a trading ship in port went mad and started attacking people, and then the guards came and scattered everyone, thinking it was just a brawl starting and…well, I’m sure you can guess the rest. The ship was gone before anyone thought to stop her, but more than one person said their crew to a man all looked ill and one of them was heard complaining that the water in their barrels was the cause as it was ‘filthy and gray’.”

Merlin nodded. “That would have done it—you don’t have to be bitten to pick up the taint, unfortunately. And that’s why I’ll need to have a look at everyone in the house, just to be sure. There was a boy on Calabrun infected through a tiny cut on his hand, from swimming in tainted water.”

“I understand,” Roberts assured him. “Odinson?”

“There were only ten left to rescue, everyone else was either dead or as good as when we got there,” Arthur told him. “Merlin cleansed the shadows from the harbor, and then we set fires the way we did on Breyholm. We’ll have to go back at some point to make sure there’s nothin’ left.”

The older man swallowed. “And here?”

“Not nearly as bad, we’ll just need to burn the bodies. It hadn’t gotten to the point where they were infectin’ your harbor.”

“That we know of,” Merlin cautioned. “I’ll cleanse it before we leave the island, just in case.” And he was hoping it was ‘just in case’, and that the infected ship hadn’t seen fit to dump her water barrels before she left. “I don’t suppose you know where that trading ship had been before they were here, do you?”

“No, but I know who I can ask.” Roberts made a face. “If they survived, anyway.”

Arthur nodded. “We’ll come get you once we’re sure it’s safe. We have the man who’s standin’ as dockmaster makin’ a list of the dead. He’s scared half out of his mind, but givin’ him somethin’ to do seemed to help with that.”

“That’s likely the dockmaster’s apprentice, Liam, then—he was nervy on a good day before this happened, without old Colin there to settle him he’s probably jumping out of his skin.” He sighed, shaking his head. “Let me get Mari and the boys for you. The sooner you’re done checking everyone, the sooner I can get out there and help.”

Once the captain’s small family had been declared free of taint and the house marked, Arthur and Merlin went on to the next house, and then two houses further on met up with Hans and Jack and continued on from there. It was several more hours before all of the houses and shops had been cleared one way or another, and then they had to go back through to take care of the infected who were still alive but contained. The bodies of the dead were already burning, and new bodies were being thrown into the fire once they’d been added to the dockmaster’s list. It was a messy, disheartening process, but finally the last victim had been taken care of and Merlin went to clear the harbor. Which drew quite a crowd, as it seemed the trading ship had indeed dumped their tainted water before they’d left and the resulting light show was quite the sight to see.

And through it all, no movement was spotted at the castle, not a face at a window or a guard come to the gates to see what all the fuss was about.

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